The Work of Positive Leadership

I once heard a story about a woman who kept a garden.  It looked like a work of art.  When asked about her success she explained that she disciplined herself to go into the garden every day regardless of how convenient is might be.  When she is in her garden she looks for small problems like weeds, insects or soil conditions and immediately deals with them.  She explained that the secret of gardening is a total commitment to the process of growing great plants.

This story reminds me of another.  I was talking to a friend about positive organizational culture.  He understood and said that organizational culture is like the soil in a garden.  The culture can give rise to great performance but the gardener has to care enough to fully invest in the work of gardening.  A positive culture requires constant attention.

My friend told me; “For years I tried to grow tomatoes in my garden, and they never did very well. Then last year my mom visited. She insisted that we buy compost and other soil additives, and we spent a really long time mixing everything in before planting.  The tomatoes thrived for the first time ever. I had thought all I needed to do was to put the seedlings in some dirt, any dirt, and nature would do the rest.”

My friend went on to say that in his company there is a similar mentality. An external practice is identified, imported and transplanted. The people are given some training and a checklist and are then directed to implement it. The practice often dies and authority figures are surprised.

The process fails because the managers make technical assumptions.  They want to import the seed, plant it, and walk away.  An organizational culture is not a technical system.  It is a living system.  For an organization to flourish, the cultural soil must be carefully prepared. It must then be constantly examined and improved.  It is not the word of technical management.  It is the work of positive leadership.


People are not Problems

It’s easy to see people as problems. In fact it is absolutely natural and normal. If a person is a problem, the conventional response is to distance myself in some way. A problem is something to be pushed away or eliminated. When people are being seen as a problem, they immediately sense it. They react accordingly. The outcome is usually not good.

In the positive lens people are not problems. If I, as a leader, see someone who is not performing to their potential, the problem is my lack of effective leadership. I have not painted a compelling enough vision for him or her to step out of their gopher hole and look around. I have not provided enough support that they dare to take a risk and learn their way into a more effective way of being. I have not given feedback in such a way that they can learn and change.

The positive orientation is not “soft.” If there is a problem it is never in the other person.

The personal accountability is astronomical. Because it is, most people prefer the conventional approach. This means few possibilities open up and little potential is realized. In the positive lens all influence attempts begin with the question, “How can I be a better person?”

Bo (Shembechler) Knows Leadership

At the University of Michigan we once had a colorful football coach named Bo Shembechler. When he retired, Bo spent a year being a color commentator on the network broadcasts. After the one year he quit. People asked him why. My memory of his answer was this.   “They wanted me to criticize the coach after the play was run. Any idiot can criticize a coach after the play is run.”

Critics live in the certainty of hindsight. It is a safe place to be. Managers, like the rest of us, tend to look for solutions to problems that guarantee success and protect against criticism.   We all want to be safe.

Managers become leaders when they let go of their desire to be safe and stand in the crucible of uncertainty making decisions that may or may not succeed. As they learn from each success and each failure, their vision and strategy evolves. Through this process of iterative learning they move the organization in the same way a coach moves his team through a football game. Being a leader requires more than content expertise. It requires the courage and confidence to decide while in the crucible of uncertainty, and the courage and humility to make the right adjustments.

The Universal Power of Positive Leadership

There is an exercise I run regularly with executives and it always comes out the same.  Yesterday it came out the same but outcome was particularly memorable.

In introducing the exercise I explained that they would be in groups.  The exercise would have three rounds.  In each round each of them should tell a two minute core story.  I explained that a core story is a story that shaped their identity.  I then modeled the process by telling three very intimate stories.  I told them that at the end they should collectively answer three questions: What do we all have in common?  In the last hour, how have we changed as a group?  What are the implications of this experience?

Yesterday the group consisted of men from Brazil, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, and Japan.  They each spoke English with a different accent and I wondered if they would even understand each others words.  As the exercise unfolded they shared their stories, and, as usual, the space became sacred.  As they later discussed the three questions they expressed awe about the transformation that had occurred.  After a short hour these five men from very different places, languages and industries felt like a highly functional family.  Five casual, professional associates were transformed into five bonded human beings.

I thought about a world that is filled with conflict and little hope of ever being a planet of peace.  Yet in one hour I watched highly differentiated human beings become integrated and unified.   Facilitating the transformation that took place in that room makes it easy for me to believe that positive leadership can bring transformations in any group. The principles and processes are universal. They apply everywhere.


Shattering Illusions

Today’s blog is taken from the message I shared in my monthly newsletter.

I read a compelling article in Wired Magazine.  It is the story of a middle-aged North Korean defector named Kang Chol-hwan.   As a child, Kang spent 10 years in a prison camp with his family.  When he was released from the prison camp he was given a radio receiver that he figured out how to re-wire, allowing him to listen to unofficial programming.  He began to relearn the entire history he had been taught about North Korea.  Eventually he was found out, and he barely managed to escape by bribing some border guards.

Soon Kang was touring the world and visiting with heads of state.  Thousands listened to his story.  When he returned to South Korea he found little support for his desire to change the North.  The president of South Korea had just won the Nobel Prize for his policy of compromise with the North.  Many people intellectually and emotionally supported Kang’s cause, but few were willing to take action.  Kang was a threat to the stability of the regime.

In 2005, when Kang realized that there was little hope that anyone would act against the North Korean government, he did what internally directed leaders do.  Kang took a unique path.  “Change, he decided, would have to come from within, through the same life-altering education he had received from his illegal radio. He flipped his strategy: Instead of working to tell the world about the horrors of North Korea, he would work to tell North Koreans about the world.”

Kang has spent the last ten years smuggling contraband into North Korea.  His organization gets 3,000 USB drives, filled with information about the world, into the North every year.  He believes that this injection of information will eventually lead to the overthrow of the Kim dynasty.  He sees the USB drives like “the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions.”

There are many lessons in Kang’s story.

1.  Organizations can intimidate and constrain their people – like North Korea.  People can become disengaged and afraid.

2.  People can react conventionally, and accept the assumptions of their leaders.  Or they can respond like Kang and seek new information and new avenues for creating a positive solution.

3.  We can all be like South Korea and other countries that were unwilling to “rock the boat.”  Fear may keep us from making the kind of deep changes that are necessary in the long term.  We often choose peace and pay in our organization.

4.  Kang internalized 5 characteristics that I believe are critical to creating a positive organization:  communicating authentically, illuminating the highest purpose, focusing on the common good, seeing possibility, and trusting and embracing the chaos and risk that is inherent in the emergent process.

I’m sure there are many more lessons that can be found in Kang’s story that are applicable to your situation.  I hope that like Kang you will find ways to inject positive ideas into your organization (and life), and that you will use those ideas to start conversations and shatter old illusions.

Choosing a Future Crisis

When an organization discovers that its systems need realignment, I am often asked to make a diagnosis. Senior executives seldom argue with my diagnosis, but they almost always argue with my recommendations. I am told, “What you don’t understand is that we don’t have the time to make the change you are recommending.” This statement is accurate. There is no time. In coming to such a conclusion, the executive is choosing task over maintenance. The executive is also, however, choosing a future crisis. Sooner or later a price will be paid. The decision that is within our control is when to pay the price and do the painful work of realignment.

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.

Leaders See Possibility

I am often asked, “How do you create a positive organization?”  A friend sent me a book called Timeless Wisdom: Passages for Meditation from the World’s Saints and Sages.  In the introduction the author begins with a parable.  It is a story about an ancient sculptor in India who carves elephants from stone.  One day a king visits and asks the man for the secret of his great artistry.

The sculptor explains that once a large stone is secured, he spends a very long time studying the stone.  He does this with complete concentration and will not allow himself to be distracted.  At first he sees nothing, but the huge rock.  Then, over a long period, he begins to notice something in the substance of the great stone.  It begins with a feeling and turns into a vague impression, a scarcely discernible outline.  As he continues to ponder, with an open eye and an eager heart, the outline intensifies, until the joyful moment when the sculptor sees the elephant inside the rock.  At this moment he sees what no other human can see.  Only when he sees the outline does he begin the months of chiseling.  In doing so, he is always obedient to the revealed outline.  In the process, the sculptor connects with the elephant inside the stone.   He feels the elephant’s desire to come out of the rock and live.  With this emotional awareness the sculptor gains an even more intense singleness of purpose.  He chips away every bit of rock that is not the elephant.  What remains is the elephant (Eswaran, 2008:20).

I love this parable.  It represents the part of leadership that is least understood.  Purpose leads to a search for the possible.  At the beginning there is little hope.  Yet the person of purpose knows to continue in the deep concentration and a vague impression emerges.  Masterful leaders know to attend to impressions.  Openness and attention turn the impression into a vision available to none other.  The visionary becomes the particular future’s only representative in the world.  Disciplined pursuit of the vision stimulates action learning and eventually transformation.   The vision is no longer a concept but a living thing waiting for mortal manifestation.  Love of the emerging future leads to still more disciplined effort until that which could not be seen lives in the present.  The parable explains how to create a positive organization.