Challenging Expectations

We were at the end of a five-day program. In the morning, I had the participants do an exercise that reveals their identity and shows that they actually shape their destiny. The exercise creates a sense of discovery and awe. For some it becomes a tipping point in a personal change process.

At lunch, after the exercise, I sat next to an unassuming woman from another country. There were many comments about leadership, trust, and collaboration. For the first time, the woman spoke. She told an unusual story.

When we returned to the classroom, someone raised a question. Instead of answering it, I asked the woman to tell her story. She hesitated. On the one hand, she did not seem comfortable in the limelight. On the other, she seemed to have a desire to serve her colleagues.

She is responsible for a team spread throughout her country. Last year the company put a ban on travel. She felt a need to assemble her people in a two-day retreat. She decided she would use her personal funds to pay for the needed event. The unusual act inspired her people. The retreat went well. At the end of the year, the team achieved record performance.

The participants sat in silence. They were trying to make sense of the story. By all conventional assumptions, the willingness to spend her own money was illogical. It felt wrong. A profit-focused company, trying to squeeze every penny out of the system, is unwilling to invest in a human need. For a woman to spend her own money to forward the agenda of such a company violates our sense of contractual justice. From this rational-economic perspective, this woman must be naive, stupid, or both.

Yet the story was not the only data the participants were processing. There was the woman herself. She was uninterested in recognition. She knew the story was unusual and she was sharing it anyway. She was choosing to be vulnerable. Her purpose was to serve the people in the room. The participants could feel her authenticity and selflessness. The self she was presenting was fully congruent with the story she was telling.

The silence turned into scattered applause. Then the applause intensified. The participants were expressing genuine appreciation. Why?

Managers operate by conventional assumptions.   Like their employees, they bring only their heads to work. If a manager ever becomes a leader, the perspective changes. They become purpose driven and fully engaged and they transcend rational-economic assumptions. Their rewards come from the inside as well as the outside. In pursuing their purpose, they are willing to violate expectations and this creates new expectations. If the new expectations stabilize, a new culture emerges. Usually the new culture enriches human connections. The people are then able to flourish and exceed expectations.

In her country, the woman enriched human connections and her people flourished and exceeded expectations. In the classroom, the woman was offering vulnerability and inviting trust. She was also challenging expectations. She was causing the participants to think. She was providing an enriched connection.   She was opening the door of leadership and inviting them to consider new possibilities.


  • Why is the story so unsettling?
  • What is the difference between management and leadership?
  • What principle do I take from this story and how might I apply it today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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