Transforming Genuinely Pissed-Off Managers

We work with a major company that tends to have a narrow focus on profit. Mangers tend to carry cynicism. In the first day of a program, the participants expressed some negativity. It came out as arguments of helplessness. The culture is determined from the top. They can only respond to the culture. There is no opportunity for them to exercise positive leadership.

My first meeting with them was on day two. I opened with a challenge. I asked them to determine the difference between good and great conversations, marriages and teams. They did an extraordinary job. Using their own lists, I asked them to generate a theory of greatness in social systems. They came up with the following:

  • There is a sense of purpose
  • People feel inspired
  • There are strong and healthy emotional connections
  • There is respect, trust and admiration
  • There is integrity, openness and authenticity
  • The people feel challenged and fully engaged
  • They make willing contributions
  • There is natural collaboration
  • People rejoice in the success of others
  • Outcomes exceed expectations

I asked if they believed in their theory; they said they did. I asked where the theory came from. They indicated that they collectively drew on their experience and knowledge. I emphasized that I had told them nothing, and they created their own theory of excellence. What did this imply? There was a pause and then a golden moment. They recognized, despite all the contrary assumptions, they believed in excellence, desired excellence, and excellence comes from positive leadership.

I asked for insights. Someone said, “Creating a positive organization is hard work, but the payoffs are high: everyone wins. Why lead in any other way?”

We spent the morning in a conversation that reflected the characteristics described above. The learning was intense. At the conclusion, people were sharing more insights. A man who had made several wise comments raised his hand. He said, “I am going to say something I never thought I would say. I came into this week genuinely pissed off at the senior leaders of this company. Now my anger is gone. I realize that they do not matter. Regardless of how they act, I can lead. I can create a positive organization and that is what I am going to do.”

There was silence. He had just become the voice of the group. It was not the voice of helplessness but a self-empowering voice. I walked over and gave him a high five.


  • What is your theory of excellence?
  • What are the payoffs of applying your theory?
  • Is it possible that what the people above you do does not matter?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?




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