Representing What Right Looks Like

David Perkins is a four star general who spoke at the Center for Positive Organizations. His message was outside conventional assumptions.

He declared that every type of leadership gets results. Toxic leaders and micro-managers, for example, get results. It was because they got results that they were promoted to their present level. Someone believed that, based on their past performance, they would deliver in their new job.

Perkins indicated that it is not surprising that there are so many toxic leaders and micro-managers. The culture with its emphasis on grade point averages, standard scores, and merit evaluations, teaches, “It is all about you.” In organizations we expect leaders to be self-interested.

Perkins said that in certain settings, particularly large hierarchies that do repetitive work, toxic leaders and micro-managers are able to drive people and produce specified outcomes. The problem is that we live in a world of change where even large hierarchies have to deal with novelty and do things for the first time.

Today every organization including the military has to be a learning organization, and such an organization requires inspired people who trust their leaders and do the right thing at the right time if their leader is present or not.

Perkins believes that you inspire people by serving them. He says that he tries to respond immediately to cries for help. He told of being in a battle zone when one of his senior staff people complained because people were not following hierarchical procedures. They were ignoring him, and going directly to Perkins. The staff person implored Perkins to send people to him first. Perkins replied, “They are not going to you first because they do not see you as adding value. You are not making a positive difference. If you were, they would seek you out.”

The General is serious about nurturing inspirational influence. He told of removing hundreds of senior and middle level officers who were known for being toxic leaders or for being micro-managers. He described meetings with people at every level and teaching the notion. This even extended to drill sergeants.

In explaining the need for inspirational leadership he shared stories of people in battle, including people who were badly wounded and completely isolated. In each case they needed to make their own decisions. Making the right decision required trust in their leaders, in their peers and in their mission. Such people have to be inspired by their leader before a crisis comes. He said, “By the time a man has two bullets in him and he is required to continue to make key decisions, if he has not already been inspired, it is too late.”

General Perkins then shared experiences of reuniting with people who served under him years before. Often they recall their most meaningful experiences. One of the most consistent themes, is “I remember what you said and did twenty years ago when we were in trouble.”

He told of a man who was recently promoted to command a battalion. He wrote and said, “When I was in your unit, I watched everything you did and I wrote it down. When I got promoted I went back and read it all. I am going to try to do what I saw you do.”

Perkins told us a leader is the center of attentional gravity — in tough times the focus is on the leader. “People are keeping book on you. You must represent what right looks like. If they are inspired by you, they may become you.”

Notice the link between morality and inspiration. Perkins is saying that leadership is about modeling the courage to do the right thing. When conscience triumphs over fear, we represent what is right. Doing what is right when it is hard to do, is what inspires.

General Perkins said it takes an extensive period to build a positive culture, but in times of difficulty are when you have your most impact. You show who you really are when you are under the greatest stress and everyone is watching and taking note. That is when your influence is the highest.

He closed with this thought. “On your worst days is when you need to be most positive.”


  • How do toxic leaders get results?
  • What kind of commitment is necessary to fire all the toxic leaders?
  • What is necessary to be genuinely positive on your worst days?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Acquiring the Inclusive Mind

We met 120 leaders from the construction industry. We spent half the morning exploring personal purpose, and half exploring organizational purpose. It was not where they were used to being but the audience was very engaged. At the conclusion a man approached us, introduced himself and asked a few questions. He started out with general questions and gradually became more intimate. Finally he opened his heart.

He said that his life as a student was not pleasant. He did not fit the mold. His strength was in doing things with his body, not sitting and memorizing information. His years in public education taught him that he did not measure up. The most important thing he learned in public school is that he could not learn.

His professional journey started with becoming a welder. He had limited aspirations, yet he did well and new opportunities emerged. He obtained a job in a company with a relatively positive culture and he was grateful. A management job opened up and people felt he was the right candidate. Becoming a leader was not something he had ever imagined. Yet he also had to agree that he was the most logical person for the job.

His professional evolution provided data that challenged his theory of self. He was continually learning and growing. This data required a transformation in his theory of self. He had to recognize both his potential and his ability to realize his potential. People who go through this transformation, acquire one of the key capacities of a leader; Because they now see the potential in themselves, they see potential in everyone.

While in some geographical areas this man’s company was number one among competitors, in his particular area the company was number two. Yet he could see the path to becoming number one. With full authenticity he declared, “I hunger for it, I want our branch to be great, not for me but the people and for our customers. I know it is possible.”

There is much here. First he sees potential for both the collective branch and the people in the branch. Second, he wants the branch to be great, not for his glory, he wants it to be great for the people and for the customers. This means he not only has vision and sees potential, he also has moral power. When we do what we do, not for self-interest, but for the common good, we are able to radiate what the social scientists call idealized influence.

When we have moral power or idealized influence we attract people to our vision and the realization of their own potential.   Our friend knew that if the people changed their collective behavior and became a great branch, the individual people would change in the same way he changed. They would stop feeling fear and stop focusing on their own limitations. They would begin to feel hope and start to focus on their possibilities.

From our brief conversation, it was clear that this man had the potential to transform his branch. We were delighted.

Then the central question emerged. He described his employees. They were conventional. All had strengths and flaws, but none of the flaws were fatal. He described some of his efforts to surface real issues or to introduce new initiatives. There was a pattern. The room would go quiet and then in the hallways subgroups would form and buzz about what was wrong with whatever was being proposed.

Instead of being angry with this resistant behavior, the man asked, “How can I get them to talk and share what they really feel?” This question further verified his evolution. He inherently knew that the keys to change are purpose, trust, authentic conversation and emergence of collective belief.

In answering, we asked more questions and then gave illustrations of practices that might bring the result he desired. We shared images that required genuine commitment and courageous action. He understood every point. Instead of recoiling in fear, he explored each possibility. He then said, “Inside me there is steel and I think I have to show it more often.”

This was an inspiring exchange. This man overcame the trauma of his public education and his resulting theory of inadequacy. He became empowered and empowering to others. His selfless purpose was to bring out the potential in others. His desire was so great, he was willing to expose his vulnerability and seek learning from us.

This is unconventional. Positive leaders, driven by a higher purpose, are willing to risk vulnerability to gain learning. There is a principle here. Purpose drives learning and learning enlightens and empowers.

All around us there are people like this man. We have them in our lives. They are the ones who leave the most positive legacy.   As we focus on them and observe their efforts, we will see them evolving. They are models of what we all can become.


  • Have you ever known anyone like this man and what legacy did the person leave in your life?
  • What is potent about see potential in flawed people?
  • Why was this man willing to expose his vulnerability?
  • How could be use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Learning From Success

I met with a group of undergraduates. We were discussing leadership and the ability to change culture. I put up a slide about mental maps and culture change. Then I asked each person to pick a partner and tell a story that might bring the slide to life. After they shared I asked if anyone had a personal story of initiating culture change. This is a hard question for such a young group and there was a silence. Then a young woman named Emily raised her hand. As she told her story she became animated.

Emily was 18 when she became a volleyball coach in a high school. In addition to being so young, the situation was quite challenging. The team had not won a game in years. On the team there was an expectation of losing and a culture of playfulness and complacency. The girls had zero confidence in their individual and collective capacities. There was no thought of purpose, commitment, resilience, or playing off of each’s others strengths.

While she continued to allow the girls to have “fun,” Emily also “disrupted” the existing culture as she introduced new expectations, strategies and structures. As she did there was “resentment” and “pushback.”   Yet, as Emily proceeded, the girls began to notice that their new way of playing together allowed them to perform at their individual and collective best. As they did, “They began to find a greater purpose.” The more purposive and confident girls went on to win 12 of their 13 games.

In our discussion Emily’s story became crucial. I was able to refer back to it often. It not only illustrated key principles, it also demonstrated something they were unlikely to believe.   Even an 18 year-old can lead change culture.

A few days later Emily contacted me. She included a few pictures of her team after winning their last game. She wrote that the pictures were meaningful to her because they captured the development of the team. She then said, “Since our discussion on Friday, I have been thinking about my coaching experience in more detail.” She then shared more about what she had done.

There is a lesson illustrated here. Remember that when Emily began to tell her story, she seemed to become more animated. Days after telling her story, she was still thinking about it, examining it in more detail, seeking out pictures associated with the story, and remembering things she had done but not mentioned.

In other words, by sharing her story of purpose, challenge, resilience and success, Emily was exposing herself to the best of Emily. In telling of her journey, she was examining her past episode from the perspective of her present life. Her positive, past experience, was becoming her present professor. By exposing Emily to the best of the past Emily, the present Emily was learning how to be a better future Emily.

As we aspire to become more purpose driven, we can all benefit from telling and reflecting on our successes. Yet, for many reasons, we do not often have the opportunity that Emily had. We are seldom invited to tell our most important stories and find the deep insights from our own positive experiences. This fact leads to two suggestions.

First, make a quick list of the ten most important challenges and successes in your life. Then examine them both individually and collectively for key insights. Pay particular attention to the role of purpose. As you do so, ask yourself what the stories are telling you about your life and your purpose.

Second, recognize that you can offer a great service to others by making it possible for them to share and examine their own most meaningful successes. It will accelerate their learning and yours. You can do this in individual conversations and you can do it as an exercise with an entire team.

In the first case, people will benefit as Emily did. In the second collective case, the team will not only increase in understanding, they will increase in their ability to be a team. In both cases, if you listen deeply, and compare their stories with your stories, you will more fully comprehend and appreciate the power of purpose and more deeply understand your own purpose.


  • What are my three most cherished personal successes?
  • What do they have to teach me today?
  • How can I help others learn from their most cherished successes?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Making Profound Contact With Your Toxic Boss

I attended a meeting that focused on father-son relationships. The people who put on the meeting interviewed a number of men and then made a video of the interviews. Many of the men said their fathers never expressed love for them. Many felt they had no relationship with their fathers because their fathers were uninterested in their lives. Many talked about these things with unusual emotion. It was clear; decades later, that these men still carried feelings of injury and anger. Speaking about their fathers was very difficult for them. I think most fathers fail to maintain a rich emotional relationship with their children. Many children thus never really know their fathers. They often feel deep anger about this fact. Yet they grow up and become fathers just like the fathers they had.

In a video played at the conference was an interview with a man named Richard. He talked about his father being a good man. Yet his father was uninvolved in his children’s lives. He only once watched Richard compete in sports. He only twice took Richard to the business the father owned. He felt that raising children was the mother’s job. His job was earning a living.

In his college years Richard found himself very angry with his dad. In the years that followed, whenever he would go home, he and his father would end up in an intense argument within thirty minutes of his arrival. Finally a friend gave Richard some advice. He suggested that if Richard did not like the arguments, he needed to change his own actions. Richard started working on becoming less angry. Eventually there were few arguments at all. Then Richard decided to take more initiative. He became more disciplined about initiating open conversations with his father. This proved successful, and over the years their relationship improved dramatically. Now Richard reserves two days a year when he pays for a weekend in a hotel in a nice location for just him and his dad. He describes the wonderful discussions they have and how much their relationship has grown and improved. He says they have really come to know and love each other.

What does this account have to do with positive organizing? One of the questions I am most frequently asked is how to deal with a toxic boss? People feel victimized and impotent because they feel abused by their boss.   In Richard’s story, he feels like a victim who has been abused. There is no hope. Then he makes a choice to change the old pattern by changing himself. He chooses to make profound contact with his father. He stops focusing on his father’s faults, stops being a victim, and becomes a positive deviant. He moves to the far right of the curve and enters the extraordinary being state. He chooses to create profound contact and everything shifts.


  • Is there a toxic boss in the organization?
  • How do the people respond?
  • What new responses are possible?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?




The Power of Vulnerability

In the modern life, and particularly in modern organizations, from top to bottom, we live in fear. Hence communication is seldom authentic. Authenticity requires vulnerability. Yet when communication becomes authentic and vulnerable, something happens. Trust goes up, minds and hearts open, we leave the conventional, transactional realm, and growth becomes possible. Only when I encounter deeply mature, purpose driven people do I see the power of vulnerability manifest at work. It is evidenced in their people who are empowered and growing.

A friend sent some quotes on vulnerability. I offer them here so the reader might be able to reflect on doing the impossible at work.

  • When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable (Madeleine L’Engle ).
  • And maybe that was love. Being so vulnerable and allowing someone else in so far they could hurt you, but they also give you everything (Christine Feehan).
  • To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength (Criss Jami).
  • Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change (Brené Brown).
  • Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light (Brene Brown).
  • Virginia Pearce tells of a woman named Emma Lou Thayne who is a wise and gifted writer. Pearce listened to Thayne speak in a class. Thayne shared an intimate story about her daughter’s battle with an eating disorder. She openly shared her struggles as a parent. When she was finished Pearce said, “I am in awe of your willingness to be so personal about your own difficulties.  I don’t know that I could do that.”

Pearce then writes, “I will never forget her answer.  She turned to me squarely, but with understanding.  Her gentle response went something like this: ‘Virginia, our stories are what make the difference, and if we can tell them honestly we can hope to help each other.  In the end, we have nothing to offer each other but our stories. When I open-heartedly offer my stories to you, both of us feel less alone.  We both feel braver, stronger, and more complete (Virginia H. Pearce; A Heart Like His; 2006:80).” (Robert E. Quinn).



What does fear have to do with vulnerability?

Why is organizational communication so often logical and inauthentic?

What could I do to bring the power of vulnerability to my people?

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





From Fear to Love

My son-in-law works for the government. He took a course on creativity and loved what he learned. On the white board in his office he wrote four key principles:

  • Defer judgment.  When someone comes up with an idea, try not to
    decide immediately whether or not it is a “good” idea or a “bad” idea.
  • Go for quantity.  Encourage your team to come up with as many ideas
    as they can.
  • Build on each other’s ideas.  One idea leads to another and
    sometimes the best ones come as together we use one to bounce to new thoughts.
  • Seek out wild and strange ideas.

As people entered his office they all read and commented on the four statements. He writes:  “One person just gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up.  A person from another office surprised me by quoting back to me most of the concepts, and then he said, “See, I stopped and read what you wrote.” One of my bosses stopped by and asked if I would present on the topic on Thursday at our staff meeting.  I was excited, but I immediately thought of one individual in the office who I fear will scuttle the discussion (who I’ll refer to as Lance although that’s not his real name.)”

My son-in-law goes on to explain that shortly after the exchange, he read an inspirational statement about becoming a proactive, positive influence. It altered his thinking. Instead of fearing the reaction of Lance, he began to think about how to reach and inspire Lance. Then he makes a surprising statement, he says he actually felt love for his skeptical coworker.

Yesterday morning, per my boss’ request, I finalized my preparations for my ten-minute presentation on “Guidelines for Divergent Thinking” for my office team.  I realized the presentation would be much improved if the group actually engaged in a brainstorm session instead of just hearing me talk about it.  I realized I could ask them to give me suggestions for how I can prepare for press and public diplomacy issues in the post-election season.  As soon as I thought of the question, I felt my mind pull back with a little fear.  There was something about that question that made me feel a bit vulnerable.

“I also thought I should probably show my planned agenda to my boss and explain exactly how much time it would take.  I felt my mind recoil from that thought too; I guess I was worried that she would try to change or control my presentation.  But I sent it to her anyway, and she wrote back and said she was looking forward to it.”

“After the regular business of our meeting, my boss turned the time over to me.  I passed out a small handout and explained the four principles, and then I asked everyone to turn the paper over and write down one idea.  There was silence and someone said, ‘Can you give us an example?’  I was about to come up with something when I noticed that Lance appeared ready to share.  I said, ‘Maybe someone from the group can give us an idea.  Lance, do you have something?’  He gave a great example of how we could proactively use numbers and statistics in a way that was more customized to the audiences we’re trying to reach.  This person–whose reaction to my presentation I had feared–turned out to be my ally and got the discussion going in a great direction.

“What followed was a meaningful brainstorming session.  I listened and took notes.  I was about to ask for another idea when I realized the ten minutes was up.  I was tempted to continue, but I closed and thanked everyone. I am grateful my boss asked me to give the presentation.  I am grateful for Lance’s and everyone’s participation.  I am thankful things went so well, and it motivates me to write something new on my office window next week.”


  • Why did a list of positive statements attract so much attention?
  • Have you ever softened a position because there would be a known skeptic in the audience?
  • Is it possible to turn proactive and then feel love for a skeptic at work?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?





If it is Real, it is Possible

Our good friend has spent his life as a psychiatrist in the Veterans Administration. The VA has a reputation for being less than a positive organization.   He recently read a positive passage about the common good. He then shared a brief account of how he and his associate had once developed a vision of the common good. He reports:

“We had an innovative, happy department that radically expanded services of very high quality and attracted the best MH professionals to our small city. After I left in 2009, and Mark retired, a different and much more fearful and self-centered leadership took over. It has become a very unhappy place which saddens me deeply.”

There are three points to be noted in this account. First, the VA is not only a federal bureaucracy, it has the reputation of being one of the worst of the federal bureaucracies. We once taught a group of senior leaders from the VA. It was one of the most difficult days ever. They were cynical, depleted and disempowered. Everyone in the VA knows that you cannot exert positive leadership and create a positive culture.

Second, in courses and workshops we regularly argue, “If it is real, it is possible.” This account is a story of positive culture emerging inside a larger, negative culture. It is an account of positive deviance. This account suggests that the impossible is possible. It challenges the conventional, disempowering theory of practice that permeates the VA and most other large hierarchies.

Third, organizations are systems of fear. Instances like this one are not sought out and widely celebrated. Cynical people, who have given up, have a need to verbally shred and dispose of such stories. Leaders can counteract the tendency. Leaders can teach, “If it is real it is possible” by locating these kinds of pockets of excellence, examining them, and using them to challenge the assumptions of convention.


  • How could a unit in the VA provide expanded, high quality services and also attract professional to a small city?
  • Is there such a unit in your organization?
  • What pocket of excellence are you using to challenge assumptions of convention, so as to spread excellence?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Election Pain: A Springboard to a Better Life

The election of Donald Trump has brought much emotion into public discourse. The conflicts are intense and the intensity is likely to last for a long time. In the last few days I have had two conversations that were particularly instructive.   One was with a group of high school students and one with a friend who shared how her life has been transformed by the election.

I invited the high school students to think of an example of a time in the election week when they saw someone filled with negative feelings and then to tell me what happened. There was no response. I tried to make it easier by sharing a story of my own. When I finished a boy spoke up. He said it was hard to answer because there were so many moments. He said, “It was like the whole high school was crying, a lot of bad things could happen to people in our school.”

As the conversation continued it was clear that the teenagers were having the same kind of post-election pain that many adults are having. I shared a concept and a story that seemed to help.

I explained that sometimes we experience negative, external jolts. Negative jolts can range from an unkind look from a friend, to a loss by our favorite sports team, to acquiring a disease, to the death of a loved one, to a shocking societal event.

Often a negative, external jolt brings a sense of loss and feelings such as anxiety, fear, anger, hate, discouragement, hopelessness, depression and so on. These negative feelings can cause us to see the world, and act, in ways that are self-defeating. Sometimes we carry the feelings and act in self-defeating way for a brief period and sometimes for an entire life.

Few people have the ability to recognize and consciously alter their negative feelings. They just have the feelings and react. The few who learn to recognize and transform their negative feelings have a great advantage in life. They learn to respond to their afflictions in productive ways. Their afflictions become a springboard to a better life. I then told them about a recent conversation.

A year ago my friend had a surprising and unwelcome jolt that turned the tide of her professional life. Like all such jolts it disrupted her personal narrative and challenged her identity. In the months that followed, we had a number of discussions in which she tried to make sense of her experience and clarify what she might do next. Her year was difficult and draining.

We recently had occasion to meet. As she approached, I was surprised to note that she was radiant. We chatted for a moment and she indicated that she had an important story. Given her effusive state, I was sure she did.

She reported that after the election of Donald Trump she was stunned. His triumph symbolized the opposite of everything she valued. It would have been natural to move towards depression or anger as so many have.

Both responses are natural but usually unproductive. In the first case we just surrender and suffer. In the second case, we become vulnerable to a negative transformation. Some angry folks, for example, advocate using the same kind of coercive influence on Trump that they perceive he is wielding on others. In their anger, they are tempted to become what they claim to hate.

While both of these natural choices beckoned, this woman did more difficult work. I call it purpose work. She talked to the most mature people in her life. She reflected on the meaning of her life, what the world most needed, and how she could most constructively contribute. As she went through this reflection process, she had a personal epiphany. It was so powerful that she called it a revelation from God.

As she said this, I did a double take and looked into her eyes. She did not flinch. Her words were filled with resolve. She exuded purpose, strength and energy.

She explained that she felt called to stand up for her ideals and intensify her efforts to make a positive difference in the world by showing respect, compassion and concern. She felt called to demonstrate that women can lead well and give hope to the younger women who watch. She said that she feels a new excitement. Her call is to be an inspiring servant leader.

She then shared more news. She has recently become the beneficiary of a number of new job opportunities. I asked about them and she again surprised me. In this situation people usually discuss issues of salary, culture, job challenge, or physical location.   She seemed indifferent to these conventional issues.

Instead of reviewing such subjects or expressing anxiety about her chances, she spoke of her purpose and why pursuing it would animate the one organization lucky enough to get her. This empowered outlook is not normal. It is incredibly strong and certainly is not where she was a few months ago.

Again I looked in her eyes. There was no haughtiness or hesitation in her. There was the pure conviction and moral power of a servant leader. Contrary to conventional assumptions servant leadership is never weak.

A servant leader is a person who has a higher purpose or life calling and selflessly pursues it. Because they fully serve their higher purpose, they become inspiring and they turn into transformational leaders. While this woman has no idea where she will be living or what organization she will be working in, she still knows they desperately need her, because every organization needs what she now has to offer.

While she spoke, she was in an unconventional, elevated state. I have been with many people who become purpose driven. They tend to be like her. They have vision, drive, integrity, empathy and humility. Whether they are introverts or extraverts, they pursue the highest good and they radiate moral power. Others feel it and respond.

What is instructive here is that in the days after the election many people were stunned and turned to the fetal position or the clenched fist. Both are natural and neither is optimally productive. This once frustrated and now clear woman offers an alternative path.

She illustrates to all of us that by doing purpose work, reflecting deeply and clarifying purpose, we can respond to what we find objectionable, not by becoming what we detest, but by becoming the positive opposite of what we detest.

I suggested to my high school friends that even a teenager can become a purpose driven, servant leader. I asked them to take a few minutes and formulate a strategy of how they could best lift themselves and help the people around them. There was zero hesitation, they all started writing. Their response gave me great hope. Maybe they can turn their afflictions into a springboard to a better life. Maybe they can turn the process into a skill they can use for the rest of their lives. Now might be a good time for all of us to acquire the skill.


  • Why are the natural responses, fight or flight, so often prove unproductive?
  • What is purpose work and why is it so rarely done?
  • Think of your most pressing affliction, how could you use it as a springboard to a better life, and turn the process into a skill?
  • How could we use this positive passage to create a more positive organization?


Repairing Relationships at Work

I was listening to a talk on marriage. It provided great insights about relationships in the workplace.

The speaker described the positive feelings that two people tend to have when they first marry. Then he described emergent patterns of resentment, disengagement and isolation. He described people living together in cold civility while emotionally alienated. He then spoke of divorce. He indicated that most of the failed marriages could have been saved if the people knew how to relate to each other more effectively.

Relationships in organizations are like those marriages. People, who have offended each other, live together in the same building in cold civility. Because of this, there are no synergies, there is no spontaneous teamwork, there is just a building containing emotionally isolated people operating in begrudging relationships. It is not only the organization that is dying — the people are dying.

This last sentence is a key. If I let myself live in relationships of cold civility, I am letting the organization flounder and also choosing to psychologically die. It is a steep price. The alternative is to do the work of relational repair. We fear such work in marriage and in the office, so we pay the price.



  • Do you have any work relationships of cold civility?
  • Are they killing the possibility of spontaneous teamwork and are you psychologically dying?
  • How does one begin to repair a relationship in marriage and at work?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Election, Personal Trauma, and the Collective Future: Becoming a Constructive Contributor

Yesterday there was much media coverage of reactions to the election of Donald Trump. For many the election result was genuinely traumatic and extreme emotions are being expressed. The election outcome represented a jolt to the collective identity.   Much like 9-11, the election result made us all aware of realities that existed, but that were not previously seen. People were in shock after the attack, and we needed to redefine the nature of the world and determine how to live in it — just as we do now.

Yesterday, my mind went back to the election of Ronald Reagan. For decades the country had been spending heavily on social welfare programs and we were teetering on the brink of financial disaster. The election of Reagan represented more than a shift from one party to another:  it represented a shift in the fundamental philosophy of the country.   Many people reacted as people are reacting now. Given the assumptions we make today, if we went back in a time machine and watched the reactions we might find them curious but instructive.

A few days after the election, I was facilitating a retreat for approximately 60 leaders of the New York Stake Department of Mental Health. It was the largest such department in the country. At one point a man was making a presentation on the next budget. It was clear that the external flow of funds was about to dry up and the new budget called for dramatic cuts in every area of activity.

The presenter had barely started when a woman stood up and began to scream. She expressed that she had spent her entire professional life building up programs to serve certain disadvantaged people and that this man was deserting the responsibility to care for those people. Another person stood up and began screaming back about financial reality. Then others jumped to their feet and began screaming. Soon every person was screaming. No one could hear anyone else but it did not seem to matter. It was a collective, professional phenomenon, unlike anything I had ever seen. It went on until I finally banged some objects together and caught their attention. I said, “We might want to take a 15 minute break.”

The room went quiet and people filed out. I had a knot in my stomach. With such extreme conflict, I had no idea what to do next. An amazing thing happened. People came back in and sat down. The man was asked to continue. People sat quietly and slowly began to participate as they might have in any such budget discussion. They were actually listening to each other and making decisions together.

The experience was extraordinary. I pondered it for years. The brief transformation was a microcosm of what was then happening throughout the country. The Reagan election was not only the selection of a personality it was also a significant, symbolic event. It was a signal calling our attention to a part of reality that was being ignored. In the face of this macro change, the people needed to create meaning, to establish a narrative or collective identity so they could work together.

In the coming months we will continue to see the expression of intense emotion. From time to time some bad things may happen. Yet underneath it all, a learning process will be unfolding and a new collective identity will be emerging.

If we understand this, we can begin to function more effectively by shifting our focus from the fear of loss to the facilitation of the construction of a new future. We can do it by asking a self-empowering question; “Looking across the dynamic whole, with compassion, what contribution can I make to help people around me to hear each other, learn, and work together?”

It is a question that requires serious work. In answering it we shift from the helpless victim role, to the role of the constructive contributor. The internal shift does not eliminate the external conflict in the world, but it does give us the power we need to function constructively in the midst of that conflict. Answering the question will replace fear with hope. We will begin to grow and so will the people around us. If large numbers of people answer the question, the entire process of creating a new collective future will be accelerated.



What does it mean to look across the dynamic whole with compassion?

What needs to I see in the people with different views than mine?

What are my strengths and how could I use them to make a constructive contribution?

How could I use this positive passage to help others?