Newsletter: Moral Leadership

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What Fred Rogers Teaches Us About Moral Leadership

“This past month a documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Mister (Fred) Rogers was released. Documentaries rarely make it to the big screen and do not tend to do well at the box office. After just two weeks, the film has grossed nearly $2 million dollars. There have been lots of articles speculating why it is doing so well. I think we find a central clue from Morgan Neville the director. In making the film, he said he was interested in asking “ questions about moral leadership .”

What is moral leadership? Consider this account of a key moment in the history of Mr. Rogers :
In the 1970’s, when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was threatened with cancelation, mothers across the country walked door-to-door collecting funds to keep it afloat. No one asked them to. Certainly not Mister Rogers himself. They did it because the thought of him going off the air was so appalling, to them and their children, that they galvanized themselves into action.
We like to think that real leaders inspire others to previously unreachable heights. In this case, the values that Fred Rogers inspired in his viewers drove regular people to exhibit passionate, unsolicited behaviors that led to a very substantial and non-regular outcome… Congressional funding for years of public television.
Moral leadership is tied to virtue. There are hundreds of virtues, including patience, decisiveness, conviction, humility, self-reliance, unity, engagement, mindfulness, joyfulness, sacrifice, and so on. Moral leadership begins when one person exhibits one or more virtues at an unconventional level. This gives rise to something scientists call idealized influence. The virtuous behavior inspires unconventional outcomes, including regular people exhibiting “passionate, unsolicited behaviors….”
Finish reading the article here:

Finding Our Life Purpose

At a basketball game for eight year-olds I sat next to a young father. We got into a meaningful conversation and the topic turned to purpose. He said he would like to know his life purpose. I asked him questions about his most joyful experiences and his most challenging. He told three stories about each.   All three joy stories were about bringing people together and helping them innovate as a group. All three challenge stories were about moving from personal fear to faith.

As we talked we came up with an initial statement. “My purpose is to live in faith and help people to organize collective efforts.” I told him this was not the final product. He needed to examine it daily, and make changes. He needed to experiment with applying his purpose. He needed to keep assessing and rewriting until something inside him clicked. He agreed to do so. He recently wrote and reported following directions quite well.

Yesterday was a busy day at work and in the midst of it, I had a quiet moment as I walked somewhere.  I was feeling good and the thought occurred to me that wherever I go, when I’m at my best, I make positive connections along the way.  I thought of many specific examples. It made me think of a line from the song, “Give Said the Little Stream; “I’m small I know, but wherever I go, the fields grows greener still.” When I got back to my desk, I added the following to my purpose statement: My path is my community. My purpose is to live in faith and help people to organize collective efforts.

The workday went two hours longer than I expected.  By the time I got to the train station, it was a mess: at the height of rush hour, there were delays due to a train that broke down.  I waited and waited for a train and when it finally came, I couldn’t squeeze onto the car and was left outside.  In my hunger, fatigue, stress, and frustration, I had a mini-breakdown, knocking on the train door and saying something crazy to the people inside: “C’mon, make room, people!  Have a heart!  I waited with you on the platform too!”  (I don’t get angry very often, but when I do, I do some pretty crazy things.)

Well, of course, I felt ridiculous and ashamed for acting that way and not being more patient.  I took a train headed in the opposite direction (had to get out of there!).  I arrived at a platform that was just as bad if not worse than where I had been, and I felt the fear come over me again.  The train was about to pull in and a woman who had been standing next to me on the platform edged forward.  I didn’t look at her directly, but I edged forward too.

Then I realized what I was doing and turned to her and said something friendly about how crowded it was and how I couldn’t get on a train earlier.  She said something friendly back to me about how crowded it has been lately.  When the doors opened, there was a surge of people around us, but together she and I moved toward the door and I motioned with my hand for her to go first into the train.

In the first experience, I lived in fear and organized no innovative, collective effort.  My path was not community; there were adversaries all around me.  But in the second experience, I overcame the fear I was feeling and reached out to someone along my path and formed a small but positive connection with her.

Many years ago, I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.  This morning I looked up one of my favorite quotes from that book that I still find inspiring: “Man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”

The last sentence is potent. We can become swine or saints. Both potentials are in us. What we become is determined by our decisions. Having a purpose statement leads to better decisions. We find our purpose by contemplating our past joys and challenges, experimenting in the present and continually pondering, clarifying and rewriting. As we discover our purpose we create a more generative present and a more generative future.



  • What is your life purpose?
  • How can you find it or help someone else find theirs?
  • What difference would it make?
  • How can you use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Growing Into Positive Leadership

On a coaching call with participants from an earlier executive class, I asked them to share their stories of what they did differently because of what they learned. Most of them had stories of changes they made at work, but interestingly almost all started by telling of changes they made at home.

One woman told of cajoling her husband to keep and discuss a gratitude journal. He really had no time or interest. He was finishing a Ph.D. He was fully stressed. She said his conversations were almost always about what was going wrong. As he keep the gratitude journal, their conversations changed and their relationship changed. She was so moved that she felt inspired to apply what she learned at work.

At work, they were going through a difficult transformation. She became more transparent and expressive. She recognized their struggles and shared hers. She told her people that is was difficult but that they all had to “gut through.” She then witnessed a change as surprising as the one with her husband. The people took her words to heart. They began to attack some of the most uncomfortable tasks with a positive orientation. They also became ambassadors of the change.   She said, “I am so impressed. In a thirty minute period I had so much impact. Positive leadership makes a difference.”

Another woman spoke of applying positive leadership with her five year-old and with her mother. As she began to let go of the negative and recognize what her child was doing well, an observable change occurred. The child began to “glow” and her “behavior improved.”

He mother was in assisted living and no longer remembered visits. She complained that she was being deserted. Her mother was invited to keep a “guest book.” Each time a family member visited, it was recorded in the book. When she was feeling deserted the staff would refer her to the book. It turned out to be a successful, therapeutic tool.

As with the first women, these successes built confidence and led to new efforts at work. She introduced a weekly ritual called the Lava Lamp. The unattractive lamp becomes an award. As she presents it, she calls out and appreciates specific behaviors of one of her direct reports. She said, “It is really corny but people are moved by it.”

She began to bring people together to increase collaboration. One tool was a monthly brown bag lunch. The most important outcome was what she learned. She discovered that her people were lonely and hungry for collaborative experiences. This led her to change her own behavior. She began to “hear people out.” She began to share more information. The people reacted positively.

When we teach positive leadership, the first reaction is “It cannot work in our culture.” Participants listen to the many practices we offer, show interest, but a great hesitancy to act. Because positive practices tend to be outside the present culture, to introduce them is to lead and risk embarrassment. It is not surprising that many people start at home, learn, and then experiment at work. We have to grow into positive leadership.



  • Do any of the above practices attract your attention?
  • Why do many people start positive leadership at home?
  • What is necessary to overcome the fear of embarrassment?
  • How can you use this passage to create a more positive organization?


The Prison Riddle

I have a good friend who is a practitioner of positive leadership. He volunteers a portion of his time to work with prisoners. He recently sent me a puzzle that I pass on to you.

“Two prisoners who have aligned with the goal to make the best of their limited life reported how tough, even dangerous, being positive is in their environment. They went on to explain that being positive or compassionate is seen by other inmates as being soft, kissing up, being suspect, and violating the canon of holding firm to the rules of engagement in prison: dominate or be dominated / fit into the hierarchies in place.”

“They went on to report that evidence of ‘compassion’ and ‘positivity’ were forced to go underground, being reduced to coded signals between the two consenting prisoners. All went well (an overstatement) until they were ‘found out’, were declared ‘homos’ and are now brutalized both physically and emotionally. Peer pressure is fierce and relentless.

The conversation with the two inmates was conducted in the Warden’s office, as having it in their setting would have endangered them and me. Now what?”

Literalists will think this is an unsolvable problem about prison life. I think it generalizes far beyond prisons. I think it captures the dynamics in every organization. In all organization peer pressure tends to be fierce and relentless. It ensures organizational performance regresses to the mean or worse. Conventional organizations never become positive organizations until negative peer pressure is transformed into positive peer pressure. Positive peer pressure is also fierce and relentless and it drives organizations to excellence. So I present the puzzle and ask you to simultaneously solve it for the prisoners and for yourself.



  • Why do so many managers fear the principles of positive leadership?
  • If you seek to turn your culture more positive what will happen?
  • How does a leader turn negative peer pressure into positive peer pressure?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Vulnerability and Culture Change

A few years ago we initiated a culture change program with a group of surgeons. In successive cohorts we exposed them to the concepts of positive leadership and asked them to engage in experiences that required new behaviors and produced new understanding. Recently a colleague sent me an informal report on the outcomes. Participants were asked to reflect upon the entire process and share their insights.

One of the surgeons claimed that the most important session was not his favorite session because it made him uncomfortable. He said, “I was uncomfortable with being vulnerable and sharing core stories, and uncomfortable because I realized what it meant to be a real leader. It was scary to be confronted by how far I was from that ideal. This was the most important session because it changed how I think about my colleagues and changed how I think about myself as a leader and the growth I need.”

Another wrote of the same session. “It taught us how to be vulnerable with our peers, and helped us see how that builds trust. That session and experience gave us permission to develop deeper relationships with our peers, which built over the program as we continued to work in small groups.”



What conventional beliefs lead us to avoid vulnerability?

Why is vulnerability a hallmark of authentic leadership?

Why is vulnerability necessary to cultural change?

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

Positive Organizations and Agile Software Development

The world of software development is a wonderful domain that has emerged from the work of the conventional technical mind. Software development tends to be a hierarchical process and it has given us many innovations.

In one of our courses on positive leadership, there was an excited participant. He manages an IT unit in a large company. Several times he told us that he was really excited about what he was learning. He said the principles of positive organizing were helping him understand what is going on in his IT shop. He is a proponent of a non-conventional approach. He refers to it as agile development and scrum work.

Agile development is captured in the following manifesto:

Manifesto for Agile Software Development

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it
Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan


That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more


Scrum is defined as follows:

Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.



In sharing the above information, my friend notes that what he learned about positive organizations is totally consistent with his experience in agile development. He writes that “a high performing scrum team is a pretty good example of a positive organization.”

I think the key connection is that the relational network is any team or organization that is a complex adaptive system. It is a system that learns. When such a system is influenced by positive leadership, learning accelerates. Increasing collective intelligence leads to better adaptation and higher performance.



  • What do you learn from the manifesto?
  • What does the scrum definition suggest?
  • What is the quality of the collective intelligence in your unit?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?

When the Rate of Change Exceeds the Rate of Learning

In an executive program we were talking about the deep change or slow death dilemma, and how organizations begin to break down. Things grow worse as leaders fail to lead and the people begin to lose faith in the collective good. Eventually the decline reaches a tipping point and hope for the future dies. At that point everyone begins to pursue their own personal good. There is still a building and people still sit in their cubicles but there is no collaborative organization, just a collection of self-interested people pursuing their own agendas.

Often this discussion makes it possible for participants to explore things they normally do not discuss. In a recent episode this happened and we engaged in an authentic and probing examination of failure patterns in a given organization. As we were closing the intense discussion, I asked what drives the slow death process. A participant responded, “The rate of change exceeds the rate of learning.”

This simple sentence says so much. Hierarchies tend to be knowing organizations not learning organizations. Managers tend to be expert problem solvers not masterful facilitators of the collective leaning. While external change is intensifying at an exponential rate, individual and organizational learning are constrained. We sense that as individuals we do not understand what is going on around us. We sense that many governments, businesses and other organizations are floundering. We fear catastrophic possibilities.

The discussion led us to search for a solution. We could find only one, leaders who are willing to sacrifice for the common good. I asked if any of them ever had a boss who chose personal good over the common good. Many hands went up. I asked them to identify their first reactions. We concluded that the response is always some form of withdrawal. We reduce our commitment. A participant spoke up and said to an imaginary boss, “It is difficult for me to care more than you care.”

A positive organization is an organization of learning. It is make possible by genuine, shared commitment. Leadership begins with commitment to the common good and inspires such commitment from everyone.



  • If the rate of change exceeds the rate of learning, what will happen?
  • Why is it difficult for employees to care more than the boss cares?
  • What is moral leadership and what does it have to do with organizational learning and performance?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning to Influence Effectively

There is a golf driving range near my house that is equipped for winter. I have gone there regularly. For a long time, my swing has been erratic. I have done much analysis and tried many fixes. After months of effort, there has been no progress. I have been a prisoner of my weaknesses. Unable to stand it any longer, I decided to take a lesson.

The golf pro was a very young man named Zach. I worried he might not be effective. I have met with many golf pros who are not effective. They know the golf swing but they do not know how to teach. They see the technical task, they do not see the relationship in which they are embedded. They spew technical expertise and instruction on the student without understanding or meeting the deepest needs of the students and there is little positive impact.

Zach asked me questions as I hit a few balls. The entire time he never had me stand passively listening while he gave a lecture. As I kept swinging, he analyzed my swings on the computer. He then had me watch myself on the computer screen. Together we tried to make sense of what we were seeing. Then Zach invited me to make two small adjustments. As I began to experiment, I almost immediately began to hit the ball long and straight.

It felt like a miracle. How could two such small changes resolve months of frustration? I felt genuine joy. I also experienced another powerful, positive emotion. I was full of gratitude for the teacher who so effortlessly ended my months of frustration. I felt a bond. I wanted to be Zach’s friend for life. The latter reaction was striking to me. I had known the man less than an hour yet I valued him greatly.

I gave Zach some specific, positive feedback.   He lit up. Then he told a fascinating story.

When he first started, there was a senior golf teacher. He was a master of teaching. He would sit in a chair and watch his students swing. Instead of instructing them on what steps to take, he would say, “When you swing feel like …,” and he would provide some graphic image.

The other golf instructors would marvel at the impact of this unusual approach. Zach paid great attention. He never figured out the imagery part, but he did discover something important. Teaching is relational and the solution needs to come from inside the student. The job of the teacher is not to be an expert who pours the solution into the student.   The job is to provide the challenge and support that allows the solution to come out of the student. Zach became a master teacher.



  • What is the difference between a conventional teacher and a master?
  • Of all the leaders you have known, which one was the best example of a master teacher and what difference did the leader make?
  • How can you help your people to improve their performance?
  • How can you use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Excellence, Leadership & Louis the Limo Driver

Excellence is a powerful teacher. Yet we often fail to learn from excellence because we do not see excellence even when we are exposed to it.

I was on my way to an event and called a driver picked me up. As I approached the car, he walked up and put out his hand. He called me by name, and introduced himself as Louis. He looked me in the eye and asked several questions. He listened to one of my answers and laughed with his full body. This led to a strong first impression; “This is a good guy.”

As I climbed into the car I was about to go into my comfortable introvert state. Louis was not standing for it. He talked to me with enthusiasm. The phone I was pulling out, slipped back into my pocket and my lips began to move. I was engaged in a real conversation.

Louis is a sixty year-old African-American. He grew up in Tennessee, left school in the 11th grade and moved to Detroit.

He told me he was originally making $1,000 a week and many of his neighbors were making $200 a week. Yet they were better off because his money disappeared into alcohol, drugs and women. He told me he was doing what came natural yet he was going nowhere. Then he changed. He discovered God. I asked how he did this. After some thought, he said, “I just could not go on living a meaningless life; I began searching for something more and then I started meeting people and learning things.”

Louis shared some of his lessons. He told me the mind produces images and the images shape behavior. Most people take in whatever image is in front of them but he explained this does not have to be the case, you can control the images that register on your brain. He explained how. He shared practical strategies for improving life.

He told me of a recent conversation in his car. He picked up an executive who had had a six hour flight delay. He was in a very negative mood. Louis told me that he had to figure out how to lift the man; that doing so was his calling.

After much reflection, Louis asked the man, “Tomorrow are you going to feel better than you feel right now?”

The man answered in the affirmative. Louis said, “Why wait until tomorrow?”

The man was shocked. Then he laughed. He said, “You are right. Why wait? You just made me a better person. My wife is going to have a better evening tonight because of you.”

As Louis finished the story he went into another deep body laugh.   Then he said, “That is my life. I am here to help people. I never want to stop learning and I never want to stop helping other people learn.”

For the next two hours I had the pleasure of being taught by Louis. When we finally arrived he said, “Look at that, two hours, it seems like ten minutes. Being with you was wonderful.”

I laughed and told Louis that being with him was wonderful. We made arrangements so that he was my driver on the return trip.

This morning I reflect back on that conversation. I see so many lessons. One is particularly important. To me Louis represents success in the fundamental journey to leadership. We all start out fully dependent. Some of us live in abundance and some in scarcity. We each have our own array of advantages and disadvantages.

As we become teenagers, we begin the search for independence. Often we travel paths that lead to meaninglessness. As the emptiness grows, we may begin to search for something more. When we are ready to learn, teachers show up in the form of people and/or experiences. We evolve towards productive interdependence. As we do, we begin to feel whole. We bring both our mind and our heart to a higher purpose. We experience the transformation of self-interest. We find our greatest meaning in contribution. We discover a calling.

Louis has a calling. He is not in the car to drive, he is in the car to “help people,” he never wants to “stop learning” and he “never wants to stop helping other people learn.” Louis is an example of excellence in leadership and I loved learning from him.


  • How is Louis a manifestation of excellence?
  • What would happen if you were surrounded by people like Louis?
  • What could you do today to become more like Louis?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?