Positive Passage Practicing Positive Leadership

Recently my son, Shawn, received an email from a woman who attended our course on positive leadership. She told of going home and meeting with her people. She writes; “I can honestly say that the reaction I received was totally unexpected.  About half the room was crying and the whole group gave me a standing ovation at the end.  I was stunned.  It was the best day of my professional career – unforgettable.”

What did she do?

After an introductory exercise, she spent 45 minutes presenting the principles of positive leadership. What she presented was unconventional. She writes.

I did have a slide deck since that is second nature here….but I really challenged myself to share my own experiences.  So, I hardly referred to the slides – I just told my own personal stories related to what the slides described.  For example, I showed the slide that lists the effects of positive relationships and one of the items listed was people recover from surgery quicker.  Instead of just reading the slide, I shared my memory of when my dad had a heart-attack and had quadruple by-pass surgery.  After the surgery, his doctor met with us and provided a 5 minute update on how the surgery went but then spent literally 45 minutes explaining to us the importance of creating a positive/supportive environment for my dad at home for his recovery…and I shared how my mom, brother, and I consciously did this.

Another story I shared was in regards to high quality connections and the exercise we went through to really think about who we have HQC’s with…..and then who is not on that list.  For me, in the class, a huge “aha” moment was that my husband wasn’t on my list.  So, I shared the impact that revelation had on me personally.  I also shared stories related to “purpose”, “best-self”, and “1%”.  I was able to cover a lot of topics in 45 minutes.

I showed the Mo Cheeks video with Natalie Gilbert singing the national anthem and I ended with the Dela video of “Why Wait”.


  • How did she practice positive leadership?
  • Why did she get a standing ovation?
  • What conventional fears keep us from behaving in this fashion?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Refusing the Expert Role

We were holding a class on positive leadership. I was exploring the power of inquiry. During a break, an executive approached me and said that the managers reporting to him do not want him to ask questions. They want him to tell them what to do. This executive asked me for guidance; he was inviting me into the expert role. He wanted me to tell him what to do. While I was tempted to take on the expert role, I knew better. Instead of responding, I asked questions that challenged his assumptions.

This process caused his story to deepen. He eventually shared his belief that the real reason his managers come to him asking for directions is that is makes their life easier. When in conflict with peers they can say, “The boss told me to do it this way?”

I asked him: “Is that the result you want to create?” He found the question odd. I asked if his managers were acting as leaders. Leaders do not avoid conflict. They surface conflict and transform it into collaboration. He seemed to find this thought electrifying. The executive concluded that conflict avoidance among his managers was not the result he wanted to create.

I suggested that he play the role of one of his managers and I would be him. As our simulated discussion unfolded, I kept asking him what result he wanted to create. He resisted answering and I became more insistent.

Suddenly the roleplaying executive had an insight. He decided the manager he was representing could derive his own best strategy. He (the executive) could then go with the manager and meet with the entire group, have the manager share his own strategy, and then invite the group of managers into an authentic discussion of the strategy. In doing this, the executive could surface the feared conflict, promote collective learning, and allow a new strategy to evolve.

Once the group learned to elevate and transform conflict in this fashion, the group could learn to function at this higher level without the executive present. Over time, he could nurture the development of this unusual capacity.

My associate found this new possibility exciting. He could imagine himself experiment with this new strategy, and he was anxious to try.

Had I responded to his initial invitation to be the expert, the conversation would have produced a different outcome. I would have given him a concept for which he would have had little use. By challenging him and thus allowing him to become my teacher, we became equals engaged in the process of co-creation. What emerged was a new possible future.

There are endless incentives that drive us into the expert role. People come to us expecting us to tell them what to do. Telling them rewards our ego. It is therefore difficult to shift. We love knowing and telling even if it is not effective.   We are slow to create relationships of learning. Normal social and organizational incentives hinder us from empowering other people.

One scientifically confirmed characteristic of transformational leaders is “intellectual stimulation.” This term refers to leaders challenging the conventional assumptions of the people around them. They honor and develop the agency of the other. They ask questions that make people think and feel, to know themselves, to feel what others feel, to see what is real and what is possible in a given context.

What result do you want to create? The question invites others out of the passive state. It invites them to increase their own awareness, embrace their own power, and choose their own strategy. When we resist the expert role, we begin to turn followers into leaders and we turn the organization positive.


  • How many of our managers are empowered leaders?
  • How much time do we spend in the expert role?
  • How much time do we spend protecting agency, challenging assumptions, and co-creating awareness?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Thought Walls and the Oxygen of Life

For years, my friend Horst Abraham has visited prisoners regularly.  He also maintains written correspondence with many of them.  Once he discovered that the prisoners he visited were less likely to return to prison than prisoners in formal programs.  Why did his prisoners do better?  He recently shared a note with me that he received from a prisoner with whom he corresponds.  The note helps to explain Abraham’s magic.

I don’t know whether you know, I always look forward to my contact with you. It is a lifeline. I look forward to take pen to paper and write to you, as I know you are listening. Your replies are consistently ‘more questions’, not advice such as we get plenty of from prison guards, counselors and clergy, just curious questions. Our exchange makes me think about life and its greater meaning beyond these walls, thought walls that are even more confining than the cement walls. Thanks for being my pen pal. Your writing provides me with “oxygen.”

This is a golden paragraph, full of meaning. It is worthy of multiple examinations. We are all prisoners confined in our own “thought walls.”  Our prison is the set of beliefs or assumptions we have accumulated from experience.  We all hold tightly to beliefs that we know to be true.  They prevent growth.

When we learn to “think about life and its greater meaning,” we find enlightenment and understanding.  We acquire a greater sense of purpose.  We open up.  We begin to discard old beliefs.  In this process of deep change, we begin to grow.

Horst is a “lifeline.”  He sees people as human beings.  He cares enough to practice authentic inquiry. He is courageous enough to challenge.  This mature form of teaching is a mature form of love.  It provides the “oxygen” of life to others.

The oxygen of life is mindful engagement and deep learning.  When we begin to live with an increased sense of enlightenment and positive intention the soul breathes.  When we have the oxygen of life, we come alive.  We feel free.  We feel empowered and empowering.  We find the courage to present our best self to the world.  I am grateful to understand how one man provides the “oxygen” of life and other men become free.

Organizations are great mechanisms. They are also prisons. Cultures hold organizations together. They also produce mindlessness. In the prison of organizational life, managers are an extension of the culture. Leaders are free. Leaders provide the oxygen of life and their people become empowered and empowering.



  • What is the oxygen of organizational life?
  • Would you like to work for Horst, why?
  • Are you free and do you provide the oxygen of life?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Sacred Mind

There is a man with whom I recently worked. He is a psychiatrist who has a disciplined mind and a firm commitment to science. He also has a PhD in theology. He is a member of a lay organization in the Catholic Church. He lives a highly disciplined personal life and radiates humility and love. He works as a professor of leadership at a university. He is also a spiritual guide to the people he associates with in his lay ministry.

He says his highest purpose is to help people “sanctify their work.” Sanctify means to make sacred. He believes that all work can be made sacred. When we tie the work we do, no matter how mundane, to a higher purpose, the work becomes more meaningful because we suddenly do it with our whole being.

In connecting our tasks to a higher purpose, we begin to see ourselves as contributing to something larger. We see the self as a dynamic, growing system, making an essential contribution to a larger system. By finding a way to give ourselves away, we find and the reveal our best self.

When we pursue a higher purpose and reveal our best self, we find a self that is worth loving. When we love our growing self, we begin to feel love for others. Because we experience the unfolding of our own potential, we see the potential in others and we wish to assist in causing it to unfold.

In all realms of life, my friend seeks to help people make their work sacred. While he is a man of faith, he is also a man of science. In the professional realm, he does his work without using the language of religion. He uses science to help people see. In other realms, he uses a different language.

As I watched him, he did not seem to teach like other professors. He was instructing, as others do, but he was also quietly inspiring. Through a mastery of science and a mastery of love, he was inviting a group of mature professionals to make their work sacred.

As I watched, I made a connection. Just as many professors would say that what he does is not possible in a professional classroom, many managers would say that what transformational leaders do is not possible in a professional organization. It is not only possible, it is what transformational leaders do. Through leadership of the self–through consideration, inspiration, and challenge–they help people find their highest purpose and they help them make their work sacred. They then grow in all areas of their lives.


How many of your people see their work as sacred?

What portions of your work do you see as sacred?

How could you transform yourself and others?

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



Getting Smart vs. Getting Wise

Two hundred people were waiting for me to start a session.  Instead of lecturing them, I asked them to answer four meaningful questions.  The questions were engaging and the table conversations were intense. I invited them to share. Their answers were inspiring.  I then had them all do an unusual exercise.  They fully engaged and it led to more great inputs.  I had presented almost nothing and the learning in the room was already significant.

When I finally started covering my slides, the people remained interactive.  I continued to ask challenging questions and they continued to give excellent answers.  The process lifted them and it lifted me.  I began covering old topics in new ways.

At one point, I noted a theme in their comments about greatness. At the heart of excellence is the power of attraction.  I asked them to think about when they had been morally attractive.  I shared a favorite line from a thoughtful CEO about becoming more attractive: “Every leader gets the culture they deserve. If you want a better culture, what are you going to do to deserve it?”

I then had an impression to apply the notion to marriage and the family.  “If you have a marital relationship you are dissatisfied with, you might ask, ‘What am I going to do to deserve a better relationship?’ If you have a relationship with your teenager that is disintegrating, you might ask the teen, ‘What do I need to do to deserve a better relationship with you?’”

At that moment, I could feel something happen.  The focus and the oneness in the room intensified and learning deepened.

Afterwards an African American woman who had chaired the event came up to talk.  She said, “I have been thinking about what you said about teenagers.  I have been teaching my teenager to confront barriers and learn his way into progress.”

I responded, “You are operating at a high professional level and you are an African American woman.  To get to this level you had to do more than others do.  You had to face barriers others do not face.  You know that the key to success is the ability to maintain a higher purpose, encounter barriers, stay positive, and engage in deep learning.  The white parents are telling their kids to do their math and get smart.  You are teaching your kid how to engage in deep learning and get wise.”

She was frozen.  She looked off into the distance.  She was making connections and seeing things she had not seen before.  She asked, “Have you written this up in one of your books?”  We went into a very meaningful conversation.  She left with new feelings and new vision.

As I reflect on that experience, it seems to me that this conversation and others like it emerged because of the collective conversation. In the classroom, we created a network of collective intelligence, a positive organization. This gave them the courage to approach me personally. It gave me the courage to challenge them. We were able to co-create new life strategies.



What is the difference between getting smart and getting wise?

Why and how did a network of deep learning emerge?

What does it mean to co-create new life strategies?

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


When I was eleven, I to stay home from school for a week because of a poison ivy rash. I started to get bored. The idea came to plant a garden. Although I knew nothing about gardens, I prepared the ground, bought some carrot seeds, and planted them. Time went by and the carrots began to sprout. I kept returning to look at the sprouts. I did so with a sense of awe. I had taken action and seeds turned into carrots. I had done work and a new life form materialized. It was amazing to me.

Recently I was working in the morning with senior executives. One of the participants shared a tough issue. He offered it as a challenge to a point I was making. He believed it was unsolvable. Instead of telling him that he could apply a certain strategy, I told him two contrasting stories and allowed him to ponder and apply.

Later at lunch he made it a point to cross the room, stop at my table, and tell me he was appreciative for what I shared and even more appreciative for how I shared. His expression of gratitude made me feel the way I felt when I looked at my carrots.

In the foyer, I encountered a colleague. He spoke of the workshop for doctoral students that was going on in the basement. It was a voluntary, one-week experience. Students had come in from all over. He said the material was exciting and the conversations were intense. He expressed how much he appreciated the phenomenon.

I told him I could tell of his appreciation because, as he talked, he was glowing. This caused him to pause. He is a critical thinker who is not into “glowing.” To my surprise, he did not object. He said, “Organizing this was a ton of work. I am getting no pay and no credit, but you are right: I just love this.”

As he walked away, I thought of the session I had just taught, and I thought of my carrots. Every person has influence.   This means we all have the opportunity to teach or lead. If we take advantage of our opportunities, we improve and turn positive. We learn to prepare the relational soil and plant seeds. When we see the seeds sprout, we have a sense of awe. We experience the realization of our contributive desire.   We rejoice in our labor because it is contribution. I am grateful for opportunities to teach and to lead. I am grateful for opportunities to glow.


  • Is my work a source of income and a source of joy?
  • Are the people around me growing?
  • How often do my influence episodes leave me with a sense of awe?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Free Book

Just a short announcement that the book I wrote with Kim Cameron and Jane Dutton is being featured by our Publisher, Berrett-Koehler, this month. They are giving away free copies.  If you are interested, you can enter here:

Enter now to win Positive Organizational Scholarship in my publisher’s giveaway. https://resources.bkconnection.com/25thannigiveawaysept

Best Self in Barcelona

In Barcelona we were teaching a group of 150 professionals and the topic was positive leadership. I asked them to do an exercise and share their insights. The conversation across the large group became increasingly insightful. A man raised his hand and said that 20 years ago a teacher taught him a profound lesson.

The teacher said that if you want to lead you can pay someone to work and the pay will create external motivation. You can pay a person and also expose the person to a sense of purpose and it will create intrinsic motivation. You can pay a person, give them purpose, and open paths so they can fully give themselves away. This creates transcendent motivation.

When we work for pay, we work for ourselves. When we work for a higher purpose, we work for something bigger. When we give ourselves away to that higher purpose, ego disappears and we become servants of the common good.   A new self emerges.



  • Do the people around me work for pay?
  • Are the people linked to a higher purpose?
  • Are the people finding and giving themselves away?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


A Personal Board of Directors

Research suggests that we learn from our negative experiences and not our positive experiences. One reason is that it is natural to ponder our failures and not so natural to ponder things that are going well.

An executive told me of a toxic boss he once had named Tom. My friend shared examples of Tom requiring his people to do extreme things just to show he was in control. How could anyone be so ego driven?

My friend said, “I learned a lot. Today when I have a challenging situation, I ask, ‘What would Tom do?’ I conceptualize it and then I do the opposite.”

We both laughed but he was serious. This caused me to recall a similar process in which I occasionally engage. I have a psychological board of directors. You may want to experiment with creating one. Identify the people who left the most negative legacy in your life, people like Tom. Then identify the people who left the most positive legacy in your life. Then take a current challenge in your life and ask: “What would each person do?” Lay out the answers and then combine them into a strategy. In this way, you will be learning not only from the negative but also from the positive. If you consciously do this a number of times, you will find that you are diversifying your thought processes. You will also be accelerating your leadership development.

Now imagine taking this process to a team. You identify a challenge. You ask each person to do the above exercise and come up with a new strategy. You have each person share a strategy, open a discussion, and together construct a common strategy. You will not only have a better strategy than any one person could create, you will also provide a model of leadership development.


  • When you formulate strategies, what is your thought process?
  • Are you learning from your positive as well as your negative history?
  • Who are the people you want on your psychological board of directors?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Shaping the Emerging Future

We were in a film studio and I was in front of the camera. When I do this, I have a prepared message but I do not use a script. I know what I want to say but I allow myself to formulate the words in real time. I do this because I want the message to be authentic.

We were three minutes into the first segment, when the man in charge, Greg, stopped the process and said we should begin again. This surprised me. Based on previous experiences, Greg refers to me as “Mr. One Take.” I had begun to take pride in the title.

I asked if I had said the wrong words or hesitated in some way. He said, “No, but in the first two minutes you were not rolling like you are now. You have your rhythm. You are giving more. You are really connecting with the viewer. You need to do that from the beginning.”

I knew he was right. We started over and the difference was clear. At the end, I sought him out and told him I was grateful. His intervention would stay with me forever.   In the making of future videos, I will be conscious of the lesson. I will prepare differently. I will be rolling from the start.

The sense of gratitude stayed with me all day. Why?

My purpose is to touch lives, to inspire positive change. I am passionate about it. When I am in a conventional state, I tend to become ego-driven. I need to show that I am self-sufficient. Feedback is an unwelcome disruption, something I block or set aside. Knowledge and pride drive out learning. I do not realize it, but I am living in the past and I am dying in the present. There is no life in me, I am out of rhythm, and people are not connecting. I am not inspiring positive change.

When I orient to my purpose, I move forward, hungry for feedback. I am using my existing knowledge base and expanding it through the process of learning. I am integrating the past with the present while shaping the emerging future. I am fully alive, in rhythm, and people are connecting. I am inspiring change because I am modeling change. I am grateful for Greg and his disruptive feedback.


  • When do you rejoice in disruptive feedback?
  • What life purpose permeates what you do and leads you to welcome disruptive feedback?
  • When is the last time you remember integrating the past with the present while shaping the emerging future?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?