From the Positive Past To the Positive Future

There is a CEO who was once the epitome of economic thinking. He then went through a crisis and discovered purpose, people and culture. He began to create a positive organization. Measures of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and share price have all gone up and stayed up. When he became aware of the science at the Center for Positive Organizations, it gave him a language for what he was he was already doing, and he used the language and tools to speed the process. The last few years have been impressive.

As this man has led, his people have grown. Sometimes there were doubts about his positive aspirations and strategies. The organizational success, however, has changed doubt into belief. The thinking of the CEO has expanded. He now has a vision of doing more. In a recent meeting he shared the vision with his direct reports. He began with a surprising story.

He quietly talked of a prayer that was regularly offered in his family. The prayer suggested that we are what we think and our thoughts become reality. He indicated that when thousands of people align around the same thoughts that progress becomes unstoppable and that powerful new realities come into existence. I looked around the room and people were nodding.

He then went into a history that most of them shared. The company was once at such a low level of human and financial performance that it was difficult to see any positive alternative. He described a crucial meeting. He had asked some questions: What do we want to make of this company? Why and what do we personally believe that would lead to any given aspiration? How do we ground our given aspiration, and what would make it vivid? How can be become aligned around our aspirations?

He then sent his people away for an hour and asked them ponder and to write. When they returned he had each person share. People spoke from their hearts. Many told stories form their personal life. A pleasant surprise was that there was so much commonality and it was relatively easy to aggregate the responses and create a shared vision.

The CEO reviewed the notes from the meeting long ago and then said, “Everything we envisioned happened. Operational excellence, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, shareholder value, external reputation, and geographical footprint–all expanded and many exceeded our aspirations.”

Again, I looked around the room and the heads were nodding. He was recalling their collective, core story. It was no ordinary story. It was a sacred account of realizing potential in themselves and in others. To retell it was an experience in renewal.

The CEO moved to the present. He explained that he now believes that in addition to trying to be “best in the world,” a company can also become “best for the world.” It is natural to believe that the work of executives is to create a great organization that produces shareholder value. Focusing on anything else is illegitimate. Today it is fashionable for companies to do symbolic things for the greater good, but truly focusing on the issues of society is the work of government, not business.

He then said, “I think that this is our work–not symbolically but at scale. If the private sector does not change things, the problems will persist. I believe there is enough energy to do both the internal work and the external work and that one will feed the other. We are in a unique position to do things other organizations cannot do. Success will lead us to be seen in a new way and it will pull support for our core business.”

He then invited people to repeat what they did in that meeting long ago, to go off alone and answer the same questions they answered then. When they returned, each one shared. I hung on their every word. They shared many possible aspirations, envisioning futures that would normally be unspeakable. As they did, they were truthful about the perceived challenges, potential, and motivation. I was moved by comments like these:

  • It feels like an add-on, an additional requirement on our limited energy.
  • We would have to learn how to do what we do not know how to do.
  • We would have to think and behave in new ways.
  • We would have to be honest about the impediments and constraints.
  • Resistance will be natural. We are going to have to lean in. We are going to have to work to open the minds of our employees.
  • It is outside role expectations for the company and we will take heat. So I think it is about constancy: if we persist it will become acceptable over time.
  • There are other companies doing versions of this. We can learn from them.
  • The barrier is the conventional mindset. It is built on fear of failure and scarcity instead of abundance. I want to leave a legacy that persists long after I retire.
  • The first time around I did not understand what we were doing, yet it resulted in more success than I could have imagined. I think we can do this.
  • I believe what we are aspiring to do will have a magnetic effect. It will draw future employees and it will draw new investors. Many people are investing in sustainable companies.
  • I think we have a unique opportunity to partner with some of our long-time adversaries and do things we could not have previously imagined.
  • I think this company can become a catalyst, and I am prepared to make the journey.
  • I want to do this because of my grandkids. We have an obligation to that generation. We need to plant the seed.
  • I want my family to be proud of what we are doing. What we are aspiring too is aligned with my faith.       We can move forward by failing frequently and often.


Creating a positive organization requires culture change and successful culture change is a function of belief in a vision. Most leaders struggle because they are actually managers who cannot create belief. What this case illustrates is that once you become a leader and create a positive organization, you have a very precious resource. It is belief in possibility. Because you have it, you can tap the past to create belief in a new future. It is a lesson every leaders should remember.


  • Why did the group buy into such an unusual vision?
  • How many people “want to leave a legacy that persists long after I retire?”
  • How many people want their family “to be proud of what we are doing?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Envisioning and Creating the Positive Organizing

In workshops, participants often ask something like this: “In practical terms, what is a positive organization?” I no longer answer. Instead, I invite them to create their own definition. I put them through an exercise. When they finish, something important happens. They say things like this: “When I started writing it down, it became real and it seemed possible.”

The sentence is crucial. It captures a necessary change. Until managers believe that positive organizing is real, they cannot create positive organizing. The following exercise is designed to help build belief.

Exercise: Defining and Creating a Positive Organization

  1. What is your organization like when it is at its best? Write some key words.


  1. Read the following checklist. Underline any phrase you want to add to your list of key words. (Checklist is below.)


  1. Reviewing your list of words, write your own definition of a positive organization. Be sure it is practical, something your people will understand. Put it in their language.


  1. Then write a strategy that will turn your organization positive.


Checklist: Positive Organizing

Meaningful Intent:

_We have a higher purpose

_We have a shared vision

_We are driven by a strategic plan

_We are pursuing possibilities we believe in

Spontaneous Contribution:

_We surrender self-interest

_We sacrifice for the common good

_We spontaneously give of ourselves

_Ego goals become contribution goals

Full Engagement:

_We care about what we are doing

_We are engaged

_We are giving all we have

_We are fully committed

Full Inclusion:

_The outliers feel invited in

_The obstinate are beginning to believe

_Everyone feels like they belong

_No energy is lost dealing with resisters

Positive Peer Pressure:

_More positive norms emerge

_Expectations align with the purpose

_Negative peer pressure becomes positive

_Peers confront the underperformers

Collaborative Relationships:

_We take a win-win mentality

_Competition becomes collaboration

_Teamwork is natural

_We become a dynamic whole

Creative Effort:

_We try new ideas

_We take intelligent risks

_We improvise

_We make discoveries as we move forward

Positive Regard:

_Our language is affirming

_No one is being judged

_Positive appreciation is expressed

_We value each other

Shared Vulnerability:

_We share personal vulnerability

_We reveal our own mistakes

_We ask questions when we fail to understand

_We ask each other for help

Constructive Confrontation:

_Truth becomes more important than power

_Communication is authentic

_People share what they really feel

_Ideas are respectfully challenged

Spontaneous Leadership:

_Leadership emerges spontaneously

_Leadership moves from person to person

_Everyone leads as appropriate

_Everyone initiates as needed

Collective Learning:

_We co-create learning

_We “piggy back” on to each other’s contributions

_We create a shared mind

_We feel we can figure out anything

Time Discipline:

_The pace is quick

_We keep to our planned schedules

_We deliver results on a timely basis

_We persist so as to meet deadlines

Recognizable Success:

_We experience recognizable success

_We receive praise from those we serve

_We attract new business

_Outsiders want to work with us

Joyful Achievement:

_We take joy in our outcomes

_We infect each other with positive energy

_Our growth creates enthusiasm

_We love the work

_ Attraction of Resources

_Our success breeds success

_New people want to work for us

_New customers flow to us

_Our work is in high demand



(Write a definition and strategy below.)

Your Definition and Strategy


Write an Understandable Definition

Based on my own observations, I believe a positive organization has the following characteristics:






Write a Strategy

Based on my own definition of positive organizing, I believe we can turn our organization positive by doing the following:







  • What happens when we do not believe?
  • Why is it important to start by examining your organization at its best?
  • Why is it important to write in the language of your own people?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Ohm’s Law and the Movement of Energy Through an Organization

Ron May recently retired from the senior executive ranks at DTE Energy and is now an executive in residence at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michgian.  He spent a morning in a session that included a discussion about the role of resisters in the process of creating a positive organization.  At lunch, Ron shared a great lesson about electricity positive leadership. I asked him to join me in writing this positive passage.

Ron pointed out that resistance and potential are terms used in Ohm’s Law, which states that the electrical current in a conductor is proportional to the potential difference applied to it, provided the temperature remains the same.  The law uses the following formula: V = I x R.  “V” is voltage or potential difference, “I” is current or energy flow, and “R” is resistance.

Therefore, assuming a person’s potential has always been present but just not realized, we can hold that value constant. As a leader helps the person embrace their potential and reduce the fear of their own growth, resistance inside the person drops, the person begins to act, and energy flow increases. Potential (“V” – a constant value) divided by resistance (“R” – a smaller observed value) equals Energy Flow (“I” – increased energy).

If we move from the individual to the collective, a leader can increase the power of the impact of the collective by increasing energy flow, reducing resistance, or both.  When the leader does both, there is a big jump in the voltage or potential difference or impact.

The culture or shared expectation and belief system is the circuit or electrical line that carries energy.  When the purpose is unclear or unattractive, relationships begin to decay, silos grow, resistance increases and less energy flows.  People lose hope and reduce their efforts.  Resistance goes up, the energy flow goes down and voltage decreases. The potential is not realized.

When there is a higher purpose that is clear, and the leader is authentically and constantly committed to the purpose, people focus their attention on the leader’s unusual selflessness and they begin to sense the value in being a part of something bigger than self.  A few of the more change-ready people embrace the purpose.  They choose to invest their discretionary energy even if disparaged by the resisters. The total resistance is going down.

As this pattern continues, relationships become increasingly trusting and communication becomes more authentic. More information and more energy are flowing.  Belief and hope move like a positive infection across the system.  Outliers or resisters are enticed to become believers.  As commitment and trust go up, resistance further declines.  Silos begin to decay.  Negative peer pressure becomes positive peer pressure and resistance drops close to zero.  High voltage moves through the organization to outside recipients.

Ron sees an analogy between the flow of electrical energy, and the flow of energy within and between people:

“I experienced the huge energy rise within my organization as we created a new group to perform projects to help drive the vision of continuous improvement. Resistance was expressed in their questions of job security and purpose. As these were positively reinforced, first by me and then by others, the group worked with energy to become a world-class project management organization. How energy moves through a wire tells us something about how energy moves through an organization.”



  • How energized is your organization?
  • Is potential being realized?
  • What forms of resistance can be reduced? How?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Transformational Teaching and Leadership

People think teaching and leadership are two very different activities. As we move from novice to expert to master, in each area, the two become very similar. The leap from expert to master is a transformation that makes a person transformational.

Doug Anderson is an example. After teaching business strategy at Harvard, Doug helped build a major business that provided educational programs in many of the world’s largest companies. He later became dean of the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. In that position, he has had great impact. In reflecting on his personal journey, Doug shares a story of great trauma, a cauldron story. It appears in my book Building the Bridge as You Walk It (p. 225):

I have often heard it said that “you never really learn a thing until you teach it to someone else.” And it is true – there is a powerful connection between teaching and learning. [To me] teaching seemed like a great way to continue learning. But it is not the only way, and maybe not the most powerful way – there is also the learning that comes from applying or experiencing an idea.

I was a member of a consulting team that was using the concepts of Deep Change to help a major utility transform itself from an engineering-driven company to one that was much more focused on market and competitive realities. From the outset, I expected this to be a fascinating intellectual journey. It turned out to be far more than that. It became personal.

During much of the decade of the 1990s my first marriage was slowly dying. I knew my wife wasn’t happy, but I always believed we would get through it. Sometimes she’d try to talk about divorce, but I wouldn’t consider it. When you are rafting down the Colorado River and encounter white water, I’d say, that’s not the time to jump out, or to push your partner out. I was sure there would be calm water ahead.

She didn’t believe that. In may 1998 the perfect storm hit. I had planned a three-day business trip to Houston to coincide with the anniversary of [my brother’s] death. At noon on the day I was to leave, there came a knock on the door. I answered to find an officer of the court, with divorce papers in hand. “Your court appearance is scheduled for the day after tomorrow,” he said.

I was stunned. But I couldn’t see an option for canceling my client engagement. Obviously, I would not be able to represent myself in court. I called an attorney friend and spent the afternoon with him, [arriving] at the client’s conference center well after midnight. The next morning at eight o’clock I opened a three-day seminar. At the end of the three days, I visited my sister-in-law [who had lost her husband]. Instead of comforting her, I collapsed.

The divorce took two years to become final. I was powerless to prevent it. I spun through the grief cycle, I found myself returning again and again to the concepts in Deep Change. I had never experienced this kind of sorrow before. Deep Change became a mirror for me. I was not always comfortable with what I saw. I began to recognize integrity gaps that I had not previously acknowledged.

My teaching became much more personal. In each session, as I challenged participants to confront their integrity gaps, I challenged myself. And, as I acted on these commitments, a new self emerged, a learner who was now a much better guide to others on journeys of discovery and transformation.

In the hero’s journey, the hero sets out on a quest and, before returning to his home community as an “empowered and empowering” leader, must slay the beast. The beast he slays is his old self. That’s what deep change is all about: the renewal and the replenishment of self and enlargement of others.


  • What does trauma require us to do?
  • Why do we have integrity gaps that we do not recognize?
  • Why do we have to slay the old self?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Deeper Place to Stand

The last few blogs have talked of learning in the cauldron of uncertainty. A friend recently sent me the following quote from Parker Palmer: “Great teachers will not just shatter our illusions. They will also bear embodied witness to the knowledge that there is a deeper place to stand when the ground beneath our feet gives way.”


  • Why do great teachers and great leaders shatter our illusions?
  • What is an “embodied witness?”
  • What is the “deeper place to stand?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Cauldron Stories

In the last positive passage, I reviewed a story about the courage to learn. In the reflection section, I asked this question: “What can you teach your people about personal cauldrons of transformation?”

For some, the question is incomprehensible. Others understand it but do not know how to answer. Some do. I have a friend named Larry Peters who is a professor at Texas Christian University. He formally teaches his students how to learn from the personal cauldron stories. He shares the following account (in Building the Bridge as You Walk on It; Quinn; p. 221):

My students shared many examples of failed leadership, from those who settle for “peace and pay” to those who tried to “manage” people to a new future. I had my students think about deep change that they experienced in their own lives (or that others close to them experience) and had them share stories with the class.

We heard stories of a man who lost a child in a car accident (and who changed the seat belt law in Texas); a woman who was promoted to the toughest assignment in her company, a position for which she had no prior training; and a man who was given the assignment of opening a market in China and found everything he knew about management didn’t work. We heard stories of passion and focus and courage and commitment and perseverance and energy. We heard stories that produced results beyond anyone’s expectations, and we saw the emotion and shared the feelings of pride these people had. We saw what was possible when people experienced deep change. Nobody in the room will ever mistake management for true leadership again. They raised the bar on themselves that afternoon – and on everyone else who presumes to lead.

By asking people to share their stories, Larry transforms the classroom into a sacred space where authentic feelings are shared, trust grows, and learning accelerates. I have had the same experience with thousands of executives. Afterwards they are moved and share many insights. I then ask them for the implications of their experience. The vast majority cannot imagine creating the same kind of sacred learning space in a professional setting. A few do. The latter often write to tell of extraordinary outcomes.



  • What is a cauldron experience?
  • What transformations take place when we share our cauldron experiences?
  • Why can so few executives create sacred space?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Finding Purpose

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We are excited to share the news that one of Bob’s videos recently went viral on Faceboook.  We are at 7M views and climbing!  You can watch the video here.

One of the reasons this excites us, is because we are passionate about inspiring positive change and helping people to lead more positive lives.  Reaching that many people with a message that we strongly believe in is both humbling and thrilling.

Since the launch of this video we have received many, many emails about how an individual can find their purpose.  A lightbulb went off when we read the (over four thousand) comments on Facebook and recognized just how many people are hungry to understand their purpose and what they can do to feel more fulfilled and happy.

Bob has shared answers to this question in workshops, and throughout his various books, but we are hoping to create a new product that will help people find the answers they are seeking in a more targeted and personalized way.  We aren’t sure yet if it will be a book, brochure, website, webinars, or what, but we see the desire and want to help.

If you are interested in learning more, or in contributing to the development process, please go to, scroll down to the comments section and sign up for our newsletter/mailing list.  As we explore this further we will keep you posted and ask for your insights.

Thank you!


How to Change a Prison

I have known Frank Petrock for a long time. I have often heard him tell of his journey as a 25-year-old heading a program in a maximum security prison. Recently he sent me a manuscript that records the story. Frank was assigned to open a program to rehabilitate hardened criminals. Every day his life was at risk. Nothing done anywhere else had ever worked. The people above him saw the situation as hopeless and told him he could do whatever he liked.

The freedom was wonderful, but the challenge was impossible and he only had four months to plan. So Frank and his people visited prisons, read literature, and talked to anyone they could find. Their only asset was youthfulness and inexperience.

What came from the exploratory effort was a very strange set of principles. Instead of focusing on changing the inmates, they focused on changing the prison. Instead of changing attitudes and values to get behavior change, they determined to change behavior in a way that would alter attitudes and values. Instead of trying to restore inmates to good health, they questioned if the inmates had ever been in such a state. Instead of accepting the usual norms of “socialism” that dominate prison life, they determined to build the recovery process around principles of capitalism. Instead of relying on control, they introduced the concept of choice and accountability. Instead of focusing on failure and punishment, they focused on success and reward. These radical ideas eventually led to unconventional success.

The temptation is to explore the principles and the learning process that gave rise to the success. What I want to emphasize instead is a single paragraph. I believe it underlies every account of positive leadership and organizational transformation:

“I must tell you that I was afraid every day. This troubled me, because I thought of being afraid as a weakness – until I came across something I read about courage. As best as I can recollect, whoever wrote it said that ‘courage is doing what you have to do, even when you are afraid.’ Coming to understand this helped a lot. I continued to be afraid, as I continued to step up to what was required of me” (Petrock, The Readustment Unit, pp.16).

The conventional lens assumes knowledge. The positive lends assumes purpose and the courage to learn in real time. We take on a purpose that is larger than we are. We know the vision but not how to bring it about. We then, with fear, step into the purpose. We stay in the cauldron of uncertainty until we learn what to do. When we come out, we know things the conventional manager cannot understand. This is what Frank did. The outcome violated all the conventional assumptions.



  • How does your current professional challenge compare to Frank’s challenge?
  • Into what fears does your current purpose take you?
  • What can you teach your people about personal cauldrons of transformation?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Crafting Culture Without a Plan

Recently we did a workshop centering on the work of Gina Valenti. Gina is in charge of culture for Hampton Inns. She shared her journey and her impressive successes. A key moment in her story was a personal challenge from her CEO. Hampton had introduced many positive practices. The CEO said, “We cannot afford to keep introducing practices that our competition simply copies.”

After pondering this challenge, Gina came to a personal epiphany: “The one thing others cannot copy is our people; they cannot copy our culture.” She eventually concluded that the success is about engagement, and engagement is not about compensation and benefits. It is about culture and climate. From then on, Gina became what I call a positive deviant.

Gina began to lead culture change. This always requires real leadership which is not about position and authority. She said, “We have general managers. We cannot command them. We have to inspire them.”

Gina does not see herself as being exceptionally smart (fixed mindset), but she does see herself as someone exceptionally committed to learning in real time (growth mindset). She surrounds herself with wise people and she listens, she moves into uncertainty, and she experiments. Gina says, “When I am crafting the culture, I do not have a plan. I just keep doing what makes sense and the path just opens up. Everything I do is with others. We co-create each aspect.”

Gina reports, “I try to focus on little things that make a big difference.” Leaders who seek to transform culture look for small acts that provide high leverage. Gina, for example, built the onboarding process around the behaviors of the very best GMs in the organization. Her new employees were thus learning from practical excellence. This strategy invites them to create their own excellence.

Gina’s ability to influence without authority is what differentiates leaders from managers. She knows solutions will come through the process of learning in the midst of ongoing experience.

How do I know Gina really has this kind of unconditional confidence? At the end of the session, she made a statement of quiet strength. I am not sure how many even heard it. She declared, “This year is a challenge. They just cut my budget by several million dollars. I do not see this as a problem. I will just find another way. I will do it differently.”



  • Do you believe culture and engagement are the essence of competitive advantage?
  • What happens to a professional who values learning over knowing?
  • What does it mean to craft and co-create a culture without a plan?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Customer Service as Positive Leadership

While we tend to learn from failure, the positive perspective invites us to identify and ponder manifestations of excellence. It invites us to examine and learn from success.   I had an experience with exceptional customer service and pondered it for days. One night I had a dream and a new idea came.

Often I fly into Detroit and I rent a car from National. Last year it was clear to me that the company had invested in customer service. Each time I visited, every employee was striving to make a noticeable contribution. About a month ago I was way behind schedule. As I returned a car, I mentioned to an employee that I was likely to miss my flight. He told me to climb back into the car. He yelled to his boss to cover for him, and he drove me to the terminal. I was amazed.

I began to pump him with questions. In a short time I learned a lot. He is a veteran. His goal in life is to own his own house. He has saved for years. He was about to realize his life dream, then he encountered a series of unexpected setbacks. Instead of dwelling on his problems, he described his new plans for realizing his dream. He said, “You have to hold on to your goals when things go wrong.”

When he reached the terminal, I gave him an extensive thank you. To my surprise, he thanked me to for giving him the opportunity to make a positive difference.

I barely made my flight on time.

A few days passed and then, one night, I dreamt about the experience. I could see trainers delivering a course in customer focus to the employees at National. I could see my driver and his colleagues taking in the material and then practicing the principles as they interacted with customers.

When I woke up, it occurred to me that the principles of high-level customer service tend to overlap the principles of positive leadership. When people learn and live the underlying principles of contribution, they tend to find greater meaning in what they do. The veteran that drove me to the terminal was not putting on an act; he was flourishing in the service he was rendering. A genuine customer focus was making not only my life better, it was also making his life better. Then an insight came.

There was more that could be done for that man and his fellow employees. The course needs to be enlarged. Currently it is framed around customer service. It is really about positive leadership. When he empowered himself to drive me to the terminal, that man was taking leadership and he felt great about it. That same man is capable of teaching positive leadership in his home and in his community.


The investment National made in the training would pay off even more if all the employees were trained to instruct others in their social networks. As part of the training, each student could be assigned to teach the underlying principles in their home or community. They each could to be given an altered, more generalized course book that would help them teach the principles. They could be invited to then report back to their peers.

Why do this? Everyone wins. The participants begin to see what they are learning at work as a life philosophy that applies everywhere. They also see themselves as teachers of the philosophy, positive leaders who make a difference. The family or community members benefit. The company and the training company both get more visibility in the community. Everyone wins.


  • Identify an organization that gives you extraordinary customer service. How does it make you feel?
  • How does your unit or organization compare?
  • What would happen if your people were trained in customer service and also had the opportunity to teach the principles in their homes and communities?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?