Purpose and Learning

We had a session with executives from a Fortune 100 company. The man in charge is an extraordinary person. Unlike many executives, he has a profound understanding of human influence and the fact that real leadership orbits around commitment to higher purpose. He spoke for two hours and that room full of very smart people was mesmerized. I took 16 pages of notes and then when I stood to teach, I built on what he taught. As we went through the process, the people remained fully engaged.

I asked them what word, other than “purpose,” their boss uttered most frequently. They gave me many words but not the right answer. Finally, I said: “The word is learning. He used it over and over. The man is passionate about learning. He sees purpose and learning as two interconnected keys to constantly creating a better life and a better world. He lives in state of adaptive confidence. He hungers to realize human potential and believes it can be brought about through individual and collective learning.”

They all nodded. The man also nodded.

I told them that we were having a conversation in which I was learning as much as they were. I meant it. The next morning I woke pondering the relationship between purpose and learning. The following occurred to me.

When we clarify and commit to our highest purpose, it draws us outside our comfort zone to make contributions to the greater good. We do things we do not know how to do. Of necessity we live in challenge and suffer failure. Because we are passionate about our purpose, we do not give up. Instead we engage in disciplined reflection. We further clarify our identity and destiny. New ideas and strategies come and we move forward. We discover a deeper self. We discover that we have untapped potential and we also see the untapped potential in others. We seek to create a better future. As we do, we develop an elevated way of being and a perspective that is not available to the conventional mind.


  • Is it possible that executives do not understand leadership? Why?
  • Who in your life clarifies purpose, inspires action and nurtures learning?
  • What would happen if every supervisor, manager and executive learned to lead? How would your daily experience be different?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?







Waking People Up

Nick Craig is on fire. He has spent the last decade focused on the concept of purpose, and he has helped thousands of people to find their life purpose. Yesterday I was on the phone with Nick, and he joyfully told me story after story of transformational moments when people were able to state their life mission.

Nick told me about the poverty and desperation of his childhood. One day he was standing in a bookstore when it suddenly became clear that he had to make a decision: “I could continue to live in the victim mentality or I could live in a mentality of possibility. I began to take accountability for my life. Others chose to remain in the victim mentality and we have ended up in very different places.”

Nick said, “My life mission is to wake you up and have you finally be home.” He says he is always helping people look for words that help them articulate what is already inside them. When you find your purpose, you feel like you are home.

Nick’s purpose has driven him to write, and he will soon publish a book called Leading from Purpose. The process of writing is causing him to think even more deeply, and he invited me into his thoughts. He told me our purpose is already wired in; our task is to find it. If we do not find our purpose, we cannot lead from it. When we find it, we awake, we become conscious and aware. In gaining this awareness, we transform. With a new perspective, we gain a sense of meaning and we take accountability. We feel empowered and we gain an increased desire to create and contribute.

When we live in our purpose, we create “good stress.” Instead of living in the retreat response, we live in the challenge response, moving forward, learning, and growing as we seek to create. As we do, we take on a paradoxical quality. Purpose gives us the strength to continue in uncertainty and it gives us vulnerability that comes with doing so. When we are both strong and vulnerable, we have the courage to present our authentic self.

Nick says all of this seemingly personal stuff has implications for organizations. People with a genuine purpose see the potential in others and they seek to link the others to the collective purpose. In every interaction, they are linking the people to the purpose, and when they succeed, “magic happens.” The need for control declines because the people begin to lead themselves. The organization begins to learn and grow.

I asked Nick how he goes about the process of helping people find their purpose. He said he helps them examine their “magical moments in childhood,” their “crucible stories,” and their “life passions.” As people share these, Nick listens deeply and helps them look for the threads.

The moment someone finds their purpose, there is an explosion of discovery and everyone else lights up. “As they listen to the words, everyone in the room gets a tingling in their body.” Nick says, “The test is this question; ‘Does the curious little boy or girl in you suddenly show up? If not, you have not found your purpose.’”

Nick made an interesting observation: “I have studied every religion. I have a network of friends filled with people who are spiritually disciplined or military folks who are members of the Special Forces. I think spiritual discipline and military discipline produce people of higher purpose. Because they are pursuing something bigger than self, they are willing to do the hard thing rather than the easy or the wrong thing. Purpose exposes your integrity gaps; it lets you know the score. Purpose does not let you take a vacation. It will not let you go. It pulls you into the next crucible. Eventually, you begin to see the next crucible as a gift.”



  • What does this mean? “Eventually you begin to see the next crucible as a gift.”
  • What is your highest personal purpose?
  • What is the highest purpose of your unit?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Profound Awareness and Personal Accountability

There is a woman named Gail with whom I sometimes work. One day she felt inspired to share a traumatic story she never before shared:

My first husband was a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive man. I had grown to fear him and was as careful as I knew how to be [in order] not to trigger his rages.

            One evening, when I arrived home after being late to pick him up after work, he was waiting for me with a leather belt in his hand. He began screaming obscenities and beating me with the belt. As usual, I was totally unprepared and unable or unwilling to defend myself. As usual, I felt victimized.

            I am not certain how long the attack continued, but at some point, something inside me literally clicked. Time slowed down, and I remember hearing a voice inside me say as clearly as if there had been someone in the room talking to me, “You know he’s crazy, but you must be crazy too for putting up with this.” In that moment, I was transformed into a woman who had choices, and I knew, even though I was not ready emotionally or financially, that I would leave the relationship.

            I never said a word or lifted a finger to defend myself, but the most amazing thing happened. He stopped hitting me and screaming at me, dropped the belt, and walked away. We never spoke of the incident, and he never again raised his voice to me or lifted a finger to harm me. It was as if he somehow sensed that he would never be able to treat me that way again.

            In a moment of profound awareness, I had taken personal responsibility for my own sense of well-being, and I had changed on a deep, fundamental level. Within months, I had enrolled in graduate school, moved out of our apartment, and filed for divorce. I had changed the world by changing myself.

Organizations are often systems of intimidation. Bullies emerge and employees absorb abuse. They feel powerless and immobilized. They become victims. Gail shows us there is choice in such situations. The moment we take full responsibility for our own well-being, we change and the context changes. Authority figures cannot intimidate people who know and respect themselves.


  • What forms of abuse emerge in your organization?
  • Do people ever feel like victims?
  • How do you promote personal awareness and personal accountability?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Transforming a discouraged audience

University professional schools are a challenging change target. A dean of a business school once invited me to run a retreat. A year earlier, one of my colleagues, Kim Cameron, worked with the same group and presented the basics of positive leadership. People were impressed. One professor told me that Kim’s presentation had left him feeling “intellectually awed.” When I asked about application of the ideas, I learned it had been a tough year financially. There was much conflict and the positive ideas faded.

When I met with the full group, I could feel the conflict, and it created fear in me. I began to envision failure. In this negative state, I could see no options. I knew I had to transform my own negative feelings into positive emotions. If I was going to initiate change, I had to change myself so I could change the emotions and the vision of the group.

I listened to the early presentations. A woman named Kathy was responsible for a small department in the school. Kathy listened to what Kim taught about gratitude. She took the advice to heart and started a gratitude journal and it made a difference in her personal life. She decided to apply the concept at work, and she established “Thankful Thursdays.” Each week, she invited everyone in her group to share highlights from their gratitude journals. Some people were resistant, but Kathy persisted.

In the auditorium, Kathy described the changes that took place in her unit. As she did, her demeanor changed. She appeared confident and full of joy. Then something even more impressive happened: members of her department began to excitedly and spontaneously share stories of how their department had changed.

After watching this phenomenon, I knew what to do. When my turn came, I walked to the stage and I said, “Please tell me what you felt when Kathy spoke.”

This question surprised the audience. I received a few intellectual responses. I pointed out that the answers did not address my question; I had asked about their feelings, not their analysis.

There was a pause. New responses emerged. The answers were more personal, honest, and authentic. Several people indicated that they felt inspired by what Kathy had done. As they made these comments, the climate changed. The entire audience became more positive.

I told them that Kathy’s authentic presentation inspired courage in me and gave me the idea to start my presentation with that question. I was standing in front of them with great confidence about the day and their ability to elevate their lives and their school.

I said, “Over the last year, Kathy had the courage to apply what she learned. Today she lifted many people in the room – including me. Kathy is a staff person and in a school like this, we tend to look down on staff people. They have low status. Yet Kathy is a positive leader. Today, in this room, she led the entire organization. Leadership is influence, and influence is not determined by hierarchical position.”

Although the statement ran counter to expectations, I felt confident it was true. In that moment, the audience experienced a paradigm shift, and negativity turned to hope. By calling attention to Kathy’s inspiration, they let go of their negative emotions. They opened up–and the rest of the day went very well.



  • Why did I ask the question about Kathy?
  • Why did the answer change the emotional climate in the room?
  • What principle of influence underlies this passage?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Meetings as Dynamic Learning Systems

I recently conducted a workshop for senior executives, each of whom had previously spent a week with me learning the principles of positive leadership. Although they were from the same organization, they came from different cohorts and so some were strangers to each other. Yet because of our previous history together, there was instantaneous trust. They trusted me, and knowing they shared a common experience in learning positive leadership, these strangers behaved like friends.

They also shared a common hunger. They desired to learn at the same level as they did in the first experience. So things started faster than usual.

I began by asking them to do an exercise that required sharing intimacies. There was zero hesitation. They poured out stories of things they did because of what they learned about positive leadership. The stories brought a shared sense of awe. I then presented new material that was challenging. Instead of expressing normal doubt, they grabbed the concepts and openly explored possible applications.

As we proceeded, they were making discoveries in real time and there was contagious energy in the room. We were filling each other with positive emotions. We could see new possibilities. We were building possible futures. We loved what was happening.

When we feel attracted to a higher purpose and engage it enthusiastically with heart and mind, we become whole. When multiple people do the same, the group becomes whole. The group becomes a dynamic learning system making a noble contribution. We create collective intelligence and we feel joy in the process and outcome.



  • When have you been in a meeting that was a dynamic learning system?
  • In your last meeting, were people hungry to be there? Why or why not?
  • What would cause people to arrive at and later leave your meetings with a sense of joy?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Reaching the Unreachable

I know a company that developed a widely held assumption: “These union people do not want to work, and there is nothing we can do about it.” The assumption that the employees were unreachable became a part of the culture and then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The large company eventually went bankrupt.

The statement about the union employees is the equivalent of a schoolteacher saying, “These students are from a minority group, and they do not want to learn. It is impossible to teach them.” It is the equivalent of a professor saying, “These MBA students are just here to get jobs. They do not want to learn. It is impossible to teach them.”

In most social settings, when a person makes any of these claims, the claim usually goes unchallenged. The listeners tend to nod their heads. In doing so, they become creators and preservers of conventional culture.

In conventional discourse, we do not expect people to exercise inspirational motivation, that is, create the authentic desire to learn and the authentic desire to work. In conventional organizations–politically correct rhetoric to the contrary–there is no belief or expectation that the people in authority positions will be practitioners of inspirational motivation.

Such an aspiration, we conventionally believe, would be unrealistic and doomed to fail. After all, the average manager or teacher does not know how to exercise inspirational motivation. Yet without inspirational motivation, a manager is not a leader, an instructor is not a teacher, and a business or a school is not an institution of excellence. The sad truth is we do not believe excellence is possible, so we do not expect excellence.

Conventional culture is a living system that orbits around the norms. Culture functions to preserve the norms. Conventional culture works to prevent the emergence of leadership in organizations. It generally succeeds because there is no one to challenge and alter the culture. Because we so well know mediocrity, because we so well accept mediocrity, because we so well expect mediocrity, we unwittingly collude in creating the culture that ensures mediocrity.

The few people who master teaching or master leadership not only aspire to reach the unreachable, they hold themselves accountable to reach the unreachable. In the positive lens, a starting point is that a leader or a teacher will create a genuine desire to learn and contribute. Inspirational motivation will turn the hierarchy into a system of learning, adaptation, and high performance. The unreachable will be reached and the organization will become an unconventional system of excellence.


  • Are there unreachable people in our organization?
  • Do our leadership development efforts produce people who can reach the unreachable?
  • What does our answer say about our culture, our aspirations, and our leadership ability?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Free Presentation At Michigan

On Tuesday, December 5 at 4 PM, Bob Quinn will give a presentation at the Center for Positive Organizations.  In it he will introduce a new approach to leader development and organizational change.  Here is the link to the session on the Ross YouTube channel:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuOCrXdu08s

Becoming Who You Really Are:

Learning To Do What Organizations Cannot Do For You

Robert E. Quinn

        Warren Bennis wrote that becoming a leader is becoming who you really are.  Research shows, counter to conventional thought, that people of transformative power develop a characteristic called idealized influence.  They become models worthy of admiration, respect, trust and emulation.  They live from a moral core that generates attractive power.  Without authority, they can draw the best out of others.  Conventional assumptions prevent us from seeing, understanding or aspiring to this condition.  This limitation constrains organizational efforts in leadership development.  Organizations cannot do what they spend much money trying to do.  They can develop managers but they cannot develop leaders.  This means we have to own our own leadership development.  This session will explore how to become who you really are and how to help those around you to do the same.

Every Interaction Matters

I listened to a CEO speak to senior executives about the need to replace fear with authentic conversations in order to get true feedback. The CEO began with a statement of vulnerability: “Sometimes I want to open a session to questions, but I fear that I will not know the answers. Sometimes I am in a tax discussion and I do not ask questions because I do not want to look stupid. Sometimes in meetings I choose updating over discussion. In each case I am failing to build trust.”

The CEO was making it legitimate to discuss the undiscussible issue: people at all levels of organizations are driven by fear. They communicate their fear. It is manifest in the culture. We expect people to be driven by fear–even CEOs.

The focus then turned to purpose and the CEO made an even more important point: “We have to find ways to get everyone on the same mission. Every interaction matters. We do not have bad people. The problem is that we have not fully established a sense of mission. We have not attracted them into that sense of mission. They do not have a reason to fully invest.”

Every interaction matters. Why? In every interaction, we build culture. When fear drives our actions, as it usually does, we communicate that we are more concerned with the needs of our ego than we are with the good of the system. We build a conventional culture of self-interest. The employees are good people who behave according to the culture. If they lack motivation, they are not the problem. The authority figures are the problem; they have not created a persuasive vision, a sense of mission, and a culture of authentic communication.

Until we have a personal purpose that moves us forward in spite of our fears, we are not leaders. Until we have attracted our people to a sense of mission, we are not leaders. We are all accountable to this terrible fact. We become leaders when every interaction is focused on the common good and invites our colleagues to the common good.


  • How many of my manager’s actions are driven by fear?
  • How many of my actions are driven by fear?
  • How can I build a positive culture by making every interaction matter?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Becoming Authentic

At the Academy of Management, there was a session on authenticity. Four scholars discussed their understanding of the topic. We spoke of authenticity as stepping up and out of role expectations; of living in accord with an anticipated future self; as moral communication, self-disclosure, an expression of the dynamic and whole self; seeing reality and owning one’s own choices; the genuine intention to serve others; and expressing self without an ego-driven purpose.

It was a creative discussion. I loved what I was learning. We opened the discussion to the audience. As I listened to their questions, I was surprised. These were mostly professors and they were there because they were interested in the topic. Yet many of them could not seem to understand what we were saying. To many, authentic meant correspondence to fact. The notion of stepping outside the ego and living with moral power was a foreign notion.

They were responding as many respond when I speak of transformational leadership. It is difficult for the conventional, transactional mind to conceive of genuine service to the common good.

Authenticity is not a conventional phenomenon. Yet it is accessible. Most people have had experiences operating outside the ego. Focusing on them is a path to understanding.



  • In our unit, how often do we observe ego-driven behavior?
  • What is authentic behavior?
  • How could we increase our own authenticity?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Transformational Questions

In the 1980s, Pepsi and Coke were engaged in an intense battle, fighting for tenths of a percent of market share. Coke was not doing well. CEO Robert Goizueta had an insight. He believed that his people were spinning their wheels because of their mindset. The focus was on the beverage market. They needed to think in a new way. To change their thinking, Goizueta proposed a new question: “What is our market share of the stomach?”

This was a shocking question. He was asking, what was Coke’s share of all fluids consumed by humankind? Suddenly the enemy was not just Pepsi, but coffee, milk, tea, and water. Instead of being one of two big fish in a small pond, Coke was suddenly a small fish in a huge pond. The vision, culture, and psychology immediately changed and eventually profits soared.

In September of 2001, Robert Mueller became director of the FBI. The FBI was in the business of solving domestic crimes and bringing criminals to justice. A week later, on September of 11, there was an attack on the United States. Shortly after, Mueller reported to President Bush. In the meeting, Bush asked a question: “What was the FBI doing to prevent future attacks?”

The question was transformational. The FBI, designed to be a reactive, law enforcement agency, encountered a new image. It was a vision of a proactive organization that prevented attacks on the country. The culture and psychology changed. They agency began to produce new outcomes.

These are two examples of transformational inquiry or questions that change an entire organization. I share them because I believe we can train ourselves to ask transformative questions in any situation.  We can asked them of ourselves, we can ask them of another person, we can ask them of an organization.

Every team, unit, and organization has a culture. It reflects some form of conventional thinking. It cannot change unless the thinking changes. Telling people to think differently usually does not work. A person who focuses on the highest purpose and asks a transformational question can have immediate and extensive impact.


  • In what way is your unit reactive and what is the highest possible purpose of your unit?
  • How would you like to see the culture and psychology change?
  • What is the most potent question you can imagine?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?