Creative Tension

Leadership often seeks to minimize tension within an organization.  As a result, organizations often become complacent and both leadership and employees gravitate toward the status quo.

This photo (click photo for link), “Vision of Eyechart with Glasses” is copyright (c) 2011 Ken Teegardin and made available under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license (

© 2011 Ken Teegardin.  Creative Commons.  Click here for full citation (#10).

The old model for breaking out of the doldrums called for “leaders to think and others to act.”  This top down leadership model has dominated in many organizations for years, in spite of its ineffectiveness.  Successful leaders, however, will learn to call upon the collective genius within their organization.  These leaders will develop learning communities that will revolutionize the status quo.

The Principle–Creative Tension

Creative tension comes from telling the truth about where we are – our “current reality” – and from seeing clearly where we want to be – our “vision.”  The gap that exists between these two generates a natural unrest or tension.

This creative tension requires both elements:  an accurate picture of our current reality and a clear, shared vision within the organization.

First, good leaders begin by providing an accurate picture of the current reality.  It requires getting beyond “feeling good” about ourselves or our organization and taking an honest inventory of the situation.  Good leaders foster a cooperative spirit of honest evaluation without a spirit of destructive negativism.  But, alas, knowing the present situation will never motivate one to change.

Second, good leaders also foster a shared vision.  Every member of the team understands where the organization is headed and how success will be measured.  Without vision, the organization will flounder; without shared vision, the organization will mire in a top-down model.

So, clear vision with an understanding of current reality generates creative tension.  Several principles emerge relative to creative tension–

•  An accurate picture of current reality is just as important as a clear picture of the desired future

•  An understanding of current reality alone will not generate creative tension–people resist changes that only alters current reality

•  Creative tension is NOT problem solving; in problem solving, energy comes to escape present reality

•  Creative tension comes when the energy for change is to achieve a vision; that vision is clearly “seen” in spite of the current reality

Many organizations only find motivation to change when the current reality sinks to an unacceptable low.  When the problems get bad enough, a desire for change occurs.  This will work in the short term–until the problems become more tolerable and then the motivation to escape the problems wanes.

Other organizations have established a clear vision that is understood by all stakeholders; however, the organization has yet to come to grips with their current reality.  Often they seek to be “positive” in focus and to ignore the unpleasantness of their current state.  Vision without reality creates cynicism.

Creative tension is the force that motivates great organizations to move from their current reality towards a shared vision.  Resist the urge for “smooth sailing” and allow a little tension to move your organization from good to great.

Which is more difficult for you–defining current reality or setting clear vision?  Why?  

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Edward is the founder and managing editor of Focus on Christian Education. He also serves as the Executive Director of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools.

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  • Martha Earwood Reed

    Setting a vision is hard! Seeing current reality is much easier – at least for me!