Choosing Slow Death: Manager 6

Our final manager talks about losing faith in their leaders.

“Our top management people are ill-equipped to deal with the realities of our situation.  We need sweeping changes.  Their tools obtained at the best business schools, are simply inadequate for facing our current competitive environment.  They know how to manage, not how to lead.  Besides, it is too late.  We cannot be saved by willing it, even from the top.  It’s like trying to find a golf swing the day before the Masters.”

I the process of slow death people lose faith in their leaders.  This occurs because people in leadership positions tend to resort to control and the processes of normal management.  But they need to do the opposite:  to learn, to envision, to join with their people in the process of deep change.  Because they continue to follow normal practices, they lose crucial time.  When the moment of crisis arrives, the organization does not have the characteristics it needs for survival.  It is too late.


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)

“They Became What They Beheld”

The great visionary poet and artist William Blake, whose career spanned the turn of the nineteenth century, was deeply concerned with the idea of transformation.  Blake was a revolutionary in the sense that he believed society needed not just superficial reform but profound change.  He did not believe that political action alone would bring about radical change.  Political revolutions, he noted, have a way of reestablishing the tyranny they were intended to overthrow.  Instead, the idea of revolution had to come first of all in people’s thinking and being.  Truly meaningful change would happen only when people awoke to the infinite potential that was inside them.

In Blake’s mythical language, the world that I have described as the normal state is described as “fallen.”  It is the world of self-concern, routine, conformity, and hypocrisy.  Our longing for a more virtuous world is a sign that a better world is possible.

Most of us, however, see the normal world as something to accept and conform to.  When we are in that state of passive acceptance, our view of ourselves diminishes.  According to Blake, that is because our relationship with the world around us is reciprocal:  the reality we perceive and the view we have of ourselves feed on one another.  Describing this relationship, he wrote:  “They became what they beheld.”  When we accept the world as it is (that is, when we are in the normal state), we deny our innate ability to see something better, and hence our ability to be something better.  The better world we seek can be found within us, if only we change our vision. (Kazin, 1974, p. 487)

Deep Change Field Guide, p. 120-121

Deep Change in the Self

We are all potential change agents. As we discipline our talents, we deepen our perceptions about what is possible. We develop a reverence for the tools and the relationships that surround us. We then bring a discipline to our visions and grow in integrity. Life becomes more meaningful. We become empowered and empowering to our context. Having experienced deep change in ourselves, we are able to bring deep change to the systems around us.

Deep Change, Introduction

Tyranny of the In-Basket

For most of us, under pressure, the pursuit of task drives out any thought of maintenance. Doing the right thing is driven out by the need to be busy. I refer to it as the ‘tyranny of the in-basket.’ We have too much to do to take the time necessary to do it right. Our individual drive toward task completion thwarts the need for routine maintenance.

Deep Change, pp. 60


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

Organizations Need Responsive People

Once I worked with senior executives at a successful organization in Asia. I was impressed with their efforts to design a system that could make deep change more frequently and effectively. They told me that they were trying to become an “organic” organization. When I asked for a definition, they showed me a public document that stated that an organic organization is one that is ‘responsive, acts quickly and in a coordinated way, and can adjust and learn and grow.’

Many companies have similar statements. The next sentence, however, caught my attention. It read, ‘Only organic individuals can create an organic organization.’

I was interested in this statement because so many organizations talk about becoming responsive, but few talk about the logical implication that naturally follows. Responsive organizations need responsive people.

In an age of continuous change, organizations must match their environments by being more responsive, and people must match their organizations by being more responsive. If organizations must make deep change more frequently, so must the people who work in organizations.

(Deep Change, pp. 7).

How Change Really Happens

I worked with a fast-growing company that had made a variety of impressive accomplishments. At one point, I arranged for one of my students to write a case study about the company. I accompanied the student when the CEO was interviewed and recounted the first five years of the company.

It was an impressive story about the unfolding of a clear strategic plan. He described the company as moving effortlessly from phase A to B and then to C. This account did not match my understanding of what had taken place. I interjected and described a very different history. When he was challenged with the actual chaotic learning process that had taken place, he paused and then smiled and said, “It’s true, we built the bridge as we walked on it.”

Organizational and personal growth seldom follows a linear plan. This is an important principle to remember. When people recount a history of growth, they often tell it in a linear sequence, suggesting a rationality and control that never really existed. (Deep Change, pp. 83)

Deep Change

Organization and change are not complementary concepts. To organize is to systematize; to make behavior predictable. All organizations are based on systems of external and internal expectations. The external expectations may be informal, like the desire of a customer to buy a quality product at a reasonable price. Alternatively, the external expectations can actually be formalized into a law, requiring that an organization perform in certain ways. The internal expectations also range from informal to formal.

The process of formalization initially makes the organization more efficient or effective. As time goes on, however, these same routine patterns move the organization toward decay and stagnation. The organization loses alignment with the changing, external reality. As a result, customers go elsewhere for their products and services, and the organization loses its critical resources.

When internal and external alignment is lost, the organization faces a choice: either adapt or take the road to slow death. Usually the organization can be renewed, energized, or made effective only if some leader is willing to take some big risks by stepping outside the well-defined boundaries. When this happens, the organization is lured, pushed, or pulled into unknown territory. The resulting journey through the unknown is a terrifying experience, with the possibility of failure or death a reality rather than a metaphor.

(Deep Change, pp. 5)


Have I ever seen a person choose slow death?

Have I ever seen an organization choose slow death?

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

Helping People Fly Blind

I once had a student in my class who has such limited vision that he is legally blind. Despite his handicap he was fully engaged in life. He wrote to tell me he is about to graduate with a master’s degree. I felt inspired by his accomplishment. I was not however prepared for what he said next.

He explained that he has just taken on a new project. He has always loved aviation and regretted that because of his eyesight he could not become a pilot. Yet earlier this year he saw a video in which a man with his same disease was flying. The man had been a pilot until the disease took his vision. He then lost his license. Yet his pilot friends still took him up and allowed him to sit in the pilot’s seat. My former student was inspired, so he contacted the local flying club and asked if he could try an introductory flight. They responded positively. In writing of the experience, he makes a statement that I deeply value.

“Last month I was finally able to fly with a volunteer club member after almost 20 years of negative self-assumptions. It was one of the single most powerful and empowering experiences of my life. I actually feel different in my daily life—more confident and self-assured, less anxious. It’s absolutely amazing that one hour can have such a profound impact on a person.”

Although he cannot ultimately get his license, the club has agreed to support him in pursuing instruction. He has made a video of some of his experiences and when he shows it to students with visual impairments and to others, the response is very positive. He says, “I feel like I am spreading something amazing as I share this experience.”

Those feelings inspired him to launch a video documentary of his progress through flight instruction. He plans to do a short video that explores the “bounds and rough edges of disability and ableism.” He wants people to understand and be inspired by the experience of flying blind.

Each of us has an identity built on positive and negative self-assumptions. The assumptions come from our experience. There are things, for example, I “know” I cannot and will not ever do. So I fear and avoid circumstances that may require me to engage in such activities.

Yet my assumptions are just beliefs and beliefs can change. My very identity can and does change with new experiences.   When I occasionally do something that challenges and changes my “negative self-assumptions” I have an “empowering” experience that causes me to be “more confident and self-assured, less anxious.” This is a positive change in identity, and in how I see myself.

When I have a deep change experience, I more fully love myself and this makes it possible for me to more fully love others. This love for others often is manifest in the desire to help them realize the potential they might not see in themselves. It is not surprising that my student suddenly has a desire to make a video that might empower others.

In these moments of deep change, I also tend to become aware of the agency of others. My eventual challenge is to get them to let go and to “fly blind” but they cannot be forced by my “authority.” They must be attracted to the fearful commitment by my authenticity. I must lead them without authority. Positive leaders must offer an image of the future that generates hope and simultaneously offers unconditional support for the pursuit of that hope. The people need to have faith in the possible future and faith in the supportive present. When they develop such faith, they may dare to move forward and learn.

Helping a person to fly blind, or to build the bridge as they walk on it, is a great and empowering contribution that results in a positive identity change, or deep change. Helping a team, organization, or community to make deep change is also a great and empowering contribution that results in a more positive culture. Executing either has a lasting impact on them and on us. We need to better understand and lead the deep change process.


When have I dared to fly blind?

When have I helped someone else fly blind?

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

Leadership and Tough Love

In sports and in business we readily recognize the need to be tough, but we often fail to see the need for love. Yet love is necessary because a coach, or a leader usually has to transform a group from patterns of self-interested conflict to cohesive, focused effort. A great team, like a great leader, maintains both a tough, disciplined focus on the task and a cohesive set of relationships full of trust and love.

A good example is the story of Pat Riley while coaching the New York Knicks, a basketball team that was riddled with internal competition and composed of warring cliques. The competition between the cliques led the players to define each other negatively and provided justification for more competition between them. They became trapped in a vicious cycle (Riley, 1993).

One day Riley made a tough intervention that transformed the team. He stood up and named the members and characteristics of each clique. Then he had the players rearrange their chairs and sit in their cliques. The exercise was simple but very graphic. Riley was communicating his message at a level that everyone could understand. He was showing them the emergent reality that they were choosing to create but did not want to see.

This kind of feedback usually stimulates anger – and Riley’s players were angry. They did not enjoy looking at their own foolish freedom. Instead of chastising them, Riley talked to them about positive values like tolerance, openness, and team spirit – values akin to love. Before this moment, the Knicks were surviving, but they were heading toward slow death. They needed to be reinvented. Riley’s intervention was one dramatic moment that was part of a much larger pattern in which he transformed the team and led them into the playoffs.  (Quinn, Building the Bridge as you Walk on it – pg. 185)