The Art Of Impossibility

In today’s world it is no longer the art of “possibility” thinking and doing that makes the difference but the art of “impossibility” thinking and doing.

I read an article written a few weeks ago by Gareth Armstrong: “Future leaders challenge the impossible”.

It had me thinking and as I engaged top leaders out there on this specific theme the following three attitudinal categories evolved.

As a leader you may possess one or more of these:

  1. You go about your daily job and when perceived impossibilities confront you or are placed before you, you allow these to stifle or slow down your movement, or you simply reject it as outright impossible and revert back to your experience only
  2. As you go about your daily job and perceived impossibilities confront you or are placed before you, you seek a way to turn these into possibilities, though in essence you wait for impossibilities to come your way, but at least you are willing to challenge your experience
  3. You proactively go in search of so called impossibilities and then make them possible. Few leaders reach this level.

While one may have a general attitude of one or the other, it is, strangely enough, also circumstantial. In one area of your life you may proactively seek out the impossible and make it possible, while in another area you have little confidence and fall into the trap of playing the waiting game.

Those that achieved amazing movement or feats had to enter the realm of “impossibility”. This is a lonely place to be, because it is uncomfortable and who likes uncomfortable; it is criticised; it is frowned upon; it is often ridiculed; it increases the risk of failure; it can be stressful. But, its rewards and results are more often than not handsome, admired and even revered in history.

Individuals like Steve Jobs, Adrian Gore, Raymond Ackerman, Mark Lamberti, Grant Pattison, Bernard Swanepoel, Richard Branson, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Herman Mashaba and many others somehow achieved what seemed impossible by most, within their own world. Their attitude is or was not one of waiting but proactively going in search of what others may perceive to be impossible and then sacrificing much, working very hard, including long hours to make it possible.

I am of the view that leaders in today’s fast paced, stressful, challenging environment have to move from mastering the art of possibility thinking and doing to mastering the art of impossibility thinking and doing.

But they are so bogged down by the challenges that confront them that they don’t have time and energy to take themselves and their people into that space of the “impossible”. Fortunately there are exceptions and these individuals keep alive the possibility of making the impossible possible. At the same time, in today’s competitive world, organisations that don’t have leaders leading it towards the impossible, may not last long.

The natural inclination of a leader of a struggling business or division is to return to basics, just to bring back normality or stability. While this may not be wrong and even correct in the very short term, more and more, leaders that cannot sell the “impossible” to their organisation will not create a strong enough “opposite pole” to attitudinally draw their people away from the “struggle pole”. The day to day reality of struggling then tends to weigh much heavier than the alternative position of something greater, and therefore the scale just does not tip towards a more attractive future. Before long the organisation slips back into the struggle space, where it subconsciously starts believing it deserves to be. In short, a back to basics campaign on its own is simply not a strong enough magnet to counter the struggle pole.

In the past, when the environment wasn’t as dynamic and fast paced, a leader had the luxury of time to lead their business through a recovery period, without necessarily creating that opposite pole of an “impossible” achievement, inadvertently leaving this for later. The challenge is that while the organisation moves through the recovery or “back to basics” period to consolidate, a competitor with a leader that takes them towards the “impossible” continues to leapfrog ahead and could very well get out of reach from the struggling business. The latter may never catch up!

To help you shift towards the attitude of proactively searching for the impossible, and to firstly kick off with the art of “impossible thinking”, ask this question: What in my mind is impossible to achieve, but I wish it wasn’t? It should be something you need to ‘not be impossible’ for your leadership responsibility or business to move forward. It is that impossibility that when you are honest with yourself you believe cannot happen, but you need it to be possible. List one, two or three of these, then start working on the most relevant one until it starts looking possible. Ask questions like: Why is this not possible – in other words confront the negative perceptions head on? Then ask why it is possible – engage the positive perceptions by building hope and possibility? As you honestly ask and answer these questions you will start lifting your belief that it is possible and before you know it you will put directions and structures in place to move closer towards the impossible. Something in the universe conspires to work in a person’s favour when he or she courageously and consciously engages the perceived impossible

If you are in a position of authority and influence, realise this: “If many employees on all levels of your organisation do not start actively seeking opportunities to make the impossible possible, your organisation may not survive in the new world, because it will not be dynamic enough.”  It needs this kind of thinking in order to have the ability to move fast enough; capitalise on opportunities quickly enough; and react to change almost immediately. Consider a monthly award across the business for that employee that made the impossible possible, however small or large this may be. Then, like FNB turned their innovation award winning employees into heroes, turn your impossibility achievers into heroes. Reward those that seek the impossible and make it possible. This will go a long way towards building a culture of achieving the impossible.

“Begin with the end in mind”, said the late Dr Stephen R Covey. You decide the level of your “end”, which then determines the standard of every other action and behaviour that follows. Truth is a sub mediocre or standard “end” and resultant directions and actions will simply not cut it in today’s highly competitive, dynamic and fast paced world.

This article appeared in the





Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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