Seeing Possibility

One year at scout camp, the Scoutmaster talked me into working on my second class badge.  Each day I worked on requirements and studied the handbook.  At the end of the week, there was a board of review.  I was amazed at how well I did.  I was better prepared than any of the other boys.  Some time later, on the night that the badges were handed out at troop meeting, I was absent.  Several people, however, told me of the story the Scoutmaster shared about how impressed he was with the hard work I put into preparing for the board of review.  I was pleased with those reports.  I, however, never obtained another rank or merit badge.  It never occurred to me to pursue one. I just never entertained the possibility.

One afternoon when I was a teenager, I remember being with my friend, sitting on his porch, and watching a man with a white shirt and tie walking home from work.  That was not a common sight in our neighborhood.  My friend, in a thoughtful mood, turned to me and said, “What would it be like to come home from a job, at the end of a day, and still be clean?”

The question was impactful.  With the exception of the few lucky ones who went to work with a uniform on, most of the adults we knew worked with their hands.  Coming home dressed in a white shirt and tie was hard to fathom.  If there was a path to get to such an exalted state, we did not know how to find it.

When I was in college, I had several roommates who had planned out their choice of majors, their choice of graduate schools, and their eventual professions.  This was a curiosity to me.  How could they possibly know what they wanted?

I eventually applied to graduate school because I had no other alternatives.  There was no strategy in my choice of schools because I was totally naive to the fact that schools follow a pecking order and careers are at least partially determined by that status system.

As I look back over my life, I am impressed by the fact that there was so much I did not understand about what was possible and what was available to me.  There was always a bigger picture. I could seldom, if ever, see it.  Often there was no one to tell me about it.  Or, if there was, I was not listening.  It strikes me that there is always a bigger picture.  The challenge is to look and listen, not to that which immediately surrounds me, but to that which is higher and farther away.  When I do that, things seem to go better.

I think that is what a higher purpose is all about. Once we genuinely commit to a higher purpose, we begin to see new possibilities. Moving toward a higher purpose expands our vision and entices us into new paths of learning and growth.


  • Why did I never think to pursue another rank or merit badge?
  • What role might a visionary leader have played in my life?
  • In what way are the people in our organization in need of a vision?

Discovering our Best Self

In my last blog entry, I reported the story of a boy who was being bullied and the mother who mentored him.  As I continued to ponder the story, I realized the mother was putting the son into the fundamental state of leadership. It is an elevated state of full commitment. Often we find the courage to enter this state when we’re moving forward into uncertainty and danger. A transformation occurs.  We discover a virtuous self that we did not previously believe in.

With this in mind, I reflected on two life experiences.  As a child, I once stood up to a bully and the bully evaporated just like the bully in the mother’s story.  It was a profound triumph.  My exercise of my newfound courage ignited my best self.

Later in life, I had an extended period when I had no choice but to do what I could not do. After many failures, I made a total commitment and entered the elevated state of action and learning. As I pursued a higher purpose with courage, I again discovered a best self I did not previously know.


  • When have you lived in total commitment to a higher purpose? What did you learn?
  • Is it possible for a team, unit, or organization to do the same?


What to do about Organization Dog Poop

I have been reading a book called Small Arcs of Larger Circles by Nora Bateson. At one point, she writes of her son and his challenges with a bully.

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 had shifted. (Bateson, 2016: 114)

I love this story. I listen to endless accounts from professionals who tell me about people in their organization who wipe dog poop on them. Stop for a minute. Think about it. Who in your organization goes around wiping dog poop on you? How does it feel? How does it impact the organizational culture? What is the cost to the organization? What do you do about it?

In this case, the mother was not a conventional mother. She was a great mentor, a transformational leader. She did not respond conventionally. She did not transfer her pain onto her son’s teacher or the principal for allowing bad things to happen in the world. Instead she took accountability and she chose to make a difference. What great teachers do is teach to empower. What great leaders do is teach to empower. She taught her son a principle and helped him practice the application.

That is, she shared a vision of a better possible future. In doing so, she gave him hope. Then she opened a path, she gave him a new strategy, and helped him practice the strategy. In doing so, she gave him faith. She then protected his agency by allowing him to face his own challenge.

When the boy exercised his agency, he had a new experience and he engaged in learning by faith. In a real situation, he not only obtained a new result, he also obtained a new definition of self. He encountered his own power.



  • Who in your organization is a bully?
  • What happens when someone rubs dog poop on you or someone else?
  • What do you need in order to act like this boy acted?



The Complex Mind

I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe. –R. Buckminster Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb (1970)

This statement reflects something I call the inclusive mindset. A person with an inclusive mindset sees life as it is. They see self as a dynamic system operating within larger dynamic systems. The purpose of life in this mindset is progression or evolution, not survival and the obtaining of wealth and power.

This mindset allows one to see the dynamic tensions of life. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

This is a difficult challenge. Values can transform. Patriotism, for example, is loyalty and devotion to one’s group, community, or nation. It is a positive value. Yet this positive value, taken alone, can create a deeply negative outcome. Consider the following ancient wisdom.

Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood just as it narrows the mind. And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader and gladly so. How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar. – War by Julius Caesar

Here are a few other positive values: determination, decisiveness, know-how, achievement, conviction, stability, caution, objectivity, supervision, duty, rest, participation, humility, unity, compassion, change, vision, optimism, freedom, spontaneity.

Taken alone, determination can become exhaustion, decisiveness can become haste, know-how can become arrogance, achievement can become selfishness, conviction can become intolerance, stability can become rigidity, realism can become resistance, objectivity can become cynicism, supervision can become micromanagement, duty can become dread, rest can become laziness, participation can become indecisiveness, humility can become self-degradation, unity can become conformity, compassion can become vulnerability, change can become chaos, vision can become illusion, optimism can become naiveté, freedom can become recklessness, spontaneity can become instability.

So each positive value can become a negative.

Monism is an outlook that denies positive tensions or dualities. One value or purpose is selected and others are ignored or defined negatively. “Profit is our purpose and wasting money on our people is inefficient.”

Typically such a narrow focus leads to progress, but paradoxical problems and unintended consequences follow. The people, for example, may become so alienated that they give only minimal effort and profit plummets. When such dynamics emerge, people with a monistic perspective tend not to comprehend what is happening and they continue in their original strategy, making everything worse. The situation becomes a Greek tragedy in which the hero pursues a single value which inexplicably turns negative with disastrous consequences. Any time we act with intention, we are vulnerable to this issue.

It is also true that a value can have a contrasting positive value: Determination–Rest; Decisiveness–Participation; Know-how–Humility; Achievement–Unity; Conviction–Compassion; Stability–Change; Realism–Vision; Objectivity–Optimism; Supervision–Freedom; Duty–Spontaneity.

When the human mind integrates two positive opposing values, new possibilities emerge. I end today, inviting you to consider a challenge in your life, to select an above pair of competing positive values, and to invent a new strategy for engaging your problem. Please share your experience with me.



  • Pursuing any intention reflects some value. As we do it, how do we orient to the opposite positive value?
  • Why does this good but narrow stance become dangerous?
  • What value do you see in the opening quotation about being a verb?

The Power of Changing Your Own Bottom Line

I was speaking with a young man I know well. He has a disciplined mind, a good heart, and the ability to envision and attack a difficult goal. His abilities have carried him rapidly up the sales organization of a large company. As we were talking, I had the impression that he had some pent-up feeling and I should ask him some meaningful question. Such a question then came: “How do you feel about your boss?”

He gave me a logical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of his boss. He said that the company has grown so large and faces so much change that the politics are intense. His boss is a good man who has to spend much of his time managing up so he spends little time managing down. He gave the boss a solid B.

As he spoke he became more intense and moved his assessment up the hierarchy. He described the constant change and internal politics. He described his own efforts. While most people are focusing on managing up the organization in this period, he decided to take the conscious risk of spending his time managing down. Since taking his most recent job, he has made an intense investment in developing his people and the team has reached such a level of performance that it now consistently leads all the other teams in sales.

I assumed this accomplishment represented the ultimate bottom line and that he was being rewarded handsomely. He told me that in trying to control the cost of sales, the company has changed the compensation plan twice in the past year, financially penalizing the team, and costing him a huge amount in personal bonuses. Trying to keep his people and himself motivated is a challenge which is aggravated by the fact that outside companies are always making offers.

He then continued his analysis. Instead of expressing anger, he conveyed his assessment of the complex dynamics in his large company. He pointed out that there were now many small competitors offering new products specifically targeted to take away customers. Given the size and complexity of the company, it is difficult to get senior people to pay attention to these real but “small” threats. They have many issues on their plates.

He told me of a meeting two weeks prior with the man two levels above him. This senior person introduced a new policy. My friend listened and then pointed out that it would provide still another incentive for his people to consider outside offers. The man from two levels above, needing to justify his position, responded that “turnover is a good thing.” My friend responded that the company has become so complex that it now takes a year to train a salesperson and that turnover is an expensive thing.

A week later he was in a meeting with a man three levels above him. The man showed a numerical analysis of turnover. He told the group that the numbers were unacceptable. They were either hiring the wrong people or they were failing in their leadership. One way or the other, they were accountable and they were failing. Thinking of the former meeting, my deeply frustrated friend spoke up. He shared an account of the previous meeting and suggested that perhaps the problem was more complex: perhaps senior people who do not collaborate are greatly accountable for the problem for which they are ready to blame others. To his credit, the senior person recognized the validity in the statement.

The word complexity is important. The two of us came to an agreement. As companies grow, they become more complex and dynamic. No one mind can see, understand, or manage the complexity. It requires multiple minds working towards a common, higher purpose, in trusting relationships, to create the necessary collective intelligence. In most companies the collective intelligence is low. A focus on task drives out a focus on relationships. There is no higher purpose and there is minimal trust. Politics rule. On a given day, a given leader argues for a given policy. In doing so, the leader fails to see the full ecology of positive values that are being traded off. The people below live in frustration. As we came to this agreement, I suggested an alternative way to live with organizational frustration:

“What if you take a focus that most people do not have? The complexity is not going to go away and internal inefficiencies are going to increase, not decrease. The compensation system will never be right. The response to competitors will never be fast enough. Your people will always have some new frustration and so will you. Despite the changes in the compensation plan, you are making plenty of money. What if instead of using money as your bottom line assessment, you switch it to growth? In a world of complexity and change, your greatest source of security is your competence. What if you asked, in this context, am I experiencing maximum growth and is there anything I can do to accelerate the growth? If I get outside offers, will I have more or less opportunity for growth? What if you also extended this notion and it becomes the vision around which you organize your people? What if you teach them to secure their basic needs and to live for higher purpose and for personal and collective growth?”

This seemed to be a show stopper. He thought about it for a time then he began to explore it. As he did, he became excited. He spoke of the last four years as a period of intense growth for which he was grateful. He talked about the growth he is experiencing in his current challenges. He said there was a lot of potential in the idea and that he would continue to explore it. As we parted, he seemed to be grateful for the conversation. So was I.


  • How intense and dynamic are the frustrations in your organization?
  • How much have your grown in the last four years?
  • What is your personal bottom line and how could you change it?

Authenticity, Courage and Collaboration

In our executive education courses, we seek to create deep learning. This means we give people exercises that create experiences that challenge and change existing beliefs. By learning from experience, the participants come to new beliefs and a new mindset. This new mindset empowers them and increases their ability to empower others. One example is giving people the opportunity to share who they really are by telling the core stories of their life. When people do this exercise, they often go home and present themselves in a new way. Here is a short account of a woman who manages a branch bank. She gains a new, collaborative vision, and she shares her authentic self with her direct reports.

Her Collaborative Vision

We are all part of a journey to create an extraordinary corporation. The things we need to solve for in the financial services industry have not yet been done in this new regulatory environment. We want to be an advice-driven bank that helps small business owners start up, maintain, and grow their businesses. We want to help our retail customers achieve their goals and dreams using the advice provided by their trusted advisor. To do this, we need to start with a passion to be the best bankers and work with a purpose, filled with pride to achieve it.

What She Shared With Her Direct Reports

All of us come with a series of core stories that have shaped who we are and what we believe in. At the expense of putting myself out there a bit today, I am going to share some of early memories that made me the person that I am today. I am going to take you back to my childhood. I am the youngest of five children. At the point in time I am going to share, my mother stayed home to raise the five of us while my father ran an insurance agency, a bar/restaurant, and five rental properties in a small town an hour south of the city of Buffalo.

In March, he was diagnosed with Stage IV Leukemia, and in July he passed away. I will never forget sitting on the floor in the living room surrounded by my siblings when my mother had the ominous task of telling us Daddy was not coming home.

What was remarkable is what happened after she told us. We put our backs up and we made a silent pact that day to work together for a higher purpose. Mom went back to school and got her insurance license and she ran my father’s business. She did not take time to dwell on the cards she was dealt. The five of us stuck together and did what we could to make each other’s lives better. We did not bicker; we made meals and helped each other with homework. We pushed each other out of our comfort zones with a determined purposed that created resilience and trust. I would not have traded one of these moments because it made me who I am today.

I share this story so that you have a window into what I value. I am 150% into the teams I am a part of. I do not know another way. I am transparent with what I know because I want us to be the best that we can be. I do not operate with an ego or my own self-interest. I have seen what a team can accomplish and know that it is better.

Does that mean there were not tough times along the way? No way. Does this mean I can promise you that I will get it right every time? No. But it should tell you the spirit in which I operate and what I stand for. I will push you out of your comfort zone if you let me because when I look at you I see what you can do, not what you have done. I believe in all of you and I am committed to running the journey next to you.

The legacy of this bank is going to be built on the actions each of you take over the next handful of years. And I believe it will be great and I am determined to prove that out.

The Outcome
The more we learn and share the better everyone is for it. Your story gave me the courage to share mine. We are at the end of a three-week calling challenge. I shared this and we had a solid hold on second place. We came back and crushed it after this meeting. The feedback I am getting is “we want to win this for you.” Funny how much relating to your leader drives discretionary effort in an amazing way.


  • What do you learn from reading her vision? Do you have a vision of purpose and collaboration?
  • What she shared with her direct reports was unconventional and therefore uncomfortable. Why did she do it? What did they feel and think? Why did the outcome occur?
  • What core story have you never shared that could inspire people to greater collaboration?



Positive Leadership in Government

I have a friend who works in government and has been impacted by the election. The actions of the new president have caused an explosion of pressure in the office where he works. Everyone, including him, is overwhelmed. In the midst of the chaos, he shares two important observations. They appear to be independent. I think they are related and they tell us something about the nature of positive leadership and the pursuit of the common good.

“Through the vicissitudes of the last few days, I have been especially impressed by the example of my office director.  I see her connecting with each member of the team.  I see her making jokes at just the right moment to help peel back the tension.  I see her listening carefully to each team member’s concerns.  I see her insisting that what we express what really matters. She is constantly reminding us of who we are and what we’re about.  I am grateful for a boss who is a leader.

Yesterday the pace at work continued to be intense.  I received an assignment late on Tuesday to assemble a series of papers for yesterday afternoon.  When I got to work in the morning yesterday, I realized I couldn’t do everything I needed to do in the time I had left.  I needed help.

I wrote to my friend Henry and asked if he could help me.  He wrote back almost immediately and just asked what the timeline was.  About 30 minutes later, he sent me a much improved draft of something I sent him.  That draft then went through multiple edits by various parties, and I was able to turn that and several other papers in before I left.  There were several people who helped me throughout the day, but I feel especially grateful for Henry’s immediate response early in the process.  It isn’t the first time he has helped me out; I feel grateful for the many times he has helped me, including my first day on the job.  His example makes me want to be a better friend and colleague.”

We begin at the end. In the chaos, my friend knew he could not do what was required. So he does something unconventional. He asks for help even though others are also under pressure. He is exercising the courage to be vulnerable. Henry immediately responds as he has done previously. This may be because Henry is a mature human being with a servant mentality. Yet there may be another variable operating.

Under pressure, the office manager is also behaving unconventionally, connecting with each person, relieving tension, listening to and further surfacing each concern, encouraging expression and clarifying the collective purpose. This is so unconventional and valuable that people, like my friend, notice.

She is a positive leader nurturing a positive culture. Note that my friend says that everyone helps and Henry’s example, in particular, makes my friend want to be a better friend and colleague. He is feeling attracted to be a positive contributor in a positive organization. Henry gives to him and he is willing to give to others; this is called generalized reciprocity.

Could it be that the office manager is creating a positive culture and people are able to exercise the courage to be vulnerable and operate in pursuit of the common good? As they do, they begin to believe it is okay to ask for help and they believe it is okay to give help, knowing that others will help them when they need it. In a system of generalized reciprocity, each person is willing to sacrifice for another, knowing that, when in need, they will receive the same, not necessarily from the person they served (conventional reciprocity), but from some other member of the positive organization.


  • Who in our organization is like the office manager?
  • If positive leadership can happen in a government office, where else can it happen?
  • Why do people in a positive organization function better?



The Benefits of Receiving Gratitude

Much has been written about the benefits of expressing gratitude. Recently I have been reflecting on the value of receiving gratitude.

After writing this blog for several months, I was on the verge of quitting. I could see no impact. Then feedback began to trickle in. Some former students claimed that entries helped them renew their faith in what they originally learned. Soon another type of message began to arrive. One of our readers shared a personal story which provides an excellent illustration.

He was progressing up his organization when he had a heart attack that left him without a heartbeat for 30 minutes. This led to a profound clarification of values and the realization that he did not want to move to the next politically saturated position. Instead he began to work on a creative idea, a contribution that had implications for the entire industry. The progress of that project was exhilarating.

Then his new boss arrived. Conflict grew, and a short time later, based on principle, he felt he should resign. For months he desired to “punish the organization.” Then drawing on what he learned from obtaining a “second life” and pursuing a higher purpose, he changed his focus back to contribution. As he did he realized that his experience in the old organization had taught him the power of higher purpose and his anger turned to gratitude.

While he continues to search for a new source of income, something we all find frightening, he proceeds with an unusual orientation. He is pursuing a cause about which he cares deeply and could save millions of lives. Because he does, he claims that his life is “fun” and he wakes up with enthusiasm.   He says he is living an “authentic, paradigm busting life.”

This is an inspiring report. Yet he also expresses one more point. Moving forward on such a journey also includes discouragement. He tells me he is sharing his story because the blog posts have been with him throughout his journey and he needed me to know that at least one person has been effected.

Since the time I considered quitting, I have received a number of messages like this one. The feedback fills me with positive emotions and I find the ability to press on. This fact instructs me to look for the people around me who are trying to make a difference and give them the positive feedback that this person gave me.


  • What do I learn from the man’s central story?
  • What do I learn about the power of appreciation?
  • Who is enriching my life and how could I meaningfully thank them?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Organizational Voice

Does an organization have a voice? Recently we visited a new store that sells submarine sandwiches. We interacted with three employees. The first took our order. He never greeted us but simply stared and waited. We gave the order. He clarified one fact and passed the order along. The second person constructed the sandwich. This was done hurriedly and without asking if we had any preferences about the possible trimmings. A third person called our number. As we approached her, she communicated impatience nonverbally, signaling that we were irritations in her day.

We ate the sandwiches. They were comprised of a fresh roll and fresh ingredients. They were acceptable but they were not great. They were thrown together by people doing a required task.

What did the organization have to say to us? The organizations told us that we were engaged in a transaction. In exchange for our money, they were willing to assemble specified ingredients and hand them to us. The organization told us that it did not care about us in any way beyond our money. We left thinking that we probably would not go back. The voice of the organization was instrumental, and it created a short-term profit and a long-term loss.

We also walked away thinking that the owner of the store was a transactional manager and not a transformational leader. If we visited the best store in the chain, would we have had a different experience? The likely answer is yes. The probability is that we would have had a higher quality emotional and physical exchange. We would have benefited from more caring interactions and more caring production of the product. We would have walked away feeling we received more value for our money.



When have I felt like this?

What does the voice of our organization communicate to our customers?

What is our definition of value?

The Power of an Organizing Image

Change requires a vibrant organizing image. A particularly good illustration comes from Nelson Mandela in his book Long Walk to Freedom (1994). In the early 1950s, there was little hope for the freedom-seeking efforts of black South Africans. Then in 1955, an innovative idea was introduced: a “Congress of the People” representing every group in the country would draw up a charter containing principles for the creation of a new South Africa. It was a new organizing image.

People from two hundred organizations were asked, “If you could make the laws… what would you do?” Asking the people to envision their own future caught the collective imagination and gave rise to a national conversation about purpose, integrity, connection, and learning. Suggestions came from everywhere. The document that emerged was short, clear, and inspiring. It became an organizing image that would endure through a very long period of agony and eventually lead to the emergence of the new South Africa.

Real leadership is pursuing the common good of the system. People who are in the fundamental state of leadership invite others to transcend their normal assumptions of self-interest, external rewards, exchange, conflict, alienation, and scarcity. They act on new assumptions of sacrifice for the common good, intrinsic rewards, exceeding expectations, possibility, trust and expanded resources. All of this begins with the emergence of a meaningful organizing image.


Around what image do we organize in the larger organization?

Around what image do we organize in my unit?

What would happen if I brought people together to create a new image?