I have known Frank Petrock for a long time. I have often heard him tell of his journey as a 25-year-old heading a program in a maximum security prison. Recently he sent me a manuscript that records the story. Frank was assigned to open a program to rehabilitate hardened criminals. Every day his life was at risk. Nothing done anywhere else had ever worked. The people above him saw the situation as hopeless and told him he could do whatever he liked.
The freedom was wonderful, but the challenge was impossible and he only had four months to plan. So Frank and his people visited prisons, read literature, and talked to anyone they could find. Their only asset was youthfulness and inexperience.
What came from the exploratory effort was a very strange set of principles. Instead of focusing on changing the inmates, they focused on changing the prison. Instead of changing attitudes and values to get behavior change, they determined to change behavior in a way that would alter attitudes and values. Instead of trying to restore inmates to good health, they questioned if the inmates had ever been in such a state. Instead of accepting the usual norms of “socialism” that dominate prison life, they determined to build the recovery process around principles of capitalism. Instead of relying on control, they introduced the concept of choice and accountability. Instead of focusing on failure and punishment, they focused on success and reward. These radical ideas eventually led to unconventional success.
The temptation is to explore the principles and the learning process that gave rise to the success. What I want to emphasize instead is a single paragraph. I believe it underlies every account of positive leadership and organizational transformation:
“I must tell you that I was afraid every day. This troubled me, because I thought of being afraid as a weakness – until I came across something I read about courage. As best as I can recollect, whoever wrote it said that ‘courage is doing what you have to do, even when you are afraid.’ Coming to understand this helped a lot. I continued to be afraid, as I continued to step up to what was required of me” (Petrock, The Readustment Unit, pp.16).
The conventional lens assumes knowledge. The positive lends assumes purpose and the courage to learn in real time. We take on a purpose that is larger than we are. We know the vision but not how to bring it about. We then, with fear, step into the purpose. We stay in the cauldron of uncertainty until we learn what to do. When we come out, we know things the conventional manager cannot understand. This is what Frank did. The outcome violated all the conventional assumptions.
- How does your current professional challenge compare to Frank’s challenge?
- Into what fears does your current purpose take you?
- What can you teach your people about personal cauldrons of transformation?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?