Discovering How Bad Things Can Get

The Positive Leadership game is based on a deck of cards. Each card contains a sentence describing a positive practice that is verified in research. Players surface real problems and then use the cards to collectively resolve the problem. At the end of the game, we challenge the people to imagine other uses for the cards. There are many.

Recently a past participant shared her experience. She determined to keep the deck on her desk. Each day she turned over the top card and committed to implement the practice.   This is actually an impressive mechanism of leadership self-development. Yet what happened was surprising.

One day she turned over a card that said, “In meetings you can begin by inviting each person to share a statement of what they are grateful for.” So at her next meeting she invited her direct reports to each make a positive statement. Not one was able to do so. This event proved valuable. Everyone could see how negative the culture had become. They all accepted and agreed on the need to change.



  • Why was her practice “a mechanism of leadership self-development?”
  • Why to people live in negative cultures?
  • What would happen if at your next meeting, you issued the same invitation?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning From Success

Failure is a powerful attractor of attention. Some people assume that we only learn from failure. They advise that we examine our failures and improve. I fully concur. Yet there can be a complementary process based on learning from success.

Often I share a description of a scene from Dead Poets Society. In it, Mr. Keating, the teacher, encounters a boy who believes he has no voice. Because of his belief the boy failed to fulfill an assignment to write a poem. In real time, Mr. Keating creates a radical experience in which the boy transforms. In front of the class, the boy creates a poem of extraordinary power. The boy, the teacher and the class are left with a sense of awe.

I often ask, will the boy be different? The participants are certain he will never be the same. He has learned from a radical success that he has a voice. This creates hope and investment.

I ask, will the class will be different? This takes more thought. Yet eventually they conclude that, having witnessed the transformation and the power of learning, the next day the class will have a modified culture. They have learned from a radical success in another that they have potential they have not yet realized. This creates hope and investment.

I ask, will the teacher will be different? This requires even more thought. Then it becomes clear that if you are the initiator of a transformational process you do not walk out of the room and forget about it. It holds your attention. You examine your success and squeeze from it the principles that will allow you to make greater contributions in the future. The teacher learns from his own radical success that he or she has potential not yet realized. This creates hope and investment.

It is important that we examine our failures and the failures of others. We can learn from mistakes. It is important that we examine our successes and the successes of others. We can learn from triumphs. The first tends to teach us what to avoid while the second tends to teach us what to embrace.


  • List the most radical successes in your life.
  • What do you learn from examining the list?
  • In what way does the examination create hope and investment?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Applying the Fundamental State of Leadership

A topic I teach regularly is the Fundamental State of Leadership. The argument is that by asking ourselves four basic questions, we can empower ourselves and turn any situation positive. The four questions are:

  • What result do I want to create?
  • Am I internally directed?
  • Am I other focused?
  • Am I externally open?

After learning the concept, a former student went home and began to apply it. He wrote with the following report.

  1. I was dealing with a customer service situation that did not have an obvious answer.  I made a decision about how to proceed, but after making that decision I didn’t feel right about it.  I reviewed the four questions and came to realize that the decision I had made was in conflict with one my values.  So I decided to go back and undo that decision, which meant calling a vendor and giving them different direction.  In essence, the value of integrity outweighed the value of not being embarrassed by calling the vendor.  I remembered your comment about “What would you do if you had 2% more courage?”  I picked up the phone and called the vendor, corrected the situation, and to my surprise the vendor was very understanding when I explained my reasoning.  Suffice it to say I felt good about myself for staying true to my values and a couple of days later the situation worked itself out without my needing to intervene in a way that made everyone happy.


  1. I am trying to close on a house in Ann Arbor.  The closing was delayed several times due to a backlog in processing at the bank.  The fact that our closing was delayed caused me a lot of cost and inconvenience.  I was getting frustrated trying to communicate with the mortgage broker and the real estate company by phone and email and didn’t feel heard.  Emotions were starting to escalate and the conversations were becoming less and less productive.  I remembered the four questions and last night decided to work through them.  I realized that what I wanted was to close in a timely way and to be reimbursed for my extra expenses caused by the delay.  The values were taking care of my family but also being respectful of the relationships involved.  I decided that rather than engage in more frustrating communication, I would request a face-to-face meeting to try and identify creative solutions.  I emailed the broker and he agreed to meet today after lunch.  I went into the meeting with clarity around my purpose, values, relationships, and a willingness to be non-defensive no matter what came up in the meeting.  The meeting ended up being very cordial, very productive, and we were even able to get the bank to commit to release the form we needed and get a closing date set.  And we did it in a way the preserved the relationships involved and in which everyone was treated with respect.  I felt good about myself for being proactive to ask for a face-to-face meeting and to show up in the Fundamental State of Leadership, which led to a great result.



  • How realistic are these two challenges?
  • What would normally happen?
  • Why did these two cases turn out differently?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Focusing on the Most Positive Elements in Your Life

A friend shared a story that inspires her. It is the story of Giulietta Carrelli and her coffeehouse trouble. The story aired on the NPR show This American Life in March 2014.  It was so compelling that my friend stopped cleaning the kitchen and sat down and focused all her attention on listening to it. It has stayed with her ever since.  Here is what she shared:

“I found the story so riveting because of the mental health struggles Giulietta faced, the brilliant coping strategies she develops, her philosophy of life, and the pivotal roles of some of the people she encounters.  And also, the toast!  It is such a simple, basic comfort food.

“Giulietta struggled for years with a serious, undiagnosed mental illness.  She was leading a very difficult, nomadic life when she met an elderly man, Glen, at China Beach in San Francisco.  He became an incredible anchor for her. He asked the question, ‘What is your useful skill in a tangible situation?’

“Her answer was that she was good at making coffee, and good with people.  With the support of Glen and others, she finally decided to open a coffee shop that features toast, coconuts, and grapefruit juice, three items that have special significance to her. She succeeded.

“She finds her salvation in focusing on the most positive elements in her life, even though they might seem insignificant to anyone else.  

“Of all the statements in the story, the one I remember best is this: ‘But I never, ever, ever thought that it was going to fail. Everything that works for me, I put in one little spot. And I thought, well, if it works for me, it’ll work for other people.’”



  • Why is this question powerful: “What is your useful skill in a tangible situation?”
  • How could you put the following sentence to work? “She finds her salvation in focusing on the most positive elements in her life, even though they might seem insignificant to anyone else.”
  • What could you do differently today that would positively affect those around you?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Seeing the Full Picture

Four wonderful people are trying to move a huge system in a positive direction. In the process, they have encountered problems they did not expect. They asked to meet with me and a colleague.

We spent the entire time asking them questions designed to help them see their challenge from alternative perspectives. As we did, the feeling in the room changed. The shared sense of constraint and discouragement became a shared sense of vision and hope. They were suddenly free to move forward again.

A friend wrote to me of her experience in working with students in a high school. She tells a very simple yet brilliant story. It is an account of helping people see the full picture so they can make better choices:

When I was working with at-risk high school students, I heard on more than one occasion that graduating from high school was too hard and they were going to quit. I agreed that it was very hard to go to school and do everything necessary to graduate. I said that it was also very hard to drop out and “be stupid”. Dropping out severely limits job options, income, what kind of car they can afford to buy, where they can live, what type of person will be attracted to them, etc. Both paths are hard, so which “hard” would be their choice, and why?


  • How does this school story have application everywhere?
  • Who in your organization needs to see the full picture?
  • How could you help someone today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Source of Silo Behavior

People often speak to me about the problem of silos. Their organization lacks collaboration. To imbue an organization with purpose is to create a climate of shared intention. Each person understands the collective purpose and sees how their individual tasks contribute to that purpose. The people create a positive organization and silos disappear. Unfortunately this seldom happens. Culture prevents it.

In order to survive, animals are constantly scanning for threat. By detecting danger early, they can react in a way that allows them to survive. The same is true with us. If we are standing on a corner reading a book and suddenly we hear screeching brakes, we look up and assess the possible danger. In capturing human attention, negative cues are more powerful than positive cues.

If we are in a meeting and the boss loses his or her temper with a colleague, we glance at each other with knowing looks. While the boss did not intend it, his or her expression of negativity just set an expectation that is likely to become a boundary. Our fear is going to keep us from going anywhere near the line just crossed by our colleague.

The existing culture is the collective comfort zone. In most organizations we tend to stay on the path of least resistance: we do that which is safe. While we claim to value the creation of new outcomes or contributions, our behavior often demonstrates self-interested risk avoidance.

Living in this organized hypocrisy gives rise to a serious problem. The external context keeps changing and the organization does not adapt. The organization becomes dis-integrated or unaligned with the external world. Silos arise. This increasing dis-integration requires that we practice further self-deception and tends to lead to a loss of energy. Centered on our comfort, we languish and stagnate. We do not reach our individual or collective potential.



  • What is the cost of silo behavior?
  • Why do silos arise?
  • How is silo behavior transformed into collaboration?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Doing the Impossible

A young professional sent me a story of his recent day. It is an account of being asked to do an impossible task. He shares how the task was accomplished. In the narrative are lessons for all of us.

Yesterday when I got to work, my boss called me to tell me that she needed me to draft three papers as soon as possible.  Each paper was a challenge, but the last one in particular seemed impossible.  Six of us had a meeting about the final paper, and we closed the door and spoke frankly with each other about the difficulty of the assignment.  Near the end of the meeting, we realized there was a way forward that we could all agree on.

A friend who was in the meeting invited me to talk with him afterwards.  He had an idea to use a new framework for the paper he had learned in a recent training.  The framework is known as the “ABCDE” method for communications plans: A = audience; B = the behavior you want the audience to change; C = the content you’ll use; D = delivery methods you’ll employ to get your content to your audience; and E = the way you’ll conduct evaluation to see whether or not your strategy is working.  The conversation sparked something in me, and I felt excited to take up the impossible challenge and use the framework.

I went back to my office and did the other two papers because their deadlines were sooner.  Just as I turned to work on the impossible paper, I saw an email from my friend.  On his own, he had applied the framework and sent me a draft.  I looked it over and felt another spark; and I revised what he sent and expanded on it.  More than anything, I just felt honest.  I felt like I was honestly approaching this impossible problem and giving it my best.

About 30 minutes later, my colleague called and said that our boss wanted to see us to talk about the impossible paper.  I printed out the draft I had and walked it upstairs.  Our meeting lasted another 30 minutes, and we got feedback that will improve the paper yet again.

What made the impossible task possible? The organization is a large government hierarchy but that is not what is described here. In this story there are the following elements; an impossible challenge, a meeting of colleagues, frank conversation, conceptualization of possibility, a framework for action, excitement, work, mutual support, creativity, sharing, honesty, self-respect, and resilience. Together, these elements are a description of a positive culture. In the midst of conventional hierarchy, these people were living in a positive organization. The impossible became possible.



  • What usually happens when people face an impossible task?
  • Explain the key to the success described above.
  • How can a positive organization exist in a government hierarchy?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Positive Organization

Often I am asked to define a positive organization in terms of “real world” practices. It is a fair question. Last year one company decided to hold “Positivity Month.” The CEO kicked things off with a letter accounting the practices that were already in place.  His list provides one answer to the question:

  • Values that are clearly communicated, deeply meaningful and genuine
  • A clear & compelling higher purpose: protecting people & environment
  • Work-life balance, flexibility on working hours/locations, respect for family time
  • Open book finance, transparency, teaching our people the great game of business
  • Profit sharing that is transparent, forward looking & seeks to deliver extra paycheck(s)
  • We give part of profit sharing to fund industry scholarships & donor matching
  • Employee representatives on our 401k committee drive decisions & financial learning
  • Community Service Officer fosters & facilitates giving, volunteers & social/enviro responsibility
  • Culture Council: a multi-function, employee advisory group that shapes policy
  • Net Promoter Score is the voice of the customer, customer connections, devotion to service
  • Company pays 80% of premiums for family health insurance
  • Subsidized healthy snacks, employee contributions match donations
  • Subsidized fitness, biometrics, on-site employee led classes, stand up desks
  • 5 Year visioning process, Company Alignment (1 page roadmap)
  • Meaningful education reimbursement, service awards & referral bonuses
  • Unique performance feedback, alignment, goal setting & self-appraisal/reflection
  • 121 position alignment provides clarity of expectations, facilitates job crafting
  • Leadership calendars, responsibilities & self-appraisals are available to all colleagues
  • Published colleague ‘user manuals’ to foster understanding & work relationships
  • Transparent compensation process, management standard increase is lower % than lowest paid
  • Talent reviews = more fair performance assessment & talent development
  • Open training for all colleagues on leadership skills, visioning, change, finance
  • Leadership forum to teach our management how to lead & foster better relationships



  • Would you work for this company?
  • Which practices impress you the most?
  • What could be done differently in your organization?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Why Positive Energizers Succeed in Leading Change

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 conceptualize and lead the change process. This tends to work well. Why?

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 history; explained they were being asked to guide culture change and they were in uncharted waters; and they were being asked to envision, dream, and create. In the introductions, they had three tasks. They were to introduce themselves, explain how they access positive energy, and share their favorite vacation spot.

When I later began to work with the group, I asked them to reflect on the introductions and identify the unusual commonalities. They said that the people in the group were authentic and comfortably vulnerable. The individuals, for example, openly spoke of the challenges overcome by parents or children. The examples led to a sense that life obstacles are opportunities. One said his father grew up in a tent, came to the United States with nothing and is now a professor. Another spoke of the commitment to a handicapped child and the blessings to the family.

They said the individuals were optimistic. Many people shared personal life challenges but expressed genuine gratitude for the benefits associated with the challenges. They said the group found meaning in their work. 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 and I love the people I work with.”

They said the group was relational. Individuals had much to say about helping others and learning from others. The group was curious. Many spoke of vacations as learning experiences. Finally, there was a great focus on the learning of others. One man, for example, joyfully described 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.

Why are networks of positive energizers so helpful in bringing change? They tend to be authentic, vulnerable, optimistic, grateful, relational, contributive, curious, and hungry for the development of others. In other words, they are genuine leaders.



  • Who are the positive energizers in your organization?
  • What are their common characteristics?
  • How could you put them to work?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning From Experience

There are many executives who are exposed to positive organizational scholarship (POS).  They get excited for several reasons.  One is the field provides language for things they already learned to do.  Recently a senior executive reflected on some of the elements of Positive Leadership, including entering a higher state of personal performance and learning from experience.

First he speaks about a condition similar to what we call the fundamental state of leadership.  He observes it is not a permanent state.  We have to lift ourselves into it over and over: “I have entered the highest level optimized state several times in my life.  Each time, the result was extraordinary.  Each time, it took a team flowing in the same direction.  It is hard to stay in this optimized state.  Even while in it, it is hard not to experience a bit of a paradox–achieving extraordinary results in one aspect of life, but sliding backward on presence or other factors in other aspects of life.  The depth that comes from experiencing it is remarkable.”

The word experience is important to him.  He has always been a believer in learning from experience: “I often invited other decision makers into meetings so that they could experience the impact of a conversation directly.  This led to action and congruence.  When I heard the old saying, ‘Hear and forget. See and remember. Experience and understand,’ it made perfect sense to me.  When I was young, I heard the statement, ‘Listen to the person on the shop floor.  They know more than you think.’  I always embraced this thought. It served me well and, by intuition, turned into practical principles such as the ones we find in POS.  We now have a vocabulary in POS to describe the extraordinary things that come from this kind of learning.”



  • What have you learned from your most extraordinary experiences?
  • Why is high performance a dynamic state rather that a permanent state?
  • What are the implications of the words, “experience and understand?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?