The Dark Night of the Soul

A woman told me a story that every professional should read. It is an account of how she became a positive force in a conventional organization. She directs HR in a company that was going through a merger. The company was founded by a Jewish man who had a college degree. After serving in World War I he tried to find a job. Because of religious discrimination he could not. So with fifty dollars of army severance pay he started his own company and it has grown ever since.

Once in the history of the company there was an exercise designed to articulate the values of the company. Given the story of the founder, one of the articulated values was faith. Today the leaders and employees have great difficulty knowing what to do with the word faith. The word seems out of place in a secular age; a source of embarrassment.

The HR director is not uncomfortable. She believes the emphasis on faith allows the inclusion of diversity and the integration of diversity, and the value drives extraordinary organizational learning. She believes that the emphasis on faith is the greatest asset of the company.

The current merger has heightened the issue of values. People want to know what the company stands for. This has led the HR director to feel an increasing need to clarify and communicate purpose, values and vision. She has put much time into a program designed to meet this need. Yet each time the program is presented to senior management, there is a concern about some detail and the program disappears for months. In the meantime, the need for the program keeps escalating.

The troubled HR director attended a conference on positive organizations. Listening to the presentations, and driven by her concern for the company, she determined that she had to become a transformational leader. So she wrote a letter to the CEO. In it she explained the need for the program, the content of the program and her motive for moving forward. She explained that any flaws could be worked out in the future. She indicated that she now had the program on the calendar and was moving forward.

She received a quick call. The CEO asked about a few minor details. She resolved his concerns. He told her to go ahead.

In recounting this story she made a claim. “The employees have a genuine need. The company has a genuine need. Our failure to move was causing everyone to lose. So I did what had to be done for the good of the organization. It was the most important decision I have ever made. It changed everything including my identity. Now I am a transformational leader. I am committed to the good of the whole. I do not care about the political consequences. If they want to fire me, that is fine. I am now confident I can get another job any time. Every organization needs someone like me.”

This story is rare but it is not unique. There are times when managers transform into leaders. Sometimes the trigger is a personal life crisis and sometimes it is an organizational crisis. Because of the crisis they enter the dark night of the soul and they have to choose between the fear driven self and the conscience driven self. When they make the latter choice, they immediately transform. They commit to purpose, increase in integrity and authenticity, orient to the common good, and initiate the journey of collective learning.

Fifty years ago a man named Zalesnik argued that until a manager is twice born the manager cannot lead. At the time the proposition was controversial. Today the scientific literatures on leadership development, post traumatic growth, spirituality, and transformative learning all suggest that great challenges lead to a new and more empowered identity, and self-empowering people tend to be empowering to their community.

Positive organizing is a process driven by leaders who pursue the common good over the personal good. Such leaders are rare but can occur at any level of an organization. It is also true that they may or may not emerge at the top. Transformational leadership is not a function of position. It is a function of the increased personal virtue that emerges in one person who chooses the highest good and thus becomes free of conventional organizational fears. The transformed person can then invite others to see and act in new ways.

Reflection

Why would anyone risk their job for the good of the company?

What role does fear play in leadership development?

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

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