The Transformative Power of Purpose

There is a movie called Everest. It is about climbing the world’s highest mountain. At the outset the guide explains to the climbers that when they get to the highest regions of Everest the conditions will be so adverse to life that they will actually be in the process of dying. The challenge will be to reach the peak and leave as quickly as possible, to get to a lower region that better supports survival.

As the movie unfolds the many extraordinary challenges of climbing Everest become clear. The climbers actually note that the process is characterized by suffering and agony. At certain points it appears that it is impossible for a given person to go on, yet, in the face of great danger, the person pushes forward. This hunger gets one exhausted man to the crest and a short time later he dies because of his loss of energy. Shortly thereafter some of the others also die.

Climbing the mountain is a choice. None of the climbers are being paid. Indeed they are paying a very large sum to make the torturous journey. They are there because they want to be there. They are intrinsically motivated and they are giving their all.

At one point, a participant asks the others why they seek to climb Everest. The answers are very general, such as “because it is there.” One mailman explains that he wants to show what an “every day” person can do and says that he has promised a class of public school children that he will plant the flag they gave him at the summit. Later, in a private conversation, one of the climbers says that when he is home in Texas he is often depressed but when he is on the mountain he feels fully alive.

The last sentence is important. When people are authentically pursuing a meaningful purpose, they indeed are more fully alive.

Researchers tell us that to be engaged is to be fully present, which means the people bring their whole self to the task (Rothbard and Patil, 2012: 56-69). They feel challenged by what they are doing. They become absorbed and fully concentrate. They experience extra energy and the energy gives them the ability to persist and move forward. They feel more alive and their unique experiences give rise to learning and growth.

The research also suggests when people are fully engaged they feel more invested, proactive, adaptive, creative and authentic. As they act, get feedback and adapt, they are developing into a new version of themselves. The emerging self feels more genuine. They are not “on stage” they are doing what they are doing because they love what they are doing. In the process they tend to express their most central thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

The above are impacts on the individual. The pursuit of purpose often has collective impacts. When people pursue a challenging purpose together, as did the mountain climbers, the sense of ego driven isolation begins to dissolve. As they pursue their purpose, they recognize their interdependence. They cannot get to the top alone. As they begin to authentically communicate and collaborate they discover that they not only are more fully human but so are the others. Whole people begin to see and relate to whole people. Others are no longer transactional objects to be used for our own purposes. Instead they become inherently valuable people. When this happens people see immense potential in others. As this happens the people begin to sacrifice not only for the goal, but for the needs of the other people. In the movie we see an increasing willingness of people to risk their lives to help one another. We see the emergence of a network of high quality relationships, a network of love.

Here there is much to learn. In the conventional mindset we expect senior people to be self-interested and partially engaged managers of a technical-political hierarchy. In the positive mindset we recognize that the senior person can also transcend self-interest and pursue the common good. The primary task of any leader is to be purpose driven, to constantly rediscover and communicate the collective purpose and inspire people to willingly engage it. In the positive mindset the leader is a dynamic whole. He or she nurtures a network of dynamic and whole beings. In that network the people are doing what they do because they want to do it. The organization becomes capable of doing things it cannot do conventionally.


What do you believe about purpose and engagement?

What differentiates a purpose driven organization?

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?

Authenticity Allows Transformation

Becoming a transformational leader is a change process. Each year I teach an MBA course on this topic.   My intent is not to instruct the students. My purpose is to lead them through to process of change. This means I must become a leader rather than an instructor.

We meet all day for five Saturdays. The syllabus is long, carefully written, and signals many of the ways this class is unique. The students are asked to read the syllabus carefully before coming to the first class. The first thing I do is pose a question. “How will you be different at the end of the semester?”

Typically there is a long pause, and then the answers—meaningful answers—start to flow. I ask related questions and the students begin to open up. A student, for example, spoke about spending his life trying to measure up to his brother. It was a very authentic moment, and I called attention to that authenticity.

Others, too, recognized the power in his words. As the day went on, the collective authenticity increased:  I could already see people making sense of their lives and changing in real time. At the end of the day, a couple of students approached me. They both told intimate stories of confused life direction and asked if they could make an appointment to talk privately.

As I drove home, I felt a sense of awe. I was helping my students make sense of their lives, and doing that makes sense of my life. As I pondered this thought, another thought came to me. When I am teaching with the intent to change lives, I transcend my own ego.

During the period of teaching, I am intensely focused on what the students are saying, what their needs are, and how I can minister to those needs. It is an act of selflessness. Because I am filled with love, the room is filled with love. Because it is, change can happen, even in a university classroom.

I am reminded of a movie called Freedom Writers. It is about a teacher named Erin Gruwell. She enters an impoverished school and eventually learns how to connect with her students.  She reaches extraordinary levels of performance, and her students change. At one point, she reflects on her teaching and she says, “I finally realized what I’m supposed to be doing, and I love it. When I’m helping these kids make sense of their lives, everything about my life makes sense to me. How often does a person get that?”

As someone learns to teach or lead in a transformational way, the activity becomes self-reinforcing. In helping others transform we become increasing clear about who we are and why we are on the earth. We engage our work with love, we increasingly experience success and we hunger to get even better.


When have I seen love bring change?

When does my life make most sense to me?

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

Cauldrons of Transformation

For 40 years I have been teaching transformation. I continually look for tools that will help. One of my friends sent me the following passage by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.

Historically speaking, in most cultures the role of men has been to create, to make new things, to fix broken things, and to defend us from things which could hurt us. All of these are wonderful and necessary roles for the preservation of the human race.

However, most children saw their mother in a different way. She was not a creator, a fixer, or a defender, but rather a transformer.

Once a woman has carried her baby inside of her body for nine months and brought it forth, through the pain of childbirth, into the world, she knows the mystery of transformation at a cellular level. She knows it intuitively, yet she usually cannot verbalize it, nor does she need to. She just holds it at a deeper level of consciousness. She knows something about mystery, about miracles, and about transformation that men will never know (which is why males had to be initiated!). Women who are not mothers often learn it by simply being in the “community of women.”

The feminine body can be seen as a cauldron of transformation. Her body turns things into other things—her body turns a love act into a perfect little child. Yet, in her heart, she knows SHE did not do it. All she had to do was to wait and eat well, to believe and to hope for nine months. This gives a woman a very special access to understanding spirituality as transformation—if she is able to listen to her own experience and her own body. Admittedly, not all women do.

For most people the transformational process is a mystery. Yet every relationship, group and organization can become a cauldron of transformation. There must first be an insemination, a generative influence, usually a visionary idea proposed by someone who cares very much. Once the idea begins to gestate the developmental process takes on a life of its own. Transformations must be continually nurtured but they cannot be controlled. People who live through transformations can reflect on them and begin to understand the dynamics. They can learn to do what is impossible to conventional logic.


Can I “verbalize” how transformation unfolds?

What can I learn from the analogy of gestation?

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

Cultural Surgery and Truth Telling

When Alan Mulally became CEO at Ford, people were hesitant to share hard news. In a meeting of senior management, the first person who shared difficulties received a standing ovation from Mulally.

Why would he do such a strange thing? I believe he was trying to do cultural surgery.

I sometimes think of my work as cultural surgery. My job is to turn the organization more positive by cutting out a cancerous condition. I am regularly asked, for example, to help senior management teams. These are brilliant, successful people with years in business. Their salaries are often staggering. So what could they possibly need from me? The invitation comes because they know they need to make a fundamental change that they don’t know how to make. They need to turn themselves into a collaborative system. Yet they cannot do this because they do not know how to tell the truth, surface the resulting conflict, and transform it into creative collaboration. They do not know how to build a culture of trust.

While truth telling and transforming conflict are critical to the organization’s health, the task is fearsome and often ignored. The consequences are serious. Without a cohesive team all we have is self-interested individuals. There is a building full of people but there is no organization.

There are several things that strike me about this. First, some senior executives are simply without vision. They are so tied to conventional assumptions that they cannot even imagine a top management team functioning cohesively. So they expect to have self-interested people working together pretending to be a team. It is common but deadly assumption.

Second, there is no accounting mechanism to show the absence of synergy. The accountants do not measure and report cohesion levels. Administrators are free to destroy cohesion with abandon.

Third, the weakness does not mean that executives are bad people. It means that they are like the rest of us. They do not know how to appreciate and elevate their own culture. We should remember that it is difficult to perform surgery on ourselves.

Cultural change requires bringing conflict out in the open and transforming it. It is natural to flee from or try to dominate conflict—to succumb to the “fight or flight” impulse that is as old as human experience itself.

So what is cultural surgery? I focus on the collective intelligence—looking at the neural pathways that are misfiring or broken, determining which synapses need rehabilitation to reconnect properly. The task of the cultural surgeon is to rewire the collective brain, to move the group from one mindset to another. This transformation represents tangible, sustainable change with impact far beyond the team itself.

When the transformation occurs it has an inherent educational effect. People can begin to see the power of cultural surgery and they can begin to imagine more positive ways of organizing. Learning to transform conflict can be an acquired skill.


What conflicts hold us back?

How could we come to a collective admission that we need help?

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

Becoming What We Behold

I once told the story of a man named Robert. In going through a personal transformation, he transformed his organization. As he reflected on the profound change in his organization, he wondered why it now seemed so easy and why there was now a positive culture. He then answered his own question: “I know it all happened because I confronted my own insecurity, selfishness, and lack of courage.”

Robert was coming to understand that we transform the organization by transforming ourselves. This is a highly resisted concept. When we are failing and disempowered, we “know” that bad things are happening because of the people and circumstances around us.

We are in fact, correct. Those people around us are in the normal state. They are pursuing their own self-focused agendas, and the collective environment is one of distrust and decreasing capacity.

Unfortunately, we are in the same condition. We accept the world as it is, and we become what we behold. From our normal state, we know it is nonsense to claim that we change the organization by transforming ourselves. (Quinn, Building the Bridge as you Walk on It: pg. 69)

Tough Love

I am reminded of a conversation I had with a student who played football for Bo Schembechler, the charismatic coach at the University of Michigan. The young man was a very big lineman. I asked him what he thought of Bo. He replied, “Bo is the only person in the world that I will let kick me in the butt—because I know he loves me.”

We expect authoritative discipline from leaders on the football field, but we seldom think of it as evidence of caring. We do not expect a big, tough lineman to use the “L word.” Yet he did. He even suggests that it is love that makes the confrontation possible.

When others are practicing tough love, they are in fact supporting me, and I can feel their genuine love and concern.  They are doing what they are doing because they want to call forth my greatness. For this to happen, I must become a more independent actor and take increased accountability for some aspect of my life. For me to transform, I must be attracted to a kind of learning that happens outside my comfort zone. The others must disturb the patterns in my mind and behavior.

They disturb the way I choose to see myself by asking me tough questions or by making tough statements. Such distortions cause me to think deeply. Such thinking causes me to see my own stagnation. I continually run from pain, so I choose slow death. I go to sleep in some part of my life. The change agent challenges me to awaken, to stretch to my full limits (Quinn, Letters to Garrett: pg. 188-89)

The Dark Night of the Soul

A woman told me a story that every professional should read. It is an account of how she became a positive force in a conventional organization. She directs HR in a company that was going through a merger. The company was founded by a Jewish man who had a college degree. After serving in World War I he tried to find a job. Because of religious discrimination he could not. So with fifty dollars of army severance pay he started his own company and it has grown ever since.

Once in the history of the company there was an exercise designed to articulate the values of the company. Given the story of the founder, one of the articulated values was faith. Today the leaders and employees have great difficulty knowing what to do with the word faith. The word seems out of place in a secular age; a source of embarrassment.

The HR director is not uncomfortable. She believes the emphasis on faith allows the inclusion of diversity and the integration of diversity, and the value drives extraordinary organizational learning. She believes that the emphasis on faith is the greatest asset of the company.

The current merger has heightened the issue of values. People want to know what the company stands for. This has led the HR director to feel an increasing need to clarify and communicate purpose, values and vision. She has put much time into a program designed to meet this need. Yet each time the program is presented to senior management, there is a concern about some detail and the program disappears for months. In the meantime, the need for the program keeps escalating.

The troubled HR director attended a conference on positive organizations. Listening to the presentations, and driven by her concern for the company, she determined that she had to become a transformational leader. So she wrote a letter to the CEO. In it she explained the need for the program, the content of the program and her motive for moving forward. She explained that any flaws could be worked out in the future. She indicated that she now had the program on the calendar and was moving forward.

She received a quick call. The CEO asked about a few minor details. She resolved his concerns. He told her to go ahead.

In recounting this story she made a claim. “The employees have a genuine need. The company has a genuine need. Our failure to move was causing everyone to lose. So I did what had to be done for the good of the organization. It was the most important decision I have ever made. It changed everything including my identity. Now I am a transformational leader. I am committed to the good of the whole. I do not care about the political consequences. If they want to fire me, that is fine. I am now confident I can get another job any time. Every organization needs someone like me.”

This story is rare but it is not unique. There are times when managers transform into leaders. Sometimes the trigger is a personal life crisis and sometimes it is an organizational crisis. Because of the crisis they enter the dark night of the soul and they have to choose between the fear driven self and the conscience driven self. When they make the latter choice, they immediately transform. They commit to purpose, increase in integrity and authenticity, orient to the common good, and initiate the journey of collective learning.

Fifty years ago a man named Zalesnik argued that until a manager is twice born the manager cannot lead. At the time the proposition was controversial. Today the scientific literatures on leadership development, post traumatic growth, spirituality, and transformative learning all suggest that great challenges lead to a new and more empowered identity, and self-empowering people tend to be empowering to their community.

Positive organizing is a process driven by leaders who pursue the common good over the personal good. Such leaders are rare but can occur at any level of an organization. It is also true that they may or may not emerge at the top. Transformational leadership is not a function of position. It is a function of the increased personal virtue that emerges in one person who chooses the highest good and thus becomes free of conventional organizational fears. The transformed person can then invite others to see and act in new ways.


Why would anyone risk their job for the good of the company?

What role does fear play in leadership development?

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

Moving from Good to Great

I spent a semester at another university and was asked to do a special seminar on teaching for the faculty. After the second session, I asked the participants in my faculty workshop to record an insight that would be of high value to their peers.  I indicated that I would compile their insights and feed them back to the class.

On the list were many potent observations.  There was one that I found myself continually rereading.  The participant was sharing a surprising conclusion that dawned on him after two sessions: “This course is not going to provide any ‘how to’ or practical examples on how to improve my teaching.  The course is rather going to ask me to come up with my own ideas and reflect on my own assumptions.”

The statement was accurate.  I was not going to give them any fish to eat.  Instead I was in the business of teaching them how to fish.  I wanted them to discover the answer to these questions: Who am I? What do I really want?   What assumptions are keeping me from becoming who I really want to be?

Shortly after reading the statement, I had a phone meeting with a speaker who was going to come to our campus-wide teaching symposium at the end of the month.  He was summarizing some research he did on effective teachers.  Based on his research, he told me that he now tells teachers that there are three questions that the students are implicitly asking at the start of any course:

  • Who are you (the teacher) and what are you passionate about?
  • How are you going to relate to me?
  • Why should I care about and invest in your course?

An hour later I had a meeting with another one of the participants from my class.  He was a wonderful and curious soul who wanted to improve.  Yet he began by telling me: “I am an accountant.  I think like an accountant.  My job is to teach debits and credits.  That is it.  All this transformational stuff does not apply to me.”

I asked questions and listened until he was done.  Then I told him that at Michigan most of our buildings are named after donors.  Yet we had one building that was named after a teacher.  The man was a teacher of accounting.  I asked, “If all teachers of accounting teach accounting in the same way, how does one teacher of accounting have so much impact on his students that they name a building after him?”

This question captured my friend’s attention.  We then took each of the three questions from my previous phone call as guideline and I asked a lot of specific questions about how he might design not a good, but a great accounting class.

We had a delightful hour.  In that short time he had clarified what he really wanted, challenged his own assumptions, and created a vision he now desired to pursue.  As he walked away I thought of the thousands of students he will teach and how we just altered their lives.  I think many of the students who take accounting from him will end up knowing what they really want. They will be able to challenge their own assumptions, and commit to become who they really want to be.

I also believe that the three questions students want answered at the beginning of every semester are the same three questions that people want answered at the beginning of every corporate meeting. Ultimately, this passage is not about teaching it is about leadership. If we ask how we can design a great meeting instead of a good meeting, give a great presentation instead of a good presentation, and so on, we will lead others where they really want to go

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.