Principle and Energy

Thoreau suggests that choosing to live from principle divides the self. When we discipline the self in the pursuit of higher purpose, we reenergize and revolutionize the self. This process is exhilarating because it makes us aware of the profound power we each hold. On the other hand, when we know that we should be walking a higher road and we do not, we bow to the diabolical that also lurks within. We become flat, dull and without enthusiasm, we lose our attractive power and we become easy prey for those who would dominate or manipulate us.

Purpose and Prosocial Motivation

We went to work at a facility and we were met by a delightful member of the staff. She escorted us to an auditorium where we would be working. We had to wait for an event to finish. On the wall was a TV broadcasting discouraging headlines. As we listened to the headlines, we noted the chaos is the world. She told us that she no longer leaves her TV on at home, or listens to the radio while driving. She said, “If you do, the wrong stuff gets into your head.” Instead, she carefully selects input that will cause her to grow.

We asked her some increasingly personal questions and she openly answered them. She spoke of the state of the world and she spoke of the focus of her life, which is getting her children educated. She lives in a troubled neighborhood and has her last child in private school. Because of the costs, she and her husband often eat scant meals. As she talked, she said, “My children are my legacy, and I want to leave a positive legacy in this troubled world.”

Here was a staff person with limited resources who lives in a difficult neighborhood. She could be living a reactive life. She could be like masses of people, looking for a way to express anger. Yet she is doing the opposite. She is living a proactive life, instead of feeling like a victim or needing to express anger, she is making personal sacrifices to achieve her highest purpose. She is living with a prosocial orientation to a world of conventional self-interest, anger and violence.

Science says that people with prosocial motivation are more likely to take initiative, to persist in meaningful tasks, to be open to negative feedback, to assist others, to motivate others, to stimulate new ideas and to inspire creative actions. It seemed that this woman had all these characteristics and we were inspired by spending a few moments in her zone of influence.


What are the demographic limitations on living a purposeful life?

Why do people of higher purpose gain prosocial motivation?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Purpose and Meetings

Occasionally something simple occurs and causes us to see something profoundly important. This happened recently.

We were visiting a friend and her husband. They were committed to attend a meeting. They invited us, but our friend warned that she did not think it would be very engaging. We asked why. She said she was part of the planning group, and despite her inputs on how to run the meeting, the speakers were all likely to stand and present information. She predicted that the audience would become disengaged within the first few minutes.

We went to the meeting. It unfolded exactly as predicted. After five minutes we glanced around the room and most people had their heads down. Most were viewing their screens.

Close to the end of the meeting our friend’s husband had five minutes on the agenda. Instead of presenting he asked an engaging question, listened to the answers, shaped them into a core message, made one strong statement and sat down. During his five minutes everyone was engaged. The next person stood up and people soon returned to their screens.

This is not a story about a meeting. It is a story about most meetings, in most places, most of time. Every day there are millions of meetings in which billions of hours of human time are wasted. The scenario is so common we accept and expect it to occur. Think about it; before we went to the above meeting, our friend correctly predicted what would happen. Even the speakers could have predicted what would happen. If this is true, why did it happen?

It happened because of a lack of purpose. Authority figures are not leaders. Authority figures only become leaders when they fully commit to a higher purpose. The moment they do, their every act becomes a conscious effort in emotionally connecting their people to the collective purpose and creating a culture of excellence. Every moment of every meeting becomes a precious resource. The leader refuses to let anyone become the expert – pouring information on an unengaged audience.

In a positive organization, people are less likely to fall into conventional roles, like the expert, information dispenser. Instead they ask, what must be done now to clarify the purpose, promote learning, and increase commitment? Like the husband in the story above, they step out of the expert role. They make themselves equal and vulnerable as they ask genuine questions and listen sincerely. They allow an honest conversation to emerge. They integrate what has been shared, then close by making their own most authentic points. As they sit down, they do so knowing that everyone was engaged and the collective purpose was furthered.


When you are asked to share information, what assumptions do you immediately make?

Why is what the husband did so uncommon?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Productive Community

A group or organization can become a productive community. The transformation occurs when the people commit to do something they do not know how to do. It is then that they learn how to learn as a group. When the group improvises together and success follows, the whole is seen as greater than the sum of the parts. People are magnified by their experiences. Individuals feel their capacities unfold because being part of the successful team lifts them to higher levels of performance and growth.

This realization of potential is exhilarating. People begin to speak in the language of potential and become bonded in unusually positive relationships. They see each other’s strengths. They also recognize each other’s shortcomings but are not moved to judgment. Instead they willingly support one another. Indeed, they simultaneously challenge and support each other.

This means the normally individual and transformational characteristic of being high on task and high on support, has become a group characteristic. The team has internalized the patterns of transformational leadership. As result of their collective success, they believe in each other and become confident they can handle any challenge the future may hold.

Even after the members of a productive community separate, there is still a lasting artifact. Years later they remember the accomplishments and the relationships with fondness, and as high points in their careers. They are sure that, if they were reassembled, they could again function with greatness.


Purpose and Learning

In his recent book, Life On Purpose: How Living What Matters Most Changes Everything (2016:221), Vic Stretcher has a chapter on purpose, challenge and learning. The chapter suggests that having a life purpose greatly influences how we respond in times of difficulty. If we have a purpose we think differently. We have greater consciousness and we exercise more control on how we construct meaning from our experiences.

When we have a life purpose, we are not determined by our past, we are determined by our future. Our orientation to purpose turns our past into a school of instruction. We interpret our past as a tool for learning how to create the future we desire.   Research suggests that this orientation matters a great deal.

Vic reviews studies of responses to devastating earthquakes. After an earthquake many people suffer for long periods. People with a life purpose are less likely to suffer from stress, depression and lower quality of life. They are more likely to learn and grow from their traumatic experiences, and then live a higher quality life. They experience more growth, less likelihood of future traumatic stress, and more energy and willpower. If fact the more extensive the crisis, the greater the post traumatic growth.

These findings suggest that when we have a purpose and experience great challenges, we put less focus on what is lost, and more focus on our purpose. Pursuing the purpose keeps us moving forward. Moving forward reduces our sense of fear. It promotes confidence and learning. The learning is not conventional but transformative.

This all means that challenge opens us up. In times of challenge, we have to reexamine our values, assumptions and perceptions. We have to take a fresh view, one centered in the present reality not in past experiences. As we go through this process, if we did not previously have a purpose, we gain one. If we did have a purpose, we test and clarify it. We thus “repurpose” our lives.

As we experience stressors in life it is conventional to respond with bitterness (fight) or denial (flight).   A more healthy response is to accept reality and adapt. Engaging in this kind of learning is more easily accomplished when we have a life purpose and we live in hope of a better future.

I believe all of this applies at the collective level. When people in a group or an organization have a genuine purpose, they respond to challenges differently. Instead of collapsing, they remain resilient. They persist and they learn. As they learn they get better.



How have I coped with the great challenges of my life?

When have I engaged in purposing or repurposing my life?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Power of the Common Good

I received a letter from a consultant named Ed Valentine. He has spent his life trying to bring change in organizations. He cut his teeth doing OD work at a University. He worked as a facilitator and was often impressed by dramatic positive outcomes he was able to bring. He eventually moved to a corporation where change seemed more challenging. He read my book Change the World and it intensified his desire to “do good” in the very transactional contexts. He reports discovering a question that made a difference in his practice:

At that time, a provocative question came to me:

“How do I show love to THIS organization?”

Sometimes a strategy would suggest itself, sometimes not, but always the question helped move me beyond just what I wanted personally and usually helped me consider the bigger picture.

I find Ed’s last sentence instructive. The unusual question not only moved Ed beyond his own self-interest, as we might expect, it also changed his perspective. When we transcend our own self-interest, when we orient to the common good, we tend to see our context as a dynamic whole and we see ourselves as a dynamic element of the dynamic whole. It is from this perspective that we begin to understand an elusive truth, a truth that is preposterous to the conventional mental map. We can change the social context by changing ourselves. If we increase our own moral power, we positively infect other people.

In coming to this same perspective Ed found that there was a biblical story that inspired him and helped him persist in the pursuit of the common good.   He writes:

At one point in their existence, the Kingdom of Judah was the sole remaining portion of the Israelite nation. After having aggravating their more powerful neighbors for generations, they were invaded, the capital Jerusalem besieged, their temple destroyed and all the meaningful human capital taken captive, on foot, several hundred miles east to an area now part of Iraq. During this time, those lucky enough to be favored were given new names; those less favored lived in various types of menial servitude. They could only worship in secret, by the riverbanks. There’s a psalm from this time (137), which describes just how angry they felt at being taunted to sing their native songs for their masters, and it ends with a wish that they wished they could kill the infants of their captors. (I suspect most slaves have felt that way about their masters, and even some employees about their bosses)

Into this mindset stepped Jeremiah, who had warned the Israelites decades before of their likely fate, and was a captive now himself. In his speech to them, he advises” Work for the welfare of the city, for as they prosper, so will you prosper”, and then he gives several practical ways to make it work.

In some cases Ed has found himself in professional contexts driven by ineptness and self-promotion at the very top of the organization. Despite the toxic environment, at lower levels, there have been units led by people of integrity and vision. By remembering the message of Jeremiah, Ed has found the strength to support the lower level leaders in pursuing the common good. After many years on this path, Ed now sees himself as having a life mission. His call is to “work for dignity, justice, show love, create confidence, and enable cooperation and trust.”

 Feel free to discuss these ideas with Ed (



What does it mean to see the dynamic whole?

How can we change the social context by changing ourselves?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

When the Vision is a Living Thing

A key to moving forward in an externally open manner is the presence of a vision. A vision is a set of images of a desired future. It draws us forward and gives us resilience to keep moving. When we get overwhelmed and confused we can return to the vision and we gain new insights about what to do and we are able to press forward.

Why is this so? When we return to the vision from the perspective of the new, overwhelming challenge, we interpret the vision from the perspective of the new challenge. We therefore suddenly see in the vision something we could not before see. We realize the vision is richer than we thought.

In this sense a vision is a living thing. It changes and grows as we grow. As we move back and forth from our compelling internal vision to our most challenging external realities, we enlarge our awareness and we contribute value to the external system in which we exist.

The vision then is something we must continually examine, discuss and celebrate. As we do, the vision will grow. Because the vision grows it has the capacity to elevate us and we have the capacity to elevate the world. When we understand this the vision becomes part of every conversation and every conversation grows in its creative potential.

Visionary leaders put less emphasis on trying to change systems, structures and processes, they put more emphasis on dialog, on tying every conversation to the larger vision that integrates and elevates the people in the dialog. They attempt to bring more and more people into the dialog. Such behavior makes it possible for many individuals to become externally open. As this happens a new more spontaneous order emerges and impossible things become possible.


Mindfulness and Creation

Action and alertness give rise to learning. By this I mean active, transformational learning. It is an expansion of awareness that allows a person to see what could not be seen before.

In moving forward into uncertainty, a person becomes mindful. Ellen Langer indicates that mindfulness is the development of new labels and categories with which we can interpret the world. In mindlessness we interpret the world through the categories that we have developed in the past. We are a prisoner of our past categories.

Moving forward into uncertainty, we become alert and mindful and our old categories evolve and sometimes the boundaries between our categories melt away. We simply see what is, as it is. We have primary experiences and then use secondary analysis to form new categories.

The new categories are more accurate and more empowering than past categories. In this state of learning we come to know the truth and truth makes us free. Why? When our old categories melt and we embrace the present moment as it really is, we are free of previous constraints and we are able to link to the universe in the co-creation of the emerging future.


  1. Underline the phrases in the above statement with which you most resonate.
  2. List the life experiences that come to mind.
  3. List the ideas and concepts that come to mind.
  4. Write your own paragraph, explaining what you believe about this topic. Your paragraph should only contain the things you understand and truly believe.

Learning and Unconditional Confidence

Karl Weick points out the essential role of movement in the process of learning. He writes: “Once people begin to act (enactment), they generate tangible outcomes (cues) in some context (social), and this helps them discover (retrospective) what is occurring (ongoing), what needs to be explained (plausibility), and what should be done next (identity enhancement).”

One paradoxical requirement of leadership is to help people get into action when they do not know what to do. An oft used phrase is “paralysis by analysis.” This means people use preparation as a means to avoid action that seems risky. When this occurs, telling people to act is not likely to succeed. Because they lack the courage they will not move and organizational learning ceases.

William Torbert indicates that what is needed is unconditional confidence. He suggests that most professionals practice “conditional confidence,” which is based on the belief that I will perform well as long as the situation does not violate my assumptions about the situation.

Torbert argues that it is possible to deviate from the norm in that I can practice a form of “awakened attention” that allows me to press forward in uncertain and threatening situations, learning as I go. This process of action learning requires that I have unconditional confidence in the fact that I can discard inaccurate assumptions and ineffective strategies in the midst of on-going action. I believe that this is the kind of learning we see when we watch a master move forward in any given domain.

Torbert tells us that the confidence to do this comes when we increase our integrity, and we can increase our integrity by continually monitoring our lack of integrity. If we take this notion seriously it means that leadership is a function of moral power and more power comes from continually examining and improving our own behavior. We change the world by changing ourselves.


When things are always the same, we can and do develop stable hierarchies in which people do highly repetitive work. In today’s world things seldom stay the same. Organizations are regularly hit with big changes and people need to adapt.

Adaptation requires us to be externally open. We need to learn new ways of organizing, new ways to behave and relate. This kind of adaptive change is typically resisted. We want to avoid the vulnerability and anxiety. We become closed.

As a result of our resistance, we come to feel disempowered. We blame others for the fact that we feel disempowered. When this happens managers often speak of the need to empower the people. The assumption managers make is that they need to empower us by telling us we are empowered. This does not work.

When a manager tells us that we are empowered, the act of telling simply demonstrates that we have no power. The only way for us to become empowered is to take the risk of empowering ourselves. Managers simply cannot create empowered units. Leaders can.

Leaders do not focus on empowering us. They seek instead to build a culture where a critical mass of people will be enticed to take the risk to empower themselves. Leaders do this by asking us questions instead of giving answers. They refuse to play the expert role we expect them to play. They refuse to take responsibility for decisions we need to make. Instead of creating comfort, they bring challenges and require that we make our own decisions.

In order to make decisions, we have to become externally open. When many people empower themselves the organization has an increased probability that it will begin to flourish. It is only a probability because other things must also be in place to support the process.