The Covenant of Leadership

A friend, Ricardo Levy, recently taught me. He is a successful entrepreneur. Six months ago he had to make one of the most complex and difficult decisions of his life. He has since spent much time pondering the meaning of the difficult experience.

He called and talked through what happened. He shared a diagram of the process. He said he had to fearfully step into the unknown. He had to stay there until he knew what to do. Doing so was like entering crucible of transformation. Inside his lonely crucible, the anxiety was extreme. As he wrestled with his paradoxical tensions, a change took place. He knew what to do.

He said that the transformational moment brought understanding. Complexity reduced to simplicity. It was as if the crucible became a chalice, filled with life-giving refreshment.

In describing the transformative moment on the phone, this man of great analytic ability began to slow. He struggled to express all that seemed to transpire. He was, in real time, learning from his own observations.

He spoke of the transformational moment as leaving the analytic realm and entering the human realm and seeing the whole context. His fear turned to confidence, hope, and love.

He said that in that moment he also found a new voice, the voice of a leader. He could suddenly speak both logically and with genuine feeling.

He again slowed. I could tell he was doing sense making in real time. He mentioned the word covenant and paused again.

He said that when you find the leader within, you discover that you have a covenant. The people expect the leader to see the way. The leader must do his or her best to find the way. In uncertainty, this means entering the cauldron and suffering the process of deep learning. The commitment to learning is an act of carrying the people in love.

I was mesmerized by his notion of the leadership covenant. It is a sacred agreement we make with our best self, our dynamic, growing self. It is a promise to be whole, to be simultaneously analytical and human. It is a promise to engage the whole, to recognize that the other is a being of reason and of emotion, to recognize the organization is both a technical system and a dynamic, social system that needs to learn, grow, and adapt.

The emergent leadership covenant is a promise to pursue the common good of the system while loving and nourishing the people who comprise the system. Only when we keep this covenant do we continue to bring enlightenment or the simplicity from the other side of complexity. The understanding or simplicity from the other side of complexity is vision. Self-interest pulls every organization toward convention and decay; when we keep the leadership covenant, we can help rescue the organization from that natural path.


  • What is the simplicity on the other side of complexity?
  • Why is it necessary to enter the crucible and stay there?
  • What do you believe about the emergent covenant of leadership?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Becoming Whole

At a professional meeting, there was a session on how to find meaning and passion in scientific work. One of our doctoral students was presenting and she told two highly personal stories.

In the first, she explained that her family had humble origins. They sacrificed so she could go to the best schools in her country and then the United States. They were proud and they praised her. Her ability to impress them made her feel valued. When she finished her training in the United States, she could not secure a job. This was devastating. She went home feeling a great sense of shame. The shame was so great she became ill. She turned to prayer and a realization came. She was of inherent worth. She was lovable regardless of status; she did not need to impress others. She said the realization was enlightenment and it made her free. She experienced a new level of happiness.

In the second story, she told of later being accepted into our doctoral program and attending her first global, professional meeting. As a novice listening to accomplished researchers, she was overwhelmed. She again felt herself spiraling downward. Yet this time she was able to recall her previous experience. She recognized that her paralyzing fears were a function of social comparison. So she asked questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What are my greatest strengths? She then filled a page with her prime interests as a researcher.

A few weeks later, she participated in a formal session designed to help her define her highest purpose as a researcher. The objective was to clarify her interests, link them to purpose, and create passion for her work. At the outset, the instructor asked her and others to share their core stories. What life experiences led to the formation of their identity?

One of her stories was the above account of returning to her home as a college graduate. She said, “As I told the story in English rather than my native language, I had a ‘flow’ experience. I became absorbed in the act. The listeners were absorbed. They were attracting me into sharing my deepest feelings. I was listening to my deepest feelings. The sharing led me to understanding. It was striking. It was shocking. I could finally see. I then reduced my page full of interests to a small set of key words. These interests mattered the most. The words aligned with the difference I want to make in the world. I felt focused and I felt passion. The words continue to guide me.’”

We all live in the dynamics of social comparison and we tend to enact the self we think is expected. Our locus of control becomes external. Eventually a disruption comes. We get lost in crisis. The only way out of the crisis is in. We have to go inside and discover who we are. We have to clarify our values and our purpose.

When we do, we become free. Why? The truth of who we really are and what the world really is frees us from conventional beliefs. Instead of living in a fearful and reactive state, we become proactive. We become true to our natural assets and inclinations. We become a more dynamic whole. A higher purpose integrates us. When we are whole, we recognize our place in the larger, dynamic context. We seek to make the network of life more abundant, by contributing to its evolution. Our life has meaning because we are making a meaningful contribution to life.

The self is dynamic and the universe is dynamic. Because everything is changing, we may and we do lose alignment. Yet, once we experience the dynamic of rebirth, we know what to do in our next crisis. We consciously clarify purpose and values. When we are disintegrating, we know how to make ourselves whole and we can return to making other systems whole. The more often we do this, the more wisdom we acquire. I am grateful for a graduate student with the courage to teach this lesson in public.


  • Why was the first challenge devastating?
  • Why was she better able to handle the second challenge?
  • What key principle do you take form this account?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


The Team

My mind often rests on the phrase, “the dynamic whole.” In many situations, I have talked or written about the fact that as we transform from manager to leader, we begin to see our self as a dynamic whole operating within a larger, dynamic whole.

Jim Harbaugh is the Michigan football coach. He is vibrant, innovative, and successful. In the February 1, 2016, edition of the Players Tribune, he writes a story about growing up.

His dad was the assistant coach at Michigan. In those days, assistant coaches made very little. The Harbaughs only had a vehicle because the local car dealer made their extras available to the assistants. If one parent had the car, the others were left to walk. Harbaugh shares a description of what commonly happened.

“Hey Dad, where’s the car?”

“No car today, guys. We’re walking… Grab a basketball: 100 with the right, 100 with the left. Let’s go!

So we’d dribble down the sidewalk, dad leading the way, yelling: “Who’s got it better than us?!”

Me and my brother trailing behind, chanting: “No-body!”

Harbaugh then writes of the value of living in an integrated, loving family. He later turns to a different but related topic: Bo Schembechler, the legendary coach at Michigan.

Bo Schembechler was bigger than life. My dad came home from practice every day with a new story. “You’ll never believe what Bo did today! He said this and that to the team, and they were eating it up!” Most of the time, it was about the importance of being a team.  Team, team, team.  That was something that always stuck with me. It’s all about the team. It’s something I’ve applied to my life as a player and a coach, but also as a husband and father.

Note the last sentence. In athletics, there are many egoists. Yet over years of participation, many athletes learn to submit the ego to the good of the team. Often they discover the power of the integrated whole. When the sacrifice of many individuals makes the whole successful, the individual learns things that cannot be learned in isolation.

When we feel we are a meaningful part of the dynamic whole, we feel individually whole. Over time, we discover that the role of leader is to align each individual with the highest, collective good. When we participate in such a unit, we ask, “Who’s got it better than us?” The answer is “nobody!”


  • Have you ever been a part of a great team?
  • What unit in our organization is the most like a great team?
  • How could we turn every unit into a great team?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Positive Passage Practicing Positive Leadership

Recently my son, Shawn, received an email from a woman who attended our course on positive leadership. She told of going home and meeting with her people. She writes; “I can honestly say that the reaction I received was totally unexpected.  About half the room was crying and the whole group gave me a standing ovation at the end.  I was stunned.  It was the best day of my professional career – unforgettable.”

What did she do?

After an introductory exercise, she spent 45 minutes presenting the principles of positive leadership. What she presented was unconventional. She writes.

I did have a slide deck since that is second nature here….but I really challenged myself to share my own experiences.  So, I hardly referred to the slides – I just told my own personal stories related to what the slides described.  For example, I showed the slide that lists the effects of positive relationships and one of the items listed was people recover from surgery quicker.  Instead of just reading the slide, I shared my memory of when my dad had a heart-attack and had quadruple by-pass surgery.  After the surgery, his doctor met with us and provided a 5 minute update on how the surgery went but then spent literally 45 minutes explaining to us the importance of creating a positive/supportive environment for my dad at home for his recovery…and I shared how my mom, brother, and I consciously did this.

Another story I shared was in regards to high quality connections and the exercise we went through to really think about who we have HQC’s with…..and then who is not on that list.  For me, in the class, a huge “aha” moment was that my husband wasn’t on my list.  So, I shared the impact that revelation had on me personally.  I also shared stories related to “purpose”, “best-self”, and “1%”.  I was able to cover a lot of topics in 45 minutes.

I showed the Mo Cheeks video with Natalie Gilbert singing the national anthem and I ended with the Dela video of “Why Wait”.


  • How did she practice positive leadership?
  • Why did she get a standing ovation?
  • What conventional fears keep us from behaving in this fashion?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Refusing the Expert Role

We were holding a class on positive leadership. I was exploring the power of inquiry. During a break, an executive approached me and said that the managers reporting to him do not want him to ask questions. They want him to tell them what to do. This executive asked me for guidance; he was inviting me into the expert role. He wanted me to tell him what to do. While I was tempted to take on the expert role, I knew better. Instead of responding, I asked questions that challenged his assumptions.

This process caused his story to deepen. He eventually shared his belief that the real reason his managers come to him asking for directions is that is makes their life easier. When in conflict with peers they can say, “The boss told me to do it this way?”

I asked him: “Is that the result you want to create?” He found the question odd. I asked if his managers were acting as leaders. Leaders do not avoid conflict. They surface conflict and transform it into collaboration. He seemed to find this thought electrifying. The executive concluded that conflict avoidance among his managers was not the result he wanted to create.

I suggested that he play the role of one of his managers and I would be him. As our simulated discussion unfolded, I kept asking him what result he wanted to create. He resisted answering and I became more insistent.

Suddenly the roleplaying executive had an insight. He decided the manager he was representing could derive his own best strategy. He (the executive) could then go with the manager and meet with the entire group, have the manager share his own strategy, and then invite the group of managers into an authentic discussion of the strategy. In doing this, the executive could surface the feared conflict, promote collective learning, and allow a new strategy to evolve.

Once the group learned to elevate and transform conflict in this fashion, the group could learn to function at this higher level without the executive present. Over time, he could nurture the development of this unusual capacity.

My associate found this new possibility exciting. He could imagine himself experiment with this new strategy, and he was anxious to try.

Had I responded to his initial invitation to be the expert, the conversation would have produced a different outcome. I would have given him a concept for which he would have had little use. By challenging him and thus allowing him to become my teacher, we became equals engaged in the process of co-creation. What emerged was a new possible future.

There are endless incentives that drive us into the expert role. People come to us expecting us to tell them what to do. Telling them rewards our ego. It is therefore difficult to shift. We love knowing and telling even if it is not effective.   We are slow to create relationships of learning. Normal social and organizational incentives hinder us from empowering other people.

One scientifically confirmed characteristic of transformational leaders is “intellectual stimulation.” This term refers to leaders challenging the conventional assumptions of the people around them. They honor and develop the agency of the other. They ask questions that make people think and feel, to know themselves, to feel what others feel, to see what is real and what is possible in a given context.

What result do you want to create? The question invites others out of the passive state. It invites them to increase their own awareness, embrace their own power, and choose their own strategy. When we resist the expert role, we begin to turn followers into leaders and we turn the organization positive.


  • How many of our managers are empowered leaders?
  • How much time do we spend in the expert role?
  • How much time do we spend protecting agency, challenging assumptions, and co-creating awareness?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Thought Walls and the Oxygen of Life

For years, my friend Horst Abraham has visited prisoners regularly.  He also maintains written correspondence with many of them.  Once he discovered that the prisoners he visited were less likely to return to prison than prisoners in formal programs.  Why did his prisoners do better?  He recently shared a note with me that he received from a prisoner with whom he corresponds.  The note helps to explain Abraham’s magic.

I don’t know whether you know, I always look forward to my contact with you. It is a lifeline. I look forward to take pen to paper and write to you, as I know you are listening. Your replies are consistently ‘more questions’, not advice such as we get plenty of from prison guards, counselors and clergy, just curious questions. Our exchange makes me think about life and its greater meaning beyond these walls, thought walls that are even more confining than the cement walls. Thanks for being my pen pal. Your writing provides me with “oxygen.”

This is a golden paragraph, full of meaning. It is worthy of multiple examinations. We are all prisoners confined in our own “thought walls.”  Our prison is the set of beliefs or assumptions we have accumulated from experience.  We all hold tightly to beliefs that we know to be true.  They prevent growth.

When we learn to “think about life and its greater meaning,” we find enlightenment and understanding.  We acquire a greater sense of purpose.  We open up.  We begin to discard old beliefs.  In this process of deep change, we begin to grow.

Horst is a “lifeline.”  He sees people as human beings.  He cares enough to practice authentic inquiry. He is courageous enough to challenge.  This mature form of teaching is a mature form of love.  It provides the “oxygen” of life to others.

The oxygen of life is mindful engagement and deep learning.  When we begin to live with an increased sense of enlightenment and positive intention the soul breathes.  When we have the oxygen of life, we come alive.  We feel free.  We feel empowered and empowering.  We find the courage to present our best self to the world.  I am grateful to understand how one man provides the “oxygen” of life and other men become free.

Organizations are great mechanisms. They are also prisons. Cultures hold organizations together. They also produce mindlessness. In the prison of organizational life, managers are an extension of the culture. Leaders are free. Leaders provide the oxygen of life and their people become empowered and empowering.



  • What is the oxygen of organizational life?
  • Would you like to work for Horst, why?
  • Are you free and do you provide the oxygen of life?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Sacred Mind

There is a man with whom I recently worked. He is a psychiatrist who has a disciplined mind and a firm commitment to science. He also has a PhD in theology. He is a member of a lay organization in the Catholic Church. He lives a highly disciplined personal life and radiates humility and love. He works as a professor of leadership at a university. He is also a spiritual guide to the people he associates with in his lay ministry.

He says his highest purpose is to help people “sanctify their work.” Sanctify means to make sacred. He believes that all work can be made sacred. When we tie the work we do, no matter how mundane, to a higher purpose, the work becomes more meaningful because we suddenly do it with our whole being.

In connecting our tasks to a higher purpose, we begin to see ourselves as contributing to something larger. We see the self as a dynamic, growing system, making an essential contribution to a larger system. By finding a way to give ourselves away, we find and the reveal our best self.

When we pursue a higher purpose and reveal our best self, we find a self that is worth loving. When we love our growing self, we begin to feel love for others. Because we experience the unfolding of our own potential, we see the potential in others and we wish to assist in causing it to unfold.

In all realms of life, my friend seeks to help people make their work sacred. While he is a man of faith, he is also a man of science. In the professional realm, he does his work without using the language of religion. He uses science to help people see. In other realms, he uses a different language.

As I watched him, he did not seem to teach like other professors. He was instructing, as others do, but he was also quietly inspiring. Through a mastery of science and a mastery of love, he was inviting a group of mature professionals to make their work sacred.

As I watched, I made a connection. Just as many professors would say that what he does is not possible in a professional classroom, many managers would say that what transformational leaders do is not possible in a professional organization. It is not only possible, it is what transformational leaders do. Through leadership of the self–through consideration, inspiration, and challenge–they help people find their highest purpose and they help them make their work sacred. They then grow in all areas of their lives.


How many of your people see their work as sacred?

What portions of your work do you see as sacred?

How could you transform yourself and others?

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



Getting Smart vs. Getting Wise

Two hundred people were waiting for me to start a session.  Instead of lecturing them, I asked them to answer four meaningful questions.  The questions were engaging and the table conversations were intense. I invited them to share. Their answers were inspiring.  I then had them all do an unusual exercise.  They fully engaged and it led to more great inputs.  I had presented almost nothing and the learning in the room was already significant.

When I finally started covering my slides, the people remained interactive.  I continued to ask challenging questions and they continued to give excellent answers.  The process lifted them and it lifted me.  I began covering old topics in new ways.

At one point, I noted a theme in their comments about greatness. At the heart of excellence is the power of attraction.  I asked them to think about when they had been morally attractive.  I shared a favorite line from a thoughtful CEO about becoming more attractive: “Every leader gets the culture they deserve. If you want a better culture, what are you going to do to deserve it?”

I then had an impression to apply the notion to marriage and the family.  “If you have a marital relationship you are dissatisfied with, you might ask, ‘What am I going to do to deserve a better relationship?’ If you have a relationship with your teenager that is disintegrating, you might ask the teen, ‘What do I need to do to deserve a better relationship with you?’”

At that moment, I could feel something happen.  The focus and the oneness in the room intensified and learning deepened.

Afterwards an African American woman who had chaired the event came up to talk.  She said, “I have been thinking about what you said about teenagers.  I have been teaching my teenager to confront barriers and learn his way into progress.”

I responded, “You are operating at a high professional level and you are an African American woman.  To get to this level you had to do more than others do.  You had to face barriers others do not face.  You know that the key to success is the ability to maintain a higher purpose, encounter barriers, stay positive, and engage in deep learning.  The white parents are telling their kids to do their math and get smart.  You are teaching your kid how to engage in deep learning and get wise.”

She was frozen.  She looked off into the distance.  She was making connections and seeing things she had not seen before.  She asked, “Have you written this up in one of your books?”  We went into a very meaningful conversation.  She left with new feelings and new vision.

As I reflect on that experience, it seems to me that this conversation and others like it emerged because of the collective conversation. In the classroom, we created a network of collective intelligence, a positive organization. This gave them the courage to approach me personally. It gave me the courage to challenge them. We were able to co-create new life strategies.



What is the difference between getting smart and getting wise?

Why and how did a network of deep learning emerge?

What does it mean to co-create new life strategies?

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


When I was eleven, I to stay home from school for a week because of a poison ivy rash. I started to get bored. The idea came to plant a garden. Although I knew nothing about gardens, I prepared the ground, bought some carrot seeds, and planted them. Time went by and the carrots began to sprout. I kept returning to look at the sprouts. I did so with a sense of awe. I had taken action and seeds turned into carrots. I had done work and a new life form materialized. It was amazing to me.

Recently I was working in the morning with senior executives. One of the participants shared a tough issue. He offered it as a challenge to a point I was making. He believed it was unsolvable. Instead of telling him that he could apply a certain strategy, I told him two contrasting stories and allowed him to ponder and apply.

Later at lunch he made it a point to cross the room, stop at my table, and tell me he was appreciative for what I shared and even more appreciative for how I shared. His expression of gratitude made me feel the way I felt when I looked at my carrots.

In the foyer, I encountered a colleague. He spoke of the workshop for doctoral students that was going on in the basement. It was a voluntary, one-week experience. Students had come in from all over. He said the material was exciting and the conversations were intense. He expressed how much he appreciated the phenomenon.

I told him I could tell of his appreciation because, as he talked, he was glowing. This caused him to pause. He is a critical thinker who is not into “glowing.” To my surprise, he did not object. He said, “Organizing this was a ton of work. I am getting no pay and no credit, but you are right: I just love this.”

As he walked away, I thought of the session I had just taught, and I thought of my carrots. Every person has influence.   This means we all have the opportunity to teach or lead. If we take advantage of our opportunities, we improve and turn positive. We learn to prepare the relational soil and plant seeds. When we see the seeds sprout, we have a sense of awe. We experience the realization of our contributive desire.   We rejoice in our labor because it is contribution. I am grateful for opportunities to teach and to lead. I am grateful for opportunities to glow.


  • Is my work a source of income and a source of joy?
  • Are the people around me growing?
  • How often do my influence episodes leave me with a sense of awe?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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.