Positive leadership cannot be effectively taught by a conventional teacher or practiced by a conventional manager. The conventional thinker “knows” from experience the assumptions of positive leadership are unrealistic and impractical. Unless tightly held assumptions and beliefs are altered in the manager, hearing a presentation on positive leadership is of minimum value.
The teacher must have the unusual capacity to change the beliefs of the students. Such a teacher is not a teacher but a transformational leader. Likewise, the emerging leader must acquire the capacity to change the beliefs of the people he or she leads. When this capacity is acquired, the manager becomes a transformational leader.
We were working with 40 executives from a large company. The company has a culture of intense economic focus. When I put up a list of conventional leadership assumptions, the gloomy statements looked familiar. When I put up a contrasting list of positive leadership assumptions, the list seemed both surprising and unrealistic.
In the midst of the collective doubt, a woman raised her hand and very hesitantly claimed, “The positive list describes my organization.” I began to ask her questions. She was uncomfortable and tried to respond in generalities. I pushed for examples. I questioned each example until a very full picture emerged.
Then I asked what company she worked for. She was confused by the obvious question and then named the company in which they all worked. I told her that her answer was wrong. Everyone in the room “knows” that in that particular company it is impossible to have a positive unit. I asked the rest of the group if they were going to put up with this woman lying. The room went very quiet.
I had consciously created a tension. It was clear that the woman was telling the truth. It was also clear that everyone “knew” that what she was claiming was impossible in their company. I told them that I was providing them with data that challenged their theory of reality and they now had to explain away this woman or change their theory of what was possible inside the company and inside them.
During the break, a man came up. He said, “I took over a unit that was at -44% of plan. It was a snake pit. No one wanted it. I was glad to take it because I knew I could turn it around. When people are failing badly, they become desperate. They are looking for hope.”
He then said something very important: “Yet leading them is not easy. If you live the positive leadership assumptions on the right side of the screen, it is ten times harder than living the conventional assumptions on the left side of the screen.
“I went in willingly, but every night I went to bed with a sense of panic. You never know what move is right. You entice them, you support them, and you hope they will follow, but you never know what is going to create trust and trigger a small success. You only know that it will happen if you keep learning and leading. When that success happens, you have to magnify it, make it visible to all, and then repeat the process over and over. It is about leading by learning how to lead. You have to be willing to go to bed with a sense of panic.
“When it finally works, the organization transforms. We went from -44 percent to +82 percent. We now have a positive culture. It is thrilling. Yet success is dangerous. All around me people think that what I do is crazy. I have to be bi-minded. I have to live the assumptions of positive leadership and yet be able to talk to people around me understanding they live by the conventional assumptions.”
He was perfectly describing the process positive leadership. I was soon in a conversation with another participant. He also claimed to have a positive organization in the gloomy company. He described it and then spoke of what he does outside of work. He coaches kids. The emphasis is on the assumptions of positive leadership. He does not coach just one team. He has a program that takes kids from elementary school to high school graduation. He lit up as he told of his efforts in getting the kids college scholarships.
I said, “You live a meaningful life at work and at home.” He nodded.
I told him, “I have only known you a few minutes, but I already know you are the kind of person I would like to go on vacation with.”
He said, “Thank you.”
After the break, I surfaced the additional stories. I noted that the culture of the company calls for conventional leadership and conventional leaders emerge. Yet in the company there are exceptions. Contrary to the conventional culture, a few positive leaders emerge. They are exceptions, positive outliers who live with a sense of higher purpose and the belief that they can create their own culture. They discover the assumptions of positive leadership not from a lecture but from deep learning. They create new experiences or experiments and they reflect on them so as to create new experiences.
I again asked for the implications of the theory-defying data provided by the three hesitant people. There was gradual agreement that perhaps positive leadership and human excellence could arise in the gloomy company.
I then asked them to reflect on what had happened. I surfaced data from their own company reflecting leadership excellence and then asked them to explain it. I asked them how they could use this same principle in other ways. There were not ready answers. So I gave them a golden sentence: “If it is real, it is possible.”
In the company of frequent complaints, there are excellent units. Two weeks later, I was with 40 of their peers. This time I told them all to close their eyes. I asked them to raise their hands if their unit was a positive organization. One third of them raised their hands.
So in this very conventional organization, there may be many positive units. Yet no one recognizes these realities that defy the prevailing theory. What they tend to see as impossible is all around them. So excellence is real and it is possible. Yet to most it is seen as unreal and impossible. By turning attention away from the ubiquitous problems that exist and focusing instead on the existing patterns of excellence, it is likely that much good could emerge.
- Are there excellent units in your organization?
- Are these being systematically examined?
- How could you apply the notion, “If it is real, it is possible?”
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?