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Rosalind Skillen

Why we desperately need leaders of vision and imagination

Rosalind Skillen

Shaping a better future for everyone requires bold ideas


F Scott Fitzgerald's reflection captures the struggle that many of us may have felt in recent times.

F Scott Fitzgerald's reflection captures the struggle that many of us may have felt in recent times.

F Scott Fitzgerald's reflection captures the struggle that many of us may have felt in recent times.

Radical uncertainty and upheaval are perhaps the two most apt descriptors of the past few years. Uncertainty and upheaval have required us to anticipate and adapt to unprecedented or unparalleled circumstances with both resilience and resolution.

The way that we have responded to uncertainty and upheaval is somewhat reminiscent of F Scott Fitzgerald’s reflection at the end of The Great Gatsby: ‘And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

This line captures the same struggle and expenditure of energy that many of us have been feeling over the past few years. We habitually crave a moment out of time. A moment for the ‘current’ to stop. For the world to stop. To have time not only to think: but to create, imagine and transform.

Of course, in the face of interlocking challenges, it is important to acknowledge that ‘beating on’ can often be the necessary response. In the bleakest of situations, sometimes ‘beating on’ is the only response that we are left with.

However, when we simply ‘beat on’, we are robbed of the opportunity to challenge the difficulty or the suffering that we face.

We are robbed of the opportunity to question: is this inevitable or is this a result of how we have chosen to govern our systems?

A recent conversation reminded me of this. The person was commenting on how activists are so focused on fighting global injustices that they do not stop to consider the future they want to create.

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For me, their observation is partially true. In some ways, it is becoming increasingly rare to see a clear articulation of the world we want to build.

Some people turn to our political leaders to seek this articulation of a better world. Yet, with current opinion polling on UK leadership at its lowest, clearly many feel that leaders — across a broad spectrum of political parties — lack bold, ambitious political leadership.

Namely, our leaders are not offering us a compelling sense of vision.

In my view, this sense of vision has never been more critical, relevant or urgent.

At the NI Science Festival last week, I attended a workshop led by Jonny Hanson, the director of Jubilee Farm.

Jubilee Farm is the first community-owned farm in Northern Ireland, and this workshop aimed to open conversation on the future on community-supported agriculture and conservation.

Crucially, the workshop was framed by the following question: what is your vision for the future of food and farming?

Putting the context and content of this question to one side, what was particularly pertinent about opening the discussion in this way was how it engaged the workshop participants.

It invited us, not only to glimpse at glimmers of hope and possibility, but to map a new orientation towards them.

It struck me that we need to open more conversations through the lens of vision. If we want to build better futures, we need to have some sense of how they might look. Vision allows us to do this.

Notably, vision is not a blind hope. Nor is it a form of denialism or naivety.

Rather, vision allows us to hold onto realities of outrage or frustration, while exploring expansive possibilities for the future.

Vision acknowledges what suffering and pain feels like. Yet, vision equips us with the powers of creativity and innovation to fight back.

Imagination and vision are vital and emboldening practices that we so desperately need right now.

We are living through a period of extraordinary change and complexity which is raising huge, existential questions about our futures.

We therefore need to move beyond simply highlighting social issues and injustices, and approaching them in a siloed way. We need to face these challenges holistically, and by exercising our collective vision.

At the end of this same NI Science Festival workshop, individuals were invited to share their visions with one another.

This opened further conversation, provoked fascinating insights and sparked opportunities for participants to connect and collaborate.

It did not matter whether individuals formed connections because of shared localities, shared value systems or similar fields of practice. What mattered was that a space had been created for people to imagine, and more importantly, to begin shaping the very futures they had articulated.

The growing sense of disillusionment, fear and frustration pervading our culture and media shows us that social change and transformation is clearly needed.

Yet, change will not be realised by simply fighting against the existing structures or economic and political models that are no longer serving us. Change will be realised when we hold and grow space for vision, imagination and illumination.

Only when we have grasped our vision, do we become ready to turn others towards it — and engage them in it. Only when we have understood our vision, are we able to take risks, seize opportunities and be opened to new possibilities.

Before we therefore ‘beat on’, to recall the words of Fitzgerald, we must first create communities and spaces to allow powerful ideas and bold visions emerge.

This will not provide us with all the answers — but we will make sense of it together.

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