Positive Emotions

I am inspired by the work of Barbara Fredrickson. It is instrumental to understanding positive psychology. Her research efforts demonstrate that positive emotions are necessary to openness and learning. Some of these emotions are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, and love.

Frederickson’s research indicates that these emotions lead to thoughts that are unusual and flexible, integrate differences, and are more efficient. When we increase the flow of positive emotions, we can envision more possibilities. Positive emotions improve our ability to cope with adversity and make us more likely to find positive meaning in what is going on around us, even when negative processes surround us. They facilitate planning and goal setting; they also increase our ability to play, explore, savor experiences, and integrate new views into the self. Thus, positivity helps us make deep personal change and transform our organizations and ourselves. People become more integrated, more capable, and more resilient when things go wrong.

We can access these desirable outcomes by increasing something Frederickson calls the positivity ratio, which is the frequency of positive feelings over a given period divided by the frequency of negative feelings over the same period. When our ratio declines, we tend to spiral downward and become increasingly rigid. We feel overwhelmed and we lose energy, and we slip into the pattern of slow death. When the ratio climbs, we are pulled into upward spirals. We become increasingly open and creative. By monitoring and regulating our positivity ratio, we can determine whether we are moving toward stagnation and death or toward learning, growth, and development. It is a choice that determines our quality of life. Leaders learn to live in positive emotions and to create cultures of positive emotions.


  • What do you do to elevate your emotions in difficult times?
  • What do you do to elevate the emotions of your people?
  • How positive is your organizational culture?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

An Organizing Image

In the 1950s, the government of South Africa was oppressive. There was little hope for the freedom-seeking efforts of black South Africans. Then in 1955, an idea was introduced: a “Congress of the People” representing every group in the country would draw up a charter containing principles for the creation of a new South Africa.

People from two hundred organizations responded to the question, “If you could make the laws… what would you do?” Asking the people to envision their own future caught the collective imagination and gave rise to a national conversation about purpose, integrity, connection, and learning. Suggestions came from everywhere. The document that emerged was short, clear, and inspiring. It became an organizing image.

In the years that followed, the oppression was extreme. Many efforts seemed random, feeble, and hopeless. Yet in the chaos, the vision or organizing image remained and gave inspiration. While it was almost impossible to see, a new order emerged and gave rise to the new South Africa.

The account is a dramatic illustration of a critical principle. When the people know their highest shared purpose, they can empower themselves to act. They may feel alone but they are actually a part of a larger system that is emerging.

There is an implication for organizations. In complex systems, there are endless distractions. When leaders step into this network of distractions and make the highest purpose clear, the people have an organizing image. They know where they need to go and what they need to do, even if there is no one there to tell them.


  • Have your people been asked to envision their own collective future?
  • What would change if they had such an organizing image?
  • How could you lead such a process?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?




Reflection and Tranformation

In recent months, I have often addressed the notion that leadership is becoming who we really are. Research suggests that the key to development is disciplined reflection. Many listeners have difficulty understanding how reflection leads to transformation.

In the book, Building the Bridge as You Walk on It, I share the story of Robert Yamamoto. Robert was the executive director of the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce. For his first four years in the job, Robert felt good about his accomplishments. Then, a new board president told him that he lacked the leadership capacity necessary to move the organization forward. The shock rocked Robert:

During the next few months, I went through a period of deep introspection. I began to distrust my environment and staff, and I questioned my own management skills and leadership ability. I felt that the board had lost confidence in my ability, so I resigned my position. I became afraid for myself and my family, and I began to fantasize about ways to somehow keep my job (do it better, faster). I also started to search for a new job.

            In the meantime, I went to what I thought was my last board meeting. The subject of my resignation came up to the surprise of most board members, and interestingly enough, some of the executive committee members. A board member then confronted the president, shared letters of support from stakeholders and my staff, and my role in the organization was reconsidered.

What a happy turn of events! At this point, it would have been natural for Robert to feel vindicated and lay the blame for an unpleasant experience on others. Instead, his deep reflection continued. It would lead to new commitment and the commitment would bring new vision.

After that board meeting, I did a lot of soul searching. I paid more attention to what I was doing. I began to notice my tendency to gravitate towards routine tasks. I began to see it as a trap. I knew I needed to change. I stopped thinking like a manager and began to think more strategically. I began to commit to achieve larger outcomes. I decided to really lead my organization. It is as if a new person emerged. The decision was not about me. I needed to do it for the good of the organization.

            Shortly afterwards, I told the board president, “This is what I must do, this is what the organization must do. If the board doesn’t like it, I will leave with no regrets.” In the language of Deep Change, I was suddenly “walking naked through the land of uncertainty.”

            To my surprise, she was completely supportive. It was as if a large weight was lifted. I began to see things from multiple perspectives and not just from my own “lens.” Learning (not in the traditional sense but in a holistic sense) became exponential. I saw things with greater clarity and understanding. While before I would need to have a clear understanding of the goal and the steps to get there, I trusted my ability to arrive at the destination and learn from the unscripted journey.

This is a classic account of the transformation from manager to leader. A trauma forces deep reflection and discovery. A new perspective emerges. The leader becomes empowered and empowering and the organization changes.

In my new condition, I was able to see what had been happening previously. Many people surrounding me were on self-interested journeys. The organization had no unifying goal. The operating strategy was to simply respond to the personal agendas of strong personalities. Roles had been defined through practice and tradition. People often blamed others because they themselves felt insecure and lacked leadership. When I changed, all these things also began to change.

Currently I see myself as a change agent. I have a critical mass of individuals from both the staff and board that are willing to look at our challenges in a new way and work on solutions together. What previously seemed unimaginable now seems to happen with ease. I know it all happened because I confronted my own insecurity, selfishness, and lack of courage.

There are two paths to disciplined reflection. The first is crisis. The second is choice. We can all choose to reflect. Through constant examination of our own identity and destiny, we can accelerate our own evolution and the evolution of the organization. We become transformational as we discover and become who we really are.



  • When does Robert shift from fear to confidence?
  • What role did reflection play in his transformation?
  • How could we choose to do what Robert was forced to do?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Purpose and Learning

We had a session with executives from a Fortune 100 company. The man in charge is an extraordinary person. Unlike many executives, he has a profound understanding of human influence and the fact that real leadership orbits around commitment to higher purpose. He spoke for two hours and that room full of very smart people was mesmerized. I took 16 pages of notes and then when I stood to teach, I built on what he taught. As we went through the process, the people remained fully engaged.

I asked them what word, other than “purpose,” their boss uttered most frequently. They gave me many words but not the right answer. Finally, I said: “The word is learning. He used it over and over. The man is passionate about learning. He sees purpose and learning as two interconnected keys to constantly creating a better life and a better world. He lives in state of adaptive confidence. He hungers to realize human potential and believes it can be brought about through individual and collective learning.”

They all nodded. The man also nodded.

I told them that we were having a conversation in which I was learning as much as they were. I meant it. The next morning I woke pondering the relationship between purpose and learning. The following occurred to me.

When we clarify and commit to our highest purpose, it draws us outside our comfort zone to make contributions to the greater good. We do things we do not know how to do. Of necessity we live in challenge and suffer failure. Because we are passionate about our purpose, we do not give up. Instead we engage in disciplined reflection. We further clarify our identity and destiny. New ideas and strategies come and we move forward. We discover a deeper self. We discover that we have untapped potential and we also see the untapped potential in others. We seek to create a better future. As we do, we develop an elevated way of being and a perspective that is not available to the conventional mind.


  • Is it possible that executives do not understand leadership? Why?
  • Who in your life clarifies purpose, inspires action and nurtures learning?
  • What would happen if every supervisor, manager and executive learned to lead? How would your daily experience be different?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?






Waking People Up

Nick Craig is on fire. He has spent the last decade focused on the concept of purpose, and he has helped thousands of people to find their life purpose. Yesterday I was on the phone with Nick, and he joyfully told me story after story of transformational moments when people were able to state their life mission.

Nick told me about the poverty and desperation of his childhood. One day he was standing in a bookstore when it suddenly became clear that he had to make a decision: “I could continue to live in the victim mentality or I could live in a mentality of possibility. I began to take accountability for my life. Others chose to remain in the victim mentality and we have ended up in very different places.”

Nick said, “My life mission is to wake you up and have you finally be home.” He says he is always helping people look for words that help them articulate what is already inside them. When you find your purpose, you feel like you are home.

Nick’s purpose has driven him to write, and he will soon publish a book called Leading from Purpose. The process of writing is causing him to think even more deeply, and he invited me into his thoughts. He told me our purpose is already wired in; our task is to find it. If we do not find our purpose, we cannot lead from it. When we find it, we awake, we become conscious and aware. In gaining this awareness, we transform. With a new perspective, we gain a sense of meaning and we take accountability. We feel empowered and we gain an increased desire to create and contribute.

When we live in our purpose, we create “good stress.” Instead of living in the retreat response, we live in the challenge response, moving forward, learning, and growing as we seek to create. As we do, we take on a paradoxical quality. Purpose gives us the strength to continue in uncertainty and it gives us vulnerability that comes with doing so. When we are both strong and vulnerable, we have the courage to present our authentic self.

Nick says all of this seemingly personal stuff has implications for organizations. People with a genuine purpose see the potential in others and they seek to link the others to the collective purpose. In every interaction, they are linking the people to the purpose, and when they succeed, “magic happens.” The need for control declines because the people begin to lead themselves. The organization begins to learn and grow.

I asked Nick how he goes about the process of helping people find their purpose. He said he helps them examine their “magical moments in childhood,” their “crucible stories,” and their “life passions.” As people share these, Nick listens deeply and helps them look for the threads.

The moment someone finds their purpose, there is an explosion of discovery and everyone else lights up. “As they listen to the words, everyone in the room gets a tingling in their body.” Nick says, “The test is this question; ‘Does the curious little boy or girl in you suddenly show up? If not, you have not found your purpose.’”

Nick made an interesting observation: “I have studied every religion. I have a network of friends filled with people who are spiritually disciplined or military folks who are members of the Special Forces. I think spiritual discipline and military discipline produce people of higher purpose. Because they are pursuing something bigger than self, they are willing to do the hard thing rather than the easy or the wrong thing. Purpose exposes your integrity gaps; it lets you know the score. Purpose does not let you take a vacation. It will not let you go. It pulls you into the next crucible. Eventually, you begin to see the next crucible as a gift.”



  • What does this mean? “Eventually you begin to see the next crucible as a gift.”
  • What is your highest personal purpose?
  • What is the highest purpose of your unit?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Profound Awareness and Personal Accountability

There is a woman named Gail with whom I sometimes work. One day she felt inspired to share a traumatic story she never before shared:

My first husband was a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive man. I had grown to fear him and was as careful as I knew how to be [in order] not to trigger his rages.

            One evening, when I arrived home after being late to pick him up after work, he was waiting for me with a leather belt in his hand. He began screaming obscenities and beating me with the belt. As usual, I was totally unprepared and unable or unwilling to defend myself. As usual, I felt victimized.

            I am not certain how long the attack continued, but at some point, something inside me literally clicked. Time slowed down, and I remember hearing a voice inside me say as clearly as if there had been someone in the room talking to me, “You know he’s crazy, but you must be crazy too for putting up with this.” In that moment, I was transformed into a woman who had choices, and I knew, even though I was not ready emotionally or financially, that I would leave the relationship.

            I never said a word or lifted a finger to defend myself, but the most amazing thing happened. He stopped hitting me and screaming at me, dropped the belt, and walked away. We never spoke of the incident, and he never again raised his voice to me or lifted a finger to harm me. It was as if he somehow sensed that he would never be able to treat me that way again.

            In a moment of profound awareness, I had taken personal responsibility for my own sense of well-being, and I had changed on a deep, fundamental level. Within months, I had enrolled in graduate school, moved out of our apartment, and filed for divorce. I had changed the world by changing myself.

Organizations are often systems of intimidation. Bullies emerge and employees absorb abuse. They feel powerless and immobilized. They become victims. Gail shows us there is choice in such situations. The moment we take full responsibility for our own well-being, we change and the context changes. Authority figures cannot intimidate people who know and respect themselves.


  • What forms of abuse emerge in your organization?
  • Do people ever feel like victims?
  • How do you promote personal awareness and personal accountability?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Transforming a discouraged audience

University professional schools are a challenging change target. A dean of a business school once invited me to run a retreat. A year earlier, one of my colleagues, Kim Cameron, worked with the same group and presented the basics of positive leadership. People were impressed. One professor told me that Kim’s presentation had left him feeling “intellectually awed.” When I asked about application of the ideas, I learned it had been a tough year financially. There was much conflict and the positive ideas faded.

When I met with the full group, I could feel the conflict, and it created fear in me. I began to envision failure. In this negative state, I could see no options. I knew I had to transform my own negative feelings into positive emotions. If I was going to initiate change, I had to change myself so I could change the emotions and the vision of the group.

I listened to the early presentations. A woman named Kathy was responsible for a small department in the school. Kathy listened to what Kim taught about gratitude. She took the advice to heart and started a gratitude journal and it made a difference in her personal life. She decided to apply the concept at work, and she established “Thankful Thursdays.” Each week, she invited everyone in her group to share highlights from their gratitude journals. Some people were resistant, but Kathy persisted.

In the auditorium, Kathy described the changes that took place in her unit. As she did, her demeanor changed. She appeared confident and full of joy. Then something even more impressive happened: members of her department began to excitedly and spontaneously share stories of how their department had changed.

After watching this phenomenon, I knew what to do. When my turn came, I walked to the stage and I said, “Please tell me what you felt when Kathy spoke.”

This question surprised the audience. I received a few intellectual responses. I pointed out that the answers did not address my question; I had asked about their feelings, not their analysis.

There was a pause. New responses emerged. The answers were more personal, honest, and authentic. Several people indicated that they felt inspired by what Kathy had done. As they made these comments, the climate changed. The entire audience became more positive.

I told them that Kathy’s authentic presentation inspired courage in me and gave me the idea to start my presentation with that question. I was standing in front of them with great confidence about the day and their ability to elevate their lives and their school.

I said, “Over the last year, Kathy had the courage to apply what she learned. Today she lifted many people in the room – including me. Kathy is a staff person and in a school like this, we tend to look down on staff people. They have low status. Yet Kathy is a positive leader. Today, in this room, she led the entire organization. Leadership is influence, and influence is not determined by hierarchical position.”

Although the statement ran counter to expectations, I felt confident it was true. In that moment, the audience experienced a paradigm shift, and negativity turned to hope. By calling attention to Kathy’s inspiration, they let go of their negative emotions. They opened up–and the rest of the day went very well.



  • Why did I ask the question about Kathy?
  • Why did the answer change the emotional climate in the room?
  • What principle of influence underlies this passage?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Meetings as Dynamic Learning Systems

I recently conducted a workshop for senior executives, each of whom had previously spent a week with me learning the principles of positive leadership. Although they were from the same organization, they came from different cohorts and so some were strangers to each other. Yet because of our previous history together, there was instantaneous trust. They trusted me, and knowing they shared a common experience in learning positive leadership, these strangers behaved like friends.

They also shared a common hunger. They desired to learn at the same level as they did in the first experience. So things started faster than usual.

I began by asking them to do an exercise that required sharing intimacies. There was zero hesitation. They poured out stories of things they did because of what they learned about positive leadership. The stories brought a shared sense of awe. I then presented new material that was challenging. Instead of expressing normal doubt, they grabbed the concepts and openly explored possible applications.

As we proceeded, they were making discoveries in real time and there was contagious energy in the room. We were filling each other with positive emotions. We could see new possibilities. We were building possible futures. We loved what was happening.

When we feel attracted to a higher purpose and engage it enthusiastically with heart and mind, we become whole. When multiple people do the same, the group becomes whole. The group becomes a dynamic learning system making a noble contribution. We create collective intelligence and we feel joy in the process and outcome.



  • When have you been in a meeting that was a dynamic learning system?
  • In your last meeting, were people hungry to be there? Why or why not?
  • What would cause people to arrive at and later leave your meetings with a sense of joy?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Reaching the Unreachable

I know a company that developed a widely held assumption: “These union people do not want to work, and there is nothing we can do about it.” The assumption that the employees were unreachable became a part of the culture and then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The large company eventually went bankrupt.

The statement about the union employees is the equivalent of a schoolteacher saying, “These students are from a minority group, and they do not want to learn. It is impossible to teach them.” It is the equivalent of a professor saying, “These MBA students are just here to get jobs. They do not want to learn. It is impossible to teach them.”

In most social settings, when a person makes any of these claims, the claim usually goes unchallenged. The listeners tend to nod their heads. In doing so, they become creators and preservers of conventional culture.

In conventional discourse, we do not expect people to exercise inspirational motivation, that is, create the authentic desire to learn and the authentic desire to work. In conventional organizations–politically correct rhetoric to the contrary–there is no belief or expectation that the people in authority positions will be practitioners of inspirational motivation.

Such an aspiration, we conventionally believe, would be unrealistic and doomed to fail. After all, the average manager or teacher does not know how to exercise inspirational motivation. Yet without inspirational motivation, a manager is not a leader, an instructor is not a teacher, and a business or a school is not an institution of excellence. The sad truth is we do not believe excellence is possible, so we do not expect excellence.

Conventional culture is a living system that orbits around the norms. Culture functions to preserve the norms. Conventional culture works to prevent the emergence of leadership in organizations. It generally succeeds because there is no one to challenge and alter the culture. Because we so well know mediocrity, because we so well accept mediocrity, because we so well expect mediocrity, we unwittingly collude in creating the culture that ensures mediocrity.

The few people who master teaching or master leadership not only aspire to reach the unreachable, they hold themselves accountable to reach the unreachable. In the positive lens, a starting point is that a leader or a teacher will create a genuine desire to learn and contribute. Inspirational motivation will turn the hierarchy into a system of learning, adaptation, and high performance. The unreachable will be reached and the organization will become an unconventional system of excellence.


  • Are there unreachable people in our organization?
  • Do our leadership development efforts produce people who can reach the unreachable?
  • What does our answer say about our culture, our aspirations, and our leadership ability?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Free Presentation At Michigan

On Tuesday, December 5 at 4 PM, Bob Quinn will give a presentation at the Center for Positive Organizations.  In it he will introduce a new approach to leader development and organizational change.  Here is the link to the session on the Ross YouTube channel:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuOCrXdu08s

Becoming Who You Really Are:

Learning To Do What Organizations Cannot Do For You

Robert E. Quinn

        Warren Bennis wrote that becoming a leader is becoming who you really are.  Research shows, counter to conventional thought, that people of transformative power develop a characteristic called idealized influence.  They become models worthy of admiration, respect, trust and emulation.  They live from a moral core that generates attractive power.  Without authority, they can draw the best out of others.  Conventional assumptions prevent us from seeing, understanding or aspiring to this condition.  This limitation constrains organizational efforts in leadership development.  Organizations cannot do what they spend much money trying to do.  They can develop managers but they cannot develop leaders.  This means we have to own our own leadership development.  This session will explore how to become who you really are and how to help those around you to do the same.