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A blog by Ryan Quinn, Robert Quinn, Shawn Quinn, and Amy Lemley

Becoming a Leader: A Positive Lesson from Failing CEOs

November 21st, 2013

By Robert E. Quinn

Some CEOs become so focused on profit that they cannot generate it. This fact is of great importance to you because it means you can acquire capacities unavailable to many executives. It means you can lead more effectively than the people above you. It means you can assure yourself of a successful leadership career.

A Sobering Message

Yesterday I received a message from a friend who has spent his life as a consultant. In his message he makes an observation about the behavior of CEOs: Having worked with CEOs from around the world for a long time, and getting to know some of them very well over time, I have found only a small handful whose decisions and behaviors are evidence of purposeful governance and leadership. Many others, yielding to pressure from board and market expectations, work as slaves to the top and bottom line. When getting into conversations about the importance of “noble purpose” in business performance, they talk about getting to “purpose” as soon as the numbers are right.

I see a frightful amount of ego in many, wishing to best others in terms of numbers in the news. Interestingly, many of these work in the financial markets. Then there are always those who inspire the world by mindful and even heroic actions, but I see the scale tipping in the direction of “profit”- minded leaders, in some cases even despite best intentions.

The Economics of Positive Leadership

Anjan Thakor and I recently wrote a paper in which we talk about the process of imbuing an organization with higher purpose. We point out that many organizations perform below their potential. They comprise self-interested people playing zero-sum games, pursuing external rewards, engaging in conflicts, and living in alienated relationships.

Yet it is possible for those same people to willingly pursue the common good, to value intrinsic rewards, live in trust, and experience high collaboration. This transformation occurs when an organization is imbued with a higher purpose. In another paper, Anjan and I provide a mathematical model demonstrating that when a leader introduces higher purpose, the human system is transformed and becomes more productive. We suggest that the mathematical model provides an economic foundation for the practice of positive leadership.

A Surprising Discovery

After building our model, we wondered how the heads of organizations think and behave regarding higher purpose. We conducted 30 interviews, but with an incorrect assumption that all organization leaders would value higher purpose. The majority told us they did not. When they first took over, many did not see the value of higher purpose; some even belittled the notion.

This taught us an interesting lesson. Executives tend to be steeped in the assumptions of microeconomics: They are busy and hunger for task completion. The belief in normal microeconomic assumptions leads to a focus on motivation through the manipulation of external rewards. In that context, creating purpose and meaning may seem like a waste of time.

Pressure may lead to the search for easy tasks with high payoffs, not the grueling task of understanding the deep needs of stakeholders and articulating a vision, believing it, living it, and communicating it over and over. The need for task completion may work against the notion of continually monitoring and revitalizing the meaning “system.”

There is a natural pull for executives, even CEOs, to be managers rather than leaders. They can become so focused on profit that they cannot generate profit because they cannot release the human commitment that lies dormant in the organization. The work force does not flourish or exceed expectations.

The Opportunity

This blindness is your opportunity. In the opening message from my friend, he suggests many CEOs yield to the very real external pressures and become narrowly focused on profit. They become ego-involved and competitive, desiring to be recognized for generating profit. Hence they have no use for higher purpose and the creation of meaning. In the search for profit, they become disconnected a powerful generator of profit, a connected and focused work force.

This dynamic becomes your opportunity as a leader. In any position, at any level, you can focus on your highest responsibility: to provide “purposeful governance and leadership.” If you dedicate yourself to learning how to imbue an organization with purpose, your chances of succeeding at every level go up. You will be able to do what many CEOs cannot.

Pollyanna and the Prisoner’s Penetrating Question: A Reflection on the Positive Perspective

August 20th, 2013

By Robert E. Quinn

Despite a demanding professional schedule, a friend of mine volunteers to work with prisoners. He has a surprisingly high rate of success in helping them turn their lives around.  How does he achieve this? Through authentic conversation. We often talk about his unusual volunteer experiences and how a positive perspective plays a role.  He recently shared a thought-provoking exchange:

Your deep commitment to seeing the good in all things prompted me to engage one of my inmates to talk about the spirit of positive organizational scholarship. Given where he had come from and where he had spent most of his teen and adult life, I was surprised to see the 24-year-old deeply engaged and curious about a life outlook that was very alien to him. His upbringing was pockmarked with series of abuses by his family and “friends,” who saw him as someone to be manipulated and marginalized. After sharing the concept of POS and its effects, he startled me with a simple, yet penetrating question: “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”

“How would you have responded to him?” my friend asked me. This question is a much more efficient and elegant version of a criticism often leveled at the positive perspective. It suggests that to take a positive view is to ignore or distort reality. It is common to denigrate the positive perspective by saying, “Oh, that’s Pollyanna.” This expression refers to the iconic 1913 novel of the same name in which a girl embraces the silver lining no matter what challenges she encounters. This bestseller inspired movie versions in 1920 and 1960. I had heard that critical expression so many times that I decided to watch the 1960 Disney version. I wanted to examine Pollyanna’s lack of realism so I could use it to distinguish between her unrealistic perspective and the practical positive perspective about which I teach and research. I had a surprise. Read more »

Engaging Again and Again

July 31st, 2013

By Ryan W. Quinn

My common refrain when talking about teaching and working with teachers is “to love the people you teach.” I believe that’s what we, as teachers, should do. And I also believe that expression can be a platitude: It is so true that we ignore it or take it for granted. As a result, we often do not love the people we teach even when we think we do.

A few weeks ago, I was training some public school teachers. One participant raised her hand and said, “Every morning I forgive my students.” I loved this sentence. Someone who hears or reads this sentence out of context may find it off-putting. After all, what have your students done that they need your forgiveness? Maybe the problem is you, not your students!

Read more »

Discovering What You Love To Do: Overcoming the First Barrier to Success

July 12th, 2013

By Robert E. Quinn

During the graduation season, National Public Radio aired a highly provocative broadcast.  It began with short clips from three graduation speeches in which well-known speakers told students the key to their future success was for them to go forward doing what they loved.  Then the narrator pointed out that most students have no idea what they love.  The show then featured a segment in which three economists tried to help a student determine what he might love to do.  The process failed. Being unable to discover what you “love to do” was apparently a barrier to success.

I believe the process failed because the economists did not understand love.  Love does not come from rational analysis.  It comes from the evolution of the self. Here I examine a case in which a woman experienced such an evolution and was then able to design a life doing what she loved.

Read more »

From Manager to Leader: Accelerating the Process

July 11th, 2013

By Robert E. Quinn

A former executive MBA student came to see me.  He was scheduled to be in another part of Michigan, but said he wanteto make a special trip to Ann Arbor because he had something important to share it with me.

He is an executive in his early forties.  Prior to attending our program, he had worked in one of the Fortune 500’s most aggressive firms.  He entered my class believing he was already a leader, and wondered if there was anything to gain by taking the required course.

One of his assignments was to become a mentor—not a normal mentor, but a transformational mentor, a mentor who radically alters the outlook and capacity of another person.  Like many of his fellow students, this one failed to alter the person he selected for his assignment.

This happens often.  I give this difficult assignment for a reason.  Many EMBAs are accomplished executives who think they understand change leadership.  What they actually understand is change management.  The failure to help another person transform often brings humility and openness to the notions of change leadership—a valuable lesson. Read more »

Solving the Authenticity Puzzle: What Many CEOs Cannot Do

July 5th, 2013

By Robert E. Quinn

I met a consultant from another part of the world who works with senior business leaders.  In their country’s culture, he said, there is an extreme emphasis on hierarchy and seniority, with strong norms to defer to.  Because of that, someone such as a CEO may get little honest feedback, and a CEO’s blind spots may become a growing problem in the organization.

On one assignment, my acquaintance spent a very long period preparing a CEO’s direct reports to share key truths with him.  He taught them that they needed to be simultaneously respectful and honest.  The direct reports were fearful but willing to try.  A two-and-a-half-hour meeting was scheduled. For the first hour and a half, the CEO was uncomfortable, and so were the direct reports.

The man who was telling me the story described his own anxiety.  In his country, a man as powerful as the CEO could destroy a consultant’s career.  Performing this sort of “intervention” was a great risk.

Thankfully in the last half-hour there was a major change.  The CEO began to see the value in what was taking place, and he opened up.  The meeting became a positive intervention that led to a lasting change in the communication patterns of the top management team. Read more »

Empathy versus Perspective-Taking and Personal Change

June 13th, 2013

Ryan W. Quinn

One of the stories that Adam Grant tells in his book, Give and Take, which I have been discussing in recent blog entries, is the story of a businessman from Australia named Peter Audet. Peter had built up his business with the help of his partner, Rich. The two men worked well together early on, but eventually Rich began taking a massive salary without working much. He poisoned the culture, took money for his home out of the company account, and also had a line of credit with the company that no one knew about, all while buying a massive home on the Gold Coast. Because Peter had a close relationship with Rich, for a long time he felt unable to take action against him. He felt like Rich was his older brother. As Adam Grant points out, Peter was a victim of his own empathy.

The Down Side to Empathy

I find the idea that people can be victims of their own empathy a fascinating one. Empathy occurs when one person shares the feelings of another. In Lift, we argue that empathy is the essence of being other-focused, and therefore a central element of positive influence. A person’s influence is unlikely to be positive if they have not felt empathy for those who are stakeholders in a situation. And yet Peter’s empathy for Rich—in particular, his worry about how Rich would feel if Peter took action against him—prevented Peter from doing the right thing in this situation. Read more »

The Generosity Family Project: Do Good and Feel Good

June 11th, 2013

By Ryan W. Quinn

I posted a review of Adam Grant’s new book, Give and Take, a few weeks ago on this blog. The timing of this book’s release was fortuitous for me on a personal level.

It was good timing. Just when the book came out, my wife approached me to let me know that we needed to help our children become more generous (read: “less self-centered”).

Now, I don’t think that our children are all that different from most children their ages. But generosity is a value I hold in high esteem, so I agreed. We gathered the children for a family meeting to discuss what we could do to learn to be more generous.

It was very nice of Adam to publish a book right at this same time on the very topic we were working on. I’m sure he did it just for us! Read more »

“Make This the Best Day of Your Life”: Robert Quinn Speaks at TEDxUofM

May 21st, 2013

By Amy Lemley

“When we tap potential that is untapped, we see things in new ways, and a whole new world of possibility opens up to us,” says Lift blog cofounder Robert E. Quinn.

How do we tap that potential? Bob answers that question in a 13-minute talk at a conference modeled after the famed TED Events, which are designed to promote “ideas worth sharing.”

View the talk here, and, in Bob’s words, “make this the best day of your life.”

About TED Talks and TEDxUofM

The nonprofit TED invites the world’s most interesting thinkers and “doers” to “give the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes. TED then makes these “TED Talks” available free online at TED.com.  Past speakers include Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Sir Richard Branson, Philippe Starck, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Isabel Allende. The group also holds two U.S. TED Events each year and one in the UK.

TED established the TEDx program to support locally produced events of similar ilk, prompting a group at the University of Michigan to create its own independent TED event. This year’s theme was “Untapped,” a fitting one for an expert on seeking purpose and prompting deep change.

How to Transform the Collective Mindset: Cultural Change and Moral Power

May 17th, 2013

By Robert E. Quinn

Sometimes I will ask a group, “Did you know that organizations are political?”  This always brings a knowing laugh.  The laugh suggests a question, Why would I ever ask about something so obvious?  The laugh also demonstrates a fact.  People have a natural understanding of hierarchy and political power in organizations.  They know that people have self-interests, and they use expertise, position, and authority to pursue those self-interests.  One has to understand this to survive.

Moral Power

I spend much of my time teaching executives and MBAs about something they find difficult to accomplish.  If they want to move from survival to flourishing, that is, if they want to make positive change, they must change the culture, and cultural change requires a kind of power that seems foreign to normal organizational assumptions.  Cultural change requires leadership based on moral power. 

So I delight when I find a grounded observation I can use to help them understand my strange notion.  I went to a movie called 42.  It is about the life of Jackie Robinson.  The movie is the story of a baseball player, it is also a story about the transformation of culture in America.  At the heart of the movie is the exercise of moral power.

(Note: Spoiler alert! This discussion describes several pivotal scenes in detail. If you prefer, go and see the movie, then return to this blog entry for a transformational perspective.”)

In 42, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, recruits Jackie Robinson as the first black player.  In one of the opening scenes, Rickey lays out the abusive behavior that Robinson will face and wants to know if Robinson will be able to handle it.  Robinson asks if Rickey wants a man with enough courage to fight, and Rickey says he wants a man with enough courage not to fight. 

It is clear that Rickey has a deep understanding of the moral power that will be necessary.  Moral means good, ethical, and principled.  Power means capacity.  Moral power is the capacity that comes when we chose to live by a higher ethical principle.

When we are offended, nature seems to provide two choices: fight or flight.  Yet there is a third option.  A person can choose to be purpose driven.  Such a person can choose to move forward without reacting to an injustice.  Such a person is seen as different.  This difference attracts attention and requires people to think and to make choices of their own.  In the process of observing, thinking, and choosing, some people change.  The change can become contagious, and it may spread in a viral manner.

Two Illustrations

Transformational change is usually a function of transformational leadership or moral power.  In the movie there are many scenes in which people are transformed.  I recount just two.

Initially the Dodgers players are, like most everyone else, against Robinson.  But over time they watch him absorb brutal abuse.  At one point an opposing manager stands outside the dugout and pours continuous hateful statements on Robinson.  As this continues the Dodger players seem to change.  One player who was not particularly welcoming to Robinson finally stands up, walks across the field, and threatens to attack the manager if he says another word.

Later Branch Rickey wisely notes that the opposing manager was actually helping the cause.  He explained that when someone is abusive like the opposing manager and the recipient does not respond, people feel sympathy for that person.  He says sympathy means “to suffer with.”  The opposing manager caused the Dodger players to feel for and suffer with Jackie Robinson.  In this suffering (or love) the assumptions and then the behavior of Robinson’s fellow players began to change.  Moral power brought a transformation.

In another scene the Dodgers are about to play in Cincinnati.  Pee Wee Reece, the Dodgers star shortstop, is from nearby Kentucky.  Reece enters the office of Branch Rickey with a sense of indignation.  He shows Rickey a letter.  Someone in Kentucky has called Reece a carpet bagger and offers a threat.  Reece is incensed.  Rickey pulls out three thick files of hate mail sent to Robinson.   The letters are filled with vicious threats.  Reece is stunned by what he reads.

The next scene is in the ball park in Cincinnati.  A father and young son are talking.  The son is a Reece fan and says he hopes Reece performs well.  The father responds tenderly and tells a story of when he was a boy and watched his favorite player do well.  At that moment the Dodgers take the field, and the tender father suddenly yells vicious statements at Robinson.  The boy watches with curiosity and then does the same. 

Here there are two jolting moments.  First, we discover that a man capable of being a tender father can also be a racist.  Second, we watch a relatively innocent boy observe the father he loves and then adopt his hateful behavior.  It is one small illustration of the mix of nobility and frailty in all of us, and of the fact that we are all shaped by the cultures we live in. 

As the scene continues, the entire stadium vilifies Robinson.  Pee Wee Reece observes this, and then dose something shocking.  He stops what he is doing, runs over to Robinson, and puts his arm around him.  Robinson is asks Reece what he is doing.  Reece says, “I want these people to see who I really am.”

The crowd grows quieter.  A few begin to clap.  The small boy watches.  Then he slowly begins to clap.

The once-incensed Reece makes a choice, behaves in a new way.  The new behavior draws attention and requires a choice by others.  New behaviors emerge.  We witness another illustration of transformational influence.

Cultural change occurs when people make new assumptions and then willing engage in new behaviors.  The new behaviors spread, not in a linear fashion but in a viral fashion.  The contagious new way eventually results in a new culture.  Transformational leaders use moral power to change assumptions and behavior.  Since we assume organizations are political systems, it is difficult to see that they are also moral systems.   The moral system is in constant need of attention.