Positive Leadership, Positive Culture

Note: The first part of this passage was posted before. Here a new story has been added. I think the passage takes on greater value.

I know a woman who holds a first level job in a large organization. She told me of the day in which the workforce was suddenly downsized. People were told that they no longer had jobs and security officers immediately escorted them off the premises. Although it had been six months since the event, in telling me the story, my friend cried and her body actually quivered.

It seemed to me that she was as traumatized as if she had witnessed the rape of a family member. Still worse, she had to cope with the fact that the perpetrator was at large and she might yet be a victim. She said that, despite the fact she kept her job, her perception of the company and of her role in it has completely changed.   If she were ever able, she would leave the company. Many of her peers feel the same. They show up to work but they are fundamentally uncommitted. The company is now functioning with an army of unengaged people. The capacity to produce wealth is drastically reduced.

Why do intelligent people do this?

The key word is convention. The executives who designed the downsizing were following conventional, problem solving assumptions. They went to conventional HR leaders and conventional lawyers who gave conventional advice on how to solve what is now a conventional problem. Conventional thinking is based on transactional assumptions. It reduces the whole (culture) to the part (individual people). It focuses on the reduction of discomfort in those of power.   It narrows in on the immediate problem to be solved which is to get unwanted people (that is, human trash) out the door with least risk. It does not see the future of the culture. It does not recognize that every act of turning a person into an object stays in the human network and breeds fear, distrust and the pursuit of self-interest.

All of this is compounded by the limitations of conventional measurement. The financial implications of massive disengagement are very large but usually the loss is unrecognized and, even if it was recognized, no one would be held accountable. In such situations we actually expect and accept conventional, bad management and conventional, bad outcomes. We see them as normal and we see no other alternative.

What is the alternative?

I was part of a video project in which I interviewed a man who has been a successful, life-long entrepreneur. He believes in rigorous business discipline. He also believes in rigorous personal discipline. He strives to live at a higher level of consciousness.

During the interview, he shared the story of the “hardest thing” he ever had to do. He had an organization of 80 people. A recession hit and it was necessary to let 20% of his people go. He eventually gathered them and shared the dreadful news. When he finished, all 80 gave him a standing ovation.

This claim is surprising because it violates our conventional assumptions. A standing ovation is an act of collective recognition given for a demonstration of excellence. Why would people give a standing ovation to the person who just fired them? I posed this puzzle to 20 executives. In three minutes of serious discussion they came up with the correct answers:

  • The people knew the man was authentic and he would never deceive them.
  • They people knew he was acting for the common good.
  • The people knew he had tried every other avenue.
  • The people knew he genuinely valued them and was suffering with them.
  • The people knew he would do anything to help them get new work.
  • The people were witnessing excellence in leadership.

I shared this account with a friend who is a noted consultant. He told me of a downsizing in a large company that also produced a standing ovation. The event took place in an organization that has a strong reputation as a positive company. The CEO flew across the country with his eight top people. They held a meeting, shared all relevant data and announced the downsizing. They also announced that the next day each of the eight was assigned a room and would be there all day. Everyone was invited to meet and share what they felt. The eight were in discussions with employees the entire day. From 5 PM to 10 PM the eight met and shared what they learned. The next day another meeting was held. The CEO listed all the things they learned and shared the things they were going to do to help people as they transitioned. At the conclusion the people being fired gave a standing ovation.

Why did they do this? To answer this question, please revisit the above list. The two stories are the same story. While most authority figures live from the conventional mental map, a few live from the positive mental map. While they accomplish the immediate task — downsizing — they simultaneously create an even more positive culture. So it is with every immediate task.

This appears to sound mysterious and even objectionable. Yet consider this. In three minutes of deep thinking, 20 executives could come up with the explanation for the standing ovation. While our behavior tends to be driven by the assumptions of convention, deep within each of us, is an understanding of the path to organizational excellence or positive organizing. There are many external incentives that keep us from accessing this deep understanding. To bring the deep understanding to the realm of action requires that we commit to and sacrifice for the common good. It requires that we give our hearts as well as our heads. When we do we give the whole self and others give us standing ovations.



What is a positive culture?

What is positive leadership?

How does a positive leader create a positive culture?



Commitment and Rebirth

We spent time with a young friend who is now in a governmental medical residency. He signed a contract to specialize in radiology. When it came time to enter the specialty the bureaucracy no longer offered radiology. While he pointed out that they were legally bound, they put intense pressure on him. He faced all the intimidation with quiet, focused confidence and eventually the bureaucracy caved-in.

The story is important. There is often a moment when a person can choose a right principle, fully commit to an outcome, and then move forward no matter the cost. Opposition churns with intensity then it collapses and the world is changed. David conquers Goliath. The experience changes David.

David discovers the power of his own virtue. He sees potential in himself that he did not see before. He also realizes that the same potential exists in others who do not see it in themselves.   He is anxious to help others empower themselves. He knows that the external social world is vulnerable to human commitment.   The awareness of this truth makes him free and opens to path to living a proactive life.



When have I have I been totally committed no matter the cost?

What happened?

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

Accountability to Excellence

I was listening to a talk on marriage. The speaker described the positive feelings that two people tend to have when they first marry. Then he described emergent patterns of resentment, disengagement and isolation. He described people living together in cold civility while emotionally alienated. He then spoke of divorce. He indicated that most of the failed marriages could have been saved if the people knew how to relate to each other more effectively. There are basic principles that can save marriages and even more, lift people to levels of mutual enrichment.

Organizations are like marriages. People, who have offended each other, live together in the same building in cold civility. Because of this, there are no synergies, there is no spontaneous teamwork, there is just a building containing emotionally isolated people operating in begrudging relationships. I even see this is the executive suite. The financial costs are staggering.

This costly scenario is accepted because in the conventional lens we assume that conflict is natural and alienation is inevitable. In the positive lens we know that conflict can be transcended and people can flourish in relationships of high collaboration. In the positive lens we are accountable to human experience at its best.



When have I witnessed people working together in cold civility?

What is the cost of such relationships?

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

Persistence and the Alteration of Cultural Dynamics

Peter Drucker once declared, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Every group has a culture. A culture is a set of expectations or a set of rules of how people operate together. In organizations managers encounter many challenges and respond by problem solving. These logical efforts occur within the culture or shared set of expectations. If an initiative goes outside the cultural expectations there is conflict and the problem solving effort tends to get modified until it conforms to the cultural expectations.

The challenge is to stop trying to move away from that which is unwanted. The challenge is to identify a new result that we want to create, to move toward what we really want. The shift to purpose creates a different dynamic. By envisioning the future and acting upon it, we become positive deviants. We act in ways that are outside the cultural rules. Knowing and acting on the result we want to create disturbs the culture and creates opposition.

The emergence of opposition may be unsettling yet it is a marker of progress. If we remain committed and persist in the face of resistance, our committed behavior becomes a message that someone actually cares enough about the organization to suffer the cost of personal conflict. The presence of such commitment communicates. People begin to contemplate the possibility, even if they are against it. The possibility enters the collective conversation where it takes on a life of its own.

The enactment of committed purpose is much more powerful than words. When we courageously move forward we initiate the dynamics of cultural change. To do so is to empower one’s self. Empowered people tend to empower their community. The culture begins to change.



Finding Purpose in Crisis: From Survival to Flourishing

I once had the opportunity to run an organization.  It was populated with magnificent people.  Yet one of the most surprising things to me was their tendency to work mindlessly.  Many would do what they did the day before in the same manner.  There was no sense that they could reinvent what they were doing in ways that were more engaging and more effective.

It turns out that most people on the planet are living in a survival mentality.  This is true of the global workforce and also true of slightly more than half the managerial workforce.  The lives of most of us are not driven by purpose. There is a tendency to drift into a reactive state.

Paradoxically, one thing that tends to transform us is our desire to survive.  We see this in crisis.  As individuals we may need to cope with physical illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, abusive treatment, burnout, job loss or other life demands. In organizations we may need to cope with recession, new competitors, regulatory changes, evolving customer preferences and many other such challenges.

Dark clouds and other signals of danger usually precede these storms.  The signals often call for a transformation, or deep change. We tend to resist the call. When our old habits of thought and action seem to be ever less effective in the face of the change, we are slow to abandon them in favor of learning our way into an elevated state.

To move forward into the storm of real-time learning is no easy decision.  Often I get frustrated because I am doing everything I can think of to solve a problem, and the more I apply my logic, the worse things get.  This is a sign that I am in a trap.  The more I analyze and work at the issue, the more the problem grows, causing me to work harder.  If I continue, I will eventually have a failure and an ego collapse.

In the crisis I come to the point that I must choose between being a paralyzed victim and moving forward in a proactive way.  Making the decision triggers a process of transformation or deep change.  As I become more intentional, I turn fear into faith.  A vision emerges.  I see possibility and I move forward trying to create it.  I am no longer fleeing from a problem.  I am in the process of creating a result.  It is a different way of being.  I move from an orientation to survival to a focus on flourishing.

Turning Points

I once gave a talk about deep change to a group of venture capitalists and CEOs of start-up firms.  A woman I will call Anna came up to tell me her own story of self change.  She began with a declaration:  “I have a very unique skill.  I create companies.  I bring people together, and out of nothing, I make something.  That is what I do.”  Although she said this with enormous confidence, it was not a statement of hubris.  Rather, she spoke with a sense of wonder.  It was as if she was being vitalized by this recognition of her own ability.

I was impressed.  Imagine being confident that you can enter new situations and bring people together in such a way that a new company emerges.  This is adaptive confidence — the belief in one’s capacity to lead deep change.  I asked her how she had acquired this capacity.

“I went through a terrible life crisis,” she said.  “I was without work.  I hungered to get back into my comfort zone.  So I took a job just like the one I was in before.  After three months, I realized that I had made a mistake.  So I decided to leave my job and live without an income.  Previously I thought people loved me because I made money, I discovered that they loved me because of who I am.  I discovered that I could do things I did not know I could do.  I gained a new identity and a higher level of confidence in myself.  I could see in new ways and I was not afraid to try new things.

Turning points cause us to see ourselves differently.  Whether they result from positive or negative events, they capture our attention and invite a new definition of self.  When this happens, we, like Anna, discover two things for sure:  we know that we can change, and thus we know that others can change too.  This knowledge is essential to people who seek to lead deep change.  As we use self-reflection to grow and become more positive and more influential, we acquire the desire to change our external context, a trait sometimes called developmental readiness (Avolio and Hannah, 2008).  This may create a virtuous cycle of initiative and learning.  Living in this cycle we become empowered and empowering to others.

  • The Deep Change Field Guide, p. 73-73

Helping People Fly Blind

I once had a student in my class who has such limited vision that he is legally blind. Despite his handicap he was fully engaged in life. He wrote to tell me he is about to graduate with a master’s degree. I felt inspired by his accomplishment. I was not however prepared for what he said next.

He explained that he has just taken on a new project. He has always loved aviation and regretted that because of his eyesight he could not become a pilot. Yet earlier this year he saw a video in which a man with his same disease was flying. The man had been a pilot until the disease took his vision. He then lost his license. Yet his pilot friends still took him up and allowed him to sit in the pilot’s seat. My former student was inspired, so he contacted the local flying club and asked if he could try an introductory flight. They responded positively. In writing of the experience, he makes a statement that I deeply value.

“Last month I was finally able to fly with a volunteer club member after almost 20 years of negative self-assumptions. It was one of the single most powerful and empowering experiences of my life. I actually feel different in my daily life—more confident and self-assured, less anxious. It’s absolutely amazing that one hour can have such a profound impact on a person.”

Although he cannot ultimately get his license, the club has agreed to support him in pursuing instruction. He has made a video of some of his experiences and when he shows it to students with visual impairments and to others, the response is very positive. He says, “I feel like I am spreading something amazing as I share this experience.”

Those feelings inspired him to launch a video documentary of his progress through flight instruction. He plans to do a short video that explores the “bounds and rough edges of disability and ableism.” He wants people to understand and be inspired by the experience of flying blind.

Each of us has an identity built on positive and negative self-assumptions. The assumptions come from our experience. There are things, for example, I “know” I cannot and will not ever do. So I fear and avoid circumstances that may require me to engage in such activities.

Yet my assumptions are just beliefs and beliefs can change. My very identity can and does change with new experiences.   When I occasionally do something that challenges and changes my “negative self-assumptions” I have an “empowering” experience that causes me to be “more confident and self-assured, less anxious.” This is a positive change in identity, and in how I see myself.

When I have a deep change experience, I more fully love myself and this makes it possible for me to more fully love others. This love for others often is manifest in the desire to help them realize the potential they might not see in themselves. It is not surprising that my student suddenly has a desire to make a video that might empower others.

In these moments of deep change, I also tend to become aware of the agency of others. My eventual challenge is to get them to let go and to “fly blind” but they cannot be forced by my “authority.” They must be attracted to the fearful commitment by my authenticity. I must lead them without authority. Positive leaders must offer an image of the future that generates hope and simultaneously offers unconditional support for the pursuit of that hope. The people need to have faith in the possible future and faith in the supportive present. When they develop such faith, they may dare to move forward and learn.

Helping a person to fly blind, or to build the bridge as they walk on it, is a great and empowering contribution that results in a positive identity change, or deep change. Helping a team, organization, or community to make deep change is also a great and empowering contribution that results in a more positive culture. Executing either has a lasting impact on them and on us. We need to better understand and lead the deep change process.


When have I dared to fly blind?

When have I helped someone else fly blind?

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

The Power of Intelligent Optimism

Despite a demanding professional schedule, a friend of mine volunteers to work with prisoners. He has a surprisingly high rate of success in helping them turn their lives around.  How does he achieve this? His strategy is straightforward. He sees the potential in everyone. He listens deeply and responds authentically. He has no agenda other than to help. Recently he sent me a story that included a penetrating question.

Your deep commitment to seeing the good in all things prompted me to engage one of my inmates to talk about the spirit of positive organizational scholarship. Given where he had come from and where he had spent most of his teen and adult life, I was surprised to see the 24-year-old deeply engaged and curious about a life outlook that was very alien to him. His upbringing was pockmarked with a series of abuses by his family and “friends,” who saw him as someone to be manipulated and marginalized. After sharing the concept of POS and its effects, he startled me with a simple, yet penetrating question: “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”

“How would you have responded to him?” my friend asked me. This question is a much more efficient and elegant version of a criticism often leveled at the positive perspective. It suggests that to take a positive view is to ignore or distort reality. It is common to denigrate the positive perspective by saying, “Oh, that’s Pollyanna.”

This expression refers to the iconic 1913 novel of the same name in which a girl embraces the silver lining no matter what challenges she encounters. This bestseller inspired movie versions in 1920 and 1960.

After hearing that critical expression so many times I decided to watch the 1960 Disney version. I wanted to examine Pollyanna’s lack of realism so I could use it to distinguish between her unrealistic perspective and the practical positive perspective about which I teach and research. I had a surprise.

It turns out there was nothing unrealistic about Pollyanna. Like the above prisoner she had one disappointing experience after another.  She felt the reality and the pain of each disappointment. In the midst of her disappointment she made the choice to orient to hope. This did not make the negative realities go away but it changed her life trajectory.

When confronted with a difficulty, most of us choose either a self-defeating action (impulsive behavior, or an inappropriate fight response) or inaction (avoidance, or an inappropriate flight response). Pollyanna had the ability to self-regulate, to manage her own emotional reactions. Instead of becoming disabled by her life injuries, she acquired resilience–the ability to move forward in the face of constraint.

Now back to the inmate’s question. “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”

If all I see is the good you are right, you should not trust me. I am a naive optimist who distorts reality. I am simply the flip side of the negative skeptic who also distorts reality.

On the other hand, if we see and experience the negative but discipline ourselves to live in positivity we grow into an unusual and mature life stance. We become intelligent optimists. This is a characteristic of master change agents.

In the Pollyanna movie, there is a confirmed cynic. We might assume she grew up being treated as the above prisoner was treated. In this character’s normal, skeptical independence, she is repulsed by Pollyanna’s positive orientation. Then circumstances change and she needs to lean on someone. When she has to choose, it is Pollyanna she selects.

A critic might say, “Yes, but that was just a movie.” Think about my friend. Why does he, working for free, succeed in turning around prisoners when so many professionals fail? He sees the potential in everyone. He listens deeply and responds authentically. He has no agenda other than to help.   He is an intelligent optimist who sees and nurtures the potential in everyone.


Who do I know who is a naive optimist, how do I feel about the person?

Who do I know who is an intelligent optimist, how do I feel about the person?

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

Principle and Profits: A Surprising Connection

Last night I had dinner with some impressive people.  Those at the table included the outgoing, international president of a major service organization, the director of a national leadership institute, an executive in a large corporation, a female entrepreneur, and the co-founder of a local business.  While they all came from different backgrounds, they were all committed to the service of the higher good and they all radiated positivity.

There were many stories told but the one that most stays with me was told by the co-founder of the local restaurant business.  His name is Paul.  In setting up their restaurants Paul and his partner committed to the constant, intense training of their people, particularly around the concepts of quality and of customer service.  They also committed 10% of their profits to community needs.  As a major recession began, it was clear that less people would be able to afford to eat out.  Since their restaurants are high end, it was a certainty that profit would decline.

Paul and his partner made two decisions that were counter-intuitive.  The first decision was to increase their financial contributions to community service.  Because the community organizations would be receiving less, Paul and his partner felt that they should do more.

The second decision was to increase rather than decrease their investment in training.  They reasoned that people would only go out to eat on rare occasions, and when they did they would want to be sure that they received high value for their precious dollars.  Paul wanted to train his people to provide even greater quality and service during the recession.  He wanted his customers to be delighted.

The outcome was interesting, instead of a decline in profit, they experienced an increase in profit.  The first year profit went up 8%, the next it went up 10%, and the third year of the recession it went up 12%.  As we explored this phenomenon, Paul said something interesting:

“If you have deeply held guiding principles, you follow them when the situation changes, when it is suddenly hard to follow them.  If you do not, you do not have guiding principles.  You have a best practice.  Best practices can change with a situation, guiding principles do not change.  When times get tough that is when you find out who you really are.  You find out what principles are central to you identity.”

This morning I woke up thinking about Paul’s statement.  I have heard similar statements from other people.  They are very much like Paul.  They are people who have succeeded in the face of adversity.  They are people who have learned how to do hard things.  They have become real leaders, driven by some set of unchanging principles.

Then the central insight came.  When we are really leading we have a purpose that is higher than self.  When we also have principles from which we will not deviate, and we encounter a situation that calls for compromise, we have to make new decisions.  We have to clarify if we are still committed to the purpose and to the principles.  If we answer yes, the purpose invites us forward as the principles constrain us from taking the easiest path.  They require us to move forward on a new path, they require learning by faith.  We do not know, for example, if we are going to lose the business.  In the midst of uncertainty we must be mindful, we must learn from the new experience that is unfolding.

Research suggests that fear hinders the learning process while positivity elevates learning.  When the situation is threatening (we may lose the business) we can remain positive.  We can accept the risk that others would avoid because we feel the moral power that comes with positive self-regulation.  The process of learning by faith becomes an attractor of resources we could not previously see.  These may be emotional, intellectual, physical, social or spiritual resources.  As we draw them to us, it changes our perception of what is possible in the world.  We acquire new capacity to engage the journey of deep change and to effectively invite others to grow in difficult times.