Anxiety, Contribution, and Learning

A friend is moving into a new job assignment. He is feeling some anxiety. He and my son Shawn were talking about the challenge. He wrote of the conversation and how it shaped him. I believe he gives us an important lesson.

At one point, Shawn told me about a man who tried hard to create a positive culture in his workplace.  At the end of a dynamic year, he said, “I have failed more this past year than ever before.  And I have succeeded more than ever before.”  As I listened to Shawn, I felt a strong attraction to this idea: to grow professionally, I need to try new things, fail, and learn from failure so I can succeed in more meaningful ways.

I listed all the bureaucratic constraints I would soon be facing. Shawn asked me about my purpose statement, and we discussed the notion that it continually evolves as we understand it better.  I shared some stories.  Shawn noticed an important detail: in addition to organizing innovative, collective efforts, I seemed to be at my best when I was listening carefully to and learning the needs of the people around me.  This idea opened something within me.  It gave me a clear place to start in any anxiety-inducing situation: first, listen deeply. 

As I considered entering my new job, I determined to listen deeply and serve my new colleagues in small and simple ways.  As I forget myself, cast out my fears, and work hard to learn, I will build honest relationships of trust and love. I will come to understand the needs of the individuals and the organization.  As I do this, I will counsel together with my new colleagues regarding our path forward. 



  • To what extent do you believe the following proposition; “To grow professionally, I need to try new things, fail, and learn from failure so I can succeed in more meaningful ways.”
  • Why is it natural to feel anxiety when we enter a new challenge?
  • Why is it helpful to clarify our strengths and our contributive purpose?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Addressing Authentic Questions

An authentic question is a question we really care about and to which we have no answer. Recently 20 wonderful people spent two days with me. On the first day, I asked them to list their authentic questions. They produced the following list.

  • I am exhausted. How do I get back my creative self?
  • When I get back, how do I maintain my best self?
  • What do I do next week to make a difference?
  • How do I become positive and not turn others off?
  • How do I engage my people by utilizing their strengths?
  • What do I do if I have a truly evil boss?
  • If I forgive someone, do I have to trust them?

The next morning I was up a 4:00 AM staring at the questions. It took me two hours to write the following assignment.

Assignment: Step into your best self. Then answer the following questions, not with an answer but with a simple question that will transform the conventional perspective of the person asking the question.

I asked everyone to write a transformational question for each of the above authentic questions. We then debriefed. In regards to the first question about burnout, for example, a woman asked, “What gives you joy?” I asked her to elaborate. She explained that instead of focusing on why we are burning out, we could focus on what gives us joy and consciously build more joy into our work.

Others came up with similar insightful questions. The person who originated the authentic question made notes on the conversation. When it was over, he had ten practical actions he could take. He said he was going to take them all. The process repeated for each of the remaining questions. As I drove home, I was consumed with the magical learning that had just taken place. In a simple exercise, some major theories of change came together and learning skyrocketed.



  • Why did it take two hours to create the two-sentence assignment?
  • Why did the process have so much impact?
  • What is the everyday application of this case?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Creating A Vision

There is a woman who works in development at a large university. She has a team that raises money for the medical system. She describes how she is going about the process of creating a shared vision.

About a year and a half ago, I accepted a new position and was assigned seven employees. Prior to my arrival, they had been a part of a larger group that had gone through an extraordinary amount of change in management, organizational restructuring, and support.

I sensed that the group might be willing to experiment applying your exercise of envisioning and defining them as a positive organization.

We organized a 2½-hour mini-retreat with lunch and held the meeting in one of the newest and medically advanced buildings on campus purposely, where new ideas in scientific discovery take place and where the windows overlook the medical complex–our territory.

I asked them ahead of time to complete the exercises. “What key words and phrases describe our team? When are we at our best? Write a definition of what our team might be as a positive organization.”

I read my vision of our higher purpose, “Philanthropy means the love of humanity, the desire to promote the welfare of others.”

These words resonated and became part of our theme for the day.

They took the exercise to heart and the large white board was overflowing with new words that none of us had expressed before: “truth becomes more important than power”; “recruit for values”; “train for skills”; and “take risks” and “we may fail, but we learn.”

We shared combined larger phrases and came up with five different viewpoints of us as a team, as a positive organization. We read out loud to each other; here is one of them.

“An environment where individuals are empowered to be kind, curious, and creative, while working in teams to support and motivate each other to achieve a common vision.”

Since then, we combined the words and phrases, weighted them, and came up with two Wordles, designed in Michigan colors, and disseminated them to the team to display our purpose, for daily inspiration.

Future meeting agendas will print these at the bottom of the page. Next our team plans are to take key words–like “honest and transparent”–and articulate a larger definition and what this means to us.

Words expressed after doing this exercise included, “For the first time, I felt valued for my contributions,” and “I enjoyed this experience with my team.”

The philanthropy mantra has been disseminated at one of our faculty meetings and the ultimate compliment, used by one of our long-respected faculty leaders to begin his presentation at an international conference.



  • In conventional organizations, process like this one tend not to occur. Why?
  • What aspects of the described process do your find most impressive?
  • Why is the process extending over a long period?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Learning How to Talk for the Organization

We were with the president of an organization. He spoke of positive communication and collective performance. He said, that in making decisions, how people communicate matters. They have the courage to speak with authenticity and vulnerability. They have to not only share what they know, they also have to share what they do not know. They are not in the room to demonstrate their expertise, they are in the room for a higher purpose and to pursue it they have to create collective intelligence or the ability to co-create learning at an elevated level.

By way of illustration he told us of his first meeting as president. There was a problem he could not solve. He presented the problem to his people. They were making no progress. He pointed out that no one in the room had the answer and they had to learn their way into the answer. Then he shocked them by saying, “You have to tell me what you really feel.”

He explained that the strong personalities in the room needed to share feelings and listen with respect. They needed to build trust so the social network could be transformed into a highly cohesive learning system. If one person could share honest feelings with tentativeness, another might offer a strategy, and then another might respectfully and constructively challenge either or both. The first two might then gladly withdraw their inputs. This would signal that the meeting was an authentic learning conversation, and the signal might inspire still another to offer a new and equally tentative possibility.

He then gave a personal example. He said, “My wife and I had to learn how to communicate. We are no longer interested in who is right or wrong but in what is best for the family. We express the feelings of our hearts and we search to establish common ground. We do this without ever breaking the relationship. You have to be careful, if you state your opinion too strongly, you shut down conversation.”


  • What emerges when people authentically share what they feel, including their ignorance?
  • Why do the feelings and proposals need to be stated tentatively?
  • Why is it necessary to put the good of the collective ahead of ego?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Life Metaphor and a Transformational Father

Jim Mahoney is a national force in public education. Even in retirement he continually speaks to and inspires large groups. In his presentations he uses powerful stories to illustrate his points. Recently I asked Jim to share with me the most important story he has to tell. He wrestled with the notion and then shared the following. He says the story is the central metaphor of his life. I think we should each search for and deeply ponder our own most important story.

Embedded in Jim’s story is a second story. It is also worthy of deep consideration.

Red Brick Hill

As a child, I lived with my paternal grandmother in an area of our small town known as Boxtown. Some referred to the area as “the hill” because from the top you easily see most of the town below. One Saturday, when I was nine years old, my dad, who was visiting from the city where he worked as a machinist, took me to the Western Auto to purchase my first two-wheel bicycle. It was red and if I sat in the seat the tip toes of my feet would barely touch the ground keeping me balanced.

 My dad let me ride it home, which was approximately a mile away. All was fine until I got to the bottom of “the hill,” which consisted of 600 feet of red brick followed by a left turn of another 150 feet before you reached our house and the top of the hill. My dad yelled from his car window, “Pedal hard, you can do this!” And so I started up the long red brick hill.

As each pedal on each side of the bicycle would reach its top height, I would push down hard for the other side to come up with just enough force to keep the bike moving forward. I was completely standing up pumping as hard as I could to make it up the hill that had a 45 degree angle. Each time, when I thought the bike was going to stop moving and fall sideways, I would push through another downward motion to keep the momentum going.  

Out of breath and fully red-faced, I just kept going until I made the left turn and made it to the top of the hill. I was elated and tired when I made it to the front of my grandmother’s house. I had pumped my bicycle the entire red brick hill!  

This singular event became a metaphor for every obstacle I ever had after that point. Though I couldn’t express it, born in that event was the notion that to develop confidence you need to successfully complete something hard.

Pumping the red brick hill was hard to do. And while I physically did it, my journey was helped more than a little by the encouraging, insisting, and supporting voice of my dad—“Keep going! Don’t stop now! C’mon, boy, you’re almost there.” That encouragement and support from him was always there.  

Then and now, my life continues to be climbing yet another red brick hill. There were always obstacles, but support shows you how, encouragement says you can, and confidence comes from overcoming the challenge. But it started with the red brick hill. 

The Second Story

Jim’s story is a story of resilience, of learning to live with grit. It is the most important metaphor in Jim’s life. Yet it is also a story about his father. It is the story of a transformational leader. Transformational leaders simultaneously challenge and support while followers grow and become. It should not be surprising that the direct reports of transformational leaders are transformational leaders. Jim’s dad, a machinist, was a transformational leader who produced a son who is a transformational leader.



  • What story is the central metaphor of your life?
  • Who in your life is most like Jim’s father?
  • What could you do today to become more like Jim’s father?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Gratitude at Work

A reader of the blog recently wrote of his personal experience with a gratitude journal. Here is an edited version of his message.

I started my gratitude journal more than four years ago. First of all, I never understood what was so important about being grateful. For me, it was too much a religious concept and a waste of time. But I decided to keep a gratitude journal. I began writing daily at least three things I was grateful for in my life. Doing so changed my life. I became more present. I was able to direct my attention inward. It changed my awareness and beliefs. You cannot be grateful and resentful at the same time. Gratitude has become second nature to me.

I share this because it represents a commonly expressed pattern. A person has little use for the concept of gratitude, is exposed to the research showing the many positive payoffs, and begins to keep a gratitude journal. The simple writing process changes feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

The process has organizational possibilities. A woman who runs a staff function in a business school once told me about her Thankful Thursdays. She convinced her people to keep gratitude journals. Once a week she asks her staff to share their most important feeling of gratitude. Doing so changed the culture and the performance of the unit. She told this story in public. Her direct reports were present. They all grew excited and competed to tell stories illustrating the power of Thankful Thursdays. In was a manifestation of positive deviance in a conventional setting.



  • Why do people resist the concept of gratitude?
  • Why does increasing in gratitude change one’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors?
  • Why does the process work in a collective setting?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Adaptive Confidence

The new Mission Impossible movie is an action-packed thriller much like the prequels. It is also a perfect illustration of leadership and positive culture—and that positive culture produces two assets not available to conventional groups.

The protagonist is high on task and people and willing to sacrifice for both. His people know this about him and about each other. The result is a team with unusually high levels of focus, trust, and collaboration.

The presence of these characteristics often brings out two other characteristics: positive peer pressure and adaptive confidence. In a team with positive peer pressure, everyone expects everyone else to give their best, so they do and this eventually gives rise to adaptive confidence.

Adaptive confidence tends to emerge in a team with positive peer pressure. It is the belief that a solution can be manufactured in the process of pursuing a challenging task. In the movie, team members are often under stress and they make statements like these: “We can figure it out”; “I know you can figure it out”; or “I will figure out something.” They have adaptive confidence at the collective and the individual level and they thus perform well under pressure and accomplish things other groups would not be able to accomplish.

While the movie is fictional, I know a CEO and a four star general who both understand adaptive confidence and inspirational leadership. The CEO says the way to determine if an executive is a leader is to see how the team performs under stress. If they collaborate, adapt, and accomplish their goal no matter what, then the CEO knows that the executive is a leader who inspires.

The general makes the same observation, indicating that whether or not a man with two bullets in him focuses, adapts and, accomplishes a mission is a function of inspirational leadership prior to the event. Toxic leaders or micro-managers can get results when they have total control of known processes, but when the people can only succeed by adapting under pressure, such authority figures fail.

If you watch the movie, try a challenge. Ignore the interesting plot and focus only on the leader, the team, and the notions of positive peer pressure and adaptive confidence. It may have high payoffs.



  • What does peer pressure look like in a conventional organization?
  • What is positive peer pressure and how is it created?
  • What is the level of adaptive confidence in your people?
  • How could we use this passage to create a positive organization?



Creating Positive Culture

An executive was speaking about leadership. She indicated that that she and her colleagues were trying to create a more positive culture. To do this they were consciously engaging senior people in regular discussions of positive leadership. She described using tools emanating from the Center for Positive Organizations and focusing on examples of when leaders modeled their best self. In illustrating the impact of the efforts she told a story.

In her company, there is a senior executive who is known to be smart and passionate, but at times the characteristics manifest as being abrupt, and frightening. He proposed a new program. All of his people had serious concerns but no one dared to share them.

He walked into a meeting and indicated that he wanted to explore the program. He started with purpose and explained why he believed the program was necessary. This created a sense of vision that was not previously available. It altered some perspectives. He acknowledged his tendency to intimidate. This authenticity was followed by an expression of vulnerability. He indicated that the program was important, and he was in need of their honest feelings. This further altered perspectives. People responded and he listened. The listening brought still more honesty, and ultimately the meeting participants were engaging in how to make the vision reality

The meeting was so productive, that participants began to speak of it as a stellar example of positive leadership. In their corporate discussions, it regularly surfaced. This means that the act of positive leadership not only resulted in a great meeting, it also looped back into the culture and became a point of discussion, a model of positive leadership, and a catalyst for corporate change.

In every act we take, we shape the culture we live in. Most of the time we are complying with the culture and this preserves the status quo. Occasionally we choose to enact our best self and we exceed expectations. This is a moral act that carries moral power. When we enact our best selves, the act violates expectations, attracts attention, and becomes a stimulus for positive change.



  • Why is purpose, authenticity and vulnerability essential to positive leadership?
  • How did this unconventional, positive act become a catalyst for changing culture throughout the organization?
  • Why does celebrating real examples of positive leadership give rise to a positive culture?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Lead From Who You Are Becoming

A senior executive from a Fortune 100 Company was speaking with deep insight about leadership. At one point she indicated that a key proposition is to; “Lead from who you are.” She went on to tell a particularly powerful story about a man who became fully authentic and greatly influenced his people. As she finished, she spoke of development and she said, “We are all a work in progress.”

As I took notes I put stars next to the two sentences. When I went back to review, I examined her two sentences together and I wrote a new sentence; “Lead from who you are becoming.”

When we look at ourselves from a fixed mindset, we see ourselves as a noun. The self is fixed. “Lead from who you are.”

When we look at ourselves from a growth mindset, we see ourselves as a verb. “Lead from who you are becoming.”

Does the difference matter? When I am stagnant, life loses its meaning. I become filled with negative feelings. I tend towards depression and I have shrinking positive influence that sometimes becomes negative influence. When I am growing, life is filled with meaning. I am filled with positive feelings about me, about the world, and about other people. When I look at others I suddenly see potential in them I did not previously see. Why? Because when I am actualizing potential, I see others differently. I see more potential in them than they see in themselves. The best self in not an old self, the best self is the evolving self, the self that is realizing potential in the present moment. When we lead from the evolving self our influence peaks.



  • Who is the most authentic person you know? Is the person stagnant or growing?
  • What does personal growth have to do with personal influence?
  • What could you do today to become more influential?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Transcending Stress

As individuals we may need to cope with physical illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, abusive treatment, burnout, job loss or other life demands. In organizations we may need to cope with recession, new competitors, regulatory changes, evolving customer preferences and many other such challenges. When these storms hit stress goes up. One way to cope is to self-elevate by entering the fundamental state of leadership.

The essence of the fundamental state of leadership is that answering the following four questions leads to self-transcendence. It puts us in an increased state of virtue, centers us, and increases our influence.

What result do I want to create (Increased sense of purpose)?

Am I internally directed (Increased integrity)?

Am I other focused (Increased empathy)?

Am I externally open (Increased humility)?

I received a message from a person who read my article about the fundamental state of leadership ( (See also the book, Lift: the Fundamental State of Leadership.)

Years ago, after an injury, she indicates that she engaged the “path to insight.” She learned much about who she is. The article about the fundamental state of leadership came to her at a time of challenge. She was not sure she understood it. In the midst of the challenge, someone commented on how calm she seemed. Suddenly she had a realization. She was calm because on the “path to insight” she had learned how to transform in the face of stress. As she pondered this, she realized she already knew how to enter the fundamental state of leadership. Whenever she self-elevates, stress disappears.


  • Why does leadership start within?
  • What happens when we are stressed?
  • What happens to the mind and heart if we have a sudden increase in purpose, integrity, empathy, and humility?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?