Free Book

Just a short announcement that the book I wrote with Kim Cameron and Jane Dutton is being featured by our Publisher, Berrett-Koehler, this month. They are giving away free copies.  If you are interested, you can enter here:

Enter now to win Positive Organizational Scholarship in my publisher’s giveaway.

Best Self in Barcelona

In Barcelona we were teaching a group of 150 professionals and the topic was positive leadership. I asked them to do an exercise and share their insights. The conversation across the large group became increasingly insightful. A man raised his hand and said that 20 years ago a teacher taught him a profound lesson.

The teacher said that if you want to lead you can pay someone to work and the pay will create external motivation. You can pay a person and also expose the person to a sense of purpose and it will create intrinsic motivation. You can pay a person, give them purpose, and open paths so they can fully give themselves away. This creates transcendent motivation.

When we work for pay, we work for ourselves. When we work for a higher purpose, we work for something bigger. When we give ourselves away to that higher purpose, ego disappears and we become servants of the common good.   A new self emerges.



  • Do the people around me work for pay?
  • Are the people linked to a higher purpose?
  • Are the people finding and giving themselves away?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


A Personal Board of Directors

Research suggests that we learn from our negative experiences and not our positive experiences. One reason is that it is natural to ponder our failures and not so natural to ponder things that are going well.

An executive told me of a toxic boss he once had named Tom. My friend shared examples of Tom requiring his people to do extreme things just to show he was in control. How could anyone be so ego driven?

My friend said, “I learned a lot. Today when I have a challenging situation, I ask, ‘What would Tom do?’ I conceptualize it and then I do the opposite.”

We both laughed but he was serious. This caused me to recall a similar process in which I occasionally engage. I have a psychological board of directors. You may want to experiment with creating one. Identify the people who left the most negative legacy in your life, people like Tom. Then identify the people who left the most positive legacy in your life. Then take a current challenge in your life and ask: “What would each person do?” Lay out the answers and then combine them into a strategy. In this way, you will be learning not only from the negative but also from the positive. If you consciously do this a number of times, you will find that you are diversifying your thought processes. You will also be accelerating your leadership development.

Now imagine taking this process to a team. You identify a challenge. You ask each person to do the above exercise and come up with a new strategy. You have each person share a strategy, open a discussion, and together construct a common strategy. You will not only have a better strategy than any one person could create, you will also provide a model of leadership development.


  • When you formulate strategies, what is your thought process?
  • Are you learning from your positive as well as your negative history?
  • Who are the people you want on your psychological board of directors?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Shaping the Emerging Future

We were in a film studio and I was in front of the camera. When I do this, I have a prepared message but I do not use a script. I know what I want to say but I allow myself to formulate the words in real time. I do this because I want the message to be authentic.

We were three minutes into the first segment, when the man in charge, Greg, stopped the process and said we should begin again. This surprised me. Based on previous experiences, Greg refers to me as “Mr. One Take.” I had begun to take pride in the title.

I asked if I had said the wrong words or hesitated in some way. He said, “No, but in the first two minutes you were not rolling like you are now. You have your rhythm. You are giving more. You are really connecting with the viewer. You need to do that from the beginning.”

I knew he was right. We started over and the difference was clear. At the end, I sought him out and told him I was grateful. His intervention would stay with me forever.   In the making of future videos, I will be conscious of the lesson. I will prepare differently. I will be rolling from the start.

The sense of gratitude stayed with me all day. Why?

My purpose is to touch lives, to inspire positive change. I am passionate about it. When I am in a conventional state, I tend to become ego-driven. I need to show that I am self-sufficient. Feedback is an unwelcome disruption, something I block or set aside. Knowledge and pride drive out learning. I do not realize it, but I am living in the past and I am dying in the present. There is no life in me, I am out of rhythm, and people are not connecting. I am not inspiring positive change.

When I orient to my purpose, I move forward, hungry for feedback. I am using my existing knowledge base and expanding it through the process of learning. I am integrating the past with the present while shaping the emerging future. I am fully alive, in rhythm, and people are connecting. I am inspiring change because I am modeling change. I am grateful for Greg and his disruptive feedback.


  • When do you rejoice in disruptive feedback?
  • What life purpose permeates what you do and leads you to welcome disruptive feedback?
  • When is the last time you remember integrating the past with the present while shaping the emerging future?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Transforming Genuinely Pissed-Off Managers

We work with a major company that tends to have a narrow focus on profit. Mangers tend to carry cynicism. In the first day of a program, the participants expressed some negativity. It came out as arguments of helplessness. The culture is determined from the top. They can only respond to the culture. There is no opportunity for them to exercise positive leadership.

My first meeting with them was on day two. I opened with a challenge. I asked them to determine the difference between good and great conversations, marriages and teams. They did an extraordinary job. Using their own lists, I asked them to generate a theory of greatness in social systems. They came up with the following:

  • There is a sense of purpose
  • People feel inspired
  • There are strong and healthy emotional connections
  • There is respect, trust and admiration
  • There is integrity, openness and authenticity
  • The people feel challenged and fully engaged
  • They make willing contributions
  • There is natural collaboration
  • People rejoice in the success of others
  • Outcomes exceed expectations

I asked if they believed in their theory; they said they did. I asked where the theory came from. They indicated that they collectively drew on their experience and knowledge. I emphasized that I had told them nothing, and they created their own theory of excellence. What did this imply? There was a pause and then a golden moment. They recognized, despite all the contrary assumptions, they believed in excellence, desired excellence, and excellence comes from positive leadership.

I asked for insights. Someone said, “Creating a positive organization is hard work, but the payoffs are high: everyone wins. Why lead in any other way?”

We spent the morning in a conversation that reflected the characteristics described above. The learning was intense. At the conclusion, people were sharing more insights. A man who had made several wise comments raised his hand. He said, “I am going to say something I never thought I would say. I came into this week genuinely pissed off at the senior leaders of this company. Now my anger is gone. I realize that they do not matter. Regardless of how they act, I can lead. I can create a positive organization and that is what I am going to do.”

There was silence. He had just become the voice of the group. It was not the voice of helplessness but a self-empowering voice. I walked over and gave him a high five.


  • What is your theory of excellence?
  • What are the payoffs of applying your theory?
  • Is it possible that what the people above you do does not matter?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



A Chocolate Chip Change Strategy

We were discussing leadership and change. One executive told us she had a chocolate chip cookie theory of change. When she first joined the company, she would go to meetings and notice how many people were disengaged. She said they were like cookie dough. Usually there were also one or two people with light in their eyes. They were like chocolate chips. Her entire career she has sought to locate and link with the chocolate chips. That is how she has been able to get things done.

Her theory is our theory. When we set out to create a positive culture, we often ask a company to create a network of positive energizers. We ask them to select the most positive people from across the organization and use them to lead the process.

We met with such a group.   At the outset, the senior most person greeted them, and then they did personal introductions. The senior person reviewed the history and explained that they were being asked to guide culture change.   They were in uncharted waters and there was no existing map. They would have to create their own map.

Introductions followed. They had three tasks. They were to introduce themselves, explain how they access positive energy, and share their favorite vacation spot. Later, I asked them to reflect on the introductions. What were the patterns cutting across the group? They identified four.

First, they said that the people in the group expressed a sense of purpose and confidence. They naturally shared their challenges but talked of them as a source of strength. One spoke of a handicapped child. Because of the child, the parents and siblings tend to see their own challenges as insignificant.   Another said his father grew up in a tent, came to the United States with nothing, and is now a professor. The father’s example is so influential that the speaker believes he can access positive energy and accomplish anything.

Second, they said the people were intrinsically motivated. They love what they do.   A union member said, “I have been a lineman for over twenty years, but I have never worked a day in my life. I love what I do. Every day is an adventure.”

Third, they said the group was relational. Individuals had much to say about human connections. They spoke of immediate family, extended family, and other networks as a source of meaning. The lineman for example, rejoiced in the local union and then turned to his relationships with people in the national union and expressed genuine gratitude.

Fourth, the group was oriented to learning and growth. They particularly spoke of joy in the growth of others, expressed curiosity, and talked of learning and teaching.   One man, for example, rejoiced in his daughter and her constant progress in soccer. Another spoke of seeing herself as a teacher at work and rejoiced in the development of her people.   Many spoke of vacations as learning opportunities.

By the end of the discussion, it was obvious that the people in the room were fully alive. They were purposive, intrinsically motivated, relational, and oriented to growth. They were the chocolate chips in the organizational cookie dough. In creating positive organizational cultures, it is desirable to locate and link the positive energizers. It makes for a better organizational cookie.


  • Are you able to identify the chocolate chips in your organization?
  • Do you capitalize on their presence?
  • How might you increase their influence?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Nutritious Imperfection

Horst Abraham coaches elite athletes. He recognizes their thirst for achievement but makes an intriguing observation about their orientation to learning. Many of us find our imperfections painful and we practice denial. Horst says that many of his clients are “positively energized by their imperfections.” Instead of denying or becoming depressed by their imperfections, they seek to recognize and understand them. They develop “chronic discontent – but in a nutritious way.”

When people observe their imperfections and turn them into positive energy, they grow and develop. In organizations, there is often a different tendency. There is an emphasis on hierarchy, authority and expertise. When circumstances change, the system fills with uncertainty. There is a need to move forward, learning through trial and error. Yet the fear of vulnerability is great. The “knowing organization” prevents learning and adaptation. The people practice denial while the organization slowly dies.

Recently I worked with such an organization. The insistence on knowing led all the way to bankruptcy. Yet the disaster had positive effects. Today there is an entirely new culture. There is chronic discontent. One executive said, “Our new program leads the industry and is making big money. We are already changing it. We are searching out every flaw. We are continually learning how to make it better. The objective is to stay in front and it requires continual change”

The knowing organization has become a learning organization. They are “positively energized by their imperfections.” They no longer have to be experts. They are willing to be vulnerable and learn together. Instead of denying or becoming depressed by their imperfections, they seek to recognize and understand them. They develop “chronic discontent – but in a nutritious way.”


  • When have we denied reality?
  • When have we shown chronic discontent – in a nutritious way?
  • How do we turn a knowing organization into a learning organization?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Imagination and Courage

An old friend described his very demanding and unrewarding job. He has been doing it for a long time and is likely to continue until he retires. As he spoke of his situation, I thought of something William James wrote in 1907: “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked.”

A few days later, I met a young man. He is 24 and just retired from minor league baseball. He throws a 91 mile an hour fastball. Ten years ago, he would have been a promising star.   Some pitchers are pushing 100 miles an hour. At the end of spring training, management met with him and three others.

They informed the four that the organization had eight people of equal ability. They could only keep four. The four in the room were all 24 or older. The four they were keeping were 21 or younger.

The news was devastating. My young friend, however, could see other options in life and was ready to move on. In some ways, he was excited to do so. He talked, for example, about going back to school and becoming a physician’s assistant.

He said two of the others only knew baseball and could imagine no other alternative. His guess is that they would bounce around the minor leagues as long as they could. The image, like the previous one, weighed on me.

I thought of a line from Tom Rath: “You cannot be anything you want to be – but you can be a lot more of who you already are.”

The ability to imagine a more meaningful life is important. The courage to pursue a more meaningful life is crucial. The courage often comes from the discovery of self and the articulation of a higher purpose and provides the courage to engage in the process of becoming.

Managers do not link to this challenge but leaders do. Leaders recognize that animating people is a key of organizational success. They help people imagine and pursue higher purpose. They do this both collectively and individually. They focus on what can be and entice others to awake. They stoke the fires of imagination and courage and they open the drafts of individual and organizational life.



  • Do you have people whose “fires are damped and drafts are checked?”
  • Who have you helped to imagine a more meaningful life?
  • Who have you helped to articulate their highest purpose?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Two Kinds of Pay

We were discussing purpose in life and work. A man shared a story. In his first career, he was a chef. An angry teenager washed pots and pans. The chef told the boy he was going to teach him how to make homemade ravioli. He had the boy make the dish each day. One day he told the boy that he was the only teenager in the country who knew how to do what he was doing.

There was an impact. The boy began to grow. He went into the military and fought in two wars. Twenty-five years after the incident, the soldier found the chef on Facebook. He thanked him for turning his life around.

The former chef said, “I continually search for ways to grow people. This is why I work. Money is necessary to live, but this is my most important form of pay. It is my reason to live.”

The room grew silent. A peer spoke up, “Thank you for sharing that story; it really matters to me. Thank you.”


  • Why do you live?
  • How many forms of pay do you receive?
  • How could you give yourself a raise?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Challenging Expectations

We were at the end of a five-day program. In the morning, I had the participants do an exercise that reveals their identity and shows that they actually shape their destiny. The exercise creates a sense of discovery and awe. For some it becomes a tipping point in a personal change process.

At lunch, after the exercise, I sat next to an unassuming woman from another country. There were many comments about leadership, trust, and collaboration. For the first time, the woman spoke. She told an unusual story.

When we returned to the classroom, someone raised a question. Instead of answering it, I asked the woman to tell her story. She hesitated. On the one hand, she did not seem comfortable in the limelight. On the other, she seemed to have a desire to serve her colleagues.

She is responsible for a team spread throughout her country. Last year the company put a ban on travel. She felt a need to assemble her people in a two-day retreat. She decided she would use her personal funds to pay for the needed event. The unusual act inspired her people. The retreat went well. At the end of the year, the team achieved record performance.

The participants sat in silence. They were trying to make sense of the story. By all conventional assumptions, the willingness to spend her own money was illogical. It felt wrong. A profit-focused company, trying to squeeze every penny out of the system, is unwilling to invest in a human need. For a woman to spend her own money to forward the agenda of such a company violates our sense of contractual justice. From this rational-economic perspective, this woman must be naive, stupid, or both.

Yet the story was not the only data the participants were processing. There was the woman herself. She was uninterested in recognition. She knew the story was unusual and she was sharing it anyway. She was choosing to be vulnerable. Her purpose was to serve the people in the room. The participants could feel her authenticity and selflessness. The self she was presenting was fully congruent with the story she was telling.

The silence turned into scattered applause. Then the applause intensified. The participants were expressing genuine appreciation. Why?

Managers operate by conventional assumptions.   Like their employees, they bring only their heads to work. If a manager ever becomes a leader, the perspective changes. They become purpose driven and fully engaged and they transcend rational-economic assumptions. Their rewards come from the inside as well as the outside. In pursuing their purpose, they are willing to violate expectations and this creates new expectations. If the new expectations stabilize, a new culture emerges. Usually the new culture enriches human connections. The people are then able to flourish and exceed expectations.

In her country, the woman enriched human connections and her people flourished and exceeded expectations. In the classroom, the woman was offering vulnerability and inviting trust. She was also challenging expectations. She was causing the participants to think. She was providing an enriched connection.   She was opening the door of leadership and inviting them to consider new possibilities.


  • Why is the story so unsettling?
  • What is the difference between management and leadership?
  • What principle do I take from this story and how might I apply it today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?