Pre-Contact: Collective Empathy

In the last blog, we considered the notion of “stranger love.”  Here I would like to extend the idea.

I was invited to speak to a group of mid-career people in a part-time doctoral program.  I spent much time preparing to be “with” them.  To do this, I needed to practice pre-contact collective empathy.  Disciplining myself to imagine and orient to their deepest, shared needs, I prepared at two levels.  First, I organized content that would hold their attention and invite dialog.  Second, I prepared myself to hear what they might communicate at the emotional level.  Responding to their deepest messages, I wanted to challenge and support them until they could hear their consciences call them to their highest purpose.  This means I wanted to love these strangers into a renewed sense of purpose and vitality.  I wanted them to be renewed from the inside out on a daily basis.

At the outset, I invited them to consider some provocative questions.  The emergent conversation was full of humorous and skeptical remarks about organizational life.  Gradually I moved them to the positive lens.  We first examined leadership as they had never considered it.  The conversation suddenly became positive and serious.  This means we were co-creating a new medium, and the room was becoming sacred space, a place where deep learning could occur.

We then turned the positive lens to something central to their professional lives: learning to do research.  We considered the demands on a part-time doctoral student, the notion of purpose, and the question of how to do research with passion.

I felt deep learning occurred, and this feeling was confirmed by comments afterwards.  One woman said, “I have selected a topic that originally came to be through academic discussion with my advisor.  This morning my mind was taken to a document I was once required to write.  It was a statement of my personal learning history.  I immediately realized that my research passion is not in my selected topic.  Rather, my real topic is embedded in that history.  I am going to make a big shift.  Thank you.”

There were some similar comments.  I left the building was a sense of profound satisfaction.  Secular conversations of the world tend to produce intention without passion and efforts that tend to perish.  I am grateful for the practice of pre-contact collective empathy and emergent conversations of love that allow the inner person to find purpose and then move through life with a sense of passion, learning, growing, and contributing.



  • Is the work of your people driven by a purpose that creates passion?
  • What would it mean to approach them with pre-contact collective empathy?
  • What would it mean to hold a meaningful conversation in sacred space where they could engage in deep learning?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Stranger Love

Butterfly and Flower Pearly Everlasting in the garden.

Like butterflies flitting from flower to flower, there are numerous people who land briefly in our lives.  Typically the interaction is short and routine.  Occasionally we find one of these people to be a positive outlier who does not behave in a routine manner.

On a flight home, I noticed an attendant who was perhaps 40 years old.  As he greeted each person he seemed to do so with a sense of concern.  I remember thinking, “That’s odd.  He really seems to care.”

During the boarding process, I overheard several short conversations and each time he framed the discussion in a positive way.  Later, he even framed the snacks he offered in a positive way.  It was tempting to see his work as an act, a positive deception.  Yet I never felt deceived.  In fact, I felt I was encountering a sincere expression of his best self.

In the exiting process, I overheard a passenger ask him where he would be for Thanksgiving.  He responded, “Oh, I am going to be working in a soup kitchen.”

As I walked by him, I looked him in the eye and with genuine appreciation I said, “You did a superb job.”

He looked me in the eye, and with genuine appreciation he said, “Thank you, I deeply appreciate those words.”  It was clear we both meant what we said.

Once someone asked what it was like to be a flight attendant, and a woman responded, “I want you to put the biggest smile possible on your face.  Now hold it for four hours.”  Her point was that her job required the positive presentation of self to strangers.  It was an obligation and often had to be forced.  Giving continuous positive energy is work that depletes.  I call this work “stranger love.”

Pondering stranger love raises an important question.  What if we transcend obligation?  What if we learned to authentically give away our best self?  Could we see others carry our investment away and pay into the network of human connectedness and multiply?  What if acting in behalf of the collective self-interest actually is in our self-interest?

From a perspective of conventional assumptions, the proposition is ridiculous.  Yet if we leave the conventional world and live for an extended period of time in stranger love, might we mature into new wisdom and see loops that renew and reenergize?

On that flight, the attendant was like a butterfly pollinating flowers.  His unique affirmative presentation of self caused me to notice and to think and to evolve a sense of admiration and inspiration.

Two days have passed, and I am writing about him, a leader who created in me a desire to be better.  If you are reading this, you are pollinated and there is a chance that today you will do something you might not have otherwise done.  The great network thus becomes more abundant.  Perhaps the flight attendant understands this and perhaps he finds renewal in the belief that making the world better makes him better.  In fact, for the few that evolve to his level of purpose, it does.

I am grateful for the notion of stranger love and for the man who modeled it.  Because of him, I hope to better live it and thus more deeply understand it.  I hope to better promote it.  Thank you to the flight attendant who turned my mind to the concept of stranger love.



  • What is your definition of stranger love?
  • Is it is possible to have a culture in which employees regularly deliver stranger love to customers?
  • What could you do today to practice stranger love?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Culture, Constancy, and Imperfection

Art piece Dance of Time by Salvadoro Dali displayed Vancouver CaBecause seeing and experiencing an excellent culture has more impact than listening to descriptions of an excellent culture, we took a class of executives to observe a positive organization and meet with the CEO.  During the visit, there was a surprise.  In a spontaneous moment, the CEO answered a question in a manner that some interpreted as sarcastic.

Later the group expressed a strong need to discuss the event.  One participant said, “I just cannot get it out of my mind.  I know that guy is a positive leader, but that one moment undermined everything for me.  I cannot help but feel that if I worked for him, he might do the same thing to me.”

The statement unlocked strong feelings and led to many observations and insights.  At the conclusion, I suggested there were three lessons.  First, many managers think culture is something from above that is imposed upon them.  They do not understand they are the prime creators of culture in their unit.  In every interaction—including the one they observed—expectations form and the expectations become the governing rules of the unit.  Whether they recognize it or not, every manager is a culture creator.  When they realize it and begin to consciously behave so as to create a positive culture, they become a leader.

Second, constancy matters.  A positive culture is created by positive interaction over time.  This means a leader has to be sensitive to the immediate problem and sensitive to the culture formation process.  This means thinking at two levels and constantly self-monitoring.  All of us experience hunger, fatigue, frustration, despondence, anger, and so on.  It is natural.  Yet if our purpose is to build a positive culture, the purpose lifts us to constant self-monitoring and constant self-elevation.

Third, positive leadership is not some form of fixed perfection.  Positive leadership is dynamic excellence, choosing to be a constant, purposive creator of positive culture.  We all fail as did the observed leader.  When we watched his failure, we were deeply impacted.  One negative exception has large impact but there is a counter-balance.  Unlike us, his people have experienced thousands of positive interaction with the person.  This means he has a positive social bank account.  They experience the rare negative moment and they give him the benefit of the doubt.  Because there is a positive culture there is forgiveness in the culture.  A person, including him, can make a mistake and not be judged and categorized.  This means that as imperfect beings we can engage in the purposive, constant work of positive leadership, make a mistake, and still recover.

We agreed that our field trip was highly educational.  We experienced a surprise.  In pondering our unusual experience, we derived insights of high value and could return to our workplaces with new commitments.



  • How forgiving is your culture?
  • In every interaction, do you see yourself as a creator of culture?
  • How often do you self-monitor and self-elevate?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive culture?

The Catapult of Success

Recently an executive spoke of his last 18 months.  He took over a troubled unit and determined he had to become a driver of order and dependability.  This was not easy, but he was successful.  The unit is now performing at a much more acceptable level.

Nevertheless, he sees a challenge.  The dependable unit is not cohesive or adaptable.  He recognizes the need to build trust and creativity, but he is not sure how to proceed.  There is latent anger in the unit.  While he has successfully transformed the unit in one direction, he must now maintain the gains while transforming the unit in the opposite direction.  He told me he is not sure how to move forward.

All of us have strengths and blind spots.  As we move up in the organization, we have to operate in ways that are not natural to us.  If we succeed, we sometimes create new problems that require a complex transformation, which we do not know how to execute.

The temptation is to flee.  If we take on the difficult challenge of deep learning—that is, doing what we do not know how to do—there is another possible outcome: we transform ourselves.  We let go of many old assumptions and we see with fresh eyes.  We become more empowered and empowering.  We learn to integrate order and change, achievement and unity.  We master the paradoxical tensions of organizational life.

As conventional people, we are all designed by genetics and culture to do certain things.  As we do the things we are designed to do, we may succeed, but success tends to catapult us into new challenges.  If we are committed to a higher purpose, we move forward into uncertainty, “building the bridge as we walk on it.”  It is in this realm of deep change that managers become leaders and transcend the paradoxes of organizational life.  It is in this process that we discover who they really are and what we are designed to become.



  • When have you seen success catapult someone into a situation they did not know how to manage?
  • In such a situation, what choices are available?
  • What motivates someone to build the bridge as they walk on it?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Bringing Conscience to Culture

Parents and pupils in class on school meetingA consultant named Ryan was leading a workshop for people in school districts.  The day’s objective was to raise the level of measurable performance.  The participants were cooperative, but they knew all the conventional constraints and it was clear they did not believe a jump from normal performance to excellent performance was possible.  Few people in any organization carry this belief, and few organizations transcend conventional expectations.

Ryan recognized that to move the group he had to create unconventional beliefs and aspirations.  He asked everyone to identity a student who could not possibly pass the standard tests at the required level.  Each participant did this.  Ryan then asked the participants to imagine that after graduation their own child decided to marry the struggling child they just selected.  This was a startling image.  Ryan then asked the unsettled participants to formulate what they could do to bring the hopeless child to excellence.

Ryan called on one engaged teacher who was still thinking conventionally.  She shared a long list of necessary resources.  She then said, “I could never come up with these resources.”

Others agreed and the conventional thinking brought a sense of hopelessness to the room.  At that crucial moment, one of the administrators raised his hand and said, “Do not worry about that.  It is not your job to come up with the resources: that’s my job.”

This surprising statement transformed the conversation.  The discussion turned to possibilities, and positive emotions began to move in a viral fashion through the social network.  The positive emotions gave rise to more positive thoughts and behaviors.  The conversation became richer, learning accelerated, hope increased, and a new vision began to emerge.  This happened because Ryan brought conscience to culture.

Now consider the backstory.  Ryan stayed awake the entire night pondering how to do what the group needed.  It was clear the participants were trapped in convention and could only imagine traveling on the already cut paths of cultural convenience.  They could only imagine doing what they had always done and producing what they were currently producing.

After spending the entire night in intense reflection (which was a sacrifice for the common good), Ryan received an insight in the form of a strategy for helping the group take a more moral orientation to their work.  It called for integrating convention (objectified, problem students) with virtue (the love of their own children).  This integration of tensions produced increased engagement and the emergent co-creation of a new social order.

To move out of the conventional system, Ryan had to become more virtuous: he had to truly care for the participants, sacrifice sleep, find inspiration, exhibit the courage, engage uncertainty, and risk public failure.  He had to act on the belief that his strategy would stimulate a new conversation and that he could nurture the conversation until one person became a positive deviant and a model for others to follow.  Ryan had to trust in the capacity of a constrained human network to initiate the co-creation of a new future.

Ryan was paid for his work but he was not working for pay.  He was intrinsically motivated and fully engaged and in the pursuit of the common good.  Ryan brought his conscience to the culture and the culture transformed.



  • What is culture and what role does it in play in every organization?
  • What is conscience and how does it differentiate leadership from management?
  • From your own life, surface an illustration of bringing conscience to culture. What happened?  What implication does it have for the present?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?






Our Finest Hour

Cause and EffectRecently I spoke on the phone with a man who has been a CEO for many years.  He spoke of leading in years of prosperity and then facing a great economic crisis.  The value of his company plummeted overnight.  In such cases, the world of business offers a conventional logic for moving ahead: bankruptcy.  He said, “But I was raised to believe that bankruptcy was not okay.  There were innocent people who I did not believe should be hurt.”

In that moment, his conscience called him to a journey off the established path.  Bankruptcy is not pleasant but it is efficient.  For the self-interested, it is the established path, and therefore the path of least resistance.  The CEO now had to cut his own path.  He described his difficult learning journey as a “long slog.”  Yet eventually he saved the company.  In reflecting on this, he said, “It was my finest hour.”

Positive organizational scholarship asks, “What is a person, group, or organization like at their best?”  In other words, the discipline is about observing people in their finest moments, learning from their excellence, and conceptualizing the process of conceptualizing new paths.

Robert Fritz tells us that nature follows the path of least resistance.  A river does not flow uphill; the water moves along the lowest existing points.  He argues that human behavior is the same.  We are what social scientists call “path dependent.”  We are determined by the past cut of the river—in this case, the culture in which we live.  We defy nature, however, when we have a purpose that attracts us to a new path.

It is widely recognized that culture determines individual behavior.  Yet when a leader turns to conscience and brings it to culture, the causal arrow reverses.  Suddenly the individual is creating the culture.  When this happens to us, we often see it as one of our finest moments.



  • When have you seen someone else bring conscience to culture?
  • What has been your finest hour as a leader?
  • What could you do today to turn your culture more positive?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Secondary Impacts of Becoming a Positive Leader

Lung cancer patients with smog city backgroundTen years ago a man from Japan attended our course in positive leadership.  He was one of the most intense students I have ever taught.  He drank in every concept and regularly pumped us for greater understanding.  Recently he spent the week in the same program as a coach.  At one point, I called on him to tell his story.

He told our participants that he returned to the plant where he works in China.  He posted the key concepts on his office wall.  He set goals and created Excel sheets to measure his progress.  He described the experiments he ran and the things he learned.  He ended by saying, “Today you can ask anyone who works for me or with me and they will tell you I am a totally positive leader.”

I love this account.  It illustrates that executives can return to their organizations, apply what they have been taught, and become positive leaders.

The story, however, does not end there.  In private, my friend told me about a new plant manager who entered his office and immediately noticed the diagrams and plans for improvement.  He pumped my friend for information and became a student of positive leadership.  Over the next year, he transformed his plant.

My friend gave me many examples of what the plant managers did.  I will share one.

The plant makes wheels.  The plant manager asked some engineers to calculate how much their carbon footprint shrink if every wheel were one ounce lighter.  They calculated the numbers and shared this with the workforce.  No one cared.

Instead of quitting, the plant manager embraced the challenge.  Later he ask for a new calculation.  How many days of smog would they eliminate if they accomplished the change?  He gave the answer to the workforce and something important happened.  People told their families and friends that because of the change they were making, the city would have 33 less days of smog.  The workforce became fully engaged, the change process moved ahead.  A leader brought purpose to his people and his people brought purpose to their work.



  • Why do some people attend a course and then become positive leaders while some others do not?
  • What were the secondary impacts of becoming a positive leader?
  • Why did the weight of the wheels drop?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Recognizing the Dread of Failure


Jackie is one of my daughter’s friends.  We are often at the same events and I have the opportunity to watch her exercise a finely honed gift.  I believe she is a child whisperer.  When she interacts with any small child, I can feel the love in her words.  So can the child.  When she offers direction or correction, children tend to respond.  Her own children are mature and sensitive.

Recently I pointed out her strength and said she could be one of the super nannies on TV who go in and show parents how to alter the interaction patterns in the home.  My daughter agreed that Jackie could be a super nanny.  Then she said, “I would hate to be on that show.”

I asked for clarification, and she said, “The nanny watches and then takes over and models how you do it.  Then they show you the film of her doing it and she breaks it down and shows you how you can do it.  Then they have you try the new way on camera.  My problem is that I know I would make so many mistakes.  It would be so embarrassing.”

Everyone in the conversation smiled and nodded.  There was agreement that failure and public embarrassment would be involved in the learning process and the dread of such learning is natural.  Who would want to be on such a show?

The agreement suggests a shared norm and explains a problem I often encounter in teaching positive leadership to executives.  We teach them how to become organization whisperers, leaders who will make a greater difference.  They love the concepts, but they cannot see themselves going back and applying the concepts because they know it would involve observable failure and they would risk the loss of credibility.

As I have become increasingly aware of this dynamic, I realize it is not a failure on the part of the participants.  It is a failure on my part.  I am not leading effectively.  It is my responsibility to love them more.  I have to work harder to increase the level of inspiration so they have more desire.  I also have to find way to increase their sense of safety so they dare to risk learning.  Only then will I succeed like Jackie succeeds.



  • Why do we dread failure and embarrassment?
  • What does this dread do to our development as effective parents, leaders, and human beings?
  • Think of someone you care about. How could you help them better develop?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Letting Go of an Old Life Narrative


In an exercise on leadership authenticity and transformational influence, I observed a group of four men and a woman, each sharing three stories about their personal identity.  In the process, the woman had an extraordinary experience and she gave me permission to share the account.  She is hopeful others might learn from it.

In her first story, she spoke of being on a dance team in high school.  She was close to the adult advisor who was dying.  She promised the advisor to keep the dance team moving forward.  When the advisor died, no adult was willing to replace the advisor and the team was going to disband.  This high school student confronted the athletic director and vowed to do all the tasks an adult advisor would perform.  She eventually convinced him and the team completed the year.  She declared that the unusual experience gave her great confidence that continues to carry her forward.  The story was fully congruent with the persona she projected, a strong woman of great confidence.

When it was her turn to tell her third story, she took a deep breath.  She looked at each person.  She took another deep breath.  She was making the decision to do something courageous.

As a young girl, she was greatly overweight.  This led to ostracism and continuous ridicule.  She lived in extreme social pain.  As she described the pain, she was so present in the anguish that the rest of us felt it.  At 13, she made a decision to change.  She lost the weight.  She became thin, attractive, and popular.  She became captain of the dance team.  She then obtained a great education, established a wonderful family, and enjoyed an impressive career.  Despite these accomplishments, she has never been free from the history of being an inadequate, rejected, overweight girl.  As she finished the story, I felt something happen, something inside her, and we could all see it.  Then she said, “I have never before told that story.”

The next day, I approached her and asked if we could reflect together.  She welcomed this and the following exchange took place.

I said, “As you concluded that story, I felt something.  It was as if a new you popped out.”

She responded, “Yes.  In that very moment, I transformed.  I think telling the story yesterday is one of the most important things I have ever done.”

I asked, “What did the change feel like?”

She responded with a sense of joy: “I was liberated.  I became free.”

Since then, I have been asking myself, free of what?

I have a hypothesis.  This wonderful woman lived a childhood of painful rejection and shame.  At 13, she made the amazing, conscious decision to change her life and then disciplined herself to lose weight.  As captain of the dance team, she exercised the courage to do something that far exceeded conventional expectation.  As an adult, she lived in patterns of accomplishment and success.  Despite all this achievement, she continued to carry the pain of an overweight girl in a cruel world.

In a climate of trust, she found the courage to tell her story.  In doing so, she was creating a new life narrative.  She no longer needed to carry the pain.  She could accept her currently emerging self as her authentic self.  Her painful past no longer trapped her.



  • Why does trusting interaction facilitate growth and produce freedom?
  • What old identities are you carrying?
  • Why do we all constantly need to construct a new life narrative?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Photo credit:ID 84901390 © Doodkoalex |

Asking the Right Question

Why do many executives tend to be managers rather than leaders?  Recently I was with 44 executives from a Fortune 100 company.  We were considering the topic of leading change.  In relation to the topic, I asked them to anonymously submit their most authentic question, that is, a question they care about but do not know how to answer.  They took the challenge seriously.

I sorted their questions into the following six categories.  I think the six categories reveal the dark side of organizational life, and they help explain why executives tend to be managers rather than leaders.  Please look for insights as you read.

Personal Doubt

  • What if I am not sure I am the right person to lead the change?
  • How do I lead strategic change when my orientation and my role are anchored in control?
  • How do I help my team believe that the impossible is possible?
  • How do I inspire my team to strive for continuous improvement?
  • How do I get people with no sense of ownership to believe they can make change?
  • How can I inspire creativity in people with a relaxed, maintenance mindset?
  • How do I motivate my team to provide innovative services when morale is low, bonus payouts are declining, and attrition is increasing?
  • How do I inspire folks to swim through troubled waters, moving back and forth between collaboration and competition?
  • How do I urge multinational teams to change their orientation to new technology when they have done things the same way for many years?
  • How can I become like a monk and unselfishly help others?

Ethical Conflict

  • What if I am not sure I want to invest in the change?
  • How do I inspire others to make a change when I am not authentically committed?
  • How do I institute change when I genuinely think the change is not good for the team?
  • How do I realign my team’s goals and execution when my team’s original charter may get shot down during reorganization?
  • How do I live every day and make decisions based on what I truly believe instead of what I think I am supposed to believe and do?

Temporal Stress

  • How do I make change when I have only enough time for the next customer crisis?
  • How can I maintain work-life balance?
  • How do I balance being a senior leader and having time for my family before there is a detrimental effect on both?
  • How do I teach my wife and two children to plan?

Horizontal Distrust

  • How do I get peers who want to dominate and defeat to change their behavior to collaborate and cooperate?
  • How do I inspire my team and peers to collaborate without being blocked by the question “What is in it for me?’
  • How do I ensure transparency across the business in the face of so many competing and short‑term pressures coming at me from others?
  • How can I learn to excel in this competitive world?

Vertical Misalignment

  • How can I change the culture when I am not on top of the pyramid?
  • How do I create when I am not given control?
  • Do I have the courage and skill to influence my management to implement the organizational changes I believe necessary?
  • How do I remain motivated when top level executives do not want the change?
  • Can I change the culture under my present leadership or is it just better to go somewhere else?
  • How do I lead change when I am not empowered to do so and I am led by someone who does not like to be challenged?
  • How can I lead change across our business when my direct boss is neither self-aware, nor organizationally aware?
  • How can I work for a manager who does not understand the impact of the changes that are affecting our department?
  • How do I impact my organization when my manager is stuck in an old mindset and only changes if someone above directs it?
  • How do I implement change when my senior leadership doesn’t understand, appreciate, or even realize the value and necessity for doing so?
  • How do I save a business unit that because of selfish decisions by our top executives and a lack of leadership is going to suffer layoffs, missed targets, a disengaged salesforce, and another reorganization?
  • How do I get my team to think long term when the management above me thinks only short term (we step over $100 bills to pick up $1 bills)?

Cultural Expectations

  • How do I promote collaboration in a company that does not value it?
  • Do I believe that the executive level is really committed to create a culture of innovation and collaboration?
  • How do I respond to the need to move faster in a risk-aversive culture?
  • How do I lead this change when competing tasks and initiatives are pulling the culture?
  • How do I make a change the company does not believe in?
  • In an organization that is generally stuck, how do I create energy and enthusiasm to stay and make a difference or have the courage to risk finding another role?
  • How do I remain passionate when surrounded by mediocrity?
  • How can I help drive excellence, passion, and curiosity in expectations of mediocrity?
  • Can I have a big enough impact on improving the culture on a large scale to keep me working for this company?

What do we learn?  Cultures function to preserve what is.  We can use the normal curve to understand this.  At the center of the normal curve is the mean or the point of central tendency.  For an organization, the center of the curve represents conventional patterns of behavior.

screen shot 2019-01-07 at 4.30.04 pm

The arrows are the social forces that hold behavior in equilibrium.  If a manager feels personal self-doubt, is asked to make changes that are ethically offensive, is swamped in time demands, experiences distrusting and conflictual peer relationships, has a boss who disempowers, or experiences the culture as oriented to mediocrity rather than excellence, the manager is not likely to lead change and create social excellence.

These constraints are not discussable.  We do not admit they exist.  We attempt to launch change while ignoring them.  Yet these forces for convention never go away.

We began by asking why so many executives are not leaders.  It is the wrong question.  The right question is, given the above forces, why do some people become leaders?

The above forces naturally emerge in all organizations.  In the rare circumstance when a leader creates social excellence it is in the face of these pressures.  A positive deviant who violates conventional assumptions creates excellence.  With leaders who bring about social excellence, the future determines the present.  They hold an aspiration so desirable that it creates courage to move from safe, incremental change to deep change.  The movement from convention to excellence is an individual and collective learning journey.  Higher purpose rather than external rewards tend to drive it.  By focusing on true leaders, we may learn how to help managers grow.



  • Are the six categories realistic?
  • Which of the six are currently operating in your unit?
  • Given the six categories, what might you learn from people who have become leaders?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?