Break the Rules

Many years ago a doctoral student shared some of his concerns with me.  He felt that he was in prison and everywhere that he turned someone was giving him rules about how to be a good inmate.  When he came up with an idea, people criticized why it wouldn’t work instead of developing it in to something that might work.  They informed him that his ideas were not in the right “theoretical domain” for the faculty or that his idea wouldn’t yield the right “methodological treatment.”  He even mentioned his pride in starting a martial arts club on campus, but he was cautioned not to share his involvement.  A faculty member might conclude that he had too much free time and wasn’t working hard enough.

I shared an insight with this student.  I told him that if he were to learn every unwritten rule in the academic culture where he was presently studying, and if he followed every rule to perfection, he would have a perfectly mediocre career.  His life would become an experience of quiet desperation, filled with psychic entropy.  This is the case in the life of many professionals.  I told this young student that establishing a notable career requires that we break the “rules.” At some point, we have to know, accept, and express who we really are, not be content with being what others want us to be.

Our work life takes on a distinctive voice only when we have something unique to offer.  We do not become unique by learning and following all the rules.  We must conform in order to master the professional technology, in the student’s case the theories and methods of his particular field.  Eventually, however, we must bring our deepest self to that technology.  We must, like a musician, learn to rise above the technical rules and begin to create, to give what is uniquely ours.

To be truly creative, we must be willing to accept punishment.  No one in the academic world, not even the most brilliant superstar, feels accepted.  There is always someone around to criticize what we do.  We are punished for failure.  Surprisingly, we are punished for success.  If we succeed, we come to stand for something, and that thing always gets criticized.  Some of the criticism is justified and some is simply rooted in jealousy.

The same is true in large corporations and even in families.  We must know who we are and begin to create, not in hopes of approval, but because we are in love with an idea.  We must create for the sake of creating.  We cannot fall in love with our ideas if we live in constant fear of judgment.  When we create, we experience deeper meaning.  We begin to do the thing because we must.  At that point, negative feedback takes on an entirely different value (Fritz, 1989).  Because we are doing something we love, we can let go of the concerns that drive our egos.  When we are doing what we love, negative feedback becomes part of the creation process.  At the very least, it keeps us grounded.

(Change the World, pgs. 43-44)

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

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?




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?

Becoming What We Behold

I once told the story of a man named Robert. In going through a personal transformation, he transformed his organization. As he reflected on the profound change in his organization, he wondered why it now seemed so easy and why there was now a positive culture. He then answered his own question: “I know it all happened because I confronted my own insecurity, selfishness, and lack of courage.”

Robert was coming to understand that we transform the organization by transforming ourselves. This is a highly resisted concept. When we are failing and disempowered, we “know” that bad things are happening because of the people and circumstances around us.

We are in fact, correct. Those people around us are in the normal state. They are pursuing their own self-focused agendas, and the collective environment is one of distrust and decreasing capacity.

Unfortunately, we are in the same condition. We accept the world as it is, and we become what we behold. From our normal state, we know it is nonsense to claim that we change the organization by transforming ourselves. (Quinn, Building the Bridge as you Walk on It: pg. 69)

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?

Don’t Diminish Your Potential

There is a movie called The Help.  It is about the condition of African American women in the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi.   The women are all housemaids.  The depiction of the everyday racism is jolting.  The women are trapped in a hopeless system.

At the risk of extreme punishment, the maids are asked by an author to tell their stories.   To do so means certain punishment.  As events unfold the women find the courage to tell their stories.  Their stories are published and become a part of the culture of the Civil Rights Movement.

Their circumstances do not improve, but, because they exercised courage and told their stories, their lives are filled with increased meaning.  They feel they are part of something bigger than themselves.  They can therefore better endure their lot in life.

I am reminded of a sentence from Parker Palmer: “The greatest punishment we can inflict on ourselves is to conspire in the diminishment of our own potential.”

We cannot compare the experience of the maids to our own lives, and yet like the maids there are times when we too feel full of fear.  When we feel this fear we “conspire in the diminishment of our own potential.”

We can learn how to engage in our own self-elevation. This does not happen through anger, resistance and rebellion. It happens through internal work. As we clarify our deepest purpose, increase our integrity and authenticity, orient to the needs of others and find ways to co-create a better future, we change and so does our context. We begin to grow in self-respect and we recognize the expansion of our own potential. This kind of courageous work creates a new life story, one that is worth living and worth telling. We become more empowered and more empowering to our community.

The Legacy We Leave

In my MBA class we discussed a scene Freedom Writers.  In it a teacher transforms a class of impoverished students who come from rival gangs.  A turning point in the story is when the students justify the norm of dying for their gangs.  The teacher tells them that when they die, they will rot in their graves and no one will remember them because all they did was live a life of anger and hate.  Her point was that such behavior is so common it is not worth remembering.  Later she introduces a method that allows the students to tell the stories of their personal struggles. It was a way for them to gain a voice and leave a meaningful legacy. Doing so transformed the class and the students.

During the discussion, one of the older students became quite animated.  She shared a personal story.  When she was a girl, her father was the head of a Quaker group in Little Rock, Arkansas.  After the integration of Little Rock High School, many laws were being passed to protect segregation.  The Quakers voiced a contrary position and her father was told to be silent or he would lose his job.  He told them that he could not be silent.

She told this story with great feeling.  I asked the class why the story was so important to this woman.  They made some thoughtful comments.  I suggested that when he exercised his courage, her father was probably giving little thought to his daughter; yet he was doing something that was uncommon and worth remembering. He was leaving his daughter a legacy (an inheritance, gift, remnant, or reminder) that had now become a core element in her own identity. When we leave our conventional patterns and live by principle, we change the world. When we do we leave a legacy.