Seeing the Dynamic Whole

Recently a person of authority confessed that he has never understood vision. Another said, “I do not see the whole, I cannot envision strategic actions that will move the whole.”

In nearly every discipline we are trained to see and analyze technical problems. This tends to be a fixed perspective that assumes knowledge and employs deductive reasoning. This is a good thing. It makes us useful to an organization.

As we move up, however, there is a need to do something more than solve technical problems. We must begin to see and envision strategic actions that will focus, unify and move the human system.

Seeing the whole means recognizing that the parts are interdependent and in constant change. The whole is continually ebbing and flowing. We have to train ourselves and others to see the whole and turn it into a symbiotic system.

This is leadership and it begins with a personal transformation in which we become a symbiotic system. It is often referred to as becoming whole or congruent. When we finally tie the logical mind to the personal conscience in pursuit of the common good, the heart and the mind become symbiotic and we begin to co-create symbiotic systems. When we live in purpose, passion, knowing and learning, we attract others.

This requires operating in four domains. First, we see, expand and elevate the domain of collective action. We identify the collective contribution of the system, the highest purpose that can inspire the commitment of all and focus the action of all.

Second, we see, expand and elevate the moral domain. We identify and inspire the closing of the collective hypocrisy gaps that are normally undiscussable and increase the authenticity of all communication.

Third we see, expand and elevate the emotional domain. We legitimize the reality of feeling and we transform negative emotions into positive emotions so as to enable trust and high quality relationships.

Fourth, we see, expand and elevate the learning domain. We envision the future and legitimize experimentation and adaptation.



  • Who is our organization is a symbiotic whole, an inspiring leader?
  • Who in our organization sees and nurtures the whole social system?
  • How could we collectively see, expand all four domains of our unit?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Choosing to Create Symbiotic Systems

In recent months I have turned to showing people that they already have a theory of excellence. I do this by dividing the class into four segments and asking each one to answer one of the following questions. What is the difference between a good and a great conversation; marriage; team; culture? After I debrief their answers, I point out that all four are social systems. I then ask them to combine all their answers into a theory of how to create greatness in a social system. Their collective product is often stunning. I then point out that I did not give them their theory of excellence, it came from within them. At least unconsciously, they know what greatness is, and they know how it is created. We discuss the implications of this important insight.

When I initially assign one segment of the class to a particular question, there is a different reaction than the other three. The reaction is a painful groan. The topic that brings this groan is the exploration of the difference between a good and a great marriage. Often there is a humorous comment like, “I cannot even get to normal, much less good or great.”

Occasionally in the discussion there is an important insight about greatness in marriage. This happened recently. A man raised his hand. As he spoke he did so with a sense of awe and exploration. It was as if he was discovering and speaking at the same time. He said, “I had great trouble analyzing the notion of marriage and coming up with lists of adjectives or characteristics because my marriage is so symbiotic, so mutually reinforcing, that I see my wife and myself as one inseparable system that cannot be broken down for analysis.”

The comment transformed the classroom.   There was not only stunned silence, there was visible inspiration. As I glanced around and took in the sense of collective awe, I made a joke. “Every woman in this room is leaning forward in her chair, I think you will be the most popular man at lunch.” Everyone laughed. Yet the observation was true. The authentic statement was, in the words of my colleague, Kim Cameron, “heliotropic.” It was so inspiring and it attracted and held the attention of all.


  • Use your imagination and write a description of a symbiotic marriage then write a description of your own unit as a symbiotic system.
  • Specify how your life would change if you were a part of two such symbiotic systems.
  • Now write a strategy you could use to bring about both, then integrate the two into a theory of personal leadership. Based on the theory write one thing you will do differently today.
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Creating a Community of Learning

The Golden State Warriors recently won the NBA championship. Along the way, they established an extraordinary pattern. In the third quarter of each game they tended to outscore their opponents by a large margin. A recent article reports what happens at half-time and begins with the following account. (

“The 15 minutes between the end of the second quarter and start of the third are a carefully choreographed production, featuring clips of game footage, wardrobe changes and managerial strategies straight out of business school. Coach Steve Kerr, based on interviews with players and coaches, has worked to create an environment of inclusion. This is not a place for Lombardi-esque rah-rah speeches. Rather, the Warriors’ halftime locker room is a high-speed 360-degree team review.”

“Everybody is a leader here,” said Pachulia, the veteran center. “At least you have a feeling that you’re a leader.”

The article goes on to explain what transpires. Here is a list of the main patterns that occur in the half-time locker room.

  • Coaches spend 3-4 minutes by themselves sharing observations and sometimes venting.
  • Players have the same private 3-4 minutes to tend to personal issues.
  • Coaches enter and head coach Steve Kerr and makes a brief review of the good and bad.
  • Video clips from the first half are projected onto a screen.
  • The clips include positive plays which Kerr likes to emphasize.
  • Each message is condensed into a small morsel.
  • Each coach speaks briefly and players also voice their observations.
  • The coaches become equals in a community of learning.
  • The orientation is, “If you see something, say something.”
  • Half time is for seeing what is happening and recalibrating.
  • All this happens in approximately five minutes.

The article states, “There is confidence born in the routine of halftime — confidence that the players will heed their message and execute the plan.” The team typically goes out and dominates the third quarter.



  • What items in this account most violate your expectations?
  • Create an explanation of what is happening and why the team does better.
  • How could you turn your unit into a community of learning?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization

Creating Meaning in an Alienating Context

A friend who works in a federal agency often experiences discouragement. Yet he invests heavily in trying to practice positive leadership. He recently shared a simple but extraordinary account.

When I was an exchange student in Brazil, I lived in a small rural community in western Sao Paulo state.  Many Japanese farmers had settled there in the early 1900s and some formed communal farms where they had everything in common—but those efforts eventually failed.  Once I asked my host father why the communal farms disbanded; he told me he didn’t know why, but he related this story:

A man was visiting the communal farm.  He was standing inside a farmhouse looking outside as rain poured down.  He noticed a small bicycle in the middle of the courtyard, rusting in the rain.  He asked a child nearby, “Why don’t you go get that bike and bring it in from the rain?”  The boy shrugged and said, “It’s not my bike.”

Yesterday I was talking to a friend at work who was feeling frustrated by the bureaucracy and how she feels like she doesn’t really “own” anything.  I had not thought of the bicycle story in years, but I told her the story and something clicked.  We laughed at how sometimes in a large bureaucracy, people shrug and say, “It’s not my bike.”  We also laughed at how occasionally we have tried to rescue rusting bicycles and how those efforts are not always recognized or rewarded.

Near the end of our conversation, we talked about what we can do to be our best selves.  My colleague spoke of the importance of her yoga practice and letting go of the fiction that we can control everything (or anything).  I am grateful for that conversation and for the challenge to find meaning in my work, regardless of what I “own” and regardless of others’ recognition.  I am thankful for how I feel when I forget myself and go to work.

Any large hierarchy can become an alienating work context. People can feel like objects with no sense of ownership or engagement. Yet Victor Frankle once observed that, even in Nazi concentration camps, a few people were able to transcend their circumstances and live from an internal compass. In the above statement, the author accepts the challenge to find meaning in an alienating context. He recognizes that the key is shifting from self-interested goals to contribution goals. His conclusion is rare, scientifically sound, and worthy of emulation.


  • What do you learn from the story of the bicycle?
  • How often do you feel a lack of ownership?
  • Why in a hierarchy of normally self-interested people would you want to live with an orientation to selfless contribution?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Newsletter: Moral Leadership

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What Fred Rogers Teaches Us About Moral Leadership

“This past month a documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Mister (Fred) Rogers was released. Documentaries rarely make it to the big screen and do not tend to do well at the box office. After just two weeks, the film has grossed nearly $2 million dollars. There have been lots of articles speculating why it is doing so well. I think we find a central clue from Morgan Neville the director. In making the film, he said he was interested in asking “ questions about moral leadership .”

What is moral leadership? Consider this account of a key moment in the history of Mr. Rogers :
In the 1970’s, when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was threatened with cancelation, mothers across the country walked door-to-door collecting funds to keep it afloat. No one asked them to. Certainly not Mister Rogers himself. They did it because the thought of him going off the air was so appalling, to them and their children, that they galvanized themselves into action.
We like to think that real leaders inspire others to previously unreachable heights. In this case, the values that Fred Rogers inspired in his viewers drove regular people to exhibit passionate, unsolicited behaviors that led to a very substantial and non-regular outcome… Congressional funding for years of public television.
Moral leadership is tied to virtue. There are hundreds of virtues, including patience, decisiveness, conviction, humility, self-reliance, unity, engagement, mindfulness, joyfulness, sacrifice, and so on. Moral leadership begins when one person exhibits one or more virtues at an unconventional level. This gives rise to something scientists call idealized influence. The virtuous behavior inspires unconventional outcomes, including regular people exhibiting “passionate, unsolicited behaviors….”
Finish reading the article here:

Finding Our Life Purpose

At a basketball game for eight year-olds I sat next to a young father. We got into a meaningful conversation and the topic turned to purpose. He said he would like to know his life purpose. I asked him questions about his most joyful experiences and his most challenging. He told three stories about each.   All three joy stories were about bringing people together and helping them innovate as a group. All three challenge stories were about moving from personal fear to faith.

As we talked we came up with an initial statement. “My purpose is to live in faith and help people to organize collective efforts.” I told him this was not the final product. He needed to examine it daily, and make changes. He needed to experiment with applying his purpose. He needed to keep assessing and rewriting until something inside him clicked. He agreed to do so. He recently wrote and reported following directions quite well.

Yesterday was a busy day at work and in the midst of it, I had a quiet moment as I walked somewhere.  I was feeling good and the thought occurred to me that wherever I go, when I’m at my best, I make positive connections along the way.  I thought of many specific examples. It made me think of a line from the song, “Give Said the Little Stream; “I’m small I know, but wherever I go, the fields grows greener still.” When I got back to my desk, I added the following to my purpose statement: My path is my community. My purpose is to live in faith and help people to organize collective efforts.

The workday went two hours longer than I expected.  By the time I got to the train station, it was a mess: at the height of rush hour, there were delays due to a train that broke down.  I waited and waited for a train and when it finally came, I couldn’t squeeze onto the car and was left outside.  In my hunger, fatigue, stress, and frustration, I had a mini-breakdown, knocking on the train door and saying something crazy to the people inside: “C’mon, make room, people!  Have a heart!  I waited with you on the platform too!”  (I don’t get angry very often, but when I do, I do some pretty crazy things.)

Well, of course, I felt ridiculous and ashamed for acting that way and not being more patient.  I took a train headed in the opposite direction (had to get out of there!).  I arrived at a platform that was just as bad if not worse than where I had been, and I felt the fear come over me again.  The train was about to pull in and a woman who had been standing next to me on the platform edged forward.  I didn’t look at her directly, but I edged forward too.

Then I realized what I was doing and turned to her and said something friendly about how crowded it was and how I couldn’t get on a train earlier.  She said something friendly back to me about how crowded it has been lately.  When the doors opened, there was a surge of people around us, but together she and I moved toward the door and I motioned with my hand for her to go first into the train.

In the first experience, I lived in fear and organized no innovative, collective effort.  My path was not community; there were adversaries all around me.  But in the second experience, I overcame the fear I was feeling and reached out to someone along my path and formed a small but positive connection with her.

Many years ago, I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.  This morning I looked up one of my favorite quotes from that book that I still find inspiring: “Man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”

The last sentence is potent. We can become swine or saints. Both potentials are in us. What we become is determined by our decisions. Having a purpose statement leads to better decisions. We find our purpose by contemplating our past joys and challenges, experimenting in the present and continually pondering, clarifying and rewriting. As we discover our purpose we create a more generative present and a more generative future.



  • What is your life purpose?
  • How can you find it or help someone else find theirs?
  • What difference would it make?
  • How can you use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Growing Into Positive Leadership

On a coaching call with participants from an earlier executive class, I asked them to share their stories of what they did differently because of what they learned. Most of them had stories of changes they made at work, but interestingly almost all started by telling of changes they made at home.

One woman told of cajoling her husband to keep and discuss a gratitude journal. He really had no time or interest. He was finishing a Ph.D. He was fully stressed. She said his conversations were almost always about what was going wrong. As he keep the gratitude journal, their conversations changed and their relationship changed. She was so moved that she felt inspired to apply what she learned at work.

At work, they were going through a difficult transformation. She became more transparent and expressive. She recognized their struggles and shared hers. She told her people that is was difficult but that they all had to “gut through.” She then witnessed a change as surprising as the one with her husband. The people took her words to heart. They began to attack some of the most uncomfortable tasks with a positive orientation. They also became ambassadors of the change.   She said, “I am so impressed. In a thirty minute period I had so much impact. Positive leadership makes a difference.”

Another woman spoke of applying positive leadership with her five year-old and with her mother. As she began to let go of the negative and recognize what her child was doing well, an observable change occurred. The child began to “glow” and her “behavior improved.”

He mother was in assisted living and no longer remembered visits. She complained that she was being deserted. Her mother was invited to keep a “guest book.” Each time a family member visited, it was recorded in the book. When she was feeling deserted the staff would refer her to the book. It turned out to be a successful, therapeutic tool.

As with the first women, these successes built confidence and led to new efforts at work. She introduced a weekly ritual called the Lava Lamp. The unattractive lamp becomes an award. As she presents it, she calls out and appreciates specific behaviors of one of her direct reports. She said, “It is really corny but people are moved by it.”

She began to bring people together to increase collaboration. One tool was a monthly brown bag lunch. The most important outcome was what she learned. She discovered that her people were lonely and hungry for collaborative experiences. This led her to change her own behavior. She began to “hear people out.” She began to share more information. The people reacted positively.

When we teach positive leadership, the first reaction is “It cannot work in our culture.” Participants listen to the many practices we offer, show interest, but a great hesitancy to act. Because positive practices tend to be outside the present culture, to introduce them is to lead and risk embarrassment. It is not surprising that many people start at home, learn, and then experiment at work. We have to grow into positive leadership.



  • Do any of the above practices attract your attention?
  • Why do many people start positive leadership at home?
  • What is necessary to overcome the fear of embarrassment?
  • How can you use this passage to create a more positive organization?


The Prison Riddle

I have a good friend who is a practitioner of positive leadership. He volunteers a portion of his time to work with prisoners. He recently sent me a puzzle that I pass on to you.

“Two prisoners who have aligned with the goal to make the best of their limited life reported how tough, even dangerous, being positive is in their environment. They went on to explain that being positive or compassionate is seen by other inmates as being soft, kissing up, being suspect, and violating the canon of holding firm to the rules of engagement in prison: dominate or be dominated / fit into the hierarchies in place.”

“They went on to report that evidence of ‘compassion’ and ‘positivity’ were forced to go underground, being reduced to coded signals between the two consenting prisoners. All went well (an overstatement) until they were ‘found out’, were declared ‘homos’ and are now brutalized both physically and emotionally. Peer pressure is fierce and relentless.

The conversation with the two inmates was conducted in the Warden’s office, as having it in their setting would have endangered them and me. Now what?”

Literalists will think this is an unsolvable problem about prison life. I think it generalizes far beyond prisons. I think it captures the dynamics in every organization. In all organization peer pressure tends to be fierce and relentless. It ensures organizational performance regresses to the mean or worse. Conventional organizations never become positive organizations until negative peer pressure is transformed into positive peer pressure. Positive peer pressure is also fierce and relentless and it drives organizations to excellence. So I present the puzzle and ask you to simultaneously solve it for the prisoners and for yourself.



  • Why do so many managers fear the principles of positive leadership?
  • If you seek to turn your culture more positive what will happen?
  • How does a leader turn negative peer pressure into positive peer pressure?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Vulnerability and Culture Change

A few years ago we initiated a culture change program with a group of surgeons. In successive cohorts we exposed them to the concepts of positive leadership and asked them to engage in experiences that required new behaviors and produced new understanding. Recently a colleague sent me an informal report on the outcomes. Participants were asked to reflect upon the entire process and share their insights.

One of the surgeons claimed that the most important session was not his favorite session because it made him uncomfortable. He said, “I was uncomfortable with being vulnerable and sharing core stories, and uncomfortable because I realized what it meant to be a real leader. It was scary to be confronted by how far I was from that ideal. This was the most important session because it changed how I think about my colleagues and changed how I think about myself as a leader and the growth I need.”

Another wrote of the same session. “It taught us how to be vulnerable with our peers, and helped us see how that builds trust. That session and experience gave us permission to develop deeper relationships with our peers, which built over the program as we continued to work in small groups.”



What conventional beliefs lead us to avoid vulnerability?

Why is vulnerability a hallmark of authentic leadership?

Why is vulnerability necessary to cultural change?

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