Excellence, Leadership & Louis the Limo Driver

Excellence is a powerful teacher. Yet we often fail to learn from excellence because we do not see excellence even when we are exposed to it.

I was on my way to an event and called a driver picked me up. As I approached the car, he walked up and put out his hand. He called me by name, and introduced himself as Louis. He looked me in the eye and asked several questions. He listened to one of my answers and laughed with his full body. This led to a strong first impression; “This is a good guy.”

As I climbed into the car I was about to go into my comfortable introvert state. Louis was not standing for it. He talked to me with enthusiasm. The phone I was pulling out, slipped back into my pocket and my lips began to move. I was engaged in a real conversation.

Louis is a sixty year-old African-American. He grew up in Tennessee, left school in the 11th grade and moved to Detroit.

He told me he was originally making $1,000 a week and many of his neighbors were making $200 a week. Yet they were better off because his money disappeared into alcohol, drugs and women. He told me he was doing what came natural yet he was going nowhere. Then he changed. He discovered God. I asked how he did this. After some thought, he said, “I just could not go on living a meaningless life; I began searching for something more and then I started meeting people and learning things.”

Louis shared some of his lessons. He told me the mind produces images and the images shape behavior. Most people take in whatever image is in front of them but he explained this does not have to be the case, you can control the images that register on your brain. He explained how. He shared practical strategies for improving life.

He told me of a recent conversation in his car. He picked up an executive who had had a six hour flight delay. He was in a very negative mood. Louis told me that he had to figure out how to lift the man; that doing so was his calling.

After much reflection, Louis asked the man, “Tomorrow are you going to feel better than you feel right now?”

The man answered in the affirmative. Louis said, “Why wait until tomorrow?”

The man was shocked. Then he laughed. He said, “You are right. Why wait? You just made me a better person. My wife is going to have a better evening tonight because of you.”

As Louis finished the story he went into another deep body laugh.   Then he said, “That is my life. I am here to help people. I never want to stop learning and I never want to stop helping other people learn.”

For the next two hours I had the pleasure of being taught by Louis. When we finally arrived he said, “Look at that, two hours, it seems like ten minutes. Being with you was wonderful.”

I laughed and told Louis that being with him was wonderful. We made arrangements so that he was my driver on the return trip.

This morning I reflect back on that conversation. I see so many lessons. One is particularly important. To me Louis represents success in the fundamental journey to leadership. We all start out fully dependent. Some of us live in abundance and some in scarcity. We each have our own array of advantages and disadvantages.

As we become teenagers, we begin the search for independence. Often we travel paths that lead to meaninglessness. As the emptiness grows, we may begin to search for something more. When we are ready to learn, teachers show up in the form of people and/or experiences. We evolve towards productive interdependence. As we do, we begin to feel whole. We bring both our mind and our heart to a higher purpose. We experience the transformation of self-interest. We find our greatest meaning in contribution. We discover a calling.

Louis has a calling. He is not in the car to drive, he is in the car to “help people,” he never wants to “stop learning” and he “never wants to stop helping other people learn.” Louis is an example of excellence in leadership and I loved learning from him.


  • How is Louis a manifestation of excellence?
  • What would happen if you were surrounded by people like Louis?
  • What could you do today to become more like Louis?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?




Repairing the Collective Narrative

The host of a local radio station asked my colleague and I to do an interview with him and we agreed. As we entered his studio and casually chatted, he shared a few things that signaled a sense of need. I asked him a couple of probing questions and his heart burst. He told us his father had just died and he had given the eulogy.

We asked for the most meaningful element of the eulogy. He told of a time of financial hardship. In order for the family to survive, his father had to take a job seven hours from home. Each weekend, his father would drive the seven hours to get home in time to watch his son practice as a second string kicker. As he shared this fact, he began to cry. They were tears of deep appreciation. He looked up and said, “I do not even know you guys and here I am crying.”

Since he felt safe, he was able to go further and share something that would normally be impossible to share. While his father was passing, an event occurred that he interpreted to be a divine message of comfort for the family. As he shared the sacred story it had many layers of meaning. As he spoke, new layers were being exposed. He was learning by listening to himself tell the story.

Although the father was dead, the son’s memory of the father’s best self was alive. Tending to that memory was altering the son’s current view of his own identity and destiny. He had desires to be more like his best memory of his father. This meant his behavior would change for the better. This meant the world would change for the better.

The sacred story was instructive and uplifting. Yet a skeptic might easily frame the story as simply a strange coincidence with imposed meaning. As this thought flashed in my mind, it occurred to me why sharing the story would normally be impossible.

In social networks (like conversations, marriages, teams, organizations or economies) fear and skepticism operate. The skepticism is functional, it keeps everyone on a logical path. It is also dysfunctional in that it prevents vulnerability, authenticity, trust and the co-creation of meaning and possibility.

Logic without love reduces a human network to a technical network run by economic contracting and control. In such a network people become objects who cannot create meaning. The people enter a fearful, reactive state and the collective network underperforms the potential embedded within.

There are times when each one of us has to create meaning. This particularly happens in times of discontinuity. A significant change disrupts our life narrative and we have to ask significant questions of identity and destiny. We have to examine nuance. We have to interpret the loss in terms of the past, present and future.

In times of disruption we have to ask questions like, who was my father, how and why did he value me, how and why did I value him? What are the important things that I take away from our history?

As answers emerge into consciousness they have an enlightening effect. The new understanding alters desires and creates new intentions. As we clarify our highest purpose and deepest values we embrace a life narrative that is both repaired and enhanced. We become whole. Our relational orientation is altered. We become empowered and empowering to others. We seek to contribute.

This process usually has to be co-created. To learn our story we have to tell our story and this requires someone who listens. By listening, the listener helps the teller to listen as the teller shares the story. The story and the learning are both emergent systems that are functions of co-creation.

Here there is a leadership lesson. Organizations are social networks that are continually jolted. The discontinuities disrupt the collective narrative and the people have to ask significant questions of both personal and collective identity and destiny. They have to examine the losses and see the opportunities.   They have to interpret the loss in terms of the past, present and future. They have to repair and enhance the narrative so they all turn to the future with alignment and full engagement.

Since most authority figures live with fear and a bias towards skepticism, they find it difficult to live in intelligent optimism, which is a cognitively complex condition where the reality of constraint and the reality of possibility continually interpenetrate. An authority figure who lives in continual skepticism cannot fulfill a primary role of authentic leadership. They cannot help their own people co-create meaning. They cannot connect their people to a purpose that matters. They cannot lead, and the organization cannot realize its full potential. The economic paradox is that logic and analysis without vision and love, leaves value on the table.

Leaders can do these things only when they become whole. The key to personal leadership development is to extend the process of deep reflection from required moments of deep discontinuity to every moment of discontinuity. When we spend time every day examining the small discontinuities and clarifying our highest purpose and values, we move forward with a repaired and enhanced personal narrative. When we do we become a leader with the capacity to co-create an ever repaired and ever enhanced collective narrative. We then live in a social network where everyone is human, everyone is engaged, and everyone wins.



  • What was the greatest discontinuity in your life, when it occurred, what did you need?
  • Why does logic without love produce networks without meaning?
  • What would it mean to repair and enhance the collective narrative of your unit?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Tending to the Dynamic Whole

Recently two very short conversations excited me. When I put them together they create a tension worth examining.

There was a conference halfway around the world. I was a keynote speaker broadcasting from a local studio. While I was speaking, one of the technicians in the studio hung on every word. After the session he approached me. He looked vulnerable, and he clearly wanted to talk.

He told me that he was retired. During one period in his career he supervised a team of technicians. Then he gave it up and returned to being an individual operator. Finally, he retired.

He spoke of his time as a supervisor. He said, “I made a lot of mistakes. After all these years, I still remember some of the things I did and I ask myself, why did I do that?”

He looked away for a time. Then he turned back. With some feeling he said, “You know very few of those issues had anything to do with producing things. They had to do with relationships. I did not understand. I made lots of mistakes. It is hard do the right thing when you only see the job to be done.”

My second conversation was with a man who does similar work in a different place. With deep admiration he told me of his boss. He said his boss has evolved into a man of wisdom. Everyone in the organization holds him in high esteem. This man told me about a performance review. His boss indicated that his performance was fine, he needed to keep up what he was doing. Then the boss said, “Let me be clear. The most important thing is your family, you stay at work too long. You need to get your work done, go home, and be with your family.”

As he shared this, this man also displayed some vulnerability. He was near tears. He said, “Can you imagine what it means when you hear words like that from your boss? I cannot believe how lucky I am to work for a man like that.”

One man saw only the task to be done and to this day he ponders his regrets. The other man sees the task to be done, and the importance of relationships. People count themselves lucky to work for him.

For years research has shown that the best leaders are high on task and high on people. Nevertheless, it is quite common to emphasize one over the other. A sole focus on the first creates a culture of conflict. A sole focus on the second creates a culture of conflict avoidance. A focus on achieving the task while maintaining relationships leads to a culture of excellence.



  • Are you more of a task person or a people person?
  • In your unit is there much conflict or conflict avoidance?
  • How could you evolve into a more integrated leader?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Discovering How Bad Things Can Get

The Positive Leadership game is based on a deck of cards. Each card contains a sentence describing a positive practice that is verified in research. Players surface real problems and then use the cards to collectively resolve the problem. At the end of the game, we challenge the people to imagine other uses for the cards. There are many.

Recently a past participant shared her experience. She determined to keep the deck on her desk. Each day she turned over the top card and committed to implement the practice.   This is actually an impressive mechanism of leadership self-development. Yet what happened was surprising.

One day she turned over a card that said, “In meetings you can begin by inviting each person to share a statement of what they are grateful for.” So at her next meeting she invited her direct reports to each make a positive statement. Not one was able to do so. This event proved valuable. Everyone could see how negative the culture had become. They all accepted and agreed on the need to change.



  • Why was her practice “a mechanism of leadership self-development?”
  • Why to people live in negative cultures?
  • What would happen if at your next meeting, you issued the same invitation?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning From Success

Failure is a powerful attractor of attention. Some people assume that we only learn from failure. They advise that we examine our failures and improve. I fully concur. Yet there can be a complementary process based on learning from success.

Often I share a description of a scene from Dead Poets Society. In it, Mr. Keating, the teacher, encounters a boy who believes he has no voice. Because of his belief the boy failed to fulfill an assignment to write a poem. In real time, Mr. Keating creates a radical experience in which the boy transforms. In front of the class, the boy creates a poem of extraordinary power. The boy, the teacher and the class are left with a sense of awe.

I often ask, will the boy be different? The participants are certain he will never be the same. He has learned from a radical success that he has a voice. This creates hope and investment.

I ask, will the class will be different? This takes more thought. Yet eventually they conclude that, having witnessed the transformation and the power of learning, the next day the class will have a modified culture. They have learned from a radical success in another that they have potential they have not yet realized. This creates hope and investment.

I ask, will the teacher will be different? This requires even more thought. Then it becomes clear that if you are the initiator of a transformational process you do not walk out of the room and forget about it. It holds your attention. You examine your success and squeeze from it the principles that will allow you to make greater contributions in the future. The teacher learns from his own radical success that he or she has potential not yet realized. This creates hope and investment.

It is important that we examine our failures and the failures of others. We can learn from mistakes. It is important that we examine our successes and the successes of others. We can learn from triumphs. The first tends to teach us what to avoid while the second tends to teach us what to embrace.


  • List the most radical successes in your life.
  • What do you learn from examining the list?
  • In what way does the examination create hope and investment?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Applying the Fundamental State of Leadership

A topic I teach regularly is the Fundamental State of Leadership. The argument is that by asking ourselves four basic questions, we can empower ourselves and turn any situation positive. The four questions are:

  • What result do I want to create?
  • Am I internally directed?
  • Am I other focused?
  • Am I externally open?

After learning the concept, a former student went home and began to apply it. He wrote with the following report.

  1. I was dealing with a customer service situation that did not have an obvious answer.  I made a decision about how to proceed, but after making that decision I didn’t feel right about it.  I reviewed the four questions and came to realize that the decision I had made was in conflict with one my values.  So I decided to go back and undo that decision, which meant calling a vendor and giving them different direction.  In essence, the value of integrity outweighed the value of not being embarrassed by calling the vendor.  I remembered your comment about “What would you do if you had 2% more courage?”  I picked up the phone and called the vendor, corrected the situation, and to my surprise the vendor was very understanding when I explained my reasoning.  Suffice it to say I felt good about myself for staying true to my values and a couple of days later the situation worked itself out without my needing to intervene in a way that made everyone happy.


  1. I am trying to close on a house in Ann Arbor.  The closing was delayed several times due to a backlog in processing at the bank.  The fact that our closing was delayed caused me a lot of cost and inconvenience.  I was getting frustrated trying to communicate with the mortgage broker and the real estate company by phone and email and didn’t feel heard.  Emotions were starting to escalate and the conversations were becoming less and less productive.  I remembered the four questions and last night decided to work through them.  I realized that what I wanted was to close in a timely way and to be reimbursed for my extra expenses caused by the delay.  The values were taking care of my family but also being respectful of the relationships involved.  I decided that rather than engage in more frustrating communication, I would request a face-to-face meeting to try and identify creative solutions.  I emailed the broker and he agreed to meet today after lunch.  I went into the meeting with clarity around my purpose, values, relationships, and a willingness to be non-defensive no matter what came up in the meeting.  The meeting ended up being very cordial, very productive, and we were even able to get the bank to commit to release the form we needed and get a closing date set.  And we did it in a way the preserved the relationships involved and in which everyone was treated with respect.  I felt good about myself for being proactive to ask for a face-to-face meeting and to show up in the Fundamental State of Leadership, which led to a great result.



  • How realistic are these two challenges?
  • What would normally happen?
  • Why did these two cases turn out differently?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Focusing on the Most Positive Elements in Your Life

A friend shared a story that inspires her. It is the story of Giulietta Carrelli and her coffeehouse trouble. The story aired on the NPR show This American Life in March 2014.  It was so compelling that my friend stopped cleaning the kitchen and sat down and focused all her attention on listening to it. It has stayed with her ever since.  Here is what she shared:

“I found the story so riveting because of the mental health struggles Giulietta faced, the brilliant coping strategies she develops, her philosophy of life, and the pivotal roles of some of the people she encounters.  And also, the toast!  It is such a simple, basic comfort food.

“Giulietta struggled for years with a serious, undiagnosed mental illness.  She was leading a very difficult, nomadic life when she met an elderly man, Glen, at China Beach in San Francisco.  He became an incredible anchor for her. He asked the question, ‘What is your useful skill in a tangible situation?’

“Her answer was that she was good at making coffee, and good with people.  With the support of Glen and others, she finally decided to open a coffee shop that features toast, coconuts, and grapefruit juice, three items that have special significance to her. She succeeded.

“She finds her salvation in focusing on the most positive elements in her life, even though they might seem insignificant to anyone else.  

“Of all the statements in the story, the one I remember best is this: ‘But I never, ever, ever thought that it was going to fail. Everything that works for me, I put in one little spot. And I thought, well, if it works for me, it’ll work for other people.’”



  • Why is this question powerful: “What is your useful skill in a tangible situation?”
  • How could you put the following sentence to work? “She finds her salvation in focusing on the most positive elements in her life, even though they might seem insignificant to anyone else.”
  • What could you do differently today that would positively affect those around you?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Seeing the Full Picture

Four wonderful people are trying to move a huge system in a positive direction. In the process, they have encountered problems they did not expect. They asked to meet with me and a colleague.

We spent the entire time asking them questions designed to help them see their challenge from alternative perspectives. As we did, the feeling in the room changed. The shared sense of constraint and discouragement became a shared sense of vision and hope. They were suddenly free to move forward again.

A friend wrote to me of her experience in working with students in a high school. She tells a very simple yet brilliant story. It is an account of helping people see the full picture so they can make better choices:

When I was working with at-risk high school students, I heard on more than one occasion that graduating from high school was too hard and they were going to quit. I agreed that it was very hard to go to school and do everything necessary to graduate. I said that it was also very hard to drop out and “be stupid”. Dropping out severely limits job options, income, what kind of car they can afford to buy, where they can live, what type of person will be attracted to them, etc. Both paths are hard, so which “hard” would be their choice, and why?


  • How does this school story have application everywhere?
  • Who in your organization needs to see the full picture?
  • How could you help someone today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Source of Silo Behavior

People often speak to me about the problem of silos. Their organization lacks collaboration. To imbue an organization with purpose is to create a climate of shared intention. Each person understands the collective purpose and sees how their individual tasks contribute to that purpose. The people create a positive organization and silos disappear. Unfortunately this seldom happens. Culture prevents it.

In order to survive, animals are constantly scanning for threat. By detecting danger early, they can react in a way that allows them to survive. The same is true with us. If we are standing on a corner reading a book and suddenly we hear screeching brakes, we look up and assess the possible danger. In capturing human attention, negative cues are more powerful than positive cues.

If we are in a meeting and the boss loses his or her temper with a colleague, we glance at each other with knowing looks. While the boss did not intend it, his or her expression of negativity just set an expectation that is likely to become a boundary. Our fear is going to keep us from going anywhere near the line just crossed by our colleague.

The existing culture is the collective comfort zone. In most organizations we tend to stay on the path of least resistance: we do that which is safe. While we claim to value the creation of new outcomes or contributions, our behavior often demonstrates self-interested risk avoidance.

Living in this organized hypocrisy gives rise to a serious problem. The external context keeps changing and the organization does not adapt. The organization becomes dis-integrated or unaligned with the external world. Silos arise. This increasing dis-integration requires that we practice further self-deception and tends to lead to a loss of energy. Centered on our comfort, we languish and stagnate. We do not reach our individual or collective potential.



  • What is the cost of silo behavior?
  • Why do silos arise?
  • How is silo behavior transformed into collaboration?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Doing the Impossible

A young professional sent me a story of his recent day. It is an account of being asked to do an impossible task. He shares how the task was accomplished. In the narrative are lessons for all of us.

Yesterday when I got to work, my boss called me to tell me that she needed me to draft three papers as soon as possible.  Each paper was a challenge, but the last one in particular seemed impossible.  Six of us had a meeting about the final paper, and we closed the door and spoke frankly with each other about the difficulty of the assignment.  Near the end of the meeting, we realized there was a way forward that we could all agree on.

A friend who was in the meeting invited me to talk with him afterwards.  He had an idea to use a new framework for the paper he had learned in a recent training.  The framework is known as the “ABCDE” method for communications plans: A = audience; B = the behavior you want the audience to change; C = the content you’ll use; D = delivery methods you’ll employ to get your content to your audience; and E = the way you’ll conduct evaluation to see whether or not your strategy is working.  The conversation sparked something in me, and I felt excited to take up the impossible challenge and use the framework.

I went back to my office and did the other two papers because their deadlines were sooner.  Just as I turned to work on the impossible paper, I saw an email from my friend.  On his own, he had applied the framework and sent me a draft.  I looked it over and felt another spark; and I revised what he sent and expanded on it.  More than anything, I just felt honest.  I felt like I was honestly approaching this impossible problem and giving it my best.

About 30 minutes later, my colleague called and said that our boss wanted to see us to talk about the impossible paper.  I printed out the draft I had and walked it upstairs.  Our meeting lasted another 30 minutes, and we got feedback that will improve the paper yet again.

What made the impossible task possible? The organization is a large government hierarchy but that is not what is described here. In this story there are the following elements; an impossible challenge, a meeting of colleagues, frank conversation, conceptualization of possibility, a framework for action, excitement, work, mutual support, creativity, sharing, honesty, self-respect, and resilience. Together, these elements are a description of a positive culture. In the midst of conventional hierarchy, these people were living in a positive organization. The impossible became possible.



  • What usually happens when people face an impossible task?
  • Explain the key to the success described above.
  • How can a positive organization exist in a government hierarchy?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?