A Simple Practice that will Turn any Manager into a Leader

A friend wrote of his leadership experience in one of the most criticized federal bureaucracies, the Veteran’s Administration. Everyone knows you cannot bring change in the Veteran’s Administration. His claim of success would seem impossible. The practice that brought the outcome is startling, simple, practical, and scientifically sound. I am going to recommend it to everyone I teach. I suspect most will resist and a few will use it and flourish.

First, consider the claim. Over the 25 years, his psychiatric service continually grew, reaching “tens of thousands who needed care.” One reason is that the organization was able to do something other rural services could not do. They continually “attracted” top talent. His boss told my friend he had never seen anyone so lucky.

The service seemed to “draw” all kinds of other resources, including money. Washington regularly increased their budget because his people did what they said they would do. They were seen as giving Washington greater bang for the buck.

This claim of excellence, thriving, and growth in this particular federal bureaucracy is unconventional. What is the practice that he claims produced this success?

The answer is consistent with leadership research. He forced himself to acquire moral power or idealized influence. This was accomplished by a two-step process.

First, he worked hard to clarify his own beliefs about the moral foundations of leadership.

He then shared a written statement of his leadership ideals and invited his people to challenge his hypocrisy whenever he strayed. This was a courageous act that signaled he really was a leader. Most authority figures are not leaders. They are more concerned with their ego than their morality. To specify one’s deepest leadership beliefs and ask to be held accountable from the bottom up is a brilliant and frightening act. I am going to suggest it to everyone I teach.

 

Reflection

  • What is moral power and why is it essential to leadership?
  • Why does the above practice demonstrate real leadership?
  • Why wouldn’t every manager engage in this practice, and what does your answer tell you about professional life?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

 

Basic Goodness

In a professional conference, I facilitated a panel discussion. The topic was The Positive Lens and the Acceleration of Development. One of the panel members was Trugram Gyalwa Rinoche. At 18 months, he was identified as a lama incarnate. At four, he entered a Buddhist monastery. As an adult, he left the monastery to obtain a doctorate at Harvard. He is currently creating a center for meditation.

During the session, he spoke with insight and simplicity about the mind and the process of living a conscious life. At one point, he said, “Mindfulness leads to an understanding of the basic goodness of one’s self.”

Afterwards we had a meal and a meaningful discussion. I told him I was fascinated with the notion of finding our basic goodness.

He said that we have all the resources we need to find our basic goodness. We simply need to take care of our minds. The objective is to remain conscious in challenging moments, to turn our emotions positive. Three keys to this discipline are perception, conception, and consciousness.

When something happens, we have a perception and in the non-thinking mind we have a reaction. Then we have a conception: we interpret the event. Then we have an emotion. If we interpret the event as bad, the emergent emotion is negative.

At that moment of interpretation and emotion, we have a choice. The emotion is like the air in a balloon. It is simply energy. The negative energy can be transformed into positive energy. The key is to learn to look inside, to see the process, and to take charge of transforming the energy. Through mindful engagement, we can come to understand the basic goodness in the self.

Reflection

  • What does it mean to “understand the basic goodness of one’s self?”
  • How does being in touch with your basic goodness accelerate development?
  • How could you be in better touch with your basic goodness today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

How to Lead a Demon

Many educational sessions are conventional. The teacher provides information consistent with existing beliefs. The participant listens and gains a small increment of knowledge. They already know, for example, that 2+2 = 4. Now they learn that 3+3 = 6. They have gained an increment of knowledge consistent with their underlying framework, but the underlying framework is unchanged.

Some sessions result in deeper learning. The teacher focuses on a topic that is relevant and creates a context that is both safe and challenging. The participants become more deeply engaged. Some participants take the risk of responding to questions with increased authenticity. A sense of vulnerability and trust begins to permeate the room and the human network becomes more connected. When purpose and trust increase, the people begin to act differently. They begin to co-create a conversation that is highly generative.

Learning becomes inspirational. The ideas are novel and stimulating. The learning challenges existing assumptions about the world and about self. People begin to make new assumptions about who they are, where they are going, and how they can get there. As soon as they do, the imagination provides new strategies. These new strategies feel inspired and people are anxious to experiment on them.

I was in the midst of a workshop like this. A woman on the front row was taking careful notes and offered several wise comments. I concluded that she knew who she was and that she was thinking deeply about some particular issue.

At the end, she approached me. She told me she has a boss who advocates a narrow strategy with no concern for people or culture. She believes that the organization is suffering because of it. In the past she had tried to enlarge his perspective, but he refuses to listen.

She said that participating in the workshop had had two impacts. First, she felt a renewed interest in trying to influence her boss. Second, she had some insights about the need to first do some self-work. She said, “I need to change myself. In approaching him, I need to talk to him without demonizing him.”

Her words stayed with me. In pondering them, I assumed that demon meant devil. I decided to look it up. In the thesaurus, demon has three sets of synonyms. The first includes words like expert, genius, or wizard. The second includes words like fear, anxiety, or terror. The last includes words like devil, fiend, or monster.

If we hold and integrate all three clusters, an image emerges. When people gain a position of authority, we assume they have the requisite knowledge to perform the role. We expect them to be experts. Since they do not know everything, it is hard for them to be an expert or wizard. They fear exposure and cannot express vulnerability or ask others to join them in learning. They have to know and direct. When they assume expertise and direct without mutual dependence, they exercise authority without love.

This is what a devil does. A devil seeks to take our agency and act upon us without loving us. When someone exercises authority without love, we feel it and we tend to demonize the actor.

My associate was expressing a self-discovery. She was recognizing the need to change (“I need to talk to him without demonizing him”). Even though he was exercising authority without love, she needed to exercise authority with love. This is an unconventional insight, but it is a key to transforming a relationship. To turn demons into human beings, we have to love them; we have to make them safe as we simultaneously challenge them to learn. This defies our sense of justice and calls us to live in love. It calls us to leadership.

Reflection

  • Does anyone in my life exercise authority without love? How do I react?
  • Does anyone in my life exercise authority with love? How do I react?
  • What could I do today to exercise authority with love?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Creating Great Conversations

Recently I met with an audience of professionals. We were all strangers. Within ten minutes, we were sharing our deepest feelings and the collective learning was spiraling upward. At the end of 90 minutes, I felt deeply connected and grateful. Together we had crafted greatness.

Often I start such a session by avoiding an introduction. I begin by creating immediate engagement. The first thing I do is ask the people in different areas of the room to write and share an answer to questions like this: “What is the difference between a good and a great conversation/relationship/marriage/team/ organization?” I then ask them to discuss their conclusions with someone they do not know. After their exchange, we collectively debrief and I record their answers. When all the answers are recorded, I ask, “What is common across the categories?”

The words they tend to most frequently share are meaning, connection, learning, inspiration, passion, and impact. The two most frequently mentioned are connection and inspiration.

In a great conversation, for example, we may feel that an ordinary exchange begins to take on increased meaning or value. As this happens, we feel increasingly connected to the other person: the cognitive exchange has an emotional consequence. The learning exceeds our expectation and we feel excited, enlightened, or inspired. We feel passionate about some idea and we believe that what we have learned will have an impact, it will make a difference.

This is a description of an emergent process. To emerge is to arise, appear, materialize, surface, or become. Every conversation is an emergent process. Every conversation is a living thing. Some conversations die quickly and some evolve to a higher plane.

When people begin to communicate purposefully and respectfully, connections can intensify and rise to a higher level of quality. This can create in the actors a sense of trust and even selfless contribution to a higher purpose. With trust and selfless contribution comes a sense of equality and hierarchy goes latent. Emotions turn positive. People become more engaged and authentic. In authentic exchanges, vulnerability emerges. Because the conversation is safe and significant, the people can say what they really feel or express ideas about which they are not fully certain. This increases the number and the diversity of ideas available. It then becomes possible to integrate the diverse ideas in new ways. Learning becomes evolution.

In combining ideas, novel or creative products may result. This mutual learning process is often inspirational. Inspirational means stimulating, rousing, moving, motivational. Cognition is joined with emotion. The people feel enlarged and hopeful. There is a growing expectation that life will improve in some way. A great conversation is a living thing. It is a form of life that gives life and can improve life.

When I use this process to initiate a session, the process often becomes a great conversation. The participants co-create life. They become energized and hopeful. I also become energized and hopeful. Both the participants and the teacher have increased capacity to move forward. There is an increased probability that together we can create great conversations the remainder of the day.

Often we think of great conversations as a happy accident. We tend to do the same for relationships, marriages, teams, and organizations. In a session like the one I describe here, I initiate a great conversation with intention. I then nurture the emergent process, cherish the outcomes, and use the learning to move into a day of great, collaborative learning. I like to think of a class as a relationship, marriage, team, or organization, and I like to believe that I can nurture greatness.

This belief raises a profoundly important question: is it possible to learn to bring about great conversations, relationships, marriages, teams, or organizations? The answer is yes. The answer is leadership. Creating inspiring connections is what leaders do. They act so as to increase the probability that knowing turns to learning and that bad, normal, or good becomes great. Leaders are not born with this capacity. They acquire it through purpose, mindful engagement, experimentation, and continual learning.

Reflection

  • When is the last time you had a great conversation?
  • What would it take for you become a consistent creator of great conversations?
  • What could you do to start today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning to Learn from Experience

After giving a commencement speech at a professional school, I sat down with the intention of relaxing. But soon I had my pen out and I was taking notes because I was learning from experience–someone else’s experience.

One of the students was about to name a faculty member that all the students had selected as best teacher. She shared some background about the teacher. The recipient was in her second teaching year. This is unusual. It occurred to me that the recipient must have been a naturally gifted teacher. I was terribly wrong.

The student suggested that the recipient started out as a most inadequate teacher. Yet, to the shock of the students, she took their feedback and the students witnessed an extraordinary outcome.

In her response to the award, the teacher described her first semester. She was new and insecure. Basically she was putting up slides with content and reading from the slide. She then told of an intense, personal learning journey and closed by saying “you need to reflect on your performance each day.”

She was not suggesting a casual review of the day. She was suggesting a disciplined review of the day. Few people seek and engage real feedback and few people engage in a disciplined review of their day.

I was so intrigued that after the ceremony I sought out the teacher and asked her to tell me her story. She recounted her first semester. She said the feedback was excruciating. I knew what she was talking about. If I have one student who gives negative feedback, I obsess over it for weeks. The notion of getting negative feedback from every student suggests extreme pain and it would make me want to run away and hide.

This woman made an unnatural decision. She decided to step into the pain and stay in the pain until she knew what to do. She spent the entire summer pondering and strategizing over each negative message.

On the first day of the next semester, she shared her first semester experience. She shared the feedback, and she shared what she learned from the feedback. She had the class do some brainstorming about the course. She had them share their expectations for her and she shared her expectations for them. They created a purpose and a contract with feedback built in.

As they moved forward, the teacher and the students became deeply bonded. The shocking result was a best teacher award. In her acceptance of her award, the teacher told the graduating students that she believed pursuing a purpose and attending to feedback was crucial to growth and that they needed to reflect on their performance each day and pay attention to what experience was teaching them.

Most of us take it for granted that they we are learning from experience. Our assumption is correct: we are always learning from experience. But what is the quality of our learning? Most people, most of the time, learn passively. We only attend deeply to our experiences when we are in some kind of pain.

When the above teacher was facing failure, she entered the process of deep learning. She took her students’ feedback and she began to study it out in her mind and to ask what was right. As she did, she formulated new strategies and her strategies took her to success beyond her expectation.

When we discover the power of learning deeply from our experiences, we begin to see the value of doing it in a proactive way. We realize that we do not have to be in pain to learn deeply. We can learn deeply because we live with passion about our purpose.

Because this woman moved from pain to success, she fell in love with her students and with the process of teaching. She was anxious to learn proactively from her experiences and she now wants her students to do the same.

When we are committed to a higher purpose, we are going somewhere but we do not know how to get where we are going. We have to act, seek feedback, and evaluate what we learn. When we have a higher purpose, we begin to see our daily experiences as nuggets of gold. We dig them up, we examine them, we shine them, we preserve them, and we live in increasing abundance. I am grateful that when I was determined to relax, I was inspired to learn from the experience of someone else, a woman who had learned how to learn from experience.

Reflection

  • What are the two ways to learn from experience?
  • How often do you do a disciplined, daily reflection on your performance?
  • What would happen if everyone who worked with you engaged in a disciplined, daily reflection on their performance?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

 

Aspiring to the Unimaginable Reality

I listened to a man reflect on his experiences as an executive in a large company. In two cases, he was responsible for the building of major plants. To build a plant requires the negotiation of contracts. His first experience was with a plant in Mexico where a complex package of loans had to be negotiated. The process took a year. It was complicated by the fact that one of his lawyers was known as “Mr. No.” Every attempt to move forward began in self-interest, conflict, and distrust. From this base, the people tried to build their desired future.

In the Western world, it is conventionally assumed that you formulate a contract so as to build a relationship to obtain an outcome. It is often assumed that the lawyer’s job is to eliminate the need for trust, to foresee all that could go wrong, and design a set of rewards and penalties that will ensure success. All that is needed is a brilliant mind.

The next assignment was to build a plant in Asia. In Asia, they did not assume that the formulation of the contract would create a relationship that would bring the desired outcome. They believed that the eventual contract was simply a memorial to an already existing relationship. You first build a trusting relationship, and then you negotiate, maintaining a relationship of trust and respect. This unconventional orientation was very difficult for his people who were trained in the Western perspective.

As result of his two experiences this man’s conventional assumptions were disrupted. He was forced to create his own theory. Positive leaders are usually born by experiencing serious jolts like this that require them to reexamine their most basic assumptions. We call it “mindful engagement” or the ability to learn from experience.

The man now believes that you move forward by both discipline and vision. You envision win/win outcomes or the future success of both parties. You co-create an image of the shared future. You build respect and trust while you also build a formal contract and you use the contract to promote collective growth.

It seems to me that his reflections on contracting provide a metaphor for understanding positive leadership. The organization is a network of evolving expectations. People are always drifting toward self-interest, conflict, and organizational decay. The role of the leader is to continually monitor the emergence of conflict, surface it, and then attract people into a future they all desire. The challenge is to clarify the common good or highest purpose, to model integrity, nurture belief, and build shared respect and trust.

When the positive leader succeeds, a conventionally unimaginable reality emerges. Negative peer pressure is transformed into positive peer pressure and everyone does the right thing, in real time, because they desire to do so. When a person experiences this unimaginable reality, they aspire to create it.

If a person has never experienced this reality, the notion of positive leadership seems foolish and the logical thing to do is to think and act conventionally. The lesson is that most people remain as managers until they, like the executive described above, have experiences that challenge their assumptions and lead them to formulate a new theory and a new set of aspirations.

Reflection

  • What do you believe about contracts and relationships?
  • What do you believe about trust and respect?
  • As a leader, to what do you aspire?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning How to Lead From the Most Influential Woman in the World

Mary Barra, the Chairman & CEO of General Motors, recently met with a business school class here at the university.  A year ago she was named the most influential woman in the world.  Given this fact, I was particularly attentive when she began to speak to the students about leadership as influence.

She told of being trained as an engineer.  In her first job, she had a challenging task and no authority over the people involved.  To succeed, she had to win their hearts.  When she finally had her own unit, she learned the limitations of authority.  Even though she was in charge, she still had to win hearts.

Later in her career after many assignments, she was assigned to work in a role near the CEO.  As she watched the most senior people, she noticed they were always working to gain organizational support. Despite all their hierarchical power, they also needed to influence without authority.

She moved into a variety of other positions and her leadership style evolved.  She had to hold people accountable, make tough decisions, confront conflict, seek feedback, and still create trust and build coalitions.

In all of this growth there was one constant: authority was never sufficient.  She always had to influence without authority.  She had to attract people into the service of the common good.

This lesson is precious.  Many managers never learn it.  They make the unconventional assumption that the key to power is their formal position and related authority.  They operate from self-interest and call on their authority to get things done.  The fact that Mary, early on, learned to lead without authority and today claims that it is central to success captures my attention and raises the question, how does she influence without authority?

Speaking with an associate and a long-time colleague of Mary, I asked why it is that Mary seems to be able to think logically, make tough decisions, and still hold the respect of the people around her?

My friend did not hesitate.  She began to tell specific stories.  These were accounts from the time Mary was a new manager until the present.  As she finished the last story, she provided a simple answer to my challenging question:

“Mary leads without ego. The only thing that matters is the good of the company. She puts the collective good ahead of her personal good.  People know it, so in even the most difficult times, they support what she does.  They like working for her, they are loyal, willing to go the extra mile for her.”

In her Q&A with the students, Mary said, “I always like to assume the positive about people.” This was an example of positive leadership. The conventional manager often does not assume the positive, but Mary operates from an alternative paradigm.  Her leadership philosophy seems to orbit around moral power.  Scholars call it “idealized influence,” and research consistently shows it is one of the four central factors in exercising transformative influence.

Moral power is selflessness.  It comes from the capacity to put the collective good ahead of personal good.  This is not a natural thing to do yet it can be learned.  In listening to Mary’s story, I believe she was fortunate to have a first job that required her to wield influence without authority.  It seemed to sensitize her.  As she moved up, she remained a student and a practitioner of moral power.  The most influential woman in the world is inviting an entire corporation to transform and assume the positive.

 

Review

Think of three managers near you. How does each orient to authority?

When have you witnessed the exercise of moral power at work?

How could you become a student and practitioner of moral power?

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

Transforming the Conventional Mindset

Positive leadership cannot be effectively taught by a conventional teacher or practiced by a conventional manager. The conventional thinker “knows” from experience the assumptions of positive leadership are unrealistic and impractical. Unless tightly held assumptions and beliefs are altered in the manager, hearing a presentation on positive leadership is of minimum value.

The teacher must have the unusual capacity to change the beliefs of the students. Such a teacher is not a teacher but a transformational leader. Likewise, the emerging leader must acquire the capacity to change the beliefs of the people he or she leads. When this capacity is acquired, the manager becomes a transformational leader.

We were working with 40 executives from a large company. The company has a culture of intense economic focus. When I put up a list of conventional leadership assumptions, the gloomy statements looked familiar. When I put up a contrasting list of positive leadership assumptions, the list seemed both surprising and unrealistic.

In the midst of the collective doubt, a woman raised her hand and very hesitantly claimed, “The positive list describes my organization.” I began to ask her questions. She was uncomfortable and tried to respond in generalities. I pushed for examples. I questioned each example until a very full picture emerged.

Then I asked what company she worked for. She was confused by the obvious question and then named the company in which they all worked. I told her that her answer was wrong. Everyone in the room “knows” that in that particular company it is impossible to have a positive unit. I asked the rest of the group if they were going to put up with this woman lying. The room went very quiet.

I had consciously created a tension. It was clear that the woman was telling the truth. It was also clear that everyone “knew” that what she was claiming was impossible in their company. I told them that I was providing them with data that challenged their theory of reality and they now had to explain away this woman or change their theory of what was possible inside the company and inside them.

During the break, a man came up. He said, “I took over a unit that was at -44% of plan. It was a snake pit. No one wanted it. I was glad to take it because I knew I could turn it around. When people are failing badly, they become desperate. They are looking for hope.”

He then said something very important: “Yet leading them is not easy. If you live the positive leadership assumptions on the right side of the screen, it is ten times harder than living the conventional assumptions on the left side of the screen.

“I went in willingly, but every night I went to bed with a sense of panic. You never know what move is right. You entice them, you support them, and you hope they will follow, but you never know what is going to create trust and trigger a small success. You only know that it will happen if you keep learning and leading. When that success happens, you have to magnify it, make it visible to all, and then repeat the process over and over. It is about leading by learning how to lead. You have to be willing to go to bed with a sense of panic.

“When it finally works, the organization transforms. We went from -44 percent to +82 percent. We now have a positive culture. It is thrilling. Yet success is dangerous. All around me people think that what I do is crazy. I have to be bi-minded. I have to live the assumptions of positive leadership and yet be able to talk to people around me understanding they live by the conventional assumptions.”

He was perfectly describing the process positive leadership. I was soon in a conversation with another participant. He also claimed to have a positive organization in the gloomy company. He described it and then spoke of what he does outside of work. He coaches kids. The emphasis is on the assumptions of positive leadership. He does not coach just one team. He has a program that takes kids from elementary school to high school graduation. He lit up as he told of his efforts in getting the kids college scholarships.

I said, “You live a meaningful life at work and at home.” He nodded.

I told him, “I have only known you a few minutes, but I already know you are the kind of person I would like to go on vacation with.”

He said, “Thank you.”

After the break, I surfaced the additional stories. I noted that the culture of the company calls for conventional leadership and conventional leaders emerge. Yet in the company there are exceptions. Contrary to the conventional culture, a few positive leaders emerge. They are exceptions, positive outliers who live with a sense of higher purpose and the belief that they can create their own culture. They discover the assumptions of positive leadership not from a lecture but from deep learning. They create new experiences or experiments and they reflect on them so as to create new experiences.

I again asked for the implications of the theory-defying data provided by the three hesitant people. There was gradual agreement that perhaps positive leadership and human excellence could arise in the gloomy company.

I then asked them to reflect on what had happened. I surfaced data from their own company reflecting leadership excellence and then asked them to explain it. I asked them how they could use this same principle in other ways. There were not ready answers. So I gave them a golden sentence: “If it is real, it is possible.”

In the company of frequent complaints, there are excellent units. Two weeks later, I was with 40 of their peers. This time I told them all to close their eyes. I asked them to raise their hands if their unit was a positive organization. One third of them raised their hands.

So in this very conventional organization, there may be many positive units. Yet no one recognizes these realities that defy the prevailing theory. What they tend to see as impossible is all around them. So excellence is real and it is possible. Yet to most it is seen as unreal and impossible. By turning attention away from the ubiquitous problems that exist and focusing instead on the existing patterns of excellence, it is likely that much good could emerge.

 

Reflection

  • Are there excellent units in your organization?
  • Are these being systematically examined?
  • How could you apply the notion, “If it is real, it is possible?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

 

Deep Learning and Competitive Strategic Advantage

A CEO developed a vision of how his company could help the unemployed. He shared it with another CEO who is normally a positive person. The second man said, “We already tried it and it was a failure.” After making the statement, the second man showed zero interest and the discussion ended.

A short time later, the first CEO shared the idea with me. I told him of a company that did almost the same thing and succeeded. He was interested.

The successful company was Cascade Engineering. The CEO of that company was Fred Keller. The idea of hiring welfare recipients emerged in a conversation with one of the managers in his organization. Fred encouraged the man to take action.

The man hired some welfare recipients and in weeks they were all gone. He reported the failure. Fred suggested that the account was not a failure but a demonstration that company had not learned how to succeed. The man went back with increased commitment. He threw himself at learning how to make the idea succeed. An impressive strategy emerged, but it turned into a second failure. Fred held to his position that the problem was in the failure to learn. A third effort emerged.

This time the man in charge began to notice the problems, not with the welfare recipients, but with the employees of the company. After much reflection, every person in the company participated in a poverty simulation. After the simulation, the project began to progress. It so fully succeeded that the company was given a major award by the White House and numerous new resources flowed to the company, resources they did not anticipate acquiring.

The company then began to work on hiring people getting out of prison. The learning process was similar. It did not fully work until all the employees went through a training program on racism. Again new resources flowed to the company.

So the company acquired a strategic competitive advantage that was difficult for other companies to imitate. The advantage brought predictable resources like fierce employee loyalty and unpredictable resources like new networks of external interaction and opportunity.

The new competitive advantage was not designed. It emerged from embracing a higher purpose, visioning a new strategy, and committing to deep learning. In the process, the company discovered what all individuals and groups learn in the process of deep learning. We are a part of the system we observe. We are part of a dynamic whole. For the system to change, we have to change. In the words of Gandhi, we have to be the change we want to see in the world. When the people in the company began to revise their own biases about impoverished people, the impoverished people were able to revise their own assumptions about impoverished people working in a professional company. They began to believe and change followed.

I think of the uninterested CEO. From experience, he is sure that what I describe here is impossible. I compare him to Fred Keller. Fred is sure that it is possible. Our ability to engage in deep learning has much to do with our capacity to lead.

 

Reflection

  • When has our team, unit, or organization acquired a new competency?
  • What is deep learning and what does it have to do with new competencies?
  • In the process of deep learning, what do we discover about ourselves?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

How to Make a Profound Contribution

Sometimes life goes right. With my extraordinary colleagues, we recently had a successful experience helping a large company. What most led to the success is a process that is difficult to understand. Yet the process is at the heart of the greatest successes in the history of business.

Henry Ford once uttered a statement that is of importance to both running a thriving business and living a meaningful life. He said, “If I had asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said, ‘a faster horse.’”

In business we financially live or die by how well we are serving the customer. When we hear the voice of the customer and respond by serving their deepest needs, we create love for our product and they swarm to us with their money. We live in financial abundance.

In life we psychologically live or die by how well we are serving the customer. When we hear the unspoken voice of the people in our lives and serve their deepest needs, we offer something that reflects love and they swarm to us with love. We live in relational abundance.

Serving the deepest needs of the people around us is a key to success in every aspect of life. Yet success never comes easily.

If Henry Ford had asked the customer what they wanted, they would have replied “a faster horse.” There are two ways to interpret this claim. One is that it is useless to listen to the customer because the customer cannot state something they cannot envision. The second is that the customer does not know what the customer wants but that does not mean that the deepest needs of the customer cannot be discovered. The key is approaching the customer in the state of deep learning. This means recognizing that something other than a faster horse can be envisioned when two minds join in purpose, integrity, trust, and exploration.

In an experience with a Fortune 100 company, we were to design a leadership program for 1,300 executives. We did some focus group interviews first with their bosses and then with representatives of the 1,300. These discussions were productive. As my colleagues asked conventional questions, we acquired much conventional knowledge.

The executives told us what kind of subjects we should cover. In effect, there were asking for a “faster horse.” I have been through this process many times and I am fully aware of Henry Ford’s point. Executives, like most other human beings, are quite incapable of articulating their deepest needs and how to meet those needs because they either do not know their deepest needs or cannot imagine having their needs met. They live in an organization that looks like a horse and cannot imagine living in an organization that looks like an automobile.

I was quiet during the first two focus groups. There were five minutes left in the last focus group when I asserted myself. It was only then that I knew what question to ask.

I said, “I am about to ask you an unconventional question. To answer, you will have to expose your vulnerabilities. Why would you ever do it? The answer is that you can make a difference. If you honestly answer my question, you will deeply influence the design and the success of the program. You will thus touch 1,300 hundred lives and change the future of this company. I am about to give you an opportunity that few people ever have.”

The room went very quiet. I asked, “What is your deepest, un-discussable need? What most keeps you from transforming into a great leader?”

The air went heavy. Twice I was asked to clarify the question. Finally one person began to speak and let us all see into her heart. There was a pause and then each person shared an authentic answer to a probing question by asking a question. Here they are.

 

  • How do I come to know and own my highest priorities?
  • How do I prioritize without guilt or fear and with full support from home?
  • How do I create a sense of security in the face of constant uncertainty?
  • How do I get out of the reactive mindset?
  • Given existing constraints, how do I motivate my people?
  • How do I strengthen my influence?
  • How do I learn to communicate so I can inspire people?
  • How do I create trust in and across my own team?
  • How do I obtain more supportive leadership from above?
  • When I am trying to innovate, how do I get needed feedback from above?
  • How do I gain permission to fail without being criticized or penalized?
  • How can I create alignment across groups, functions, and silos?
  • What methods can I use to build partnerships?

 

By sharing these statements, they displayed vulnerability. Conventional, secular space had been transformed into unconventional, sacred space. Because their answers were real, I was fully engaged. Sacred conversations hold human attention. As we ended the session, people remained and meaningful side conversations ensued. For the next 24 hours, I reflected deeply on the questions and on the side conversations. Eventually I reduced or “squeezed” their issues to four questions and an underlying purpose:

  • How do I change the beliefs that drive me?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive my people?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive my boss?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive the culture?

I concluded that there was one underlying need for the executives and for the company. The executives needed to learn how to change belief systems in themselves and in others so that the company could transform from a knowing organization into a learning organization.

Two days later, when I articulated this notion for the people at the top of the company, it was well received. With enthusiasm, the statement was endorsed. We could begin to design a program not only to their stated needs but to their actual needs. They needed to learn how to transform themselves and others so that everyone was living in a constant state of deep learning. It was an image not of faster horse but of an automobile.

A month later, we delivered the first offering. Hard scores and qualitative feedback indicated that everyone’s expectations had been exceeded. We were off to a successful start.

Now what is deep learning? And how does this story help us to understand it? When we ask a customer or some other crucial person in our lives—in fact, any person—what they really want, they can only give conventional answers. If we truly want an answer because we truly want to serve the person, we have to join them in unconventional conversations.

One of keys is to exercise empathy, to feel what they are really feeling, and then ask challenging or ennobling questions that simultaneously show love. We thus invite them into sacred space. We invite them to tell us who they really are. The responses do not produce the answer. We must savor every response and then deeply ponder the messages and continue the interaction until we see the central, underlying messages. When we do, we test them by feeding them back and looking for intense responses. As those responses come, we further co-create vision.

The point in all of this is that Mr. Ford was right. The customer, if engaged conventionally, can only tell us he or she needs a faster horse. Yet this does not mean that we should not listen to the customer. It means we have to listen so deeply and with such commitment that we create sacred space and deep learning. It is then that we can experience the co-creation of a new vision and give people what they do not know how to ask for. It is then that we make profound contributions.

Reflection

  • When in my life have I asked for a faster horse and received an automobile? How did I respond?
  • Who are the most important customers in my life?
  • When they ask for a faster horse, how do I respond?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?