Can We Embed Curiosity in Corporate Culture?

I had the incredible good fortune to be one of 850 people from around the world in late June who participated in the World Positive Education Accelerator. This gathering intended to take a major step in the direction of acting at the scale of the whole—with a focus on spotting and fanning the best current efforts and emerging innovations in the field of positive education (i.e., education fueled by the principles and evidence-based learnings of positive psychology and human flourishing).

Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva, moderator of the WPEA summit, is a world-recognized chief reinvention officer. Among many mind-stretching points in her remarks was the assertion that business lifecycles are so compressed today that reinvention is required every 7 ½ years. Contrast this with the mid-20th century, where she noted that it was not only possible but likely that you could work your entire 40-year career without seeing a single major transformation. Business lifecycles were moving that slowly as to require reinvention about every 75 years. By the end of the 20th century, that figure had dropped to about every 15 years. Now, not even fully through our second decade of the 21st century, we’re experiencing a need for business reinvention in 7+ years.

No wonder we’re all tired.

In an environment of this level of constant and swift change, an organization’s ability to adapt is paramount. Call it what you will—imagination, ideation, improvisation, adaptation—this learned ability to culturally adapt is a product of curiosity and an unapologetic resolve to focus on what’s creating lift, what’s infusing life into the organization. These are the elements to study and magnify, for they hold the keys to our ability to reinvent.

Our headlong pace into this ever-shortening business cycle environment means everyone in the organization has to become more adept at, and comfortable with, improvisation. Leaders should attend closely to this agenda. Some change expertsi suggest we need to strengthen four improvisational capacity muscles:

  1. Affirming – focusing on the best of what is and the possibilities that affords;
  2. Expanding – using bold vision to stretch everyone’s thinking to new margins;
  3. Generating – establishing systems that provide feedback and insight to performance;
  4. Collaborating – welcoming diverse perspectives and fostering joint participation.

Embedding this improvisational capacity into your team or organization begins with full recognition of the fundamental power of conversation as the foundation of everything we do and create together in organizations. Stavros and Torres make clear this power when they say, “The nature of our conversations determines our well-being and our capacity to thrive.”ii

So how can a leader leverage every conversation to head down this path without some big established initiative or change agenda? Here’s some suggestions:

  1. Be aware of your own tone and tenor – your words get amplified and mirrored.
  2. Focus on (or reframe to) the positive – what’s working and why; what gives this life?
  3. Intentionally ask generative questions – those that foster energizing new images and metaphors, information, knowledge, and possibility.
  4. Invite dialogue with and among all stakeholders – recognizing that nobody owns the future we’re co-creating together.
  5. Dream together and try stuff quickly – prototype solutions and keep learning.

As with anything else in organizational life, there’s no panacea. Yet you need not be afraid to wade into the notion of positively impacting the culture around you. The first shift to make is yours: be genuinely curious about the best of what exists currently (even if that seems infinitely small at this moment!). From that posture, then inquire more deeply about that strength or asset. Note the conditions around it. Understand the contributing factors. Clarify your sense of awareness about those moments. Then ask, “what might be possible if these seemingly fleeting moments of pure strength could become more pervasive….then what would be possible?”

The more you can practice this as an individual leader, the more likely you will contribute to a culture of greater adaptation. Take this tack in your routine meetings by helping your colleagues reframe their frustrations and negatives into an exploration of what you all want more of. Expect to be a bit of an oddball at the beginning, as many organizational cultures are infused with a head down, get-er-done, running fast production pace that breeds a defensive employee survival attitude of separation or, worse, skepticism and judgement.

Unchecked, a widespread corrosive skepticism can infect even the best organization, becoming a fire-breathing dragon that eats most change agents for lunch. The barriers are real, as I’m sure you’ll agree. In his seminal work on experiential learning, David Kolb notes, “The greatest challenge to the development of knowledge is the comfort of dogmatism…or even the shadow dogmatism of utter skepticism (for to be utterly skeptical is to dogmatically affirm that nothing can be known”iii (italics added for emphasis).

To combat the potential for this pervasive skepticism and deficit thinking, therefore, a leader has to intentionally attempt to influence culture. Modeling the routine use of powerful and probing questions designed to help others illuminate the best in their shared experiences is a key step. Like any behavior that you want to stick, you’ll have to stay with it. You don’t have to deny or deflect challenges and bad news but you can reframe it in such a way that it invites more curiosity by colleagues—each of you looking to better understand the best of what is at this very moment and, buoyed by that, imagining what might be possible if that “best” were amplified.

In my experience, the healthiest and most successful cultures are those where curiosity is a widely shared value on display daily, at every level of the organization. Growing your individual and shared competence to be affirmative, expansive, collaborative, and generative will build your improvisational muscle.

With business lifecycles as short as they are, working to embed curiosity organization-wide may be your best strategy.


i Barrett, F. (1998), Creativity and improvisation in jazz and organizations: Implications for organizational learning, Organization Science, 9(5), 605-622.
ii Stavros, J. and Torres, C, (2018), Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement, p. 25.
iii Kolb, D. (2015). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, p. 162).


Conversation 2018:
Authentic Leadership Leverage – An Adaptation and Impact Lab
October 3 – 5
Portland, Oregon
Learning cohort now being assembled. Contact us to learn more.

The drawing above is by Ken Hubbell, interpreting the central
metaphor of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.


Ready to lean in?

Please call me when you’re ready to shape your conversation; when you’re willing to step toward your big possibility; when you’re ready to create or rebuild a culture of authenticity, deep relationship, trust, transparency, joy…and love. Those are conversations I’ll lean into with my whole being.

Warmly, and with deep appreciation for you,



Getting “The Whole System” in the Room

One of the suppositions I make during Conversation 2018 is that a leader’s impact can be expanded through whole system futuring—engaging in dialogue about the future (aka, planning) by getting “the whole system in the room.” Exploring this concept takes me (and, perhaps, you) through layers of challenge, insight, and discovery.

The first challenge is often the language. I’m often reminded that my choice of language and forms of expression make my ideas and questions tough to access for some people. While continually in pursuit of a simpler, clearer way to convey my thinking in the most accessible way, I am also continually in pursuit of the true depth of meaning and intention beneath the words.

Some believe that “futuring” or planning is not their leadership responsibility; that they are participants in or contributors to a planning discussion, but not the one tasked with designing and implementing a planning process. Perhaps, but underneath that response lies the possibility to reframe one’s thinking.

In organizational life, nearly everything we undertake is done with an eye on a preferred future. So, if your default posture is that planning is done episodically (like annual budget prep or cyclical strategic planning), you may miss the opportunity for greater leverage. Some organizational development models like lean thinking (continuous process improvement) attempt to seize this daily opportunity.

The first step in unpacking the language is to check for your default assumptions of what’s involved and the extent to which you are involved. If you’ve unconsciously side-stepped the notion of daily engagement in futuring, you’re missing a steady opportunity for greater impact. Valuable research over the past several decades reaffirms that organizations (like individuals) move in the direction of that to which they most attend. Even if you don’t have primary responsibility for plan design or implementation, you can still suggest and influence where attention is being placed and with whom conversations about the future are being held.

Additionally, the language of “the whole system” is also a stumbling point for some. The language emanates from systems thinking, which is a discipline of seeing the interconnectedness of everything. Businesses and organizations are examples of complex human systems. Most of us have come to accept (if not understand) that working narrowly on a single part of the organization has only limited value when all the parts are “bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions” (Senge, 2006, The 5th Discipline, p. 7). Yet the system doesn’t end at the boundary of the organization. The organization exists in a larger human ecosystem which includes the individuals, neighborhoods, organizations, and entities in your operating environment.

Being committed to getting the whole system in the room necessitates engagement well beyond the boundaries of your team, unit, division, and organization. Just as we move in the direction of what we study, meaningful and reciprocal engagement yields relationships and deeper trust with those with whom we spend the most time. Therefore, decisions to engage your whole human ecosystem in an appreciative (re)discovery of high point experiences—times when the organization was at its best and most vital—enriches your learnings by illuminating things in your blind spot, strengthens your understanding of the positive core, and evokes a powerful sense of anticipation about what’s possible if the best of what is gets amplified and extended in the future.

Which brings us to the second challenge many encounter in doing whole system futuring: getting outside our familiar bubble. By design or by default, leaders often end up spending most of their time with a narrow band of people. Whether conscious of it or not, they tend to hear more of what they’ve already heard. Daily huddles and weekly management meetings serve many valuable purposes, yet they can also serve to reinforce the prevailing and shared world view of those few participants. Exploring opportunities for impact and learning from the best of what is in place already can, therefore, be artificially limited by this familiarity.

The better path to impact is not found outside. It resides inside of you. Getting outside your familiar bubble first requires your own opening—of mind, heart, and resolve—and a letting go. The letting go need not be viewed with dread, as if it signals loss. Rather, the letting go can be viewed as (re)learning and adapting. The letting go must happen first as part of your inner work as a person; as a single leader. If you are to consciously reposition yourself to see the landscape with new eyes—the implicit requirement of planning—there is some inner work needed. Consider these insights:

  • “At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind—from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems caused by someone or something ‘out there’ to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it” (Senge, The 5th Discipline, p. 12). He continues with a bold perspective on what it means to be human: “Through learning we re-create ourselves” (p. 13).
  • Two powerful learnings were gifts to me from Conversations many years ago. The first came from a Kenyan woman who, during a discussion of borders and boundaries, said in the most hopeful and energized tone, “The boundaries are where I go to meet my neighbors.” The second said, “we learn the most from those least like us.” These viewpoints reinforce the rich value of going beyond the “safe” and familiar to where new perspectives can further open you to deeper insights. As I reflect on my own longstanding rhetoric about the value of diversity, equity,inclusion, and meaningful engagement, for me it all rang a bit hollow until I began to feel the shift—the opening—happening within me. Now, getting the whole system in the room through a diversity, equity, inclusion, and meaningful engagement lens are truly powerful and richly rewarding, both personally and organizationally.
  • Leaders from the International Futures Forum (IFF) remind us to give up on the myth of control. They point out that many of us were raised to control what we don’t understand. Exacerbating this situation is the pervasiveness of power and privilege in which so many of us have been raised (individually and organizationally), which seems to call for holding on even tighter. This self- and other-damaging orientation is part of a myth to which many of us have subscribed as we attempt to address our best futures amidst great complexity. Two IFF authors suggest instead, “An alternative is simply to accept and acknowledge complexity as an inevitable fact of modern life and instead of trying to avoid or control it, participate in it. Relish diversity, welcome surprises, look for the ineffable and appreciate the richness and the unique quality of all things. Such an embrace engenders a sense of belonging and reinforces the motivation to participate. Driving this reinforcing cycle are love, empathy and relationships” (Leicester and O’Hara, 2009, Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency, p. 10).

Odd as it might sound that for someone like me who for decades has helped organizational leaders and planning teams design and implement strategic direction, I’ve come to realize and trust that the first shift that must happen is an inner shift—an individual letting go and a trusting willingness to inquire, discover, and learn. When I reflect on an earlier professional chapter of my life, I now recognize that I was trying to master techniques that helped leaders cascade their plans throughout their organizations. Thinking back on some early engagements, I now see that some constituent research and planning dialogue was launched from the status quo—almost as if to validate the status quo. Therefore, without the pause up front to reflect on the leader’s view, assumptions, blind spots, and patterns of behavior, the planning design was flawed from the beginning and, unintentionally, went on to reinforce the status quo.

As I continue practicing letting go, I can feel my mindset continually shifting, or as Senge said, through learning and experience re-creating myself. My approach to planning has likewise evolved over the years. Now, I am far more inclined to approach each task influenced by three thoughts:

  1. The work is first/always inner work. My attention is a signal of my intention.
  2. Pay unconditionally positive attention to life-giving forces. To do so, I must go beyond my bubble and see those forces through the whole system perspective.
  3. Learn to dance with the system. This image, borrowed from systems thinker Donnella Meadows, is a reminder that we can’t control systems or figure them out…but we can dance with them. This individual and organizational dance, while applied to our professional and intellectual pursuits, is no different than dancing with other great powers like white-water kayaking, gardening, making music, etc. In all those endeavors, she notes, one is required to “stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback.” Her overview of “the dance” resonates with me:
    • Get the beat
    • Listen to the wisdom of the system
    • Expose your mental models to the open air
    • Stay humble; stay a learner
    • Honor and protect information
    • Locate responsibility in the system
    • Make feedback policies for feedback systems
    • Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable
    • Go for the good of the whole
    • Expand time horizons
    • Expand thought horizons
    • Expand the boundary of caring
    • Celebrate complexity
    • Hold fast to the goal of goodness

And so it is with whole system futuring. Through a process reflecting the leader’s authenticity, the inner work of letting go is a pathway to generativity and imagination. Reaching this point of opening (again and again) reinforces and sustains the quiet confidence to focus unapologetically on the life-giving forces in your organization and in your environment. This mindset, coupled with the humble invitational spirit that takes you beyond your boundaries to engage all your “neighbors,” can lead to a “letting come” that is far more powerful and supportive of innovations for the future.

The drawing above is by Ken Hubbell, interpreting the central
metaphor of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.


Leveraging Leadership Authenticity – Conversation 2018

Several years ago, I decided one way to leverage my own passion and contribution to right action and wise leadership was to hold space for its deeper exploration among people seeking their own clarity and deepening their own leadership purpose. Conversation 2018 is one such contribution. Through it we’ll focus first on illuminating your own inner authenticity, wisdom, and inherent value. That becomes the scaffolding for exploring how leaders evoke greater and more lasting impact by: a) fostering an appreciative culture; b) inviting whole system inquiry and dialogue about the future most desired; and c) engaging partners (donors, investors, collaborators) with reciprocal meaning and deep trust.

Each Conversation is a cohesive package of components over a six-month period that includes one immersion workshop/retreat, reflective readings before and after the retreat, participation in moderated video conferences among the learning cohort, and individual virtual coaching throughout the period.

Nominations are currently being sought for the next Conversations scheduled to date:

    • Minneapolis, MinnesotaApril 18-20, 2018 – hosted by Cohen Taylor Executive Search Services

Contact me to learn more or to nominate someone for consideration in this cohort. A limited number of partial scholarships will be available for gifted leaders unable to afford the full tuition. In so doing, together we can support some of the most vital work being done in community despite deep resource limitations.


Philanthropy Professionals as Agents of Change

Philanthropy Professionals as Agents of Change

One of my mentors and a leading thinker in all things philanthropy, Jim Lord, introduced me some time ago to the concept of the development professional as change agent. This immediately resonated with me. Many, myself included, have come to see that our very language (habitual and accepted without much scrutiny) of “fundraising” as narrow and mechanical. If our words have the power to open us to new worlds, then the language of change agentry is more than a simple freshening; it’s a reflection of a new mindset and the adoption of new behavior.

The concept of change agentry feels so much more descriptive of the highest and best nature of the work, even if viewed by some as aspirational. I think of the change we seek to bring about as midwifing a preferred future that is trying to emerge.1 Stay with this metaphor a moment longer. This suggests that the future is not solely of your making, but you have a significant role in guiding it safely into a new space. Further, it recognizes there is life and energy around that unbirthed future before your arrival in your professional capacity.

The transformative role of the development professional (change agent/midwife of ideas and dreams) is to honor and serve the co-creators of this new life; to provide skillful attention to the delicate—joyful, but sometimes painful—act of bringing the new idea to fruition. This is no passive role. It requires rapt attention and a level of selfless service, providing assurance and comfort during the process, and immediately protecting and swaddling the new idea once brought into the world. In the best of situations, the generative exchange between donor and professional co-creates an even more consequential imagined impact than either could achieve alone. This is true transformation—from a living state of existing within one person (the donor) to a new state of public presence, where the support of caregivers can assure the idea and the co-creators are nourished, warm, and continuously strengthened until such time as more internal viability has developed.

“In the best of situations, the generative exchange between donor and professional co-creates an even more consequential imagined impact than either could achieve alone.”

A weird concept and metaphor you say? Perhaps. Yet this metaphor belies many of my long-held beliefs about a more sophisticated, more human, more organic approach to the philanthropic exchange.

In this spirit, I invite your consideration of these points:

1.Your language reflects your mindset and the culture in which you’re operating.

A cornerstone concept in appreciative inquiry is that “words create worlds.” The academic underpinning of the concept is social constructionism, which in its simplest form suggests that we create the world by the language we use to describe it and we experience the world in line with the images we hold about it. Few people have the experience of developing their philanthropy program from scratch. Instead, they inherit an existing program and/or become engaged (as a professional or a volunteer) in an existing program with its own values, culture, processes, metrics…and language.

I invite you to simply and quietly observe your own program for a couple days. Look and listen for the signals and markers of what appears to be valued by you and your colleagues, as reflected in that to which the team and its scorekeepers pay closest attention.

  • What language is used to describe partners (prospects, targets, and funding sources…or friends, benefactors, and leaders) and processes (pipeline management, overcoming resistance, the ask…or deepening engagement, amplifying curiosity and energy, and inviting partnership)?
  • What would that language convey to your closest and most valued donors?
  • Would those donors use similar language and/or feel good about knowing you use that language?
  • What does your team’s language suggest is your shared mindset and assumptions?
  • Given that shared mindset and assumptions, how are your behavior patterns influenced and shaped?
  • Finally, to what extent are the results you’re getting directly connected to your shared mindset, values, and language?
  • Have we asked and answered these questions in an open team reflection?

2. Reflection should augment, if not balance, training and practice.

Development professionals come to the work from many paths, some with academic study and preparation, others with relevant and allied work experience. Many learn in some form of the apprentice model; fewer with strong mentors. What can happen along the way is dutiful attention to building up the skills of the effective practitioner. Unintentionally, continuous and narrow attention to skill-building alone an devolve into a “me-centric” unconscious orientation. Further, the practitioner can be unconsciously drawn into an almost myopic attention to the tools, the methods, the best practice. While none of this is bad in the proper context, it brings its own limitations and, again unintentionally, can lead to burnout. That’s why I’ve come to believe that it is essential for every philanthropy professional to invest the time for deeper reflection on being rather than devoting all one’s attention to doing. Some questions to start your reflection might be:

  • Why am I involved in philanthropy in the first place?
  • What are my deepest beliefs about who I am here to serve?
  • What do I value most about myself that fuels the greatest contribution I can make to bringing someone else’s dream to reality?
  • Am I truly conscious of my language and what it conveys about my deepest beliefs and assumptions about the work, the donor, and philanthropy?

3. Development work is strategic relationship inquiry with appreciative intent.

The most successful development professionals I’ve seen are those who have the courage and the confidence to hold their (and their organization’s) agenda loosely; to open themselves at several levels. The U drawing below illustrates this point.2 If language indeed shapes the world in which we operate, then the language of our relationships with donors should be governed by appreciative intent. Our actions should then manifest in ways that demonstrates our own opening—of our minds, our hearts, and our will.

This is counter-intuitive for many. Consider, however, that holding your own agenda loosely (the left side “letting go” leg of the U) is a conscious choice and a necessary path to reach the real source of transforming your approach to your work. The bottom of the U represents not only your own personal transformation, but it also reflects that portal to reciprocal trust, and the fullest expression of appreciative intent. The strongest relationships come through this portal…as do, often, the biggest transformative ideas. The right side of the U is the exciting path of working with the donor to imagine together bold new possibilities, with philanthropic investment as the catalyst and the fuel. Traveling this right side of the U (Scharmer calls it the “letting come” side) with the donor is a beautiful journey of nourishing the donor’s idea into something of even greater significance—real consequence—for society. Relationships born of walking this path together are often forged for a lifetime. They not only signal a donor’s truest capacity for investment, they signal an inspired imagination and the kind of generative hope and vision that cascades to many other people.

So, why doesn’t everybody practice philanthropy this way? First, I believe traversing this path requires courage and confidence for development professionals and leaders engaged in the pursuit of gift investments. Tension arises when the organizational cultural context seems to expect (or demand) rapid movement toward big gifts regardless of the established trust equity and meaningful engagement. This default posture often brings with it an unspoken belief in a linear progression from point A (where you are in relationship today) to point B (transformational investment). In so doing, one completely skirts the “opening;” that expression of appreciative intent that demonstrates your personal and professional authenticity and your service orientation. It also skirts the deeper formation of the true partnership with the donor that can add depth, dimension, and consequence to the gift.

4. The work to incubate an organizational culture of philanthropy requires the development professional to be a change agent.

The very dimensions of a truly appreciative organizational culture lead to a natural process of appreciative engagement, which is the foundation of a rich culture of philanthropy. Those dimensions are:

  • Illuminate purpose and explore fulfillment
  • Inquire about life-giving forces
  • Nourish imagination about possibilities

In subsequent issues, I’ll offer more reflection on fostering an appreciative culture. For now, let’s consider that the mindset and behavioral approach to working with donors is parallel to the ways in which the development change agent catalyzes an appreciate organizational and philanthropy culture.


Meaningful Engagement
of a Donor/Partner

Incubating an Appreciative Organizational Culture

Fostering an Authentic Culture of Philanthropy

Illuminate purpose and explore fulfillment

  • Explore to discover her interpretation of her “source”
  • Listen for her stories of values, aspirations
  • Spot and fan desire for innovation & collaboration for impact
  • Start with why (Sinek). Encourage reflection equal to production.
  • Recognize: the answer to “why” (beyond canned mission language) fuels our shared mental model (mindset); which governs language patterns, systems, processes, rules, and protocols; which gives shape to our patterns of behavior; which gets reflected in daily activity.
  • Work “inside” to understand intent and purpose; seek to uncover the stories where our intention is clearest. Likewise, work “outside” to understand the personal donor joy of rising to meet a fulfilling promise.
  • Recognize, value, and release the influence of philanthropy in both directions. A union of reciprocal value.

Inquire about life-giving forces

  • Guide her to voice ever-deeper inner knowing about what is manifest in her greatest joys and triumphs; when she feels most vital and energized.
  • Together, see if you can see a pattern of attention across time, which yields a pattern of impact
  • Invite broad curiosity about our organization when we are at are best, most vital, most impactful. What can we learn from those instances?
  • Inquire about the themes and cascading transfer of learnings
  • Explore with key partners together (donors, philanthropy staff, administrators, program people, alumni, board, etc.) stories of conscious awareness of organizational values in action, supported by philanthropy.
  • Make meaning from the common ground themes among the stories

Nourish imagination about possibilities

  • Together, your inquiry is a path to co-creation
  • Adopt the lens of abundance
  • Help her see the difference she can make because of who she is, not because of the money invested
  • Lift the best of what is: “Isn’t it amazing…?” and the power of possibility thinking: “Imagine if…”
  • Understand & support her energy tied to transformative commitments
  • What could be possible for us and our impact if the life-giving forces of us at our best were amplified and became the norm?
  • What is the best possible outcome we could imagine together?
  • Leverage the identified themes as a way of igniting discussion of shared images of a preferred future.
  • Invite participation in a process of shared imagination, resulting in a greater ability to articulate bold possibilities that evoke ownership and transformative action.

While the table above is an over-simplified expression of parallel processes, its value is in illustrating the process of seeing the work with new eyes. With meaningful engagement as the path toward greater impact, development professionals and donors must walk this path together. First, however, development professionals have some letting go/getting clear work to do—some reframing of your own inner work to be able to engage others in the most authentic ways possible. In so doing, you’ll be working in service of those who seek great consequence for society. A noble profession indeed.


1I wrote an article with this title back in 2011 called I Am Midwife to a Future Trying to Emerge
2Adapted from Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.


Reflections on the Path of Authentic Leadership Leverage

Regardless of the focus of your work or your current level of mastery, you’re likely seeking greater impact and some greater contribution toward positive change. As individuals and as whole organizations, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of tasks demanding your attention. In those instances, certainty about the right action is easily lost. Consider three points upon which you may want to reflect further. They are:

  1. Inquire about high point experiences to uncover source
  2. Gain clarity and insight by letting go; opening your mind, heart, and will
  3. Let come – reimagining a socially constructed, generative path of possibility and breakthrough

Let’s look a bit deeper at each.

Inquire about High Point Experience to Uncover Source

If, as Kevin Cashman1 states, leadership is authentic influence that creates value, then all leadership is first a journey of self-discovery and appreciation. In pursuit of leadership positions and greater responsibility we often get distracted by a felt need to accumulate skills and experiences that provide credentials for leading. Yet simply adding more “tools” may not be the answer. It may be that what we need most to leverage is already within us, albeit buried and poorly illuminated.

Appreciative inquiry (AI) practitioners recognize that a focus on leadership leverage can guide development of a set of illuminating peer interview questions that can peel back layers of personal insight. In this AI context, the interview process is one of self-(re)discovery, helping you uncover the source of not only your own authenticity—your own goodness, value, and uniqueness—but the source of your own wisdom and well-being. Learning to appreciate and trust that source is fundamentally important. Not only because it is a barometer of your own balance and well-being, it is a predictor of how genuinely you will be able to interact with others. Think about it. The personal connections that are the deepest and the work that is the most fulfilling are rooted in your values and self-trust. So it is with others, too.

Gain Clarity and Insight by Letting Go; Opening Your Mind, Heart, and Will

In the novel Light in August, William Faulkner reminds us that “memory believes before knowing remembers.” That phrase alone could take considerable time to unpack and fully appreciate. On the surface, it suggests that memories are deep and, even unconsciously, held firmly—so much so that new knowledge and understanding can’t readily permeate and take hold. In other words, letting go is easier said than done.

If that’s true, then what is your work? Where should your attention be directed? During reflective retreats we can quickly see the answer: our work is inner work; more on how to “be” rather than what more to “do.” Yet the day-to-day demands on most leaders is a never-ending treadmill of meetings, calls, and various interventions, all designed in some way to get done the important things. Slowly, eventually, when we’re not looking, it somehow becomes a steady stream of stuff, stuff, and more stuff. The holy grail is productivity. Our time on task shrinks because there are so many things to which we must attend, we seemingly can’t afford the luxury of a truly thoughtful, generative pause. Worse, we are often seduced by the beautiful illusion of control, believing that it is really we who are directing this larger symphony of activity. What results from this (unconsciously) tightly held myth of control is our own fear, self-doubt, and anxiety2 …. which then triggers even more of our ingrained responses, what Scharmer3 calls downloading our current default ideas and opinions (reacting), only to achieve more typical results by our attempts to “fix” current problems.

So, the path to clarity and insight begins with letting go, an opening at every level: mind, heart, and will. Letting go of the myth of control; letting go of the strong inner ego voice that puts us at the center of all that must be done; letting go of the myopia of our own agenda. Navigating the left side of Scharmer’s U—the letting go—requires real vulnerability. Again, easier said than done. Scharmer counsels,

“Opening up these deeper levels requires overcoming three barriers: The Voice of Judgment (VOJ); the Voice of Cynicism (VOC); and the Voice of Fear (VOF). The reason the journey of the U is the road less traveled has a name: resistance. Resistance is the force that keeps our current state distant and separate from our highest future potential. Resistance comes from within (emphasis added). Resistance has many faces and tends to show up where the weakness is greatest. Resistance can operate with stealth and strike largely unrecognized by its victims….

  • VOJ: Old and limiting patterns of judgment and thought. Without the capacity to shut down or suspend the VOJ, we will make no progress toward accessing creativity and never reach the deeper levels of the U.
  • VOC: Emotions of disconnection such as cynicism, arrogance, and callousness that prevent us from diving into the fields around us.
  • VOF: Fear of letting go of the familiar self and world; fear of going forth; fear of surrendering….

The capacity to operate from the deeper levels of the U can only be developed to the degree that a system [and a leader] deals with the forces and challenges of resistance.”4

Letting Come – Reimagining a Socially Constructed, Generative Path of Possibility and Breakthrough

Suffice it to say that the journey through the U is neither simple nor accomplished in a few quick steps. Yet, that journey remains the work of leaders—reaching a new consciousness awareness where reimagination and new possibilities are accessible…to you and through you. It is not about the size, scope, or visibility of your leadership, it’s about your moments of leading from conscious awareness.

At this deepest point of the U—a point representing you at your most open, most vulnerable, and most authentic—you begin to ask new questions about the future that is trying to emerge. It is at this point where you must harness and value the notion that the future is socially constructed. This theory of the social construction of reality has its roots in the sociology of knowledge5 and posits that social reality (in families, in organizations, in a society) is at any given point a product of broad social agreement lifting up shared meanings. A key point in this line of thinking is that,

Valid knowledge…is…a communal creation. Social knowledge is not ‘out there’ in nature to be discovered through detached, value-free, observational methods; nor can it be relegated to the subjective minds of isolated individuals. Social knowledge resides in the interactive collectivity; it is created, maintained, and put to use by the human group. Dialogue, free from constraint or distortion, is necessary to determine the ‘nature of things.’6      

This school of thought became an important cornerstone of appreciative inquiry, whose roots trace to the early 1980s in the seminal work of David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in their study of the life-giving forces of the Cleveland Clinic. Their work—and the resulting widespread embrace of appreciative inquiry—has led to a deeper understanding of social constructionism.

Not only do they point out that our individual and organizational reality is socially constructed, they make a strong argument for the power and generativity of a positive image. When seen in the context of Scharmer’s right leg of the U—the letting come—their thinking is all the more powerful in our exploration of leadership leverage and impact.

Through a conscious choice to focus on the source—on the positive, most generative and most life-giving forces—we begin to see that the “letting come” path can be one of imagination, innovation, and new possibilities. While Scharmer encourages us to, “[c]onnect and surrender to the future that wants to emerge through you,” Cooperrider and Srivastva are even bolder, inviting leaders to attend most closely to that which has the power to unlock new possibilities. This is the leadership path to greater impact.

Organizations (and individuals) grow in the direction of what they value and question (study) most and they will rarely rise above the dominant images of its members and stakeholders (emphasis added). Regardless of the size of the human system, the more an organization experiments with the conscious evolution of positive imagery the better it will become. The key to the kind of organizational culture I’m lifting up is to foster a self-organizing system with the capacity to rise above the present and assess their own imaginative processes as they are operating. Adaptive cultures constantly monitor and reinforce their ability to distinguish between the affirmative and negative ways of construing the world. In so doing, those with greater “affirmative competence” tend to grow in the direction of their nourishing source of light and life. This is why organization-wide affirmation of the positive future is the single most important act that a system can engage in if its real aim is to bring to fruition a new and better future (emphasis added).7

Therefore, I submit for your consideration that the fulcrum for your greater leadership leverage and impact is twofold: 1) your personal authenticity and intentional alignment; and 2) an unconditionally positive attention to what gives life to a living system when it is most effective, alive, and constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.


1 See Cashman, K. (2008). Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.

2 Leicester, G. and O’Hara, M. (2009). Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency, Triarchy Press: Fife, Scotland, p. 10.

3 Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.

4 Scharmer, pp. 245-246.

5 See Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books: New York.

6 Cooperrider, D.L. and Srivastva, S. (1999). Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life, reprinted in Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, (2008), pp. 359-360.

7 Adapted from David Cooperrider. From: Srivastva, S. and Cooperrider, D. (1999), Appreciative Management and Leadership., Rev. Euclid, OH, Lakeshore Communications: 91-125.

Culture of Philanthropy is All in Your Mind

Much is said about all the conditions beyond you that if changed could improve your organization’s culture of philanthropy. Much less is said about the conditions within you. I believe that conscious awareness precedes a mindset shift, which influences the change in language, which fosters personal and intentional behavioral practices, which precede the kind of results to which you aspire.

Think for a moment about your own situation. How are you using the term? What is the commonly accepted connotation for a culture of philanthropy in your shop/your organization? In my experience, it’s often thought to mean that many/most/all members of our organization have a role to play in philanthropy; some suggest that “front line” staff have a “discovery” and “relationship building” role that they willingly embrace; others point to evidence of being “donor-centered” in their work.

These things are not wrong. Those subscribing to these views are often unaware of the dichotomy between these espoused “best practices” and what lies beneath them that is either feeding complete alignment and authenticity…or contributing to sustained misalignment and disconnection.

At times I find myself in organizations espousing these views and yet I see their programs and practices with these widely-used names:

  • pipelinethe flow of prospects through stages of engagement and giving that signals readiness (worthiness?) for personal attention/cultivation
  • hit lista list of donor prospects
  • moves meetingsa time for staff to discussion how we make “moves” that prepare a prospect for solicitation
  • the askthat crescendo moment when a prospect is invited to make a gift
  • contact-to-close ratioa metric tracking the number of prospect contacts required to secure a gift from a given donor

Even this short list of examples should suffice to illustrate that, unintentionally, the language being used suggests a mindset of a mechanical process where we are acting upon—rather than with—someone we say we value. Whether intentional or not, the emphasis seems clearly on the money rather than on the relationship and the shared imagination that fuels the sense of partnership.

So here’s my question: how can you be surprised by lacking an optimal organizational culture of philanthropy if the language used with your closest professional colleagues conveys a shared mindset of mechanical manipulation and focus on what you can “get” “from” people?

Am I playing word games with you? Who would believe for a moment that a true professional would consciously adopt such a position of mechanical manipulation?! Those having that reaction may want to pause to consider that you may have absorbed common language along the way—with which many of your contemporaries are familiar and using daily—where you have a common vocabulary, a shorthand for what you know you truly mean when using these terms. This language has been co-created and widely socialized in the professional ranks…but oh…be careful! Language is a signal of many unconsciously, deeply socialized, concepts and is directly connected to your mindset about the work—and about your partners in the work.

Your mindset about your work and your partners deserves some attention; some deeper exploration. You may need to challenge some long-held assumptions about your views. You may be conveying through your language the very antithesis to the culture you most want to incubate. If we see ourselves as contributing to the social construction of our own reality, then we ought to be paying careful attention to the intention signaled by our language. Berger and Luckmann note that,

“Society, identity and reality are subjectively crystallized in the process of internalization….[L]anguage constitutes both the most important content and the most important instrument of socialization.”[i]

Changing organizational culture is difficult work, requiring clear intention, and a socialization of new ideas and language supported by experience and immersion over time.

“Yeah, right…who’s got time for that!” OK, but wait. If that’s your objection, are you really saying that you want to see a wholesale shift in your culture toward a wide embrace of the “love of humankind” (aka, philanthropy), but you’d like it done this quarter, with no budget impact, and triggered by having simply pointed out the great benefits all will realize having accomplished the shift?! Get real; it’s not going to happen and years from now you’ll be bemoaning the absence of a conducive culture of philanthropy.

So what can you do?

  1. Check your own level of awareness – if you sense there’s a disconnect, don’t feel guilty and certainly don’t shrink from it. Instead, celebrate this new opening. You’re already ahead of the curve;
  2. Depict the connection of language to results – alone or with your colleagues make a wall chart that does some non-judgmental inventorying of the conventional/familiar approach to fundraising (your current approach??).
    1. What we value
    2. What we track/monitor/report
    3. The language we generally use
  3. Unpack each to illuminate what they demonstrate – for example, for the things you noted about what we value, ask yourselves what that demonstrates about your mindset and the assumptions you’re making. Be honest and judgment free. You’re not trying to “catch” somebody in rogue behavior; you’re trying to create a learning moment when group awareness is heightened. Do this for all three levels noted above. Once identifying the underlying mindset and assumptions, identify the behavioral patterns that are produced from those mindsets and assumptions. Then describe the results you witness from those behavioral patterns.
  4. Rinse and repeat…through a new lens – now do the same inventory. This time explore the three levels and their applications through the lens of your deepest authenticity, your most appreciative, and most highly relational way of being—as if you were completing the chart with your best donors and prospects in the room with you.
  5. Note the differences between the two charts – one is not implicitly “better” than the other. Each of us has to start wherever we are. Without making judgments, see what you (and your colleagues) discern from these two charts. The new lens can help you begin to shift the language you use daily. It may affect what you decide to track and monitor—like all those qualifiable, relational dimensions that are expressions of shared values. Consider how to introduce this new thinking to your larger team. Have it shape your new staff orientations/onboarding. How will you introduce it to your board in an experiential way that won’t shame or blame but also will help them consider how they may have inadvertently contributed to maintaining the barriers to the culture you most want to see. This is a learning moment.
  6. Translate and share your learnings – as a result of this awareness opening exercise, how might you translate this learning to organizational members for whom philanthropy is just a peculiar word they know little about yet generally want to be as supportive of your efforts as they can? Who are your early adopters and how might they help you spot the best alignment that may already exist in the organization—high point moments of implicit understanding and behavior that you can track, fan, and amplify? This should take you well beyond the feature story on the web page or in the next newsletter.

If you desire a better culture of philanthropy than the one you’re experiencing today, look within yourself first. The keys to the shift are there. Remember, conscious awareness precedes a mindset shift, which influences the change in language, which fosters personal and intentional behavioral practices, which precede the kind of results to which you aspire.


[i] Berger, P. and Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, New York: Anchor Books, p. 133.


Your partners, donors, and investors (…and employees, board members, referral sources, family members…you name it) want the same thing from you—meaningful engagement. Meaningful (intentional) engagement is a reciprocal deposit in a sustainable, life-giving exchange based on values. When it’s present we feel nourished; when absent we feel starved.

Arguably, few things are as important as our relationships. I’ve long been fascinated observing how people seem to be in relationship—to self, others, work, and world. Patterns of behavior seem pretty clear to me. Individuals who seem grounded, affirmative, humble, and curious often seem the most consciously aware and confident. It often appears that they have the strongest and most reciprocal relationships, regardless of context. Alternatively, individuals who are gripped by ego, convinced of their center-of-the-universe status, emboldened by their own expertise, and bent on giving you the answer seem to have far fewer genuine relationships. A more likely reality is that most of us are somewhere in between these poles.

Because of my work in organizational change, I remain fascinated by leaders who exhibit strong alignment between good intention and their own daily attention. Leadership—like life—is a practice. Our growth, maturity, and effectiveness follows a similar pattern, yet fewer progress through all stages of this evolution. Whether reading from the ancient wisdom traditions, or studying human psychology, or exploring barriers to change, I find that we’re all somewhere along a progression that influences our thoughts, language, actions, and expectations. The progression stages of this evolution are:

  1. Being unconsciously unaware – not knowing what we don’t know and, therefore, unlikely or unable to do much about it. As a result, we tend to “bump into” some hard realities—usually the relationship kind—because we are prone toward control, manipulation, short-term “fixes” to get more of what we think we want. Language, however we may dress it up and “say the right things” is often not an outgrowth of a nourishing and conducive mindset. As a result, the language rings false in our listeners’ ears (and often in our own). Our “talk-to-do” ratio is way out of balance, as is our focus on I, me, and mine.
  2. Being consciously unaware – knowing what we don’t know and, therefore, feeling a bit disturbed toward some action to rectify the feeling of disturbance…through (experiential) learning. While this can be a liberating phase, it’s usually fraught with doubt and uncertainty, along with some predictable failures. We try on new language as we try to give voice to thoughts stemming from an evolving mindset. So focused on what we’re learning (and still want to learn), we’re often not being effective listeners. It’s like we’re trying to demonstrate mastery of some newly felt truth; our attention is on the technical aspects of the new learning more so than on the nuanced, organic nature of the new learning if we could just trust it to evolve, to let it come.
  3. Being consciously aware – evolving to this level of conscious awareness usually signals more success, growing confidence, and trust in your inner alignment of good intention and close attention. More aware of all there is to learn, you sharpen your ability and capacity to listen, trust, and invite. You are coming to explore the possibility that each of us has something to teach and something to learn. The idea of separateness is starting to dissolve. You are witnessing your adoption of a longer point of view. You’re beginning to hold more loosely the drive for milestones (achievement) and more tightly the drive for meaning (purpose, sustainable impact, equity). Failures and shortcomings still arise but you are no longer surprised by them (at least for long), nor do you deny them or explain them away. You lift them up so that you may learn from each, recognizing them as the gift they are. You begin to feel more at ease, more “in the flow.”
  4. Being unconsciously aware – describes that point of your evolution when what you “do” is eclipsed by how and who you “are.” You’re no longer consciously aligning intention and attention. It’s happening organically as a result of your practice. You find yourself generously supported by many around you, each of whom feels nourished in your company. A dimension of joy becomes more prominent…and profound…for you in your life/work. Meaning matters. Questions matter. Relationships matter. Your practice matters. Everything you need is here, right now.

“Wow….where’d that come from, Gary?!?…I thought you were talking about relating to partners, donors, and investors—that part of my work as a leader that occupies a huge percentage of my time.” In fact I am. My point is that one’s ability to relate effectively to others—to ENGAGE others in the vitality of your work and purpose—is equal to the level of one’s conscious awareness. In my view, this has less to do with skill building and more to do with discernment and contemplation/reflection—the very things leaders seem to treat as luxuries and indulgences for which there is little time or external appreciation. Locked in that frame, leaders stay trapped in a cycle of unfulfilling tension and trade-off, often suffering strain on their physical, mental, and spiritual health.

So, let’s go back to the title: Meaningful engagement is an intrinsic reward. Regardless of the context, we want much the same things from our relationships. We want to be invited to matter to others and we want others to know that they matter to us. It is intrinsic—baked in to our being. Simply said, right. But what would close observation of your thoughts, language, actions, and expectations say about what matters most to you? Being more outwardly effective in a leadership role necessitates that you are more inwardly attentive to growing our own conscious awareness. In so doing, EVERY relationship will benefit…especially the one with yourself.

None of Us is as Smart as All of Us

Two issues ago I presented the belief that the axis of a leader’s success is your ability to recognize and operate from a place of your own authenticity. This place is the source of much wisdom and right action. There can be no leadership authenticity or growth without vulnerability. Trusting this vulnerability and tapping one’s authenticity becomes the scaffolding for greater impact, which I earlier suggested comes from three pursuits: 1) fostering an organizational culture of trust, participation, and reciprocity; 2) choosing how and with whom to inquire about future possibility and direction (aka, planning); and 3) engaging partners, donors, and investors in mutually meaningful dialogue.

The last issue addressed the first of those pursuits. Now, I’d like to turn our attention to the second: planning—think team planning, unit planning, organizational/enterprise planning, and/or community planning. The principles apply regardless of scale. Why? Because the planning process design reflects mostly unspoken assumptions. These assumptions determine the choices made in designing the process and become a window into how the leader leads.

Some of the most common—and typically unspoken—assumptions framing choices in planning are as follows, which I’ve presented as poles on a continuum. The language of these poles may seem to represent stark dichotomies. These are not intended to represent some false dualism, as most of what I’ve observed in my long career of organizational planning is some hybrid point along each continuum.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 7.19.45 AM

Let’s amplify each of the assumptions above.

Dominant Planning Purpose

Planning is simply a process tool to achieve some bigger aim. Frequently, leaders embrace this process tool at predictable cycles: 1) around preparation for annual budget-development, which triggers annual operating plans being developed and performance metrics being attached; or 2) at “strategic” intervals (often, it seems upon inspection, for no better reason than “we’re at the end of our current x-year plan [fill in the time frame], and we need another one)”. Like any tool, its effectiveness is governed by the attitude and creativity of the user. Too often, planning is mechanical, uninspired, and unconsciously driven by the myth of control. Therefore, the resulting plan tends to provide limited traction and benefit to the organization.

Optimally, planning is inquiry and a change process simultaneously. The scope of the inquiry can be broad and far-reaching or narrow and short-term. The planning methodology matters little (operational, strategic, scenario, Hoshin planning, etc.), although some lenses, like appreciative inquiry, are intentionally focused on illuminating and reinforcing the positive core of the team, unit, organization, etc. This unconditional focus on “the best of what is” provides the scaffolding for a critical mass of organizational participants seeing and making changes in which they can believe deeply. This type of inquiry should produce an array of freedoms1 for the organization, namely:

  1. The freedom to be known in relationship
  2. The freedom to be heard
  3. The freedom to dream in community
  4. The freedom to choose to contribute
  5. The freedom to act with support
  6. The freedom to be positive

Leveraging the leader’s authenticity, then, is about her/his attitude of curiosity and a welcome embrace of a dominant planning purpose that fosters these freedoms for all participants and for the organization itself. The likely result is a widely shared path to the shared future that you all want most to emerge.

Who’s Involved?

I believe the best planning processes—those that mirror the right side of the table above—are those where many of the key stakeholders are involved throughout the planning process. Change agent Bliss Browne reminds us that we create and produce meaning rather than inherit it. Therefore, if planning is a tool for jointly creating meaning around an image of a more desirable future, then it seems fundamentally important that the process evoke real stories of that which gives life to the team, unit, organization, etc., when it’s at its best. These stories emanate from a broad spectrum of people who, if not involved in the planning process, big gaps in the socially-constructed and transmitted image of a new reality fails to take hold. That’s why we see that many of the most widely adopted planning methodologies (e.g., appreciative inquiry, scenario thinking, Future Search, World Café, etc.) revolve around getting “the whole system in the room.”

If we assume that our team, unit, organization/enterprise, etc. is one whole ecosystem (operating within and as part of an even larger ecosystem) then we’re a lot further ahead in designing our approach to planning and determining who to involve. Through such a lens, all the individual elements are part of an interconnected whole. Movement of one part triggers reinforcing or balancing movement elsewhere. Not only is this acceptance of whole system thinking important in any planning undertaking, it’s the starting point for determining whom to engage in the planning dialogue. No longer can we expect planning to be responsive if we have not engaged throughout the process those who design, execute, consume, endorse, and support and extend the work.

Unfounded fears of “tyranny of the majority” or “working to the lowest common denominator” or “halting the doing of the work so we can plan the work” are often just manifestations of cynicism and/or a tight grip on the myth of control. Just the reverse of these fears is true. By getting the whole system in the room2 (many, if not all, your employees, for example) you are working to liberate the latent power of the organization.

Trust is at the heart of appreciating this principle. That’s why I believe that it is incumbent upon every leader to be deeply introspective and identify the source of your own authenticity. Having done so, you’re much more likely to honor and trust that each individual stakeholder has their own version of equal value. Grounding yourself in this realization thereby opens you to the principle of dancing with systems3 and engaging a broad, diverse set of participants in the planning inquiry.

Frequency of Planning and Time Expended

Process improvement methodologies have taught us that the best processes are not necessarily episodic or cyclical but continuous. Such is true of organizational planning as well. If you embrace the notion that planning is intentional inquiry and simultaneous change, then you’ll be much quicker to adopt the belief that the planning process (tool) can be applied to any important organizational issue. For example, the process can be applied to an issue as broad as envisioning the impact of the organization in a new endeavor and/or to one as “narrow” as donor/investor/partner relations.

The beauty of leaders adopting the posture of the right side of the table above is that each planning initiative is directly contributing to nourishing a culture of competence, a widely shared perception of change as real work (not add-on stuff), and acceptance of responsibility. From this leadership commitment comes a long view of building and reinforcing the organizational ethos that embraces change as a means of demonstrating the positive core. Ultimately, the organizational speed of adaptation accelerates, in part because networks of communication and commitment become pervasive.

Sound a little too ideal to you? If so, you may be falling prey to any number of mindset blocks: a) projecting because of prior bad experiences with planning processes and cultures; b) believing that planning is the leader’s prerogative (alone) and the opportunity to “provide” direction; and/or c) a belief that planning should be episodic and its result monumental rather than meaningful daily and continuously relevant and cascading. One of the surest ways of getting out from behind one’s individual and organizational ego is to apply the right planning process much more often. In so doing, you’ll liberate the power of your people, remain agile in a constantly changing marketplace, and routinely contribute to the positive transformation of people, product, and planet.

So how much time should you be willing to invest in such a process? This might be a rhetorical question; however, it seems to me that any planning process that produces the six freedoms noted above is worth the requisite time in dialogue. Surprising to many leaders is that design of the process (including determining the optimal focus of inquiry and assuring the system’s representatives are co-designing the process with you) often takes as much or more time than the “planning” itself. One mentor of mine used to tell me that this work is counter-intuitive: going slow at the front end enables speed in execution. That wise advice is echoed in another common refrain, “if you want to travel fast, go alone; if you want to travel far, go with others.”

Felt Commitment

What good is any plan if few are committed to its complete execution? Not much, obviously. Yet, how often do we see planning processes that are thinly veiled undertakings of a “top-down” orientation where a vision and strategies (adaptive decisions) are communicated out to employees who have little, if any, buy-in. If this is such a common observed shortcoming of planning, why do so many of us continue in the same way? I believe that planning is about far more than charting direction. It’s equally about illuminating who we are at our very best and about how we will be in relation to one another and to our work. If your planning process is steeped in that principle, I believe you’ll find internal and external stakeholder commitment to be solid and sustainable. Planning through that lens builds trust equity, a necessary asset in a marketplace that demands quick turns and many about-faces to stay responsive and relevant.

Let’s go back to my original premise that leader leverage is most possible to the extent that the leader acts in alignment with her/his source of authenticity—your own positive core. The most committed and disciplined leaders, having illuminated and reinforced their own inner source, act in ways that evokes the same introspection in others. There’s lasting power in that. Further, it requires fewer control mechanisms designed to prod people into preferred behavior. Let’s face it, you and “they” can smell how negatively manipulative those mechanisms and metrics can be anyway.

Depth of Organization Change

During my work with organizations and my review of common literature on organizational change and leadership, there seems a widespread shared blind spot to the necessary locus of change and transformation to produce more desirable organizational outcomes. Often, the unconscious answer is “they” need to change…rather than I need to change. Alas, we can shrug this off as another illustration of the human condition. However, the more contemplative among us—those intentionally focused on a continuous learning path toward wise/right action, transparency, and reciprocal trust…aka, authenticity—are more likely to accept that world changers are self-changers first.

I believe that the leader’s greatest responsibility is to develop people and in so doing inquire with curiosity about what’s possible if each individual (and the organization) were to magnify and amplify their positive core—the vital elements that gives life to that person (and organization) when s/he is (they are) at their very best. This is the path to sustainable organizational change at a deep level. These are the organizations who focus unapologetically on their strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results (SOAR).4 While they don’t ignore weaknesses and threats, they come at them from a different vantage point. Collectively, then, these people and organizations pursue real transformation and build resilience. Organizations in the vanguard of this thinking differentiate through a steadfast focus on self-management of their teams, explicit pursuit of wholeness, and a clarity, and continuous manifestation, of organizational purpose.5


Certainly, much attention is given the seeming ideal state of having a charismatic leader in place. Wall Street’s love affair with stories of superhuman titans of leadership and miracle turnaround experts unconsciously reinforces the myth that the single leader is the key to all success. My experience, however, leads me to conclude that the best leaders recognize, value, and trust the collective insight and wisdom of the people throughout their organization. They also realize that they can’t hope to manifest something powerful and liberating throughout the organization if they’re not first fully conscious of, and grounded in, their own inner truth and humility. At times like these when competitive pressures are fierce and imagination is essential, leaders must recognize that none of us is as smart as all of us. What’s possible if we planned our shared future grounded in that belief?


Leveraging Leadership Authenticity – Conversations 2017

Several years ago, I decided one way to leverage my own passion and contribution to wise leadership was to hold space for its deeper exploration among people seeking their own clarity and deepening their own leadership purpose. Conversation 2017 is one such contribution. Each Conversation is a coherent package of components over a 9-month period that includes one immersion workshop/retreat, reflective readings before and after the retreat, participation in moderated audio conference calls among the learning cohort, and individual virtual coaching throughout the period.

Nominations are currently being sought for the two Conversations 2017 scheduled to date:

  • Portland, OregonJuly 12-14 – hosted by Providence Health and Services
  • Minneapolis, MinnesotaSeptember 27-29 – hosted by CohenTaylor Executive Search Services

Contact me to learn more, to nominate someone for consideration in either cohort. A limited number of scholarships will be available in each offering for gifted leaders unable to afford tuition. In so doing, together we can support some of the most vital work being done in community despite deep resource limitations.


1Cooperrider, D.L., Whitney, D., and Stavros, J.M., (2008), Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change, Crown Custom Publishing: Brunswick, OH, pp. 27-29.

2Avoid the temptation toward literalism, believing that de facto, any and every planning discussion must involve EVERY stakeholder in the same way in the same place at the same time. While there are many examples of large-group retreat designs (some including groups in multiple locations) where thousands of stakeholders participate in real time, there are also countless examples of variations to handle volume without sacrificing engagement.

3See Donnella Meadows’ Dancing with Systems, in The Systems Thinker, Vol. 13, No. 2, March 2002.

4For more information on the SOAR lens, see Stavros, J., Cooperrider, D., and Kelley, D. L., (2003), Strategic Inquiry –> Appreciative Intent: Inspiration to SOAR – A New Framework for Strategic Planning

5Laloux, F., (2014), Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, Nelson Parker: Brussels, Belgium.

Leaders Can Lean In to An Affirmative Organizational Culture

My teacher tells me that my daily practice is like adding an eyedropper of purified water to the “pool” in which I swim each day. Over time, the cumulative effect is powerful on two levels. First, my inner attunement to right action is fully activated, resulting in an easier acceptance of all that follows. Second, what I send out to the world is more often what I get back, resulting in those around me feeling their own sense of attunement.

So, could it be that much of what leaders observe and experience in their organizational cultures is, in part, a reflection of what they send out? I think it’s worth some consideration, even in the face of seemingly pervasive beliefs that organizational culture is too big to impact, too ingrained to effect, too amorphous to embrace and understand. Conventional wisdom, for all its apparent navigational assistance, is often unchallenged and unconsciously steeped in repetition of widely accepted and repeated cynicism. Consider the saying “culture eats strategy for lunch every day.” Hmm, that’s a combative view of a human system at work, isn’t it? How ‘bout the much-touted “nothing succeeds like success?” Hard to find fault with that…unless, of course, the unintended result is that widespread acceptance inside the organization produces a fear of failure that reduces imagination and experimentation. Or the leadership admonition that I encountered in many permutations in the last few decades: “don’t manage people; manage process,” as if the key objective is to completely abandon the human equation altogether.

One interpretation of these apparent “leadership aphorisms” is that they stem from a rather mechanistic view of who organizations are and how they work. In the last issue of Sadhana (March 29), I suggested a more humanistic view of the leaders’ work, beginning with how the leader intentionally listens in to their own source of alignment. I suggested that,

“Many of the best leaders believe that to be successful and fulfilled, they must truly open themselves fully (open mind, open heart, and open will) to ground their work/approach in their conscious awareness and act accordingly. This conscious awareness—which is typically not single-sourced or one dimensional—is, nonetheless, an animating force for right action and good. Because it is an expression of what is truest and best about the individual, it produces a radiating humility and greater ease in approaching the engagement of others whose innovation and energy is essential to harnessing the untapped potential of any organization.”

When a leader grows and strengthens her own conscious awareness (more a journey than a destination), more leverage for good is possible. That leverage can come in the form of more intentionally fostering of an organizational culture of transparency, trust, and reciprocity. So, an important question for any leader is what contribution are you making to the way of being you most want to observe in your organization? How is your language and behavior a reflection of what you value most? What do you imagine is possible for your organization in service of its most elevated mission?

Scholars who examine these questions closely see the direct connection of positive imagery and positive action. They have come to articulate theories of the social construction of reality, which examine the development of jointly constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumptions about reality. These jointly constructed understandings and shared assumptions about reality are the essence of the water cooler conversations—the place where the dominant organizational narrative is expressed, reinforced or challenged, reshaped or reinforced.

Leaders most consciously aware of their own deep sense of lift and possibility are more likely to see the deep sense of lift and possibility within their organization. Just as they’ve come to trust their own individual growth and alignment, they are most able to believe the same is true for their teams and entire organization. They “lean in”—starting wherever you are as if the eyedropper—in a way that appreciates principles of possibility that must be at the core of any sustained effort to foster an affirmative organizational culture.

Requisite Beliefs for Fostering an Appreciative Organizational Culture[1]

  1. Imagined and created, organizations as are products of the affirmative mind.
  2. Despite its previous history, virtually any pattern of organizational action is open to alteration and reconfiguration.
  3. Organizations are better able to transform organizational practice by replacing conventional images with widely shared imaginative images of a new and better future.
  4. Organizations will rarely rise above the dominant images of its members and stakeholders. They tend to evolve in the direction of what they value and question (study) most.
  5. The organization’s guiding affirmative projection may need to evolve.
  6. Organizations do not need to be fixed; they need constant reaffirmation.
  7. Creating the conditions for organization-wide appreciation is the single most important measure to ensure the conscious evolution of a valued and positive future.

It seems to me, therefore, that any consciously aware leader with a desire to have greater impact for good will embrace every opportunity to contribute the best of her conscious awareness—her leadership authenticity—toward fostering more of the type of organizational culture that fuels the collective path toward more beneficial, more desirable outcomes. If leaders abdicate this opportunity for leverage—whether feeling ill-equipped, inconsequential, and/or otherwise distracted toward the “deliverable du jour”—then who will intentionally work toward crafting this affirmative narrative of possibility? And if there is no widely shared affirmative narrative of possibility, then the organization (and its leaders and members) are all just pursuing projects and initiatives toward some vague sense of “there.”


[1] These seven beliefs are adapted from much of the seminal work of David Cooperrider, especially Positive Image, Positive Action: The Affirmative Basis of Organizing, contained in Srivastva, S. and Cooperrider, D. (1999), Appreciative Management and Leadership, Rev. Euclid, OH, Lakeshore Communications, pp. 91-125.

Authentic Leadership Leverage: Grounded in Conscious Awareness

When you’re “in the zone” as a leader things just seem to hum; they seem natural, easier, and filled with purpose. You have many areas of focus through which you can achieve great leverage and real impact…but you can’t achieve much acting alone. However, acting alongside engaged and inspired others, anything is possible. When in the zone as your most authentic self, you radiate outwardly to develop more potential for impact. Your greater leadership value emanates from exploring the connection between your intentional grounding in your own authentic inner strength, trust, and wisdom…and…your search for greater impact and leverage for change.

I maintain that a leader’s highest and best hope for leverage and greater (sustained) impact on one’s organization, community, and world is by focusing on:

  1. Organizational Culture – fostering a culture of trust, reciprocity, and transparency;
  2. Planning – choosing how and with whom to plan; and
  3. Philanthropy – engaging donors/investors in genuinely meaningful dialogue.

In many instances, these areas of organizational life suffer from leaders’ benign neglect—not by design so much as by sensing the required work is too amorphous to guide and shape. In other instances, leaders intervene with a strongly directive hand—often with the best intent—in ways that end up feeling manipulative or unsustainable. The result can leave leaders feeling inadequate, ineffective, and further isolated—all while still feeling responsible for larger outcomes.

Many of the best leaders believe that to be successful and fulfilled, they must truly open themselves fully (open mind, open heart, and open will) to ground their work/approach in their conscious awareness and act accordingly. This conscious awareness—which is typically not single-sourced or one dimensional—is, nonetheless, an animating force for right action and good. Because it is an expression of what is truest and best about the individual, it produces a radiating humility and greater ease in approaching the engagement of others whose innovation and energy is essential to harnessing the untapped potential of any organization. Properly grounded, leaders can then: contribute in new, healthy, sustainable ways to organizational culture; unleash imaginative initiatives that help the entire organization and key stakeholders learn from the future and from one another; and foster a sense of gravitational pull for donors and investors who seek true alignment between their highest imagined personal impact and the social transformation your organization aspires to bring about.

What’s possible at the union of self and service, the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need?

“How can I raise more money for my organization when we’re so big and we make gifts/grants in the community?”

This was the question that prompted a former client—a large hospital system foundation executive team—to invite me to help them answer that question. With apparent variations by sub-sector, it’s a common question among fundraising professionals. Why? What’s at work among so many professionals where these barriers serve to shrink possibility and constrict action and lift?

The story of this former client has many parallels. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story….

Clearly, as I interviewed a few staff by phone and then arrived for an on-site staff retreat, this question had been bothering the team for quite some time. They explained that, while feeling well supported by administration and board, they operated daily under a felt pressure to raise more money. In their eyes, the context they were facing was narrowing the likelihood for success rather than expanding it. Staff, veteran fundraisers and newcomers alike, were feeling a pinch.

What to do? They asked, “How can we get organizational leaders to see that by being the largest employer in the area, by making grants to sponsor, underwrite, and support other community organizations, and by routinely seeing media headlines about the high cost of health care…foundation staff are running into stiff headwinds when trying to ask people to support the projects and people of the hospital system.”

“What if we take a few minutes to see if we can verbalize our assumptions beneath this question,” I suggested. Fine. OK. Whatever, their eyes said to me. “You work for a big, high profile nonprofit organization whose work potentially affects everyone and you’re asked to raise money on the organization’s behalf and gift or grant money on their behalf out in the community. Why is this a problem for you in your work as a fundraiser?” The responses came quickly:

  • “The hospital system’s big size is problematic.”
  • “Health care costs are high.”
  • “We (the hospital system) don’t/can’t demonstrate need.”

Undeterred, I pressed on. “So, why is that a problem for you?” Responses were:

  • “We think and act small (we’re modest).”
  • “The foundation isn’t as well-known as the hospital.”
  • “We’re part of an historical wave of need-driven fundraising in this state.”

“OK, why is that a problem for you in your work?” Their responses were:

  • “It’s (the message) about us.”
  • “Need is the principle driver of giving.”

Asking for their patience, I persisted again. “Why is that a problem?” Their responses—sometimes quite emphatically delivered—were:

  • “The priority is the money. It’s all about the money.”
  • “We’re fundraisers; therefore, it’s all about the money.”

Despite the shared exasperation in the room, I asked one final time: “Why is this a problem? What’s going on inside you that leads to this feeling like a problem?” Here the responses came more slowly and with less surety and far less intensity:

  • “We want our jobs to be easier and/or more rewarding.”
  • “I’m just plain uncomfortable with money conversations. I know ‘they’ won’t give if I don’t ask. I have to couch the ask in such a way that’s less objectionable.”

Don’t you feel tired just reading that conversation? In the room that day, I sure felt that way and I sensed the staff team did as well. I could see it in their faces and body language. It’s like we had stripped away the layers of psychic self-protection to expose a core vulnerability. Now what? My intent, then as now, is to highlight a required process of introspection, challenging false assumptions, and letting go of those that are in the way. Where we sit determines what we see. Our mindset, mental model, and prevailing assumptions govern the causal (operating) structures we put in place, which produce our repetitive patterns of behavior, which leads to daily occurrences and events. Those things that we initially identified as insurmountable barriers to our success have their roots in our internal constructs.

Working with the staff that day, we exposed these previously unspoken assumptions to new light; new scrutiny. Here’s what we came up with together:


Old Assumption

New View

“I’m just plain uncomfortable with money conversations. I know ‘they’ won’t give if I don’t ask. I have to couch the ask in such a way that’s less objectionable. We want our jobs to be easier and/or more rewarding.”

I operate from a deep belief that people not only want to give to something outside themselves—bigger than themselves—they LIKE to give. Therefore, my job is to uncover their joy and inner gladness. To serve it. To celebrate the intersections with my organization’s direction and to honor it when it leads a person in another direction. In that way, little of my work is about money. It’s about what Frederick Buechner defined as vocation: when one’s inner gladness meets the world’s great need. Freed by this viewpoint, the size of my organization, the headlines it evokes, and the profile of our community collaborations is far less important than the inner journey of a donor. To help illuminate that self-selected path with a donor is a reward beyond most. Pride and confidence results.

“We (the hospital system) don’t/can’t demonstrate need.”

We’re responsible for meeting our own organizational needs. Therefore, operating profitably is a necessity and a signal of effectiveness and strong leadership. We turn outward to meet the real needs of community. Unchanged for over [100] years – the [hospital system] mission is unrelenting in its focus on [the poor and vulnerable]. We invest in community as guided by that same mission. We invite you to do likewise. Pride and confidence results.

“The hospital system’s big size is problematic. You act like a big corporate donor.”

Despite our big size, we can’t and won’t act alone. The social determinants of health are too pervasive and pernicious to be addressed alone. We choose to act in partnership with other community players, some of whom need and deserve our support for their efforts. Our big size is good. The hospital system has the infrastructure, knowledge, and connection to act with and in community to produce better health outcomes. Pride and confidence results.

“Health care costs are high.”

Agreed. Yet, health care reform is pulling hospital systems toward more “upstream” focus, rather than treating illness as presented in patients; and 2) the rising acceptance of hospital systems playing the role of “anchor institutions.” Best practice systems – like Kaiser Permanente – continue to demonstrate that leveraging our multiple assets as a total health organization contribute to community and economic vitality. The more fully we play these seven anchor institution roles, the more likely we will be to make lasting improvements in community well-being. Going “upstream” is a major step in the direction of creating leverage for lasting change that corrals high cost. Pride and confidence results.

“We think and act small (we’re modest).”

The profile of the foundation is largely immaterial. The profile of the hospital system is what matters if that profile can serve the biggest dreams and imagined possibilities of a donor. Pride and confidence results.

“We’re part of an historical wave of need-driven fundraising in this state.”

I will no longer be bound by how others have repeated manipulative messages of immediate organizational needs, lifting organizational vulnerability like it’s an asset. I will respect myself, my colleagues, my organizational scorekeepers, and donors with the truth. If in so doing, we appear to walk an independent path; so be it. We believe what every donor wants is to:

  • Be understood – “Know me, care for me, ease my way”
  • Interact with transparency in a real, reciprocal relationship
  • Be part of something important; something bigger than myself
  • Know that my gift is connected to some impact of the greater good

Pride and confidence results.

I am proud of Suzanne, Cynthia, and their whole team for their collective courage to illuminate what was in their blind spots. They started out chiefly concerned about what they thought were widely shared opinions by others. The team concluded that those opinions were largely projections of their own fears, magnified and codified as a story they had been telling themselves for a long time. So long, in fact, that they had come to believe the story was not only true but overwhelming. It was in the way of their success.

However, they came to see that the story was of their own construction…or at least their own passive, unchallenged acceptance as “just the way things are.” They had come to morph that storyline into one of their own heroic stance in the face of great odds—succeeding despite great odds.

Once able to step back with new perspective—seeing with new eyes—the team came to see that the primary blockage was their own internal frame. They had to challenge their views that people really didn’t want to give and wouldn’t give significant gifts joyfully and gratefully—in search of deeper meaning and lasting impact. They had to challenge their views that their success was largely the product of spending 95% of their time in prospect research, strategizing, secondary staging and all manner of “set design,” believing that their very limited (“one shot”??) time with the “prospective donor” had to be “just right” if they were going to succeed in “persuading” the person effectively enough to “get” the gift.

The beauty of the lesson embedded in this true story is that NOTHING in the external environment changed, but ONE BIG THING in the individual staff members’ internal framing and mindset changed. Each staff person was now being invited to practice shifting from pursuing their work from a position of overcoming barriers and manipulating (albeit kindly and with good heart) “prospective donors” to do something they instinctively didn’t want to do…to a position of prioritizing and savoring every possible moment with community philanthropy partners as an opportunity to discern that person’s greatest aspiration, wildest hope, deepest gratitude and exploring in the most transparent way how to work toward serving that intention together, all the while being unapologetic for the time required to build and nurture this trusting relationship.

Is a mindset shift like this as simple as waving a wand, peeling back faulty assumptions and gaining some new insight that unlocks potential? No. Neither this staff team nor I are that naïve. I believe that any new stated intention requires attention…and practice. This staff has the benefit of an employment context where everyone undergoes a personality profiling exercise (in their case, Personalysis), wherein each person gets a peek at how they are wired to think and respond. Knowing that inherent construct and now enlightened by new insight, the next phase is intentional practice. I also suggested this team routinely meet to share their individual insights about their journey to make the shift. In that way, not only do they teach and reinforce one another, they each practice their introspection in a transparent way with colleagues.

Best of all, this new shared commitment to this type of exchange is rebuilding team culture—reshaping their shared story of their heroic battle to one of joyful coaching of self-motivated partners. Collectively, they are rebuilding a healthy, energizing, appreciative culture at the union of self and service, the place where their deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

While this story is obviously hospital system philanthropy-oriented, the parallels to other sectors are significant. What self-limiting prevailing assumptions are holding you and your program back from its optimal success? What’s possible when your deep humility meets your authentic desire to serve a donor, helping her uncover her most important dreams and motivations? What’s your highest and best imagination about a lasting solution to an issue that both your organization and your donor co-design?

These are conversations that matter. Getting to them involves the courage to be vulnerable, to challenge long-held ideas of what’s true. To let go of false assumptions.

Ask yourself, “What conversation do I most need to have? How could the clarity from that conversation open new possibilities—for me and for those I care about? What will I do about that now?”

Please call me when you’re ready to shape your conversation; when you’re willing to step beyond technique; when you’re ready to create or rebuild a team culture of authenticity, deep relationship, trust, transparency, joy…and love. That’s a conversation I’ll lean into with my whole being.