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.



A Sure Indicator of Positive Organizing

There is a utility company that has very worked hard to become a purpose driven, positive organization. They have worked hard to have an engaged and empowered workforce. At a company meeting one of the senior executives was speaking and shared an indicator of what happens when a company becomes purpose driven and positive.

The executive said, “Fifteen years ago, when I looked at my day’s schedule, and I was slotted to be with employees, I became filled with dread. Every such moment was an experience with grousing and complaining. I always left those experiences feeling depressed. Today the opposite is true. I look forward to spending time with the first line people because I walk away inspired.”

He gave a recent example.

He spent several hours riding with a technician. At one point they went into an impoverished home. There was no furniture, kids everywhere, and no heat. In such situations the technician’s directive was clear. The technician makes an inspection of the furnace, “red tags” the problem, and leaves. In this case the technician went to his truck, found a part, returned and fixed the furnace.

Later the technician told his very senior companion, “I know what the policy says, but there is no way that I was going to leave those kids without heat because of a ten dollar part.”

In reflecting on the experience, the senior executive said, “You cannot write procedures to bring about that kind of behavior. Compensation is important. People need to feed their families. But compensation does not drive greatness. Fixing that furnace is the kind of thing that people do when they understand the big picture. They become engaged and empowered. You never hear grousing or complaining, any more, it is a delight to be with our people.”

Action from Principle

When I think of the power of authenticity and vulnerability, I think of a statement from Thoreau in Civil Disobedience: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything that was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.”

The declaration of our deepest and most authentic intent is a commitment to “action from principle.” It is not a commitment to the preservation of the past. It “does not consist wholly with anything that was.” It is a commitment to the process of becoming. It is a commitment to live in a different and better state. It is a commitment to live proactively in a reactive culture.

Such a commitment “changes things and relations.” It divides others. Some are predictably repelled which is why we are hesitant to “come out.” Yet some are attracted. They are attracted to the possibility we now embody.   This attraction is the essence of positive leadership. Positive leadership is a function of moral power. When we become authentic, our moral power increases and others are attracted or repelled.

Zingerman’s Opportunity

We believe that Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor is one of the finest examples of a positive organization.  They truly walk the talk, and constantly innovate in the process.  Our good friend Ari, founder of Zingerman’s, is teaching a 2-day seminar on Managing Ourselves this coming Monday and Tuesday (9/12-13). His last two sessions received rave reviews.

Because it’s a new product and they want it to gain more traction, they are making an amazing offer…. 50% off!!!  This is an important step in the Leadership Development process.

You can sign up on the Zingerman’s website using the link and discount code below :

Managing Ourselves

Discount code : LASTMINUTE


Purpose and Appreciation

We have talked to many leaders about their attempts to create organizations of higher purpose. One of them told us the following.

Building a positive organization is a challenge. I spent years trying to create one. One day I received a call reporting that one of my people had made a major mistake. I had just given intensive training on the very issue. My first thought was this, “He is a problem.”

At that instant I had an unusual experience. I was stopped in my tracks. I knew I had just done something wrong but I had no idea what it was. I sat down and examined the brief incident. A clear message came to my mind. “None of your people can ever be seen as a problem.”

The notion was so strong that it transformed me. From then on I refused to define any one as a problem. A problem is something you solve and make go away. A human being is someone you cherish and develop.

With this change I began to observe other administrative situations. Many administrators define people who violate their expectations as problems. Most people who are defined as problems detect the negative orientation of the senior person and they see only two choices; disengage or rebel. With either choice, the organizational culture begins to turn negative.

The conventional mental map suggests that an administrator is a person of power and expertise who fixes problems by acting upon others. The authority figure is separate from the system and acts upon it. Good management is a function of a brilliant mind.

The positive mental map suggests that authority and expertise, taken alone, make us ineffective. The leader is actually a part of the human system that the leader seeks to change. Our ability to elevate human systems is a function of our ability to love and learn with others.

Andy Hoffman understands this connected, dynamic, and reciprocal perspective. He argues that to bring sustainable change, one might draw inspiration from the world one is trying to change (2016:22). He cites E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web:

“Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day. But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way savoring must come first.

To savor is to enjoy, relish, appreciate, cherish, treasure, value, and delight in. When we authentically appreciate the people we work with we orient to them with love, particularly when they make mistakes. If we do not, we see them as problems and we promote fear.

It is said that students do not care how much a teacher knows, until they know how much a teacher cares. It is trust that leads to learning and authenticity that leads to trust.

In the end, the leader is part of the system the leader is trying to change. In that system everyone is interdependent and success is predicated on the collective ability to learn. Success is a function of the leader’s integrity and virtuousness. Courage, sensitivity, caring, forgiveness, and authenticity are just of a few of the virtues that make a leader effective. Such a leader is oriented to appreciation and not to depreciation.


Why is it natural to define people as problems?

Why does objectification destroy a positive culture?

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

Culture Creation

Our colleague, Andy Hoffman wrote a book, Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling. In the first chapter he describes how many of his students do career selection by asking themselves conventional questions, usually having to do with things like money and impact. He suggests that they would be better off if they were to do a deeper exploration and focus on finding their calling in life. He says that their calling is their purpose in the world. He then connects purpose to the concept of social exchange and suggests that purpose determines how we see other people. Andy writes:

Are your relationships transactional or relational; that is, do you treat people and the natural world as a community that sustains and includes you, or merely as objects for achieving the success of your own pursuits? 

The social sciences tell us that it is normal for people to be self-interested. It is normal for people to see each social interaction as an exchange, transaction or contract. This means our job in life is to negotiate each contract so as to obtain the things we desire. These assumptions are at the center of every conventional culture and we are all continually trained to live by them. In conventional social theory we live to acquire and survive.

Andy makes a point about the unexpected. After citing Thoreau on the point that, if a person confidently pursues his or her dreams the person “will meet with success unimagined in common hours.” Why would this grand claim be true?

Purpose is linked to learning. When we have a purpose that drives our life, we leave the conventional path and we do things others will not do. Purpose takes us into uncertainty. In uncertainty we are forced to pay attention to every cue. Andy speaks of it as “opening up to the unknown.” Our purpose does not take us to a stable end point and certainty. Instead it takes to the “continual pursuit of growth and awareness.”

As we move forward, into unknown territory, we have new experiences. As we ponder our new experiences we acquire new ideas and we develop new capacities. In our own writing, we often refer to this forward moving process as “building the bridge as you walk on it.” Purpose tells us where we are going, but moving forward is what drives the learning process. The bridge emerges from real time learning. We have “success unimagined in common hours.”

Andy makes an even greater claim. He says that by taking control of our lives and embracing a higher purpose, we begin to experience “pure joy.


When we have a higher purpose, we are no longer living to acquire and survive. We are living to contribute. When we live to contribute, acquiring and surviving is a means to a greater end and our life becomes more meaningful. In our work we experience the emergence of a better self and our emerging best self is contributing to the emergence of a better world. In doing work that creates a better self and a better world, we experience “pure joy.”

As we experience this kind of joy, we are transformed. We take a different orientation to life. We begin to see life in terms of dynamic wholes and our orientation to relationships become altered. We begin to “treat people and the natural world as a community that sustains and includes you.” We sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

This new orientation expands our old orientation. Instead of being driven by our culture and the social expectations within it, we become, paradoxically, more independent and more interdependent.

We become more independent in that we begin to question conventional assumptions. Instead of accepting that culture determines behavior, we begin to ask why the culture cannot be shaped to achieve the purpose we desire. We have a more internal locus of control.

We become more interdependent because we are experiencing the unfolding of our own potential and discovering that we can be more than we assumed. This joyful discovery leads us to see others differently. We look at them and we suddenly see potential in them we did not see before and that they do not see in themselves. We not only recognize their potential, we also recognize that they can only realize their potential by the exercise of their own agency. Instead of coercing them, we begin to seek to attract them to their own highest purpose. We no longer merely see them “as objects for achieving the success of your own pursuits.”

This profound shift in outlook turns us into leaders of transformational influence. We become culture creators. We seek to create relationships, teams and organizations that are tied to a higher purpose. In these elevated contexts people can hear and dance to new music. As they collectively learn to build the bridge as they walk on it, it becomes easier to see how they can also do it personally.


What does it mean to treat people and the natural world as “objects for achieving the success of your own pursuits?”

What does it mean to “treat people and the natural world as a community that sustains and includes you?”

What does it mean to be a culture creator?