Transforming a discouraged audience

University professional schools are a challenging change target. A dean of a business school once invited me to run a retreat. A year earlier, one of my colleagues, Kim Cameron, worked with the same group and presented the basics of positive leadership. People were impressed. One professor told me that Kim’s presentation had left him feeling “intellectually awed.” When I asked about application of the ideas, I learned it had been a tough year financially. There was much conflict and the positive ideas faded.

When I met with the full group, I could feel the conflict, and it created fear in me. I began to envision failure. In this negative state, I could see no options. I knew I had to transform my own negative feelings into positive emotions. If I was going to initiate change, I had to change myself so I could change the emotions and the vision of the group.

I listened to the early presentations. A woman named Kathy was responsible for a small department in the school. Kathy listened to what Kim taught about gratitude. She took the advice to heart and started a gratitude journal and it made a difference in her personal life. She decided to apply the concept at work, and she established “Thankful Thursdays.” Each week, she invited everyone in her group to share highlights from their gratitude journals. Some people were resistant, but Kathy persisted.

In the auditorium, Kathy described the changes that took place in her unit. As she did, her demeanor changed. She appeared confident and full of joy. Then something even more impressive happened: members of her department began to excitedly and spontaneously share stories of how their department had changed.

After watching this phenomenon, I knew what to do. When my turn came, I walked to the stage and I said, “Please tell me what you felt when Kathy spoke.”

This question surprised the audience. I received a few intellectual responses. I pointed out that the answers did not address my question; I had asked about their feelings, not their analysis.

There was a pause. New responses emerged. The answers were more personal, honest, and authentic. Several people indicated that they felt inspired by what Kathy had done. As they made these comments, the climate changed. The entire audience became more positive.

I told them that Kathy’s authentic presentation inspired courage in me and gave me the idea to start my presentation with that question. I was standing in front of them with great confidence about the day and their ability to elevate their lives and their school.

I said, “Over the last year, Kathy had the courage to apply what she learned. Today she lifted many people in the room – including me. Kathy is a staff person and in a school like this, we tend to look down on staff people. They have low status. Yet Kathy is a positive leader. Today, in this room, she led the entire organization. Leadership is influence, and influence is not determined by hierarchical position.”

Although the statement ran counter to expectations, I felt confident it was true. In that moment, the audience experienced a paradigm shift, and negativity turned to hope. By calling attention to Kathy’s inspiration, they let go of their negative emotions. They opened up–and the rest of the day went very well.



  • Why did I ask the question about Kathy?
  • Why did the answer change the emotional climate in the room?
  • What principle of influence underlies this passage?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Meetings as Dynamic Learning Systems

I recently conducted a workshop for senior executives, each of whom had previously spent a week with me learning the principles of positive leadership. Although they were from the same organization, they came from different cohorts and so some were strangers to each other. Yet because of our previous history together, there was instantaneous trust. They trusted me, and knowing they shared a common experience in learning positive leadership, these strangers behaved like friends.

They also shared a common hunger. They desired to learn at the same level as they did in the first experience. So things started faster than usual.

I began by asking them to do an exercise that required sharing intimacies. There was zero hesitation. They poured out stories of things they did because of what they learned about positive leadership. The stories brought a shared sense of awe. I then presented new material that was challenging. Instead of expressing normal doubt, they grabbed the concepts and openly explored possible applications.

As we proceeded, they were making discoveries in real time and there was contagious energy in the room. We were filling each other with positive emotions. We could see new possibilities. We were building possible futures. We loved what was happening.

When we feel attracted to a higher purpose and engage it enthusiastically with heart and mind, we become whole. When multiple people do the same, the group becomes whole. The group becomes a dynamic learning system making a noble contribution. We create collective intelligence and we feel joy in the process and outcome.



  • When have you been in a meeting that was a dynamic learning system?
  • In your last meeting, were people hungry to be there? Why or why not?
  • What would cause people to arrive at and later leave your meetings with a sense of joy?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Reaching the Unreachable

I know a company that developed a widely held assumption: “These union people do not want to work, and there is nothing we can do about it.” The assumption that the employees were unreachable became a part of the culture and then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The large company eventually went bankrupt.

The statement about the union employees is the equivalent of a schoolteacher saying, “These students are from a minority group, and they do not want to learn. It is impossible to teach them.” It is the equivalent of a professor saying, “These MBA students are just here to get jobs. They do not want to learn. It is impossible to teach them.”

In most social settings, when a person makes any of these claims, the claim usually goes unchallenged. The listeners tend to nod their heads. In doing so, they become creators and preservers of conventional culture.

In conventional discourse, we do not expect people to exercise inspirational motivation, that is, create the authentic desire to learn and the authentic desire to work. In conventional organizations–politically correct rhetoric to the contrary–there is no belief or expectation that the people in authority positions will be practitioners of inspirational motivation.

Such an aspiration, we conventionally believe, would be unrealistic and doomed to fail. After all, the average manager or teacher does not know how to exercise inspirational motivation. Yet without inspirational motivation, a manager is not a leader, an instructor is not a teacher, and a business or a school is not an institution of excellence. The sad truth is we do not believe excellence is possible, so we do not expect excellence.

Conventional culture is a living system that orbits around the norms. Culture functions to preserve the norms. Conventional culture works to prevent the emergence of leadership in organizations. It generally succeeds because there is no one to challenge and alter the culture. Because we so well know mediocrity, because we so well accept mediocrity, because we so well expect mediocrity, we unwittingly collude in creating the culture that ensures mediocrity.

The few people who master teaching or master leadership not only aspire to reach the unreachable, they hold themselves accountable to reach the unreachable. In the positive lens, a starting point is that a leader or a teacher will create a genuine desire to learn and contribute. Inspirational motivation will turn the hierarchy into a system of learning, adaptation, and high performance. The unreachable will be reached and the organization will become an unconventional system of excellence.


  • Are there unreachable people in our organization?
  • Do our leadership development efforts produce people who can reach the unreachable?
  • What does our answer say about our culture, our aspirations, and our leadership ability?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Free Presentation At Michigan

On Tuesday, December 5 at 4 PM, Bob Quinn will give a presentation at the Center for Positive Organizations.  In it he will introduce a new approach to leader development and organizational change.  Here is the link to the session on the Ross YouTube channel:

Becoming Who You Really Are:

Learning To Do What Organizations Cannot Do For You

Robert E. Quinn

        Warren Bennis wrote that becoming a leader is becoming who you really are.  Research shows, counter to conventional thought, that people of transformative power develop a characteristic called idealized influence.  They become models worthy of admiration, respect, trust and emulation.  They live from a moral core that generates attractive power.  Without authority, they can draw the best out of others.  Conventional assumptions prevent us from seeing, understanding or aspiring to this condition.  This limitation constrains organizational efforts in leadership development.  Organizations cannot do what they spend much money trying to do.  They can develop managers but they cannot develop leaders.  This means we have to own our own leadership development.  This session will explore how to become who you really are and how to help those around you to do the same.

Every Interaction Matters

I listened to a CEO speak to senior executives about the need to replace fear with authentic conversations in order to get true feedback. The CEO began with a statement of vulnerability: “Sometimes I want to open a session to questions, but I fear that I will not know the answers. Sometimes I am in a tax discussion and I do not ask questions because I do not want to look stupid. Sometimes in meetings I choose updating over discussion. In each case I am failing to build trust.”

The CEO was making it legitimate to discuss the undiscussible issue: people at all levels of organizations are driven by fear. They communicate their fear. It is manifest in the culture. We expect people to be driven by fear–even CEOs.

The focus then turned to purpose and the CEO made an even more important point: “We have to find ways to get everyone on the same mission. Every interaction matters. We do not have bad people. The problem is that we have not fully established a sense of mission. We have not attracted them into that sense of mission. They do not have a reason to fully invest.”

Every interaction matters. Why? In every interaction, we build culture. When fear drives our actions, as it usually does, we communicate that we are more concerned with the needs of our ego than we are with the good of the system. We build a conventional culture of self-interest. The employees are good people who behave according to the culture. If they lack motivation, they are not the problem. The authority figures are the problem; they have not created a persuasive vision, a sense of mission, and a culture of authentic communication.

Until we have a personal purpose that moves us forward in spite of our fears, we are not leaders. Until we have attracted our people to a sense of mission, we are not leaders. We are all accountable to this terrible fact. We become leaders when every interaction is focused on the common good and invites our colleagues to the common good.


  • How many of my manager’s actions are driven by fear?
  • How many of my actions are driven by fear?
  • How can I build a positive culture by making every interaction matter?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Becoming Authentic

At the Academy of Management, there was a session on authenticity. Four scholars discussed their understanding of the topic. We spoke of authenticity as stepping up and out of role expectations; of living in accord with an anticipated future self; as moral communication, self-disclosure, an expression of the dynamic and whole self; seeing reality and owning one’s own choices; the genuine intention to serve others; and expressing self without an ego-driven purpose.

It was a creative discussion. I loved what I was learning. We opened the discussion to the audience. As I listened to their questions, I was surprised. These were mostly professors and they were there because they were interested in the topic. Yet many of them could not seem to understand what we were saying. To many, authentic meant correspondence to fact. The notion of stepping outside the ego and living with moral power was a foreign notion.

They were responding as many respond when I speak of transformational leadership. It is difficult for the conventional, transactional mind to conceive of genuine service to the common good.

Authenticity is not a conventional phenomenon. Yet it is accessible. Most people have had experiences operating outside the ego. Focusing on them is a path to understanding.



  • In our unit, how often do we observe ego-driven behavior?
  • What is authentic behavior?
  • How could we increase our own authenticity?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Transformational Questions

In the 1980s, Pepsi and Coke were engaged in an intense battle, fighting for tenths of a percent of market share. Coke was not doing well. CEO Robert Goizueta had an insight. He believed that his people were spinning their wheels because of their mindset. The focus was on the beverage market. They needed to think in a new way. To change their thinking, Goizueta proposed a new question: “What is our market share of the stomach?”

This was a shocking question. He was asking, what was Coke’s share of all fluids consumed by humankind? Suddenly the enemy was not just Pepsi, but coffee, milk, tea, and water. Instead of being one of two big fish in a small pond, Coke was suddenly a small fish in a huge pond. The vision, culture, and psychology immediately changed and eventually profits soared.

In September of 2001, Robert Mueller became director of the FBI. The FBI was in the business of solving domestic crimes and bringing criminals to justice. A week later, on September of 11, there was an attack on the United States. Shortly after, Mueller reported to President Bush. In the meeting, Bush asked a question: “What was the FBI doing to prevent future attacks?”

The question was transformational. The FBI, designed to be a reactive, law enforcement agency, encountered a new image. It was a vision of a proactive organization that prevented attacks on the country. The culture and psychology changed. They agency began to produce new outcomes.

These are two examples of transformational inquiry or questions that change an entire organization. I share them because I believe we can train ourselves to ask transformative questions in any situation.  We can asked them of ourselves, we can ask them of another person, we can ask them of an organization.

Every team, unit, and organization has a culture. It reflects some form of conventional thinking. It cannot change unless the thinking changes. Telling people to think differently usually does not work. A person who focuses on the highest purpose and asks a transformational question can have immediate and extensive impact.


  • In what way is your unit reactive and what is the highest possible purpose of your unit?
  • How would you like to see the culture and psychology change?
  • What is the most potent question you can imagine?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Transcending Justice

A friend supervises many people. Two of them have a negative orientation and criticize all proposals. They feed off each other and they create a climate in which everyone suffers. My friend invited one of them to engage in a desirable task.

Her boss was surprised and asked, “Why are you giving that person ‘perks’ he doesn’t deserve? If you’re going to involve your staff, involve someone who’s earned the privilege.”

She replied, “I understand what you’re saying, but I want this guy to improve his performance. I think he’s more likely to be responsive if he knows that I value him and his opinions.”

When the time came, the negative person was unusually positive, offering insightful and helpful comments. A few weeks later, my friend asked all her people to engage in a difficult task. The first one finished was the negative person. In the process, he uttered not one disparaging remark. My friend said it was small step forward, but it greatly increased her belief in giving people a voice in important decisions.

In this account, the boss is thinking conventionally. He is operating from assumptions of justice, transaction, and exchange. We all tend to make these assumptions. Transactional assumptions preserve order.

My friend was not trying to preserve order. She was trying to create a new order. She was trying to create a more positive culture. This meant she had to lead. She had to extend respect and positive regard to someone who had not earned respect and positive regard. In showing that she sincerely valued him and his opinions, she was extending grace. When people feel loved, they are more likely to grow–even “negative people” who who habitually engage in criticism.



  • Do you have people who create a climate in which everyone suffers?
  • What does justice suggest?
  • When have you been the recipient of grace?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Identity, Destiny and the Birth of Leadership

In recent months, I have been watching the transformation of a man and his organization. He is becoming more alive and so is the organization. Instead of managing the organization, he is beginning to lead it. Energy is expanding. People are beginning to flourish and exceed expectations. My conversations with him cause me to ponder the notions of identity, destiny, and the birth of leadership.

My identity is what I believe about myself. It is a theory that answers the question; who am I? My destiny is what I believe about my future. It is a theory of my prospective self and what it might create. It answers the question, what will I contribute, and what will I become?

My answers are interconnected. What I believe about my identity tends to shape what I believe about my destiny, and what I believe about my destiny tends to shape what I believe about my identity.

One powerful way for us to alter identity is to clarify our highest purpose. When we do this, it alters our sense of destiny. As we orient to an intention higher than self, we move into a contributive orientation.

Our identity and destiny tend to come from our culture. We enter a role like the role of manager and we respond to expectations. In this process, the managerial self becomes an extension of the culture. Following the culture or shared governing rules, the manager uses authority and expertise to maintain order and solve problems.

The manager thus preserves the culture that determines the manager’s identity. Culture and managerial identity tend to be self-reinforcing. The reliance on “what is” narrows awareness and preserves the status quo. There is a bias away from what “could be.” Prospection has a limited role in the managerial orientation.

Through crisis or through deep reflection, a manager may transform. The manager confronts the questions of identity and destiny: who am I, what do I really value, what is my highest purpose, and to what end should I be moving?

Conscience calls the manager to higher purpose. Higher purpose transcends self-interest, and moves the manager from an orientation of acquisition to an orientation of contribution. The manager finds meaning and motivation.

A new identity forms. It is an identity independent of the culture. An external locus of control becomes an internal locus of control and the manager becomes free, a being with some separation from the culture.

Most cultures are products of the past. When a manager is transformed into a leader, the leader begins to shape and align the culture to the highest collective purpose, to the most desirable future. This shifts the system from knowing to learning, and it infuses the system with hope and renewed energy.

Identity and destiny matter. We are all extensions of the culture. We work to preserve the past, collective beliefs. If we clarify our purpose, we become a leader who stimulates learning and integrates it with the best of the past. We become like the man I have been observing. We become more alive. The organization becomes more alive. The people begin to flourish and exceed expectations. They find a new destiny and a new identity.


  • What is my destiny?
  • What is my identity?
  • What is the shared destiny and identity of my people?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Igniting Contributive Desire

I found a card in the mail. It included a letter of gratitude from a young woman, a senior who is about to graduate. In the note, she told me that I was the person who “most shaped” her college career. Since I had hardly interacted with her, I was sure this was an exaggeration.

The rest of the letter, however, contained specifics about two teaching episodes, one of five minutes and later, a half-day voluntary workshop. She documented how these two experiences led her to pursue clarity of purpose and how the clarification brought confidence that she could successfully contribute in the world.

This positive story was unsettling. How could four hours and five minutes be more valuable than four years of classes? What is it that accounts for the impact? What do the answers tell me about how to make a greater contribution?

As I pondered these questions, I began to focus on the last. I realized that, because of her expression of gratitude, I was feeling an increased desire to contribute. I wrote down the words “contributive desire.” I looked this phrase up on the internet. I could not find anything.

It occurred to me that one purpose of leadership is to ignite “contributive desire” in other people. This thought opens a new way for me to think about positive leadership and perhaps a new way to teach and write about positive leadership.

By writing a letter of genuine gratitude, this young woman was leading me, creating a desire to contribute more. She was also elevating my mind, causing me to think about new strategies. I am grateful for her leadership. I am grateful for increased contributive desire.


  • What is contributive desire?
  • How much contributive desire exists in our unit?
  • How do we ignite contributive desire?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?