Transforming the Conventional Mindset

Positive leadership cannot be effectively taught by a conventional teacher or practiced by a conventional manager. The conventional thinker “knows” from experience the assumptions of positive leadership are unrealistic and impractical. Unless tightly held assumptions and beliefs are altered in the manager, hearing a presentation on positive leadership is of minimum value.

The teacher must have the unusual capacity to change the beliefs of the students. Such a teacher is not a teacher but a transformational leader. Likewise, the emerging leader must acquire the capacity to change the beliefs of the people he or she leads. When this capacity is acquired, the manager becomes a transformational leader.

We were working with 40 executives from a large company. The company has a culture of intense economic focus. When I put up a list of conventional leadership assumptions, the gloomy statements looked familiar. When I put up a contrasting list of positive leadership assumptions, the list seemed both surprising and unrealistic.

In the midst of the collective doubt, a woman raised her hand and very hesitantly claimed, “The positive list describes my organization.” I began to ask her questions. She was uncomfortable and tried to respond in generalities. I pushed for examples. I questioned each example until a very full picture emerged.

Then I asked what company she worked for. She was confused by the obvious question and then named the company in which they all worked. I told her that her answer was wrong. Everyone in the room “knows” that in that particular company it is impossible to have a positive unit. I asked the rest of the group if they were going to put up with this woman lying. The room went very quiet.

I had consciously created a tension. It was clear that the woman was telling the truth. It was also clear that everyone “knew” that what she was claiming was impossible in their company. I told them that I was providing them with data that challenged their theory of reality and they now had to explain away this woman or change their theory of what was possible inside the company and inside them.

During the break, a man came up. He said, “I took over a unit that was at -44% of plan. It was a snake pit. No one wanted it. I was glad to take it because I knew I could turn it around. When people are failing badly, they become desperate. They are looking for hope.”

He then said something very important: “Yet leading them is not easy. If you live the positive leadership assumptions on the right side of the screen, it is ten times harder than living the conventional assumptions on the left side of the screen.

“I went in willingly, but every night I went to bed with a sense of panic. You never know what move is right. You entice them, you support them, and you hope they will follow, but you never know what is going to create trust and trigger a small success. You only know that it will happen if you keep learning and leading. When that success happens, you have to magnify it, make it visible to all, and then repeat the process over and over. It is about leading by learning how to lead. You have to be willing to go to bed with a sense of panic.

“When it finally works, the organization transforms. We went from -44 percent to +82 percent. We now have a positive culture. It is thrilling. Yet success is dangerous. All around me people think that what I do is crazy. I have to be bi-minded. I have to live the assumptions of positive leadership and yet be able to talk to people around me understanding they live by the conventional assumptions.”

He was perfectly describing the process positive leadership. I was soon in a conversation with another participant. He also claimed to have a positive organization in the gloomy company. He described it and then spoke of what he does outside of work. He coaches kids. The emphasis is on the assumptions of positive leadership. He does not coach just one team. He has a program that takes kids from elementary school to high school graduation. He lit up as he told of his efforts in getting the kids college scholarships.

I said, “You live a meaningful life at work and at home.” He nodded.

I told him, “I have only known you a few minutes, but I already know you are the kind of person I would like to go on vacation with.”

He said, “Thank you.”

After the break, I surfaced the additional stories. I noted that the culture of the company calls for conventional leadership and conventional leaders emerge. Yet in the company there are exceptions. Contrary to the conventional culture, a few positive leaders emerge. They are exceptions, positive outliers who live with a sense of higher purpose and the belief that they can create their own culture. They discover the assumptions of positive leadership not from a lecture but from deep learning. They create new experiences or experiments and they reflect on them so as to create new experiences.

I again asked for the implications of the theory-defying data provided by the three hesitant people. There was gradual agreement that perhaps positive leadership and human excellence could arise in the gloomy company.

I then asked them to reflect on what had happened. I surfaced data from their own company reflecting leadership excellence and then asked them to explain it. I asked them how they could use this same principle in other ways. There were not ready answers. So I gave them a golden sentence: “If it is real, it is possible.”

In the company of frequent complaints, there are excellent units. Two weeks later, I was with 40 of their peers. This time I told them all to close their eyes. I asked them to raise their hands if their unit was a positive organization. One third of them raised their hands.

So in this very conventional organization, there may be many positive units. Yet no one recognizes these realities that defy the prevailing theory. What they tend to see as impossible is all around them. So excellence is real and it is possible. Yet to most it is seen as unreal and impossible. By turning attention away from the ubiquitous problems that exist and focusing instead on the existing patterns of excellence, it is likely that much good could emerge.



  • Are there excellent units in your organization?
  • Are these being systematically examined?
  • How could you apply the notion, “If it is real, it is possible?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Deep Learning and Competitive Strategic Advantage

A CEO developed a vision of how his company could help the unemployed. He shared it with another CEO who is normally a positive person. The second man said, “We already tried it and it was a failure.” After making the statement, the second man showed zero interest and the discussion ended.

A short time later, the first CEO shared the idea with me. I told him of a company that did almost the same thing and succeeded. He was interested.

The successful company was Cascade Engineering. The CEO of that company was Fred Keller. The idea of hiring welfare recipients emerged in a conversation with one of the managers in his organization. Fred encouraged the man to take action.

The man hired some welfare recipients and in weeks they were all gone. He reported the failure. Fred suggested that the account was not a failure but a demonstration that company had not learned how to succeed. The man went back with increased commitment. He threw himself at learning how to make the idea succeed. An impressive strategy emerged, but it turned into a second failure. Fred held to his position that the problem was in the failure to learn. A third effort emerged.

This time the man in charge began to notice the problems, not with the welfare recipients, but with the employees of the company. After much reflection, every person in the company participated in a poverty simulation. After the simulation, the project began to progress. It so fully succeeded that the company was given a major award by the White House and numerous new resources flowed to the company, resources they did not anticipate acquiring.

The company then began to work on hiring people getting out of prison. The learning process was similar. It did not fully work until all the employees went through a training program on racism. Again new resources flowed to the company.

So the company acquired a strategic competitive advantage that was difficult for other companies to imitate. The advantage brought predictable resources like fierce employee loyalty and unpredictable resources like new networks of external interaction and opportunity.

The new competitive advantage was not designed. It emerged from embracing a higher purpose, visioning a new strategy, and committing to deep learning. In the process, the company discovered what all individuals and groups learn in the process of deep learning. We are a part of the system we observe. We are part of a dynamic whole. For the system to change, we have to change. In the words of Gandhi, we have to be the change we want to see in the world. When the people in the company began to revise their own biases about impoverished people, the impoverished people were able to revise their own assumptions about impoverished people working in a professional company. They began to believe and change followed.

I think of the uninterested CEO. From experience, he is sure that what I describe here is impossible. I compare him to Fred Keller. Fred is sure that it is possible. Our ability to engage in deep learning has much to do with our capacity to lead.



  • When has our team, unit, or organization acquired a new competency?
  • What is deep learning and what does it have to do with new competencies?
  • In the process of deep learning, what do we discover about ourselves?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

How to Make a Profound Contribution

Sometimes life goes right. With my extraordinary colleagues, we recently had a successful experience helping a large company. What most led to the success is a process that is difficult to understand. Yet the process is at the heart of the greatest successes in the history of business.

Henry Ford once uttered a statement that is of importance to both running a thriving business and living a meaningful life. He said, “If I had asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said, ‘a faster horse.’”

In business we financially live or die by how well we are serving the customer. When we hear the voice of the customer and respond by serving their deepest needs, we create love for our product and they swarm to us with their money. We live in financial abundance.

In life we psychologically live or die by how well we are serving the customer. When we hear the unspoken voice of the people in our lives and serve their deepest needs, we offer something that reflects love and they swarm to us with love. We live in relational abundance.

Serving the deepest needs of the people around us is a key to success in every aspect of life. Yet success never comes easily.

If Henry Ford had asked the customer what they wanted, they would have replied “a faster horse.” There are two ways to interpret this claim. One is that it is useless to listen to the customer because the customer cannot state something they cannot envision. The second is that the customer does not know what the customer wants but that does not mean that the deepest needs of the customer cannot be discovered. The key is approaching the customer in the state of deep learning. This means recognizing that something other than a faster horse can be envisioned when two minds join in purpose, integrity, trust, and exploration.

In an experience with a Fortune 100 company, we were to design a leadership program for 1,300 executives. We did some focus group interviews first with their bosses and then with representatives of the 1,300. These discussions were productive. As my colleagues asked conventional questions, we acquired much conventional knowledge.

The executives told us what kind of subjects we should cover. In effect, there were asking for a “faster horse.” I have been through this process many times and I am fully aware of Henry Ford’s point. Executives, like most other human beings, are quite incapable of articulating their deepest needs and how to meet those needs because they either do not know their deepest needs or cannot imagine having their needs met. They live in an organization that looks like a horse and cannot imagine living in an organization that looks like an automobile.

I was quiet during the first two focus groups. There were five minutes left in the last focus group when I asserted myself. It was only then that I knew what question to ask.

I said, “I am about to ask you an unconventional question. To answer, you will have to expose your vulnerabilities. Why would you ever do it? The answer is that you can make a difference. If you honestly answer my question, you will deeply influence the design and the success of the program. You will thus touch 1,300 hundred lives and change the future of this company. I am about to give you an opportunity that few people ever have.”

The room went very quiet. I asked, “What is your deepest, un-discussable need? What most keeps you from transforming into a great leader?”

The air went heavy. Twice I was asked to clarify the question. Finally one person began to speak and let us all see into her heart. There was a pause and then each person shared an authentic answer to a probing question by asking a question. Here they are.


  • How do I come to know and own my highest priorities?
  • How do I prioritize without guilt or fear and with full support from home?
  • How do I create a sense of security in the face of constant uncertainty?
  • How do I get out of the reactive mindset?
  • Given existing constraints, how do I motivate my people?
  • How do I strengthen my influence?
  • How do I learn to communicate so I can inspire people?
  • How do I create trust in and across my own team?
  • How do I obtain more supportive leadership from above?
  • When I am trying to innovate, how do I get needed feedback from above?
  • How do I gain permission to fail without being criticized or penalized?
  • How can I create alignment across groups, functions, and silos?
  • What methods can I use to build partnerships?


By sharing these statements, they displayed vulnerability. Conventional, secular space had been transformed into unconventional, sacred space. Because their answers were real, I was fully engaged. Sacred conversations hold human attention. As we ended the session, people remained and meaningful side conversations ensued. For the next 24 hours, I reflected deeply on the questions and on the side conversations. Eventually I reduced or “squeezed” their issues to four questions and an underlying purpose:

  • How do I change the beliefs that drive me?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive my people?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive my boss?
  • How do I change the beliefs that drive the culture?

I concluded that there was one underlying need for the executives and for the company. The executives needed to learn how to change belief systems in themselves and in others so that the company could transform from a knowing organization into a learning organization.

Two days later, when I articulated this notion for the people at the top of the company, it was well received. With enthusiasm, the statement was endorsed. We could begin to design a program not only to their stated needs but to their actual needs. They needed to learn how to transform themselves and others so that everyone was living in a constant state of deep learning. It was an image not of faster horse but of an automobile.

A month later, we delivered the first offering. Hard scores and qualitative feedback indicated that everyone’s expectations had been exceeded. We were off to a successful start.

Now what is deep learning? And how does this story help us to understand it? When we ask a customer or some other crucial person in our lives—in fact, any person—what they really want, they can only give conventional answers. If we truly want an answer because we truly want to serve the person, we have to join them in unconventional conversations.

One of keys is to exercise empathy, to feel what they are really feeling, and then ask challenging or ennobling questions that simultaneously show love. We thus invite them into sacred space. We invite them to tell us who they really are. The responses do not produce the answer. We must savor every response and then deeply ponder the messages and continue the interaction until we see the central, underlying messages. When we do, we test them by feeding them back and looking for intense responses. As those responses come, we further co-create vision.

The point in all of this is that Mr. Ford was right. The customer, if engaged conventionally, can only tell us he or she needs a faster horse. Yet this does not mean that we should not listen to the customer. It means we have to listen so deeply and with such commitment that we create sacred space and deep learning. It is then that we can experience the co-creation of a new vision and give people what they do not know how to ask for. It is then that we make profound contributions.


  • When in my life have I asked for a faster horse and received an automobile? How did I respond?
  • Who are the most important customers in my life?
  • When they ask for a faster horse, how do I respond?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



A Story Everyone Should Tell – Part II

In the last blog entry, I wrote of the power of integrating the past, present and future. I then explained the hidden value of crisis. In crisis we often see great commitment, collaboration, and the exceeding of expectations. When this happens we see our own conventional organization transformed into a more positive organization. This often leaves us with a sense of awe.

We may, however, fail to see the power in our own story. So we take this nugget of gold and throw it into the garbage pile of fading memories. We do not learn from or teach from excellence. Here is an illustration of a CEO who did. It does not matter that he was a CEO: this account is a lesson of universal application. This is a story so precious we should all ponder it deeply and tell it often.

This CEO was once the epitome of economic thinking. He then went through a crisis and he personally discovered purpose, people and culture. He became a leader of higher purpose and began to create a positive organization. Measures of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and share price all turned up and stayed up. When he became aware of the science at the Center for Positive Organizations, it gave him a language for what he was he was already doing and he used the language and tools to speed the process.

As this man has led, his people have grown. Previously there were sometimes doubts about his positive aspirations and strategies. The organizational crisis and success, however, changed doubt into shared belief.

The thinking of the CEO has continued to expand. He now has a vision of doing more. In a recent meeting, he intended to share the new vision with his direct reports. Instead of leaping into the vision, he began in an unconventional way.

He first became authentic and vulnerable. This is the opposite of manipulative and arrogant. He was, in essence, inviting people to co-create. He shared a belief from the core of his life. He described a prayer that he learned to recite as a boy. The prayer suggested that we are what we think, our thoughts become reality. He then indicated his belief that when thousands of people align around the some noble thought or aspiration, powerful new realities come into existence. His people were nodding.

He then recounted a history that most of them shared. The company was once at such a low level of human and financial performance that it was difficult to see any positive future. As he reviewed all the negative indicators, the people in the room could clearly remember the dark history and still feel the pain.

He then recounted the crisis and how the people in the company became focused, collaborative, and exceeded expectations, including his expectations. (The emergence of positive organizing is a phenomenon that defies economic logic.)

He referred to the crisis as the most educational year of his life. Interestingly, instead of throwing this precious year of excellence into the garbage pile of receding memories, he determined to learn from the excellence and help his direct reports do the same.

He asked them to collectively ponder the benefits of the crisis: “In the past year, our people performed above our expectations. What should we learn from our experience? How can we keep them there without a crisis but through our own leadership?”

He turned their focus to the future. Given the excellence of the previous year, he asked some questions: What do you want to make of this company? Why? What do you personally believe that would lead to your aspiration? How do we ground your given aspiration? What would make it vivid? How can we become aligned around our shared aspirations?

He then sent his people away for an hour and asked them ponder and to write. When they returned, he had each person share. People spoke from their hearts. Many told stories from their personal life. The trust in the room was at an all-time high. People were open to each other and to a better future.

There was a pleasant surprise. There was considerable commonality across their statements and the statements were relatively easy to aggregate. The CEO reviewed the notes from that meeting long ago and then said, “Everything we envisioned happened. Operational excellence, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, shareholder value, external reputation, and geographical footprint, all expanded and even exceeded our aspirations.”

Again, I looked around the room and the heads were nodding. The CEO was recalling their collective excellence. It was no ordinary story. It was a sacred account of their first excelling in crisis; of their making the unusual choice to learn from their own excellence; of their learning to aspire to excellence, not through crisis but through leadership; of their becoming positive leaders and experiencing success beyond their own expectations.

With these sacred memories in mind, he then introduced a new vision, one that was breathtaking and that would have terrified and brought resistance from most senior executives. After sharing the images, he asked for their thoughts. He returned to the questions: What do you want to make of this company? Why? What do you personally believe that would lead to any given aspiration? How do you ground your given aspiration? What would make it vivid? How can we become aligned around our shared aspirations?

As he did years ago, he asked them to leave and write their answers. When they returned, each one shared. As I listened, I watched trust increase; I watched authenticity go up; I watched collective learning go up; and I watched a group of executives aspire to turn a positive organization far more positive.

Why should everyone ponder and learn to tell this story?

First, the story illustrates something difficult to comprehend. He created an interpenetration of the past, present, and future, and they became one self-reinforcing system. By having people examine the best of their past, he created the belief necessary to envision a future of excellence, and he create a shared desire in the present. The best of the past and the best of the future were together lifting people in the present.

Second, this story is at the very heart of positive leadership. It appears to be a story about a CEO. It is a story that extends to every person who wishes to exert positive influence in a group, a team, a unit, an organization, or the world.

Third, this story is not a part of your past. If you refuse to throw this story into the garbage pile of your receding memory, but instead ponder, and internalize, and continually retell this story, you will begin to understand and to do things that people governed by conventional assumptions cannot understand or do. You will bring about the interpenetration of the past, present, and future. From the interpenetration you create, people will find the capacity to co-create a more positive organization.


Can I retell this story right now?

As I retell it, what do I learn that I did not learn when I read it?

In telling this story, what direction comes from my conscience?

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

A Story Everyone Should Tell – Part I

In conventional thought, we create categories and keep them separate. Three examples are past, present, and future. One characteristic of the generative mind is the ability to bring about the interpenetration of disparate categories. Interpenetration is the essence of creativity and it leads to the emergence of new patterns. Positive leaders integrate the past, present, and future; they become one self-reinforcing system. This sounds theoretical. It is not. In Part Two of this passage, I will share a precious story that every leader should know and retell. In Part One today, I will share an underlying concept.

Like individuals, organizations sometime enter crisis. Often there is a remarkable phenomenon that emerges. The people become focused on one higher purpose and a high level of commitment and collaboration emerges. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Everyone then performs beyond expectations and accomplish impressive things. This image of authentic commitment, high collaboration, and performance beyond expectations is a good description of a positive organization.

A senior government executive once told me, “The happiest day of my professional life was September 12, 2001.” I was shocked by his statement. He then said, “That day, I did not have a single bureaucrat working for me. I only had Americans who were willing to do anything asked of them. They were all working for one higher cause.”

Like the government, utility companies are often bureaucratic. Yet in many of them, employees speak of some version of the phrase “storm culture.” When a great storm hits, the employees in a utility company often become focused, contributive, and highly collaborative. It happens often enough that they expect it to happen (hence the term “storm culture”).

I was recently in a conversation with an executive from such a company. A huge storm had hit a month before. As my associate described what happened, he spoke with a sense of awe. When he finished, I asked, “So what?” He looked baffled and retold the story, emphasizing different points. I asked, “So what?” He repeated it once more. I asked, “So what?” He knew I was not trying to antagonize him but did not know what else to say. I asked others to help. No one had an answer.

I reminded them of a principle, “If it is real, it is possible.” In social life, excellence emerges. When we recognize excellence in social life, we often have a sense of awe. Yet we tend not to learn from excellence. We do not “squeeze” excellence for understanding. We do not use the reality of excellence to challenge the limiting beliefs that hold the organization in conventional patterns.

If in a crisis my organization turns into a positive organization, then the concept of positive organization is real. Excellence, in many forms, occurs in life. If excellence is real, excellence is possible. If we are the ones who created the excellence, we must have, contrary to our conventional assumptions, the ability to co-create excellence.

The answer to the “so what” question is that the story of the crisis and the emergence of their storm culture was a precious asset. The story is an account of something real. The story is data or evidence of positive deviance. The reality challenges our conventional assumptions. If we put the data in front of ourselves, if we examine our best collective selves, then we challenge our conventional, fixed mindset. At a very minimum, we have to admit that we are full of potential. Such an admission is the beginning of belief, and belief is the beginning of hope and new action.

So when I badgered the poor man, I was trying to get the people in the room to see that he was not only telling a story worthy of admiration, the story was a precious gem that a leader could use to help people transcend their conventional assumptions and become free to create a more positive organization. Every instance of excellence–particularly our own instances of excellence–should be recognized, celebrated, “squeezed” for learning, and used for inspiration. Every instance of our own excellence should become a case study for rigorous self-examination and the foundation of a more positive organization.

When we do this with skill, we bring the best of the past into the present so as to create the best possible future. It is a central skill of purpose-driven leaders. Few managers ever experience it. In Part Two of this entry, I will tell the story of the CEO. In preparing to read it, I invite you to deeply ponder this entry and thus prepare yourself to value the story.



  • What conventional assumptions limit our potential?
  • In our team, unit, or organization, what was our highest moment of past excellence?
  • If we examine the moment deeply, what does it teach us?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

How to Create Positive Organizations

In the last blog entry, I wrote of a friend in a high position contemplating a move to a more positive organization. She was feeling “drawn” away. Shortly after our conversation, a former student contacted me. She is in a low-level position and she is feeling the need to leave her conventional organization. She is feeling “pushed” away.

We explored many alternatives. Then the conversation went in a surprising direction. I asked how she, in her relatively low position, might turn her present, conventional organization into a positive organization. To her great credit, she did not run from the question. She shared a vision of calling together a “coalition of the willing.” I usually speak of this as “gathering the positive energizers.”

She shared some ideas of what she could say to such a group and what she could invite them to do. As she did, she considered the danger of being seen as a rebel leading a mutiny.

I kept asking questions. We explored things the coalition of the willing might do that were innocent, cumulative, and unassailable. The list grew. As we ended our time together, she was in a different frame of mind. She was seeing her conventional organization as place wherein she could experiment and learn how to build a positive organization from the bottom up. She was feeling excitement about the possibility of become a positive leader.


  • How often do you consider changing the organization from the bottom up?
  • If you were gathering a coalition of the willing, who would be in the room?
  • What would your coalition do that was innocent, cumulative, and unassailable?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

How to Co-Create a Positive Leader

The last two blogs were about phone calls from close associates trying to make a big decision. I have had several of these. Yesterday I began to notice a pattern.

My frustrated associates often call with a sense of conflict and confusion. As they share their agony, they unconsciously share their values. I listen to hear what it is that they really want. As I formulate a hypothesis about what they really want, I never tell them what I think they really want. Instead I ask questions designed to help them become aware of what their purpose is. This is iterative. As I ask questions and they respond and my questions get better.

Eventually they make an ambiguous statement of what they want. Then they engage in an iterative process. They keep repeating themselves and I often ask another clarifying questions. Suddenly there is a shift. They hear themselves. The clarification of purpose is a clarification of self. In hearing themselves, they suddenly know themselves. The self they suddenly know is the self their conscience is trying to bring into existence. It is a new and a fresh self. When they embrace this emerging self, they feel more empowered. They find the courage to move forward in the birth of the new self. The new self is always a more positive leader.

As all this was coming to me, I found a note in my mailbox. It was a message of gratitude from an old colleague. She thanked me for “always encouraging us to follow our own lead.” The sentence had enormous impact. I could see a principle for creating positive leaders.



What does the emergence of a “new self” have to do with being a positive leader?

When has someone assisted you in giving birth to a new self?

How can the process be scaled?

How can we use this passage to create a more powerful organization?

How Culture Conspires to Prevent the Emergence of Leadership

When I share an idea with my adult children, they are tougher on me than any journal editor ever has been. They set their jaw and get ready to challenge.

At a dinner, I shared the notion that most managers do not become leaders because they do not know how to reflect on their experiences. My son, who is a sales manager in a big company, immediately took issue. He pointed out that he thinks all the time about his experiences and the claim is unrealistic.

I next shared a typology I received from an observant executive. There are three types of executives in most companies. There are very few leaders; we know them because when we meet them, we want to be like them. There are many managers who understand leadership but do not practice it. There are a few technicians who will never understand leadership.

Before I could elaborate, my son became animated. With emotion, he spoke of the fact that his company was permeated by managers looking out for their own best interests. He gave example after example. He spoke of his efforts to go against the grain and lead his people.

He has been so successful that his unit leads the company in sales. Yet this success has come at a price. He has built a positive organization. He has created such trust and purpose that his people know they can raise real issues with him and they genuinely want his help. So his phone never stops ringing. He is inundated with phone calls and emails. He said, “I have virtually no time to think about how to improve. All my time is invested in helping solve problems.”

The last sentence is of great importance. It first illustrates a paradox. The more you lead, the more the system unconsciously conspires to turn you back into a manager. Unless you can maintain focus and increase consciousness in the face of great social expectations, you get sucked into maintaining the current equilibrium. You are pulled towards the role of a problem-solving manager. It becomes improbable that you will evolve to a higher level of consciousness and leadership in which you continually seek to clarify the highest, evolving purpose and link behavior to it.

The sentence also illustrates something else. When I suggested that most managers do not become leaders because they do not know how to reflect on their experiences, my son took issue, pointing out that he always thinks about his experiences. Yet when he reviews his daily life, he concludes that he has little if any time to reflect on improving as a leader.

The truth is that he does continually think about his experiences, but his context does not allow him to deeply reflect on his experiences and derive the clarification of values and purpose that is necessary to move to the next level of effective influence. The context requires continuous action and allows for little reflection. The culture thus pulls him back to the existing equilibrium. Just as culture eats strategy for breakfast, so culture also eats personal leadership development for breakfast.

To develop as a leader, one must overcome the social context and the pull of the culture. One must separate and contemplate. Doing so leads to increased consciousness. The highest possible purpose becomes clear. Committing to that purpose leads to failures and successes. From these new experiences, learning expands and capacity emerges. We find that we know a new truth and it makes us free from the culture. It allows us to act upon the culture with effectiveness. We operate at a new level of leadership.


  • How much time do you get to deeply reflect on your own behavior?
  • How is it possible for a few to become leaders who others want to emulate?
  • What code did they break and how did they break it?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Failure Advantage

When I present the notion of positive leadership, I often build on the concept of the “twice-born leader.” Managers grow up with a conventional perspective. Some have a crisis that causes them to clarify their values and purpose. They become “twice born.” They have a new perspective that gives rise to a more complex and dynamic self.

One element of the change has to do with their locus of control. They are now less driven by the external culture and more driven by their own values, purpose, feelings, and thinking. They question the culture and the conventional assumptions that hold the organization in place. They see in new ways and behave accordinly. They begin to lead by changing the culture.

The thing that is hard to understand is that positive leadership includes leadership failure. When I teach positive leadership, members of an audience often assume that the change is complete and the positive leader must be perfect. To challenge, they look for the flaws in any given example. They point out some kind of limitation in the person so as to negate the theory.

This was occurring recently in a company with a purpose-driven leader. A member of the audience then made a potent observation. He described a recent period when the leader was frustrated and angry. He said that the leader went back to his old ways and in every room he entered, everyone shut down. This went on for several weeks. Then the leader recognized what he was doing. He apologized and made a dramatic shift.

The point is precious. When someone becomes a twice-born, purpose-driven leader, they do not become a perfected object, a noun. They become a verb, a dynamic human being in a dynamic organization. Often they have setbacks and in these down times can revert to their old ways. Yet they have something I call the failure advantage of positive leaders.

Once you internalize the positive lens and begin to live as a proactive influence, you still fail, but as you fail and turn negative, you become more quickly aware that you are a source of negativity. What you believe calls you to awareness and to change. Instead of continuing to blame others, you take charge of yourself, you self-correct, and move into a more positive stance.


  • What implications for us are carried in the concept of the twice-born leader?
  • Why is it natural to try to neutralize the concept?
  • When failing, what is the advantage of the twice-born leader?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Key to Positive Leadership

A former student came to me and expressed gratitude. He told of a presentation I once made. It was about positive leadership. Toward the end he raised his hand and asked what he could do to become a positive leader. I responded with a question: “Are you better person today than you were yesterday?”

He said that the question has never left him. He ponders it continually. He wanted me to know that he was thankful for the gift I gave him.

I do not remember that exchange or uttering those words but as he recounted the story I was elevated. My response to him really does answer the question how to become a positive leader.

In the research on positive leadership is a measurable variable called “idealized influence.” People of idealized influence are deeply trusted and attractive because they are seen as inherently good, virtuous, selfless. They pursue the common good rather than their personal good.

Yet, being good, virtuous, and selfless is not a steady state. There is not a line we cross and then become permanently perfected. The only way to be in the state of idealized influence is to continually progress, to be better today than we were yesterday.

If we are better, more virtuous, and less selfish than we were yesterday, we are more likely to engage in acts of positive leadership. Those acts may succeed or fail. Yet if we remain in our elevated state, we will learn how to adapt our actions and move toward success. A person who is not in the state of idealized influence does not engage in the same kinds of acts and does not have the same learning opportunities. A key to becoming a positive leader is to be better today than we were yesterday.

I am delighted to know that my former student always has that question in mind. It was a gift. I am glad he returned it to me so I could share it here.


  • Who is the most positive leader you have ever met?
  • In pondering that leader, what do you learn about idealized influence?
  • Why is idealized influence a dynamic rather than a fixed state?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?