In the last blog entry, I wrote of the power of integrating the past, present and future. I then explained the hidden value of crisis. In crisis we often see great commitment, collaboration, and the exceeding of expectations. When this happens we see our own conventional organization transformed into a more positive organization. This often leaves us with a sense of awe.
We may, however, fail to see the power in our own story. So we take this nugget of gold and throw it into the garbage pile of fading memories. We do not learn from or teach from excellence. Here is an illustration of a CEO who did. It does not matter that he was a CEO: this account is a lesson of universal application. This is a story so precious we should all ponder it deeply and tell it often.
This CEO was once the epitome of economic thinking. He then went through a crisis and he personally discovered purpose, people and culture. He became a leader of higher purpose and began to create a positive organization. Measures of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and share price all turned up and stayed up. When he became aware of the science at the Center for Positive Organizations, it gave him a language for what he was he was already doing and he used the language and tools to speed the process.
As this man has led, his people have grown. Previously there were sometimes doubts about his positive aspirations and strategies. The organizational crisis and success, however, changed doubt into shared belief.
The thinking of the CEO has continued to expand. He now has a vision of doing more. In a recent meeting, he intended to share the new vision with his direct reports. Instead of leaping into the vision, he began in an unconventional way.
He first became authentic and vulnerable. This is the opposite of manipulative and arrogant. He was, in essence, inviting people to co-create. He shared a belief from the core of his life. He described a prayer that he learned to recite as a boy. The prayer suggested that we are what we think, our thoughts become reality. He then indicated his belief that when thousands of people align around the some noble thought or aspiration, powerful new realities come into existence. His people were nodding.
He then recounted a history that most of them shared. The company was once at such a low level of human and financial performance that it was difficult to see any positive future. As he reviewed all the negative indicators, the people in the room could clearly remember the dark history and still feel the pain.
He then recounted the crisis and how the people in the company became focused, collaborative, and exceeded expectations, including his expectations. (The emergence of positive organizing is a phenomenon that defies economic logic.)
He referred to the crisis as the most educational year of his life. Interestingly, instead of throwing this precious year of excellence into the garbage pile of receding memories, he determined to learn from the excellence and help his direct reports do the same.
He asked them to collectively ponder the benefits of the crisis: “In the past year, our people performed above our expectations. What should we learn from our experience? How can we keep them there without a crisis but through our own leadership?”
He turned their focus to the future. Given the excellence of the previous year, he asked some questions: What do you want to make of this company? Why? What do you personally believe that would lead to your aspiration? How do we ground your given aspiration? What would make it vivid? How can we become aligned around our shared aspirations?
He then sent his people away for an hour and asked them ponder and to write. When they returned, he had each person share. People spoke from their hearts. Many told stories from their personal life. The trust in the room was at an all-time high. People were open to each other and to a better future.
There was a pleasant surprise. There was considerable commonality across their statements and the statements were relatively easy to aggregate. The CEO reviewed the notes from that meeting long ago and then said, “Everything we envisioned happened. Operational excellence, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, shareholder value, external reputation, and geographical footprint, all expanded and even exceeded our aspirations.”
Again, I looked around the room and the heads were nodding. The CEO was recalling their collective excellence. It was no ordinary story. It was a sacred account of their first excelling in crisis; of their making the unusual choice to learn from their own excellence; of their learning to aspire to excellence, not through crisis but through leadership; of their becoming positive leaders and experiencing success beyond their own expectations.
With these sacred memories in mind, he then introduced a new vision, one that was breathtaking and that would have terrified and brought resistance from most senior executives. After sharing the images, he asked for their thoughts. He returned to the questions: What do you want to make of this company? Why? What do you personally believe that would lead to any given aspiration? How do you ground your given aspiration? What would make it vivid? How can we become aligned around our shared aspirations?
As he did years ago, he asked them to leave and write their answers. When they returned, each one shared. As I listened, I watched trust increase; I watched authenticity go up; I watched collective learning go up; and I watched a group of executives aspire to turn a positive organization far more positive.
Why should everyone ponder and learn to tell this story?
First, the story illustrates something difficult to comprehend. He created an interpenetration of the past, present, and future, and they became one self-reinforcing system. By having people examine the best of their past, he created the belief necessary to envision a future of excellence, and he create a shared desire in the present. The best of the past and the best of the future were together lifting people in the present.
Second, this story is at the very heart of positive leadership. It appears to be a story about a CEO. It is a story that extends to every person who wishes to exert positive influence in a group, a team, a unit, an organization, or the world.
Third, this story is not a part of your past. If you refuse to throw this story into the garbage pile of your receding memory, but instead ponder, and internalize, and continually retell this story, you will begin to understand and to do things that people governed by conventional assumptions cannot understand or do. You will bring about the interpenetration of the past, present, and future. From the interpenetration you create, people will find the capacity to co-create a more positive organization.
Can I retell this story right now?
As I retell it, what do I learn that I did not learn when I read it?
In telling this story, what direction comes from my conscience?
How could we use this two-part passage to create a more positive organization?