How to Create Positive Organizations

In the last blog entry, I wrote of a friend in a high position contemplating a move to a more positive organization. She was feeling “drawn” away. Shortly after our conversation, a former student contacted me. She is in a low-level position and she is feeling the need to leave her conventional organization. She is feeling “pushed” away.

We explored many alternatives. Then the conversation went in a surprising direction. I asked how she, in her relatively low position, might turn her present, conventional organization into a positive organization. To her great credit, she did not run from the question. She shared a vision of calling together a “coalition of the willing.” I usually speak of this as “gathering the positive energizers.”

She shared some ideas of what she could say to such a group and what she could invite them to do. As she did, she considered the danger of being seen as a rebel leading a mutiny.

I kept asking questions. We explored things the coalition of the willing might do that were innocent, cumulative, and unassailable. The list grew. As we ended our time together, she was in a different frame of mind. She was seeing her conventional organization as place wherein she could experiment and learn how to build a positive organization from the bottom up. She was feeling excitement about the possibility of become a positive leader.


  • How often do you consider changing the organization from the bottom up?
  • If you were gathering a coalition of the willing, who would be in the room?
  • What would your coalition do that was innocent, cumulative, and unassailable?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

How to Co-Create a Positive Leader

The last two blogs were about phone calls from close associates trying to make a big decision. I have had several of these. Yesterday I began to notice a pattern.

My frustrated associates often call with a sense of conflict and confusion. As they share their agony, they unconsciously share their values. I listen to hear what it is that they really want. As I formulate a hypothesis about what they really want, I never tell them what I think they really want. Instead I ask questions designed to help them become aware of what their purpose is. This is iterative. As I ask questions and they respond and my questions get better.

Eventually they make an ambiguous statement of what they want. Then they engage in an iterative process. They keep repeating themselves and I often ask another clarifying questions. Suddenly there is a shift. They hear themselves. The clarification of purpose is a clarification of self. In hearing themselves, they suddenly know themselves. The self they suddenly know is the self their conscience is trying to bring into existence. It is a new and a fresh self. When they embrace this emerging self, they feel more empowered. They find the courage to move forward in the birth of the new self. The new self is always a more positive leader.

As all this was coming to me, I found a note in my mailbox. It was a message of gratitude from an old colleague. She thanked me for “always encouraging us to follow our own lead.” The sentence had enormous impact. I could see a principle for creating positive leaders.



What does the emergence of a “new self” have to do with being a positive leader?

When has someone assisted you in giving birth to a new self?

How can the process be scaled?

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

How Culture Conspires to Prevent the Emergence of Leadership

When I share an idea with my adult children, they are tougher on me than any journal editor ever has been. They set their jaw and get ready to challenge.

At a dinner, I shared the notion that most managers do not become leaders because they do not know how to reflect on their experiences. My son, who is a sales manager in a big company, immediately took issue. He pointed out that he thinks all the time about his experiences and the claim is unrealistic.

I next shared a typology I received from an observant executive. There are three types of executives in most companies. There are very few leaders; we know them because when we meet them, we want to be like them. There are many managers who understand leadership but do not practice it. There are a few technicians who will never understand leadership.

Before I could elaborate, my son became animated. With emotion, he spoke of the fact that his company was permeated by managers looking out for their own best interests. He gave example after example. He spoke of his efforts to go against the grain and lead his people.

He has been so successful that his unit leads the company in sales. Yet this success has come at a price. He has built a positive organization. He has created such trust and purpose that his people know they can raise real issues with him and they genuinely want his help. So his phone never stops ringing. He is inundated with phone calls and emails. He said, “I have virtually no time to think about how to improve. All my time is invested in helping solve problems.”

The last sentence is of great importance. It first illustrates a paradox. The more you lead, the more the system unconsciously conspires to turn you back into a manager. Unless you can maintain focus and increase consciousness in the face of great social expectations, you get sucked into maintaining the current equilibrium. You are pulled towards the role of a problem-solving manager. It becomes improbable that you will evolve to a higher level of consciousness and leadership in which you continually seek to clarify the highest, evolving purpose and link behavior to it.

The sentence also illustrates something else. When I suggested that most managers do not become leaders because they do not know how to reflect on their experiences, my son took issue, pointing out that he always thinks about his experiences. Yet when he reviews his daily life, he concludes that he has little if any time to reflect on improving as a leader.

The truth is that he does continually think about his experiences, but his context does not allow him to deeply reflect on his experiences and derive the clarification of values and purpose that is necessary to move to the next level of effective influence. The context requires continuous action and allows for little reflection. The culture thus pulls him back to the existing equilibrium. Just as culture eats strategy for breakfast, so culture also eats personal leadership development for breakfast.

To develop as a leader, one must overcome the social context and the pull of the culture. One must separate and contemplate. Doing so leads to increased consciousness. The highest possible purpose becomes clear. Committing to that purpose leads to failures and successes. From these new experiences, learning expands and capacity emerges. We find that we know a new truth and it makes us free from the culture. It allows us to act upon the culture with effectiveness. We operate at a new level of leadership.


  • How much time do you get to deeply reflect on your own behavior?
  • How is it possible for a few to become leaders who others want to emulate?
  • What code did they break and how did they break it?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Failure Advantage

When I present the notion of positive leadership, I often build on the concept of the “twice-born leader.” Managers grow up with a conventional perspective. Some have a crisis that causes them to clarify their values and purpose. They become “twice born.” They have a new perspective that gives rise to a more complex and dynamic self.

One element of the change has to do with their locus of control. They are now less driven by the external culture and more driven by their own values, purpose, feelings, and thinking. They question the culture and the conventional assumptions that hold the organization in place. They see in new ways and behave accordinly. They begin to lead by changing the culture.

The thing that is hard to understand is that positive leadership includes leadership failure. When I teach positive leadership, members of an audience often assume that the change is complete and the positive leader must be perfect. To challenge, they look for the flaws in any given example. They point out some kind of limitation in the person so as to negate the theory.

This was occurring recently in a company with a purpose-driven leader. A member of the audience then made a potent observation. He described a recent period when the leader was frustrated and angry. He said that the leader went back to his old ways and in every room he entered, everyone shut down. This went on for several weeks. Then the leader recognized what he was doing. He apologized and made a dramatic shift.

The point is precious. When someone becomes a twice-born, purpose-driven leader, they do not become a perfected object, a noun. They become a verb, a dynamic human being in a dynamic organization. Often they have setbacks and in these down times can revert to their old ways. Yet they have something I call the failure advantage of positive leaders.

Once you internalize the positive lens and begin to live as a proactive influence, you still fail, but as you fail and turn negative, you become more quickly aware that you are a source of negativity. What you believe calls you to awareness and to change. Instead of continuing to blame others, you take charge of yourself, you self-correct, and move into a more positive stance.


  • What implications for us are carried in the concept of the twice-born leader?
  • Why is it natural to try to neutralize the concept?
  • When failing, what is the advantage of the twice-born leader?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Key to Positive Leadership

A former student came to me and expressed gratitude. He told of a presentation I once made. It was about positive leadership. Toward the end he raised his hand and asked what he could do to become a positive leader. I responded with a question: “Are you better person today than you were yesterday?”

He said that the question has never left him. He ponders it continually. He wanted me to know that he was thankful for the gift I gave him.

I do not remember that exchange or uttering those words but as he recounted the story I was elevated. My response to him really does answer the question how to become a positive leader.

In the research on positive leadership is a measurable variable called “idealized influence.” People of idealized influence are deeply trusted and attractive because they are seen as inherently good, virtuous, selfless. They pursue the common good rather than their personal good.

Yet, being good, virtuous, and selfless is not a steady state. There is not a line we cross and then become permanently perfected. The only way to be in the state of idealized influence is to continually progress, to be better today than we were yesterday.

If we are better, more virtuous, and less selfish than we were yesterday, we are more likely to engage in acts of positive leadership. Those acts may succeed or fail. Yet if we remain in our elevated state, we will learn how to adapt our actions and move toward success. A person who is not in the state of idealized influence does not engage in the same kinds of acts and does not have the same learning opportunities. A key to becoming a positive leader is to be better today than we were yesterday.

I am delighted to know that my former student always has that question in mind. It was a gift. I am glad he returned it to me so I could share it here.


  • Who is the most positive leader you have ever met?
  • In pondering that leader, what do you learn about idealized influence?
  • Why is idealized influence a dynamic rather than a fixed state?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Tapping into a Steady Stream of Your Own Endorphins

A few years ago, I introduced a concept called the fundamental state of leadership. It suggests that leadership is not holding a position. Rather, it is a state of influence. Most of the time, most of us are comfort-centered, externally directed, self-focused, and externally closed. In this conventional state, we have conventional influence.

Yet, in any situation we can learn to choose to become results-centered, internally directed, other-focused, and externally open. When we make this change, our influence climbs.

I wrote a paper about this in the Harvard Business Review. It had much impact and was selected as one of their “must reads” in self-management. Because it was so selected, many people have now read the paper. Sometimes they comment on it. Recently I received such a comment from a friend named Dan Duckworth. He writes after experiencing what most people would see as a major failure. He offers a surprising view:

I recently closed up shop on a new company we had formed at the University of Michigan to pursue a $500-million opportunity to create a national center for vaccine development and manufacturing. As my team members left one by one, they each repeatedly spoke of “something special” we had built together, of their gratitude to have been part of it, sorrow to lose hold of it, and loss of words to describe it.

Explaining my own journey through these three years can be difficult too. The change I experienced is to some extent evident in the revolution of my role at the University: I went from staffing committee meetings to negotiating and leading one of the most complex ventures U-M has ever contemplated, from knowing nothing of the biodefense industry to leading a company of industry leaders. But anecdotes illustrate only the evidence. I couldn’t begin to explain the phenomenon itself until somebody else described it for me in an article titled “Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership.”

I entered the fundamental state of leadership quite unwittingly. After just six months at U-M, frustrated by incrementalism and my own underemployment, I packed my bags and was halfway out the door when a few buzzwords yanked me back in. The Administration was humming about bioterrorism and vaccines and public-private partnerships. Curious at first, then intrigued, I was soon entranced. Not knowing it at the time, I slipped into the fundamental state and wouldn’t emerge for over three years.

With a long leash from my boss, I dived into discovery and quickly became an internal expert on the opportunity, and not long afterward, my EVP quietly charged me to lead the initiative. With no authority or credibility, I latched onto two mentors, and we began the breathtaking adventure of defining our strategy even as we executed it. Along the way, we convinced the University to invest millions of dollars to develop our ideas and to form a new vaccine company with its own policies, people, and systems—realities inconceivable in the beginning.

After the story of its start, the biodefense project is the story of its thousand deaths and nine hundred and ninety-nine rebirths. A mentor quits at a crucial moment. A primary corporate partner cancels the bid just days before the submission deadline. The new company we formed is hijacked and reabsorbed back into the University. The government rejects our proposed leadership team twice and then suddenly eliminates us from the competition for the first time. All the while, the U-M and Department of Defense bureaucracies unremittingly torture us with process and procedure that bleed us to a faint numerous times. But, strangely, none of these catastrophes break the spell I am under. Where others see the end of the track, I see only hurdles. I just keep problem-solving, just keep breathing life into the project, and the company against all odds and against supposedly better judgment until we nearly win the largest contract in U-M history—nearly. And the spell that binds me suddenly snaps.

As I departed the office-turned-ghost-town that final day, a surprising feeling of success filled me in spite of the evidence of failure that surrounded me. It’s hard to feel failure after nine hundred and ninety-nine victories. It’s hard to feel failure when you build one of the industry’s most prolific management teams, when you achieve near-perfect technical scores, when naysayers are cheerleading on your bandwagon, when you know something magical happened to you and to your teammates. To be sure, losing the bid after three years of toil was terribly disheartening. But the enduring emotion resembles success much more than it does failure.

That paradox came into perspective when I stumbled across an article describing the fundamental state of leadership. It was written by a friend, Robert E. Quinn.   As I read it, I could hear Bob narrating my experience. Entering the fundamental state, I realized, was like tapping into a steady stream of my own endorphins, which fueled a relentless three-year campaign. Instead of retreating from difficulty and ambiguity, I craved them. Not only did the work energize me, it magnified me. My mind was sharper, my decisions crisper, and my personality more authentic. I led and people followed, many with a fidelity and industry I could never have asked for.

Experiencing the fundamental state of leadership is a reward of its own. Naturally, I am anxious to return to it—be that in whatever industry, company, and capacity it turns out to be in.


  • Have I had a failure that I now see as a victory? What do I learn from it?
  • What is the fundamental state of leadership?
  • Why is it like tapping into a steady flow of your own endorphins?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Discovering Potential

Often negative life events cause us to discover potential we did not know we had. I have a friend who became a single mother. She decided to go into real estate. Because she is organized and personable, she did well and soon she had her own small organization. In accomplishing this impressive outcome, she was discovering potential she did not know she had.

One day my wife gave her an audio copy of The Positive Organization. Two weeks later my phone rang. She asked if I had a few minutes. As she spoke, she became increasingly excited. She told me she listened to the entire book and she learned one new thing after another. I asked her what was most important. She said that she had never thought about the notion of having a positive culture and that when you have one the people give more of themselves and the organization will start to run itself.

She then told story after story of recently choosing to not do things herself. Each time a new effort was required, she asked herself how to make it a truly meaningful challenge for one of her people and how she could simultaneously provide support. In every case they had not only responded, they exceeded her expectations.

One example was the onboarding of a new person. She asked the person who was coming on if she would like to help improve and codify the onboarding process so it would help every new employee that came on in the future. The woman loved the idea of having such a lasting impact and threw herself into the effort.

As my friend told this and other stories, she conveyed a sense of awe. It was as if she was watching a rerun of surprising moments in her own life and she was discovering new lessons as she watched. What she was discovering was that potential she had realized in herself over the last few years could also be realized in the other people at work.

She told me she was now envisioning an entirely new kind of organization, one in which she did not have to monitor and control every detail. Instead she could share leadership and the people would more fully lead themselves. This is a discovery that few managers make. So they never aspire to what she was learning to imagine and pursue.

It was an impressive phone call. When she hung up, I noticed that I was emotionally affected. Her joy and gratitude were contagious. My mind began to race with new ideas. I could see potential everywhere.



  • In starting out, why and how did the realtor discover potential she did not think she had?
  • Why is it natural for people in authority to monitor and control employees?
  • Once she began to apply the book, she discovered potential in others. Why?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Living With a Fresh Self

We were working with a professional group. During one of the breaks, a man approached me. Before he said a word, I already liked him. He began by asking, “Do you meditate?”

The dictionary says that to meditate is “to empty the mind of thoughts, or concentrate the mind on one thing, in order to aid mental or spiritual development, contemplation, or relaxation.”

I indicated that I do meditate. He responded, “I am 100% into science. Yet my mother went off on a ten-day silent meditation program and the impact on her was so positive I decided to try it. I believe doing the ten days really mattered, it carried me through a very demanding phase of my professional training. Later I did ten more days.”

We explored his story and had a delightful conversation about topic of meditation. He then said something I did not expect: “I decided to not go again because meditation can become a problem.”

He explained, “When you intensely meditate, you experience increased awareness and you gain insights about what you should do. I began to realize that if I was not going to act on the things that were coming to me, it was not such a good thing.”

I have been pondering his words. I have been particularly focused on his statement, “If I was not going to act on the things that were coming to me, it was not such a good thing.”

I asked myself, “What does my experience lead me to believe about meditation?” Here is what I came up with.

I believe the universe is a school and I am here to progress. To progress is to advance and develop. When I am progressing, I have a sense of growth and well-being. When I am not progressing, I have a sense of stagnation and misery.

I believe mediation is one key to my progression. It opens my mind and my awareness increases. As my associate claimed, impressions come inviting or directing me to do something that is inherently good. Sometimes the new action is an easy adjustment but sometimes the impressions call me to do some hard thing, to engage in some form of labor that I would prefer to avoid.

I believe responding to the impressions requires faith in the message. If I exercise the courage to move forward, a new experience emerges. By pondering the new experience, I acquire wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge derived from experience. Wisdom gives rise to perspective and increases my capacity to behave effectively. In this kind of learning by faith, I become free from the previous beliefs that were limiting my progress. In this kind of deep learning, stagnation tends to turn into growth.

While the dictionary says that the word self is a noun, I believe self is a verb. My self is a living system that is constantly decaying or growing. My best or most authentic self is the self that emerges as I am moving toward a higher purpose in a state of deep learning. In deep learning, I am discarding limiting beliefs and acquiring wisdom that empowers and courage to reveal my best or most authentic self.

I believe that when the impressions call me to do things that exceed my faith or courage, I practice denial. I rationalize or lie to myself. I orient away from my conscience. To orient away from my conscience is to cut off the mechanism that calls me to live virtuously (courage, integrity, love, humility, patience, and so on). I begin to live in fear, hypocrisy, insensitivity, hubris, anxiousness, and so on. Instead of having a fresh self that is learning and emerging in real time, I have a stale self that is growing brittle.

As I examine these beliefs, I return to the statement form my associate: “If I was not going to act on the things that were coming to me, it was not such a good thing.”

It seems to me that not acting on what the impressions call me to do is not a good thing. Rationalization puts me into decay. Yet avoiding meditation does not seem to be the answer. That also puts me into decay.

This tension leads me to conclude that the universe really is a school designed to promote my learning and growth. If I avoid meditation or if I fail to respond to the impressions that come, I begin to stagnate and misery increases. When I can no longer stand the misery, I have one choice: to clarify my values and purpose. This allows me to reorient to the impressions that are calling me to be my best and more virtuous self.



  • Do I currently have a stale self or a fresh self? How do I know?
  • Who in the organization tends to live with a fresh self?
  • How does being stale or fresh influence others?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Becoming a Living Poem

My son-in-law works in the federal government.  He often describes the difficulties of working in a bureaucracy.  When he does, he tends to also describe some form of self-management.  Despite daily negative events, he has consciously developed tools to keep positive.  His examples are impressive and his constancy is inspiring.

He recently wrote that he loves poetry.  He keeps a notebook in his backpack just for writing poems.  He says.  “Every time I pull it out and open to a blank page, I feel a sense of freedom: I could write about anything.  For example, the other day I tried to write a poem about this weird old lever on the metro floor covered in grime.  I just wanted to see if I could.

“Samuel Coleridge once said: ‘I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.’  That idea—of seeking the best words and putting them in the best order—is one I love.  I am grateful for the challenge of poetry and the avenue for expression it provides me.”

Why does writing poetry give him a sense of freedom?

Writing poetry is a discipline.  Discipline is pattern of self-regulation, self-control, or self-restraint in which we exercise the will to do things we would not naturally do. We have physical disciplines, intellectual disciplines, spiritual disciplines, and social disciplines.  When we internalize a discipline, we behave in new ways and we get new results.  The results invite us to new beliefs.  We make new assumptions about the nature of the world and our ability to influence the world.  When our assumptions change in this manner, we acquire new capacity.  We let go of convention and we find the freedom and power to create what we could not previously create.

In the case of my son-in-law, poetry is a challenge and an avenue of expression.  It is a transformational discipline.  He can look at a lever covered with grime on the floor of a subway and it becomes a stimulus for creating a new image.  The image is created by putting the best words in the best order.  In this example, the mundane becomes a stimulus to create something new and extraordinary.

Positive influence is a discipline.  Conventional organizations are built on fear and they work to sap human integrity and commitment.  People live in a survival mode.  At work we all need to learn self-management disciplines that will renew us.  Each of us can develop tools and apply them with constancy.  An important tool that any of us can employ, regardless of position, is positive influence.

The exercise of positive influence requires self-management.  One must transcend the ego.  One must look on the mundane organizational interactions and see them as a lever covered in grime on the subway floor. Seeing possibility that no one else sees, one must go deep inside and locate the best words and put them in the best order.  One must actually become a living poem.

A living poem is a person who has exercised the discipline to see possibility in convention, exercised the discipline to find his or her most authentic words, and exercised the discipline to give them to us with love.  When we encounter a living poem we pay attention, we feel challenged and inspired.  If we then become a living poem, we feel free because we transcend convention and live in the state of meaningful contribution.  Life takes on greater meaning.

My son-in-law could be defined as a low-level bureaucrat.  From the conventional lens, no one would think of him as a leader.  A leader is a person of hierarchical position.  I read the accounts of his day-to-day experiences at work and I see the personification of a positive influence.  He is a leader, a living poem.

Managers know that their job is to solve problems and maintain order.  Positive leaders know that their job is to create a workforce of people like my son-in-law, leaders at every level who infect each other with positive energy.  Because the vision is so unconventional, because the capacity is absent, we have many managers and few leaders.  Each of us might do well to look at ourselves as a lever on the floor covered with grime and exercise the discipline to turn ourselves into a living poem.



  • What disciplines have I internalized and how have they made me free?
  • In what way is my organization filled with levers covered with grime?
  • Who in our organization is a living poem?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Our Governing Images

Social science has determined that we are “path dependent.” This means we are prisoners of our past experiences. The scientific assumption is that the past determines the present. Working from the positive lens, I often ask, “When does the future determine the present?” The room goes silent. Eventually someone says, “When we are committed to a goal.”

I was dreaming. A fierce animal was three feet from me and about to pounce. The image was so vivid that my body reacted. I suddenly raised my arms in defense and the action woke me up. I marveled that my unconscious could create an image so real that my body would respond. My imagination was creating my reality.

It is true that the past generally determines the present. Most people are prisoners of their culture and they live lives of “quiet desperation.” Organizations are full of quiet desperation and vast resources are unrecognized, untapped, and generally wasted.

It is also true that we can take control of our lives and find meaning. Personal empowerment and leadership originates with this question from Robert Fritz: “What result do I want to create?”

When we focus the conscious mind on our highest desire, we begin to trigger the unconscious mind. This interpenetration can give rise to a vivid image like the fierce animal that was about to pounce. The body responds to the image and the body behaves in new ways. This new behavior can stimulate others to respond. The new interactions that follow can give rise to new collective images. The new, shared images can be so vivid that the group responds in new ways. This is one path to conscious culture change. We call it leadership. We seldom see leadership, but when it exists, a vivid image of the desired future disrupts path dependence and creates purpose, experience, and learning.

While it is true that the past determines the present, it is also true that the future can determine the present. When we choose to live to a higher purpose, we can find the discipline to state the future we truly desire and give life to the images that emerge. When we do so, we live more meaningfully and we begin to lead.


In our organization, what are our governing images?

Do these images come from the past or the future?

What is our most noble, vivid, shared, future image?

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