The Power of the Common Good

I received a letter from a consultant named Ed Valentine. He has spent his life trying to bring change in organizations. He cut his teeth doing OD work at a University. He worked as a facilitator and was often impressed by dramatic positive outcomes he was able to bring. He eventually moved to a corporation where change seemed more challenging. He read my book Change the World and it intensified his desire to “do good” in the very transactional contexts. He reports discovering a question that made a difference in his practice:

At that time, a provocative question came to me:

“How do I show love to THIS organization?”

Sometimes a strategy would suggest itself, sometimes not, but always the question helped move me beyond just what I wanted personally and usually helped me consider the bigger picture.

I find Ed’s last sentence instructive. The unusual question not only moved Ed beyond his own self-interest, as we might expect, it also changed his perspective. When we transcend our own self-interest, when we orient to the common good, we tend to see our context as a dynamic whole and we see ourselves as a dynamic element of the dynamic whole. It is from this perspective that we begin to understand an elusive truth, a truth that is preposterous to the conventional mental map. We can change the social context by changing ourselves. If we increase our own moral power, we positively infect other people.

In coming to this same perspective Ed found that there was a biblical story that inspired him and helped him persist in the pursuit of the common good.   He writes:

At one point in their existence, the Kingdom of Judah was the sole remaining portion of the Israelite nation. After having aggravating their more powerful neighbors for generations, they were invaded, the capital Jerusalem besieged, their temple destroyed and all the meaningful human capital taken captive, on foot, several hundred miles east to an area now part of Iraq. During this time, those lucky enough to be favored were given new names; those less favored lived in various types of menial servitude. They could only worship in secret, by the riverbanks. There’s a psalm from this time (137), which describes just how angry they felt at being taunted to sing their native songs for their masters, and it ends with a wish that they wished they could kill the infants of their captors. (I suspect most slaves have felt that way about their masters, and even some employees about their bosses)

Into this mindset stepped Jeremiah, who had warned the Israelites decades before of their likely fate, and was a captive now himself. In his speech to them, he advises” Work for the welfare of the city, for as they prosper, so will you prosper”, and then he gives several practical ways to make it work.

In some cases Ed has found himself in professional contexts driven by ineptness and self-promotion at the very top of the organization. Despite the toxic environment, at lower levels, there have been units led by people of integrity and vision. By remembering the message of Jeremiah, Ed has found the strength to support the lower level leaders in pursuing the common good. After many years on this path, Ed now sees himself as having a life mission. His call is to “work for dignity, justice, show love, create confidence, and enable cooperation and trust.”

 Feel free to discuss these ideas with Ed (



What does it mean to see the dynamic whole?

How can we change the social context by changing ourselves?

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

Other Focused

Am I other-focused? The question calls our attention to our own motives. Why am I doing what I am doing? Am I focused on me? Who else is involved? What are their inner-most feelings? What is the common good of the relationship, the group or the organization? Am I sacrificing for the collective good? The question is transformational because it moves us out of the normal realm of self-interest. When we are other-focused, our relationships change.

When we commit to the success and the development of others, we behave differently. If someone secures a fine opportunity in another company, we do not turn angry. Instead we rejoice with them and facilitate their move and continue to invest in their development. We do this because they are of inherent value, not because they are of value to us.

When we are other-focused, other people are fully aware. They know they can trust us to facilitate their growth and development. They know not only by how we treat them directly, but by watching how we treat everyone, particularly those with less hierarchical influence than we have. How we treat people with less hierarchical power is a strong indicator of our orientation towards human community. When we are other focused, we willingly sacrifice for the best of the collective. Because it is not normal, and because everyone knows, people begin to give us two things, respect and trust. When we have respect and trust, we have moral power. With respect and trust we can do things we could not otherwise do. In particular, we can begin to build a new kind of community, a productive community in which many people are other-focused. This is a key of organizational excellence.


When am I other-focused?

How does an organization change when the leader is other-focused?

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


The Key to Transformation

Managers make conventional assumptions. One of those assumptions is that people will change if they are given a rational explanation of why they should do something. Information will bring transformation. People of transformational influence recognize that transformation requires more than information.

Carl Rogers, the famous psychiatrist, understood this. Yet it took him years to make the discovery. He claims that in his early years as a therapist he asked himself how he could change his clients. As he matured, he came to a new and more effective question. He found himself asking how he could provide a relationship that the other person could use for his or her own personal growth.

Scott Peck, another noted psychologist, described growing into the second perspective. It took him years to discover that his clients tended to transform themselves when he cared enough about the relationship to model the self-change process. Only when he stepped outside the comfort of his defined role, only when he was willing to risk doing new things, did the client seem to change. When he cared enough to do the unconventional thing, the risky thing that enriched the relationship and brought love to the relationship, did other person change.

The leadership lesson is clear. The effective leader places the great value on the good of the community. The leader sacrifices for the collective good. The community becomes enriched. The people put more value in the community and they begin to experiment with making sacrifices for the collective good. As they do, they enter the elevated life state and they are also transformed. The key to change is not seeking to change other people the key is seeking to create a relationship or community in which the other people can better flourish. This means increasing my commitment to the collective good.


  • Why did it take two trained psychologists so long to learn how to help people?
  • What does their discovery imply for leaders?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Positive Culture and the Common Good

One of the key capacities of a positive leader is the ability to create a positive culture. It begins with the ability to subordinate one’s self to the collective good.

I know a man who is the CEO of a positive organization. He told me a story that is therefore highly instructive. His organization was invited to bid on a huge contract. Obtaining it would shape the company for years to come. Preparation took a year and involved many people from across the organization.

On the appointed day, the top management team made the presentation. It went perfectly. The hosts then asked if the project could be up and running in 90 days. The CEO assured them that it could. His COO spoke up. “That is not accurate. In 90 days we can be meeting a fraction of your needs but it will take 180 days to be in position to do what you are asking.”

In reflecting on this moment, the CEO said he was devastated. He was sure the contract was lost. Yet he did not say anything about anger.

When asked what happened to the COO. He said, “The COO was doing what I expected, he was telling the truth. Everyone on our team is expected to tell the truth all the time. That is what makes us a great organization. I was not mad at him, I was sad because we were going to lose the contract.”

Given conventional assumptions, this claim is radical. What happened next is instructive.

The people in the potential client organization had never seen anything like what they had just witnessed. It certainly would not have happened in their organization. They concluded that if the top management team functioned as they did, the odds were that they would be fully truthful and highly collaborative in all their future interactions with the client company. They were awarded the contract.

The awarding of the contract adds a nice ending to this account. It is not important. The value of this account is that it demonstrates that some human beings evolve into positive leaders. They create teams that also evolve. A culture emerges in which everyone puts the highest good first. This is rare, and the existence of such a reality jolts us. It is an important jolt. It is a jolt from the reality of possibility. It is an empirical manifestation of what we are all capable of doing.

In the end, positive Leaders see the ecology. They recognized that they are a part of the whole. More significantly they realize that the whole is more important than the ego. They continually attempt to clarify what the collective good is. They work to continuously subordinate themselves to the collective good. People in the network respond to a person who is honestly committed to the collective good. The person attracts the respect and trust of increasing numbers of people. They become more willing to take risks with the leader.

Eventually, as larger numbers of people begin to subordinate themselves to the collective good, the network becomes a community. Internal competition and antagonism decline. Cooperation escalates and the community becomes capable of doing things that are extraordinary. The essence of leadership is less about designing organizations and more about developing communities. One key to the process is the abnormal act of subordinating one’s self to the collective good.


  • What is positive leadership?
  • Why does it produce positive culture?
  • What do I know for sure about these two topics?




Building Positive Organizations

The first assumption of organizational life is that people are self-interested. Many people are fascinated by the notion of positive organization. Yet they resist pursuing and implementing the associated notions because they fear the reactions that will follow. Since everyone knows that everyone is self-interested, everyone knows that positive organizing cannot work. Here I want to use a simple story to illustrate a profound point.

In the building where I work there is a delightful woman who is an administrative assistant. Over the years she has become deeply interested in the research from the Center for Positive Organizations. She has chosen to become a positive deviant at work. She continually engages in positive acts that are outside her job description. Here is an example in her own words:

The other day I saw a link to the 30 most colorful cities. Of course I clicked and continued clicking on one city after another. I thought to put them on the wall outside of my office with the inkling that they might elicit some enjoyment and happiness for my colleagues. I was pleased and also happily surprised as I watched that unfold beyond my expectations. 

As is usual with the ways in which I extend myself, I felt like I was breaking a taboo, in particular taping 30 pieces of paper to the wall outside of my office, tape on the wall, pictures in the hall taking up the visual space of our very clean white walls, a distraction, too busy for beauty. I printed them out and taped them up.

What I thought might happen is that they would invite a little pause, a break in the action of zipping from one place to the next — and that I did see. I saw and heard from my office as busy students, staff and faculty, stopped, scanned, gazed, considered and appreciated. One of our professors thanked me and said he pauses to look at two or three each time he passes by. Another commented on their beauty and thanked me for putting them up there. I felt happy all week not for the thanks, but for the big impact I witnessed in this small action.

Then something else happened.

People are moving so fast with busy minds and in different directions that rarely do their divergent paths cross.  I wondered, might the beauty draw two people from different directions at the same time? Yes. I got even happier as I watched people engage in a short shared enjoyment about the color, the beauty, and the places. Sometimes with someone they were walking with, sometimes it was a coincidental yet mutual pause.

I had a feeling about this and my feeling was that this has something to do with love.  I made a quick search and in support of my inkling I found this quote:  “Love blossoms virtually any time two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.” Barbara Frederickson, in Love 2.0

So this simple effort of following my inclination and running an experiment had a positive outcome for others but also for me. I feel happy and gratified when I see what I have done positively impact others and I loved witnessing their shared enjoyment. It’s the kind of love that makes my day.

At first this seems like one more “nice story.” Please reread the last paragraph of her statement. It illustrates a profoundly important fact. When we internalize the positive mental map, we begin to pursue the collective good which includes our own good. In seeking to build positive organizations, would-be implementers would do well to ponder, understand and teach this crucial notion.



  • How is the job of administrative assistant usually designed?
  • How can an administrative assistant live in love at work?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?




Gratitude and Generativity

Shawn Quinn is a consultant and teacher. He focuses on building positive organizations. He tells a story about the power of gratitude at work. He then makes an observation that helps to explain how the bilingual mind works.

An executive attended one of Shawn’s classes and afterwards decided to begin meditating. In a follow-up session the man made an important report. He found himself thinking about a problem person. He decided to make an honest exploration of the things he was grateful for in the problem person, and doing so changed how he saw the problem person. But it also had some other impacts. He became more desirous to practice gratitude and that changed how he saw many people in the organization.   His new view caused him to treat the people more positively. He began to focus less on the problems in the organization and more on what was right. The organization then changed. He saw an increase in commitment, effort and quality.

In reflecting on the story, Shawn notes that researchers find that people who have a discipline of regularly practicing gratitude also: exercised more regularly; report fewer physical symptoms; feel better about their lives as a whole; are more optimistic about the upcoming week; made more progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period; are more likely to help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support; have more positive attitudes toward school and their families; have higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress; place less importance on material goods; are less likely to judge their own and others success in terms of possessions accumulated; are less envious of others; are more likely to share their possessions with others.

Shawn concludes with a paradoxical observation: “And, when people are grateful, they do all of these things without denying or ignoring the negative aspects of life.” This sentence suggests that people of gratitude are fully engaged in practical problems, but they are engaged differently, in a more generative way.

The Common Good

A few years ago I attended a formal dinner. David McCullough, the famous biographer spoke. He told two stories. The first was about John Adams who was still in the White House but who had lost the reelection. One night there was a fire in the Treasury. Adams walked over and joined the bucket brigade. The next morning in the paper they wrote; “Due to the exertions of the citizens, animated by the example of the President of the United States, the fire was extinguished.

In the second story, Harry Truman was going to appoint John Marshall to a senior position. A staff member advised against it. The rationale was that if the people were exposed to Marshall they would prefer him to be the next president. Truman responded by acknowledging that he also thought that Marshall would make a better president. But Truman indicated that his highest current concern was not about being reelected but surrounding himself with the best people possible so he could serve the country.

Adams and Truman were both making sacrifices for the common good. Their purpose, in the given moment, was to serve others. The common good was more important than their self-interest.

I often do an exercise in which I ask people to identify the person who left the most positive legacy in their lives. They do this and I ask them to share descriptions with each other. We then explore what such people have in common. One of the most frequent answers is that the people of great positive influence are so frequently selfless.

Selflessness has impact. Putting the common good first not only builds trust, it also inspires. It arouses the best in us and attracts us to want to be like the selfless person. This is called idealized influence.



Who left the most positive legacy in my life?

How do I feel about that person?

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



A Positive, Empowering Organiztion

Occasionally there is a story of positive organizing that is so potent it must be told.

On August 12th I posted a list of characteristics for people who embrace the positive mental map. I listed 13, although there are many more. Here is the original list.

People who embrace and live the positive mental map:
• Embrace the common good
• Feel confident
• Seek growth
• Overcome constraints
• Expand their roles
• Express their authentic voice
• See and seize new opportunities
• Build social networks
• Nurture high-quality connections
• Embrace feedback
• Exceed expectations
• Learn and flourish

My daughter recently shared a story with me about a 23 year-old CEO who emulates every single one of these characteristics. I’d like to re-tell her story, highlighting the above characteristics throughout her story to illustrate how this CEO took her vision and created a positive organization. (Follow this link to the original story.)

Veronika Scott grew up with parents who were addicts and not a lot of hope. She was given an opportunity that she seized with both hands – a college scholarship. (seek growth, overcome constraints) It was in one of her classes at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit that the epiphany for her business was born. A teacher challenged them to create a product that would fill a need rather than something faddish. (See and seize new opportunities)

Homelessness is a problem in Detroit so Scott visited a homeless shelter. Her welcome was less than warm, but she persisted in interviewing them, trying to find a need she could fill and building relationships with them. (Build social networks, feel confident) Finally she decided to design a coat that transformed into a waterproof sleeping bag.

One day when she was handing out the sleeping bags, a homeless woman started screaming at her that they didn’t need sleeping bags – they needed jobs. She didn’t get upset, instead she recognized the truth in what this angry woman said (embrace feedback) and it occurred to her that she could hire the homeless women to help her make the coats. (Learn and flourish, expand their roles)

Scott said, “Everybody told me that my business was going to fail – not because of who I was giving my product to, but because of who I was hiring. They said that these homeless women will never make more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – you cannot rely on them for anything. And I know my ladies enjoy proving everybody wrong.”

Since late 2010, Scott and her 10 formerly homeless employees moved into a graffiti-covered building in an old Irish manufacturing neighborhood in Detroit where they have made more than 1,000 coats. Most have been distributed to homeless and this year she plans to make four times that many. (embrace the common good) She calls her company The Empowerment Plan.

She is starting to get the kind of publicity to raise real funds – $300,000 donated this year – with a goal of $700,000. These funds will help her hire more women and give warmth to more homeless folks. (nurture high quality connections)

In an interesting twist, she showed her coats at an Aspen fashion show where they generated a lot of interest. Now those Aspenites want the coats too. She is hoping to start a for-profit sister company to design the coats for the retail market and hire homeless to work there as well. (make spontaneous contributions) The Universe has an interesting way of rewarding passion and a focus on the common good. (exceed expectations)

Living from the positive mental map is a win-win. It has created a new life for Scott in which she is thriving. She has invited others to join her and is meeting a need for a large number of homeless people (warmth), and a smaller number of homeless women (jobs). The positive feelings are spreading and people want to contribute to the cause. Not only do they want to contribute, but they want to buy this product because it is a smart design. Scott will have the opportunity to create more jobs for people in need, to make a profit, and to help the larger economy. Truly an empowering plan.

(If you are interested in learning more about Veronika and her company, you can find them on Facebook.)


  • Which of these 13 characteristics are found in your organization?
  • How can you identify and follow your own passion to empower yourself and others?

Presencing the Future (Part II)

In a blog on June 10th, I wrote the following:

“When I teach executives how to move into the fundamental state of leadership, I often suggest that they must come to embrace the future and embody the vision that they seek to realize. Many find this idea hard to understand. In the book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Scharmer and Kaufer write that to bring possibility to reality, leaders must make a shift from a conventional “ego perspective” to a nonconventional “eco perspective.”

‘This inner shift, from fighting the old to sensing and presencing an emerging future possibility, is at the core of all deep leadership work today. It’s a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart. It is a shift from an ego system awareness that cares about the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well-being of all, including oneself. When operating with eco- system awareness, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of our emerging or essential self— that is, by a concern that is informed by the well- being of the whole.”

The authors go on to propose that judgments must be suspended and attention refocused. One must let go of the past and embrace the future that is trying to emerge through us. This is what they mean by “presencing” the future. We must become a present manifestation of the future that is trying to unfold. They argue that this is, perhaps, the most important of all leadership capacities.’”

I would like to add something more. There are many unconventional notions of leadership here:

  • One can shift from an ego to eco perspective
  • Sensing the future matters
  • Presencing the future matters
  • The heart and head must work together
  • One must care for the well-being of all
  • Caring for the well-being of all includes the well-being of self
  • There is an emerging or essential self that has concerns and intentions
  • The emerging or essential self is tied to the well-being of the whole
  • We must embrace the future that is trying to emerge through us

To shift from the ego to the eco perspective is to enter what I call the fundamental state of leadership.   I believe that we all tend to live in a comfort centered, externally driven, self-focused and internally closed state. We, however, can choose to live in a purpose centered, internally driven, other focused and externally open state. In the fundamental state of leadership we see the purpose that is trying to unfold, we live with integrity around the pursuit of the purpose, we orient to the needs of all, and we recognize that we the whole of which we are a part is complex and dynamic. Leadership is about the constant expansion of consciousness and the co-creation of the best possible future. In pursuing the best possible future, we create the best possible self. We become a living symbol of what we are trying to bring about.



Why is leadership about the expansion of consciousness?

What is the difference between the ego perspective and the eco perspective?

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

Choosing Slow Death: Manager 4

Manager 4 describes a process familiar to many.

“We are dying.  In the meantime, my boss goes around reducing everything to numbers and charts.  He leaves the real task of leadership to others.  Because we no longer believe in the organization’s future, we’re all tending to our own personal futures.  I would love to e thinking about constructive alternatives, but it’s simply too late.”

Here we see the difference between management and leadership.  Organizations need people who can actually lead the deep change process.  This means reaching hearts as well as heads.

Note that there is a point in the process of slow death when people give up on the pursuit of the organizational good and simply begin to take care of themselves.  This is a sure sign of the slow death process.  It is a common occurrence in human collectives.


Are any of these patterns familiar?

Have you experienced them in your own organization?

What could you or other leaders have done to halt the process of slow death and turn it around?

(The Deep Change Field Guide, p. 31-34)