Choosing Slow Death: Manager 1

When people put their own good ahead of the organizational good, they are contributing to the process of slow death in their organizations.  Here is how one manager described the slow death process in his organization:

“We chose slow death three years ago.  The organization gave up significant position in the industry because of an internal conflict between divisions with opposing philosophies.  We needed real change, and everyone knew it.  Yet no one was willing to engage it.  The result was that we went from thirty-one thousand people to fewer than fifteen thousand in a two-year period.  We are no longer a significant player, and there is no hope for the future.  It is now just a matter of time.”

I seldom do an organizational diagnosis without finding at least one example of intergroup conflict.  It is often ignored because no one can imagine how to transform the conflict into collaboration.  Yet transforming conflict into collaboration is the essence of leadership.  In this executive’s case the conflict gave rise to the slow death process, and the absence of real leadership allowed it to grow into the need for major downsizing.

Over the next few days, I will share 5 more examples from Managers that illustrate how slow death occurred in their organization.  I encourage you to think about what the executive’s statements have in common, and why the patterns you identify keep happening again and again.



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)




Spiritual Disciplines at Work

There are many times when I make a presentation with an emphasis on the science of development and someone afterwards carefully approaches me. As we talk, they look for signals to see if it is OK to discuss spiritual dimensions of development. When I sense this I try to help them by opening the topic. These people often come from religious traditions and many are thoughtful practitioners of meditation or prayer. Often they have stories worthy of examination.  Here are three illustrations of prayer and enlightenment in professional contexts.

A blue collar person told of rebuilding an automobile engine over and over.   It simply would not work. At home, his wife suggested that he pray. One day he reached total frustration so he gave it a try. An image came to him, he went to the engine, turned a single screw and it started.

A car designer told me of reaching his mid-forties and feeling a very real fear that he could no longer keep up with the creativity of his younger colleagues. The fear became so intense that one night he prayed for help. That night he had a nightmare in which a young colleague approached him with the most impressive car design he had ever seen.   When he woke up he realized that the image in his dream came from his own brain. He went in that day and began working on the design.

A senior vice-president faced an IT problem that was unsolvable. After days of working on it, he sat in his office, at 3 A.M. and prayed. Nothing happened. So he sat in his chair and waited for an answer. It eventually came. In a matter of minutes he resolved the unsolvable issue.

There is a pattern to these stories. Deep frustration leads to surrender and a sincere cry for help.   The cry or expression of real intent leads to an experience of spiritual enlightenment. In this pattern reaching the state of real intent seems particularly important. Here intent is the determination or desire to accomplish an outcome. Real is genuine, actual, authentic, true, unquestionable. To live in real intent is to live in authentic purpose.

There is another pattern of prayer and enlightenment that also involves real intent. It is rare but can be found in a few spiritually mature professionals. Instead of showing real intent at times of frustration, this more evolved discipline includes living from real intent on a regular basis.

There is a man I have known for 35 years.   Today he is recognized for leading an extraordinary organization. As a leader he does things that do not make sense to the conventional mindset. Yet in a shrinking industry his unconventional, purpose driven company prospers.

Recently we reminisced about his early career. His first job was in a small company led by a tyrant. The CEO would do things like open everyone’s mail, put directions on how to respond, and then have the mail delivered to the original, intended recipients. He would hold meetings and use foul language to attack his employees in front of all the others, and so on. Everyone was terrified of the man.

There was one exception.   My friend, a new employee and a quiet English major, would regularly meet with the boss or write to him, pointing out why his behavior was self-defeating and unacceptable. He never did this to be rebellious. He did it because he was committed to the common good of the company. His feedback to the boss was respectful but completely honest.

What was the outcome? The tyrant began to respect, rely on, and invest in the quiet English major. He gave him more and more responsibility. When it was time to retire, the tyrant made the English major the new CEO.

From where did my friend’s strength and capacity come? Thirty-five years ago I visited him in his office one day. He showed me a door that led to an unused staircase.   He said, “This is my prayer closet, I use it many times each day.”

I have never forgotten that long ago moment. I recently reminded him of it. He told me that in creating his current company he designed things so he could do much of his work from home. The reason is that he wanted to make it easier to pray many times a day.

This personal, spiritual discipline may explain the fact that he has always had an internal locus of control. He has been always willing to leave the conventional mindset so as to march to a different drummer. He has always been inclined to courageously but peacefully moved forward in service of the common good. This orientation requires courage because many times pursuing the common good is contrary to the prevailing political interests. Once, during a corporate merger he was fired because of his commitment to the common good. He would not cave to corporate political pressures.

He looks back on that firing as one of his most important life moments. It had much to do with how he designed his present, highly successful company.

This kind of courageous forward movement has implications for leadership development.   Disciplined believers, who struggle to continually live in connection with the divine, experience real intent on a more frequent basis. Rather than only reaching real intent in the deep valleys of life, they also obtain it in their regular prayer experiences.

Because they feel inspired to do what they do, they have a sense of calling.   They spend less time questioning their challenging purpose and more time trying to figure out how to obtain it. In moving forward towards the common good they have the courage to do the unconventional. So they have extreme experiences that require deep reflection. In this process of personal learning they come to internalize moral power. Scientists call this moral power “idealized influence” and find that wielding it is essential to transformational leadership. People of moral power learn to live in selfless purpose. This allows them to attract others to do unconventional things in service of selfless purpose.


How would you teach someone to effectively challenge a tyrannical boss?

What does it take for a normally negative life experience like a firing to be developmental?

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




Culture Shaping

In the movie Norma Rae, a small town girl is heavily shaped by the cultural forces around her. Her life concerns are conventional. She meets an unusual man. He is a union organizer. Unlike all the other men in her life, he refuses to see her as a sexual object.   Instead he sees more potential in her than she sees in herself.

He invites her to pursue a higher purpose. This means engaging in courageous behaviors and, at one point, she has to put everything on the line. In the process of losing her job, she chooses to stand on a table and hold a sign that says UNION. The unusual leadership act moves the workforce and a transformation occurs. In the process she accomplishes more than she believed possible and she becomes a new, empowered person.

Afterwards her unsettled husband says, “I liked the old Norma Rae.” The union organizer responds, “She stood on the table and now she is free, you may be able to live with that or you may not.” What did he mean? In what way had she become free?

I once read a book that suggested that the two most powerful determinants of human behavior are genetic programing and cultural programing. We are born with a genetic map that determines much of how we will behave. Then, from the time we are born, we are continually programed by the culture. That is, we are constantly shaped by collective expectations. We do what we are genetically and culturally programed to do. In the process we become what the author calls “mind slaves.”

There is an alternative. We, like Norma, can become free. We do this by embracing a higher purpose, by orienting to the common good. As we choose to pursue a higher purpose it requires us to move outside cultural expectations and we encounter resistance. If we are resilient and persist, we become increasingly conscious of how the culture works, of our own deepest desires and capabilities, of the potential in others that they do not see in themselves, and of how to move forward in the pursuit of purpose. In becoming conscious of how the conventional culture shapes us, we acquire the capacity to shape the culture. In learning to be a culture shaper we gain a very rare capacity.



To what extent are the people around me “mind slaves?”

Who are the exceptions who shape the culture?

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







Selflessness, Listening and the Increasing Probability of Success

In the conventional perspective an executive is an expert who informs.  In the positive perspective an executive is a leader who also transforms.  This means the leader can transform beliefs and expectations and thus bring about cultural change.  The organization is always getting better.

I know a very positive leader who personifies this capacity to constantly build a more effective culture.  He is full of energy, has a photographic memory and a broad kit of management skills.  Yet these are not the characteristics that most differentiate him.  He does something that few executives do.

I had a conversation with one of his former direct reports, I will call him Peter.  In describing my friend, Peter told a story of his first conversation during his first day on the job.  My friend told Peter, “You cannot offend me.”  He explained that he always wanted to know, in every circumstance, what Peter really believed.

In many cases a direct report would be skeptical of this claim.  Few people really want to hear a genuine difference of opinion.  For this reason, in most organizations, truth seldom speaks to power.

Peter said he believed the claim from the outset.  Peter therefore committed to always share what he was really thinking.  He said that sometimes he was so direct in stating his opinions that he later felt to call and apologize.  Yet my friend never showed even the slightest offense.

Peter said, “I could not offend him because he genuinely wanted to know my opinion, particularly when it was different from his.  Every conversation was fully authentic.  There was never any posturing.”

We discussed how such communication was possible.  Eventually we agreed.  My friend always puts the common good ahead of his own ego.  Because he is a selfless leader, because he puts the organization first, every conversation has integrity.

Peter then pointed out an interesting side benefit that accrues to people of transformative influence.  “His commitment to listening meant that I was fully heard.  So if he decided to go in a different direction, I was fine with it.  I knew that he had fully heard my honest opinion.  So I was willing to trust him and support him in any direction he wanted to go.”

If you want to know if a person is a transformational leader, simply look at his or her direct reports.  If they are “yes” people the person is not a transformational leader.

Transformational leaders transform their direct reports into transformational leaders.  The direct reports are empowered people who speak with authenticity.  Their people speak to the direct reports with authenticity.  A positive organization is comprised of strong people, acting in empowered ways, while operating with high unity.

Transformational leaders create a network of unified, committed people who tell each other the truth.  In such a network of purpose, action and learning, success is far more probable than it is in a conventional organization.



Do my direct reports have the ability to offend me?

Why do transformational leaders have transformational leaders as direct reports?

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



Love Affairs with the Common Good

Today’s blog is the positive passage from our monthly newsletter.

Once I was invited to a week-long retreat.  In the opening session, a woman said she would like us to introduce ourselves.  Instead of engaging in the typical process of taking two minutes to speak about the roles we play, she said she would like each of us to take 15 minutes recounting our “love affairs with the common good.”

She then sat down.

I felt panic.  What was she talking about?  What is the common good?  How do you have a love affair with the common good?  Had I ever been in love with the common good?

As I searched my history, experiences from my personal and professional life slowly came to mind.  I believe that the common good is what is best for any “whole” of which I am a part.  The whole might be a relationship, group, organization or community.  Committing to the good of the whole is an act of concern for others.  With this definition in mind, I recognized that there were many times when I had been committed to the common good.

The first person stood.  As he filled his 15 minutes, I was glued to his every word.  When he was done I felt a bond.  He was a stranger no more.  The process continued for a half day and after each speaker, I felt a desire to know that person better.

By the end of the morning, I realized that the organizer had asked a transformational question.  In issuing the query she invited us to move from conventional, secular space to unconventional, sacred space.  As we responded to her invitation, a new culture emerged.

In sharing the stories, there was an impact that looped back on the speaker.  He or she is reminded of their own most meaningful life experiences.  When people commit to the common good, they tend to give much and, in the process, they tend to grow much.  In recalling and retelling the experiences, the speaker is reminded of their own best essence and the joy of actualizing it.  The desire to again do so begins to emerge.

There is also an impact on the audience.  The audience is reminded that they can individually and collectively pursue the common good in the present situation.  The desire for a more positive culture grows.

Given this start, it is not surprising that the rest of the week went very well.  In that first half-day we had built a culture oriented to authenticity, empathy and growth.  For the rest of the week it was easy to pursue leadership development, because we so deeply trusted each other.


When have I had a love affair with the common good?

How could I promote love affairs with the common good?

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

The moral of the story is that nearly all of us have had love affairs with the common good.  Recalling them is a worthwhile act.  Promoting them is an even more worthwhile act.  Great leaders know this.  They continually seek to inspire and orient others to the common good.  When they succeed, the culture becomes more positive and everyone wins.

The Alignment of Moral Compasses

The conventional view of evolution is that it orbits around the notion of self-interested competition. Life is a struggle and the strongest survive. This notion often justifies self-interested people.

Today scientists have a more complete and paradoxical view. Martin Novak, a professor of biology and mathematics at Harvard, published an article in the July, 2012, Scientific American. He points out that from single cell organisms to human beings, selflessness and cooperation are and have always been essential to evolutionary success.

At the human level, the cooperative capacity of a group is essential. Darwin, himself, noted that a tribe with many members willing to cooperate and sacrifice for the common good was more likely to win out over other tribes. Today researchers recognize that competition and cooperation can play out at many levels. In a company for example, people may compete to move up the hierarchy and yet the same people, in times of corporate crisis, may choose to sacrifice for the overall good of the company.

Competition and cooperation can ebb and flow like yin and yang. Novak writes: “Evolutionary simulations indicate that cooperation is intrinsically unstable; periods of prosperity inevitably give way to defective doom. And yet the altruistic spirit always seems to rebuild itself; or moral compasses somehow realign.”

A primary purpose of leadership is speeding the alignment of moral compasses. One thing that differentiates a leader from a manager is the ability to transform the disengaged mindset into the engaged mindset. Simulations reviewed by Novak, show that participants are most likely to engage in altruistic cooperation when they are convinced that there is a problem worthy of sacrifice. There are two ways to do this. The first is to have a visible crisis. The second is to continually discover, clarify and animate the highest purpose of the group and show people how what they do links to the purpose. It is difficult work and essential to positive organizing.


What does it mean to align the moral compasses of a group?

Of the people around me, how many are sacrificing for the common good?

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

Orient to the Common Good

I know a consultant from Asia who works with senior business leaders. In his national culture, there is an extreme emphasis on hierarchy and seniority. People in his country are careful to defer to people of higher status.

He told me the story of a large company that was struggling. One reason for the struggle was that the CEO tended to receive little honest feedback from his direct reports. The CEO was operating with many blind spots, and the corporate difficulties were growing in magnitude. The company was moving toward a slow death.

The pain grew so intense that the senior team invited the consultant to work with them. He spent much time with the direct reports. He worked hard to get them to embrace the common good and to take the risk to give the CEO more honest feedback. He trained them on how to be simultaneously respectful and honest.

A two-and-a-half-hour meeting was scheduled. For the first hour and a half, the CEO was uncomfortable. He communicated his discomfort, and his many implicit messages were clearly interpreted by the direct reports. The meeting was teetering on the brink of disaster.

The consultant described his own anxiety. In his country, a man as powerful as the CEO could easily destroy the consultant’s career. Performing this sort of intervention was a great risk.

Fortunately, in the last half hour of the meeting, there was a change. The CEO began to see the value in what was taking place, and he opened up. Authentic communication began to flow both ways. People were amazed with the change. The meeting became a positive intervention that led to a lasting shift in the communication patterns of the top management team. The people were becoming more focused on the common good, and the culture was turning more positive.

The problem facing this organization is common. Armies of professionals live in fear of speaking truth to power. Unfortunately the pattern is hard to change, because it is driven by the desire for self-preservation.

Operating from the self-interested assumptions of the conventional map, one survives by competing for limited resources. Life is a game and you win by being clever, not by embracing a higher purpose, living with integrity, serving the common good, and co-creating the emerging future.

By operating from an eco-perspective, the consultant was modeling moral power. He was inviting the CEO and the executives into a repaired moral system. As they chose to change, they also moved from the ego-perspective to the eco-perspective. Because they did, they could turn their organization more positive.


When have I observed a problem like the one described here?

When have I shown the kind of leadership shown by the consultant?

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

The Dark Night of the Soul

A woman told me a story that every professional should read. It is an account of how she became a positive force in a conventional organization. She directs HR in a company that was going through a merger. The company was founded by a Jewish man who had a college degree. After serving in World War I he tried to find a job. Because of religious discrimination he could not. So with fifty dollars of army severance pay he started his own company and it has grown ever since.

Once in the history of the company there was an exercise designed to articulate the values of the company. Given the story of the founder, one of the articulated values was faith. Today the leaders and employees have great difficulty knowing what to do with the word faith. The word seems out of place in a secular age; a source of embarrassment.

The HR director is not uncomfortable. She believes the emphasis on faith allows the inclusion of diversity and the integration of diversity, and the value drives extraordinary organizational learning. She believes that the emphasis on faith is the greatest asset of the company.

The current merger has heightened the issue of values. People want to know what the company stands for. This has led the HR director to feel an increasing need to clarify and communicate purpose, values and vision. She has put much time into a program designed to meet this need. Yet each time the program is presented to senior management, there is a concern about some detail and the program disappears for months. In the meantime, the need for the program keeps escalating.

The troubled HR director attended a conference on positive organizations. Listening to the presentations, and driven by her concern for the company, she determined that she had to become a transformational leader. So she wrote a letter to the CEO. In it she explained the need for the program, the content of the program and her motive for moving forward. She explained that any flaws could be worked out in the future. She indicated that she now had the program on the calendar and was moving forward.

She received a quick call. The CEO asked about a few minor details. She resolved his concerns. He told her to go ahead.

In recounting this story she made a claim. “The employees have a genuine need. The company has a genuine need. Our failure to move was causing everyone to lose. So I did what had to be done for the good of the organization. It was the most important decision I have ever made. It changed everything including my identity. Now I am a transformational leader. I am committed to the good of the whole. I do not care about the political consequences. If they want to fire me, that is fine. I am now confident I can get another job any time. Every organization needs someone like me.”

This story is rare but it is not unique. There are times when managers transform into leaders. Sometimes the trigger is a personal life crisis and sometimes it is an organizational crisis. Because of the crisis they enter the dark night of the soul and they have to choose between the fear driven self and the conscience driven self. When they make the latter choice, they immediately transform. They commit to purpose, increase in integrity and authenticity, orient to the common good, and initiate the journey of collective learning.

Fifty years ago a man named Zalesnik argued that until a manager is twice born the manager cannot lead. At the time the proposition was controversial. Today the scientific literatures on leadership development, post traumatic growth, spirituality, and transformative learning all suggest that great challenges lead to a new and more empowered identity, and self-empowering people tend to be empowering to their community.

Positive organizing is a process driven by leaders who pursue the common good over the personal good. Such leaders are rare but can occur at any level of an organization. It is also true that they may or may not emerge at the top. Transformational leadership is not a function of position. It is a function of the increased personal virtue that emerges in one person who chooses the highest good and thus becomes free of conventional organizational fears. The transformed person can then invite others to see and act in new ways.


Why would anyone risk their job for the good of the company?

What role does fear play in leadership development?

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

Where Positive Organizing Begins

In biology there is a concept called quorum sensing. In our bodies there are large numbers of bacteria but they do us little harm. When a population of bacteria increases in density it is possible to reach a tipping point or critical mass or quorum. The bacteria begin to signal each other. This leads to coordinated effort. The individual bacteria begin to operate as a whole. The collective phenomenon has pathogenic impacts on the human body, meaning you and I may get very sick.

Some people developed the idea of quorum quenching. Instead of killing the bacteria, it might be possible to simply cut off the communication or signaling process. This suggests an exciting new way to heal diseases.

My friend became the CEO of a company designed to do research on using quorum quenching. He and his partner fervently believed, based on compelling, early evidence, that they could change the world of antibiotic drugs by finding a new drug that targeted the bacterial signaling system. They enthusiastically declared their shared vision and many people and resources were attracted to the company.

In record time they created a new drug that shut down the signaling mechanism in bacteria. Unfortunately, achieving the objective caused an unintended problem.   The impedance of the bacterial signaling system caused the exacerbation of an internal chemical pathway that bacteria use to resist antibiotics.  This was a very big problem.

My friend and his partner, however, had a back-up plan that enabled the creation of another antibiotic compound not involved with the original signaling pathway. This reflected good science and good planning. Yet they encountered a most surprising problem.

The original vision was so simple, clear, and appealing that it easily attracted money and employees. The new, revised vision, although only slightly different, did not have the same appeal and did not bring the same level of response. The two men unfortunately had to sell the company for what little they could get.

In reflecting on the experience my friend particularly speaks of how much was accomplished in a very short time. The large drug companies often expressed amazement at what was accomplished. He says, “It was because of the coordinated team effort put forth by people with disparate scientific backgrounds. They were fully committed to a shared objective and they unselfishly collaborated.”

Here there is an important irony. When bacteria act alone there is little impact. When they communicate and act as one, there is great impact. This same pattern holds in organizations.  In conventional organizations we expect people to act as self-interested individuals. Our experience keeps us from even imagining, much less calling for the sacrifice of self-interest.

Yet in the real world, there is sometimes a shift and the people become connected to a meaningful vision. In this case, for example, the original vision was simple, clear, and persuasive. People could understand and believe in it. This was true for outsiders who invested their money and it was true for employees who invested their hearts as well as their heads.

In such a situation the employees can begin to sacrifice for the common good. Differentiated people become integrated people. The collective intelligence climbs. Efforts become self-organizing and hierarchical direction is much less necessary.   In this high state of collaboration, the group flourishes and exceeds expectations. They become a positive organization. When this happens, observers marvel. In fact, there is often a sense of awe.

Observing a positive organization can alter expectations. If we believe that people can respond to a vision, engage in sacrifice for the common good, self-organize, increase their collective intelligence, flourish and exceed expectations, then we may be tempted to engage in leadership instead of management. We may choose to do the very difficult work of formulating a meaningful vision, we may commit to it, and we may communicate it with relentless and effective enthusiasm. As others accept the vision we then may ask them to accomplish things we would not normally dare to ask. Because of belief in the vision and the power of increased collective intelligence they may flourish and exceed expectations. This is where positive organizing begins.


What is collective intelligence?

How is it created?

How could we use this positive passage to get better?

Presencing the Future

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.”

In short, I believe that we all tend to live in a comfort centered, externally driven, self-focused and internally closed state. We can choose to live in a purpose centered, internally driven, other focused and externally open state in which we co-create the emerging future with others. As we do, we begin to see the future, we commit to it and we begin to live from it. We become a living symbol of what we are trying to bring about.