University professional schools are a challenging change target. A dean of a business school once invited me to run a retreat. A year earlier, one of my colleagues, Kim Cameron, worked with the same group and presented the basics of positive leadership. People were impressed. One professor told me that Kim’s presentation had left him feeling “intellectually awed.” When I asked about application of the ideas, I learned it had been a tough year financially. There was much conflict and the positive ideas faded.
When I met with the full group, I could feel the conflict, and it created fear in me. I began to envision failure. In this negative state, I could see no options. I knew I had to transform my own negative feelings into positive emotions. If I was going to initiate change, I had to change myself so I could change the emotions and the vision of the group.
I listened to the early presentations. A woman named Kathy was responsible for a small department in the school. Kathy listened to what Kim taught about gratitude. She took the advice to heart and started a gratitude journal and it made a difference in her personal life. She decided to apply the concept at work, and she established “Thankful Thursdays.” Each week, she invited everyone in her group to share highlights from their gratitude journals. Some people were resistant, but Kathy persisted.
In the auditorium, Kathy described the changes that took place in her unit. As she did, her demeanor changed. She appeared confident and full of joy. Then something even more impressive happened: members of her department began to excitedly and spontaneously share stories of how their department had changed.
After watching this phenomenon, I knew what to do. When my turn came, I walked to the stage and I said, “Please tell me what you felt when Kathy spoke.”
This question surprised the audience. I received a few intellectual responses. I pointed out that the answers did not address my question; I had asked about their feelings, not their analysis.
There was a pause. New responses emerged. The answers were more personal, honest, and authentic. Several people indicated that they felt inspired by what Kathy had done. As they made these comments, the climate changed. The entire audience became more positive.
I told them that Kathy’s authentic presentation inspired courage in me and gave me the idea to start my presentation with that question. I was standing in front of them with great confidence about the day and their ability to elevate their lives and their school.
I said, “Over the last year, Kathy had the courage to apply what she learned. Today she lifted many people in the room – including me. Kathy is a staff person and in a school like this, we tend to look down on staff people. They have low status. Yet Kathy is a positive leader. Today, in this room, she led the entire organization. Leadership is influence, and influence is not determined by hierarchical position.”
Although the statement ran counter to expectations, I felt confident it was true. In that moment, the audience experienced a paradigm shift, and negativity turned to hope. By calling attention to Kathy’s inspiration, they let go of their negative emotions. They opened up–and the rest of the day went very well.
- Why did I ask the question about Kathy?
- Why did the answer change the emotional climate in the room?
- What principle of influence underlies this passage?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?