From Dread to Purpose

A man who works in the federal government shared a remarkable story.  He handles the press and he was assigned to be part of an open hearing on a volatile subject.  It was his first such event and he naturally carried some fear.  In a conversation with a colleague, he learned she had run such a session.  He was surprised when she shared her experiences with enthusiasm.
She told me her purpose in those meetings was to listen to people, to let them be heard, and that she saw her role as helping to “lower the temperature in the room.”  For example, one protestor wrapped himself in a flag and walked to the front of the hall and blocked the stage where she was sitting.  Her colleagues said, “Aren’t you going to ask him to move?”  She replied, “Why?  The meeting hasn’t started yet.  He’s not disturbing anyone.”  As the meeting began, the protestor moved away from the stage and the meeting began in an orderly fashion.

She also told me how their plane was grounded in Chicago en route to a public meeting.  She and her team decided to rent cars and they drove 11 hours, slept four hours, then got up and worked all day to prepare for the meeting.  That night the meeting was supposed to end around 8:00 PM; instead, she allowed it to go until past 11:00 PM to ensure everyone who had come got a chance to speak their mind.  The she proudly said, “You should see the photo from the end of that night.  Our team was exhausted, but we were all smiling.”

Nearing the end of our interview, I said, “It seems like you came out unscathed.  How did you do that?”  She said, “Leading those meetings was one of the highlights of my career.”  She again spoke of the team she worked with and how they were united and how the meetings were an expression of democracy.

This conversation had great impact on my friend.  He began to focus on the higher purpose and it turned his emotions positive.  When he arrived at the appointed place, his colleagues were deeply concerned about what might happen.

We expected there would be protesters and some of individuals might arrive intoxicated and fights might break out.  As our security colleagues briefed us on countermeasures, I listened and tried to learn everyone’s names.  A question came up about what we should say to the media and someone asked me to stand and speak to that point.  I encouraged the group to send journalists my way as I was prepared to offer on-the-record statements, if need be. 

After I finished answering my colleagues’ questions, I felt I should say one more thing.  I related the previous conversation with my colleague.  I told the group that she had seen those meetings as a highlight of her career and she had spoken of the dignity of democratic processes like this one.  After I shared that, I sat down.  Later, I was surprised as several individuals approached me privately and told me how much they appreciated what I had shared.

The meeting went smoothly and about 175 people attended and voiced their opinions in spirited but civil conversations for and against the subject in question.  I engaged several visitors and I felt it was an honor to hear their stories.  I am grateful for our public meeting.

On a daily basis, each of us deals with expectations to do something that creates a sense of dread.  The task becomes a problem to solve.  We approach the problem in anxiety.  When we clarify our highest purpose, we put ourselves into a contributive state.  We become servants of the purpose.  Anxiety declines and performance tends to climb.  How we frame what we are obliged to do changes the quality of the experience and the quality of our lives.


  • What is the next activity you will engage with a sense of duty and dread?
  • What is the highest purpose to be served in the activity?
  • What might happen if you go to the activity carrying vision, commitment, and hope?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Expectations of a Leader

Months ago I was invited to have lunch with a man named R. D. Thulasiraj.  I was told he is an amazing person who played a role in successfully bringing high quality eye care to masses of poor people in India.  He is now trying to bring the same quality care to the multitudes in developing countries.  One plank in the strategy is a mentoring program for professionals in those countries.  Prior to his arrival, he sent a list of things that concerned him while pursuing his purpose in the developing world.  After reading his list of challenges, I reconstructed his underlying theory of leadership by turning the challenges into expectation statements and laying them out on the four quadrants of the competing values framework.  As you read the list, ask yourself what they tell you about the man.


Strategic Growth: Vision and Change

  • Instead of struggling to address operational challenges, leaders focus on institution building.
  • Leaders have a drive for growth or a fast track growth curve.
  • Leaders regularly articulate the organization’s mission or values.
  • Leaders step out of the realm of what is possible and push the organization to do what is necessary.  They take risks to create what is needed.
  • Leaders have a sense of urgency to make course correction that improves results.
  • When facing a challenge leaders try new ideas and they review and improvise.
  • While leaders focus on day-to-day operations, they also focus on developmental work, be it operational or strategic.

Achievement Focus: Accountability and Impact

  • Leaders do not tolerate poor outcomes or poor documentation: they establish high standards.
  • Leaders are disciplined in following up in the implementation of the new process.
  • Leaders do not externalize problems such as under performance; instead they propose or experiment with newer approaches.
  • Leaders do not micro manage or over delegate, they hold their staffs accountable.

Operational Discipline: Analysis and Quality

  • Leaders have a mindset for quality, constantly pushing for perfection.
  • Leaders do not react to superficial analysis but go for in-depth analysis of detail to understand the root cause of the problem.
  • Leader do not rely on intuition when they can generate evidence and analysis to make decisions to improve operations.

Relational Engagement: Support and Collaboration

  • When faced with challenges, leaders seek out help or support.
  • The staff is aligned and fully engaged.


As I completed the analysis, I concluded the man I was about to meet truly was a transformational leader.  He understood what it means to build an organization of excellence.

The lunch meeting finally arrived.  I was introduced to a man from India who appeared both gentle and wise.  In less than sixty seconds, I also concluded that this man of great accomplishment had little ego; instead, he was wedded to the common good.  He spoke to me as if he had always known me.  I felt immediate trust.  Yet as he spoke, I sensed a laser like focus on purpose and discipline.  The drive to excellence that permeated his list of challenges also permeated his comments.  He was interested in accomplishing his purpose and he was hungry for any idea that would allow him to do so.  When our lunch ended, I felt I had spent an hour in the presence of greatness, in the presence of a human being who had programed himself to make a difference in every conversation and every other moment of potential influence.



  • What do you learn about the man from reading the list of expectations?
  • Which of the expectations do you hold for your own people?
  • Why do people who have nurtured great transformations have such expectations?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?





The Mastery of Leadership: A Reminder from Baseball

Recently the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in baseball.  As the drama was unfolding Alex Cora, the manager of the Red Sox, received much praise for the quality of his decision making.   Alex Speier of the Boston Globe wrote an article (October 26, 2018) about it.

His source was the professional agent, Scott Boras.  Boras has known Cora for a long time.  He believes Cora has created an entirely new discipline and he calls it Coralytics.

Baseball has transformed and it is now heavily influenced by statistical analysis.  The Red Sox are among the leaders in this trend.  They make great amounts of data available to Cora who appreciates and uses the data.

Yet Boras points out that Cora also has another side, a deep appreciation for the culture of baseball and the personalities and needs of his players.  He reads real cues that others do not notice.  He combines analytics with intuitive feel and the demonstration of concern.  Boras suggests that Cora thus maintains a synergy between the use of analytic numbers and the psychology of his players.

Boras argues that Cora sees the numbers, sees the situation, and sees the player and makes unique decisions in real time.  Sometimes he even sees a human factor that leads him to go against the numbers.  A prime example was the decision to stick with Jackie Bradley Jr, despite the fact that through the whole first half of the season, Bradley produced horrendous numbers.  Cora was sure the Bradley would recover.  Bradley did recover and he made a big difference.

Cora’s success is tied to his capacity to differentiate and integrate.  He can work from numbers, he can work from deep intuition, and he can work from both simultaneously.  Knowing how to integrate them is a form of mastery and Boras calls it Coralytics.

I love the description, but the insight is not new.  For a long time science has indicated that the very best leaders operate from both sides of their brains.  Managers do not become leaders until they evolve.  Effective leaders are high on task analysis and pursuit and they are also high on human sensitivity and support.  They see the realities of measurement and they see the realities of human possibility.  They make decisions and hold conversations that lead to the realization of possibility.

In similar article on Cora, Tim Keown of ESPN writes the following.  “And yet there are no numbers to ascertain the importance of a manager’s spirit, and the way his humanity can embolden and inspire his players. Asked whether he ever gets angry with his players — in other words: Is your calm exterior an elaborate lie? — he said, ‘No, I don’t. I talk to them. If I have something to tell them, I just sit with them. Casual, very casual. I try to have good conversations.’”



  • In your leading how much emphasis in on numbers (task) and how much on people?
  • Why are the best leaders high on task and high on people?
  • What could you do today, to create better conversations?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Abundance of Wise Leadership

The Academy of Management meets annually. This year I was particularly struck by a panel in which I participated. It was called, Where have the Wise Leaders Gone? It was designed so scholars representing the great religious traditions could explore basic notions regarding the development of wise leadership across traditions and see the connection to modern science.

One man examined Taoism. He said that our unique self originates in the immortal. By cultivating the mind, we return to the immortal. Virtue is excellence. We develop virtue through contemplative practices. When we cultivate virtue, we return to the source and we are enlightened and we become one with source or the expression of Tao in the world.

The next man reviewed Buddhism and said similar things about contemplative practices, enlightenment and the state of oneness. We come to know ourselves through self-actualization. We become virtuous and give ourselves away through self-transcendence. Leadership happens in a community of practice. Leadership is a selfless focus on the well-being of others and influencing by becoming an example of excellence.

When I eventually stood, I felt a need to answer the question: where have all the wise leaders gone? I said I was taken by the notions of leadership as cultivation of the mind, self-understanding followed by self-transcendence, and the exemplification of virtue or excellence through selfless love. I had just come from a session in which I had declared “leadership is understood by shifting from the conventional assumption that culture triumphs over conscience to the unconventional assumption of culture being driven by conscience.”

I told them I would like to make a stark shift and move from the realm of conceptualization to the realm of action. I gave the audience an exercise: each person was to tell a story about the one person who left the most positive legacy in their life. After their discussions, I asked each pair to identify a characteristic shared by the two mentors they described. I integrated their answers with the science of transformational leadership which suggests leaders model excellence, show love, inspire possibility, and stimulate developmental thoughts. I then connected these principles back to the principles of selflessness and example.

I pointed out there is a natural defensiveness with which we block both the ancient traditions and the modern theories of excellence. They hold too much accountability. They call for us to become who we really are and we fear the process of becoming our best self.

I then pointed out that the world is full of wise leaders: everyone in the room had a mother, a teacher, a coach, or a boss that exemplified the principles of wise leadership. Wise leadership is rare because it is exemplified by 1 in 100, but it is abundant because there are millions of 100s.

I then asked a personal question. “Given what you now know about the fruits of wise leadership in your own life, how would you like to change yourself right now?” This was a meaningful moment.

Afterwards I had a sacred experience. I was surrounded by a diverse group of people representing many countries. Each was authentically interested in making the world a better place by making themselves better. I felt a union with them. I was surrounded by wise leaders.


  • What is social excellence?
  • What is self-transcendence?
  • What can we learn by observing the most positive contributors to our own lives?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Becoming a Dynamic Whole

Development means growing and increasing in wisdom and capacity. I spend a lot of time developing senior leaders and I continually hear myself saying, “You need to see the dynamic whole, and you will see the dynamic whole when you become a dynamic whole.”

Often they greet this statement with a look of confusion. In conventional thought, we spend much time analyzing fixed parts linked in linear relationships. We also tend to see ourselves as a thing, a fixed entity. As we evolve into leaders, we become a dynamic whole and we begin to see the dynamic whole of which we are a part. Another way to say this is we can come to see ourselves as an eco-system that sees the eco-systems of which we are a part.

The term “eco-system” comes from the work of Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer. They see the eco perspective as an orientation that people take when they try to move themselves and others from an entrenched way of seeing to the embrace and enactment of the emerging future. It is a shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. They write:

This inner shift, from fighting the old to sensing and presencing an emerging future possibility, is at the core of all deep leadership work today. It’s a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart. It is a shift from an ego-system awareness that cares about the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well-being of all, including one’s self. When operating with an eco-system awareness, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of our emerging or essential self – that is by a concern that is informed by the well-being of the whole. The prefix eco- goes back to the Greek oikos and concerns the “whole house.” The word economy can be traced back to this same root. Transforming our current ego-system economy into an emerging eco-system economy means reconnecting economic thinking with its real root, which is the well-being of the whole house rather than the money-making or the well-being of just a few of its inhabitants….

The authors go on to indicate that in responding to the emerging future, judgments must be suspended and attention refocused. One must let go of the past and embrace the future that is trying to emerge through us. This is what they mean by “presencing” the future. We must become a manifestation of the future that is trying to unfold. They argue that it is perhaps the most important leadership capacity.


  • What is the implication of seeing self and others as fixed?
  • What does it mean to lead by presencing the future?
  • In your unit, is there a need for presencing the future?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Anxiety, Contribution, and Learning

A friend is moving into a new job assignment. He is feeling some anxiety. He and my son Shawn were talking about the challenge. He wrote of the conversation and how it shaped him. I believe he gives us an important lesson.

At one point, Shawn told me about a man who tried hard to create a positive culture in his workplace.  At the end of a dynamic year, he said, “I have failed more this past year than ever before.  And I have succeeded more than ever before.”  As I listened to Shawn, I felt a strong attraction to this idea: to grow professionally, I need to try new things, fail, and learn from failure so I can succeed in more meaningful ways.

I listed all the bureaucratic constraints I would soon be facing. Shawn asked me about my purpose statement, and we discussed the notion that it continually evolves as we understand it better.  I shared some stories.  Shawn noticed an important detail: in addition to organizing innovative, collective efforts, I seemed to be at my best when I was listening carefully to and learning the needs of the people around me.  This idea opened something within me.  It gave me a clear place to start in any anxiety-inducing situation: first, listen deeply. 

As I considered entering my new job, I determined to listen deeply and serve my new colleagues in small and simple ways.  As I forget myself, cast out my fears, and work hard to learn, I will build honest relationships of trust and love. I will come to understand the needs of the individuals and the organization.  As I do this, I will counsel together with my new colleagues regarding our path forward. 



  • To what extent do you believe the following proposition; “To grow professionally, I need to try new things, fail, and learn from failure so I can succeed in more meaningful ways.”
  • Why is it natural to feel anxiety when we enter a new challenge?
  • Why is it helpful to clarify our strengths and our contributive purpose?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Addressing Authentic Questions

An authentic question is a question we really care about and to which we have no answer. Recently 20 wonderful people spent two days with me. On the first day, I asked them to list their authentic questions. They produced the following list.

  • I am exhausted. How do I get back my creative self?
  • When I get back, how do I maintain my best self?
  • What do I do next week to make a difference?
  • How do I become positive and not turn others off?
  • How do I engage my people by utilizing their strengths?
  • What do I do if I have a truly evil boss?
  • If I forgive someone, do I have to trust them?

The next morning I was up a 4:00 AM staring at the questions. It took me two hours to write the following assignment.

Assignment: Step into your best self. Then answer the following questions, not with an answer but with a simple question that will transform the conventional perspective of the person asking the question.

I asked everyone to write a transformational question for each of the above authentic questions. We then debriefed. In regards to the first question about burnout, for example, a woman asked, “What gives you joy?” I asked her to elaborate. She explained that instead of focusing on why we are burning out, we could focus on what gives us joy and consciously build more joy into our work.

Others came up with similar insightful questions. The person who originated the authentic question made notes on the conversation. When it was over, he had ten practical actions he could take. He said he was going to take them all. The process repeated for each of the remaining questions. As I drove home, I was consumed with the magical learning that had just taken place. In a simple exercise, some major theories of change came together and learning skyrocketed.



  • Why did it take two hours to create the two-sentence assignment?
  • Why did the process have so much impact?
  • What is the everyday application of this case?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Creating A Vision

There is a woman who works in development at a large university. She has a team that raises money for the medical system. She describes how she is going about the process of creating a shared vision.

About a year and a half ago, I accepted a new position and was assigned seven employees. Prior to my arrival, they had been a part of a larger group that had gone through an extraordinary amount of change in management, organizational restructuring, and support.

I sensed that the group might be willing to experiment applying your exercise of envisioning and defining them as a positive organization.

We organized a 2½-hour mini-retreat with lunch and held the meeting in one of the newest and medically advanced buildings on campus purposely, where new ideas in scientific discovery take place and where the windows overlook the medical complex–our territory.

I asked them ahead of time to complete the exercises. “What key words and phrases describe our team? When are we at our best? Write a definition of what our team might be as a positive organization.”

I read my vision of our higher purpose, “Philanthropy means the love of humanity, the desire to promote the welfare of others.”

These words resonated and became part of our theme for the day.

They took the exercise to heart and the large white board was overflowing with new words that none of us had expressed before: “truth becomes more important than power”; “recruit for values”; “train for skills”; and “take risks” and “we may fail, but we learn.”

We shared combined larger phrases and came up with five different viewpoints of us as a team, as a positive organization. We read out loud to each other; here is one of them.

“An environment where individuals are empowered to be kind, curious, and creative, while working in teams to support and motivate each other to achieve a common vision.”

Since then, we combined the words and phrases, weighted them, and came up with two Wordles, designed in Michigan colors, and disseminated them to the team to display our purpose, for daily inspiration.

Future meeting agendas will print these at the bottom of the page. Next our team plans are to take key words–like “honest and transparent”–and articulate a larger definition and what this means to us.

Words expressed after doing this exercise included, “For the first time, I felt valued for my contributions,” and “I enjoyed this experience with my team.”

The philanthropy mantra has been disseminated at one of our faculty meetings and the ultimate compliment, used by one of our long-respected faculty leaders to begin his presentation at an international conference.



  • In conventional organizations, process like this one tend not to occur. Why?
  • What aspects of the described process do your find most impressive?
  • Why is the process extending over a long period?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Learning How to Talk for the Organization

We were with the president of an organization. He spoke of positive communication and collective performance. He said, that in making decisions, how people communicate matters. They have the courage to speak with authenticity and vulnerability. They have to not only share what they know, they also have to share what they do not know. They are not in the room to demonstrate their expertise, they are in the room for a higher purpose and to pursue it they have to create collective intelligence or the ability to co-create learning at an elevated level.

By way of illustration he told us of his first meeting as president. There was a problem he could not solve. He presented the problem to his people. They were making no progress. He pointed out that no one in the room had the answer and they had to learn their way into the answer. Then he shocked them by saying, “You have to tell me what you really feel.”

He explained that the strong personalities in the room needed to share feelings and listen with respect. They needed to build trust so the social network could be transformed into a highly cohesive learning system. If one person could share honest feelings with tentativeness, another might offer a strategy, and then another might respectfully and constructively challenge either or both. The first two might then gladly withdraw their inputs. This would signal that the meeting was an authentic learning conversation, and the signal might inspire still another to offer a new and equally tentative possibility.

He then gave a personal example. He said, “My wife and I had to learn how to communicate. We are no longer interested in who is right or wrong but in what is best for the family. We express the feelings of our hearts and we search to establish common ground. We do this without ever breaking the relationship. You have to be careful, if you state your opinion too strongly, you shut down conversation.”


  • What emerges when people authentically share what they feel, including their ignorance?
  • Why do the feelings and proposals need to be stated tentatively?
  • Why is it necessary to put the good of the collective ahead of ego?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Life Metaphor and a Transformational Father

Jim Mahoney is a national force in public education. Even in retirement he continually speaks to and inspires large groups. In his presentations he uses powerful stories to illustrate his points. Recently I asked Jim to share with me the most important story he has to tell. He wrestled with the notion and then shared the following. He says the story is the central metaphor of his life. I think we should each search for and deeply ponder our own most important story.

Embedded in Jim’s story is a second story. It is also worthy of deep consideration.

Red Brick Hill

As a child, I lived with my paternal grandmother in an area of our small town known as Boxtown. Some referred to the area as “the hill” because from the top you easily see most of the town below. One Saturday, when I was nine years old, my dad, who was visiting from the city where he worked as a machinist, took me to the Western Auto to purchase my first two-wheel bicycle. It was red and if I sat in the seat the tip toes of my feet would barely touch the ground keeping me balanced.

 My dad let me ride it home, which was approximately a mile away. All was fine until I got to the bottom of “the hill,” which consisted of 600 feet of red brick followed by a left turn of another 150 feet before you reached our house and the top of the hill. My dad yelled from his car window, “Pedal hard, you can do this!” And so I started up the long red brick hill.

As each pedal on each side of the bicycle would reach its top height, I would push down hard for the other side to come up with just enough force to keep the bike moving forward. I was completely standing up pumping as hard as I could to make it up the hill that had a 45 degree angle. Each time, when I thought the bike was going to stop moving and fall sideways, I would push through another downward motion to keep the momentum going.  

Out of breath and fully red-faced, I just kept going until I made the left turn and made it to the top of the hill. I was elated and tired when I made it to the front of my grandmother’s house. I had pumped my bicycle the entire red brick hill!  

This singular event became a metaphor for every obstacle I ever had after that point. Though I couldn’t express it, born in that event was the notion that to develop confidence you need to successfully complete something hard.

Pumping the red brick hill was hard to do. And while I physically did it, my journey was helped more than a little by the encouraging, insisting, and supporting voice of my dad—“Keep going! Don’t stop now! C’mon, boy, you’re almost there.” That encouragement and support from him was always there.  

Then and now, my life continues to be climbing yet another red brick hill. There were always obstacles, but support shows you how, encouragement says you can, and confidence comes from overcoming the challenge. But it started with the red brick hill. 

The Second Story

Jim’s story is a story of resilience, of learning to live with grit. It is the most important metaphor in Jim’s life. Yet it is also a story about his father. It is the story of a transformational leader. Transformational leaders simultaneously challenge and support while followers grow and become. It should not be surprising that the direct reports of transformational leaders are transformational leaders. Jim’s dad, a machinist, was a transformational leader who produced a son who is a transformational leader.



  • What story is the central metaphor of your life?
  • Who in your life is most like Jim’s father?
  • What could you do today to become more like Jim’s father?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?