The Caring of Real Leaders

Sometimes people tell me that the concept of positive organizing can not be seen at work. It is only appropriate to the family. As I look at many family situations I do not see flourishing and the exceeding of expectations. What I see is people injuring each other even more deeply than they do at work.

Yet positive organizing does occasionally occur in families just as it occasionally occurs at work. Observing it in families may teach us something about the kind of caring necessary to bring it about at work.

As an extended family we spend one week a year at the beach. My son-in-law calls it the “best week of the year.” This implies that the week exceeds his normal expectations. It is an experience in collective excellence.

Our week at the beach involves a focus on the common good, much planning, lots of meaningful interaction and continuous innovation and improvement. For over ten years we have worked hard to make it better and better. This has often required sacrifices. Adult males, for example, are not allowed to watch sporting events on TV. Instead evenings are devoted to activities that result in enriched relationships. Mornings and afternoons include structured activities and traditions that the grandchildren love. The entire experience is a manifestation of sacrifice for the common good.

This year I learned an interesting lesson. I arrived at the beach excited, but low on physical energy. For the first three days I did not engage with much gusto. At the beach I remained under the umbrella and when the kids were in the pool I did not go in.

Usually I feel very involved with the grandchildren but this year my efforts seemed to be interruptions in the flow of what they were doing. I was connecting with none of them. What happened next was instructive.

I began to build a theory that the grandchildren had changed. They were so involved with each other they no longer wanted to interact with their grandfather. I then started to feel offended by their imagined change.

Thankfully, at a deep level, I knew this was a ridiculous theory. They, for example, were engaging other adults as they always had. Everywhere there was data suggesting the problem was not with the children it was with me. Nevertheless I was building a theory that could only put me in a downward cycle and justify me in my desire to not change. Thankfully this time I was familiar enough with this normal reaction to override my ego.

The next day the kids were in the pool and I jumped in. Almost immediately several of them challenged me to a game of “sharks and minnows.” For the next two hours we engaged intensely. At the beach I went into the water and one of my granddaughters said, “Will you carry me out and throw me over the waves?” For the rest of week, instead of interrupting what they were doing, I joined them in what they were doing. The result was intense engagement with the people I love. It was my “best week of the year.”

Here there are implications for work. Positive organizing can occur in any setting but it requires intense effort, more than we conventionally see. Some people have to care enough to invest deeply. Once positive organizing emerges, it remains vulnerable. For a wide range of reasons, people like me can feel left out. We will then define others as problems. Usually we are not sophisticated enough to free ourselves of our own broken assumptions. This means others have to be continually attentive and willing to do the work to bring someone like me back into the flow of positive organizing. Positive organizing requires the kind of caring that is only given by real leaders.

Reflection

When have I seen positive organizing in a family?

How often do unengaged people define others as problems?

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

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