Fundamental Choice

Authentic engagement usually increases when we make a fundamental choice.  The term fundamental choice comes from the work of Robert Fritz (1989).  He tells us that a fundamental choice has to do with our state of being or our basic life orientation.  It is a choice to live in a certain way.  It is different from what he calls primary and secondary choices.  Primary choices are about specific results.

There are many people who have chosen the religious path (primary choice), without making the fundamental choice to live in accordance with their highest spiritual truths.  There are many people who have chosen to be married (primary choice), without making the fundamental choice to live from within a committed relationship…Fundamental choices are not subject to changes in internal or external circumstances.  If you make the fundamental choice to be true to yourself, then you will act in ways that are true to yourself whether you feel inspired or depressed, whether you feel fulfilled or frustrated, whether you are at home, at work, with your friends, or with your enemies…When you make a fundamental choice, convenience and comfort are not ever at issue, for you always take action based on what is consistent with your fundamental choice [Fritz, 1989, p.193].”

To make a fundamental choice is to enter the state of authentic engagement.  To be authentic is to be genuine, actual, legitimate, true, real, pure, and uncorrupted.  We become authentic by being true to what is highest in us.  We do this by committing to live by principle to do what is right even when it is not pleasurable.  In the normal state, we flee pain and pursue pleasure.  It is unnatural to do otherwise.  Yet when we make fundamental commitments, we are choosing to be unnatural.  We choose, if our commitment requires it, to embrace pain and sacrifice pleasure.  We become positive deviants, extraordinary people.

Building the Bridge as you Walk on It, p. 117-118


The Evolution of Greatness

I have a precious friend. He is a man of very deep understanding. Everywhere he goes he brings out the best in people. He does this by deeply listening to others while simultaneously holding them accountable to their own most central values. As he lovingly confronts people, he turns them authentic and they come to love him. Where he goes, life flourishes. I have often watched this man turn organizations positive.

Where does such greatness originate? When he was a tiny boy, he and his brother were ripped from their mother and placed in a Nazi prison. There he endured horrors few small boys ever encounter. He read something I had written about listening. He sent me a paragraph that I think reads like a profound poem.

The paragraph follows and it raises an important question. From where does greatness originate and what are the implications for life?

“I deeply resonate with the value of the gift of listening to others. I recall experiencing this form of love and caring from a fellow inmate during the darkest days of my then young life. ​Feeling abandoned, alone, scared, without hope or trust, the old man, feeling my hunger to express my feelings, asked me to tell him what was weighing on my soul. Though the situation did not change, my feelings of being alone were replaced by a feeling of having a friend. The next morning, when I went back to where he lay, he had passed away, his empty eyes staring at the ceiling. Alone again!”



Who have I known who had the ability to elevate everyone?

How do such talents evolve and I how could I obtain them?

How could we use this passage to turn our organization positive?




Expertise, Consciousness and Enlightenment

Life has developmental stages. In our teen years many of us move into the natural search for independence and control. Later, some of us transform. We begin to search for interdependence, higher purpose and meaningful contribution.   This change includes increased consciousness and leads to an awareness and transcendence of some difficult paradoxes.

I was teaching a group of senior executives about positive organizing. I said much about our inherent need for independence and control and I pointed out that our culture deifies the expert role. I showed that we are externally conditioned to see leadership as the acquisition and wielding of authority and expertise. This is partially explained by the fact that expertise is functional. We need to have knowledge and control. Yet to reach our full potential as leaders we have to eventually transcend the natural inclination to always be in the expert role. Until we do we cannot envision or create positive organizations.

Early in the week there was resistance but it started to fall off. Trust began to grow and learning accelerated. During one of the breaks a man approached me with genuine concern.

He explained that his entire career was devoted to becoming an expert and the idea was at the center of his identity. He said he was genuinely fearful of giving up the personal strategy that had made him successful.

I was touched by the courage it took for him to express his fear. I felt an immediate bond and had a strong desire to help.

I pointed out that the developmental change I was advocating was not about the surrender of expertise but the transcendence of expertise. It was not about the surrender of authority but the surrender of ego. He would never lose his knowledge base and he would always be able to flip back into the expert role when and if necessary.

I was advocating growth. By letting go of the expert role, he could become a facilitator of emergent, collective intelligence. This means he could challenge people while helping them feel safe. He could create organizations of authentic dialogue. He could ignite the capacity for collective learning and collective knowing and collective doing. Instead of being the expert in control, he could learn to be the facilitator of high collaboration. In doing this he would be both an expert and a creator of expertise.

He seemed to welcome the words. Later he spoke publicly and shared both his fear and the concepts we discussed. I told him he just engaged in a great act of leadership.   By sharing his fears and hopes he was injecting purpose and care into the classroom. He was creating a space in which his peers could feel safe in looking at their own fears and feel the courage to move forward on their developmental journey. He was moving into a new stage of development and he was transcending and beginning to understand a difficult paradox.



Who do I know who is fixed on independence and control?

What are they missing and what do I learn from their example?

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


Truth Speaks to Power

In a positive culture, truth speaks to power and power listens and changes. In such an organization, the people can more effectively cocreate the emerging future. Through authentic dialog, people in lower positions also begin to feel safe and able to look at shortcomings. Authenticity allows people at all levels to open to all of reality. When everyone is open, everyone can join in learning how to change.

The Positive Organization, p. 58

Breaking Down Invisible Barriers

My son-in-law James is multilingual.  We spoke at length about the process of learning new languages and how that connects to adding the language of the positive mental map to the conventional map.  In our conversation about becoming bilingual he made an important observation about posturing, authenticity and bonding.

“When I walk in to any restaurant in the Republic of Georgia (where he was living at that time), they automatically know I’m not an native.  So they are gearing up to try and use English.  This may make them less approachable and that will influence our interactions because we are both feeling fear.  Both of us are afraid the other will judge our ability to communicate.  So I try to employ humor or I ask for help, or I do something to be vulnerable.  If I am speaking authentically, it helps break down the language barrier.

If I am speaking their language to show off, which I’ve done, I’m simply speaking to impress the person I’m with.  Whenever I do that, it’s not authentic and it results in greater distance and no connection.  I’ve learned over and over the hard way that whenever I employ my foreign language for the purpose of impressing others, it hurts communication.  When I lose the front and I’m authentic and vulnerable and open to learning and trying to connect, they relax, they open up, and they usually laugh.  Fear can disappear. ”

-The Positive Organization, p. 49-51

The Dance of Positive Deviants

A member of the business school staff sent me a list of quotes she liked. Three of them particularly caught my attention.

  • It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are (E.E. Cummings).
  • Radical self-care is quantum, and radiates out into the atmosphere, like a little fresh air. It is a huge gift to the world (Ann Lamont).
  • The world is changed by your example, not your opinion (Paulo Coelho).

The first quote raises this question; Why does it take courage to grow up and become the real me? Whatever culture I operate in is biased towards self-perpetuation. The culture functions to bring about my mindless conformity. The real me is the best, most conscious me. It is the new me that emerges when I am pursuing my highest purpose. When I am realizing my highest purpose I become aware of how the culture constrains human potential and how it could better elevate human potential. If I bring an authentic voice to my increasing awareness it I become a call to growth. The first, knee jerk, collective reaction is to neutralize my voice. Negative peer pressure seeks to silence me. Since I intuitively know and anticipate this adversity, I tend to live fearfully. In fear I do not enact my best self or express the voice of authentic influence. When I live in fear I conspire in the diminishment of myself and of the culture that holds me. Everyone loses while denying that they are losing.

The second quote raises this question; What is radical self-care? Radical usually means fundamental or extreme. It can also mean return to the root, as in the case of the radical sign in mathematics. We usually return to the root of the self when driven there by adversity. In the face of our greatest challenges we make a pleasant discovery. We are not diabolical or doomed. We are inherently good and full of potential. When we courageously pursue the highest good, our own goodness is realized and spread. Every time we make this discovery we make a radical or quantum change. Self-care is often seen as egotism. When we return to the root of the self we discover that self is a relational phenomenon and that the highest form of self-care is contributing our greatest strengths to the relational whole. When we realize this, we become willing to sacrifice for the common good. When we engage in radical self-care, egotism dissolves into love and we “give a huge gift to the world,” it is the realization and expression of our best self.

The third quote raises this question; Why is example more influential than opinion? My opinion is a reflection of my mind and I may or may not believe what I say. What I do is a reflection of my commitment. What I do is a revelator of what I most feel. What we do signals what we feel. Humans not only radiate feelings they detect the feelings being radiated from others. As I act from fear or from courage others note it and tend to reflect my fear or my courage. Thus what I radiate flows back to me and reinforces my fear or my courage. People are most influenced by my example. When I enact my best self, I invite them to enact their best self. A new dance emerges. This dance of the positive deviants reverses the spin of social determinism. Instead of being constrained by the culture, a few people begin to challenge, shape and renew the culture. This is why transformational leaders are so aware of their own integrity. They know that trust is the currency of transformation and that living their highest values is the ultimate lever of leadership.

The conventional administrator will take a flawed path to organizational change. To turn a culture more positive someone must have the courage to embrace their best self and express their most authentic voice. Doing this changes the music and invites a few others to deviate and dance in more positive ways. As the dance spreads the culture begins to transform itself.


When have I engaged in radical self-care?

When have I caused others to dance in a new way?

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


Decades ago, I was invited to a meeting of senior officers at one of the military academies. The officer in charge talked at length about the moral decay in society. There seemed to be no focus to this discussion, and I could not figure out what problem was actually concerning these men. Eventually it was revealed that some of the students at the academy were cheating on their exams. The cadets were not following the academy’s honor system. The officer’s explanation for the cadet’s behavior was corruption in society. They felt that by the time an eighteen-year-old arrived at the academy it was too late; the cadet was irredeemable.

After a long discussion about the corruption in society, I attempted to turn the topic around. I asked if anyone in the room had served in Vietnam. Most had. I asked if any of them had participated in the phenomenon known as the body count. (This was a measurement system used to determine how American forces were performing in the war. At the end of each battle, the number of enemy dead were counted, and the number was reported. As this process unfolded, vastly exaggerated numbers were routinely reported.)

From the atmosphere of discomfort in the room, it was clear that some had participated. Why, I asked, would an officer and a gentleman (as opposed to an uncommissioned cadet) engage in such behavior? Answering my own question, I suggested that when an impossible objective is given to people in a large hierarchy and when it is accompanied by immense pressure to produce, the people in the organization will also experience growing pressure to engage in unethical behavior. An invisible form of corruption at the top, the exercise of authority without concern or demand without support, results in a very visible form of corruption at the bottom.

I then suggested that perhaps the problem with the cadets did not take root “out there” in society. Maybe large numbers of students were cheating because the system demanded and taught them to cheat. Were the arrangement of classes, the design of assignments and workloads, and traditional military values like ‘cooperate and graduate’ combining to teach, require, and reward cheating? Was the problem in the cadets alone, or was it in the relationship between the cadets and the authority figures who were condemning and externalizing the problem?

There was a long silence. Finally, the man in charge spoke. He turned to the man next to him and, as if I had never said a word, resumed the old discussion about the moral decay in society. For the rest of the day they ignored me – I simply did not exist.

Deep Change, pp. 51-52

Authenticity Allows Transformation

Becoming a transformational leader is a change process. Each year I teach an MBA course on this topic.   My intent is not to instruct the students. My purpose is to lead them through to process of change. This means I must become a leader rather than an instructor.

We meet all day for five Saturdays. The syllabus is long, carefully written, and signals many of the ways this class is unique. The students are asked to read the syllabus carefully before coming to the first class. The first thing I do is pose a question. “How will you be different at the end of the semester?”

Typically there is a long pause, and then the answers—meaningful answers—start to flow. I ask related questions and the students begin to open up. A student, for example, spoke about spending his life trying to measure up to his brother. It was a very authentic moment, and I called attention to that authenticity.

Others, too, recognized the power in his words. As the day went on, the collective authenticity increased:  I could already see people making sense of their lives and changing in real time. At the end of the day, a couple of students approached me. They both told intimate stories of confused life direction and asked if they could make an appointment to talk privately.

As I drove home, I felt a sense of awe. I was helping my students make sense of their lives, and doing that makes sense of my life. As I pondered this thought, another thought came to me. When I am teaching with the intent to change lives, I transcend my own ego.

During the period of teaching, I am intensely focused on what the students are saying, what their needs are, and how I can minister to those needs. It is an act of selflessness. Because I am filled with love, the room is filled with love. Because it is, change can happen, even in a university classroom.

I am reminded of a movie called Freedom Writers. It is about a teacher named Erin Gruwell. She enters an impoverished school and eventually learns how to connect with her students.  She reaches extraordinary levels of performance, and her students change. At one point, she reflects on her teaching and she says, “I finally realized what I’m supposed to be doing, and I love it. When I’m helping these kids make sense of their lives, everything about my life makes sense to me. How often does a person get that?”

As someone learns to teach or lead in a transformational way, the activity becomes self-reinforcing. In helping others transform we become increasing clear about who we are and why we are on the earth. We engage our work with love, we increasingly experience success and we hunger to get even better.


When have I seen love bring change?

When does my life make most sense to me?

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

Authentic Conversations

I was interviewing a CEO. He was a financially focused and hard-driving Wall Street executive. He told a story of a young employee who made a mistake and lost some money for the company. As I listened to the story, I knew I was talking to a man who had acquired the positive mental map. Here is why.

The young man who made the mistake visited the CEO and began to tell his story. The CEO sat quietly, listened to every word, asked if there was anything else. When the young man was clearly finished, the CEO thanked him for the visit, reassured him, and then sent him on his way. After telling the story, the CEO asked a question, “Do you think that was my instinctual response?”

He said his natural reaction would have been to become irate and to jump all over someone who had made such a mistake. Why did he not follow his natural inclination? Over time, this CEO has learned something counterintuitive: Following his natural instincts would only get him the short-term reward of exercising his authority and venting his frustrations.

While it might appear that a punitive response would have corrected the problem, he would, in fact, have only created a much bigger one. In attacking the employee, he would have created a conventional, closed culture in which truth will not speak to power. It would also become likely that the employees would not relate to each other in authentic ways. In a conventional, closed culture, people live in fear. Some executives actually believe this is a good thing. They want their people to be afraid. It increases the executive sense of control. Yet, people who live in fear tend to underperform. The conventional, fear-based logic is a logic in which everyone loses.

The evolved CEO also understands another point. A senior executive never has a conversation with one person. The entire organization is continually heeding the signals emanating not only from the words of the senior person but also from his or her behavior.

Every conversation is a building block of the organizational culture. A conversation with one is a conversation with all. Because this particular CEO has learned to transcend his natural orientation, he regulates his own behavior and chooses to enact the assumptions typical of a positive mental map.

In most organizations, that does not happen, and both truth and power decay. In managing your own unit, you may be wise to evaluate the extent to which you create a culture that lets truth speak to you.


How to I react to mistakes by others?

What do I believe about conversations and culture?

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


On Being Unique

The key to getting into the fundamental state of leadership is not the analysis of techniques and practices. Developing leaders is not about getting them to imitate the thinking and behavior of other people who have been successful. It is about attracting people to the decision to enter the unique state from which their own great thinking and great behaviors emanate. This happens when an individual chooses to become more purpose-centered, internally directed, other-focused, and externally open. It is an act of courage toward which people must be attracted.

We attract others into the fundamental state of leadership not by imitation but by becoming unique. We increase our uniqueness by pursuing ever-increasing integrity. As we increase our integrity, we can align ourselves with the uniqueness of the emerging reality in which we live. Our courage then invites others to do the same. (Quinn, Building the Bridge as You Walk on it: pg. 321).


When have I been excellent?

When has my courage invited others to excellence?

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