Imagination and Courage

An old friend described his very demanding and unrewarding job. He has been doing it for a long time and is likely to continue until he retires. As he spoke of his situation, I thought of something William James wrote in 1907: “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked.”

A few days later, I met a young man. He is 24 and just retired from minor league baseball. He throws a 91 mile an hour fastball. Ten years ago, he would have been a promising star.   Some pitchers are pushing 100 miles an hour. At the end of spring training, management met with him and three others.

They informed the four that the organization had eight people of equal ability. They could only keep four. The four in the room were all 24 or older. The four they were keeping were 21 or younger.

The news was devastating. My young friend, however, could see other options in life and was ready to move on. In some ways, he was excited to do so. He talked, for example, about going back to school and becoming a physician’s assistant.

He said two of the others only knew baseball and could imagine no other alternative. His guess is that they would bounce around the minor leagues as long as they could. The image, like the previous one, weighed on me.

I thought of a line from Tom Rath: “You cannot be anything you want to be – but you can be a lot more of who you already are.”

The ability to imagine a more meaningful life is important. The courage to pursue a more meaningful life is crucial. The courage often comes from the discovery of self and the articulation of a higher purpose and provides the courage to engage in the process of becoming.

Managers do not link to this challenge but leaders do. Leaders recognize that animating people is a key of organizational success. They help people imagine and pursue higher purpose. They do this both collectively and individually. They focus on what can be and entice others to awake. They stoke the fires of imagination and courage and they open the drafts of individual and organizational life.



  • Do you have people whose “fires are damped and drafts are checked?”
  • Who have you helped to imagine a more meaningful life?
  • Who have you helped to articulate their highest purpose?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Two Kinds of Pay

We were discussing purpose in life and work. A man shared a story. In his first career, he was a chef. An angry teenager washed pots and pans. The chef told the boy he was going to teach him how to make homemade ravioli. He had the boy make the dish each day. One day he told the boy that he was the only teenager in the country who knew how to do what he was doing.

There was an impact. The boy began to grow. He went into the military and fought in two wars. Twenty-five years after the incident, the soldier found the chef on Facebook. He thanked him for turning his life around.

The former chef said, “I continually search for ways to grow people. This is why I work. Money is necessary to live, but this is my most important form of pay. It is my reason to live.”

The room grew silent. A peer spoke up, “Thank you for sharing that story; it really matters to me. Thank you.”


  • Why do you live?
  • How many forms of pay do you receive?
  • How could you give yourself a raise?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Challenging Expectations

We were at the end of a five-day program. In the morning, I had the participants do an exercise that reveals their identity and shows that they actually shape their destiny. The exercise creates a sense of discovery and awe. For some it becomes a tipping point in a personal change process.

At lunch, after the exercise, I sat next to an unassuming woman from another country. There were many comments about leadership, trust, and collaboration. For the first time, the woman spoke. She told an unusual story.

When we returned to the classroom, someone raised a question. Instead of answering it, I asked the woman to tell her story. She hesitated. On the one hand, she did not seem comfortable in the limelight. On the other, she seemed to have a desire to serve her colleagues.

She is responsible for a team spread throughout her country. Last year the company put a ban on travel. She felt a need to assemble her people in a two-day retreat. She decided she would use her personal funds to pay for the needed event. The unusual act inspired her people. The retreat went well. At the end of the year, the team achieved record performance.

The participants sat in silence. They were trying to make sense of the story. By all conventional assumptions, the willingness to spend her own money was illogical. It felt wrong. A profit-focused company, trying to squeeze every penny out of the system, is unwilling to invest in a human need. For a woman to spend her own money to forward the agenda of such a company violates our sense of contractual justice. From this rational-economic perspective, this woman must be naive, stupid, or both.

Yet the story was not the only data the participants were processing. There was the woman herself. She was uninterested in recognition. She knew the story was unusual and she was sharing it anyway. She was choosing to be vulnerable. Her purpose was to serve the people in the room. The participants could feel her authenticity and selflessness. The self she was presenting was fully congruent with the story she was telling.

The silence turned into scattered applause. Then the applause intensified. The participants were expressing genuine appreciation. Why?

Managers operate by conventional assumptions.   Like their employees, they bring only their heads to work. If a manager ever becomes a leader, the perspective changes. They become purpose driven and fully engaged and they transcend rational-economic assumptions. Their rewards come from the inside as well as the outside. In pursuing their purpose, they are willing to violate expectations and this creates new expectations. If the new expectations stabilize, a new culture emerges. Usually the new culture enriches human connections. The people are then able to flourish and exceed expectations.

In her country, the woman enriched human connections and her people flourished and exceeded expectations. In the classroom, the woman was offering vulnerability and inviting trust. She was also challenging expectations. She was causing the participants to think. She was providing an enriched connection.   She was opening the door of leadership and inviting them to consider new possibilities.


  • Why is the story so unsettling?
  • What is the difference between management and leadership?
  • What principle do I take from this story and how might I apply it today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Talks at Google

It’s hard to believe that July has already come and gone – summer seems to go faster than the rest of the year put together.  The blog took a month-long sabbatical for some family and personal time.  I hope you have also found some time to rejuvenate, reconnect and enjoy the summer.  On behalf of my father, I’m writing to let you know we are starting the blog up again.  We appreciate your patience while it was down, and your interest in reading.

A friend at Google recently shared a site I was unfamiliar with: Talks at Google.  They are similar to TED talks, but longer.  Google invites people to come and share ideas with the people in a brown bag atmosphere for 30 minutes to an hour.  I think you might find some you enjoy.  I did.

Bob was extended an invitation to come and speak to Google on purpose. Here is the link to his talk, which they recently posted.  There are some audio issues up until about 2:38 of the talk, but it does get better.



A Simple Practice that will Turn any Manager into a Leader

A friend wrote of his leadership experience in one of the most criticized federal bureaucracies, the Veteran’s Administration. Everyone knows you cannot bring change in the Veteran’s Administration. His claim of success would seem impossible. The practice that brought the outcome is startling, simple, practical, and scientifically sound. I am going to recommend it to everyone I teach. I suspect most will resist and a few will use it and flourish.

First, consider the claim. Over the 25 years, his psychiatric service continually grew, reaching “tens of thousands who needed care.” One reason is that the organization was able to do something other rural services could not do. They continually “attracted” top talent. His boss told my friend he had never seen anyone so lucky.

The service seemed to “draw” all kinds of other resources, including money. Washington regularly increased their budget because his people did what they said they would do. They were seen as giving Washington greater bang for the buck.

This claim of excellence, thriving, and growth in this particular federal bureaucracy is unconventional. What is the practice that he claims produced this success?

The answer is consistent with leadership research. He forced himself to acquire moral power or idealized influence. This was accomplished by a two-step process.

First, he worked hard to clarify his own beliefs about the moral foundations of leadership.

He then shared a written statement of his leadership ideals and invited his people to challenge his hypocrisy whenever he strayed. This was a courageous act that signaled he really was a leader. Most authority figures are not leaders. They are more concerned with their ego than their morality. To specify one’s deepest leadership beliefs and ask to be held accountable from the bottom up is a brilliant and frightening act. I am going to suggest it to everyone I teach.



  • What is moral power and why is it essential to leadership?
  • Why does the above practice demonstrate real leadership?
  • Why wouldn’t every manager engage in this practice, and what does your answer tell you about professional life?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Basic Goodness

In a professional conference, I facilitated a panel discussion. The topic was The Positive Lens and the Acceleration of Development. One of the panel members was Trugram Gyalwa Rinoche. At 18 months, he was identified as a lama incarnate. At four, he entered a Buddhist monastery. As an adult, he left the monastery to obtain a doctorate at Harvard. He is currently creating a center for meditation.

During the session, he spoke with insight and simplicity about the mind and the process of living a conscious life. At one point, he said, “Mindfulness leads to an understanding of the basic goodness of one’s self.”

Afterwards we had a meal and a meaningful discussion. I told him I was fascinated with the notion of finding our basic goodness.

He said that we have all the resources we need to find our basic goodness. We simply need to take care of our minds. The objective is to remain conscious in challenging moments, to turn our emotions positive. Three keys to this discipline are perception, conception, and consciousness.

When something happens, we have a perception and in the non-thinking mind we have a reaction. Then we have a conception: we interpret the event. Then we have an emotion. If we interpret the event as bad, the emergent emotion is negative.

At that moment of interpretation and emotion, we have a choice. The emotion is like the air in a balloon. It is simply energy. The negative energy can be transformed into positive energy. The key is to learn to look inside, to see the process, and to take charge of transforming the energy. Through mindful engagement, we can come to understand the basic goodness in the self.


  • What does it mean to “understand the basic goodness of one’s self?”
  • How does being in touch with your basic goodness accelerate development?
  • How could you be in better touch with your basic goodness today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

How to Lead a Demon

Many educational sessions are conventional. The teacher provides information consistent with existing beliefs. The participant listens and gains a small increment of knowledge. They already know, for example, that 2+2 = 4. Now they learn that 3+3 = 6. They have gained an increment of knowledge consistent with their underlying framework, but the underlying framework is unchanged.

Some sessions result in deeper learning. The teacher focuses on a topic that is relevant and creates a context that is both safe and challenging. The participants become more deeply engaged. Some participants take the risk of responding to questions with increased authenticity. A sense of vulnerability and trust begins to permeate the room and the human network becomes more connected. When purpose and trust increase, the people begin to act differently. They begin to co-create a conversation that is highly generative.

Learning becomes inspirational. The ideas are novel and stimulating. The learning challenges existing assumptions about the world and about self. People begin to make new assumptions about who they are, where they are going, and how they can get there. As soon as they do, the imagination provides new strategies. These new strategies feel inspired and people are anxious to experiment on them.

I was in the midst of a workshop like this. A woman on the front row was taking careful notes and offered several wise comments. I concluded that she knew who she was and that she was thinking deeply about some particular issue.

At the end, she approached me. She told me she has a boss who advocates a narrow strategy with no concern for people or culture. She believes that the organization is suffering because of it. In the past she had tried to enlarge his perspective, but he refuses to listen.

She said that participating in the workshop had had two impacts. First, she felt a renewed interest in trying to influence her boss. Second, she had some insights about the need to first do some self-work. She said, “I need to change myself. In approaching him, I need to talk to him without demonizing him.”

Her words stayed with me. In pondering them, I assumed that demon meant devil. I decided to look it up. In the thesaurus, demon has three sets of synonyms. The first includes words like expert, genius, or wizard. The second includes words like fear, anxiety, or terror. The last includes words like devil, fiend, or monster.

If we hold and integrate all three clusters, an image emerges. When people gain a position of authority, we assume they have the requisite knowledge to perform the role. We expect them to be experts. Since they do not know everything, it is hard for them to be an expert or wizard. They fear exposure and cannot express vulnerability or ask others to join them in learning. They have to know and direct. When they assume expertise and direct without mutual dependence, they exercise authority without love.

This is what a devil does. A devil seeks to take our agency and act upon us without loving us. When someone exercises authority without love, we feel it and we tend to demonize the actor.

My associate was expressing a self-discovery. She was recognizing the need to change (“I need to talk to him without demonizing him”). Even though he was exercising authority without love, she needed to exercise authority with love. This is an unconventional insight, but it is a key to transforming a relationship. To turn demons into human beings, we have to love them; we have to make them safe as we simultaneously challenge them to learn. This defies our sense of justice and calls us to live in love. It calls us to leadership.


  • Does anyone in my life exercise authority without love? How do I react?
  • Does anyone in my life exercise authority with love? How do I react?
  • What could I do today to exercise authority with love?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Creating Great Conversations

Recently I met with an audience of professionals. We were all strangers. Within ten minutes, we were sharing our deepest feelings and the collective learning was spiraling upward. At the end of 90 minutes, I felt deeply connected and grateful. Together we had crafted greatness.

Often I start such a session by avoiding an introduction. I begin by creating immediate engagement. The first thing I do is ask the people in different areas of the room to write and share an answer to questions like this: “What is the difference between a good and a great conversation/relationship/marriage/team/ organization?” I then ask them to discuss their conclusions with someone they do not know. After their exchange, we collectively debrief and I record their answers. When all the answers are recorded, I ask, “What is common across the categories?”

The words they tend to most frequently share are meaning, connection, learning, inspiration, passion, and impact. The two most frequently mentioned are connection and inspiration.

In a great conversation, for example, we may feel that an ordinary exchange begins to take on increased meaning or value. As this happens, we feel increasingly connected to the other person: the cognitive exchange has an emotional consequence. The learning exceeds our expectation and we feel excited, enlightened, or inspired. We feel passionate about some idea and we believe that what we have learned will have an impact, it will make a difference.

This is a description of an emergent process. To emerge is to arise, appear, materialize, surface, or become. Every conversation is an emergent process. Every conversation is a living thing. Some conversations die quickly and some evolve to a higher plane.

When people begin to communicate purposefully and respectfully, connections can intensify and rise to a higher level of quality. This can create in the actors a sense of trust and even selfless contribution to a higher purpose. With trust and selfless contribution comes a sense of equality and hierarchy goes latent. Emotions turn positive. People become more engaged and authentic. In authentic exchanges, vulnerability emerges. Because the conversation is safe and significant, the people can say what they really feel or express ideas about which they are not fully certain. This increases the number and the diversity of ideas available. It then becomes possible to integrate the diverse ideas in new ways. Learning becomes evolution.

In combining ideas, novel or creative products may result. This mutual learning process is often inspirational. Inspirational means stimulating, rousing, moving, motivational. Cognition is joined with emotion. The people feel enlarged and hopeful. There is a growing expectation that life will improve in some way. A great conversation is a living thing. It is a form of life that gives life and can improve life.

When I use this process to initiate a session, the process often becomes a great conversation. The participants co-create life. They become energized and hopeful. I also become energized and hopeful. Both the participants and the teacher have increased capacity to move forward. There is an increased probability that together we can create great conversations the remainder of the day.

Often we think of great conversations as a happy accident. We tend to do the same for relationships, marriages, teams, and organizations. In a session like the one I describe here, I initiate a great conversation with intention. I then nurture the emergent process, cherish the outcomes, and use the learning to move into a day of great, collaborative learning. I like to think of a class as a relationship, marriage, team, or organization, and I like to believe that I can nurture greatness.

This belief raises a profoundly important question: is it possible to learn to bring about great conversations, relationships, marriages, teams, or organizations? The answer is yes. The answer is leadership. Creating inspiring connections is what leaders do. They act so as to increase the probability that knowing turns to learning and that bad, normal, or good becomes great. Leaders are not born with this capacity. They acquire it through purpose, mindful engagement, experimentation, and continual learning.


  • When is the last time you had a great conversation?
  • What would it take for you become a consistent creator of great conversations?
  • What could you do to start today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning to Learn from Experience

After giving a commencement speech at a professional school, I sat down with the intention of relaxing. But soon I had my pen out and I was taking notes because I was learning from experience–someone else’s experience.

One of the students was about to name a faculty member that all the students had selected as best teacher. She shared some background about the teacher. The recipient was in her second teaching year. This is unusual. It occurred to me that the recipient must have been a naturally gifted teacher. I was terribly wrong.

The student suggested that the recipient started out as a most inadequate teacher. Yet, to the shock of the students, she took their feedback and the students witnessed an extraordinary outcome.

In her response to the award, the teacher described her first semester. She was new and insecure. Basically she was putting up slides with content and reading from the slide. She then told of an intense, personal learning journey and closed by saying “you need to reflect on your performance each day.”

She was not suggesting a casual review of the day. She was suggesting a disciplined review of the day. Few people seek and engage real feedback and few people engage in a disciplined review of their day.

I was so intrigued that after the ceremony I sought out the teacher and asked her to tell me her story. She recounted her first semester. She said the feedback was excruciating. I knew what she was talking about. If I have one student who gives negative feedback, I obsess over it for weeks. The notion of getting negative feedback from every student suggests extreme pain and it would make me want to run away and hide.

This woman made an unnatural decision. She decided to step into the pain and stay in the pain until she knew what to do. She spent the entire summer pondering and strategizing over each negative message.

On the first day of the next semester, she shared her first semester experience. She shared the feedback, and she shared what she learned from the feedback. She had the class do some brainstorming about the course. She had them share their expectations for her and she shared her expectations for them. They created a purpose and a contract with feedback built in.

As they moved forward, the teacher and the students became deeply bonded. The shocking result was a best teacher award. In her acceptance of her award, the teacher told the graduating students that she believed pursuing a purpose and attending to feedback was crucial to growth and that they needed to reflect on their performance each day and pay attention to what experience was teaching them.

Most of us take it for granted that they we are learning from experience. Our assumption is correct: we are always learning from experience. But what is the quality of our learning? Most people, most of the time, learn passively. We only attend deeply to our experiences when we are in some kind of pain.

When the above teacher was facing failure, she entered the process of deep learning. She took her students’ feedback and she began to study it out in her mind and to ask what was right. As she did, she formulated new strategies and her strategies took her to success beyond her expectation.

When we discover the power of learning deeply from our experiences, we begin to see the value of doing it in a proactive way. We realize that we do not have to be in pain to learn deeply. We can learn deeply because we live with passion about our purpose.

Because this woman moved from pain to success, she fell in love with her students and with the process of teaching. She was anxious to learn proactively from her experiences and she now wants her students to do the same.

When we are committed to a higher purpose, we are going somewhere but we do not know how to get where we are going. We have to act, seek feedback, and evaluate what we learn. When we have a higher purpose, we begin to see our daily experiences as nuggets of gold. We dig them up, we examine them, we shine them, we preserve them, and we live in increasing abundance. I am grateful that when I was determined to relax, I was inspired to learn from the experience of someone else, a woman who had learned how to learn from experience.


  • What are the two ways to learn from experience?
  • How often do you do a disciplined, daily reflection on your performance?
  • What would happen if everyone who worked with you engaged in a disciplined, daily reflection on their performance?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Aspiring to the Unimaginable Reality

I listened to a man reflect on his experiences as an executive in a large company. In two cases, he was responsible for the building of major plants. To build a plant requires the negotiation of contracts. His first experience was with a plant in Mexico where a complex package of loans had to be negotiated. The process took a year. It was complicated by the fact that one of his lawyers was known as “Mr. No.” Every attempt to move forward began in self-interest, conflict, and distrust. From this base, the people tried to build their desired future.

In the Western world, it is conventionally assumed that you formulate a contract so as to build a relationship to obtain an outcome. It is often assumed that the lawyer’s job is to eliminate the need for trust, to foresee all that could go wrong, and design a set of rewards and penalties that will ensure success. All that is needed is a brilliant mind.

The next assignment was to build a plant in Asia. In Asia, they did not assume that the formulation of the contract would create a relationship that would bring the desired outcome. They believed that the eventual contract was simply a memorial to an already existing relationship. You first build a trusting relationship, and then you negotiate, maintaining a relationship of trust and respect. This unconventional orientation was very difficult for his people who were trained in the Western perspective.

As result of his two experiences this man’s conventional assumptions were disrupted. He was forced to create his own theory. Positive leaders are usually born by experiencing serious jolts like this that require them to reexamine their most basic assumptions. We call it “mindful engagement” or the ability to learn from experience.

The man now believes that you move forward by both discipline and vision. You envision win/win outcomes or the future success of both parties. You co-create an image of the shared future. You build respect and trust while you also build a formal contract and you use the contract to promote collective growth.

It seems to me that his reflections on contracting provide a metaphor for understanding positive leadership. The organization is a network of evolving expectations. People are always drifting toward self-interest, conflict, and organizational decay. The role of the leader is to continually monitor the emergence of conflict, surface it, and then attract people into a future they all desire. The challenge is to clarify the common good or highest purpose, to model integrity, nurture belief, and build shared respect and trust.

When the positive leader succeeds, a conventionally unimaginable reality emerges. Negative peer pressure is transformed into positive peer pressure and everyone does the right thing, in real time, because they desire to do so. When a person experiences this unimaginable reality, they aspire to create it.

If a person has never experienced this reality, the notion of positive leadership seems foolish and the logical thing to do is to think and act conventionally. The lesson is that most people remain as managers until they, like the executive described above, have experiences that challenge their assumptions and lead them to formulate a new theory and a new set of aspirations.


  • What do you believe about contracts and relationships?
  • What do you believe about trust and respect?
  • As a leader, to what do you aspire?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?