How to Lead a Demon

Many educational sessions are conventional. The teacher provides information consistent with existing beliefs. The participant listens and gains a small increment of knowledge. They already know, for example, that 2+2 = 4. Now they learn that 3+3 = 6. They have gained an increment of knowledge consistent with their underlying framework, but the underlying framework is unchanged.

Some sessions result in deeper learning. The teacher focuses on a topic that is relevant and creates a context that is both safe and challenging. The participants become more deeply engaged. Some participants take the risk of responding to questions with increased authenticity. A sense of vulnerability and trust begins to permeate the room and the human network becomes more connected. When purpose and trust increase, the people begin to act differently. They begin to co-create a conversation that is highly generative.

Learning becomes inspirational. The ideas are novel and stimulating. The learning challenges existing assumptions about the world and about self. People begin to make new assumptions about who they are, where they are going, and how they can get there. As soon as they do, the imagination provides new strategies. These new strategies feel inspired and people are anxious to experiment on them.

I was in the midst of a workshop like this. A woman on the front row was taking careful notes and offered several wise comments. I concluded that she knew who she was and that she was thinking deeply about some particular issue.

At the end, she approached me. She told me she has a boss who advocates a narrow strategy with no concern for people or culture. She believes that the organization is suffering because of it. In the past she had tried to enlarge his perspective, but he refuses to listen.

She said that participating in the workshop had had two impacts. First, she felt a renewed interest in trying to influence her boss. Second, she had some insights about the need to first do some self-work. She said, “I need to change myself. In approaching him, I need to talk to him without demonizing him.”

Her words stayed with me. In pondering them, I assumed that demon meant devil. I decided to look it up. In the thesaurus, demon has three sets of synonyms. The first includes words like expert, genius, or wizard. The second includes words like fear, anxiety, or terror. The last includes words like devil, fiend, or monster.

If we hold and integrate all three clusters, an image emerges. When people gain a position of authority, we assume they have the requisite knowledge to perform the role. We expect them to be experts. Since they do not know everything, it is hard for them to be an expert or wizard. They fear exposure and cannot express vulnerability or ask others to join them in learning. They have to know and direct. When they assume expertise and direct without mutual dependence, they exercise authority without love.

This is what a devil does. A devil seeks to take our agency and act upon us without loving us. When someone exercises authority without love, we feel it and we tend to demonize the actor.

My associate was expressing a self-discovery. She was recognizing the need to change (“I need to talk to him without demonizing him”). Even though he was exercising authority without love, she needed to exercise authority with love. This is an unconventional insight, but it is a key to transforming a relationship. To turn demons into human beings, we have to love them; we have to make them safe as we simultaneously challenge them to learn. This defies our sense of justice and calls us to live in love. It calls us to leadership.


  • Does anyone in my life exercise authority without love? How do I react?
  • Does anyone in my life exercise authority with love? How do I react?
  • What could I do today to exercise authority with love?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Creating Great Conversations

Recently I met with an audience of professionals. We were all strangers. Within ten minutes, we were sharing our deepest feelings and the collective learning was spiraling upward. At the end of 90 minutes, I felt deeply connected and grateful. Together we had crafted greatness.

Often I start such a session by avoiding an introduction. I begin by creating immediate engagement. The first thing I do is ask the people in different areas of the room to write and share an answer to questions like this: “What is the difference between a good and a great conversation/relationship/marriage/team/ organization?” I then ask them to discuss their conclusions with someone they do not know. After their exchange, we collectively debrief and I record their answers. When all the answers are recorded, I ask, “What is common across the categories?”

The words they tend to most frequently share are meaning, connection, learning, inspiration, passion, and impact. The two most frequently mentioned are connection and inspiration.

In a great conversation, for example, we may feel that an ordinary exchange begins to take on increased meaning or value. As this happens, we feel increasingly connected to the other person: the cognitive exchange has an emotional consequence. The learning exceeds our expectation and we feel excited, enlightened, or inspired. We feel passionate about some idea and we believe that what we have learned will have an impact, it will make a difference.

This is a description of an emergent process. To emerge is to arise, appear, materialize, surface, or become. Every conversation is an emergent process. Every conversation is a living thing. Some conversations die quickly and some evolve to a higher plane.

When people begin to communicate purposefully and respectfully, connections can intensify and rise to a higher level of quality. This can create in the actors a sense of trust and even selfless contribution to a higher purpose. With trust and selfless contribution comes a sense of equality and hierarchy goes latent. Emotions turn positive. People become more engaged and authentic. In authentic exchanges, vulnerability emerges. Because the conversation is safe and significant, the people can say what they really feel or express ideas about which they are not fully certain. This increases the number and the diversity of ideas available. It then becomes possible to integrate the diverse ideas in new ways. Learning becomes evolution.

In combining ideas, novel or creative products may result. This mutual learning process is often inspirational. Inspirational means stimulating, rousing, moving, motivational. Cognition is joined with emotion. The people feel enlarged and hopeful. There is a growing expectation that life will improve in some way. A great conversation is a living thing. It is a form of life that gives life and can improve life.

When I use this process to initiate a session, the process often becomes a great conversation. The participants co-create life. They become energized and hopeful. I also become energized and hopeful. Both the participants and the teacher have increased capacity to move forward. There is an increased probability that together we can create great conversations the remainder of the day.

Often we think of great conversations as a happy accident. We tend to do the same for relationships, marriages, teams, and organizations. In a session like the one I describe here, I initiate a great conversation with intention. I then nurture the emergent process, cherish the outcomes, and use the learning to move into a day of great, collaborative learning. I like to think of a class as a relationship, marriage, team, or organization, and I like to believe that I can nurture greatness.

This belief raises a profoundly important question: is it possible to learn to bring about great conversations, relationships, marriages, teams, or organizations? The answer is yes. The answer is leadership. Creating inspiring connections is what leaders do. They act so as to increase the probability that knowing turns to learning and that bad, normal, or good becomes great. Leaders are not born with this capacity. They acquire it through purpose, mindful engagement, experimentation, and continual learning.


  • When is the last time you had a great conversation?
  • What would it take for you become a consistent creator of great conversations?
  • What could you do to start today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning to Learn from Experience

After giving a commencement speech at a professional school, I sat down with the intention of relaxing. But soon I had my pen out and I was taking notes because I was learning from experience–someone else’s experience.

One of the students was about to name a faculty member that all the students had selected as best teacher. She shared some background about the teacher. The recipient was in her second teaching year. This is unusual. It occurred to me that the recipient must have been a naturally gifted teacher. I was terribly wrong.

The student suggested that the recipient started out as a most inadequate teacher. Yet, to the shock of the students, she took their feedback and the students witnessed an extraordinary outcome.

In her response to the award, the teacher described her first semester. She was new and insecure. Basically she was putting up slides with content and reading from the slide. She then told of an intense, personal learning journey and closed by saying “you need to reflect on your performance each day.”

She was not suggesting a casual review of the day. She was suggesting a disciplined review of the day. Few people seek and engage real feedback and few people engage in a disciplined review of their day.

I was so intrigued that after the ceremony I sought out the teacher and asked her to tell me her story. She recounted her first semester. She said the feedback was excruciating. I knew what she was talking about. If I have one student who gives negative feedback, I obsess over it for weeks. The notion of getting negative feedback from every student suggests extreme pain and it would make me want to run away and hide.

This woman made an unnatural decision. She decided to step into the pain and stay in the pain until she knew what to do. She spent the entire summer pondering and strategizing over each negative message.

On the first day of the next semester, she shared her first semester experience. She shared the feedback, and she shared what she learned from the feedback. She had the class do some brainstorming about the course. She had them share their expectations for her and she shared her expectations for them. They created a purpose and a contract with feedback built in.

As they moved forward, the teacher and the students became deeply bonded. The shocking result was a best teacher award. In her acceptance of her award, the teacher told the graduating students that she believed pursuing a purpose and attending to feedback was crucial to growth and that they needed to reflect on their performance each day and pay attention to what experience was teaching them.

Most of us take it for granted that they we are learning from experience. Our assumption is correct: we are always learning from experience. But what is the quality of our learning? Most people, most of the time, learn passively. We only attend deeply to our experiences when we are in some kind of pain.

When the above teacher was facing failure, she entered the process of deep learning. She took her students’ feedback and she began to study it out in her mind and to ask what was right. As she did, she formulated new strategies and her strategies took her to success beyond her expectation.

When we discover the power of learning deeply from our experiences, we begin to see the value of doing it in a proactive way. We realize that we do not have to be in pain to learn deeply. We can learn deeply because we live with passion about our purpose.

Because this woman moved from pain to success, she fell in love with her students and with the process of teaching. She was anxious to learn proactively from her experiences and she now wants her students to do the same.

When we are committed to a higher purpose, we are going somewhere but we do not know how to get where we are going. We have to act, seek feedback, and evaluate what we learn. When we have a higher purpose, we begin to see our daily experiences as nuggets of gold. We dig them up, we examine them, we shine them, we preserve them, and we live in increasing abundance. I am grateful that when I was determined to relax, I was inspired to learn from the experience of someone else, a woman who had learned how to learn from experience.


  • What are the two ways to learn from experience?
  • How often do you do a disciplined, daily reflection on your performance?
  • What would happen if everyone who worked with you engaged in a disciplined, daily reflection on their performance?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Aspiring to the Unimaginable Reality

I listened to a man reflect on his experiences as an executive in a large company. In two cases, he was responsible for the building of major plants. To build a plant requires the negotiation of contracts. His first experience was with a plant in Mexico where a complex package of loans had to be negotiated. The process took a year. It was complicated by the fact that one of his lawyers was known as “Mr. No.” Every attempt to move forward began in self-interest, conflict, and distrust. From this base, the people tried to build their desired future.

In the Western world, it is conventionally assumed that you formulate a contract so as to build a relationship to obtain an outcome. It is often assumed that the lawyer’s job is to eliminate the need for trust, to foresee all that could go wrong, and design a set of rewards and penalties that will ensure success. All that is needed is a brilliant mind.

The next assignment was to build a plant in Asia. In Asia, they did not assume that the formulation of the contract would create a relationship that would bring the desired outcome. They believed that the eventual contract was simply a memorial to an already existing relationship. You first build a trusting relationship, and then you negotiate, maintaining a relationship of trust and respect. This unconventional orientation was very difficult for his people who were trained in the Western perspective.

As result of his two experiences this man’s conventional assumptions were disrupted. He was forced to create his own theory. Positive leaders are usually born by experiencing serious jolts like this that require them to reexamine their most basic assumptions. We call it “mindful engagement” or the ability to learn from experience.

The man now believes that you move forward by both discipline and vision. You envision win/win outcomes or the future success of both parties. You co-create an image of the shared future. You build respect and trust while you also build a formal contract and you use the contract to promote collective growth.

It seems to me that his reflections on contracting provide a metaphor for understanding positive leadership. The organization is a network of evolving expectations. People are always drifting toward self-interest, conflict, and organizational decay. The role of the leader is to continually monitor the emergence of conflict, surface it, and then attract people into a future they all desire. The challenge is to clarify the common good or highest purpose, to model integrity, nurture belief, and build shared respect and trust.

When the positive leader succeeds, a conventionally unimaginable reality emerges. Negative peer pressure is transformed into positive peer pressure and everyone does the right thing, in real time, because they desire to do so. When a person experiences this unimaginable reality, they aspire to create it.

If a person has never experienced this reality, the notion of positive leadership seems foolish and the logical thing to do is to think and act conventionally. The lesson is that most people remain as managers until they, like the executive described above, have experiences that challenge their assumptions and lead them to formulate a new theory and a new set of aspirations.


  • What do you believe about contracts and relationships?
  • What do you believe about trust and respect?
  • As a leader, to what do you aspire?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning How to Lead From the Most Influential Woman in the World

Mary Barra, the Chairman & CEO of General Motors, recently met with a business school class here at the university.  A year ago she was named the most influential woman in the world.  Given this fact, I was particularly attentive when she began to speak to the students about leadership as influence.

She told of being trained as an engineer.  In her first job, she had a challenging task and no authority over the people involved.  To succeed, she had to win their hearts.  When she finally had her own unit, she learned the limitations of authority.  Even though she was in charge, she still had to win hearts.

Later in her career after many assignments, she was assigned to work in a role near the CEO.  As she watched the most senior people, she noticed they were always working to gain organizational support. Despite all their hierarchical power, they also needed to influence without authority.

She moved into a variety of other positions and her leadership style evolved.  She had to hold people accountable, make tough decisions, confront conflict, seek feedback, and still create trust and build coalitions.

In all of this growth there was one constant: authority was never sufficient.  She always had to influence without authority.  She had to attract people into the service of the common good.

This lesson is precious.  Many managers never learn it.  They make the unconventional assumption that the key to power is their formal position and related authority.  They operate from self-interest and call on their authority to get things done.  The fact that Mary, early on, learned to lead without authority and today claims that it is central to success captures my attention and raises the question, how does she influence without authority?

Speaking with an associate and a long-time colleague of Mary, I asked why it is that Mary seems to be able to think logically, make tough decisions, and still hold the respect of the people around her?

My friend did not hesitate.  She began to tell specific stories.  These were accounts from the time Mary was a new manager until the present.  As she finished the last story, she provided a simple answer to my challenging question:

“Mary leads without ego. The only thing that matters is the good of the company. She puts the collective good ahead of her personal good.  People know it, so in even the most difficult times, they support what she does.  They like working for her, they are loyal, willing to go the extra mile for her.”

In her Q&A with the students, Mary said, “I always like to assume the positive about people.” This was an example of positive leadership. The conventional manager often does not assume the positive, but Mary operates from an alternative paradigm.  Her leadership philosophy seems to orbit around moral power.  Scholars call it “idealized influence,” and research consistently shows it is one of the four central factors in exercising transformative influence.

Moral power is selflessness.  It comes from the capacity to put the collective good ahead of personal good.  This is not a natural thing to do yet it can be learned.  In listening to Mary’s story, I believe she was fortunate to have a first job that required her to wield influence without authority.  It seemed to sensitize her.  As she moved up, she remained a student and a practitioner of moral power.  The most influential woman in the world is inviting an entire corporation to transform and assume the positive.



Think of three managers near you. How does each orient to authority?

When have you witnessed the exercise of moral power at work?

How could you become a student and practitioner of moral power?

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

Transforming the Conventional Mindset

Positive leadership cannot be effectively taught by a conventional teacher or practiced by a conventional manager. The conventional thinker “knows” from experience the assumptions of positive leadership are unrealistic and impractical. Unless tightly held assumptions and beliefs are altered in the manager, hearing a presentation on positive leadership is of minimum value.

The teacher must have the unusual capacity to change the beliefs of the students. Such a teacher is not a teacher but a transformational leader. Likewise, the emerging leader must acquire the capacity to change the beliefs of the people he or she leads. When this capacity is acquired, the manager becomes a transformational leader.

We were working with 40 executives from a large company. The company has a culture of intense economic focus. When I put up a list of conventional leadership assumptions, the gloomy statements looked familiar. When I put up a contrasting list of positive leadership assumptions, the list seemed both surprising and unrealistic.

In the midst of the collective doubt, a woman raised her hand and very hesitantly claimed, “The positive list describes my organization.” I began to ask her questions. She was uncomfortable and tried to respond in generalities. I pushed for examples. I questioned each example until a very full picture emerged.

Then I asked what company she worked for. She was confused by the obvious question and then named the company in which they all worked. I told her that her answer was wrong. Everyone in the room “knows” that in that particular company it is impossible to have a positive unit. I asked the rest of the group if they were going to put up with this woman lying. The room went very quiet.

I had consciously created a tension. It was clear that the woman was telling the truth. It was also clear that everyone “knew” that what she was claiming was impossible in their company. I told them that I was providing them with data that challenged their theory of reality and they now had to explain away this woman or change their theory of what was possible inside the company and inside them.

During the break, a man came up. He said, “I took over a unit that was at -44% of plan. It was a snake pit. No one wanted it. I was glad to take it because I knew I could turn it around. When people are failing badly, they become desperate. They are looking for hope.”

He then said something very important: “Yet leading them is not easy. If you live the positive leadership assumptions on the right side of the screen, it is ten times harder than living the conventional assumptions on the left side of the screen.

“I went in willingly, but every night I went to bed with a sense of panic. You never know what move is right. You entice them, you support them, and you hope they will follow, but you never know what is going to create trust and trigger a small success. You only know that it will happen if you keep learning and leading. When that success happens, you have to magnify it, make it visible to all, and then repeat the process over and over. It is about leading by learning how to lead. You have to be willing to go to bed with a sense of panic.

“When it finally works, the organization transforms. We went from -44 percent to +82 percent. We now have a positive culture. It is thrilling. Yet success is dangerous. All around me people think that what I do is crazy. I have to be bi-minded. I have to live the assumptions of positive leadership and yet be able to talk to people around me understanding they live by the conventional assumptions.”

He was perfectly describing the process positive leadership. I was soon in a conversation with another participant. He also claimed to have a positive organization in the gloomy company. He described it and then spoke of what he does outside of work. He coaches kids. The emphasis is on the assumptions of positive leadership. He does not coach just one team. He has a program that takes kids from elementary school to high school graduation. He lit up as he told of his efforts in getting the kids college scholarships.

I said, “You live a meaningful life at work and at home.” He nodded.

I told him, “I have only known you a few minutes, but I already know you are the kind of person I would like to go on vacation with.”

He said, “Thank you.”

After the break, I surfaced the additional stories. I noted that the culture of the company calls for conventional leadership and conventional leaders emerge. Yet in the company there are exceptions. Contrary to the conventional culture, a few positive leaders emerge. They are exceptions, positive outliers who live with a sense of higher purpose and the belief that they can create their own culture. They discover the assumptions of positive leadership not from a lecture but from deep learning. They create new experiences or experiments and they reflect on them so as to create new experiences.

I again asked for the implications of the theory-defying data provided by the three hesitant people. There was gradual agreement that perhaps positive leadership and human excellence could arise in the gloomy company.

I then asked them to reflect on what had happened. I surfaced data from their own company reflecting leadership excellence and then asked them to explain it. I asked them how they could use this same principle in other ways. There were not ready answers. So I gave them a golden sentence: “If it is real, it is possible.”

In the company of frequent complaints, there are excellent units. Two weeks later, I was with 40 of their peers. This time I told them all to close their eyes. I asked them to raise their hands if their unit was a positive organization. One third of them raised their hands.

So in this very conventional organization, there may be many positive units. Yet no one recognizes these realities that defy the prevailing theory. What they tend to see as impossible is all around them. So excellence is real and it is possible. Yet to most it is seen as unreal and impossible. By turning attention away from the ubiquitous problems that exist and focusing instead on the existing patterns of excellence, it is likely that much good could emerge.



  • Are there excellent units in your organization?
  • Are these being systematically examined?
  • How could you apply the notion, “If it is real, it is possible?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Deep Learning and Competitive Strategic Advantage

A CEO developed a vision of how his company could help the unemployed. He shared it with another CEO who is normally a positive person. The second man said, “We already tried it and it was a failure.” After making the statement, the second man showed zero interest and the discussion ended.

A short time later, the first CEO shared the idea with me. I told him of a company that did almost the same thing and succeeded. He was interested.

The successful company was Cascade Engineering. The CEO of that company was Fred Keller. The idea of hiring welfare recipients emerged in a conversation with one of the managers in his organization. Fred encouraged the man to take action.

The man hired some welfare recipients and in weeks they were all gone. He reported the failure. Fred suggested that the account was not a failure but a demonstration that company had not learned how to succeed. The man went back with increased commitment. He threw himself at learning how to make the idea succeed. An impressive strategy emerged, but it turned into a second failure. Fred held to his position that the problem was in the failure to learn. A third effort emerged.

This time the man in charge began to notice the problems, not with the welfare recipients, but with the employees of the company. After much reflection, every person in the company participated in a poverty simulation. After the simulation, the project began to progress. It so fully succeeded that the company was given a major award by the White House and numerous new resources flowed to the company, resources they did not anticipate acquiring.

The company then began to work on hiring people getting out of prison. The learning process was similar. It did not fully work until all the employees went through a training program on racism. Again new resources flowed to the company.

So the company acquired a strategic competitive advantage that was difficult for other companies to imitate. The advantage brought predictable resources like fierce employee loyalty and unpredictable resources like new networks of external interaction and opportunity.

The new competitive advantage was not designed. It emerged from embracing a higher purpose, visioning a new strategy, and committing to deep learning. In the process, the company discovered what all individuals and groups learn in the process of deep learning. We are a part of the system we observe. We are part of a dynamic whole. For the system to change, we have to change. In the words of Gandhi, we have to be the change we want to see in the world. When the people in the company began to revise their own biases about impoverished people, the impoverished people were able to revise their own assumptions about impoverished people working in a professional company. They began to believe and change followed.

I think of the uninterested CEO. From experience, he is sure that what I describe here is impossible. I compare him to Fred Keller. Fred is sure that it is possible. Our ability to engage in deep learning has much to do with our capacity to lead.



  • When has our team, unit, or organization acquired a new competency?
  • What is deep learning and what does it have to do with new competencies?
  • In the process of deep learning, what do we discover about ourselves?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

How to Make a Profound Contribution

Sometimes life goes right. With my extraordinary colleagues, we recently had a successful experience helping a large company. What most led to the success is a process that is difficult to understand. Yet the process is at the heart of the greatest successes in the history of business.

Henry Ford once uttered a statement that is of importance to both running a thriving business and living a meaningful life. He said, “If I had asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said, ‘a faster horse.’”

In business we financially live or die by how well we are serving the customer. When we hear the voice of the customer and respond by serving their deepest needs, we create love for our product and they swarm to us with their money. We live in financial abundance.

In life we psychologically live or die by how well we are serving the customer. When we hear the unspoken voice of the people in our lives and serve their deepest needs, we offer something that reflects love and they swarm to us with love. We live in relational abundance.

Serving the deepest needs of the people around us is a key to success in every aspect of life. Yet success never comes easily.

If Henry Ford had asked the customer what they wanted, they would have replied “a faster horse.” There are two ways to interpret this claim. One is that it is useless to listen to the customer because the customer cannot state something they cannot envision. The second is that the customer does not know what the customer wants but that does not mean that the deepest needs of the customer cannot be discovered. The key is approaching the customer in the state of deep learning. This means recognizing that something other than a faster horse can be envisioned when two minds join in purpose, integrity, trust, and exploration.

In an experience with a Fortune 100 company, we were to design a leadership program for 1,300 executives. We did some focus group interviews first with their bosses and then with representatives of the 1,300. These discussions were productive. As my colleagues asked conventional questions, we acquired much conventional knowledge.

The executives told us what kind of subjects we should cover. In effect, there were asking for a “faster horse.” I have been through this process many times and I am fully aware of Henry Ford’s point. Executives, like most other human beings, are quite incapable of articulating their deepest needs and how to meet those needs because they either do not know their deepest needs or cannot imagine having their needs met. They live in an organization that looks like a horse and cannot imagine living in an organization that looks like an automobile.

I was quiet during the first two focus groups. There were five minutes left in the last focus group when I asserted myself. It was only then that I knew what question to ask.

I said, “I am about to ask you an unconventional question. To answer, you will have to expose your vulnerabilities. Why would you ever do it? The answer is that you can make a difference. If you honestly answer my question, you will deeply influence the design and the success of the program. You will thus touch 1,300 hundred lives and change the future of this company. I am about to give you an opportunity that few people ever have.”

The room went very quiet. I asked, “What is your deepest, un-discussable need? What most keeps you from transforming into a great leader?”

The air went heavy. Twice I was asked to clarify the question. Finally one person began to speak and let us all see into her heart. There was a pause and then each person shared an authentic answer to a probing question by asking a question. Here they are.


  • How do I come to know and own my highest priorities?
  • How do I prioritize without guilt or fear and with full support from home?
  • How do I create a sense of security in the face of constant uncertainty?
  • How do I get out of the reactive mindset?
  • Given existing constraints, how do I motivate my people?
  • How do I strengthen my influence?
  • How do I learn to communicate so I can inspire people?
  • How do I create trust in and across my own team?
  • How do I obtain more supportive leadership from above?
  • When I am trying to innovate, how do I get needed feedback from above?
  • How do I gain permission to fail without being criticized or penalized?
  • How can I create alignment across groups, functions, and silos?
  • What methods can I use to build partnerships?


By sharing these statements, they displayed vulnerability. Conventional, secular space had been transformed into unconventional, sacred space. Because their answers were real, I was fully engaged. Sacred conversations hold human attention. As we ended the session, people remained and meaningful side conversations ensued. For the next 24 hours, I reflected deeply on the questions and on the side conversations. Eventually I reduced or “squeezed” their issues to four questions and an underlying purpose:

  • How do I change the beliefs that drive me?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive my people?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive my boss?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive the culture?

I concluded that there was one underlying need for the executives and for the company. The executives needed to learn how to change belief systems in themselves and in others so that the company could transform from a knowing organization into a learning organization.

Two days later, when I articulated this notion for the people at the top of the company, it was well received. With enthusiasm, the statement was endorsed. We could begin to design a program not only to their stated needs but to their actual needs. They needed to learn how to transform themselves and others so that everyone was living in a constant state of deep learning. It was an image not of faster horse but of an automobile.

A month later, we delivered the first offering. Hard scores and qualitative feedback indicated that everyone’s expectations had been exceeded. We were off to a successful start.

Now what is deep learning? And how does this story help us to understand it? When we ask a customer or some other crucial person in our lives—in fact, any person—what they really want, they can only give conventional answers. If we truly want an answer because we truly want to serve the person, we have to join them in unconventional conversations.

One of keys is to exercise empathy, to feel what they are really feeling, and then ask challenging or ennobling questions that simultaneously show love. We thus invite them into sacred space. We invite them to tell us who they really are. The responses do not produce the answer. We must savor every response and then deeply ponder the messages and continue the interaction until we see the central, underlying messages. When we do, we test them by feeding them back and looking for intense responses. As those responses come, we further co-create vision.

The point in all of this is that Mr. Ford was right. The customer, if engaged conventionally, can only tell us he or she needs a faster horse. Yet this does not mean that we should not listen to the customer. It means we have to listen so deeply and with such commitment that we create sacred space and deep learning. It is then that we can experience the co-creation of a new vision and give people what they do not know how to ask for. It is then that we make profound contributions.


  • When in my life have I asked for a faster horse and received an automobile? How did I respond?
  • Who are the most important customers in my life?
  • When they ask for a faster horse, how do I respond?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



A Story Everyone Should Tell – Part II

In the last blog entry, I wrote of the power of integrating the past, present and future. I then explained the hidden value of crisis. In crisis we often see great commitment, collaboration, and the exceeding of expectations. When this happens we see our own conventional organization transformed into a more positive organization. This often leaves us with a sense of awe.

We may, however, fail to see the power in our own story. So we take this nugget of gold and throw it into the garbage pile of fading memories. We do not learn from or teach from excellence. Here is an illustration of a CEO who did. It does not matter that he was a CEO: this account is a lesson of universal application. This is a story so precious we should all ponder it deeply and tell it often.

This CEO was once the epitome of economic thinking. He then went through a crisis and he personally discovered purpose, people and culture. He became a leader of higher purpose and began to create a positive organization. Measures of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and share price all turned up and stayed up. When he became aware of the science at the Center for Positive Organizations, it gave him a language for what he was he was already doing and he used the language and tools to speed the process.

As this man has led, his people have grown. Previously there were sometimes doubts about his positive aspirations and strategies. The organizational crisis and success, however, changed doubt into shared belief.

The thinking of the CEO has continued to expand. He now has a vision of doing more. In a recent meeting, he intended to share the new vision with his direct reports. Instead of leaping into the vision, he began in an unconventional way.

He first became authentic and vulnerable. This is the opposite of manipulative and arrogant. He was, in essence, inviting people to co-create. He shared a belief from the core of his life. He described a prayer that he learned to recite as a boy. The prayer suggested that we are what we think, our thoughts become reality. He then indicated his belief that when thousands of people align around the some noble thought or aspiration, powerful new realities come into existence. His people were nodding.

He then recounted a history that most of them shared. The company was once at such a low level of human and financial performance that it was difficult to see any positive future. As he reviewed all the negative indicators, the people in the room could clearly remember the dark history and still feel the pain.

He then recounted the crisis and how the people in the company became focused, collaborative, and exceeded expectations, including his expectations. (The emergence of positive organizing is a phenomenon that defies economic logic.)

He referred to the crisis as the most educational year of his life. Interestingly, instead of throwing this precious year of excellence into the garbage pile of receding memories, he determined to learn from the excellence and help his direct reports do the same.

He asked them to collectively ponder the benefits of the crisis: “In the past year, our people performed above our expectations. What should we learn from our experience? How can we keep them there without a crisis but through our own leadership?”

He turned their focus to the future. Given the excellence of the previous year, he asked some questions: What do you want to make of this company? Why? What do you personally believe that would lead to your aspiration? How do we ground your given aspiration? What would make it vivid? How can we become aligned around our shared aspirations?

He then sent his people away for an hour and asked them ponder and to write. When they returned, he had each person share. People spoke from their hearts. Many told stories from their personal life. The trust in the room was at an all-time high. People were open to each other and to a better future.

There was a pleasant surprise. There was considerable commonality across their statements and the statements were relatively easy to aggregate. The CEO reviewed the notes from that meeting long ago and then said, “Everything we envisioned happened. Operational excellence, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, shareholder value, external reputation, and geographical footprint, all expanded and even exceeded our aspirations.”

Again, I looked around the room and the heads were nodding. The CEO was recalling their collective excellence. It was no ordinary story. It was a sacred account of their first excelling in crisis; of their making the unusual choice to learn from their own excellence; of their learning to aspire to excellence, not through crisis but through leadership; of their becoming positive leaders and experiencing success beyond their own expectations.

With these sacred memories in mind, he then introduced a new vision, one that was breathtaking and that would have terrified and brought resistance from most senior executives. After sharing the images, he asked for their thoughts. He returned to the questions: What do you want to make of this company? Why? What do you personally believe that would lead to any given aspiration? How do you ground your given aspiration? What would make it vivid? How can we become aligned around our shared aspirations?

As he did years ago, he asked them to leave and write their answers. When they returned, each one shared. As I listened, I watched trust increase; I watched authenticity go up; I watched collective learning go up; and I watched a group of executives aspire to turn a positive organization far more positive.

Why should everyone ponder and learn to tell this story?

First, the story illustrates something difficult to comprehend. He created an interpenetration of the past, present, and future, and they became one self-reinforcing system. By having people examine the best of their past, he created the belief necessary to envision a future of excellence, and he create a shared desire in the present. The best of the past and the best of the future were together lifting people in the present.

Second, this story is at the very heart of positive leadership. It appears to be a story about a CEO. It is a story that extends to every person who wishes to exert positive influence in a group, a team, a unit, an organization, or the world.

Third, this story is not a part of your past. If you refuse to throw this story into the garbage pile of your receding memory, but instead ponder, and internalize, and continually retell this story, you will begin to understand and to do things that people governed by conventional assumptions cannot understand or do. You will bring about the interpenetration of the past, present, and future. From the interpenetration you create, people will find the capacity to co-create a more positive organization.


Can I retell this story right now?

As I retell it, what do I learn that I did not learn when I read it?

In telling this story, what direction comes from my conscience?

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

A Story Everyone Should Tell – Part I

In conventional thought, we create categories and keep them separate. Three examples are past, present, and future. One characteristic of the generative mind is the ability to bring about the interpenetration of disparate categories. Interpenetration is the essence of creativity and it leads to the emergence of new patterns. Positive leaders integrate the past, present, and future; they become one self-reinforcing system. This sounds theoretical. It is not. In Part Two of this passage, I will share a precious story that every leader should know and retell. In Part One today, I will share an underlying concept.

Like individuals, organizations sometime enter crisis. Often there is a remarkable phenomenon that emerges. The people become focused on one higher purpose and a high level of commitment and collaboration emerges. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Everyone then performs beyond expectations and accomplish impressive things. This image of authentic commitment, high collaboration, and performance beyond expectations is a good description of a positive organization.

A senior government executive once told me, “The happiest day of my professional life was September 12, 2001.” I was shocked by his statement. He then said, “That day, I did not have a single bureaucrat working for me. I only had Americans who were willing to do anything asked of them. They were all working for one higher cause.”

Like the government, utility companies are often bureaucratic. Yet in many of them, employees speak of some version of the phrase “storm culture.” When a great storm hits, the employees in a utility company often become focused, contributive, and highly collaborative. It happens often enough that they expect it to happen (hence the term “storm culture”).

I was recently in a conversation with an executive from such a company. A huge storm had hit a month before. As my associate described what happened, he spoke with a sense of awe. When he finished, I asked, “So what?” He looked baffled and retold the story, emphasizing different points. I asked, “So what?” He repeated it once more. I asked, “So what?” He knew I was not trying to antagonize him but did not know what else to say. I asked others to help. No one had an answer.

I reminded them of a principle, “If it is real, it is possible.” In social life, excellence emerges. When we recognize excellence in social life, we often have a sense of awe. Yet we tend not to learn from excellence. We do not “squeeze” excellence for understanding. We do not use the reality of excellence to challenge the limiting beliefs that hold the organization in conventional patterns.

If in a crisis my organization turns into a positive organization, then the concept of positive organization is real. Excellence, in many forms, occurs in life. If excellence is real, excellence is possible. If we are the ones who created the excellence, we must have, contrary to our conventional assumptions, the ability to co-create excellence.

The answer to the “so what” question is that the story of the crisis and the emergence of their storm culture was a precious asset. The story is an account of something real. The story is data or evidence of positive deviance. The reality challenges our conventional assumptions. If we put the data in front of ourselves, if we examine our best collective selves, then we challenge our conventional, fixed mindset. At a very minimum, we have to admit that we are full of potential. Such an admission is the beginning of belief, and belief is the beginning of hope and new action.

So when I badgered the poor man, I was trying to get the people in the room to see that he was not only telling a story worthy of admiration, the story was a precious gem that a leader could use to help people transcend their conventional assumptions and become free to create a more positive organization. Every instance of excellence–particularly our own instances of excellence–should be recognized, celebrated, “squeezed” for learning, and used for inspiration. Every instance of our own excellence should become a case study for rigorous self-examination and the foundation of a more positive organization.

When we do this with skill, we bring the best of the past into the present so as to create the best possible future. It is a central skill of purpose-driven leaders. Few managers ever experience it. In Part Two of this entry, I will tell the story of the CEO. In preparing to read it, I invite you to deeply ponder this entry and thus prepare yourself to value the story.



  • What conventional assumptions limit our potential?
  • In our team, unit, or organization, what was our highest moment of past excellence?
  • If we examine the moment deeply, what does it teach us?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?