Learning From Success

I met with a group of undergraduates. We were discussing leadership and the ability to change culture. I put up a slide about mental maps and culture change. Then I asked each person to pick a partner and tell a story that might bring the slide to life. After they shared I asked if anyone had a personal story of initiating culture change. This is a hard question for such a young group and there was a silence. Then a young woman named Emily raised her hand. As she told her story she became animated.

Emily was 18 when she became a volleyball coach in a high school. In addition to being so young, the situation was quite challenging. The team had not won a game in years. On the team there was an expectation of losing and a culture of playfulness and complacency. The girls had zero confidence in their individual and collective capacities. There was no thought of purpose, commitment, resilience, or playing off of each’s others strengths.

While she continued to allow the girls to have “fun,” Emily also “disrupted” the existing culture as she introduced new expectations, strategies and structures. As she did there was “resentment” and “pushback.”   Yet, as Emily proceeded, the girls began to notice that their new way of playing together allowed them to perform at their individual and collective best. As they did, “They began to find a greater purpose.” The more purposive and confident girls went on to win 12 of their 13 games.

In our discussion Emily’s story became crucial. I was able to refer back to it often. It not only illustrated key principles, it also demonstrated something they were unlikely to believe.   Even an 18 year-old can lead change culture.

A few days later Emily contacted me. She included a few pictures of her team after winning their last game. She wrote that the pictures were meaningful to her because they captured the development of the team. She then said, “Since our discussion on Friday, I have been thinking about my coaching experience in more detail.” She then shared more about what she had done.

There is a lesson illustrated here. Remember that when Emily began to tell her story, she seemed to become more animated. Days after telling her story, she was still thinking about it, examining it in more detail, seeking out pictures associated with the story, and remembering things she had done but not mentioned.

In other words, by sharing her story of purpose, challenge, resilience and success, Emily was exposing herself to the best of Emily. In telling of her journey, she was examining her past episode from the perspective of her present life. Her positive, past experience, was becoming her present professor. By exposing Emily to the best of the past Emily, the present Emily was learning how to be a better future Emily.

As we aspire to become more purpose driven, we can all benefit from telling and reflecting on our successes. Yet, for many reasons, we do not often have the opportunity that Emily had. We are seldom invited to tell our most important stories and find the deep insights from our own positive experiences. This fact leads to two suggestions.

First, make a quick list of the ten most important challenges and successes in your life. Then examine them both individually and collectively for key insights. Pay particular attention to the role of purpose. As you do so, ask yourself what the stories are telling you about your life and your purpose.

Second, recognize that you can offer a great service to others by making it possible for them to share and examine their own most meaningful successes. It will accelerate their learning and yours. You can do this in individual conversations and you can do it as an exercise with an entire team.

In the first case, people will benefit as Emily did. In the second collective case, the team will not only increase in understanding, they will increase in their ability to be a team. In both cases, if you listen deeply, and compare their stories with your stories, you will more fully comprehend and appreciate the power of purpose and more deeply understand your own purpose.


  • What are my three most cherished personal successes?
  • What do they have to teach me today?
  • How can I help others learn from their most cherished successes?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

2 thoughts on “Learning From Success

  1. Dear Robert, would you mind sharing the slide you mention on mental mapping and culture change? I think I could find that very useful in my current situation. Many thanks!


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