Purpose and Leading Up

We have a close friend who holds a senior position in a large organization. She is a purpose driven person who is deeply versed in the principles of positive psychology. So much so, that we once quizzed her about extensive ability to influence, even in situations where most of us would believe influence is not possible.

She told us about her grandfather. She spent much time with him. He was an extraordinary man who loved her and at every turn did things to bring out her potential. He challenged her, supported her, and expected her to succeed. She said that this relationship laid an important foundation. Over the years she has had to struggle to learn to lead but the process always seemed aided by her relationship with her grandfather. In other words, she had a transformational grandfather and knowing him has aided her in becoming a transformational leader.

As she told this story she naturally flowed into a second story illustrating how she has been able to succeed where everyone else failed. She had a boss who was very experienced in terms of content and this allowed him to acquire the very high level, well paid job above her. Unfortunately, when it came to relationships, he was extremely toxic.

Toxic means poisonous, deadly, lethal, or noxious. In this case it means his behavior killed relationships. When he took a flawed position and someone tried to assist, he would fly into a tantrum. The behavior was so extreme that ninety percent of his direct reports quit. After many failures, he was eventually removed.

While he had nothing good to say about anyone, there was an exception. He would regularly share deep praise for our friend. This claim caught our attention. We asked her how it was possible.

She told us that when he would come to a flawed decision, she always challenged it in a supportive way. He would go into a tantrum. Unlike everyone else, she refused to retreat. Because she was purpose driven she knew to always put the collective good ahead of anyone’s self-interest. She never lacked courage when it came to this principle.   So she would clarify the collective purpose, and ask questions that would expose the flawed logic. The man thus would come to his own discovery of his mistakes and adjust. In other words, she was using her transformational influence skills to lead her boss.

We asked her how her relationship was different from all the other relationships he had. She said, “I was the only one he ever trusted.”


  • Have you ever known such a toxic authority figure, how did you react?
  • What does purpose have to do with courage?
  • How would you explain the success of this person?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Empowered and Empowering

In transactional systems, people put themselves first.  When the common good is not fulfilling their self-interest, they turn their backs on the common good.  By contrast, in the productive community we want and expect individuals to behave as individuals, that is, to have varying opinions, expertise, temperaments, and skills in which they believe and for which they have passion.  We do not want clones.

The productive community needs diverse perspectives; individual expression is essential.  This can only happen when there is a shared vision, and rich, trusting relationships.  The productive community is both differentiated (each individual is respected for her or his unique contribution) and integrated (working together in common purpose).  The transformational change agent understands this fact.  By focusing on the common good, this change agent becomes more authentic, and others are attracted and integrated into the pursuit of the common good.  The change agent is simultaneously self-authorizing and loyal to the whole.  He or she is “empowered and empowering to the community.”


The process of transformation is always bigger than we are.  It requires a supportive universe. As we take part in this process, experiencing the transformation of energy, becoming aware that the universe actually needs us and that we need the universe, we join in a dance of co-creation.  We become aware of our own simultaneous potential and dependence.  We awaken to the acred potential that is in living systems.  What I want to suggest is that all human systems, no matter how secular, are also sacred because the seeds of potential transformation exist there.  Individually, we can contribute to the transformational process.  We can each become transformational change agents.  We do not need to be world leaders, leaders of an organization, or even the head of a family to do this.

Provocative Competence

In organizations there is a great emphasis on maintaining control. Yet there is often a need for novel responses. We have to orient to the future and facilitate the unfolding of the future in the present moment, and we often have to do it with others. Conceptually this can be hard to think about. Frank Barrett is helpful. He writes of “provocative competence” — the ability to interrupt habit patterns, and he gives us an illustration from jazz musicians.

“Many veteran jazz musicians practice provocative competence; they make deliberate efforts to create disruptions and incremental re-orientations. This commitment often leads players to attempt to outwit their learned habits by putting themselves in unfamiliar musical situations that demand novel responses.  Saxaphonist John Coltrane is well known for deliberately playing songs in difficult and unfamiliar keys because “it made [him] think” while he was playing and he could not rely on his fingers to play the notes automatically.  Herbi Hancock recalls that Miles Davis was very suspicious of musicians in his quartet playing repetitive patterns so he forbade them to practice.  In an effort to spur the band to approach familiar tunes from a novel perspective, Davis would sometimes call tunes in different keys, or call tunes that the band had not rehearsed.  This would be done in concert, before a live audience.  “I pay you to do your practicing on the band stand,” Hancock recalls Davis’ commitment to “Keeping the music fresh and moving” by avoiding comfortable routines.  “Do you know why I don’t play ballads anymore?” Jarrett recalled Davis telling him.  “Because I like to play ballads so much (Carr, 1992, p. 53).” [Barrett, 1998, p. 609]


Who do I know who has ever demonstrated provocative competence?

When is provocative competence needed in our organization?

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


Disturbing the System

From the study of transformational actors in the middle levels of organizations, researchers report that real change leaders recognize the need to disturb the system and practice improvisation (Katzenback and associates, 1995).  They understand that after implementation, there is a need to increase the “mass and velocity” of the process, and after a certain point there is no turning back.  The system is at the edge.  It becomes necessary continually to improvise and experiment, striving to keep the momentum by working “a constantly changing mix of initiatives.”  The real change agents use whatever tools are available in whatever way they can.  They learn their way forward, hovering at the edge of chaos.

So in the end, systems move to new levels of complexity because they are disturbed.  Yet there is a basic irony about all this, since systems are designed to prevent disturbances, that is, to help each person within the system maintain a steady course.  Even so, human collectives can never transform until someone cares enough, and dares enough, to deviate and disturb them.  Remember, disturbing a system normally triggers resistance.  And here we encounter yet another underlying irony, that as long as we are guided by normal assumptions, resistance marks the end of change, raising the specter of fear and dampening any enthusiasm for taking further action toward change.

The sacred servants understood all of this.  Jesus and Ghandi warn us how severe the risks can be.  Dr. King tells us that direct action requires self-purification, something the other two also advocated.  Only after we have purified ourselves can we be clear enough about our purpose and our commitment to go forward with all that the transformation entails.  Only then can we see the wisdom or disturbing the system and ultimately joining others in the dance of resistance and transformation.  Only then do we learn to trust the process that is far bigger than any one of us.

–Change the World, p. 169

The Visionary Gardner

My son-in-law shared the following story.

A few years ago, I noticed the landscaping on the campus of the Foreign Service Institute was changing dramatically.  Instead of the regular array of annuals and shrubs and grass and two or three species of trees, someone started planting a variety of interesting perennials from all over the world.  I learned that a landscape designer and horticulturalist named Darren DeStefano had a new vision for the grounds.  Given the international focus of the students at the Institutde, Mr. DeStefano was determined to create a landscape that reflected the students’ experiences and goals.  Now every time I go to FSI, I feel excited to see how the landscape is changing and growing.  For example, there is a new flock of monkey puzzle trees on one side of the campus and a grouping of river birch in an area where water naturally collects.

Occasionally, Mr. DeStefano gives walking tours of the grounds to talk about his vision and teach people about the newly planted species.  I have never been on one of those tours, but I am determined to not miss the next one.  I met an FSI employee this week who spoke enthusiastically of his own experience on one of the tours.  He said many of the changes Mr. DeStefano has made have been through donations of plants and rocks that were otherwise not going to be used anywhere.  Then I spoke to a friend who works there and she too spoke with genuine enthusiasm about her experience on a tour.  She mentioned that Mr. DeStefano is gathering oak seedlings from all over the world for one section of the grounds.  Whatever it is that Mr. DeStefano is doing, his vision has definitely captured the imaginations of those who work there.

I am grateful for a visionary gardener who inspires people who work in the context he is creating.  I am thankful to ponder on the impact of a person who insists on creating beauty.  I am also grateful to consider the impact of that same person deliberately planning tours for employees to help them understand and appreciate the changes as they grow.

I am struck by the fact that in any context, at any level of an organization we can choose to inspire and have impact on others.  Every contribution is important to the creation of a positive organization.

Freedom from Labels

I was once invited to a six-day retreat with twenty-two spiritual leaders from many different religious backgrounds.  I felt a little fear when I thought about going to this retreat because I suspected that there might be some people in the group who felt negatively toward my religious tradition.  If I went to this retreat, I might be judged and criticized.  I was fearful of getting intense negative feedback.

My administrative assistant noticed what was going on. With an impish grin she asked me if I was afraid.  She knew she had me.  I groaned and told her to order the plane ticket.  I may have been afraid, but at least I recognized it and began making the effort to become externally open.

In the first hour of the retreat I was on edge.  I was tempted to judge and label other people–the very think I was afraid they would do to me.  I knew I had to get out of that state but I was still fearful.  I made a choice to change.

The retreat was full of intimate conversation.  We listened to each other’s stories of personal trial, failure, and triumph.  One man spoke of developmental rituals in the wilderness and accounts of his personal transformation.  Another man told of enduring brutality while participating in demonstrations n the sixties.  He saw his efforts change the racism of people he thought would never change.  A woman spoke of her service in the midst of violent gangs and occasional sacred moments when anger was turned to love.  As we listened to each other, our need to label each other and to differentiate ourselves began to fade.  We began to see at least as much of what we had in common between us as we saw of what was different.

Enthusiasm and Generativity

Enthusiasm emerges when we envision the unfolding of a better future. As vision and enthusiasm unfold, we radiate and receive positive energy from each other and we reinforce each other in sharing and in collective learning. In such a collective, we acquire insight and capacity. New resources emerge. Everyone feels more generative.

The Emergence of Intimacy

We attended the annual leadership meeting of a company. Over the last eight years they have become increasingly positive. In the last year, there has been a particular emphasis on becoming a company of higher purpose. At the meeting there was a new pattern that we often observe as a company turns to purpose. Senior people begin to become more intimate, vulnerable and authentic.

In this company the annual meeting is scripted from start to finish. On the first day, after someone made a presentation on purpose, the CEO stood up and left the script. He told a personal story and then spoke about the importance of families. His presentation was unexpected but deeply appreciated by the audience.

On the final day the CEO again spoke from his most intimate experiences. He told of John, his uncle and a man of extraordinary, worldly accomplishments and great recognition.   John had a heart attack and was dying. The CEO said he went to visit John. He asked John what he had been thinking about. John replied that he had been thinking about all the people in his life. He told a story about his sons who recently visited. During the visit the two sons hugged each other. John said, “It was beautiful.”

In the entire conversation John never mentioned any of his great achievements or the rewards they brought. The CEO was very moved, he said, “For me, it was a message from the future. What really matters, what bring us our greatest meaning, is our relationships.”

The CEO began to speak about the difference between leading a successful life verses leading a significant life. Success tends to be about personal achievement. Significance tends to be about contributing to the good of others. He spoke of the cumulative effect of making many small contributions to the people around us.

Then he said, “Investing in relationships does not come to me naturally, so I have decided to work at it.” I was quite taken by this sentence. I looked around the room and it was clear that everyone was captured by this revelation. Vulnerability garners attention.

The CEO then told another personal story. He spoke of a lower level employee who was retiring after forty years. The person who brought him the news wondered if the CEO might be able to drop in on the retirement party for a few minutes. When the CEO checked his calendar it was the day the board meets. He would be having lunch with the board, so he declined the invitation.

The experience, nevertheless, stayed in his mind. He kept thinking about how much his presence might mean to the employee. He began to think that leaving the board for a few minutes might not be such a big deal. He eventually decided to make the visit.

When the CEO walked into the retirement celebration, the person who made the invitation simply “lit up.” The retiring employee was “dumbfounded.” He could not imagine the CEO attending at his retirement party. Everyone was delighted. The interesting thing was the impact on the CEO. He said he also felt “lit up.” He returned to the board filled with positive energy.

The small experience was so positive, that the CEO began to ask himself how he could more regularly make such small but positive investments. So he asked the people who surround him to look for and notify him of such opportunities. He closed by asking the audience to imagine a company where all 150 top leaders were regularly making similar small, positive investments.

His remarks were well received. At the conclusion of the meeting, I chatted with one of the participants. I asked her to assess her three-day experience. She said, “This is so different. Of all of these meetings that I have attended, this is the best by far. I am so looking forward to what happens to this company.”

Why is it, that when a company begins to orient to higher purpose, senior people begin to become more intimate, vulnerable and authentic? One reason is that as senior people try to explain personal and organizational purpose, it becomes necessary to illustrate. It is difficult to explain our personal purpose without sharing the experiences from which our purpose and understanding stem. It is difficult to speak of the link between our personal purpose and the organizational purpose without sharing meaningful experiences.

As we do, we make another discovery. Sharing who we really are is not a weakness. It is an act of strength. The expression of vulnerability is a demonstration of power that mature leaders understand. It is an invitation to trust, learning and collective development. Those who fear self-revelation, have yet to enter the realm of transformational influence.


As leaders change their cultures to be more positive, they also become more positive, why?

How can vulnerability be a source of power?

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


Purpose, Work and Family

I was speaking at the annual meeting of a company I work with. I gave the audience an exercise to do and asked them what it said about the positive perspective. A man responded, “It orients you to possibility.” A woman I had previously taught, and who I knew to be filled with purpose, raised her hand and said, “It orients you to endless possibility.”

During the break the woman approached me and said she wanted to introduce me to someone. She turned to a radiant, teenage girl. She said, “This is my daughter Julia.”

I asked Julia some basic questions and she explained that she came to her mother’s professional meeting so she could hear my presentation. She said she loved leadership and wanted to learn all she could. I asked this sixteen year-old where her life was going and she said, “To endless possibility.”

As we were parting, her purpose-driven mother told me she loved raising her children and she loved her work. It was a declaration of living an integrated life. I was so moved by her words that when I began the next session, I called her to the front of the room and I asked her to introduce all of us to Julia, and to tell everyone what she just told me. She did so with pride and with love and the audience hung on her every word.

I then told the audience that the conflicting demands between work and family are real. There are two different sets of expectations. Yet there is only one me. When we live with a contributive orientation and a clear sense of purpose, we still have the external conflicts, but we have a different internal response. We have more clarity, more courage and more kindness for ourselves and others. We become more able to transcend conflicts and more able to live an integrated life. When we have a higher purpose we live in endless possibility.