Every Interaction Matters

I listened to a CEO speak to senior executives about the need to replace fear with authentic conversations in order to get true feedback. The CEO began with a statement of vulnerability: “Sometimes I want to open a session to questions, but I fear that I will not know the answers. Sometimes I am in a tax discussion and I do not ask questions because I do not want to look stupid. Sometimes in meetings I choose updating over discussion. In each case I am failing to build trust.”

The CEO was making it legitimate to discuss the undiscussible issue: people at all levels of organizations are driven by fear. They communicate their fear. It is manifest in the culture. We expect people to be driven by fear–even CEOs.

The focus then turned to purpose and the CEO made an even more important point: “We have to find ways to get everyone on the same mission. Every interaction matters. We do not have bad people. The problem is that we have not fully established a sense of mission. We have not attracted them into that sense of mission. They do not have a reason to fully invest.”

Every interaction matters. Why? In every interaction, we build culture. When fear drives our actions, as it usually does, we communicate that we are more concerned with the needs of our ego than we are with the good of the system. We build a conventional culture of self-interest. The employees are good people who behave according to the culture. If they lack motivation, they are not the problem. The authority figures are the problem; they have not created a persuasive vision, a sense of mission, and a culture of authentic communication.

Until we have a personal purpose that moves us forward in spite of our fears, we are not leaders. Until we have attracted our people to a sense of mission, we are not leaders. We are all accountable to this terrible fact. We become leaders when every interaction is focused on the common good and invites our colleagues to the common good.


  • How many of my manager’s actions are driven by fear?
  • How many of my actions are driven by fear?
  • How can I build a positive culture by making every interaction matter?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Becoming Authentic

At the Academy of Management, there was a session on authenticity. Four scholars discussed their understanding of the topic. We spoke of authenticity as stepping up and out of role expectations; of living in accord with an anticipated future self; as moral communication, self-disclosure, an expression of the dynamic and whole self; seeing reality and owning one’s own choices; the genuine intention to serve others; and expressing self without an ego-driven purpose.

It was a creative discussion. I loved what I was learning. We opened the discussion to the audience. As I listened to their questions, I was surprised. These were mostly professors and they were there because they were interested in the topic. Yet many of them could not seem to understand what we were saying. To many, authentic meant correspondence to fact. The notion of stepping outside the ego and living with moral power was a foreign notion.

They were responding as many respond when I speak of transformational leadership. It is difficult for the conventional, transactional mind to conceive of genuine service to the common good.

Authenticity is not a conventional phenomenon. Yet it is accessible. Most people have had experiences operating outside the ego. Focusing on them is a path to understanding.



  • In our unit, how often do we observe ego-driven behavior?
  • What is authentic behavior?
  • How could we increase our own authenticity?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Transformational Questions

In the 1980s, Pepsi and Coke were engaged in an intense battle, fighting for tenths of a percent of market share. Coke was not doing well. CEO Robert Goizueta had an insight. He believed that his people were spinning their wheels because of their mindset. The focus was on the beverage market. They needed to think in a new way. To change their thinking, Goizueta proposed a new question: “What is our market share of the stomach?”

This was a shocking question. He was asking, what was Coke’s share of all fluids consumed by humankind? Suddenly the enemy was not just Pepsi, but coffee, milk, tea, and water. Instead of being one of two big fish in a small pond, Coke was suddenly a small fish in a huge pond. The vision, culture, and psychology immediately changed and eventually profits soared.

In September of 2001, Robert Mueller became director of the FBI. The FBI was in the business of solving domestic crimes and bringing criminals to justice. A week later, on September of 11, there was an attack on the United States. Shortly after, Mueller reported to President Bush. In the meeting, Bush asked a question: “What was the FBI doing to prevent future attacks?”

The question was transformational. The FBI, designed to be a reactive, law enforcement agency, encountered a new image. It was a vision of a proactive organization that prevented attacks on the country. The culture and psychology changed. They agency began to produce new outcomes.

These are two examples of transformational inquiry or questions that change an entire organization. I share them because I believe we can train ourselves to ask transformative questions in any situation.  We can asked them of ourselves, we can ask them of another person, we can ask them of an organization.

Every team, unit, and organization has a culture. It reflects some form of conventional thinking. It cannot change unless the thinking changes. Telling people to think differently usually does not work. A person who focuses on the highest purpose and asks a transformational question can have immediate and extensive impact.


  • In what way is your unit reactive and what is the highest possible purpose of your unit?
  • How would you like to see the culture and psychology change?
  • What is the most potent question you can imagine?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Transcending Justice

A friend supervises many people. Two of them have a negative orientation and criticize all proposals. They feed off each other and they create a climate in which everyone suffers. My friend invited one of them to engage in a desirable task.

Her boss was surprised and asked, “Why are you giving that person ‘perks’ he doesn’t deserve? If you’re going to involve your staff, involve someone who’s earned the privilege.”

She replied, “I understand what you’re saying, but I want this guy to improve his performance. I think he’s more likely to be responsive if he knows that I value him and his opinions.”

When the time came, the negative person was unusually positive, offering insightful and helpful comments. A few weeks later, my friend asked all her people to engage in a difficult task. The first one finished was the negative person. In the process, he uttered not one disparaging remark. My friend said it was small step forward, but it greatly increased her belief in giving people a voice in important decisions.

In this account, the boss is thinking conventionally. He is operating from assumptions of justice, transaction, and exchange. We all tend to make these assumptions. Transactional assumptions preserve order.

My friend was not trying to preserve order. She was trying to create a new order. She was trying to create a more positive culture. This meant she had to lead. She had to extend respect and positive regard to someone who had not earned respect and positive regard. In showing that she sincerely valued him and his opinions, she was extending grace. When people feel loved, they are more likely to grow–even “negative people” who who habitually engage in criticism.



  • Do you have people who create a climate in which everyone suffers?
  • What does justice suggest?
  • When have you been the recipient of grace?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Identity, Destiny and the Birth of Leadership

In recent months, I have been watching the transformation of a man and his organization. He is becoming more alive and so is the organization. Instead of managing the organization, he is beginning to lead it. Energy is expanding. People are beginning to flourish and exceed expectations. My conversations with him cause me to ponder the notions of identity, destiny, and the birth of leadership.

My identity is what I believe about myself. It is a theory that answers the question; who am I? My destiny is what I believe about my future. It is a theory of my prospective self and what it might create. It answers the question, what will I contribute, and what will I become?

My answers are interconnected. What I believe about my identity tends to shape what I believe about my destiny, and what I believe about my destiny tends to shape what I believe about my identity.

One powerful way for us to alter identity is to clarify our highest purpose. When we do this, it alters our sense of destiny. As we orient to an intention higher than self, we move into a contributive orientation.

Our identity and destiny tend to come from our culture. We enter a role like the role of manager and we respond to expectations. In this process, the managerial self becomes an extension of the culture. Following the culture or shared governing rules, the manager uses authority and expertise to maintain order and solve problems.

The manager thus preserves the culture that determines the manager’s identity. Culture and managerial identity tend to be self-reinforcing. The reliance on “what is” narrows awareness and preserves the status quo. There is a bias away from what “could be.” Prospection has a limited role in the managerial orientation.

Through crisis or through deep reflection, a manager may transform. The manager confronts the questions of identity and destiny: who am I, what do I really value, what is my highest purpose, and to what end should I be moving?

Conscience calls the manager to higher purpose. Higher purpose transcends self-interest, and moves the manager from an orientation of acquisition to an orientation of contribution. The manager finds meaning and motivation.

A new identity forms. It is an identity independent of the culture. An external locus of control becomes an internal locus of control and the manager becomes free, a being with some separation from the culture.

Most cultures are products of the past. When a manager is transformed into a leader, the leader begins to shape and align the culture to the highest collective purpose, to the most desirable future. This shifts the system from knowing to learning, and it infuses the system with hope and renewed energy.

Identity and destiny matter. We are all extensions of the culture. We work to preserve the past, collective beliefs. If we clarify our purpose, we become a leader who stimulates learning and integrates it with the best of the past. We become like the man I have been observing. We become more alive. The organization becomes more alive. The people begin to flourish and exceed expectations. They find a new destiny and a new identity.


  • What is my destiny?
  • What is my identity?
  • What is the shared destiny and identity of my people?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Igniting Contributive Desire

I found a card in the mail. It included a letter of gratitude from a young woman, a senior who is about to graduate. In the note, she told me that I was the person who “most shaped” her college career. Since I had hardly interacted with her, I was sure this was an exaggeration.

The rest of the letter, however, contained specifics about two teaching episodes, one of five minutes and later, a half-day voluntary workshop. She documented how these two experiences led her to pursue clarity of purpose and how the clarification brought confidence that she could successfully contribute in the world.

This positive story was unsettling. How could four hours and five minutes be more valuable than four years of classes? What is it that accounts for the impact? What do the answers tell me about how to make a greater contribution?

As I pondered these questions, I began to focus on the last. I realized that, because of her expression of gratitude, I was feeling an increased desire to contribute. I wrote down the words “contributive desire.” I looked this phrase up on the internet. I could not find anything.

It occurred to me that one purpose of leadership is to ignite “contributive desire” in other people. This thought opens a new way for me to think about positive leadership and perhaps a new way to teach and write about positive leadership.

By writing a letter of genuine gratitude, this young woman was leading me, creating a desire to contribute more. She was also elevating my mind, causing me to think about new strategies. I am grateful for her leadership. I am grateful for increased contributive desire.


  • What is contributive desire?
  • How much contributive desire exists in our unit?
  • How do we ignite contributive desire?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



The Fight for Feedback

On June 14, I posted a report about a struggling teacher who became an award-winning teacher. She did it through performance assessment and disciplined attention to feedback. Today she teaches her students to learn through feedback and disciplined reflection.

A good friend and an outstanding leader read the post. The message touched a deep chord. In response, he wrote of his passion, service, feedback, and reflection. I find it inspiring. In the message, he describes his basic orientation.

As I thought about that blog post, I reflected on my earliest leadership observations as a young boy accompanying my grandfather to work as he cheerfully interacted with everyone. He intently listened to fellow workers who were having issues—work related, personal, or otherwise. He helped them.

Sometimes the help came in the form of immediate advice or suggestions.  When issues were more complicated, he would reflect on them and seek advice from others—fellow union leaders. Often he did this while delivering bread in Queens and Brooklyn.  He was a recognized leader, respected by workers, union leaders, and managers.   They saw him as a reasonable person who cared about the workforce and came to meetings with good solutions.  He treated everyone the same—with respect and kindness.  He had care and empathy for all.

My father followed and showed the same leadership values.  Because I was older, my father and I could discuss some of the leadership issues he was dealing with.

I didn’t realize it then, but my grandfather and father provided my leadership foundation, and it has served me well throughout my careers: help and care about people, listen, solve problems—even when they seem simple.  In a word: service.

As he initiated a military career, and was exposed to the principles of leadership, the one principle that stood out the most was, “You have to fight for feedback.” You have to fight for it because people do not share it, and it often hurts when you get it.

He tells the story of working for a colonel who oversaw a number of units that had to provide customer service. She mentored him and he “learned how to anticipate customer needs, how to implement real customer service, and how to measure it.” Today he is responsible for a large leadership development program. He has a passion for his mission. He writes:

I am a servant leader to the program. Just like the new teacher in the blog post, I hunger to improve. I deliberately reflect on my actions. I reflect on how I influence the other decision makers and the participants. I read feedback every day during the three-week program to make needed adjustments and address participant needs.  I read feedback after alumni events.  I consolidate the feedback and look for trends. I work with the faculty to make every delivery better than the last. The program continually gets better, and in it, the participants flourish. We create a program of excellence.

To be a leader is to be a shepherd. My job is to take care of people, not only the people in my program, but by extension, the entire workforce, through leader development for senior executives, making them better and more effective.  My ultimate goal is to make the entire organization a better place through service and reflection.

This is an orientation to higher purpose, to service, and to learning. It is not easy. It requires fighting for feedback and commitment to growth. I learned it from my grandfather, from my father, and from my experience. I believe we can all learn how to serve and how to fight for feedback. It is my passion. My goal is to spread passion. It is not easy, but it is deeply satisfying.

The professor in the June 14th blog illustrated the extraordinary power of seeking and applying feedback. Here we have the wisdom of a person who has spent his entire career learning to fight for feedback. I am grateful for what they teach me.


  • What does it mean to be a servant leader?
  • What does it mean to fight for feedback?
  • How could you use these ideas?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Ten Lessons From the Other Side of Complexity

In the last blog, we considered the covenant of leadership. The idea came from Ricardo Levy. It emerged in real time as he and I discussed his personal experience with transformative learning. He was facing a complex and difficult task. He had to enter the unknown–the “cauldron of uncertainty”–and suffer there until he could find the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” and thus “see the way.”

When we understand the covenant of leadership, learning to see the way becomes a sacred task. The crucible becomes a chalice. It becomes a privilege to enter, suffer, and transform. The people grow and the leader grows. Everyone is better able to cope with the unknown.

He articulates all this in a blog entry. He writes, “A number of inherent conditions come with the passage through complexity, regardless of whether we avail ourselves of the crucible-to-chalice metaphor.” I find his ten observations to have the freshness of deep reflection and recent, personal discovery. He speaks to us in an authentic voice. Here are his observations.

  1. Gaining clarity “on the other side” does not, in itself, represent leadership. It is only insight. But this insight affords us a unique opportunity to lead. Yet only if we chooseto act on this clarity can we capture the “leadership moment.” We do so the moment we lend voice to this insight.
  2. In that instant, if the moment is right and our insight is on point, we are expressing the thoughts that are latent in the minds of all the participants: when we lend voice to our clarity, we are helping the group recognize a path to resolution of the complexity.
  3. We have an opportunity to lead, yet we are also undertaking an obligation to the others with whom we “resonate.” They put their trust in us. This results in an understanding that is unwritten: a covenant that we will do our best to carry through. It is critical that we be aware of this covenant if we are to be good leaders.
  4. While the ability to capture the “essence” of the group in the leadership moment is crucial, we should not rely on it alone. We need to have the discipline to check in with all team members to make sure there is also common clarity in understanding the path forward. I have often failed in this because, in the pressures of the moment and the dynamics of action, I have assumed too much.
  5. The ability to lead does not necessarily require hierarchy: as long as there is an understanding of leadership and follower-ship and a collective team goal, any member of the team can become the de-facto leader for that endeavor. If that happens within an already established leadership context, so much the better; if not, it is an opportunity for new leaders to emerge.
  6. I emphasize follower-ship because I find that we spend a lot of time on leadership development and training and not enough time on its counterpart, follower-ship development and training.
  7. The “leadership link” between leader and followers is strengthened by the leader’s willingness to be vulnerable: to accept shortcomings and fears. It creates in the leader a greater capacity to be fully in the moment and allows a true connection. If the situation is of real import, and the clarity we articulate comes from that deep “point vierge”described by Thomas Merton… we do well to expose this deep place. It opens the corresponding deep place in others in the group, thus enhancing the strength of the mutual commitment. It also creates a “safe space” for more intimate dialogue and a strong bonding. It has the potential to create unbeatable teams.
  8. Willingness to be vulnerable is not only important for good communication between the team and us: it is important to our own inner growth. This is especially necessary when we are facing failures. The times when I have been willing to admit vulnerability to myself have enabled me to traverse difficult situations better and have led to profound personal growth. To accomplish this, I have had to own my experiences, especially my failures. They have become my most real teachers.
  9. Admission of these failures has also increased the chances that others on my team would step in and supplement my shortcomings, thus increasing our odds for success.
  10. Being open to our own shortcomings and being forthcoming with our vulnerability are also important ways for us to teach others. To the extent that one’s voice comes from that deep “point vierge,” it will engage the listening and receiving capacity of others more intensely. This is true both for teammates in a leadership situation and for students in a learning situation.


  • What does it mean to “see the way?”
  • Which insight is most powerful to you?
  • How do you create “an unbeatable team?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Covenant of Leadership

A friend, Ricardo Levy, recently taught me. He is a successful entrepreneur. Six months ago he had to make one of the most complex and difficult decisions of his life. He has since spent much time pondering the meaning of the difficult experience.

He called and talked through what happened. He shared a diagram of the process. He said he had to fearfully step into the unknown. He had to stay there until he knew what to do. Doing so was like entering crucible of transformation. Inside his lonely crucible, the anxiety was extreme. As he wrestled with his paradoxical tensions, a change took place. He knew what to do.

He said that the transformational moment brought understanding. Complexity reduced to simplicity. It was as if the crucible became a chalice, filled with life-giving refreshment.

In describing the transformative moment on the phone, this man of great analytic ability began to slow. He struggled to express all that seemed to transpire. He was, in real time, learning from his own observations.

He spoke of the transformational moment as leaving the analytic realm and entering the human realm and seeing the whole context. His fear turned to confidence, hope, and love.

He said that in that moment he also found a new voice, the voice of a leader. He could suddenly speak both logically and with genuine feeling.

He again slowed. I could tell he was doing sense making in real time. He mentioned the word covenant and paused again.

He said that when you find the leader within, you discover that you have a covenant. The people expect the leader to see the way. The leader must do his or her best to find the way. In uncertainty, this means entering the cauldron and suffering the process of deep learning. The commitment to learning is an act of carrying the people in love.

I was mesmerized by his notion of the leadership covenant. It is a sacred agreement we make with our best self, our dynamic, growing self. It is a promise to be whole, to be simultaneously analytical and human. It is a promise to engage the whole, to recognize that the other is a being of reason and of emotion, to recognize the organization is both a technical system and a dynamic, social system that needs to learn, grow, and adapt.

The emergent leadership covenant is a promise to pursue the common good of the system while loving and nourishing the people who comprise the system. Only when we keep this covenant do we continue to bring enlightenment or the simplicity from the other side of complexity. The understanding or simplicity from the other side of complexity is vision. Self-interest pulls every organization toward convention and decay; when we keep the leadership covenant, we can help rescue the organization from that natural path.


  • What is the simplicity on the other side of complexity?
  • Why is it necessary to enter the crucible and stay there?
  • What do you believe about the emergent covenant of leadership?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Becoming Whole

At a professional meeting, there was a session on how to find meaning and passion in scientific work. One of our doctoral students was presenting and she told two highly personal stories.

In the first, she explained that her family had humble origins. They sacrificed so she could go to the best schools in her country and then the United States. They were proud and they praised her. Her ability to impress them made her feel valued. When she finished her training in the United States, she could not secure a job. This was devastating. She went home feeling a great sense of shame. The shame was so great she became ill. She turned to prayer and a realization came. She was of inherent worth. She was lovable regardless of status; she did not need to impress others. She said the realization was enlightenment and it made her free. She experienced a new level of happiness.

In the second story, she told of later being accepted into our doctoral program and attending her first global, professional meeting. As a novice listening to accomplished researchers, she was overwhelmed. She again felt herself spiraling downward. Yet this time she was able to recall her previous experience. She recognized that her paralyzing fears were a function of social comparison. So she asked questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What are my greatest strengths? She then filled a page with her prime interests as a researcher.

A few weeks later, she participated in a formal session designed to help her define her highest purpose as a researcher. The objective was to clarify her interests, link them to purpose, and create passion for her work. At the outset, the instructor asked her and others to share their core stories. What life experiences led to the formation of their identity?

One of her stories was the above account of returning to her home as a college graduate. She said, “As I told the story in English rather than my native language, I had a ‘flow’ experience. I became absorbed in the act. The listeners were absorbed. They were attracting me into sharing my deepest feelings. I was listening to my deepest feelings. The sharing led me to understanding. It was striking. It was shocking. I could finally see. I then reduced my page full of interests to a small set of key words. These interests mattered the most. The words aligned with the difference I want to make in the world. I felt focused and I felt passion. The words continue to guide me.’”

We all live in the dynamics of social comparison and we tend to enact the self we think is expected. Our locus of control becomes external. Eventually a disruption comes. We get lost in crisis. The only way out of the crisis is in. We have to go inside and discover who we are. We have to clarify our values and our purpose.

When we do, we become free. Why? The truth of who we really are and what the world really is frees us from conventional beliefs. Instead of living in a fearful and reactive state, we become proactive. We become true to our natural assets and inclinations. We become a more dynamic whole. A higher purpose integrates us. When we are whole, we recognize our place in the larger, dynamic context. We seek to make the network of life more abundant, by contributing to its evolution. Our life has meaning because we are making a meaningful contribution to life.

The self is dynamic and the universe is dynamic. Because everything is changing, we may and we do lose alignment. Yet, once we experience the dynamic of rebirth, we know what to do in our next crisis. We consciously clarify purpose and values. When we are disintegrating, we know how to make ourselves whole and we can return to making other systems whole. The more often we do this, the more wisdom we acquire. I am grateful for a graduate student with the courage to teach this lesson in public.


  • Why was the first challenge devastating?
  • Why was she better able to handle the second challenge?
  • What key principle do you take form this account?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?