Becoming Bilingual

The conventional mental map is not our only choice.  The positive mental map offers the language of possibility.  Most people don’t look for or find this map unless they have experienced a crisis of some sort, which breaks down their conventional assumptions and allows them to be more open.  When they do this, they begin to evolve into a more complex thinker.  Acquiring this positive mental map is a lot like becoming bilingual.  It is a journey, not an instant transformation.  It involves taking risks, failing your way forward, and having the confidence to keep trying.  Learning a new language doesn’t mean forgetting your native language; rather, it adds a greater capacity to communicate and learn.

-The Positive Organization, p. 30


Becoming Bilingual

In yesterday’s blog post I wrote about the contrast between the conventional and the positive mental map. The two maps look like this.


•    Pursue self-interests

•    Minimize personal costs

•    Feel fear

•    Prefer the status quo

•    Stay in their roles

•    Speak in politically correct ways

•    Fail to see opportunities

•    Compete for resources

•    Experience conflict

•    Become alienated

•    Deny feedback and fail to learn

•    Underperform

•    Personally stagnate


•    Embrace the common good

•    Make spontaneous contributions

•    Feel confident

•    Seek growth

•    Overcome constraints

•    Expand their roles

•    Express their authentic voice

•    See and seize new opportunities

•    Build social networks

•    Nurture high-quality connections

•    Embrace feedback

•    Exceed expectations

•    Learn and flourish

Today’s post is about how we can add more “possibility” to our conventional thinking.

Most people try to negotiate organizational life by using the conventional map. A few people have life experiences that expose the limitations of the conventional map. When this occurs they may learn their way into the discovery of the positive mental map. When they internalize the positive mental map they do not discard the conventional mental map. Instead they become bilingual. They begin to speak two languages. An example may be helpful.

Alberto Weisser was the CEO of Bunge, a global food company. In his eleven years as CEO, the company grew by a factor of ten. While he was greatly successful, in his first year as CEO he nearly failed.

He tells of being trained in conventional assumptions of finance and then becoming successful because of his training. His success led to the certainty that the conventional map was the only map for a leader to follow. Yet when he became CEO and things did not go as expected, he was driven by the necessity to discover the positive mental map. Using it led to ten years of extraordinary success.

Reflecting on his development, Alberto made a final point. It was seemingly insignificant and would be easy to ignore. But as we interviewed other CEOs like Alberto we realized that the point is quite important.

Alberto told us that he does not always speak to others the way he was speaking to us. Many of the people he deals with are embedded in the conventional mental model. He has to take that into account and adjust how he communicates. He can do it because he once was where they are now. The once skeptical Alberto can still speak the language of control and constraint, but he can also speak the language of vision and empowerment. He is thus able to invite people who were like he was to become people like he is.

In the process of development, some people become bilingual and acquire the capacity to effectively invite others to create more positive organizational cultures.   One goal of Positive Organization is to accelerate the developmental process. The book is designed to help the reader discover the positive mental map now, and not after a major life crisis.


Am I bilingual?

Are my people bilingual?

How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Gratitude and Generativity

Shawn Quinn is a consultant and teacher. He focuses on building positive organizations. He tells a story about the power of gratitude at work. He then makes an observation that helps to explain how the bilingual mind works.

An executive attended one of Shawn’s classes and afterwards decided to begin meditating. In a follow-up session the man made an important report. He found himself thinking about a problem person. He decided to make an honest exploration of the things he was grateful for in the problem person, and doing so changed how he saw the problem person. But it also had some other impacts. He became more desirous to practice gratitude and that changed how he saw many people in the organization.   His new view caused him to treat the people more positively. He began to focus less on the problems in the organization and more on what was right. The organization then changed. He saw an increase in commitment, effort and quality.

In reflecting on the story, Shawn notes that researchers find that people who have a discipline of regularly practicing gratitude also: exercised more regularly; report fewer physical symptoms; feel better about their lives as a whole; are more optimistic about the upcoming week; made more progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period; are more likely to help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support; have more positive attitudes toward school and their families; have higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress; place less importance on material goods; are less likely to judge their own and others success in terms of possessions accumulated; are less envious of others; are more likely to share their possessions with others.

Shawn concludes with a paradoxical observation: “And, when people are grateful, they do all of these things without denying or ignoring the negative aspects of life.” This sentence suggests that people of gratitude are fully engaged in practical problems, but they are engaged differently, in a more generative way.

The Necessity of Celebration in Dark of Times

We received a message from a person who has been in a senior role for ten years. Because of external circumstances the current year has turned very dark and difficult. The writer states that after so many years there is isn’t very much to learn from the technical standpoint because the emergent technical problems tend to be variations on problems that have been solved in the past and so it is easier to know what to do.

Leadership is a different issue: “However, even in my tenth year, there is a lot of opportunity for learning how to lead.  And, of course, the more challenging the situation, the more there is to learn about leadership.  This past year has been an immensely challenging one for me as a leader and for the entire team.  But, I am starting to see how we have learned our way through this and we have risen to the many challenges inherent in this final year.”

The connection between leadership and learning is important. In one huge organization, we were told that it was decided not to waste money for leadership development on the top management team, “Once a person has risen through so many levels, they already know how to lead. People of this stature do not need leadership development.”

This appears logical. Yet it reflects a conventional assumption that is fundamentally incomplete. Leadership is far less about knowing and far more about learning in real time. The above person says, “I am starting to see how we have learned our way through this and we have risen to the many challenges inherent in this final year.”

In the conventional mindset, the organization is a technical system. The objective of management is to control the technical system. Knowledge is at a premium.   In the positive mindset, the organization is also a complex, adaptive, social system that is always changing. Learning is at a premium. A leader values knowledge while constantly engaged in learning.

There is another point to be made about this learning process. The message from our friend ended as follows: “As a result, we have continued to accomplish much during a period when momentum can, and often does, stop.  Seeing our progress as a leadership team and as an organization from this vantage point has convinced me that celebration of our efforts and accomplishments is not only proper but necessary.”

In very dark times stress goes up and we hold tightly to what we already know. Failure and the awareness of new challenges breed fear and reduce the capacity to learn.

If we live in the conventional mindset we see our failures and the emerging threats with fear that we deny. Our implicit signals become inauthentic. The positive mindset changes this. It makes us bilingual. We can see the failures but we can also see the accomplishments born of collective learning and progress. Strangely, celebration is “not only proper but necessary.”

Celebration in dark times sends an unexpected message. It calls the attention to the small wins they have been created. Doing so creates hope in the midst of despair. Leadership is about learning and a leader who is learning feels gratitude and creates hope. Hope is a rare and precious commodity in a dark organization. It calls people to purpose, integrity, communication and learning.



When have I been in a very dark, collective experience?

What did the people most need?

How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Problem Solving and Purpose Finding

We interviewed a man who was a university president and previously a dean of a medical school. He had been purpose driven from a young age and understood how to act as a purpose driven leader. Yet when he became dean he hired a coach. The task of the coach was to tell him over and over that problem solving was not leadership. “An administrator can effectively solve many problems while not advancing the institution at all.” A purpose driven leader understands this and continually orients self and others to purpose. Yet the pull of administrative problem solving never ends.

Most managers become comfortable with solving problems. To be comfort centered is natural. It means we strive to stay on the path of least resistance. We strive to stay in our zone of comfort, to do that which we already know how to do. Such behaviors preserve feelings of safety, security and control and allow us to allocate our energy in efficient ways. Yet over time our comfort zone turns into a prison.

As managers many of us live in such a prison. We call ourselves leaders but we see the management task as problem solving. Our job is to restore order, to return things to normal. We recognize the fact that taking initiative will bring adversity and increase our workload. So we avoid it.

Over time, we become disconnected to the larger, external system.   We lose energy and we experience many negative emotions. Being comfort centered we tend to languish and stagnate. We eventually move towards slow, psychological death. It is natural to manage, it is unnatural to be a purpose driven leader.

The challenge of leadership is to become bilingual. The challenge is to simultaneously solve problems, while continually finding purpose. Purpose finders enjoy motivation from within. They choose to grow and to grow others. They do this while continuing to solve the endless problems of administrative life. They continually solve problem while they continually find purpose.

A Positive, Empowering Organiztion

Occasionally there is a story of positive organizing that is so potent it must be told.

On August 12th I posted a list of characteristics for people who embrace the positive mental map. I listed 13, although there are many more. Here is the original list.

People who embrace and live the positive mental map:
• Embrace the common good
• Feel confident
• Seek growth
• Overcome constraints
• Expand their roles
• Express their authentic voice
• See and seize new opportunities
• Build social networks
• Nurture high-quality connections
• Embrace feedback
• Exceed expectations
• Learn and flourish

My daughter recently shared a story with me about a 23 year-old CEO who emulates every single one of these characteristics. I’d like to re-tell her story, highlighting the above characteristics throughout her story to illustrate how this CEO took her vision and created a positive organization. (Follow this link to the original story.)

Veronika Scott grew up with parents who were addicts and not a lot of hope. She was given an opportunity that she seized with both hands – a college scholarship. (seek growth, overcome constraints) It was in one of her classes at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit that the epiphany for her business was born. A teacher challenged them to create a product that would fill a need rather than something faddish. (See and seize new opportunities)

Homelessness is a problem in Detroit so Scott visited a homeless shelter. Her welcome was less than warm, but she persisted in interviewing them, trying to find a need she could fill and building relationships with them. (Build social networks, feel confident) Finally she decided to design a coat that transformed into a waterproof sleeping bag.

One day when she was handing out the sleeping bags, a homeless woman started screaming at her that they didn’t need sleeping bags – they needed jobs. She didn’t get upset, instead she recognized the truth in what this angry woman said (embrace feedback) and it occurred to her that she could hire the homeless women to help her make the coats. (Learn and flourish, expand their roles)

Scott said, “Everybody told me that my business was going to fail – not because of who I was giving my product to, but because of who I was hiring. They said that these homeless women will never make more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – you cannot rely on them for anything. And I know my ladies enjoy proving everybody wrong.”

Since late 2010, Scott and her 10 formerly homeless employees moved into a graffiti-covered building in an old Irish manufacturing neighborhood in Detroit where they have made more than 1,000 coats. Most have been distributed to homeless and this year she plans to make four times that many. (embrace the common good) She calls her company The Empowerment Plan.

She is starting to get the kind of publicity to raise real funds – $300,000 donated this year – with a goal of $700,000. These funds will help her hire more women and give warmth to more homeless folks. (nurture high quality connections)

In an interesting twist, she showed her coats at an Aspen fashion show where they generated a lot of interest. Now those Aspenites want the coats too. She is hoping to start a for-profit sister company to design the coats for the retail market and hire homeless to work there as well. (make spontaneous contributions) The Universe has an interesting way of rewarding passion and a focus on the common good. (exceed expectations)

Living from the positive mental map is a win-win. It has created a new life for Scott in which she is thriving. She has invited others to join her and is meeting a need for a large number of homeless people (warmth), and a smaller number of homeless women (jobs). The positive feelings are spreading and people want to contribute to the cause. Not only do they want to contribute, but they want to buy this product because it is a smart design. Scott will have the opportunity to create more jobs for people in need, to make a profit, and to help the larger economy. Truly an empowering plan.

(If you are interested in learning more about Veronika and her company, you can find them on Facebook.)


  • Which of these 13 characteristics are found in your organization?
  • How can you identify and follow your own passion to empower yourself and others?

The Power of the Hybrid Lens

There is a man I have known for decades. I will call him Kerry. He spent much of his professional life doing technical work. He has a tendency to be strong, factual, blunt, challenging and funny. He made a presentation and in it told a story that I had not heard before.

Kerry said that when he was 27 he left a union job, found a partner and started a business. A few years later it failed because of him. He said he was arrogant but did not know it. He was the owner and he was the expert in the technology.   He thought that the customers who complained usually did so because they were fools. He said this outlook eventually destroyed his company.

Kerry then spent many years doing technical work in a government organization. He also started a part-time business on the outside.   When he retired from the government, he turned his side business into a full time endeavor. It became quite successful.

Kerry then said that the second business was successful because he had experienced a religious conversion. It changed how he saw and treated customers. I asked for some examples.

He began to rattle them off. He told of receiving a call from a man who was furious over a product he had just purchased. The man used abusive language and made angry threats. Previously Kerry would have responded in kind. Instead he said, “I will be right there.”

When he arrived the customer was still angry. Kerry patiently listened and then asked for a demonstration of the problem. The man showed him what was wrong. He asked the man if he had read the instruction book. Somewhat sheepishly, the man said no. Instead of grinding on this fact, Kerry said, “You know I do the same thing, some of these instruction books seem impossible to read.”

Kerry then reviewed the first page of the book, pushed a button and the product worked perfectly. The man became embarrassed and began to apologize. Kerry interrupted him and told him a story of when he had done something very similar. The man was profuse in his thanks.

As Kerry then told multiple stories like this one. In most of the stories the people were troubled. Kerry went the extra mile to help them technically while simultaneously caring for them personally. Interestingly he said he did not treat these troubled customers with concern because he wanted to make money, he did it because he now authentically cared about them. Yet in many of the stories, the troubled customers returned to him with more business or they sent their friends with more business.

Kerry’s story seems so simple that our first reaction might be that everyone understands what is illustrated. While I agree that the story appears to be simple, I believe that under the story is a structure of importance.

At the outset Kerry is a very capable person with a conventional or technical perspective on life. The perspective is fraught with assumptions of hierarchy, technology, expertise, privilege, ego, power and authority. Kerry sees himself as independent, separated from others and he is free to act upon them.

His assumptions keep him from seeing a more complex view. Every interaction is part of a relationship. He lives in interdependence. His every feeling, thought and action has impact and the impact loops back and co-creates Kerry’s reality. These invisible loops, that he was very likely to deny or laugh at, were so important, that Kerry lost his business. Yet, even when it happened, he was not yet ready to learn and change.

It was only later, when a new life experience, in this case the events that comprise a religious conversion, deeply challenged his basic assumptions and required him to reconstruct his technical view of the world. In his new world he was still a technical expert but now he was also becoming a relational expert. He was learning how to love and therefore was becoming a more authentic human being.

Because of his personal transformation, Kerry combined a new, relational lens with his old technical lens. The new hybrid lens allowed him to see a more complex world.

He could see that hierarchies are also social networks. He could see that independence and interdependence operate simultaneously. He could see that every feeling, thought and action that he put into that network would in some way return to him. He could see that technical expertise is more valuable in relationships of mutual influence and learning. He could see that authority without concern is toxic and short term ego payoffs come at the price of long-term value creation.

In making these discoveries Kerry was combining his old, technical lens with a new relational lens. The new, hybrid lens allowed him to see and to speak differently. He had become bilingual.

In becoming bilingual, Kerry also became transformational. In every one of his stories, the presenting problem suggested some conventional reaction. In every case Kerry did not react as expected. Instead he engaged in unexpected, positive behavior. We call it positive deviance. In exercising positive deviance he invited the other person to move to a new, more positive state. In most cases they did and they were so grateful, they wanted to continue the relationship with Kerry. They trusted him and were willing to invest in him. Because Kerry was a transformational influence they were living better and so was he.



Who do you know who sees self as independent, separated from others and free to act upon them?

Who do you know who was once independent and is now interdependent?

How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?

What Ghandi Teaches us About the Emergent Process

Near the end of the 1982 film Gandhi, there is a scene that captures the emergent process. Gandhi announces that he will march 200 miles to the sea. There, in violation of British law, he will make salt. He sees salt as an important symbol. The sea belongs to India and yet Indians are not allowed to make salt. They must buy it from the British. During the march, he calls on all Indians to raise the flag of free India. The British decide to ignore the entire process.

Gandhi begins the march and a foreign correspondent named Vince Walker accompanies him. Walker writes for the New York Times. There are some British officers standing nearby. Walker asks if an arrest will end the process.

“Not if they arrest me and a thousand others. It is not only generals who can plan campaigns,” Gandhi replies.

Walker then asks, “What if they do not respond?”

Gandhi replies, “It is the function of a civil resistor to provoke and we will continue to provoke until they respond or change the law. They are not in control. We are.”

Here we might stop for a moment and think about this exchange. Is Gandhi correct? Is it possible for one man to be in control of the British Empire?

Gandhi is in control. The British are trapped in the assumptions of the conventional mental map, but Gandhi is bilingual. He can see things they cannot see. The blindness of the British is revealed in the next scene.

The march to the sea is successful. World reaction embarrasses the British, and the viceroy meets with his generals. The generals report that salt is being made everywhere. The leaders of congress are selling salt on the streets.

The viceroy orders the process stopped. He wants everyone but Gandhi arrested. The theory is to first cut Gandhi’s support out from under him and then deal with him later. In the scene that follows, a general reports that they have arrested nearly 100,000 people. All the leaders and all their families are in jail, and yet the process goes on. The enraged viceroy asks, “Who is leading them?”

The baffled general answers that he does not know.

Here we see the blindness of the British. It is a blindness shared by most of humankind. Living from the conventional mental map, the viceroy and generals assume a hierarchy exists. Their strategy is to remove the leaders from the top of the hierarchy so the organization will crumble. But, when they remove the leaders, something incomprehensible occurs. The movement grows and flourishes.

At this point in the story, Gandhi announces that the next day he will lead a march on the Dharasana Salt Works with the expressed purpose of closing it down. The viceroy, still operating from the conventional mental map, orders Gandhi’s arrest and demands that the salt works be kept open at all costs. In the next remarkable scene, hundreds of people line up outside the salt works. A man gives a simple speech. “They expect us to lose heart or to fight back; we will do neither.” Then, the first row of men walks slowly into the British lines, where they are clubbed and beaten. The women drag them away and apply first aid. The next row of men walks slowly into the clubs. The brutal, but inspiring, process continues.

Through it all, Walker is recording the event. He eventually goes to a phone and dictates the story to the New York Times. “Without any hope of escape from injury or death, it went on and on and into the night. Women carried the wounded and broken bodies from the road until they dropped from exhaustion. But still it went on and on. Whatever moral ascendancy the West held was lost here today. India is free. She has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.”

In fact, it would take several more years before the British formally withdrew from India. But this amazing event was the tipping point; it mattered as much as Walker suggests. It took place with Gandhi and all of India’s formal leaders in jail. The system of change was emergent and self-organizing. Gandhi understood something the viceroy and the generals could not understand. He knew how to initiate and trust the emergent process.

The Positive Organization – p.91

Expertise and the Paradox of Power

There is a very impressive woman I have known for a long time. Professionally she spent her life as a public school teacher. One day we were discussing the work I was doing interviewing highly effective teachers.   I mentioned that many of them seemed to be masterful facilitators. They could ask relevant questions, listen deeply to student answers and then weave a meaningful, collective conversation. They seemed different from their peers. Their classrooms were positive organizations where learning accelerated. She immediately responded, “I could never do that facilitator thing.”

I asked for clarification.   She said, “I was always afraid that if I opened things up, they would ask me a question I could not answer.”

I loved this response. She is doing something few people do, she is telling the truth about her own limitations. She is also, in one simple sentence, exposing a central life fear held by everyone. It is the nightmare thought that we will lose all credibility if our ignorance is exposed.

An expert is a specialist who has knowledge and skill in a given area. An expert can do things others cannot do. When we say, “That person is a professional,” we usually mean that they have deep understanding and proficiency. We bow to their authority, even if they are in a lower position in a hierarchy.

As human beings we all come to realize that expertise is a source of power. As we build our credibility in a given area we become more powerful. People listen to us because we know what we are talking about. This understanding gives rise to the “expert role.” When we hold certain positions the people around us expect us to know what we are talking about. As they send these expectations, we accept them and we take on the “role” of expert.   We also take on the fear of being exposed.

In the above case, a competent, adult woman is terrified that children might find out she cannot answer all their questions. The terror is based on an assumption. If she could not answer a question, she would lose credibility, respect, power and the ability to do her job. Her life would fall apart.

In the book, The Positive Organization I share the case of a CEO. In his eleven years at the top of the company he created a stellar record. Yet the first year was a disaster and he almost lost his job. In real time he had to discover the assumptions of positive organizing and become a bilingual leader.

The change was difficult. It required a transformation in his identity. At the end of our interview he said that all the problems of his first year could be summed up in one word. He believed that he had to be the “expert.” He had to know all the answers in all situations. As he moved to the deeper understanding that crisis brings, he was able to transcend the expert role. He was able to relate to his people in a new way. He was able to listen and facilitate the emergence of collective intelligence. Groups could function as a whole. The organization became an innovative, learning organization that could move forward than competitors.

From small children to public school teachers to CEOs of large companies, we all understand the need to play the expert role. The need to play the expert role is based on one of the many fear-based assumptions at the heart of the conventional perspective. The shift out of the expert role requires a personal transformation and leads to an extraordinary discovery.

Several years ago I began working with a woman who was interested in positive organizing. She took a class and had several key insights. She began to apply the concepts of positive organizing in her job. She had a few small victories so she continued to experiment. Eventually she had some large victories and she became hungry to know all about the positive perspective. In the process she decided to enroll in a master’s program on executive coaching. I asked her how it was going.

She said, “The most striking thing is that I have learned to listen. It sounds easy, but it is not. I never knew what it meant to stop thinking about what to say next, but to instead, really listen and be with others in a relationship of mutual exploration and learning.”

She paused and then her face lit up and she said something very important. “I never dreamed that learning to listen could make me more powerful. In my job I am applying what I learned about listening. I am having more impact on the organization than I ever have. Because I have learned to listen, I am more powerful.”

There is a great paradox which cannot be understood or resolved by fear-based, conventional logic. Yet resolving it is the key to positive leadership. As we mature we grasp the expert role and hold it tightly. We believe it to be the source of our power and it is. Yet relying solely on expert power greatly limits our power. We do not reach our potential as leaders until we transcend the expert role and learn to create relationships in which collective intelligence can flourish.

Remember the positive perspective is inclusive. In becoming a facilitator we do not lose our expertise. Instead we gain and integrate the expertise of everyone.


Who do I know who is terrified of leaving the expert role?

What do I believe about the power of listening?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Breaking Down Invisible Barriers

My son-in-law James is multilingual.  We spoke at length about the process of learning new languages and how that connects to adding the language of the positive mental map to the conventional map.  In our conversation about becoming bilingual he made an important observation about posturing, authenticity and bonding.

“When I walk in to any restaurant in the Republic of Georgia (where he was living at that time), they automatically know I’m not an native.  So they are gearing up to try and use English.  This may make them less approachable and that will influence our interactions because we are both feeling fear.  Both of us are afraid the other will judge our ability to communicate.  So I try to employ humor or I ask for help, or I do something to be vulnerable.  If I am speaking authentically, it helps break down the language barrier.

If I am speaking their language to show off, which I’ve done, I’m simply speaking to impress the person I’m with.  Whenever I do that, it’s not authentic and it results in greater distance and no connection.  I’ve learned over and over the hard way that whenever I employ my foreign language for the purpose of impressing others, it hurts communication.  When I lose the front and I’m authentic and vulnerable and open to learning and trying to connect, they relax, they open up, and they usually laugh.  Fear can disappear. ”

-The Positive Organization, p. 49-51