Excellence, Positive Organizing and Joe Paterno: An Alternative Way of Seeing

November 22, 2010 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

This week I worked with some senior managers at a large firm.  The day before my colleague helped them make great progress in conceptualizing the innovations they wanted to introduce.  They valued the session because it was so practical.  They were anxious to continue to make progress.  I told them that normal logic dictated that I should take them through the principles of change management: guidelines for implementing their innovations. I told them that, instead, I was going to do something far more practical.  I was going to take them through the principles of change leadership.  I told them it would be unlike any discussion they have ever had before.  This turned out to be true.  As the day progressed the discussion changed in quality.  Trust went up, comments became more intimate, understanding increased and people began to see possibilities they could not see before.  At the end of the day people were in a profound place.  It was hard to say goodbye.  As I was about to leave, one of participants told me he had something for me.  He went off and then returned with a statement from Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach at Penn State:

There are many people, particularly in sports, who think that success and excellence are the same thing. They are not the same thing. Excellence is something that is lasting and dependable and largely within a person’s control. In contrast, success is perishable and is often outside our control. If you strive for excellence, you will probably be successful eventually. People who put excellence in the first place have the patience to end up with success. An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he is threatened by the success of others and he resents real excellence. In contrast, the person that is fascinated by quality is excited when he sees it in others.

Joe Paterno, Head Football Coach at Penn State University

Two Realities

Joe Paterno’s quote suggests that the assumptions that we make about success are very important.  At the start of the teaching day, I shared two sets of assumptions with the above executives.  Here are the two lists:

Reality One Reality Two
People in organizations:

  • Make utilitarian assumptions
  • Act with self interest
  • Minimize personal costs
  • Engage in conflict
  • Become alienated
  • Fail to learn
  • React to constraints
  • Comply with demands
  • Prefer the status quo
  • Fail to see opportunities
  • Compete for limited resources
People in organizations:

  • Sacrifice for the common good
  • Show compassion, respect
  • Make spontaneous contributions
  • Build social networks
  • Live in high quality connections
  • Experiment, take feedback and learn
  • Expand roles, craft jobs
  • Take charge, express voice
  • Become generative
  • Envision possibilities
  • Expand the resource pool

The first list reflects the assumptions upon which all the social sciences are based.  After decades of research we know reality one to be true. People in organizations make utilitarian assumptions, act from self-interest, and seek to minimize personal costs and so on.  With the advent of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship, we know that the second reality is also true.  People sacrifice for the common good, show compassion, make spontaneous contributions and so on.

But here is a key point.  Both realities are real but we do not think so.  Reality one is normal reality.  This is the reality we see when we look at people doing normal things.  Reality two is positive reality.  This is the reality we see when we look at people doing excellent things.

Just as there are default options in your computer, there are default options in life.  The second law of thermodynamics suggests that unless work is done to the contrary, systems will move towards entropy.  They will lose energy and begin to disintegrate.  The human systems we call organizations are subject to this law.  Unless work is done to the contrary, the human network moves towards reality one, collective capacity is lost and external resource flows begin to contract, the system moves towards slow death.

The second reality is what emerges when work is done to the contrary.  This unnatural work, or work to overcome nature, is called leadership.  Yet it is not normal leadership because normal leadership is based on the normal assumptions of reality one.  Normal leadership actually, in the long run, produces the slow death of the organizations.

The second reality emerges from positive leadership.  This kind of leadership makes the assumptions of reality two and thus produces reality two.  Positive leadership attracts people to: sacrifice for the common good; show compassion and respect; make spontaneous contributions; build social networks; live in high quality connections; experiment, take feedback and learn; expand roles, craft jobs; take charge, express voice; become generative; envision possibilities; and expand the resource pool.  When these things are happening the organization moves from entropy to growth.  We call the process positive organizing.

In the world of practice a common reaction to positive organizing is that it is idealistic or unrealistic.  Here the word unrealistic is being used loosely.  What these people mean is that positive organizing is not normal, not what is seen under usual circumstances.  In this sense the word unrealistic is being used correctly.  In a stricter sense the word is quite incorrect.  Positive organizing is a reality.  It is the reality scientists see when they examine people producing excellence.  It is the reality positive leaders produce when they entice people to excellence.

Success Myths

The point is that what we see is a function of the assumptions we make.  Most of us have been trained or socialized by experience.  In our experiences we discover that normal people live in the first reality.  We naturally internalize the assumptions of normal reality.  In enacting these normal assumptions we create normal reality and conclude that the second reality is unrealistic.  This influences our definition of success and how we pursue it.

A few years ago we did some research on how people think about success [1].  We asked professional to produce three stories of times that they were at their best.  We then had them analyze what was common across their three stories.  We took their data and did some complex analyses.  We learned that professional people carry success myths.  These myths are stories, scripts or recipes they are trying to follow.  Their myths reflect the orientation they take to the world and to themselves.  The first two are myths that tend to be held by individual contributors.  The second two tend to be held by people who lead others.  The first three reflect the normal assumptions of reality one and the orientation to success described by Joe Paterno.  The last myth reflects the assumptions of reality two.  Here success is the excellence described by Paterno. We will consider each (See the next two tables).

Success Myths of Individual Contributors

Myth of Responsive Service (8%) Myth of Independent Task Pursuit (28%).
I am at my best when I am given an assignment that allows me to serve others. I can do something that matches my ideals. As I start, I minimize planning, structure and intensity and engage in action. I learn by reflecting on this action. I stay flexible and open and look for intuitive insights. When the task is completed, the world is a better place. I then move on, looking for a new opportunity to serve. I am at my best when I am given a task or assignment that is specific. I organize in a careful, analytical way. I clarify objectives, plans and schedules. I work alone, making an intense individual effort with no regard to feedback. I am fulfilled when the task is complete and I receive approval. I stay connected to the activity or product.
Correlations: Youngest group; Low tolerance of task variety; Good health habits; Not satisfied with: co-workers, superior, pay, work. Correlations: Less educated; Low: locus of control, tolerance of change and stress, life satisfaction, job involvement.
Developmental Theory: Stage 1; Diplomat, Apprentice Developmental Theory; Stage 2;Technician, Individual Contributor

Success Myths of People Who Lead Others

The Myth of Intense Achievement (46%) The Myth of Collective Fulfillment (18%)
I am at my best when I can create a situation in which I am challenged to demonstrate my ability and obtain appropriate rewards. I take charge of a collective and provide vision and direction. I take an intense action focus, overcoming barriers and emphasizing goal achievement. I am fulfilled when the goal is achieved and the accomplishment recognized.  I then turn things over to another.

I am at my best when I can do something that fits my values. I am not reward but purpose driven. I serve others. I bring together a collective and help them to develop and embrace a unique vision. I nurture commitment and cohesion through participation and trust building. I stay open to feedback and new alternatives. I feel fulfilled when the group begins to mature. I value the relationships in and the products of the community and stay connected to them.
Correlations: High tolerance for: social stimulation, task variety, change and stress. High: work satisfaction, superior satisfaction, and satisfaction with promotions.  Seen as charismatic by subordinates. Oldest group.  Low: physical symptoms. High: life satisfaction, coworker satisfaction, and pay satisfaction. Not seen as charismatic.
Developmental Theory: Stage 3: Warrior; Achiever Developmental Theory: Stage 4; Magician; Strategist

The first two groups are not oriented to leadership.  Neither group is likely to take initiative.  The third group is oriented to leadership.  The majority of the people studied (46 percent) were trying to lead others from the myth of intensive achievement.  These people want to take charge, provide direction, overcome barriers and achieve goals. They feel fulfilled when they have accomplished their goals and have received recognition.  The fact that they are seen as charismatic, satisfied with their superior, and with promotions, suggests that they are being “successful.”  It would be fair to describe these people as good leaders.  They are able to “drive” change and this is what we tend to look for in leaders, the ability to “get things done.”

Eighteen percent of the people were trying to enact the Journey of Collective Fulfillment: These people are driven by a purpose that fits their values.  They are results centered and internally directed.  They seek to serve others, to help others find their own vision, to facilitate participation and trust.  They are other-focused team builders.  As the collective process unfolds, they stay open to feedback and new alternatives.  They are externally open, always learning with others who are learning.  While they are not seen as charismatic, they are healthy, satisfied with life and with co-workers.  They are also satisfied with their pay.

Instead of leading from the power of the individual will, these people are living in the fundamental state of leadership.  They shift from being comfort centered to being results centered, from being externally directed to being internally directed, from being self-focused to being other focused, and from being internally closed to being externally open.  These are leaders who have transcended the normal assumptions of intense achievement.  They have discovered that they cannot do it themselves.  They know that excellence derives from positive organizing.  They are trying to attract others to: sacrifice for the common good; show compassion and respect; make spontaneous contributions; build social networks; live in high quality connections; experiment, take feedback and learn; expand roles, craft jobs; take charge, express voice; become generative; envision possibilities; and expand the resource pool.

Learning the Concept

That day when I was teaching (first paragraph), I was not giving the participants the “right answers.” I was not giving them “checklists” from the change management literature.  I was not relying on my authority as an expert to intimidate them or drive them to a new view.

Instead I assumed I could attract them out of normal organizing and into positive organizing. So I continually honored them as I asked them challenging questions.  I invited them into conversations of intimacy and authenticity by modeling intimacy and authenticity.  I monitored the emerging outliers and continually engaged them.  I helped the group clarify what result they really wanted to create.  I helped them clarify their shared values.  I helped them become other focused.  I helped them become externally open.  As I made these efforts, a transformation occurred.  They move from normal organizing to positive organizing.

As they made this move, their feelings and thoughts became more positive. They could see new possibilities in themselves, in each other and in the organization.  As this shift occurred, the perceived resource pool began to expand.   This change in perspective created a sense of reverence.  As they brushed against excellence, they were encountering their own greatness.

This encounter with greatness is what brought the Joe Paterno quote to mind of the one participant.  As Joe Paterno suggests, there is a difference between normal definition of success and definition of excellence. At the collective level, it is the difference between normal organizing and positive organizing.  As that group experienced positive organizing, they were discovering how to successfully implement their innovations.  That discovery would have never come from an exploration of the valuable but limited checklists in the change management literature.



[1] “Excavating the Paths of Meaning, Renewal and Empowerment: A Typology of Managerial High Performance Myths.” (With Gretchen M. Spreitzer and Jerry Fletcher) Journal of Management Inquiry, 4.1: (1995): 16-39.