Break the Rules

Many years ago a doctoral student shared some of his concerns with me.  He felt that he was in prison and everywhere that he turned someone was giving him rules about how to be a good inmate.  When he came up with an idea, people criticized why it wouldn’t work instead of developing it in to something that might work.  They informed him that his ideas were not in the right “theoretical domain” for the faculty or that his idea wouldn’t yield the right “methodological treatment.”  He even mentioned his pride in starting a martial arts club on campus, but he was cautioned not to share his involvement.  A faculty member might conclude that he had too much free time and wasn’t working hard enough.

I shared an insight with this student.  I told him that if he were to learn every unwritten rule in the academic culture where he was presently studying, and if he followed every rule to perfection, he would have a perfectly mediocre career.  His life would become an experience of quiet desperation, filled with psychic entropy.  This is the case in the life of many professionals.  I told this young student that establishing a notable career requires that we break the “rules.” At some point, we have to know, accept, and express who we really are, not be content with being what others want us to be.

Our work life takes on a distinctive voice only when we have something unique to offer.  We do not become unique by learning and following all the rules.  We must conform in order to master the professional technology, in the student’s case the theories and methods of his particular field.  Eventually, however, we must bring our deepest self to that technology.  We must, like a musician, learn to rise above the technical rules and begin to create, to give what is uniquely ours.

To be truly creative, we must be willing to accept punishment.  No one in the academic world, not even the most brilliant superstar, feels accepted.  There is always someone around to criticize what we do.  We are punished for failure.  Surprisingly, we are punished for success.  If we succeed, we come to stand for something, and that thing always gets criticized.  Some of the criticism is justified and some is simply rooted in jealousy.

The same is true in large corporations and even in families.  We must know who we are and begin to create, not in hopes of approval, but because we are in love with an idea.  We must create for the sake of creating.  We cannot fall in love with our ideas if we live in constant fear of judgment.  When we create, we experience deeper meaning.  We begin to do the thing because we must.  At that point, negative feedback takes on an entirely different value (Fritz, 1989).  Because we are doing something we love, we can let go of the concerns that drive our egos.  When we are doing what we love, negative feedback becomes part of the creation process.  At the very least, it keeps us grounded.

(Change the World, pgs. 43-44)

A Shocking Illustration of Taking a Life Statement Seriously

We are free in any situation to focus our attention as we see fit. In the short run, how we focus our attention determines what we achieve. In the long run it determines who we become. If we hold an image of a result we want to create, our behaviors will begin to align with our mental picture. Our picture becomes a stabilized point of potential and our energy begins to flow towards and organize around the picture. We become creators of an emerging future, this includes our own future.

As we move towards our purpose, we tend to develop hope and enthusiasm. That hope and enthusiasm gives us the capacity to persist in the face of adversity. Our hope and our enthusiasm also does something else. It radiates to others and attracts their attention. As others feel our energy, they seek to understand our aspiration. Some may choose to invest in our aspiration. People of purpose become leaders because they symbolize a desired future and radiate energy that comes from doing so. Consider an unusual illustration.

In many programs I teach executives to write life statements. Often the initial reaction is resistance. They see no reason to waste their time. So I invest in helping them see the many possible payoffs. Usually they become interested and engaged. This happened with a group of government leaders from the senior executive service. At the end of the week I had a shocking surprise that has since added to my conviction about the value of writing life statements.

In the class was a man of Asian background. Occasionally he added comments to our conversation and I began to form some impressions. He was unassuming, much more of an introvert than an extravert. His comments seemed sincere and wise. He readily participated in our various exercises and willing supported others. I was drawn to him. When I introduced the notion of writing a life statement, he became animated. During a break he told me that he had been working on his own life statement for ten years. I was impressed and asked him to share any insights he might have.

At the end of the week, the executives are invited to share and coach each other on the material in their life statements. This is often a profound experience, as it was in this case. At the end of this session my friend again approached me.

He first explained that he had originally had a degree in computer science and then went back for a degree in humanistic psychology. I noted the great contrast and he nodded. He again pointed out that he had been working on his life statement for ten years. While he was a great believer in life statements, he said this course took him to a new level of awareness. He could now incorporate far more into his life statement and he was anxious to do so.

He pulled out his phone and showed me his original life statement. It was like others I had seen but with one big difference. Drawing on his computer science background, he had integrated an impressive set of metrics. He then explained that every week he gives himself a score on each metric. Then recalculates what he should be doing.

I told him I did not know of anyone who exercised that much discipline around their use of their life statement. Curious, I asked him how old he was. The answer completely shocked me. He was thirty-two! I would guess that the average age of the people in the senior executive service to be around fifty. I was stunned and told him so. He smiled, thanked me, and went on his way. Later I told this story to the person who co-teaches the course, Kim Cameron. Kim’s eyes lit up. He said, “Let me show you something.”

One of things that Kim does in the course is review the research on the energy networks in organizations. The research suggests that having a network of positive energizers is a big predictor of organizational performance. Kim then invites the participants to do a simple exercise in which the participants evaluate and score each other on how much positive energy each person radiates.

Keeping the data anonymous, Kim produces a computer map showing the energy network in the room. Each actor is represented by a circle. The size of the circle shows the degree to which others feel energized by a given actor. Kim pointed to a circle that was twice the size of any other. He asked me, “Who would guess this to be?” It was the same thirty-two year-old man.

How could such a young, quiet man have so much positive impact? The answer is that he is an extraordinary man of purpose. He is a highly centered human being who radiates positive energy into everyone he encounters, including his much older peers. I left this experienced inspired and determined to help more people write life statements.



Why do people resist the notion of writing a life statement?

How do people of clear purpose influence others?

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



Writing a Life Statement

One day our daughter, Shauri, called to tell us her boyfriend had just broken off their relationship. She was churning with negative feelings. She announced she was coming home to recover. The next morning I went to the airport. She climbed into the car and immediately started crying and talking about her unfortunate situation. She was in a deep emotional hole and, as she agonized, the hole seemed only to get deeper and darker. Finally I asked her if she was problem solving or purpose finding. The strange question jolted her and she looked at me quizzically.

I suggested that most people tend to live their lives in a reactive mode. They are always trying to solve their problems. People are then sad or happy depending on where they are in the ebb and flow. This is very common. Normal people tend to live in the reactive state.

I was suggesting an alternative. We can become initiators or creators of our own life. When we initiate, we tend to eventually create value, and we tend to feel good about ourselves. If we continually clarify our purpose we live with vision. We are drawn to the future we imagine. No matter what emotions we feel, we begin to pursue our purpose and our negative emotions tend to disappear. We experience victory over the reactive self and we feel good about who we are. We feel better because we literally begin to have a more valuable self. We are empowered and we become empowering to others.

Shauri was not buying it. She ignored me and then spent another fifteen minutes complaining. She paused for a breath and I again asked her if she was problem-solving or purpose-finding. She ignored my question and continued venting. We repeated this pattern four times. The last time I asked, she stopped talking and just looked at me. I could tell a big challenge was coming. In order to stop my insensitive questions, she asked, “How would I ever use purpose-finding in this situation?”

“You can use it in any situation,” I replied.

She asked, “How do you do it?”

I said, “Whenever I am feeling lost or filled with negative emotions, I get out my life statement and I rewrite it.”

Just then we were turning into the driveway. She asked me, “What is a life statement?”

I explained that it is a short document in which I try to capture the essence of who I am and what my purpose is in life.”

“You have an actual document that does that?” She seemed truly surprised.

Something had changed. She was expressing genuine curiosity. Here was a chance for meaningful contact and entrance to the reality of profound possibility. That is what happened.

I said, “Let me show you my life statement.”

She followed me into my study. I reached into a file, pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to her. Shauri read the document carefully and then looked up. She asked, “When you feel bad you read this and it makes you feel better?”

“No, when I feel really bad, I rewrite some part of it or add something new. The document is always evolving. When I finish, I feel clearer about who I am. By clarifying what I most value, I become more stable. “When I clarify my purpose and my values I center myself. My negative emotions tend to disappear before I even start to act. Just clarifying who I am and what I want to create seems to energize me. Even the thought of movement becomes purifying.”

I continued: “There is another reason for rewriting. People think that values are permanent, like cement. Clear values can stabilize us, yet they are not cement, they need to evolve. Each time we face a new situation and reinterpret our values they change just a little bit. Rewriting a statement like this one allows us to integrate what we have learned and how we have developed into our values. Hence our values also evolve with us. We co-create each other.”

I told Shauri I have executives in my classes write their life statements and they find it hard. They begin with very simple life statements.

I suggested that instead of spending the weekend feeling bad about what happened and working through all her reactions to the event, she might instead spend her time writing her own life statement and she did.  By the end of the weekend she returned to DC happier, more confident and ready to move forward.

This passage is adapted from material in Letters to Garrett by Robert E. Quinn, See Letter 2.


What is a reactive life?

What is a proactive life?

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

“They Became What They Beheld”

The great visionary poet and artist William Blake, whose career spanned the turn of the nineteenth century, was deeply concerned with the idea of transformation.  Blake was a revolutionary in the sense that he believed society needed not just superficial reform but profound change.  He did not believe that political action alone would bring about radical change.  Political revolutions, he noted, have a way of reestablishing the tyranny they were intended to overthrow.  Instead, the idea of revolution had to come first of all in people’s thinking and being.  Truly meaningful change would happen only when people awoke to the infinite potential that was inside them.

In Blake’s mythical language, the world that I have described as the normal state is described as “fallen.”  It is the world of self-concern, routine, conformity, and hypocrisy.  Our longing for a more virtuous world is a sign that a better world is possible.

Most of us, however, see the normal world as something to accept and conform to.  When we are in that state of passive acceptance, our view of ourselves diminishes.  According to Blake, that is because our relationship with the world around us is reciprocal:  the reality we perceive and the view we have of ourselves feed on one another.  Describing this relationship, he wrote:  “They became what they beheld.”  When we accept the world as it is (that is, when we are in the normal state), we deny our innate ability to see something better, and hence our ability to be something better.  The better world we seek can be found within us, if only we change our vision. (Kazin, 1974, p. 487)

Deep Change Field Guide, p. 120-121

Clarifying a Professional Life Mission

I was teaching the fundamental state of leadership to a group from a Fortune 10 company. One woman seemed to be paying deep attention. She later asked if she could have lunch with me. During the meal she told a fascinating story.

She had had several major life setbacks. As a result she had to pursue her professional career while raising children from two families. She has done this as a single mother. Although she presented herself with genuine humility, I sensed a great deal of quiet strength.

She told me she is a natural introvert who shies away from the limelight. This seeming weakness has led her to develop a curious asset. She builds highly collaborative and productive teams that allow her to “lead from the back.” Because her teams deliver, she is seen as a high potential leader.

As she listened to my presentation she began wondering about her future. To progress further did she need to thrust herself into the limelight? This is the question we explored at lunch.

The next morning she sent me a message. She wrote that some things had become clear. First, she concluded that did not need to “be in front” and to “lift her head above the rest.” She instead wanted to live for the “greater good.” Second she had written a personal life mission: “I want to lead by example and demonstrate, through positive leadership, that magic can happen.”

This may sound like a small thing. I think that writing that sentence represents a moment of great significance. Seemingly under pressure to seek the limelight, she has stated a purpose that frees her from having to do so. It is a sentence around which she can organize her life. Few executives ever commit themselves to the common good, free themselves from the need for recognition, and commit to building positive organizations. She was doing all these things. In writing her purpose she was turning her job into a calling and her career into a journey of self-actualization.

I am reminded of a statement from Picasso; “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” She is committing to do both.


Have I ever turned a seeming weakness into a personal asset?

Have I ever clarified my professional life mission?

How could we use this passage to turn our organization more positive?


More Than a Meaningful Vision

Helping people to turn towards the positive is often not easy. I received a message from a friend who was working with a troubled teenager. The young woman was making decisions that were taking her to her own destruction. My friend and the young woman had a discussion about the value of choosing another path. The teenager agreed that the alternative path would take her where she really needs to go. Then she thought for a time and said, “But it is so hard.”

The statement was not an observation but a declaration. She was indicating that the alternative path was a challenge so difficult she could not see it as a real option. She was rejecting it.

Looking from the outside in, we can all see the folly in the decision of the teenager. On the downward path she is likely to never know her best gifts or rejoice in the unique expression those gifts. Indeed, on her current path, she is likely to accumulate constraints until she may have no life at all.

In teaching positive organizing I often have a similar experience with executives.

We review the plight of conventional organizations and it becomes clear that conventional organizing leads to the accumulation of constraints. We review the science of positive organizing and examine cases of excellent organizations. In them we see people discovering their best gifts and rejoicing in the expression of those gifts. The people are flourishing and exceeding expectations.

The executives in these sessions agree that they should be in the business of creating more positive cultures. Yet when I ask them to lay out a plan they freeze. Like the teenager I can see them thinking, “But it is so hard.” They are right. Turning a culture positive is hard. It requires taking a risk, it requires going against the grain. Executives, like a troubled teenager, indeed like all human beings, need effective support.   They need positive leadership.

Positive leaders must provide a meaningful vision. They must also provide the resources necessary to attract people to new experiences. They must model what they ask. They must show genuine empathy. They must provide enticing challenges. As trust and desire increase people become willing to try things they are normally afraid to try. In a classroom I have to do it for the executives as students or they will not go home and try. In an organization executives have to do it or their people will not try.


When have I tried to help someone on the downward path?

What do people need in addition to a meaningful vision?

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

Vision as Political Compromise

Over the past twenty years, most organizations have become more tumultuous, creating greater uncertainty for everyone inside them. When uncertainty increases, so does the need for vision. In the face of uncertainty and change, people need a meaning system that allows them to connect and move forward in a productive way. Yet most organizations suffer from a lack of vision.

I remember a visit I made to a large company. A task force composed of the company’s top executives had been given three months to generate a vision statement. I met with the members of this group and I read the nearly completed statement. They asked me what I thought of their vision. I simply responded, “Who is willing to die for this vision?” No one spoke up. My question had surprised them and made them somewhat uncomfortable. Why? Because as a politically segmented group, they had executed an exercise in rational compromise and forged some abstract generalities into a statement to which no one could object. They did not generate a document with power.

(Building the Bridge as you Walk on It, pp. 136)

How Change Really Happens

I worked with a fast-growing company that had made a variety of impressive accomplishments. At one point, I arranged for one of my students to write a case study about the company. I accompanied the student when the CEO was interviewed and recounted the first five years of the company.

It was an impressive story about the unfolding of a clear strategic plan. He described the company as moving effortlessly from phase A to B and then to C. This account did not match my understanding of what had taken place. I interjected and described a very different history. When he was challenged with the actual chaotic learning process that had taken place, he paused and then smiled and said, “It’s true, we built the bridge as we walked on it.”

Organizational and personal growth seldom follows a linear plan. This is an important principle to remember. When people recount a history of growth, they often tell it in a linear sequence, suggesting a rationality and control that never really existed. (Deep Change, pp. 83)

Zingerman’s: Spreading the Vision

If someone aspires to create a positive organization they almost immediately confront a problem – their colleagues.  The people they work with cannot imagine a positive organization or how to create it. The image violates the assumptions they have acquired through conventional experience. Telling people about positive organizing seldom meets with success.   Changing people’s beliefs is often easier done by showing than telling.  A wise leader might create experiences that allow people to learn their way into a new mindset. Consider an example.

A CEO attended The Positive Business Conference at the Ross School of Business. He went home determined to create a positive culture. His direct reports wanted to be supportive but had great difficulty grasping the message. After much talking and little success, the CEO took another path. He flew some of his people to Ann Arbor, Michigan and spent two days visiting a company called Zingerman’s. Zingerman’s is a nationally recognized business considered by many to be the epitome of a positive organization.

The company was founded in 1982 by Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw. They started with a deli and a passion for producing great food. They organized around a genuine commitment to the community, to customers, and to employees, and intensely pursued the commitment at all three levels. In a relatively short time, Zingerman’s became recognized as one of the best small businesses in the United States.

Based on their success, outsiders encouraged Weinzweig and Saginaw to franchise the deli. Instead, they invented in a new business model. Seeking to preserve their purpose, vision, and values, they began new but related businesses in the Ann Arbor area. Today, they have the deli, a bake house, a creamery, a training company, a mail-order business, and other kinds of restaurants.

In terms of leadership, they go to extraordinary lengths to make a difference. Their stories of employee, customer, and community engagement are legendary. The people at Zingerman’s love what they are doing.

After the visit to Zingerman’s, the CEO and his people were scheduled to visit me. I assumed that I would need to overcome resistance. I was wrong. I did not need to explain anything about positive organizing because the people were “on fire” with their own ideas.

Telling is less persuasive than seeing and doing. The CEO was unable to “talk” his executives into understanding and pursuing the creation of a positive organization.  Given their assumptions of reality, what he was calling for did not make sense. It was a foolhardy dream.  His people were locked into the constraints of the conventional mental map. Seeing an example of a positive organization allowed them to open up to new possibilities.


Where do conventional assumptions come from?

Where do assumptions of excellence come from?

How could we use this positive passage to get better?

Way Finding: Learning from Maori Traditions

There is a woman named Chelli Spiller who focuses on the wisdom traditions of indigenous people.  She says that in the Maori culture the perspective on purpose is multidimensional.  It includes the spiritual, social, cultural, environmental and economic well being of the enterprise and leadership includes wisdom, selflessness, humility, purpose, action, awareness, and learning.

One of the things she studies is how Polynesians were able to navigate the ocean without any of the Western technologies.  She speaks of the Maori navigator as the “way finder.”  The way finder assumes that the canoe is stationary and the world is moving past.   The challenge is to be “still” and ponder the various signals in the natural context.  The island is “pulled” forward to the canoe.

These notions seem very strange. Yet they bring to mind an experience worthy of reflection.

I was doing a workshop on vision.  One of the participants said that a vision is a future state that already exists. This sentence seemed contradictory. How can the future already exist?  According to my left-brain logic, the present and future are two different categories.  The future cannot already exist.

As I wrestled with the contradiction, a retired entrepreneur spoke up and enthusiastically supported what the first man said.  “Once you see the vision, you become passionate about it and you cannot stop working on it. You become totally committed and everything changes.”

I recalled my own previous experiences working with this second man. He so believed in his vision it gave purpose to all he did. I watched him build his organization with passion.  He had extraordinary influence. When he spoke, people listened and willingly devoted themselves to the pursuit of the vision. He did not force them. He declared the vision with such confidence and selflessness that everyone seemed to be able to see it.

Once they did see it they began to extend themselves, moving forward, taking risks and learning from experience.  The learning was not hoarded. They shared and did sense making together.  As they thus moved forward, the future was being co-created in the present because the people were unified in a system of growing, collective intelligence.

In such an organization the people feel themselves moving towards spiritual, social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being.  As they do, they all become “way finders” and they collectively “pull” the future to their organizational canoe.  It all begins when one “way finder” becomes totally committed to a desired future, then everything changes.

A leader is able to imbue people with a sense of purpose.  She lights the spark of hope in those around her and helps people to “see” possibility.  I invite you to embrace the Maori notion of way finding.

(This blog is the positive passage included in my July Newsletter.  If you haven’t already subscribed, you can find it here: )