Home Why We're Here Our Books Toolbox The Lift Difference Blog Contact Us
A blog by Ryan Quinn, Robert Quinn, Shawn Quinn, and Amy Lemley

Archive for the ‘Leadership Education and Development’ Category

Becoming a Leader: A Positive Lesson from Failing CEOs

Thursday, 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.

From Manager to Leader: Accelerating the Process

Thursday, 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. (more…)

Lead from the Positive by Cultivating a Grade-School Classroom’s “Culture of ‘Can’”

Monday, February 11th, 2013

By Amy Lemley

No manager wants to “baby” his or her employees. Who has time? Yet borrowing some ideas from the grade-school classroom can bring positive leadership into play in a way that is meaningful at an adult level—no babying necessary.

A recent post by InformED blogger Julie DeNeen identified 20 tenets schoolteachers can use to create “a culture of ‘can’” for their pupils. Those practices read like a page from the positive leadership playbook:

1. Make It a Safe Place to Fail

2. Encourage Curiosity

3. Give Your Students a Voice

4. Tiered Responsibility—“show me, teach me, let me”

5. Foster Peer Support

6. Use Natural Consequences

7. Confidence Building

8. Model How to Learn

9. Don’t Impose Limitations

10. Use Real-Life Examples of Perseverance

11. Teach Students How To Set Manageable Goals

12. Teach Students How to Overcome Disappointment

13. Reward Attitude, Not Just Aptitude

14. Believe in Their Abilities

15. Accept the “Mess”

16. Offer Reflection after the Project Is Over

17. Give Immediate Feedback

18. Give both Short and Long-Term Assignments

19. Identify Obstacles and Negative Beliefs

20. Let Go of the Idea That a Student’s Success Reflects on You

When we picture a classroom full of children, I think most of us imagine it as a place where these 20 tenets are in play. Boys and girls, young men and young women, engage with each other and with their teachers openly and without fear of ridicule, receive constructive feedback that supports them to try, try again. Their teachers show them how to learn and learn with them. And their self-confidence grows.

In recent weeks, Lift Blog cofounder Bob Quinn wrote a six-part series for educators and managers about teaching positive leadership. Last week, Ryan Quinn looked at two ways issuing “positive tickets” when young people were doing something right had made a quantifiable difference in their behavior.

As I read Julie DeNeen’s article, it occurred to me that, whether we are four or forty, we respond best to a positive leadership framework. It’s only natural. We look to our leaders—parents and teachers when we’re young, supervisors and senior executives when we’re adults—to, in Bob Quinn’s words, “create the space” in which we can succeed. When we enter that space, whether as employees or students and as leaders, our potential expands, and so do our achievements.

Teaching and Leading Positively, Part 4: A Provocative Tool for Discussing Transformation

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

By Robert E. Quinn

This six-part series, “Teaching and Leading Positively,” explores the goals of teaching positive leadership: not merely to serve as an instructor conveying the theories or practices drawn for positive organizational scholarship, but to prompt lasting transformation in the way our students work and live. Serving as this kind of catalyst requires full engagement on our part. We must live from the positive leadership framework, allowing our students to learn by our example, each other’s, and their own.

Teaching people how to transform and how to stimulate transformation is very difficult. The life assumptions of normal people are tied to survival assumptions—not to flourishing.

When I teach I have to entice people to explore things that violate what they want to believe. So I am always hungry for conceptual tools that will help people think about transformation in new ways. This week one of my friends sent me the following passage by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM:

Historically speaking, in most cultures the role of men has been to create, to make new things, to fix broken things, and to defend us from things which could hurt us. All of these are wonderful and necessary roles for the preservation of the human race.

However, most children saw their mother in a different way. She was not a creator, a fixer, or a defender, but rather a transformer. (more…)

Teaching and Leading Positively, Part 1: The Digestion of Experience

Monday, January 21st, 2013

By Robert E. Quinn

This six-part series, “Teaching and Leading Positively,” explores the goals of teaching positive leadership: not merely to serve as an  instructor conveying the theories or practices drawn for positive organizational scholarship, but to prompt lasting transformation in the way our students work and live. Serving as this kind of catalyst requires full engagement on our part. We must live from the positive leadership framework, allowing our students to learn by our example, each other’s, and their own.

When I teach, my objective is not to transfer information to my students. It is to transform their identities. My history as a teacher tells me that if I can accomplish this objective, they will experience a huge jump in their capacity to influence their own lives and the lives of others. To accomplish my objective, I must have them do something unusual.

My wife was telling one of her friends about my writing frequent journal entries and sharing them. The woman later approached me about it. She asked several questions, including how much time it took to write a typical entry. I told her 15 minutes to an hour.

That is a serious time commitment, she responded. I explained that I see the journal writing as a form of meditation that has become like a positive addiction. She understood the benefit, but wondered whether a modern professional who leaves for work very early, puts in 12 hours, and comes home exhausted could accomplish such a thing?

I acknowledged that it would be hard for someone like that, and the conversation went on to other topics. But my heart stayed there for a time. Of course, I recognized the demands of modern life, yet I felt a deep sense of sadness about how we let the world act upon us. (more…)

Engaging Others When the Economy Sucks

Friday, May 11th, 2012

By Schon Beechler

Many employees around the world live in a world of fear—the fear of not knowing what’s going to happen next, the fear of losing their jobs, the fear of not being able to provide for their children, the fear of having few or no options left when the bottom drops out of their lives.  Their managers likewise live in a world of fear—of losing of their own jobs, of having to fire good people, of watching all that they and their colleagues have built disappear before their very eyes.

How can executives inspire and motivate themselves and those who work for them when so much fear is in the air? This was the question I posed yesterday to a group of senior executives at a major global financial institution. (more…)

Stretching Your Future Leaders: The Shanghai Experience

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

By Robert E. Quinn

I once wrote that excellence is, by definition, a form of deviance. If I do something in an excellent way, I am not doing what is normal. Excellence is positive deviance, or going outside the box in a desirable or honorable way. To become excellent I must choose to leave my own comfort zone and do things other people are slow to do. In the pursuit of excellence I start to grow and change. In fact, I become change. Instead of “living” as a noun, I begin to “live” as a verb.

Excellence often turns me from a focus on me to a focus on how I am contributing to the larger system of which I am a part. In the state of excellence, I begin to live from a higher purpose, greater integrity, more intense empathy, and enriched learning.  In this state I become a model of what is possible. I become the change I want to see in the world. And my example has the potential to attract others to join me.

I generally cannot get people into positive deviance or the fundamental state leadership by telling them about it. Their left-brain logic resists. I have to reach them through the right brain. I have to create experiences that challenge their existing beliefs and entice them to change, to move to a higher level of functioning. (For a teaching example, see my last blog entry.)

Last week I was invited by a global company to give a keynote address at a meeting for 75 future leaders of the firm. Their objective was to transform the thinking of the 75, to open them up to learning so they could lead in the future. Given this objective, the decisions makers did a clever thing. They decided to hold the meeting in Shanghai.


Take the Time to Learn about New Ideas

Monday, April 9th, 2012

By Shawn Quinn

During the last two days I have shared stories of a leader who helped change the organization he was leading from losing a large sum of money into a $20 million profit.  During the change process many new approaches were tried and many of those approaches failed.  However, there were also many successes that were focused on and over time the organization learned its way toward success.

In the previous series of entries, Ryan spent a lot of time discussing the importance of being externally open.  One thing he talked about was considering and learning from a lot of new ideas and expanding our thinking around approaches we can take toward any given situation.  The leader we have been discussing came to speak at the University of Michigan’s business school through the Positive Links series created by the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship and funded by a former Steel Case executive named Paul Jones.

I encourage you to listen to Jim speak for just over an hour, sharing a number of success stories around applying Positive Leadership and organizing principles.  Few of us may think we have an hour to spare, but take a moment to recall one important lesson from Jim’s experience: Take the time to learn about new ideas.

After you click on the link look for the talk by James Mallozzi.  I hope you enjoy the talk as much as I did.



Teaching Positive Leadership in China

Monday, November 28th, 2011


6:19 AM. I am sitting in my hotel room in Shanghai, still a bit jetlagged and waiting for the sun to rise through the haze of the city. I’m here to teach executive courses on positive leadership with two colleagues from Melbourne and we’ve already delivered two programs and are getting ready to start our third this morning. The stresses on the executives attending our courses are enormous – everything here is changing at lightning speed, competition is fierce, work weeks are grueling. And, at the same time, there are fantastic opportunities for each and every one of them. They are just hard to see beyond the mania of the day to day. That’s what we’re doing here. (more…)

Positive Leadership: Standing Up When Your Ego Tells You To Sit Down

Monday, July 4th, 2011

–By Schon Beechler

On Friday and Saturday I posted two blogs regarding my recent failed teaching experience in India last week. I shared this story for two primary reasons. First, I shared my story to solicit input from others that I can use to help me understand what went wrong this time so that I can use it in the future.  I plan to return to India to teach and making the experience a valuable one for the participants is the most important objective I have.

But I also shared my story for another reason – I think that it’s important to talk about our failures to help others benefit from our mistakes. (more…)