In conventional thought, we create categories and keep them separate. Three examples are past, present, and future. One characteristic of the generative mind is the ability to bring about the interpenetration of disparate categories. Interpenetration is the essence of creativity and it leads to the emergence of new patterns. Positive leaders integrate the past, present, and future; they become one self-reinforcing system. This sounds theoretical. It is not. In Part Two of this passage, I will share a precious story that every leader should know and retell. In Part One today, I will share an underlying concept.
Like individuals, organizations sometime enter crisis. Often there is a remarkable phenomenon that emerges. The people become focused on one higher purpose and a high level of commitment and collaboration emerges. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Everyone then performs beyond expectations and accomplish impressive things. This image of authentic commitment, high collaboration, and performance beyond expectations is a good description of a positive organization.
A senior government executive once told me, “The happiest day of my professional life was September 12, 2001.” I was shocked by his statement. He then said, “That day, I did not have a single bureaucrat working for me. I only had Americans who were willing to do anything asked of them. They were all working for one higher cause.”
Like the government, utility companies are often bureaucratic. Yet in many of them, employees speak of some version of the phrase “storm culture.” When a great storm hits, the employees in a utility company often become focused, contributive, and highly collaborative. It happens often enough that they expect it to happen (hence the term “storm culture”).
I was recently in a conversation with an executive from such a company. A huge storm had hit a month before. As my associate described what happened, he spoke with a sense of awe. When he finished, I asked, “So what?” He looked baffled and retold the story, emphasizing different points. I asked, “So what?” He repeated it once more. I asked, “So what?” He knew I was not trying to antagonize him but did not know what else to say. I asked others to help. No one had an answer.
I reminded them of a principle, “If it is real, it is possible.” In social life, excellence emerges. When we recognize excellence in social life, we often have a sense of awe. Yet we tend not to learn from excellence. We do not “squeeze” excellence for understanding. We do not use the reality of excellence to challenge the limiting beliefs that hold the organization in conventional patterns.
If in a crisis my organization turns into a positive organization, then the concept of positive organization is real. Excellence, in many forms, occurs in life. If excellence is real, excellence is possible. If we are the ones who created the excellence, we must have, contrary to our conventional assumptions, the ability to co-create excellence.
The answer to the “so what” question is that the story of the crisis and the emergence of their storm culture was a precious asset. The story is an account of something real. The story is data or evidence of positive deviance. The reality challenges our conventional assumptions. If we put the data in front of ourselves, if we examine our best collective selves, then we challenge our conventional, fixed mindset. At a very minimum, we have to admit that we are full of potential. Such an admission is the beginning of belief, and belief is the beginning of hope and new action.
So when I badgered the poor man, I was trying to get the people in the room to see that he was not only telling a story worthy of admiration, the story was a precious gem that a leader could use to help people transcend their conventional assumptions and become free to create a more positive organization. Every instance of excellence–particularly our own instances of excellence–should be recognized, celebrated, “squeezed” for learning, and used for inspiration. Every instance of our own excellence should become a case study for rigorous self-examination and the foundation of a more positive organization.
When we do this with skill, we bring the best of the past into the present so as to create the best possible future. It is a central skill of purpose-driven leaders. Few managers ever experience it. In Part Two of this entry, I will tell the story of the CEO. In preparing to read it, I invite you to deeply ponder this entry and thus prepare yourself to value the story.
- What conventional assumptions limit our potential?
- In our team, unit, or organization, what was our highest moment of past excellence?
- If we examine the moment deeply, what does it teach us?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?