Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Richard Olivier on mythodrama, story, and the imagination

Richard Olivier is the Artistic Director and founder of a small leadership consultancy called Olivier Mythodrama.  They use great stories, often by Shakespeare, but not always, as mythic case studies of great leadership themes and challenges, particularly the kind of behavioural and imaginative challenges that leaders have to try and create a better future.

How would you evaluate the state of health of our culture’s collective imagination in 2017?

On the operating table, under anaesthetic, waiting for a scalpel. Yes, it’s something that has been growing with me for years, and that really became clear through what ended up being a huge investment of time and energy in the New Story Summit that I co-focalised up at the Findhorn Foundation…

It was extraordinary to see that while so many individuals, at what we might think of as the leading edge, have an imaginative capacity to imagine a better future, where it seemed to fall down was being able to share that imaginative space with others in a way that was truly co-creative. To me one of the symptoms of that, that if the leading edge can’t share an imaginative space, then the new story does not gain enough coherence and enough traction to counteract the old story.

For me, one of the real felt realities of the last 12 months, in the geo-political world, is that we see that human beings are so frightened of being without a story that they would rather go back to a story they know is broke, than move into an un-storied space. And so that scrabble, you know, with Brexit, with Trump, with nationalism, with all the rest of it, to me is evidence of that paucity of coherent imagination on the leading edge.

If our collective imagination is on the operating table, why do you think that is? What are the factors that are responsible for that? What has changed in our culture do you think?

If we briefly maybe contrast it with the last time when for me imagination was catching fire, which would have been in the mid-1960s. There was a generally-felt freedom of expression that was like a quasi-revolutionary energy that was permission giving, to break boundaries, to go beyond in all kinds of ways, whether it’s space, or pop music, or fashion, or spirituality. You know, a breaking of the old conventions. Perhaps inevitably, the next period of time ends up in some kind of reaction against that, or backlash, or regression from it.

But it feels like it’s now got really polarised, both politically and imaginally, where the idea of being able to take everyone forward into a differently imagined future currently feels impossible. In the face of that, people either turn off and watch TV or they get isolated and form their own self-reinforcing cliques or preaching to their own choir, but if you know what I mean, forming small groups who believe they know better, who then don’t cross fertilise imaginally with other groups quite so much.

When people come to you as leaders, what kind of struggles do they come with? They’re supposed to be the really imaginative ones who can say, “The future of this company is we’re going to go here, and we’re going to do that…” Do you feel like they come to you with an imagination problem? A kind of deficit?

Not up front. They don’t self-diagnose as an imagination problem. They might self-diagnose as an innovation problem. Or as a, “We recognise that who we currently are has got us where we are, but it’s not going to get us where we need to go. What do we need to do differently? Or what could you help us do differently?” So there is a sense, I think an increasing sense, that the old ways have stopped working.

Certainly the younger generations do not respond to command and control, top down tyrannical styles of leadership any more, at all. They recognise that they need to free some space up but generally they don’t know how to do it. For me, one of the fundamentals of imagination is to have a lab space, a protected space away from the coal face, where people can be different, do different, think different. You see that perhaps in the new gen start-up stuff, where they’ve got a games room and table tennis tables, but it tends to be more play, rather than focused imagineering spaces if you like.

You mentioned that the piece that’s missing is an imaginative space. Could you say a bit more about that?

It’s a shared imaginative space, I think, in terms of that context. It is quite an evolved space to be in because it means that I imagine my future, you imagine yours, and we find a way to put them together in a way that is bigger than the sum of the parts rather than lesser than. On levels of human development, or development of mature humanity, levels of consciousness, whatever we want to call it, that ability to let go of some of mine without surrendering, and just being as it were a Trump follower who wants someone else to set the agenda, that I think is the difficulty for those at the leading edge right now. It’s how to create shared story spaces that are respectful, but not limiting.

Is that something that is aspirational, or have you seen that working in places you can point to?

Some of those organisations (they have other flaws, often around politics), like Findhorn, Schumacher, places where there is a kind of collection of people who come from different traditions who find a way of being and living and teaching together that does seem to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

It does take quite a lot of conscious effort, and what we might call space-holding ability in leadership, and that’s one of the things that is becoming increasingly clear. That leaders have not been trained in the past, traditionally, to be holders of creative spaces. The phrase I’ve come up with – I haven’t come up with a better one at the moment, because this one sounds terribly pretentious – but I think leaders of the future need to be ‘evolutionary field generators’. The capacity to generate a field in which creativity, innovation and evolution are accelerated because of the presence of the person who is creating that field.

It’s a hard thing to teach but I think you know there are times I’m sure you’ve had in Transition meetings, I’ve had it in different meetings, in groups I’ve worked with, where it’s like the muse is present. Something is catching fire, and that imaginal capacity just seems to be open for a group to enter, not just an individual.

And good facilitation skills are a key part of that?

Yes, well advanced facilitation skills, but yes. Sort of listening being facilitation skill 101, but generating more than the listening. How do we get a collective intelligence bubbling is a different step.

What happens to a culture when its imagination declines do you think?

It loses its ability to adapt. It tends, as I was saying about the kind of Trump story, to retrench into old stories, to go back to things that used to work – a rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic attitude. There’s a kind of end of empire feel about it, of things moving into decadence, into comfort, into violence as entertainment. There is something about when people begin to show an imaginative reflection of the world that is based on being entertained by violence, there’s something in the soul that dies, and with it the imaginative faculty. It’s like it gets turned off because it’s being abused in some way. And to me the imagination is very connected to the soul. Jane Tillman, my mentor, says very clearly that the imagination is the key faculty of the soul. The soul and the imagination are very linked.

If you were elected as the Prime Minister of this country and you had run on a campaign that we had a national imagination deficit which needed to be addressed, in the same way that somebody might run on a programme that we have an economic crisis, or a health crisis or whatever, and so your first 100 days in office you unveiled a national crash programme of making this country more imaginative again, where would you start?

Time and nature I think is a key. Time for reflection, time for connection as well. Certainly access to the poetic in some way, shape or forms. The engaging with those who have left their imaginative legacy for us that can inspire. So engaging really with any art form. Almost certainly some kind of creative, therapeutic techniques. The Jungian school has active imagination as one way of finding out about yourself. Probably dream work, paying attention to dreams. Play, improvisation. Just literally like a gym for the imagination.

The one thing I would say, my experience of working with people to free up the imaginal, is that there is no one size fits all. It’s almost a contradiction in terms. The imagination to me is very unique. Every individual’s access to the imagination is going to look through a different window and require a different door to get there.

It would be a selection of tried and tested methods and tools and options really that would allow people to find their own way in. I was hugely put off poetry at school, and didn’t really think of myself as creative, and when I met Robert Bly, a poet and men’s work person in a different context talking about masculinity, reading poems, I fell in love with poetry. Because I found a reason, that here was a way of expressing things that I felt and didn’t know how to speak about that Rainer Maria Rilke had written 200 years ago, or that Robert Bly had written 5 years ago. That was huge for me.

The studying of poetry is not it, it’s the access to the poetic imagination that does it. The reason for everyone to find their own reason why the imagination is going to help them in their lives. Generally the education system that we have in the majority of the western world, where for some absolutely insane reason, somewhere between the age of 12 and 14 you are capable or deciding if you’re an artist or a scientist, and you make decisions about your curriculum that will affect the rest of your life, is absolutely insane. All the engineers I’ve worked with will almost name those years as the years they stopped thinking of themselves as being creative.

If I bought you a group of 20 people who self-identified as being deeply unimaginative, and you had them for 5 days, what would you do with them?

I would want to take them out to a little venue in the middle of nature somewhere, and probably take them through a programme we’ve been developing called ‘Authentic leadership beyond the hero”, based on the Parsifal myth and the quest for the Holy Grail.

That story is an amazing opening up of the capacity to reflect on their own life, to really look at what has formed you. Why do you hold opinions you do? To look at what’s the nest of origin – what was your parents’ access to imagination like? What was your education? How did you find your way into the world?

We work with archetypes a lot and archetypes are a great way into the imagination. If we use the archetype of the sovereign, the good king/good queen archetype tends to be very logical and analytical, whereas the medicine woman, shaman archetype tends to be imaginative and creative. And so when people over-identify with the sovereign archetype, as many managers in organisations are paid to do, then they diminish and almost become prejudiced against the imaginative capacity which might up their well laid plans. So, to look at their own internal mindset – how that has created a judgement about themselves and/or about imagination.

Then gently to give them an experience of stepping across that threshold into a more imaginative, heartfelt space in which they will be amazed to find a) nobody dies and b) they actually quite enjoy it, and c) ultimately, they realise, it was a capacity they had all along, and actually they’ve covered it up. It’s not us giving it to them, it’s us giving them an excuse to uncover, or recover it in themselves. It’s the human gift.


  1. Rashna Imhasly
    April 2, 2017

    It is very much the way I work with my clients with activating their potential into their future and it is amazing with what they come up with.
    Thanks for sharing your ideas

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