Authentic Voice

In a recent blog entry I shared a story about a mother and her son who was being bullied at school.  In my last entry I described how the story led me to a new question and an eventual resolution.  When my friend and world class teacher, Horst Abraham, read the story, he responded as follows.

“What a powerful story: “Back Off!” and finding your voice.  That is the essence of ‘Fierce Conversations’, a topic I have found more and more people being attracted to as they are searching for their true voice. When have we lost that voice to begin with?”

I am captured by the notion of people in the world searching for their true voice.  The word voice is most commonly associated with the notion of speech.  If you can talk, you have a voice.  Yet the idea of true voice means more than exercising our vocal cords.

Decades ago it was popular to speak of someone having “soul.”  A great musician, author, teacher, speaker was differentiated from a good musician, author, teacher, speaker by the fact that they were communicating with soul.

What this means is they were in touch with their own essence, core, or spirit.  They could recognize how they were emotionally responding to the changing world.  They could transform those feelings into words that carried both cognitive and emotional meaning to others.  In doing this they express what others may be feeling but could not articulate.  Their message has both emotional and cognitive content and it also has novelty.  It holds attention, makes connection, and permeates others.

When a person expresses something from the soul, we tend to listen.  Their emotions open our hearts and their content engages our mind.  This means that our own minds and hearts open and deep learning becomes possible.  Listening may thus lead us to see the world in a new way.  When we do, we become capable of acting in a new way.

I believe when a person finds their voice, they are speaking from their deepest feelings.  By integrating words with those feelings they are creating a transformation.  They are bringing power into the world by exposing their most noble self.

When a boy in the fifth grade says to a bully, “Back off,” and does it in his “thunderous voice,” the boy is expressing nobility.  When a woman stands in and speaks of finding the hand of God in the death of her child, she is also speaking in her “thunderous voice.”  When a lower level executive speaks up in a meeting with genuine concern for the common good, and questions the morality of a given decision, the executive is speaking in a “thunderous voice.”

I end with the penetrating question posed by Horst.  “When have we lost that voice to begin with?”  When have we become past feeling?  How do we become past feeling.  Why is it so rare to hear words spoken from the core of the soul?  Recently I had an experience that gives me insight.  In the next blog I hope to explore it.


Why are so many people hungering to discover their authentic voice?

What is an authentic voice?

When in our organization have we heard someone speak in a thunderous voice?

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


When things are always the same, we can and do develop stable hierarchies in which people do highly repetitive work. In today’s world things seldom stay the same. Organizations are regularly hit with big changes and people need to adapt.

Adaptation requires us to be externally open. We need to learn new ways of organizing, new ways to behave and relate. This kind of adaptive change is typically resisted. We want to avoid the vulnerability and anxiety. We become closed.

As a result of our resistance, we come to feel disempowered. We blame others for the fact that we feel disempowered. When this happens managers often speak of the need to empower the people. The assumption managers make is that they need to empower us by telling us we are empowered. This does not work.

When a manager tells us that we are empowered, the act of telling simply demonstrates that we have no power. The only way for us to become empowered is to take the risk of empowering ourselves. Managers simply cannot create empowered units. Leaders can.

Leaders do not focus on empowering us. They seek instead to build a culture where a critical mass of people will be enticed to take the risk to empower themselves. Leaders do this by asking us questions instead of giving answers. They refuse to play the expert role we expect them to play. They refuse to take responsibility for decisions we need to make. Instead of creating comfort, they bring challenges and require that we make our own decisions.

In order to make decisions, we have to become externally open. When many people empower themselves the organization has an increased probability that it will begin to flourish. It is only a probability because other things must also be in place to support the process.



Persistence and the Alteration of Cultural Dynamics

Peter Drucker once declared, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Every group has a culture. A culture is a set of expectations or a set of rules of how people operate together. In organizations managers encounter many challenges and respond by problem solving. These logical efforts occur within the culture or shared set of expectations. If an initiative goes outside the cultural expectations there is conflict and the problem solving effort tends to get modified until it conforms to the cultural expectations.

The challenge is to stop trying to move away from that which is unwanted. The challenge is to identify a new result that we want to create, to move toward what we really want. The shift to purpose creates a different dynamic. By envisioning the future and acting upon it, we become positive deviants. We act in ways that are outside the cultural rules. Knowing and acting on the result we want to create disturbs the culture and creates opposition.

The emergence of opposition may be unsettling yet it is a marker of progress. If we remain committed and persist in the face of resistance, our committed behavior becomes a message that someone actually cares enough about the organization to suffer the cost of personal conflict. The presence of such commitment communicates. People begin to contemplate the possibility, even if they are against it. The possibility enters the collective conversation where it takes on a life of its own.

The enactment of committed purpose is much more powerful than words. When we courageously move forward we initiate the dynamics of cultural change. To do so is to empower one’s self. Empowered people tend to empower their community. The culture begins to change.



Purpose and Empowerment

We do not reach peak levels of performance by repeating exactly the same processes that have worked in the past. Reaching a level of excellence usually involves analyzing each individual situation and determining what is right. Most of us seek quantum leaps in our performance levels by pursuing a strategy of incremental investment. This strategy simply does not work. The land of excellence is safely guarded from unworthy intruders. At the gates stand two fearsome sentries- risk and learning. The keys to entry are faith and courage.

All of us have times when we lack courage. The thought of moving forward in a given situation, stimulates negative emotions like fear and anxiety. The negative feelings give rise to negative thoughts. We can only see what we think we might lose. These fears tend to further paralyze us. We begin playing not to lose.

Yet it is not change that gives rise to these emotions. It is the anticipation of change and uncertainty that is paralyzing. The actual act of clarifying our purpose and deciding to do whatever is necessary to accomplish a given result is profoundly empowering.

We are empowered when we clarify our purpose. It is the moment when we finally say “This is who I am, this is where I going, and I will endure what I must endure in order to go there.” In clarifying purpose, we are immediately filled with positive emotions. Those positive emotions give rise to positive thoughts. Our awareness expands. Those positive emotions are also contagious. Others are lifted by what we feel. Intentional forward movement is empowering. The fear of embracing such change is disempowering.

A Self-Empowering Question

Purpose can be animated by a question: What result do I want to create? It comes from Robert Fritz who is deeply insightful about the process of creating a meaningful life. I believe there are three key words in the question. The first key word is result. The second key word is I. The third key word is create.

The word result suggests an intentional focus. The word I suggests taking accountability. The word create suggests that I must do things I have not done before and it implies learning and expansion of capacity.

Selecting an intentional focus, taking accountability, and moving forward in the face of uncertainty are not normal behaviors. Fritz says, what is normal is to ask the question: What do I want? The answer is; I want to be comfortable. I design my life to be comfortable. When you try to take me outside my comfort zone, I resist. I may speak of accomplishing great things, but what I most want is to be in equilibrium and so I naturally drift towards the normal state.

In the normal state I live a reactive life. I react to problems. I solve problems. I continually work to return to whatever equilibrium existed previously.

When I ask, even the most senior people the question, “what result do you want to create,” they tend to give superficial answers. They think they know, but they do not. It amazes me how self-deceptive we all are. When I get superficial answers, I push people by asking the question why? They respond and I often again ask why.

Over a short period their superficial answer tends to deepen. They come to a more authentic answer. As they do, complexity and confusion melts away. Fear is replaced by hope. The person moves towards an elevated life state. Clear intention is rare and transformational. Yet it is easily accessible. We can get there by increasing our awareness. One question, answered authentically, creates such awareness.

A Positive, Empowering Organiztion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Creating Images of Consequence

The brain is an extraordinary mechanism. If has the power to create images of consequence.

This reminds me of an incident with my daughter. She and her husband were trying to make a decision about adoption. The stress grew until she was overwhelmed and she began to sink into a hole of negative emotions. The struggle went on for days when suddenly she walked into my office singing a happy song. I was stunned and asked her what happened.  She said that she and her husband sat down and asked a crucial question, “What result are we trying to create?” The question led to a long discussion and a new image of the future. With this new perspective, her fears began to dissolve.

This new perspective, or change in her imagination, had real consequences. For one, as she became really clear about her deepest purpose, her fears departed. For another, her change in disposition altered how she interacted with those who loved and supported her the most. When she was in the negative hole, we as a family watched every word we said. When she came out of the hole, we all relaxed and began more fully engaging her.

Many discussions of leadership turn to the mechanics of the process. Few focus on the emotional state of the leader. My daughter’s emotional state influenced how we related to her. Similarly, a leader’s emotional state influences others and determines the quality of energy those people return. The emotional state, therefore, matters, and it is determined by the images of the mind.  The imagination of a leader changes his or her reality.

We most empower our imagination when we link our minds to our deepest purpose. The question, “What result do I want to create,” is a tool that alters how we function and how others relate to us. Robert Fritz wrote an entire book on the power of this question. It gives us the power of self-elevation and the ability to create images of consequence.


When has my imagination changed my reality?

What does the clarification of purpose do to my imagination?

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)

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.