An Incomprehensible Aspect of Higher Purpose

A friend helps companies discover their highest purpose. He described a leader he is working with. The leader said, “We have a financial problem. We are going to put aside our work on purpose until we can fix the financial picture.”

In this very conventional sentence, the leader conveys why so many organizations fail at purpose work. I once was slated to speak to a company’s leadership team at dinner. In the hours before dinner, all the managers met in small groups to do the unpleasant work of downsizing. When I went on, I asked how many began their downsizing efforts with an examination of the company’s purpose and values. The answer was zero. They could not imagine why they should do such a thing. They had a real problem to solve. It was like the above financial problem. It had nothing to do with purpose or values.

They were right. Their problem solving had nothing to do with their purpose and values. In fact, despite signs on the wall, they did not have a purpose or values. If the words on the wall were authentic, they would have required themselves do the downsizing in a unique way. Every person who left or stayed would have had an experience demonstrating that the company values people and has a positive culture.

In most companies, the process of purpose finding is a technique. It is executed because of external social pressure. Today every organization is expected to have a purpose statement.

If the above CEO understood organizational purpose, finding it would have been his highest priority. The purpose would have guided the financial problem-solving process. The process would have unfolded as never before and it would have created a more positive culture and a more valuable organization. Since the conventional mind cannot conceive of an “authentic” higher purpose that guides every action, stating an organizational purpose is an exercise in hypocrisy and it does positive harm in an organization.


  • What conventional logic explains why the CEO put off purpose finding?
  • What conventional logic explains why the downsizing was not guided by purpose?
  • Why does stating a higher purpose often do positive harm in an organization?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Positive Leadership, Positive Culture

Note: The first part of this passage was posted before. Here a new story has been added. I think the passage takes on greater value.

I know a woman who holds a first level job in a large organization. She told me of the day in which the workforce was suddenly downsized. People were told that they no longer had jobs and security officers immediately escorted them off the premises. Although it had been six months since the event, in telling me the story, my friend cried and her body actually quivered.

It seemed to me that she was as traumatized as if she had witnessed the rape of a family member. Still worse, she had to cope with the fact that the perpetrator was at large and she might yet be a victim. She said that, despite the fact she kept her job, her perception of the company and of her role in it has completely changed.   If she were ever able, she would leave the company. Many of her peers feel the same. They show up to work but they are fundamentally uncommitted. The company is now functioning with an army of unengaged people. The capacity to produce wealth is drastically reduced.

Why do intelligent people do this?

The key word is convention. The executives who designed the downsizing were following conventional, problem solving assumptions. They went to conventional HR leaders and conventional lawyers who gave conventional advice on how to solve what is now a conventional problem. Conventional thinking is based on transactional assumptions. It reduces the whole (culture) to the part (individual people). It focuses on the reduction of discomfort in those of power.   It narrows in on the immediate problem to be solved which is to get unwanted people (that is, human trash) out the door with least risk. It does not see the future of the culture. It does not recognize that every act of turning a person into an object stays in the human network and breeds fear, distrust and the pursuit of self-interest.

All of this is compounded by the limitations of conventional measurement. The financial implications of massive disengagement are very large but usually the loss is unrecognized and, even if it was recognized, no one would be held accountable. In such situations we actually expect and accept conventional, bad management and conventional, bad outcomes. We see them as normal and we see no other alternative.

What is the alternative?

I was part of a video project in which I interviewed a man who has been a successful, life-long entrepreneur. He believes in rigorous business discipline. He also believes in rigorous personal discipline. He strives to live at a higher level of consciousness.

During the interview, he shared the story of the “hardest thing” he ever had to do. He had an organization of 80 people. A recession hit and it was necessary to let 20% of his people go. He eventually gathered them and shared the dreadful news. When he finished, all 80 gave him a standing ovation.

This claim is surprising because it violates our conventional assumptions. A standing ovation is an act of collective recognition given for a demonstration of excellence. Why would people give a standing ovation to the person who just fired them? I posed this puzzle to 20 executives. In three minutes of serious discussion they came up with the correct answers:

  • The people knew the man was authentic and he would never deceive them.
  • They people knew he was acting for the common good.
  • The people knew he had tried every other avenue.
  • The people knew he genuinely valued them and was suffering with them.
  • The people knew he would do anything to help them get new work.
  • The people were witnessing excellence in leadership.

I shared this account with a friend who is a noted consultant. He told me of a downsizing in a large company that also produced a standing ovation. The event took place in an organization that has a strong reputation as a positive company. The CEO flew across the country with his eight top people. They held a meeting, shared all relevant data and announced the downsizing. They also announced that the next day each of the eight was assigned a room and would be there all day. Everyone was invited to meet and share what they felt. The eight were in discussions with employees the entire day. From 5 PM to 10 PM the eight met and shared what they learned. The next day another meeting was held. The CEO listed all the things they learned and shared the things they were going to do to help people as they transitioned. At the conclusion the people being fired gave a standing ovation.

Why did they do this? To answer this question, please revisit the above list. The two stories are the same story. While most authority figures live from the conventional mental map, a few live from the positive mental map. While they accomplish the immediate task — downsizing — they simultaneously create an even more positive culture. So it is with every immediate task.

This appears to sound mysterious and even objectionable. Yet consider this. In three minutes of deep thinking, 20 executives could come up with the explanation for the standing ovation. While our behavior tends to be driven by the assumptions of convention, deep within each of us, is an understanding of the path to organizational excellence or positive organizing. There are many external incentives that keep us from accessing this deep understanding. To bring the deep understanding to the realm of action requires that we commit to and sacrifice for the common good. It requires that we give our hearts as well as our heads. When we do we give the whole self and others give us standing ovations.



What is a positive culture?

What is positive leadership?

How does a positive leader create a positive culture?



Choosing Slow Death: Manager 2

The second Manager I spoke to described the slow death process at his company this way.

“Slow death is what we are about — a conservative, ‘Don’t rock the boat’ culture: executives three to five years from retirement, little long-range planning, no vision, and denial of all external criticism.  We make superficial changes…but we make no real change in our basic structures and processes.  We are on a course that is clear to all.”

Large hierarchies are a natural seedbed for the emergence of a conservative culture.  Constructive disagreement is a sign of organizational health, but in a conservative culture criticism is often stifled.  A climate of constructive conflict indicates effective leadership.  In this case the manager’s last sentence is an interesting one.  He points out that everyone recognizes where the organization is probably headed: first to a crisis, then to the same downsizing process mentioned in the first case.


Are any of these patterns familiar?

Have you experienced them in your own organization?

What could you or other leaders have done to halt the process of slow death and turn it around?

(The Deep Change Field Guide, p. 31-34)

Choosing Slow Death: Manager 1

When people put their own good ahead of the organizational good, they are contributing to the process of slow death in their organizations.  Here is how one manager described the slow death process in his organization:

“We chose slow death three years ago.  The organization gave up significant position in the industry because of an internal conflict between divisions with opposing philosophies.  We needed real change, and everyone knew it.  Yet no one was willing to engage it.  The result was that we went from thirty-one thousand people to fewer than fifteen thousand in a two-year period.  We are no longer a significant player, and there is no hope for the future.  It is now just a matter of time.”

I seldom do an organizational diagnosis without finding at least one example of intergroup conflict.  It is often ignored because no one can imagine how to transform the conflict into collaboration.  Yet transforming conflict into collaboration is the essence of leadership.  In this executive’s case the conflict gave rise to the slow death process, and the absence of real leadership allowed it to grow into the need for major downsizing.

Over the next few days, I will share 5 more examples from Managers that illustrate how slow death occurred in their organization.  I encourage you to think about what the executive’s statements have in common, and why the patterns you identify keep happening again and again.



Are any of these patterns familiar?

Have you experienced them in your own organization?

What could you or other leaders have done to halt the process of slow death and turn it around?

(The Deep Change Field Guide, p. 31-34)