If it is Real, it is Possible

Our good friend has spent his life as a psychiatrist in the Veterans Administration. The VA has a reputation for being less than a positive organization.   He recently read a positive passage about the common good. He then shared a brief account of how he and his associate had once developed a vision of the common good. He reports:

“We had an innovative, happy department that radically expanded services of very high quality and attracted the best MH professionals to our small city. After I left in 2009, and Mark retired, a different and much more fearful and self-centered leadership took over. It has become a very unhappy place which saddens me deeply.”

There are three points to be noted in this account. First, the VA is not only a federal bureaucracy, it has the reputation of being one of the worst of the federal bureaucracies. We once taught a group of senior leaders from the VA. It was one of the most difficult days ever. They were cynical, depleted and disempowered. Everyone in the VA knows that you cannot exert positive leadership and create a positive culture.

Second, in courses and workshops we regularly argue, “If it is real, it is possible.” This account is a story of positive culture emerging inside a larger, negative culture. It is an account of positive deviance. This account suggests that the impossible is possible. It challenges the conventional, disempowering theory of practice that permeates the VA and most other large hierarchies.

Third, organizations are systems of fear. Instances like this one are not sought out and widely celebrated. Cynical people, who have given up, have a need to verbally shred and dispose of such stories. Leaders can counteract the tendency. Leaders can teach, “If it is real it is possible” by locating these kinds of pockets of excellence, examining them, and using them to challenge the assumptions of convention.


  • How could a unit in the VA provide expanded, high quality services and also attract professional to a small city?
  • Is there such a unit in your organization?
  • What pocket of excellence are you using to challenge assumptions of convention, so as to spread excellence?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



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