Teaching Leadership

Every organization, group, and relationship is subject to the tyranny of self-interest. Organizations prosper when leaders inspire people to transcend their own self-interests and sacrifice for the common good. After thousands of years, we should have mastered this most central skill. We have not. After many decades of scientific work on leadership, our professional schools should instill this skill in every student. They do not. Most professional schools claim to teach leadership but totally ignore the engine of leadership: the internalized commitment to moral power that makes influence transformational. Assumptions of normal organizing in professional education and practice hinder the development of transformational leadership.


Why do we not master the central skill?

What does our leadership training instill in our people?

What would our leadership training change if the central purpose was to transform self-interest?


The Positive Business Project

Last year at this same time I posted a blog about a contest that The Center for Positive Organizations ran called the Positive Business Project.  It was a great success last year, and we are hoping to have another great response this year from all of you.
The Center for Positive Organizations is seeking to identify some of the great — and often unheralded — practices of enterprises that are making a positive difference in the world.
To help start your thinking:
Has your organization:
  • Created economic value? Do you create meaningful jobs, and value for all stakeholders
  • Been a great workplace? Do you have an organization that brings out the best in people- both their performance and their humanity?
  • Been a good neighbor? Do you address important societal and environmental issue, needs and opportunities?
If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, you could be the next Positive Business Project Winner!
The University of Michigan Ross School of Business is hosting its fourth annual Positive Business Conference (May 11-12, 2017). The Positive Business Project will offer you the opportunity to showcase what you and/or your organization do best!
For more information about the entry criteria, a complete list of incentives, or Official Contest Rules, visit our website: www.positivebusinessproject.com. Early bird submissions are due February 17, 2017 and final submissions are due March 3, 2017.
We’re excited to learn about all the amazing and uplifting things you are doing!

Creating a Great Organization

In my book Building the Bridge As You Walk on It, I shared an important story about a man named Tom Glocer. Tom was a young lawyer at Reuters. At the time, Reuters was making profits in every country where it operated except Brazil. Tom was offered a line management job leading the Brazil operation.

In an attempt to reduce Tom’s anxiety, the CEO told Tom that Brazil had been a problem for a long time and that it was unlikely he could actually turn it around. Tom saw this as a challenge. He prepared for his new assignment by gathering information, analyzing trends, and planning ways to improve the Brazil operation.

When he arrived in Brazil, it took only a half-day to discover that the operation was totally corrupt: incompetence, cronyism, and outright theft were rampant. Managers from other countries were counting the days until they could leave. The operation was hopeless.

By noon of his first day, Tom made a fundamental decision. He threw out all his analysis and plans. Instead, he decided to fire all but three people and rebuild the entire organization, even though he had no experience leading such a change. He said, “I was not a surgeon, but the patient was going to die.” Like a doctor in a crisis, he began to move forward, choosing to make complicated decisions despite having insufficient information. He was truly building the bridge as he walked on it. He left behind the systematic mind of the lawyer and walked naked into the land of uncertainty. His efforts eventually succeeded, and Brazil became a profitable operation.

Here is how Tom looks back on that experience: “There was so much urgency. I had no choice. I had to act. If something blew up, it did not matter. Things were so bad there was only one way to go. So I did what I had to do. It was terrifying, but we learned how to do what needed to be done. It was the best work I have ever done.”

A few years later, Tom would once again face what seemed to be an impossible challenge. By then, Reuters had shared the fate of many information companies in the post-dot-com era, and its shares had lost 90 percent of their value. The new CEO, the man responsible for the life or death of the company, was Tom Glocer. Once again, Tom was walking naked in the land of uncertainty. In the middle of the journey he wrote:

I am struck by stories of managers who, whatever their level, move themselves beyond fear or self-preservation to act with true decisive freedom. Once so liberated their power knows no limits and with it, their value to their companies soars.

Despite the heroism of so many of the personal and corporate stories of growth related in cases of deep change, the striking feature for me is that they are told in retrospect. I do not say this to demean the power or pathos of the personal journeys recounted, but rather to highlight my own discomfort at telling my story before I know the ending.

Reuters is my company. It is a 152-year-old institution I deeply love and one which the world would be poorer without. I have launched it into a transformation which employees, investors, and customers find threatening. I am calmly confident, however, that there is no other path.

We at Reuters have been through a wretched time in the eyes of market analysts and the UK media. Out of their pessimism, however, has ironically grown a great freedom for me which I have known only once before in my career. I can do no wrong – and hence I can do great good – because I am free of the incrementalism born of mediocre success.

I do not know how this story will end, but I could not care more, work harder, or fear less.

We now know that the story turned out very well. The transformation was successful. Reuters and Thomson eventually merged and Tom was appointed CEO. But even if the episode had been unsuccessful—and some efforts at deep change are—the story is inherently instructive.

There are two conclusions to draw from Tom’s experience. One is common and disempowering. The other is uncommon and empowering. Here is the first: “In both cases he became free because he had a crisis. I do not have a crisis; I cannot be free.” The second conclusion I will leave for you to draw.


What did the two experiences have in common?

What is “true, decisive freedom?”

What is the empowering conclusion to draw from this passage?

Acquiring Moral Power

Fear is natural in organizations. Because it is natural, people expect us to live without integrity. When we comply, we always have an excuse. Remember Andrea’s refrain from the movie The Devil Wears Prada: “I had no choice.” People have numerous defense mechanisms that automatically kick in when they silence their conscience. This makes it difficult to teach people to acquire increased moral power and operate from the fundamental state of leadership.

I have a friend named Larry who works hard to teach people to live in the fundamental state of leadership. How does he do it? Instead of playing the expert, he asks his students, “Can you identify deep change experiences in your lives or in the lives of other people you know?” By asking people to share their stories instead of telling them what to do, Larry transforms the classroom from profane to sacred space.

What does this mean? A sacred space is a place where people can share their most authentic feelings and thoughts. In authentic conversations, trust grows. The group pays attention, adapts, learns, discovers, and generates knowledge. When we participate in such a group, we feel consciousness expand and we gain more faith in our own potential.


When has someone in the organization sacrificed conscience because they had no choice?

What was the individual and organizational consequence?

How can we help people acquire moral power?




The Power of Humility

I remember a speaker quoting John Ruskin: “The first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility, doubt of his own power. But really great men have a curious feeling that greatness is not in them but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”

Here is how I interpret this quote. Humility—being humble—is often associated with weakness or lack of power. Real humility comes when we see the world as it really is. The real world is a world of connectedness, of moving flows of energy. When we transcend our own egos, when our outer self and our inner self connect, we experience increased integrity, increased oneness, and greater connectedness.

At such moments, we feel enlarged and sense our own greatness. Yet we recognize that the greatness does not emanate from within us—as we assume it does when we brag. It emanates from connectedness with resources outside our conscious self. I think that is one of the things that best-self feedback demonstrates to the person who receives it. We contribute our greatest added value when we do the things that we do naturally when we are in caring relationships. We contribute our greatest added value when we are in pursuit of a genuine purpose. We contribute our greatest added value when we are connected to unconscious sources of regeneration.

When our best self is operating, that is how we behave—not out of pride or arrogance, but for the good of the task and the relationship. When I act with this kind of authentic commitment, I am strongly motivated for the good of the system and not for my own aggrandizement. That is when my greatest sense of connectedness occurs. At such times of connectedness—what I sometimes call “profound contact”—we become aware of the best in ourselves and in others. They love us and we love them.

Humility, then, is having confidence in our ability and strengths because we understand that we only shine when our motives are purified, we consider others, and when we recognized the interconnectedness of all. We cannot shine without connectedness.


What is my definition of humility?

When have I felt greatness flowing through me?

From where did the greatness come?

Discovering Our Voice

My friend Horst Abraham is a world class teacher. In the last blog entry I shared the note he sent indicating that in working with people he sees a wide hunger. People yearn to find their own authentic voice. Then he asked, “When have we lost that voice to begin with?”

The fascinating thing about the question is that it suggests a radical assumption.  Horst seems to believe that we always have always had or currently have an authentic voice. It exists but it is simply not available to us.  It is there and our task is to discover it.

This week I had the sacred privilege to do my job.  That is, to teach executives to discover their own power.  We began by discussing the conventional perspective on organizations.  A woman who works as a professional consultant raised her hand and said, “These conventional assumptions translate into a climate of fear and the fear turns into pain.  When I enter organizations that operate according to these assumptions, the people put a good face on it, but I can always feel the pain.  It is real, it is discernable.”

Later I was chatting with her.  She described her career path.  She went to the best schools, worked in the political arena, and then started a computer business.  After a time she realized she did not like the business.  She also went through some significant challenges in her personal life.

She eventually discovered that she was at her best when she has the opportunity to help people realize their potential.  She made the courageous decision to leave her company and pursue her calling as a seer and developer of potential.

She spoke of her executive coaching and indicated that when executives live in fear and pain they resent the culture and see limited options.  Since they see no opportunity to express voice, they know they cannot influence the culture.  As the discomfort or helplessness increases, they decide they can either endure or exit.  She tries to broaden the frame.  She asks about their passions, their strengths and about the needs of the company.  She encourages them to envision and invent a job that they would love and that the company would value.  She gave several examples of helping executives do this very thing.  They went from personal misery to loving what they do.

Then she made her most impressive declaration.  She said, “Because of what I have been through, I no longer have fears.  Because I live without fear I can see possibilities others cannot see.  I am a seer of possibilities.  This morning when you taught the positive perspective and the inclusive mindset it all made sense.  When you live without fear you can not only see the conventional constraints that everyone sees, you can also see the possibilities that no one else sees.”

Everything she was saying had to do with voice.  When we live in fear, our attention narrows and we focus on the immovable constraints of life.  Many people spend their entire life in the state of victimhood.  Such people tend to never know or express their authentic voice.  While Horst would tell them it exists, they would tell Horst he does not know what he is talking about.  They are certain of their powerlessness.

How did the above woman come to live without fear and gain a voice that invites her clients to successfully find their own power?  What does her voice have to do with her ability to be a seer?

She faced significant professional and personal challenges and moved forward.  In the process she discovered her best self.  The best self is not an object.  The best self is a living, evolving identity that embraces change.  It recognizes the world is ever evolving and that growth is a function of continually revising old beliefs.  The best self recognizes and has faith in the process of deep learning.

In the process of deep learning we become open to emotions.  We recognize the power of emotions.  We learn to transform negative emotions into positive emotions.  As we do, we see differently and we find the capacity to attach our emerging images with existing words.  In doing this we integrate the emerging future with the existing past in the present moment.  Because we see, others can hear and understand what they previously could not.

When we acquire vision it gives us voice. We have something to say. More accurately we have something we must say. Yet as we imagine ourselves saying it, we intuitively recognize the dangers. Each of knows intuitively that speaking in the authentic voice invites disbelief, accusations of fraud, madness, ridicule and reviling.  It is in the fear of the world and the threat of rejection that we find the answer to Horst’s question.


What is an authentic voice?

Who in our organization has an authentic voice?

Why are there not more people with authentic voices?

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



Authentic Voice

In a recent blog entry I shared a story about a mother and her son who was being bullied at school.  In my last entry I described how the story led me to a new question and an eventual resolution.  When my friend and world class teacher, Horst Abraham, read the story, he responded as follows.

“What a powerful story: “Back Off!” and finding your voice.  That is the essence of ‘Fierce Conversations’, a topic I have found more and more people being attracted to as they are searching for their true voice. When have we lost that voice to begin with?”

I am captured by the notion of people in the world searching for their true voice.  The word voice is most commonly associated with the notion of speech.  If you can talk, you have a voice.  Yet the idea of true voice means more than exercising our vocal cords.

Decades ago it was popular to speak of someone having “soul.”  A great musician, author, teacher, speaker was differentiated from a good musician, author, teacher, speaker by the fact that they were communicating with soul.

What this means is they were in touch with their own essence, core, or spirit.  They could recognize how they were emotionally responding to the changing world.  They could transform those feelings into words that carried both cognitive and emotional meaning to others.  In doing this they express what others may be feeling but could not articulate.  Their message has both emotional and cognitive content and it also has novelty.  It holds attention, makes connection, and permeates others.

When a person expresses something from the soul, we tend to listen.  Their emotions open our hearts and their content engages our mind.  This means that our own minds and hearts open and deep learning becomes possible.  Listening may thus lead us to see the world in a new way.  When we do, we become capable of acting in a new way.

I believe when a person finds their voice, they are speaking from their deepest feelings.  By integrating words with those feelings they are creating a transformation.  They are bringing power into the world by exposing their most noble self.

When a boy in the fifth grade says to a bully, “Back off,” and does it in his “thunderous voice,” the boy is expressing nobility.  When a woman stands in and speaks of finding the hand of God in the death of her child, she is also speaking in her “thunderous voice.”  When a lower level executive speaks up in a meeting with genuine concern for the common good, and questions the morality of a given decision, the executive is speaking in a “thunderous voice.”

I end with the penetrating question posed by Horst.  “When have we lost that voice to begin with?”  When have we become past feeling?  How do we become past feeling.  Why is it so rare to hear words spoken from the core of the soul?  Recently I had an experience that gives me insight.  In the next blog I hope to explore it.


Why are so many people hungering to discover their authentic voice?

What is an authentic voice?

When in our organization have we heard someone speak in a thunderous voice?

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

Dealing with Organizational Bullies: Positive Culture and the Evaporation of Dragons

In classrooms with executives and with students, I seek to create a place of safety that allows people to express their vulnerabilities. When they do, patterns of reality that they can’t normally discuss enter the conversation. We see not only the conventional reality from the middle of the normal curve, but we also see the negative reality from the left of the normal curve.

Exposing our vulnerabilities is a demonstration of courage. Showing courage is a virtuous act that moves a conversation to the right side of the normal curve. It creates trust and puts us into a positive reality where mutual learning can accelerate. In such relationships we can more readily embrace possibility and find the power to transform oppressive negatives.

When truth becomes discussible, one of the most common themes is abuse. It occurs everywhere including the top of the hierarchy. I think of a vice president in a global company who shared the following story with extraordinary pain.

A senior vice president, a technically capable woman with low emotional intelligence, was becoming a bigger and bigger problem. The solution was to select some of the best people in the company, including the vice president, and place them under her. The theory was that they could buffer her negative influence on the many people involved.

The vice president saw this as a worthy challenge and committed. What he did not anticipate was the amount of toxicity he would endure. His boss was more insecure than ever and, for him, she was becoming insufferable. The negative dynamics were destructive to all.

As this highly accomplished and normally powerful man shared his pain, he spoke from the victim mentality. He saw no alternatives. He felt powerless. I asked him value clarifying questions. By the end of our conversation he saw many possible alternatives and he became optimistic. What happened?

A metaphor might be helpful. I have been reading a book called Small Arcs of Larger Circles by Nora Bateson. At one point she writes of her son.

I am reminded of a time when my son was bullied by a boy in the 5th grade who wiped dog-poop on him every day at school. It took him weeks to tell anyone because he was so ashamed. That afternoon in the living room we practiced saying the words “back off” in a voice that came from my son’s “I-mean-it” place. It took a while, but finally after an hour or so he found what we called his “thunderous roar.” The next day at school he was ready to use that voice. The boy with the dog poop on a stick approached him to smear him with humiliation, and my son took a breath and was about to say his “back off,” when the boy changed his mind. Somehow he knew the relationship has shifted (Bateson, 2016:114).

This important story illustrates many principles. First the mother does not react to this emotional challenge in a conventional way. With a great sense of injustice and anger she could have gone to the school and condemned the teacher or the principal for allowing bad things to happen in the world. She could have gone to the parents of the bully or the bully himself. She engaged none of these conventional, context altering strategies.

Instead she becomes proactive and transformational. She sets out to empower her son. She first gives him a purpose. It is vision of an alternative and more desirable reality. No more dog poop. Through the creation of this attractive future, she opened the door to hope.

She could then have done another conventional thing. After telling him to stand up for himself she could have said “go do it.” She did not. She instead invested an hour in patient role playing. She nurtured faith in his own ability and she built his courage.

Then she did something crucial. She honored his agency by letting him face his own dragon. When the boy faced the dragon, the dragon evaporated. This is the principle least accessible to the fearful, conventional mind. The conventional mind always declares, “Yes, but you have never seen my dragon.”

My response is that I have been told this story in a hundred forms. When the best self emerges, when we find our voice, when we are ready to engage in constructively fierce conversations, the bully always evaporates.

This was no small moment in the life of the boy. He had perhaps his first profound experience in the acquisition of transformative power and in the acquisition of transformative learning. He discovered that his power is manifest in the emergence of a more virtuous self. He discovered an elusive truth, we never lose our power, even when we surrender it to a bully. It is always there waiting to serve us. The key is the ignition of our virtues. A precious asset is a mentor who helps us access them.

The last sentence is essential to positive organizing. In the world there is an unlimited supply of dragons, they take many forms. There will always be a looming authority figure with low emotional intelligence. We will always be tempted to surrender our power. The solution is creating a culture of empowerment and a network of transformative mentors.

If we surround ourselves with people willing to ask us value clarifying questions they will help us to see an alternative future, they will invest in role playing, and they will trust us to confront the dragon.

If we live in an organization where there is no such culture or no such network, then we are on our own. We can surrender our power or we can ignite the emergence of our most virtuous self. We can also do one other thing. We can become a transformational influence. We can begin, from the bottom up, to gather believers and create a culture with the capacity to make dragons evaporate.



  • When have I been abused?
  • When have I been abusive?
  • When have I seen dragons evaporate?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Living on the Upward Spiral

I ask my children to be extraordinary. At different times they have found this to be threatening, because we think of extraordinary as something bigger than us. We think of Michael Jordan dunking the ball, or Mother Teresa giving up her life to help the poor. These people are indeed extraordinary, but what we are viewing is the result or product of a lifetime of small, committed decisions. Being extraordinary means you have a hunger to grow and develop.

An extraordinary person keeps examining self in relation to some higher purpose and keeps striving to conquer and move beyond the limits of that self. None of us can ignite our potential by staying on the path of least resistance. We find meaning and power when we extend ourselves in the service of something greater than ourselves. When we are experiencing victory over self, we become conscious of our own unique value and become joyful and influential because we are positive deviants.

I want to clarify that being extraordinary does not necessarily mean obtaining a position of honor or glory or even of becoming successful in other people’s eyes. It means being true to oneself. It means pursuing one’s full potential. Interestingly, I believe that when we fail to do this, we actually do ourselves damage. We begin to die inside, and we hate ourselves for our decision to kill our best self and live as an ordinary self. I think we are designed to be extraordinary. We are designed to be growing, and when we are not, we violate the purpose of the universe. We fail to live on what I call the great upward spiral of life.


What does it mean to be extraordinary?

What does it mean to live on the upward spiral?

Who in the organization is doing damage to himself or herself?

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

Voice and Total Commitment

The woman sitting across the table was the vice president of a large company. She had multiple talents and an impressive track record. Yet as she spoke, tears flowed. She said, “I no longer have a voice. No one hears me.”

The word voice is most commonly associated with the notion of speech. If you can talk you have a voice. The vice president could clearly still talk. By voice she meant more than the ability to talk. In the relational realm a person with a voice is a person with a unique and authentic perspective. The word unique suggests deep thought and creative insight. The word authentic suggests a message that is genuine, real, accurate and trustworthy.

In organizations it is possible for people to go through the motions of transactional exchange, to become economic robots and think neither deeply nor creatively. It is also possible to become a fear-driven person who says what is politically correct. It is common in all organizations to sit in politically correct meetings where everyone is going through the required motions as disengaged robots. Conventional hierarchies are fear based contexts where few people ever acquire a voice.

Acquiring a voice requires a difficult form of work.   It requires self-discovery or deep learning.   Steven Covey (2011) had to this to say about the necessary effort.

You will find your voice when you can say you are 100% involved with what you are doing in your life, so that your body, mind, heart and spirit are all engaged in whatever is important to you. To find your voice, you need to examine your natural talent, what you absolutely love to do — what really interests you. And you must listen to the confirming inner voice of your conscience that tells you what is the right thing to do.”

What is the message here? Covey is saying that as we become aware of our most profound talents and how to use them to contribute to the larger whole, we begin to see our higher possibilities and purpose. We see how we can meaningfully contribute to the larger whole of which we are a part. As we articulate our highest purpose, we find the power to totally commit to the realization of that purpose. Meaning gives birth to commitment.

Total commitment requires movement. It attracts us to a unique journey full of uncertainties. We move forward towards the purpose without knowing how to traverse the next emergent obstacle. Yet, because of our commitment, we engage the obstacle that others would not engage. This means we have experiences others do not have. When we reflect on them, we learn things others do not learn. When we have purpose and live in total commitment we engage in discovery or deep learning and we have important insights.

The insights give us a unique message. Yet Covey adds another dimension, conscience. We have to orient to and respond to our conscience and do the right thing. When we are totally committed to our purpose, we tend to also become committed to the common good. Pursuing the common good becomes more important than the political pressures.

As we respond to our conscience we acquire moral power and we feel the courage to move forward while also feeling fear. While others are silent we express our authentic message. In doing this a transformation occurs. In the political context we become the voice of the common good. We represent the deepest good in every person present even those who oppose us. We become the verbal extension of the collective conscience in a political context.

Becoming the voice of the collective conscience is powerful and dangerous. The power can attract people to the highest good. It can also lead them to hunger for our destruction.   Real leadership is not conventional management. Real leadership is a form of influence that comes to us when we find purpose and meaning, and invite others to the collective good.


What is total commitment?

Who in our organization works with total commitment?

What does it have to do with finding voice?

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