A Key to Positive Leadership

A former student came to me and expressed gratitude. He told of a presentation I once made. It was about positive leadership. Toward the end he raised his hand and asked what he could do to become a positive leader. I responded with a question: “Are you better person today than you were yesterday?”

He said that the question has never left him. He ponders it continually. He wanted me to know that he was thankful for the gift I gave him.

I do not remember that exchange or uttering those words but as he recounted the story I was elevated. My response to him really does answer the question how to become a positive leader.

In the research on positive leadership is a measurable variable called “idealized influence.” People of idealized influence are deeply trusted and attractive because they are seen as inherently good, virtuous, selfless. They pursue the common good rather than their personal good.

Yet, being good, virtuous, and selfless is not a steady state. There is not a line we cross and then become permanently perfected. The only way to be in the state of idealized influence is to continually progress, to be better today than we were yesterday.

If we are better, more virtuous, and less selfish than we were yesterday, we are more likely to engage in acts of positive leadership. Those acts may succeed or fail. Yet if we remain in our elevated state, we will learn how to adapt our actions and move toward success. A person who is not in the state of idealized influence does not engage in the same kinds of acts and does not have the same learning opportunities. A key to becoming a positive leader is to be better today than we were yesterday.

I am delighted to know that my former student always has that question in mind. It was a gift. I am glad he returned it to me so I could share it here.


  • Who is the most positive leader you have ever met?
  • In pondering that leader, what do you learn about idealized influence?
  • Why is idealized influence a dynamic rather than a fixed state?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Tapping into a Steady Stream of Your Own Endorphins

A few years ago, I introduced a concept called the fundamental state of leadership. It suggests that leadership is not holding a position. Rather, it is a state of influence. Most of the time, most of us are comfort-centered, externally directed, self-focused, and externally closed. In this conventional state, we have conventional influence.

Yet, in any situation we can learn to choose to become results-centered, internally directed, other-focused, and externally open. When we make this change, our influence climbs.

I wrote a paper about this in the Harvard Business Review. It had much impact and was selected as one of their “must reads” in self-management. Because it was so selected, many people have now read the paper. Sometimes they comment on it. Recently I received such a comment from a friend named Dan Duckworth. He writes after experiencing what most people would see as a major failure. He offers a surprising view:

I recently closed up shop on a new company we had formed at the University of Michigan to pursue a $500-million opportunity to create a national center for vaccine development and manufacturing. As my team members left one by one, they each repeatedly spoke of “something special” we had built together, of their gratitude to have been part of it, sorrow to lose hold of it, and loss of words to describe it.

Explaining my own journey through these three years can be difficult too. The change I experienced is to some extent evident in the revolution of my role at the University: I went from staffing committee meetings to negotiating and leading one of the most complex ventures U-M has ever contemplated, from knowing nothing of the biodefense industry to leading a company of industry leaders. But anecdotes illustrate only the evidence. I couldn’t begin to explain the phenomenon itself until somebody else described it for me in an article titled “Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership.”

I entered the fundamental state of leadership quite unwittingly. After just six months at U-M, frustrated by incrementalism and my own underemployment, I packed my bags and was halfway out the door when a few buzzwords yanked me back in. The Administration was humming about bioterrorism and vaccines and public-private partnerships. Curious at first, then intrigued, I was soon entranced. Not knowing it at the time, I slipped into the fundamental state and wouldn’t emerge for over three years.

With a long leash from my boss, I dived into discovery and quickly became an internal expert on the opportunity, and not long afterward, my EVP quietly charged me to lead the initiative. With no authority or credibility, I latched onto two mentors, and we began the breathtaking adventure of defining our strategy even as we executed it. Along the way, we convinced the University to invest millions of dollars to develop our ideas and to form a new vaccine company with its own policies, people, and systems—realities inconceivable in the beginning.

After the story of its start, the biodefense project is the story of its thousand deaths and nine hundred and ninety-nine rebirths. A mentor quits at a crucial moment. A primary corporate partner cancels the bid just days before the submission deadline. The new company we formed is hijacked and reabsorbed back into the University. The government rejects our proposed leadership team twice and then suddenly eliminates us from the competition for the first time. All the while, the U-M and Department of Defense bureaucracies unremittingly torture us with process and procedure that bleed us to a faint numerous times. But, strangely, none of these catastrophes break the spell I am under. Where others see the end of the track, I see only hurdles. I just keep problem-solving, just keep breathing life into the project, and the company against all odds and against supposedly better judgment until we nearly win the largest contract in U-M history—nearly. And the spell that binds me suddenly snaps.

As I departed the office-turned-ghost-town that final day, a surprising feeling of success filled me in spite of the evidence of failure that surrounded me. It’s hard to feel failure after nine hundred and ninety-nine victories. It’s hard to feel failure when you build one of the industry’s most prolific management teams, when you achieve near-perfect technical scores, when naysayers are cheerleading on your bandwagon, when you know something magical happened to you and to your teammates. To be sure, losing the bid after three years of toil was terribly disheartening. But the enduring emotion resembles success much more than it does failure.

That paradox came into perspective when I stumbled across an article describing the fundamental state of leadership. It was written by a friend, Robert E. Quinn.   As I read it, I could hear Bob narrating my experience. Entering the fundamental state, I realized, was like tapping into a steady stream of my own endorphins, which fueled a relentless three-year campaign. Instead of retreating from difficulty and ambiguity, I craved them. Not only did the work energize me, it magnified me. My mind was sharper, my decisions crisper, and my personality more authentic. I led and people followed, many with a fidelity and industry I could never have asked for.

Experiencing the fundamental state of leadership is a reward of its own. Naturally, I am anxious to return to it—be that in whatever industry, company, and capacity it turns out to be in.


  • Have I had a failure that I now see as a victory? What do I learn from it?
  • What is the fundamental state of leadership?
  • Why is it like tapping into a steady flow of your own endorphins?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Discovering Potential

Often negative life events cause us to discover potential we did not know we had. I have a friend who became a single mother. She decided to go into real estate. Because she is organized and personable, she did well and soon she had her own small organization. In accomplishing this impressive outcome, she was discovering potential she did not know she had.

One day my wife gave her an audio copy of The Positive Organization. Two weeks later my phone rang. She asked if I had a few minutes. As she spoke, she became increasingly excited. She told me she listened to the entire book and she learned one new thing after another. I asked her what was most important. She said that she had never thought about the notion of having a positive culture and that when you have one the people give more of themselves and the organization will start to run itself.

She then told story after story of recently choosing to not do things herself. Each time a new effort was required, she asked herself how to make it a truly meaningful challenge for one of her people and how she could simultaneously provide support. In every case they had not only responded, they exceeded her expectations.

One example was the onboarding of a new person. She asked the person who was coming on if she would like to help improve and codify the onboarding process so it would help every new employee that came on in the future. The woman loved the idea of having such a lasting impact and threw herself into the effort.

As my friend told this and other stories, she conveyed a sense of awe. It was as if she was watching a rerun of surprising moments in her own life and she was discovering new lessons as she watched. What she was discovering was that potential she had realized in herself over the last few years could also be realized in the other people at work.

She told me she was now envisioning an entirely new kind of organization, one in which she did not have to monitor and control every detail. Instead she could share leadership and the people would more fully lead themselves. This is a discovery that few managers make. So they never aspire to what she was learning to imagine and pursue.

It was an impressive phone call. When she hung up, I noticed that I was emotionally affected. Her joy and gratitude were contagious. My mind began to race with new ideas. I could see potential everywhere.



  • In starting out, why and how did the realtor discover potential she did not think she had?
  • Why is it natural for people in authority to monitor and control employees?
  • Once she began to apply the book, she discovered potential in others. Why?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Living With a Fresh Self

We were working with a professional group. During one of the breaks, a man approached me. Before he said a word, I already liked him. He began by asking, “Do you meditate?”

The dictionary says that to meditate is “to empty the mind of thoughts, or concentrate the mind on one thing, in order to aid mental or spiritual development, contemplation, or relaxation.”

I indicated that I do meditate. He responded, “I am 100% into science. Yet my mother went off on a ten-day silent meditation program and the impact on her was so positive I decided to try it. I believe doing the ten days really mattered, it carried me through a very demanding phase of my professional training. Later I did ten more days.”

We explored his story and had a delightful conversation about topic of meditation. He then said something I did not expect: “I decided to not go again because meditation can become a problem.”

He explained, “When you intensely meditate, you experience increased awareness and you gain insights about what you should do. I began to realize that if I was not going to act on the things that were coming to me, it was not such a good thing.”

I have been pondering his words. I have been particularly focused on his statement, “If I was not going to act on the things that were coming to me, it was not such a good thing.”

I asked myself, “What does my experience lead me to believe about meditation?” Here is what I came up with.

I believe the universe is a school and I am here to progress. To progress is to advance and develop. When I am progressing, I have a sense of growth and well-being. When I am not progressing, I have a sense of stagnation and misery.

I believe mediation is one key to my progression. It opens my mind and my awareness increases. As my associate claimed, impressions come inviting or directing me to do something that is inherently good. Sometimes the new action is an easy adjustment but sometimes the impressions call me to do some hard thing, to engage in some form of labor that I would prefer to avoid.

I believe responding to the impressions requires faith in the message. If I exercise the courage to move forward, a new experience emerges. By pondering the new experience, I acquire wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge derived from experience. Wisdom gives rise to perspective and increases my capacity to behave effectively. In this kind of learning by faith, I become free from the previous beliefs that were limiting my progress. In this kind of deep learning, stagnation tends to turn into growth.

While the dictionary says that the word self is a noun, I believe self is a verb. My self is a living system that is constantly decaying or growing. My best or most authentic self is the self that emerges as I am moving toward a higher purpose in a state of deep learning. In deep learning, I am discarding limiting beliefs and acquiring wisdom that empowers and courage to reveal my best or most authentic self.

I believe that when the impressions call me to do things that exceed my faith or courage, I practice denial. I rationalize or lie to myself. I orient away from my conscience. To orient away from my conscience is to cut off the mechanism that calls me to live virtuously (courage, integrity, love, humility, patience, and so on). I begin to live in fear, hypocrisy, insensitivity, hubris, anxiousness, and so on. Instead of having a fresh self that is learning and emerging in real time, I have a stale self that is growing brittle.

As I examine these beliefs, I return to the statement form my associate: “If I was not going to act on the things that were coming to me, it was not such a good thing.”

It seems to me that not acting on what the impressions call me to do is not a good thing. Rationalization puts me into decay. Yet avoiding meditation does not seem to be the answer. That also puts me into decay.

This tension leads me to conclude that the universe really is a school designed to promote my learning and growth. If I avoid meditation or if I fail to respond to the impressions that come, I begin to stagnate and misery increases. When I can no longer stand the misery, I have one choice: to clarify my values and purpose. This allows me to reorient to the impressions that are calling me to be my best and more virtuous self.



  • Do I currently have a stale self or a fresh self? How do I know?
  • Who in the organization tends to live with a fresh self?
  • How does being stale or fresh influence others?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Becoming a Living Poem

My son-in-law works in the federal government.  He often describes the difficulties of working in a bureaucracy.  When he does, he tends to also describe some form of self-management.  Despite daily negative events, he has consciously developed tools to keep positive.  His examples are impressive and his constancy is inspiring.

He recently wrote that he loves poetry.  He keeps a notebook in his backpack just for writing poems.  He says.  “Every time I pull it out and open to a blank page, I feel a sense of freedom: I could write about anything.  For example, the other day I tried to write a poem about this weird old lever on the metro floor covered in grime.  I just wanted to see if I could.

“Samuel Coleridge once said: ‘I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.’  That idea—of seeking the best words and putting them in the best order—is one I love.  I am grateful for the challenge of poetry and the avenue for expression it provides me.”

Why does writing poetry give him a sense of freedom?

Writing poetry is a discipline.  Discipline is pattern of self-regulation, self-control, or self-restraint in which we exercise the will to do things we would not naturally do. We have physical disciplines, intellectual disciplines, spiritual disciplines, and social disciplines.  When we internalize a discipline, we behave in new ways and we get new results.  The results invite us to new beliefs.  We make new assumptions about the nature of the world and our ability to influence the world.  When our assumptions change in this manner, we acquire new capacity.  We let go of convention and we find the freedom and power to create what we could not previously create.

In the case of my son-in-law, poetry is a challenge and an avenue of expression.  It is a transformational discipline.  He can look at a lever covered with grime on the floor of a subway and it becomes a stimulus for creating a new image.  The image is created by putting the best words in the best order.  In this example, the mundane becomes a stimulus to create something new and extraordinary.

Positive influence is a discipline.  Conventional organizations are built on fear and they work to sap human integrity and commitment.  People live in a survival mode.  At work we all need to learn self-management disciplines that will renew us.  Each of us can develop tools and apply them with constancy.  An important tool that any of us can employ, regardless of position, is positive influence.

The exercise of positive influence requires self-management.  One must transcend the ego.  One must look on the mundane organizational interactions and see them as a lever covered in grime on the subway floor. Seeing possibility that no one else sees, one must go deep inside and locate the best words and put them in the best order.  One must actually become a living poem.

A living poem is a person who has exercised the discipline to see possibility in convention, exercised the discipline to find his or her most authentic words, and exercised the discipline to give them to us with love.  When we encounter a living poem we pay attention, we feel challenged and inspired.  If we then become a living poem, we feel free because we transcend convention and live in the state of meaningful contribution.  Life takes on greater meaning.

My son-in-law could be defined as a low-level bureaucrat.  From the conventional lens, no one would think of him as a leader.  A leader is a person of hierarchical position.  I read the accounts of his day-to-day experiences at work and I see the personification of a positive influence.  He is a leader, a living poem.

Managers know that their job is to solve problems and maintain order.  Positive leaders know that their job is to create a workforce of people like my son-in-law, leaders at every level who infect each other with positive energy.  Because the vision is so unconventional, because the capacity is absent, we have many managers and few leaders.  Each of us might do well to look at ourselves as a lever on the floor covered with grime and exercise the discipline to turn ourselves into a living poem.



  • What disciplines have I internalized and how have they made me free?
  • In what way is my organization filled with levers covered with grime?
  • Who in our organization is a living poem?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Our Governing Images

Social science has determined that we are “path dependent.” This means we are prisoners of our past experiences. The scientific assumption is that the past determines the present. Working from the positive lens, I often ask, “When does the future determine the present?” The room goes silent. Eventually someone says, “When we are committed to a goal.”

I was dreaming. A fierce animal was three feet from me and about to pounce. The image was so vivid that my body reacted. I suddenly raised my arms in defense and the action woke me up. I marveled that my unconscious could create an image so real that my body would respond. My imagination was creating my reality.

It is true that the past generally determines the present. Most people are prisoners of their culture and they live lives of “quiet desperation.” Organizations are full of quiet desperation and vast resources are unrecognized, untapped, and generally wasted.

It is also true that we can take control of our lives and find meaning. Personal empowerment and leadership originates with this question from Robert Fritz: “What result do I want to create?”

When we focus the conscious mind on our highest desire, we begin to trigger the unconscious mind. This interpenetration can give rise to a vivid image like the fierce animal that was about to pounce. The body responds to the image and the body behaves in new ways. This new behavior can stimulate others to respond. The new interactions that follow can give rise to new collective images. The new, shared images can be so vivid that the group responds in new ways. This is one path to conscious culture change. We call it leadership. We seldom see leadership, but when it exists, a vivid image of the desired future disrupts path dependence and creates purpose, experience, and learning.

While it is true that the past determines the present, it is also true that the future can determine the present. When we choose to live to a higher purpose, we can find the discipline to state the future we truly desire and give life to the images that emerge. When we do so, we live more meaningfully and we begin to lead.


In our organization, what are our governing images?

Do these images come from the past or the future?

What is our most noble, vivid, shared, future image?

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

The Power of Collaboration

IMG_4806When one of my favorite sports teams loses a crucially important game, I tend to spend a period of time with a sense of loss and depression. In March of 2017, the University of Michigan Basketball team lost such a game. The team was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by one point. Yet I had no sense of loss or depression.

In fact, neither did the coach. They interviewed him ten minutes after the loss and he did not speak as coaches usually speak. He offered no strategic assessment of what happened nor did he express any sense of regret. He spoke from his heart. He seemed to be in awe of the level of selflessness that had been achieved during the latter part of the season. He actually spoke as if the loss was inconsequential.

The story of the team is now well known. For much of the season they were average. At one point, they were called a “white collar” team. It led some Michigan players to rethink who they were. The team also made some improvements on offense and defense and played better.

In traveling to the first game of the Big Ten tournament, their plane was blown off the runway. It was a significant life event that seemed to cause everyone to rethink who they were. There were many statements made about the higher purposes in life. There were also many claims about deeper bonding on the team. As an eighth seed, they won the Big Ten Tournament. No one had ever done that before.

In the NCAA Tournament, they continued their upward trajectory and played with impressive cohesion. What dawned on me during the last game is that they were not only more cohesive as a team, but each starter was performing at a higher level than I have seen them perform in the last two years.

Earlier that same day, I was teaching some senior executives. We were covering a topic that is difficult because we so seldom recognize it: the emergence of spontaneous collaboration in the pursuit of a meaningful purpose.

At one point I asked them if any of them, at any time in their life, had been on any kind of high-performing team. Many hands went up. I asked what happened to them personally when they joined the high-performing team. The common response was that as individuals they got better.

I told them that we often look back at such experiences as one of the high points of our career. When individuals are brought together and begin to selflessly contribute to the collective purpose, the whole becomes synergistic. We say “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

What we do not recognize is this: the parts also become greater. In the challenge of competition and the safety of highly bonded relationships, we willingly extend ourselves. Leadership spontaneously moves from person to person as necessary. Learning and development accelerates both individually and collectively. The whole becomes more than it is and the parts become more than they are. The individuals tend to perform beyond expectation.

When this happens, human potential is realized. The experience alters our perspective. Winning a game is no longer a narrow end. It is now an end and a means. If we pursue victory with full commitment and we sacrifice ego for selfless collaboration, we witness the emergence both of collective and individual excellence.

There is a problem. Some people tell me they have never been part of a high-performing team. They do not understand what I am talking about. This is important because many managers do not aspire to high collaboration because they do not believe it is possible. One of the differences between a manager and a leader is that a leader aspires to and pursues high collaboration.

In high collaboration, we are exposed to the best of the collective and the best of the individual. Exposure to a person’s best self usually results in a sense of awe. Exposure to the collective best also produces a sense of awe. I think that is why the coach spoke in an unconventional way. I think that is why I am not depressed. This season, everyone won.



  • Have I ever been on a truly excellent team? What do I learn from my memories?
  • Do I aspire to elevate every collective to excellence?
  • In the organization, are there collectives of excellence and how could we leverage this fact to spread excellence?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Finding the Purpose of Your Unit

While most managers avoid purpose work, if they do engage in it, they tend to take one of two strategies. First, they think about the organization and then announce the purpose, mission, values, and strategies. Second, they create a task force. The task force then does similar work or engages a consulting firm to do it. In each case, the learning tends to be based on data gathering and analysis but not on the kind of inquiry necessary. The purpose that is derived has limited authenticity. It does not resonate, the people do respond, and the organization does not change.

To find the collective purpose, you need to look across all the people, practice empathy for each one, and then generalize your empathy. What is it that every person wants, even if they will not admit it? When do the people love what they are doing? When are they interested and flourishing? What is the greatest collective ability and contribution?

Purpose work is hard. It requires operating outside conventional thought. One must engage in what David Cooperwriter calls “appreciative inquiry.” You will find the purpose of your organization when you begin to appreciate and inquire into the collective goodness of the people.

You might consider questions like this: when is your organization at its very best? What is the collective conscience and what moral message does it send? In a crisis, how do the people respond? When they are giving all they have to give, what are they trying to achieve? Are they simply trying to survive or is there a higher purpose worthy of sacrifice?

The above suggests that few people have voice because it requires the hard work of deep learning. A person discovers purpose and finds voice by discovering key talents and what the person loves to do; by seeing how the key talents can be used to contribute to the larger whole; by becoming totally committed and engaging in deep learning; and by listening to the conscience and acting with moral power.

Organization purpose is discovered through a similar but even more challenging process of deep learning. Someone has to discover unique strengths of the organization, what currently motivates the diverse people in the organization, and what common but unstated,and even counterintuitive, collective needs are going unfulfilled.



  • Is it possible that your team, unit, or organization has a higher purpose that is unstated?
  • How many people would you need to talk to in order to understand it?
  • What questions would you ask?

Fire Yourself Every Day

Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon, in a June 14, 2009 interview with USA Today, talked about “fixing the roof while the sun is shining.” She argued that leaders need to see potential and pursue new opportunity, rather than simply react to problems as they arise.

Jung suggested that people with long experience cannot “look at the business with fresh eyes.” So what is an experienced senior executive to do?

Her extraordinary advice was to “fire yourself on a Friday night and come in on Monday morning as if a search firm put you there to be a turn-around leader. Can you be objective and make the bold change? If you can’t, then you haven’t reinvented yourself. I’m not the same leader I was even last year… I’ve had to reinvent myself every year.”

People who are not changing tend to become trapped in their own assumptions. They naturally slip into the personal process of slow death. Those who are continually changing are also continually learning, continually challenging their own assumptions. Because they are changing, they have “fresh eyes” and can see the possibilities that others cannot.


  • What does it mean to “fix the roof while the sun is shining?”
  • What is the value in firing oneself?
  • If you were newly hired to replace yourself, what would you do that the last person was not doing?

Discovering Purpose

When I was in sixth grade, I was very interested in girls.  In our school, there were cheerleaders, and I was interested in having the cheerleaders show an interest in me.  They did not.

On the first day of school, the teacher announced that a boy named Ray had to go to a different school because his family had moved across the school boundary.  Ray had two characteristics: 1) he was the best basketball player in the school and 2) the cheerleaders really liked him.

I reasoned that if I became the best basketball player, the cheerleaders would become interested in me.  There were some obstacles to my plan.  I was slow, I was uncoordinated, and I could not jump.  Nevertheless, the idea of becoming the best basketball player owned me.  I was consumed with desire, and I was ready to do things I had never done before.  Every day for three hours after school, I shot baskets.

When the season began, an amazing thing happened.  I was the high scorer in every game, and my name was in the newspaper.  This change was important, but not because the cheerleaders showed interest in me (they did not).  It was important because I discovered something that some people never discover.

If we choose a purpose and fully commitment to the pursuit of the purpose, we develop into something new.  When this happens to us, we discover the power of purpose, commitment, discipline, and persistence.  We have within us the power to develop into something more than what we are.  When we do we experience consciousness of victory over self and see things in a new way.  We begin to believe in our own ability to become more than we are.  Many people do not have this belief.

Each year between the sixth grade and high school, people told me that I would not make the team the next year.  As people then went to the beach for the summer, I went to the gym.  I spent long hours, often by myself, working. When the new season came, I would make the team and do well.  Then they would tell me that next year I would not make it.  My junior year, we won the state championship and at the end of my senior year, I was named an all-state honorable mention.  This was not newsworthy, but it was remarkable for a boy who was slow, uncoordinated, and could not jump.

The long-term result is that all my life, I have listen to other people tell me of constraints and then I have evaluated the situation for myself.  Sometimes I have decided to invest as I invested then.  When I do, I grow and I become in some way new.


  • What does it mean to discover the power of purpose?
  • When have you made a major commitment and pursued it with intensity?
  • In what specific way could you apply this story in your life right now?