Commitment and Learning

Years ago there was an article in the Ann Arbor News about Amani Toomer.   He had previously played football for the University of Michigan. He was a second round draft choice but in his first three seasons for the New York Giants he only caught 44 passes for 635 yards. His major contribution was on special teams. Then, in the 1999-2000 season something happened. He had 79 catches for 1,183 yards and six touchdowns. That broke the team record. He was one of the best receivers in the NFL.

One of his teammates said, “Something was holding him back his first couple of years. But whatever it was, he found it, that’s for sure.” He was clearly highly talented and highly skilled, so what changed? What made the difference?

Here is one clue: The writer of that article describes watching Toomer in practice. A pass is thrown near his feet. He misses it and a defender throws him hard to the ground. Toomer walks back to the huddle staring at his hands and repositioning them at various angles. Later he explains that he was actively trying to envision how he could have made the catch. He was telling himself what he would have to have done, under game conditions, to protect the ball.

The writer points out that such behavior was not the case previously. Toomer was always making mistakes and was always in the doghouse. Yet between 1998 and 1999, he seemed to commit himself. In the off-season he greatly intensified his work efforts. In the off-season, Toomer did more long distance running to extend his stamina. He took up Kung Fu to extend his flexibility. He found a personal trainer to work with, and he further increased his involvement in the team’s off-season training program.

As he committed himself to the grind of the work, Toomer grew, and as he grew he found joy. He said, “You have to fall in love with working out in the off season. You have to fall in love with training camp. You have to try to keep the intensity up and never forget what got you where you are. I just want to keep building.”

The desire to “keep building” is an aspiration to grow personally and contribute to the whole. It means Toomer transcended conventional expectations and committed to give himself fully to the process of learning from experience. When we choose to engage deeply in our work we find joy because our work turns us into a better version of our selves.


Why do most people work?

Why does deep commitment bring deep learning?

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


Purpose and Accelerated Learning

We spent a day with a group of experienced, senior executives. It was a day of introduction to a week we would soon spend together. We spoke of leadership from the perspective of mastery. The participants were engaged because what we were saying was not what they usually hear. We were helping them explore the notion of the mastery of leadership.

At the end a woman approached us. She was excited. She explained that she is a world-class musician. She said that when she listened to what we were saying from the perspective of music, it all made sense. She knew that to produce great music she had to integrate opposites. She gave examples such as combining discipline and structure with freedom and creative expression. A great musician does both. Structure makes creative expression possible.

She said that she believes that she is a good leader but she knows that she does not lead at the same level that she plays music. Our discussion led her to hope that by keeping her music in mind, in our week together, she might be able to learn language and concepts that would allow her to understand and enact her own leadership the way she understands and plays her instrument.

Her words excited us. We told her she was exactly right. Her ability to produce great music and to simultaneously think about the process by which she produces great music allows her to learn and grow from her own experience.

When people master a domain they usually have this capacity. They push themselves to the edge where they do new things, as the experiences unfold in the short or the long term, they reflect deeply on the experience and this leads to adjustments and new initiatives. They become self-aware and gain the capacity to become their own coach.

This unusual suggestion is consistent with research. People of authentic influence have four characteristics (Avolio, Griffith, Wernsing, Walumbawa, 2010). They are not defensive but are open to information. They are guided by internal moral standards as opposed to situational pressures. They are transparent and openly share appropriate thoughts and feelings. They are self-aware in that they understand their strengths, weaknesses and how their patterns impact others.

This research suggests that the process of learning from one’s own experience is important. People who become authentic leaders tend to believe that personal growth and change is possible so they are more likely to invest in learning about their own strengths and biases. A person who operates at a higher level of self-awareness can more effectively adapt to changing situations. A person who is confident in their ability to learn and adapt is more willing to leave prevailing expectations and try new approaches. This creates new experiences upon which the person can further reflect. People with a purpose and a desire to pursue the purpose are less defensive and more likely to embrace surprises, disruptions and even traumas as learning experiences. Instead of defending their values, beliefs and behaviors they are willing to challenge them and grow.

This process of deep learning through self-coaching is at the heart of mastery. Learning to become a self-coach is important. Here is an illustration of the process.

Brian Townsend played football for the University of Michigan and then went on to the NFL. Later he became a high school basketball coach. When he first secured the basketball job many criticized the hiring because Townsend had never coached basketball. In a short time he won the Michigan state championship and was recognized as a gifted basketball coach. How is this possible?

Once we got into a discussion with Brian about the notion of being a self-coach with the capacity to learn from experience. He told two interesting stories.

He said that when he first arrived at Michigan the football experience was incredibly competitive. He worked intensely to please the coach and get playing time. This went on for four years. In his fifth year he had an insight: He had to play for something other than the coach. He stopped worrying about what the coach thought. He said this was a defining moment in his life. From then on he began to learn in a new way. If he was with the team watching game films and the coach complemented him, but he felt he did not execute perfectly, he noted what he had to do better. If he was criticized, but he felt he did well, then he gave himself a pat on the back. He became his own coach. He was now being internally and not externally driven. He described it as one of the biggest breakthroughs in his life. It was a point of high joy. Through such learning he was regularly finding ways to create his best self. He opened the path to mastery.

Brian’s second story links this kind of learning with purpose.   After a couple of years in the pros, Brian was grinding it out in practice one day. He suddenly noted that his pro experience had been joyless. He asked himself why he was there. The answer was clear–money!   Without realizing it, he had made an invisible shift. By becoming money-driven he had moved from being internally driven to being externally driven.

He said, “I grew up in an African-American family of six boys, and to survive it was always family first. When I went to Michigan, the thing that made Michigan special was that it was team first. In the pros, everyone was playing for himself. I realized that a critical value was missing. In the pros my motivation had changed. I try to take that lesson to what I do now. In basketball, that is what I am about–building a real team, a real family, moving them from self-interest to a higher level of motivation. That gives me joy because it allows the boys to experience joy.”

As a coach, Brian was a masterful leader. He created belief and gave people capacity to grow and perform. One explanation of his ability to lead is that he had a big personal breakthrough, and he learned how to become increasingly authentic by learning how to reflect on his own experiences. It is a hallmark of mastery in music, in leadership and in many other areas of endeavor.


When have I seen or experienced mastery?

How is learning music like learning leadership?

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




Moving Forward With an Imperfect Plan

The conventional lens puts great emphasis on planning and control. For many good reasons, we plan extensively. Yet there is an old saying that a plan never survives its first contact with implementation.

The positive lens values knowing but it also recognizes the value of learning. They are not the same. The positive lens seeks to integrate knowing and learning. It calls for the nurturing of collective intelligence and discovery in real time. Since many people do not know how to nurture collective intelligence or facilitate learning in real time, they engage in dysfunctional patterns. My son-in-law recently told of a work experience:

“Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, I had multiple conversations about a process at work that we’re trying to improve.  Each time I thought we reached consensus, members of the group brought up additional concerns–or changed their mind and expressed a different position.  It has been frustrating and discouraging at times.”

He took his discouragement home. He tells of using his personal disciplines to elevate himself. He was successful in his self-elevation efforts and returned to work with a new outlook. His account is instructive.

“I tried to listen more sincerely to my colleagues.  I proposed a path forward that would incorporate all of the feedback in one way or another.  As I did, I felt a renewed energy for the project.  It was almost like I realized we didn’t need the perfect plan going forward; we just needed to go forward.”

In this account he is integrating the conventional lens with the positive lens. In the positive lens we enrich relationships and build trust in our ability to engage uncertainty and learn in real time. When trust is present, faith and energy emerge. We go forward. Moving forward generates feedback. Processing the feedback leads to learning and the development of new organizational competencies. We begin to believe in our collective ability to move forward while learning in real time. People who learn to do what my son-in-law did, evolve into effective facilitators and they begin to be seen as organizational magicians. We stand in awe of their ability to get difficult things done.



  • How common is the conflictual process described here?
  • What are the consequences of seeking to create a perfect plan?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Generative Organizing

My close friend and colleague, Jane Dutton, loves to talk about the topic of “generative organizing.”  She speaks of the moments when people become aware of resources that they could not previously imagine or tap.  She argues that these resources are always available and if we employ the positive mental map, we can become skilled in tapping them.  Many people just shake their heads, wondering what she is talking about.

She tells a story that illustrates the process.  One day there was a school-wide faculty meeting.  The topic was very challenging and heavy.  Jane and her colleagues left that meeting on a low note and then went directly to a meeting of the management and organization faculty.  The objective was to consider the next few years and involved a discussion of strengths, weakness, threats and opportunities.  Several new threats were articulated and the discussion seemed to spiral downward.  Again the feeling was heavy.

At that point a question was posed, “In thinking about the next few years, what if we asked a new question – What is the very best thing we could do to serve the students?”

This was a purpose-clarifying question.  What followed was dramatic.  Here is the account  captured in the words of the department chair, Sue Ashford.  She wrote this email shortly after the meeting:

“If you happened to miss the MO area faculty meeting today, whether you are on sabbatical and far away or just had other commitments, I have to say, you missed a great one! We processed inputs about our strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities, both from our own listings and based on what we had heard in the preceding faculty meeting and then we turned to vision. And then we decided (yes, decided!) on a vision about which all in the room had a great deal of energy. I wanted to share it and the thinking about it with you and then I will look for ways to share it with the PhD student community down the line.

If you think about our vision generally, we all want to create a vibrant intellectual group that serves our various stakeholders well and makes a difference in the world. That is great at a general level. What we decided on, though, is a next year vision, a vision centered around better understanding what some of our group are calling the “new world of work.” The vision is to talk together about what the new world of work might mean for how we prepare students (teaching), what we study (research), and how we orient our department’s future.

In other words, we committed ourselves to a year of inquiry and exploration about this topic with the aim of thinking through the implications of it for our hiring, teaching, and scholarship.  The end result, we hope, is teaching we are excited about and that is oriented towards this new world of work; and also the ability to package and tell our story better regarding what we do.

We committed to a “one-year listening tour” on this topic. (Here Sue lists many ideas that were generated in the meeting. Most were specific, inspiring and doable. Sue then goes on.)

People were excited –

  • Excited that this perspective gets us out of rigidity in our thinking about things that are inherent in organizations (such as hierarchy) to thinking about what it means to be a member of community and organizations now.
  • Excited that this moves us into a position of proactivity and agency rather than being threatened by some of the challenges we face.
  • Excited that it just seems right – like the right perspective to have now.

The topic is general enough that we all can grab hold of it no matter what our perspective and relevant enough that it has important for a lot of our different activities. This one doesn’t seem like it’s going away (e.g., I don’t think it’s the e-commerce issue of the late 90s) – but rather one where we as a department could organize around and make a difference for.

For those of you were there, thanks for your participation in the discussion and your enthusiasm. For those of you were not there, we hope you will be excited about going through the next year with a vision to learn and develop around this topic. You will be seeing it on future agendas for sure! For all, let me know your thoughts, ways you’d like to participate and aspects you might want to lead. This will only work if we collectively own it!”

So what is “generative organizing?” It is a time when a group begins to function according to the positive mindset. Purpose, trust, energy, optimism, and creativity are usually manifest. People feel like they are part of the vibrant whole. They become more engaged. They offer more resources and the resources become recombined in creative ways. The people begin to “repurpose” current programs and routines in real time.  The more they give to the whole the more they feel rewarded by being part of the whole.


When have I seen a group clarify purpose and become energized?

What do I believe about the concept of generative organizing?

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

A Culture of Learning

We visited a class in which students had been learning about positive leadership and organizations. They knew much, for example, about the notion of high quality connections, or how respect, trust and collaboration lead to expected and unexpected collective and individual benefits.

We wanted them to understand that every organization has a culture and it determines things like the quality of connections between the people.   These characteristics then have a long-term impact on individuals and on the collective workforce. We started with the idea that a business school has a culture and we told a story.

A woman, who was graduating, raved about the positive impacts that the school has had on her life. She now had an upward career trajectory and was grateful. From her statement, we could conclude that the culture of the business school was perfect for producing the outcomes it is intended to produce.

On the other hand, she said that there were also negative impacts. From the time she arrived, she felt a sense of competition and a need to perform. This permeated everything and led her to feel the need to be “on stage” and to “look smart.” This often led to a feeling of fear and isolation. In the process, she said that she felt like she actually lost her sense of humor and her sense of spirituality. She also said that she experienced few high quality “learning” connections in the classrooms. Nor did she form as many high quality connections outside the classroom as she would have liked.

We asked the students to examine the culture of the business school by engaging in an unusual exercise. We asked them to imagine two, contrasting gods. One was the god of the “knowing” culture. The other was the god of the “learning” culture. We suggested that most organizations are cathedrals built to the god of knowing.

It might be useful to them in the future, if they could differentiate between the cultures. So we asked them to create a portrait of both cultures and determine which one existed in the business school. To help them, we gave them the following matrix, with the first three answers included.   We then asked them to insert the rest of the answers. You might like to give it a try.

  The Cathedral to the God of Knowing The Cathedral to the God of Learning
Which punctuation mark captures the image of this God? A period A question mark
In which culture are people objects, and in which are they verbs? Objects Verbs
What is the role of the high priest? Dispenser of expertise Facilitator of learning
What is the role of the common people?    
How do the common people relate to each other?    
What are the important virtues?  


What are the unforgivable sins?  


Which Cathedral does your organization most reflect? How?    
What happens when you spend a long time in each cathedral?    

After they filled out the matrix there was a very lively discussion. There were some strong themes: We are not nouns, we are verbs; The first cathedral is everywhere; It will turn us into nouns; The concepts of positive leadership and organization are tools for building and living in the second cathedral.



What have I been in each cathedral?

To what god is my organizational cathedral built?

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

High Quality Learning Experiences

In a busy week of meetings I went to our Executive Education facility to teach in a leadership program. I had taught the participants on Tuesday. Now, on Friday, I would close the program. As I walked to the front of the room I said, “I am so grateful to be back with you. Since I left I have been in meetings. They were important, but in them I did not personally grow. In the next few hours I know I am going to grow a lot because we are all going to again join in an authentic dialogue and a high quality learning experience.”

At the end of the day, one of them came up and said, “In 25 years of professional life this week has been the best educational experience I have ever had, I am going to try to get my teenager to come to the University of Michigan.”

He was completely sincere. He so valued his experience that he wanted his daughter to have it. He assumed that what occurred to him would happen in other classrooms as well. Unfortunately it rarely does. His week was designed and taught by four unusual faculty members who understand the importance of high quality learning experiences.

A high quality learning experience is an event that causes a deep change in our personal outlook. It is a new experience around something we care about, it is relevant. It is a challenging experience. We are tested. It is a supported experience. We are made to feel confident that trying is worthwhile. It is an experience that challenges our current assumptions of fear and self-limitation. In engaging the experience we suddenly see possibilities we could not previously see. We are empowered by the experience.

In having a high quality learning experience, life becomes more meaningful. I feel positively changed forever and I am filled with gratitude.  I want others to experience the same kind of learning.

It seems to me that every human being is hungry for something they seldom ever get and that is high quality learning experiences.  It is ironic that universities and public schools do not provide them. It is tragic that professional work organizations have the same failing.

Given my research on public school teachers as leaders, I am convinced that many teachers believe that they are supposed to be information distributers. So they create organizations (class rooms) of information dissemination. The transformative teachers create learning organizations (classrooms).

I believe most administrators also believe they are supposed to be experts. They create organizations of information dissemination and not learning organizations. That is one reason why so many people are unengaged at work.

I believe there are many reasons that we live in hierarchies of information distribution. One is the worship of expertise and the fear of looking uninformed. Being an expert is at the center of both our educational and societal cultures. The mastery of learning stimulation requires learning to go beyond the role of expert. It requires a higher level of commitment and engagement that takes the teacher or administrator from expert information giver to master facilitator.

The master teacher is usually a facilitator of high quality learning experiences. This is true in universities and public schools and professional work organization.

The shift from expert to master is a profound shift at the very heart of the positive lens. When we speak of “high quality” learning experiences, we are speaking of leaving the conventional realm and entering the realm of excellence. This is what the positive lens is all about. The student and teacher or administrator and employee become joined in an exhilarating relationship focused on the co-creation of knowledge and the accomplishment of purpose.

Organizations that create high quality learning experiences for employees or customers have a distinct competitive advantage. They offer something valuable that few organizations offer. Because they do, the people thrive and exceed expectations.



When have I had a high quality learning experience?

How frequently do I have high quality learning experiences at work?

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


Expert Role or Learning Leader?

Our conventional culture continually conspires to put us in the expert role. Individually we often aspire to be in the expert role. When we accept the role we often pay a price.

My son gave a talk to an academic audience.  It was the typical grueling, academic conversation in which every point was challenged.  Yet I noted that Ryan did something unusual.  At the outset, someone raised a question, Ryan authentically pointed out how and why it was an important question and then he gave a very thoughtful answer.  The first time he did this, the climate in the room changed.  The behavior signaled that the event would be an event of real communication and learning.   Many questions followed.  He handled them in the same fashion. The session turned into a mutual, generative exploration of the topic.

I was struck by Ryan’s sense of security and his desire to learn. Both were shaping the experience.  Our conventional culture continually conspires to put us in the expert role. Individually we often aspire to be in the expert role. When we accept the role we often pay a price. I was reminded that when we are trying to impress, feedback is threatening. When we are trying to learn feedback is not only welcome, it becomes the very objective. Ryan said that learning is often blocked by the common assumption that a speaker must be the expert who knows all the answers. Under the assumptions of expertise and authority challenge tends to lead to conflict.

Ryan told of a student who had just read a book about war.  He said the decision to go to war is usually made by a small group and almost always they argue, “There is no other way.”  Ryan shared an example about his little girl throwing a tantrum. It is easy as a parent to think that it is your job is to be the authority figure who correctly directs the situation. Ryan says he has now trained himself to pause and look for other paths. Often he joins his daughter in a mutual exploration of what she really wants and how she can best get it. He believes that this leads to more positive outcomes.

Choosing to leave the expert role usually means becoming genuinely open to others.   When we let go of assumed authority and control, we can open the door to accelerated learning. We create an environment in which growth is possible and people can thrive.

Learning from Experience

At the Center for Positive Organizations we had a guest speaker.  Fred Keller is the CEO of Cascade Engineering.  It is a company that is recognized for its positive approach to business.  He shared many inspiring thoughts and stories.  There was one story that particularly stood out.

One of the unusual practices for which Cascade is known, is the fact that it successfully brings in people who are on the welfare rolls and turns them into productive employees.  This idea originated in a casual conversation.  He and another man talked and the other man agreed to champion the idea.  They brought in 12 people who were on welfare, but in a short time they were all gone.

There were many problems that made the idea impractical.  The man was ready to give up on the idea.  Fred Keller encouraged the man to “rethink” it.  He said, “We needed to discover how people on welfare feel and think, we needed to understand them and their culture so we could support them effectively.”  So the man kept trying.  They ended up going into the literature, talking with the people and working to understand the culture of poverty. They even created a poverty simulation for normal employees. Over time, the company learned how to do what it did not know how to do.

All through his talk I saw two themes, an inherent hunger to get better, and a sense of how to persist while learning from experience.  It struck me that this is the very essence of what I wrote about in my book, “Building the Bridge While You Walk on It.”  When we care passionately about an objective but do not know how to bring it about, we move forward into new territory and we learn as we act.  We learn from experiences, particularly our failures and new competencies emerge.  The keys are the hunger to get better and the ability to learn from experience.

Learning in Real Time

Yesterday I was listening to an interview with the CEO of a well-known company.  He referred to a book called Plan B.  The book documents that many Silicon Valley firms have a history of pursuing their initial objectives with little success.  Yet as they struggled forward they discover some pattern that causes them to redefine their work. They move to plan B.   Often it is plan B that makes them successful.

He gave an example of a company that designed a product for use in homes.  They began to notice that people were using the product in businesses.  Because they were committed to plan A, they actually found the business people to be an annoyance.  It took them three years to discover that the business users were a bigger potential market than the home users.  They went to plan B and exploded into a highly successful company.

I often call this “building the bridge as you walk on it.”  As I move forward, learning by faith, I feel vulnerable and I pay great attention to the feedback I receive.  If I use the feedback to make adjustments and progress, it may lead me to the purpose I initially envisioned.

The plan B concept adds another dimension to the learning journey.  In moving forward, my commitment to the original formulation of my purpose may blind me to opportunities that my journey is creating.  When my awareness expands and I see the opportunity, I may select it.  The selection may be a big shift in strategy or it may actually be a shift in purpose.  My very identity is altered.  Religious conversion is an example, post traumatic growth is another.

So having a purpose and pursuing it by faith gives me experiences.  I may think they are bad experiences.  If I cherish all my experiences and reflect on them deeply, they will begin to work for my good, because I will learn and grow.

It begins to become clear, that having experiences and reflecting on them with appreciation, is the integration of faith and learning.  It is the motor of progression. When we are learning in real time is when we are most alive.