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.

Finding Purpose in Crisis: From Survival to Flourishing

I once had the opportunity to run an organization.  It was populated with magnificent people.  Yet one of the most surprising things to me was their tendency to work mindlessly.  Many would do what they did the day before in the same manner.  There was no sense that they could reinvent what they were doing in ways that were more engaging and more effective.

It turns out that most people on the planet are living in a survival mentality.  This is true of the global workforce and also true of slightly more than half the managerial workforce.  The lives of most of us are not driven by purpose. There is a tendency to drift into a reactive state.

Paradoxically, one thing that tends to transform us is our desire to survive.  We see this in crisis.  As individuals we may need to cope with physical illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, abusive treatment, burnout, job loss or other life demands. In organizations we may need to cope with recession, new competitors, regulatory changes, evolving customer preferences and many other such challenges.

Dark clouds and other signals of danger usually precede these storms.  The signals often call for a transformation, or deep change. We tend to resist the call. When our old habits of thought and action seem to be ever less effective in the face of the change, we are slow to abandon them in favor of learning our way into an elevated state.

To move forward into the storm of real-time learning is no easy decision.  Often I get frustrated because I am doing everything I can think of to solve a problem, and the more I apply my logic, the worse things get.  This is a sign that I am in a trap.  The more I analyze and work at the issue, the more the problem grows, causing me to work harder.  If I continue, I will eventually have a failure and an ego collapse.

In the crisis I come to the point that I must choose between being a paralyzed victim and moving forward in a proactive way.  Making the decision triggers a process of transformation or deep change.  As I become more intentional, I turn fear into faith.  A vision emerges.  I see possibility and I move forward trying to create it.  I am no longer fleeing from a problem.  I am in the process of creating a result.  It is a different way of being.  I move from an orientation to survival to a focus on flourishing.

A Stabilized Point of Potential

One of the first times I encountered the power of purpose was on the opening day of my sixth grade education. The teacher announced that our star basketball player was now living outside the boundary of the school. He would have to go to a different school. While I was slow, uncoordinated, could not jump, and had been a bench warmer in on the fourth and fifth grade teams, I had a sudden vision. I could see myself replacing him as the best basketball player.

That day, after school, I began acting on my aspiration. I spent hours practicing. I did it every day. When the season came, a shocking thing happened. I was the high scorer in every game. From then on basketball became central to my identity. Over the years I had many meaningful experiences because I played basketball.

That experience in the sixth grade was the first time I ever acquired a driving purpose. The growth that followed my disciplined effort led to the discovery of a previously unimaginable principle. I could shape my own future.

We are free in any situation to focus our attention as we see fit. In the short run, how we focus our attention determines what we achieve. In the long run it determines who we become. If we hold an image of a result we want to create, our behaviors will begin to align with our mental picture. Our picture becomes a stabilized point of potential and our energy begins to organize around the picture. We begin to develop hope and enthusiasm. That hope and enthusiasm gives us the capacity to persist in the learning process that is necessary for the aspiration to materialize.

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?




Culture Shaping

In the movie Norma Rae, a small town girl is heavily shaped by the cultural forces around her. Her life concerns are conventional. She meets an unusual man. He is a union organizer. Unlike all the other men in her life, he refuses to see her as a sexual object.   Instead he sees more potential in her than she sees in herself.

He invites her to pursue a higher purpose. This means engaging in courageous behaviors and, at one point, she has to put everything on the line. In the process of losing her job, she chooses to stand on a table and hold a sign that says UNION. The unusual leadership act moves the workforce and a transformation occurs. In the process she accomplishes more than she believed possible and she becomes a new, empowered person.

Afterwards her unsettled husband says, “I liked the old Norma Rae.” The union organizer responds, “She stood on the table and now she is free, you may be able to live with that or you may not.” What did he mean? In what way had she become free?

I once read a book that suggested that the two most powerful determinants of human behavior are genetic programing and cultural programing. We are born with a genetic map that determines much of how we will behave. Then, from the time we are born, we are continually programed by the culture. That is, we are constantly shaped by collective expectations. We do what we are genetically and culturally programed to do. In the process we become what the author calls “mind slaves.”

There is an alternative. We, like Norma, can become free. We do this by embracing a higher purpose, by orienting to the common good. As we choose to pursue a higher purpose it requires us to move outside cultural expectations and we encounter resistance. If we are resilient and persist, we become increasingly conscious of how the culture works, of our own deepest desires and capabilities, of the potential in others that they do not see in themselves, and of how to move forward in the pursuit of purpose. In becoming conscious of how the conventional culture shapes us, we acquire the capacity to shape the culture. In learning to be a culture shaper we gain a very rare capacity.



To what extent are the people around me “mind slaves?”

Who are the exceptions who shape the culture?

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







Shaping Reality

Mark Twain once wrote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Writing a life statement is choosing to find out why. Writing a life statement can clarify purpose and fill us with meaning.

Yet writing a life statement is not easy, it requires reflective work. The work includes an important discovery. When we are without clarity of purpose we are shaped by the realities of life, when we have clarity of purpose, we shape the realities of life. Understanding this alters how we write our life purpose.

A student came to visit who had attended one of our workshops on purpose and decided to write a life statement. He had some very thoughtful questions about finding his life purpose. He was particularly concerned about getting his life statement right. He wanted it to be practical. He wanted his statement of purpose to fit the realities and constraints of his life.

When I asked about his realities, he told me he was originally going to go to graduate school in creative writing but decided to go to business school instead. He found that he liked business school and he was good at it. He already secured a job after graduation. He wanted his life statement to be realistic, to be aligned with the realities he would soon face.

I asked what he would write if someone put a gun to his head and forced him to put down a single sentence life statement. He said he would probably write something about wanting to inspire people but he was not sure how practical it would be given the realities that were coming. He would be a junior person in a large company. He would not have much chance to inspire anyone.

As we continued, I returned to his love of creative writing and asked him to tell me what creative writing is. He told me that creative writing is engaging a reader in such a way that their mind opens and it is possible to influence the reader.

Seeking to explore the commonalities between creative writing and leadership, I asked him to tell me what differentiates greatness in creative writing. Again he answered immediately. He told me that great literature is written by a person who writes from the soul. They are not doing it to make money or serve an agenda.

His answer suggests that writers become great when they find their purpose and passion and express them in an authentic voice. They use the discipline, structures or techniques of writing to creatively express the passion they feel.

I suggested that great music also emerges when a musician uses the discipline, structures or techniques of music to authentically express the passion they feel. Likewise, great leadership emerges when a person uses the discipline or structures or techniques of communication to engage the people in ways that open their minds so they can be influenced.   In those moments of influence, the great leader creates shared passion for a collective purpose. The organization then comes together and flows like a great novel.

Creative writing and great leadership are thus similar. There is a marriage of discipline and passion. Without discipline or structure or technique, the passion becomes dissipated energy. Without passion the discipline, structure or technique becomes lifeless constraint.

His desire to inspire people was a wonderful purpose that seemed to cut across many aspects of his life. I took some of the previous examples he had given me to illustrate the constraints he would soon experience and I turned them around. I ask him to imagine inspiring his boss, his peers, and his clients. I suggested that he still would be shaped by the realities of his new job but that clarity of purpose would allow him to simultaneously shape reality. Like a great creative writer, he could be a great leader.

The connection seems to open new possibilities. I told him I hoped he would write not from the perspective of the realities he might face but from the perspective of his deepest purpose. As he left he indicated that he had a lot to think about.



Why is it important to recognize the realities and constraints of my life?

Why is it important to know one’s life purpose?

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

A Shocking Illustration of Taking a Life Statement Seriously

We are free in any situation to focus our attention as we see fit. In the short run, how we focus our attention determines what we achieve. In the long run it determines who we become. If we hold an image of a result we want to create, our behaviors will begin to align with our mental picture. Our picture becomes a stabilized point of potential and our energy begins to flow towards and organize around the picture. We become creators of an emerging future, this includes our own future.

As we move towards our purpose, we tend to develop hope and enthusiasm. That hope and enthusiasm gives us the capacity to persist in the face of adversity. Our hope and our enthusiasm also does something else. It radiates to others and attracts their attention. As others feel our energy, they seek to understand our aspiration. Some may choose to invest in our aspiration. People of purpose become leaders because they symbolize a desired future and radiate energy that comes from doing so. Consider an unusual illustration.

In many programs I teach executives to write life statements. Often the initial reaction is resistance. They see no reason to waste their time. So I invest in helping them see the many possible payoffs. Usually they become interested and engaged. This happened with a group of government leaders from the senior executive service. At the end of the week I had a shocking surprise that has since added to my conviction about the value of writing life statements.

In the class was a man of Asian background. Occasionally he added comments to our conversation and I began to form some impressions. He was unassuming, much more of an introvert than an extravert. His comments seemed sincere and wise. He readily participated in our various exercises and willing supported others. I was drawn to him. When I introduced the notion of writing a life statement, he became animated. During a break he told me that he had been working on his own life statement for ten years. I was impressed and asked him to share any insights he might have.

At the end of the week, the executives are invited to share and coach each other on the material in their life statements. This is often a profound experience, as it was in this case. At the end of this session my friend again approached me.

He first explained that he had originally had a degree in computer science and then went back for a degree in humanistic psychology. I noted the great contrast and he nodded. He again pointed out that he had been working on his life statement for ten years. While he was a great believer in life statements, he said this course took him to a new level of awareness. He could now incorporate far more into his life statement and he was anxious to do so.

He pulled out his phone and showed me his original life statement. It was like others I had seen but with one big difference. Drawing on his computer science background, he had integrated an impressive set of metrics. He then explained that every week he gives himself a score on each metric. Then recalculates what he should be doing.

I told him I did not know of anyone who exercised that much discipline around their use of their life statement. Curious, I asked him how old he was. The answer completely shocked me. He was thirty-two! I would guess that the average age of the people in the senior executive service to be around fifty. I was stunned and told him so. He smiled, thanked me, and went on his way. Later I told this story to the person who co-teaches the course, Kim Cameron. Kim’s eyes lit up. He said, “Let me show you something.”

One of things that Kim does in the course is review the research on the energy networks in organizations. The research suggests that having a network of positive energizers is a big predictor of organizational performance. Kim then invites the participants to do a simple exercise in which the participants evaluate and score each other on how much positive energy each person radiates.

Keeping the data anonymous, Kim produces a computer map showing the energy network in the room. Each actor is represented by a circle. The size of the circle shows the degree to which others feel energized by a given actor. Kim pointed to a circle that was twice the size of any other. He asked me, “Who would guess this to be?” It was the same thirty-two year-old man.

How could such a young, quiet man have so much positive impact? The answer is that he is an extraordinary man of purpose. He is a highly centered human being who radiates positive energy into everyone he encounters, including his much older peers. I left this experienced inspired and determined to help more people write life statements.



Why do people resist the notion of writing a life statement?

How do people of clear purpose influence others?

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



Writing a Life Statement

One day our daughter, Shauri, called to tell us her boyfriend had just broken off their relationship. She was churning with negative feelings. She announced she was coming home to recover. The next morning I went to the airport. She climbed into the car and immediately started crying and talking about her unfortunate situation. She was in a deep emotional hole and, as she agonized, the hole seemed only to get deeper and darker. Finally I asked her if she was problem solving or purpose finding. The strange question jolted her and she looked at me quizzically.

I suggested that most people tend to live their lives in a reactive mode. They are always trying to solve their problems. People are then sad or happy depending on where they are in the ebb and flow. This is very common. Normal people tend to live in the reactive state.

I was suggesting an alternative. We can become initiators or creators of our own life. When we initiate, we tend to eventually create value, and we tend to feel good about ourselves. If we continually clarify our purpose we live with vision. We are drawn to the future we imagine. No matter what emotions we feel, we begin to pursue our purpose and our negative emotions tend to disappear. We experience victory over the reactive self and we feel good about who we are. We feel better because we literally begin to have a more valuable self. We are empowered and we become empowering to others.

Shauri was not buying it. She ignored me and then spent another fifteen minutes complaining. She paused for a breath and I again asked her if she was problem-solving or purpose-finding. She ignored my question and continued venting. We repeated this pattern four times. The last time I asked, she stopped talking and just looked at me. I could tell a big challenge was coming. In order to stop my insensitive questions, she asked, “How would I ever use purpose-finding in this situation?”

“You can use it in any situation,” I replied.

She asked, “How do you do it?”

I said, “Whenever I am feeling lost or filled with negative emotions, I get out my life statement and I rewrite it.”

Just then we were turning into the driveway. She asked me, “What is a life statement?”

I explained that it is a short document in which I try to capture the essence of who I am and what my purpose is in life.”

“You have an actual document that does that?” She seemed truly surprised.

Something had changed. She was expressing genuine curiosity. Here was a chance for meaningful contact and entrance to the reality of profound possibility. That is what happened.

I said, “Let me show you my life statement.”

She followed me into my study. I reached into a file, pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to her. Shauri read the document carefully and then looked up. She asked, “When you feel bad you read this and it makes you feel better?”

“No, when I feel really bad, I rewrite some part of it or add something new. The document is always evolving. When I finish, I feel clearer about who I am. By clarifying what I most value, I become more stable. “When I clarify my purpose and my values I center myself. My negative emotions tend to disappear before I even start to act. Just clarifying who I am and what I want to create seems to energize me. Even the thought of movement becomes purifying.”

I continued: “There is another reason for rewriting. People think that values are permanent, like cement. Clear values can stabilize us, yet they are not cement, they need to evolve. Each time we face a new situation and reinterpret our values they change just a little bit. Rewriting a statement like this one allows us to integrate what we have learned and how we have developed into our values. Hence our values also evolve with us. We co-create each other.”

I told Shauri I have executives in my classes write their life statements and they find it hard. They begin with very simple life statements.

I suggested that instead of spending the weekend feeling bad about what happened and working through all her reactions to the event, she might instead spend her time writing her own life statement and she did.  By the end of the weekend she returned to DC happier, more confident and ready to move forward.

This passage is adapted from material in Letters to Garrett by Robert E. Quinn, See Letter 2.


What is a reactive life?

What is a proactive life?

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

Inviting Employees to Purpose

As an undergraduate I took a number of courses from a wise professor. He was not only concerned about his subject matter he was also concerned about the long-term welfare of his students. He placed great emphasis on transcending social pressure by living a purpose driven life. He often cited a portion of a poem called “Tis the Set of the Sail” by Eller Wheeler Wilcox. It goes like this.

One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.

I once shared this with a class of executives. I was discussing the topic of purpose in life, and also at work.   I was suggesting that when we have a life purpose we pursue it no matter what way the wind is blowing. If conditions are positive we pursue our purpose. If conditions are negative, we pursue our purpose. In the latter case we stay engaged in the face of opposition and we learn what changes are necessary in order to progress. Having a life purpose promotes learning, progress and living a meaningful life.

I invited a group of executives to share their own perspectives. One person spoke up and said, “All my life has been about pleasing others. I have worked to meet the expectations of my parents, my partner, my children, my boss, the people who work for me. I never stopped to ask who I am.

The room went very quiet. It was a statement of vulnerability. In making the statement the person made it legitimate for others to tell their truth. Another spoke up and said; “My life is structured by the need to provide. I have also never stopped to think about who I really am. I do not know what my life purpose is.”

The next morning I was pondering the fact that most people, both rich and poor, have never searched for or found a purpose higher than self-interest. Most of us spend much time living an externally driven, reactive life.

I thought of my own professional life purpose; “Inspire positive change.” For me these three words are like music of magical effect. In any situation I can recite them and they reorient me. I immediately take a proactive stance. “How, in this given situation, can I inspire positive change?” As I contemplate the answer I am drawn to some kind of positive contribution. This means, no matter my position in the group, my influence elevates and I am leading.

In addition to my professional life purpose, I also have a larger, overall purpose that is spiritual in nature. When I recite it, I am also elevated. For me these two life statements provide purpose and meaning. I find them invaluable.

It was not easy to come to these two statements. I spent years working on them and they evolved slowly. It all begins by looking inside, considering one’s best and worst experiences, one’s greatest strengths and weaknesses and asking what life has prepared us to do.

Anyone can engage the process. You first write any sentence and you do not worry if it is inadequate. You then examine it the next day and rewrite again not worrying about the flaws. You repeat the process. Over time you get closer and closer until you have some words that resonate with your soul. Even when you think you have it right you keep revisiting it, looking for some small change that will improve it. I invite you to this simple but important task.

In terms of positive organizing, I have a radical suggestion. In every organization the clarification of personal purpose should be at the heart of the “on-boarding” process. Every new employee should be assisted in coming to a personal and professional mission statement. Everything else that is covered in the on-boarding should be examined in terms of the purpose statement. People should be asked to see the connection or lack of connection to their purpose. Such a process will not only impact the new employees, it will begin to work backwards and upwards. It will eventually bring increased purpose to the organization.


What is my life purpose?

How could I help my people find their life purpose?

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