Culture Creation

Our colleague, Andy Hoffman wrote a book, Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling. In the first chapter he describes how many of his students do career selection by asking themselves conventional questions, usually having to do with things like money and impact. He suggests that they would be better off if they were to do a deeper exploration and focus on finding their calling in life. He says that their calling is their purpose in the world. He then connects purpose to the concept of social exchange and suggests that purpose determines how we see other people. Andy writes:

Are your relationships transactional or relational; that is, do you treat people and the natural world as a community that sustains and includes you, or merely as objects for achieving the success of your own pursuits? 

The social sciences tell us that it is normal for people to be self-interested. It is normal for people to see each social interaction as an exchange, transaction or contract. This means our job in life is to negotiate each contract so as to obtain the things we desire. These assumptions are at the center of every conventional culture and we are all continually trained to live by them. In conventional social theory we live to acquire and survive.

Andy makes a point about the unexpected. After citing Thoreau on the point that, if a person confidently pursues his or her dreams the person “will meet with success unimagined in common hours.” Why would this grand claim be true?

Purpose is linked to learning. When we have a purpose that drives our life, we leave the conventional path and we do things others will not do. Purpose takes us into uncertainty. In uncertainty we are forced to pay attention to every cue. Andy speaks of it as “opening up to the unknown.” Our purpose does not take us to a stable end point and certainty. Instead it takes to the “continual pursuit of growth and awareness.”

As we move forward, into unknown territory, we have new experiences. As we ponder our new experiences we acquire new ideas and we develop new capacities. In our own writing, we often refer to this forward moving process as “building the bridge as you walk on it.” Purpose tells us where we are going, but moving forward is what drives the learning process. The bridge emerges from real time learning. We have “success unimagined in common hours.”

Andy makes an even greater claim. He says that by taking control of our lives and embracing a higher purpose, we begin to experience “pure joy.


When we have a higher purpose, we are no longer living to acquire and survive. We are living to contribute. When we live to contribute, acquiring and surviving is a means to a greater end and our life becomes more meaningful. In our work we experience the emergence of a better self and our emerging best self is contributing to the emergence of a better world. In doing work that creates a better self and a better world, we experience “pure joy.”

As we experience this kind of joy, we are transformed. We take a different orientation to life. We begin to see life in terms of dynamic wholes and our orientation to relationships become altered. We begin to “treat people and the natural world as a community that sustains and includes you.” We sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

This new orientation expands our old orientation. Instead of being driven by our culture and the social expectations within it, we become, paradoxically, more independent and more interdependent.

We become more independent in that we begin to question conventional assumptions. Instead of accepting that culture determines behavior, we begin to ask why the culture cannot be shaped to achieve the purpose we desire. We have a more internal locus of control.

We become more interdependent because we are experiencing the unfolding of our own potential and discovering that we can be more than we assumed. This joyful discovery leads us to see others differently. We look at them and we suddenly see potential in them we did not see before and that they do not see in themselves. We not only recognize their potential, we also recognize that they can only realize their potential by the exercise of their own agency. Instead of coercing them, we begin to seek to attract them to their own highest purpose. We no longer merely see them “as objects for achieving the success of your own pursuits.”

This profound shift in outlook turns us into leaders of transformational influence. We become culture creators. We seek to create relationships, teams and organizations that are tied to a higher purpose. In these elevated contexts people can hear and dance to new music. As they collectively learn to build the bridge as they walk on it, it becomes easier to see how they can also do it personally.


What does it mean to treat people and the natural world as “objects for achieving the success of your own pursuits?”

What does it mean to “treat people and the natural world as a community that sustains and includes you?”

What does it mean to be a culture creator?

Unique Culture

I was slated to visit the Republic of Georgia in Eastern Europe. I had been asked by my son-in-law, who was the cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy, to help with a cultural challenge in a work section at the embassy.

In the embassy work section that I was asked to help, there was a large group of Georgians who had worked there for years. They were managed by Americans who typically served for only two to three years at a time. The Georgians were described by the Americans as being resistant to change. The Americans, on the other hand, were described by the Georgians as having a tendency to come in with a change agenda, as generally not listening to the Georgians, and as rarely being able to get them to talk in the first place. Since external resources were shrinking and the workload was increasing, there was a need for the Americans and Georgians to collaborate more fully, but such collaboration was prevented by the existing organizational culture.

They patiently explained that American approaches to engagement would not work in their country. I should simply plan to present information. I was strongly advised not to anticipate meaningful participation of any kind.

These were two invitations to live in the conventional mental map. I have had many such invitations. The pattern is usually the same. The sponsors or authority figures patiently explain their “unique culture” and the constraints embedded in the culture. Typically, the constraint is that the lower-level participants in the culture have spent their lives passively listening to teachers, bosses, and other experts. When asked for their opinions, which isn’t often, they never speak up.

The statement made by the Georgians about my “American” approach makes me smile. Everywhere I go in the United States, I run into people who want me simply to present information. They also patiently explain why in their supposedly “unique” culture the people do not necessarily speak openly. Often, the explanation is that an authority figure will be in the room, and it will not be possible for people to speak up. After all, the organization is a political system.

While nationality does play a role, the real issue is not the geography of the planet but the geography of the mind. People in organizations across the planet live in fear. Staff people who plan events tend to take the safe route. They design events to be processes of information dissemination and the people are thus further trained to be passive recipients. No other alternative can even be imagined, for it would be outside the conventional mental map.

The misconception across the planet is that positive organizations cannot be created in a given context. What we believe determines what we can imagine. What we believe determines the reality we will continually bring into existence by our behavior. To turn an organization positive, we have to increase consciousness. Exposing people to a surprisingly positive context does this. It opens them to the positive mental map.

The Positive Organization – p. 65-66

Leading Positive Change

A former executive MBA student came to see me.  He was scheduled to be in another part of Michigan, but said he wanted to make a special trip to Ann Arbor because he had something important to share it with me.

He is an executive in his early forties.  Prior to attending our program, he had worked in one of the Fortune 500’s most aggressive firms.  He entered my class believing he was already a leader, and wondered if there was anything to gain by taking the required course.

One of his assignments was to become a mentor—not a normal mentor, but a transformational mentor, a mentor who radically alters the outlook and capacity of another person.  Like many of his fellow students, this one failed to alter the person he selected for his assignment.

This happens often.  I give this difficult assignment for a reason.  Many EMBAs are accomplished executives who think they understand change leadership.  What they actually understand is change management.  The failure to help another person transform often brings humility and openness to the notions of change leadership—a valuable lesson.

In his case the failure made the student aware that what he knew how to do was be an authority figure in a hierarchy.  He did not know how to change the fundamental mindsets other people held.  He did not know how to change behavior so as to achieve collective excellence.  Because he failed the mentoring assignment, his interest grew and he reread all our course’s books and reexamined everything we covered.  He ended up valuing the concepts and was committed to live them.

He told this part of the story with a sense of gratitude.  Then he told me he wanted me to understand how important the course was in his life. A sacred feeling filled the room as he told me about it.

At the end of the EMBA program, he took a position in another large firm.  He was given responsibility for a change project of over $100 million in magnitude.  An analysis suggested it would take seven years.  He was asked to do it in three.  Others who were involved were making assumptions based on change management.   None seemed to understand what he now understood about change leadership.

He decided that if he were going to succeed, he would have to acquire moral power by living principles of higher purpose.  The first thing he did was use the fundamental state of leadership questions to help him examine his values.  In doing so, he made a counterintuitive decision.  While he was facing the greatest time pressures he had ever faced, he determined to go to the gym every day and to eat only healthy foods.    He determined to stay connected to his wife and children.  These things were the opposite of what he would have normally done.

Meanwhile, there was the project, designed by executives and consultants.  They laid out the plan and they expected the workers to implement it.  My former student knew the process would not work.  He knew he needed to be other-focused.  He needed to connect with people, understand, and build mutual trust.  He determined to spend long hours listening to the people.  He listened to their fears.  He shared his own.  He clarified that fact that he needed them.  As this process unfolded he developed a relationship of increasing understanding and trust.

This process allowed him to become externally open.  As he worked with the lower-level people, he allowed them to constantly teach him.  These people saw hundreds of issues the planners did not see.  The issues included things they wrestled with every day such as safety and cost. He joined with these lower level people in co-creating revised plans, plans everyone could believe in.

The impossible change project was completed successfully.  He said that in the EMBA program he learned valuable tools in every class, whether marketing or finance. But he now understands that leadership is the tool belt that holds all the other tools in place.  Leading the change process not only alters the organization, but it also alters the leader.

He now sees himself in an entirely new light.  He feels clear about his purpose, and he is living as a self-empowered person.  He told me that in a year he plans to quit.  His goal is to find a company that is struggling.  He wants to acquire such a company and transform it.  He wants to connect the people to a higher purpose and he wants to build a positive culture in which all the people can flourish.  He did not speak of these desires as if they were a dream, he spoke of them as if they were already a reality.


What were the most counter intuitive aspects of this story?

When have I made such counter intuitive decisions?

How could we use this passage to be more positive?


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

Investing in Trust

Confucius observed, “If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, then affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

I talked to a man of conviction who runs a challenging organization. It is part of a bigger organization and he has a boss who is as assertive as he is. The two of them have each established a power base. So they tolerate each other.  Neither is going to go away soon.

Recently this man’s boss came to him with a proposal. It would have undermined years of work so this man rejected the proposal. They both left angry.

My friend said, “In the end I do not know what his words really meant. I do not know if he was telling the truth or simply raising a trial balloon. If I trusted the man and if he trusted me, we could have come up with a win-win. The truth is that we do not trust each other.”

For several weeks I have been haunted by these words. In organizations we lose billions of dollars and we destroy opportunity because we do not trust each other. Our “language is not in accordance with the truth of things” and “our affairs cannot be carried to success.” This is true at every level.

I believe that if I worked with these two men I could bring them to forgiveness and trust. In fact I think it would be quite doable. The problem is that there are tens of thousands of such dysfunctional relationships. If we invested heavily in building trust where conflict flourishes the return on invest would be staggering.


Do I distrust anyone, what is the cost to the larger system?

Do I know how to transform conflict?

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

Managers and Leaders

In all systems culture determines thinking and behavior. As one author put it we are all mind-slaves. Many managers are mind slaves who believe that culture cannot be changed. This assumption implies that organizations cannot excel. If I believe this proposition why would I invest? Many managers are not invested in what they do. Neither are their people.

Leadership transcends culture. It is based on moral power. When we increase our own integrity, we become unique and free from cultural expectations. We do what is right for the organization even though the culture seeks to punish our positive deviance. Leadership is caring enough to suffer for the organization that would punish us for caring. Managers reject this notion.


How am I an organizational mind slave?

When have I led with moral power?

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

There’s no Checklist for Culture Change

My colleague, Jeff Liker, is an expert in the implementation of lean manufacturing, a process which originated at Toyota.  Jeff told me that only 2 percent of the companies that have implemented lean manufacturing have achieved anticipated results.  The failures represent billions of dollars in lost value.  The problem is not with the technology.

There is something that few Western managers understand.  Successful implementation involves joining with others in the co-creation of the emerging future.  In other words, the organization has to become a system of learning.  The culture has to become more positive, open and responsive.

Western companies operate with a checklist mentality. An expert comes up with the “correct” way to do something, builds a plan, trains the people, and audits the change progress.  This is called change management.  The great thing about change management is that it is fast and efficient. The bad thing is that is seldom works. Worse, most people fail to see why change management does not work.

Thirty years ago I was with a leader who had led the successful transformation of an auto plant.  At the time he was trying to explain his success to other plant managers and the teaching effort was not going well.  He later explained that the plant managers wanted “a checklist” so they could engage in a linear and controlled process of implementation.  They did not want to hear about such things as participation, risk-taking, continual experiments, authentic communication, mutual learning, the transformation of assumptions, and the joint implementation of new ideas.

When it comes to culture change the average manager in the United States tends to fail for the same reasons the average manager failed three decades ago. The implementation process involves collective learning.  It is messy, risky and requires more mental and emotional work than you can do with a simple checklist.  The challenge is to understand positive leadership and how to co-create the emerging future.

Transcend the Conventional Logic of Business

We took our friends to visit art galleries in a coastal town.  We ended up in what I believe was the best of the many galleries. My wife was impressed with many of the displayed works. The curator, George, told her the stories behind the pictures.   In listening to the stories I could tell that George was an unusual man. I made it a point to hang around.  When he was alone I asked George, “Why is this the best gallery in town?”

He studied me for a moment then he opened up.  For the next twenty minutes he talked with passion. He told of his professional life mission.  He only displays the work of artists who labor for the love of art and who are not hungry for fame or fortune.  He said that when people enter his gallery they feel something special.  When he greets people he explains the art, but he does not do it to sell the art.  He does it to bring the power of the art into the lives of his customers.  He told many stories of people who were transformed by some experience in the gallery.

Then George made an extraordinary claim.  Since he opened his gallery many years ago, he has seen 15 other galleries open and then go out of business.  He says he flourishes because he never varies from his professional life purpose.

Experts in selling art give him advice.  They tell him that a gallery cannot sell fine art, glass art, and prints.   Successful galleries specialize in one of the three.  He said, “I violate that logic and yet I still prosper.”

George is a deeply fulfilled man who is spending his life doing what he loves.  In his gallery there is a positive culture. People feel it and are moved. Positive cultures transcend the conventional assumptions of business. In them people flourish and exceed expectations.

You Get What You Deserve

Gerry Anderson, the CEO of DTE Energy recently said, “When it comes to culture, you get just what you deserve. If you have a broken culture, it is what you deserve. You are not leading. You have to change your model of leadership. You have to deserve a different culture.”  In the conventional organization, leaders are accountable for results, in the positive organization leaders are accountable for who they are.  The results follow.