Break the Rules

Many years ago a doctoral student shared some of his concerns with me.  He felt that he was in prison and everywhere that he turned someone was giving him rules about how to be a good inmate.  When he came up with an idea, people criticized why it wouldn’t work instead of developing it in to something that might work.  They informed him that his ideas were not in the right “theoretical domain” for the faculty or that his idea wouldn’t yield the right “methodological treatment.”  He even mentioned his pride in starting a martial arts club on campus, but he was cautioned not to share his involvement.  A faculty member might conclude that he had too much free time and wasn’t working hard enough.

I shared an insight with this student.  I told him that if he were to learn every unwritten rule in the academic culture where he was presently studying, and if he followed every rule to perfection, he would have a perfectly mediocre career.  His life would become an experience of quiet desperation, filled with psychic entropy.  This is the case in the life of many professionals.  I told this young student that establishing a notable career requires that we break the “rules.” At some point, we have to know, accept, and express who we really are, not be content with being what others want us to be.

Our work life takes on a distinctive voice only when we have something unique to offer.  We do not become unique by learning and following all the rules.  We must conform in order to master the professional technology, in the student’s case the theories and methods of his particular field.  Eventually, however, we must bring our deepest self to that technology.  We must, like a musician, learn to rise above the technical rules and begin to create, to give what is uniquely ours.

To be truly creative, we must be willing to accept punishment.  No one in the academic world, not even the most brilliant superstar, feels accepted.  There is always someone around to criticize what we do.  We are punished for failure.  Surprisingly, we are punished for success.  If we succeed, we come to stand for something, and that thing always gets criticized.  Some of the criticism is justified and some is simply rooted in jealousy.

The same is true in large corporations and even in families.  We must know who we are and begin to create, not in hopes of approval, but because we are in love with an idea.  We must create for the sake of creating.  We cannot fall in love with our ideas if we live in constant fear of judgment.  When we create, we experience deeper meaning.  We begin to do the thing because we must.  At that point, negative feedback takes on an entirely different value (Fritz, 1989).  Because we are doing something we love, we can let go of the concerns that drive our egos.  When we are doing what we love, negative feedback becomes part of the creation process.  At the very least, it keeps us grounded.

(Change the World, pgs. 43-44)

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.



The Observation of Positive Deviants

A positive deviant is a person who pursues an honorable purpose in a surprising way. In the movie Stand and Deliver we encounter the saga of Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. The school has degenerated to a despicable level. Yet in a context of the deep depravity, Escalante becomes a positive deviant. He builds an astounding community of success and pride.

He did this despite the fact that there were minimal social asset in the school culture, the change targets (students) were closed-minded, they had no identification with the organization, and there was no respect for the change agent (teacher).

Escalante had to start from scratch.  He had to establish a vision, build respect and attract the highly resistant actors into the process of change. Furthermore, Escalante was not the senior authority figure in the school but merely a teacher. In that supposedly disempowered role, he transformed an impossible situation.

He was a positive deviant. In a large organization, where people feel disempowered, it is useful to identify the positive deviants. They are the people who are succeeding in the very midst of people who declare success impossible. While others claim they are constrained by the hierarchy, the positive deviant moves forward. By paying attention to the positive deviants we can discover the principles of transformative influence.

Spiritual Disciplines at Work

There are many times when I make a presentation with an emphasis on the science of development and someone afterwards carefully approaches me. As we talk, they look for signals to see if it is OK to discuss spiritual dimensions of development. When I sense this I try to help them by opening the topic. These people often come from religious traditions and many are thoughtful practitioners of meditation or prayer. Often they have stories worthy of examination.  Here are three illustrations of prayer and enlightenment in professional contexts.

A blue collar person told of rebuilding an automobile engine over and over.   It simply would not work. At home, his wife suggested that he pray. One day he reached total frustration so he gave it a try. An image came to him, he went to the engine, turned a single screw and it started.

A car designer told me of reaching his mid-forties and feeling a very real fear that he could no longer keep up with the creativity of his younger colleagues. The fear became so intense that one night he prayed for help. That night he had a nightmare in which a young colleague approached him with the most impressive car design he had ever seen.   When he woke up he realized that the image in his dream came from his own brain. He went in that day and began working on the design.

A senior vice-president faced an IT problem that was unsolvable. After days of working on it, he sat in his office, at 3 A.M. and prayed. Nothing happened. So he sat in his chair and waited for an answer. It eventually came. In a matter of minutes he resolved the unsolvable issue.

There is a pattern to these stories. Deep frustration leads to surrender and a sincere cry for help.   The cry or expression of real intent leads to an experience of spiritual enlightenment. In this pattern reaching the state of real intent seems particularly important. Here intent is the determination or desire to accomplish an outcome. Real is genuine, actual, authentic, true, unquestionable. To live in real intent is to live in authentic purpose.

There is another pattern of prayer and enlightenment that also involves real intent. It is rare but can be found in a few spiritually mature professionals. Instead of showing real intent at times of frustration, this more evolved discipline includes living from real intent on a regular basis.

There is a man I have known for 35 years.   Today he is recognized for leading an extraordinary organization. As a leader he does things that do not make sense to the conventional mindset. Yet in a shrinking industry his unconventional, purpose driven company prospers.

Recently we reminisced about his early career. His first job was in a small company led by a tyrant. The CEO would do things like open everyone’s mail, put directions on how to respond, and then have the mail delivered to the original, intended recipients. He would hold meetings and use foul language to attack his employees in front of all the others, and so on. Everyone was terrified of the man.

There was one exception.   My friend, a new employee and a quiet English major, would regularly meet with the boss or write to him, pointing out why his behavior was self-defeating and unacceptable. He never did this to be rebellious. He did it because he was committed to the common good of the company. His feedback to the boss was respectful but completely honest.

What was the outcome? The tyrant began to respect, rely on, and invest in the quiet English major. He gave him more and more responsibility. When it was time to retire, the tyrant made the English major the new CEO.

From where did my friend’s strength and capacity come? Thirty-five years ago I visited him in his office one day. He showed me a door that led to an unused staircase.   He said, “This is my prayer closet, I use it many times each day.”

I have never forgotten that long ago moment. I recently reminded him of it. He told me that in creating his current company he designed things so he could do much of his work from home. The reason is that he wanted to make it easier to pray many times a day.

This personal, spiritual discipline may explain the fact that he has always had an internal locus of control. He has been always willing to leave the conventional mindset so as to march to a different drummer. He has always been inclined to courageously but peacefully moved forward in service of the common good. This orientation requires courage because many times pursuing the common good is contrary to the prevailing political interests. Once, during a corporate merger he was fired because of his commitment to the common good. He would not cave to corporate political pressures.

He looks back on that firing as one of his most important life moments. It had much to do with how he designed his present, highly successful company.

This kind of courageous forward movement has implications for leadership development.   Disciplined believers, who struggle to continually live in connection with the divine, experience real intent on a more frequent basis. Rather than only reaching real intent in the deep valleys of life, they also obtain it in their regular prayer experiences.

Because they feel inspired to do what they do, they have a sense of calling.   They spend less time questioning their challenging purpose and more time trying to figure out how to obtain it. In moving forward towards the common good they have the courage to do the unconventional. So they have extreme experiences that require deep reflection. In this process of personal learning they come to internalize moral power. Scientists call this moral power “idealized influence” and find that wielding it is essential to transformational leadership. People of moral power learn to live in selfless purpose. This allows them to attract others to do unconventional things in service of selfless purpose.


How would you teach someone to effectively challenge a tyrannical boss?

What does it take for a normally negative life experience like a firing to be developmental?

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




The Power of the Hybrid Lens

There is a man I have known for decades. I will call him Kerry. He spent much of his professional life doing technical work. He has a tendency to be strong, factual, blunt, challenging and funny. He made a presentation and in it told a story that I had not heard before.

Kerry said that when he was 27 he left a union job, found a partner and started a business. A few years later it failed because of him. He said he was arrogant but did not know it. He was the owner and he was the expert in the technology.   He thought that the customers who complained usually did so because they were fools. He said this outlook eventually destroyed his company.

Kerry then spent many years doing technical work in a government organization. He also started a part-time business on the outside.   When he retired from the government, he turned his side business into a full time endeavor. It became quite successful.

Kerry then said that the second business was successful because he had experienced a religious conversion. It changed how he saw and treated customers. I asked for some examples.

He began to rattle them off. He told of receiving a call from a man who was furious over a product he had just purchased. The man used abusive language and made angry threats. Previously Kerry would have responded in kind. Instead he said, “I will be right there.”

When he arrived the customer was still angry. Kerry patiently listened and then asked for a demonstration of the problem. The man showed him what was wrong. He asked the man if he had read the instruction book. Somewhat sheepishly, the man said no. Instead of grinding on this fact, Kerry said, “You know I do the same thing, some of these instruction books seem impossible to read.”

Kerry then reviewed the first page of the book, pushed a button and the product worked perfectly. The man became embarrassed and began to apologize. Kerry interrupted him and told him a story of when he had done something very similar. The man was profuse in his thanks.

As Kerry then told multiple stories like this one. In most of the stories the people were troubled. Kerry went the extra mile to help them technically while simultaneously caring for them personally. Interestingly he said he did not treat these troubled customers with concern because he wanted to make money, he did it because he now authentically cared about them. Yet in many of the stories, the troubled customers returned to him with more business or they sent their friends with more business.

Kerry’s story seems so simple that our first reaction might be that everyone understands what is illustrated. While I agree that the story appears to be simple, I believe that under the story is a structure of importance.

At the outset Kerry is a very capable person with a conventional or technical perspective on life. The perspective is fraught with assumptions of hierarchy, technology, expertise, privilege, ego, power and authority. Kerry sees himself as independent, separated from others and he is free to act upon them.

His assumptions keep him from seeing a more complex view. Every interaction is part of a relationship. He lives in interdependence. His every feeling, thought and action has impact and the impact loops back and co-creates Kerry’s reality. These invisible loops, that he was very likely to deny or laugh at, were so important, that Kerry lost his business. Yet, even when it happened, he was not yet ready to learn and change.

It was only later, when a new life experience, in this case the events that comprise a religious conversion, deeply challenged his basic assumptions and required him to reconstruct his technical view of the world. In his new world he was still a technical expert but now he was also becoming a relational expert. He was learning how to love and therefore was becoming a more authentic human being.

Because of his personal transformation, Kerry combined a new, relational lens with his old technical lens. The new hybrid lens allowed him to see a more complex world.

He could see that hierarchies are also social networks. He could see that independence and interdependence operate simultaneously. He could see that every feeling, thought and action that he put into that network would in some way return to him. He could see that technical expertise is more valuable in relationships of mutual influence and learning. He could see that authority without concern is toxic and short term ego payoffs come at the price of long-term value creation.

In making these discoveries Kerry was combining his old, technical lens with a new relational lens. The new, hybrid lens allowed him to see and to speak differently. He had become bilingual.

In becoming bilingual, Kerry also became transformational. In every one of his stories, the presenting problem suggested some conventional reaction. In every case Kerry did not react as expected. Instead he engaged in unexpected, positive behavior. We call it positive deviance. In exercising positive deviance he invited the other person to move to a new, more positive state. In most cases they did and they were so grateful, they wanted to continue the relationship with Kerry. They trusted him and were willing to invest in him. Because Kerry was a transformational influence they were living better and so was he.



Who do you know who sees self as independent, separated from others and free to act upon them?

Who do you know who was once independent and is now interdependent?

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

Small, Positive Practices and Big, Positive Outcomes

In some of our Executive Education Programs we have participants come back for a follow-up week. When this happens I do a review session in which I ask them what they went home and did differently. Here are four inspiring examples of small moves with large impact.

One man went home and thought through all the things he learned. He worked hard to boil everything down to one simple move that would have the highest possible impact. What he came up with was an act of positive deviance. It was brilliant simplicity. On the whiteboard in his office, he wrote, “What result do you want to create?” Every time a direct report came in with a problem, he simply pointed at the question. He did not talk, he pointed at the question. This caused a stir but soon people were coming in having already thought about their purpose. In engaging in this brilliant simplicity he was creating a culture of purpose. In the process he was also empowering his people. He said, “I stopped telling and moved to the power of inquiry, now things are changing.”

A woman left the first week deeply impressed about what she learned about her own resilience in the face of adversity. She wanted her people to better understand how bad experiences, met with purpose, turn into stories of growth and learning. She asked her people to pair up and each share a personal resilience story. This was way outside the culture so she started by modeling the process. She told her own story of personal challenge and recovery. She expected that some would tell very mundane stories. She was surprised when most people became fully authentic.   She reported that it was one of the most “profound and inspiring” things she has done as a leader.

Another person said his unit was in a tumultuous time and there is a lot of unhelpful “noise” in the group. There was little sense of success and celebration. So he required that each of his direct reports write him an email each week describing the person’s biggest success of the week.   This was resisted but he insisted. So he received one each week. Then something surprising happened. He started to get more than one a week. Once the process was legitimized his people wanted to share their successes. They could not do this in the previous, conventional culture. So now his is storing up the successes and pondering how to best use their stories in the next step of building a positive culture.

One man manages 350 staff people. There had been some talk of the value of flexible schedules so he told a subgroup that he would like them to design and bring him a flexible schedule plan that would work. They were dumbfounded but they took it on. When they shared their plan there were a number of unworkable elements but he did not critique any. He only asked questions and asked them to come back with another proposal.   They then “policed their own ideas” and produced a radical new program that immediately began to work. One woman, for example, was able to completely eliminate the cost of child care. They are not preparing to roll out the program for all 350 people. He claimed that he is experiencing a new level of “understanding, trust and empowerment.”

The above initiatives are seemingly small acts of positive deviance.   The person violated cultural expectations. Direct reports were surprised or resistant but over time their behavior changed. The culture in some way turned more positive. It would seem that any manager would read these accounts and be willing to do similar things. This is not the case.

Many mangers hear of positive practices, agree that they are valuable but do nothing. Why? Their fear of embarrassment exceeds their desire to improve the unit. I do not condemn this fear because it is the same fear we all carry.  It is why I invented the positive organizational generator. By giving people 100 practices, asking them to select the few most interesting and then reinvent them to fit their context, managers can create something they really believe in. When managers create their own positive practices, they are more likely to take action. It is crucial to remember that we all fear leading. We all need to be both inspired and supported. I hope these accounts inspire you to invent something you believe in.


Which of the four practices do I find most interesting?

How could I reinvent the most interesting practice to fit my context?

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?