When the Future Determines the Present: How to See What Others Cannot See

May 14, 2013 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

We tend to accept that our current circumstances are heavily influenced by our genetics, culture, and past decisions. So here is a challenging question, “When does the future determine the present?”

The normal belief that the past determines the present. But a recent workshop led me to question this assumption.

A Workshop

Our topic was vision. I met with a group of leaders and gave them a worksheet with these questions: What is a vision?  When have you been directly exposed to someone with a vision? What was unusual about the person? When in your life have you committed to bring about a vision? What happened? When a person has a vision, how does it change the daily life experience?  What vision do you have right now?

The Future Already Exists

After the participants filled out the worksheet, I asked those questions aloud and listened to the answers. The early discussion focused on the notion that a vision is a perceived end; it is something you see in the future. 

Then two more insightful points were made. One man seemed to speak from experience. He thoughtfully and confidently said that a vision is a future state that already exists. 

This sentence caught our attention, it seemed contradictory. How can the future already exist?  According to my left-brain logic, the present and future are two different categories. The future cannot already exist. 

As I pondered his strange claim, my mind flashed to similar claims made by others. Michelangelo, for example, stated:

I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set it free.

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.

An Illustration

In my interviews with highly effective teachers, a fourth-grade teacher made a claim much like Michelangelo’s. On first day of school, she announced that it was time to begin math. Suddenly, one of her students burst into tears. She took the girl to the hall for a brief and private conversation. “I can’t do math,” the girl said. “Numbers don’t make sense to me. I hate math.”

The teacher made a promise. “You know what? You don’t know me very well, and I don’t know you very well yet, but I’m going to trust that you are a mathematician. You just haven’t figured it out yet, and I need you to trust that I can get you to see that.”

As the year unfolded, the teacher connected with the girl. “I worked with her to go back and build some foundations, hence confidence that she could kind of start moving on.” 

By the end of the year, the student announced that math was her favorite subject and that she “loved the challenge of trying to figure it out.” She scored well on the state math assessment and wrote the teacher a letter thanking her for turning her into a mathematician. 

Surprisingly the teacher had a different interpretation. She told us that she did not turn the girl into a mathematician. She said that the student “always was [a mathematician].” What kept the girl from knowing that she was a mathematician was her lack of confidence. Once she had confidence and acted upon it, what was already in her simply came out.

Under normal assumptions we believe it is the teacher’s job to be an expert, to instruct or inform, to put information into students.  Educe is a root of the word education.  Educe means to draw or extract, to bring the out the greatness that is already in them.  Many of the highly effective teachers shared this unusual orientation.    


In our training session, I was caught up in pondering the paradoxical notion that a vision is a future state that already exists when another man spoke up. I had worked with him before. I knew that when he took over his organization, he spent an extended period trying to find a vision for it. Eventually he claimed that he actually had one. 

As he spoke up, he confirmed what the earlier man stated, that a vision is a future state that already exists. Then he added: “Once you see it, you become passionate about it, you cannot stop working on it. You become totally committed.” 

As I pondered this strange claim, my mind flashed to similar claims made by Robert Frost and Abraham Maslow.

In his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Frost says his objective is to unite his avocation and his vocation.  “Only where love and need are one and the work is play for mortal stakes/is the deed ever really done for Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Maslow studied self-actualizing people.  He said they had “a rare capacity to resolve value dichotomies.”  Then he wrote, “Duty cannot be contrasted with pleasure nor work with play when duty is pleasure.”

Here again I experience a challenge to my left-brained logic. Duty is one thing and pleasure is another.  Yet there is another perspective.

When we do what we are supposed to do because it is our duty, we are normal. When we do our duty because we love to do it, we become extraordinary. We find ourselves embedded in an emergent, synergistic web. We not only work on the task, the task works on us. The process ignites virtues, enriches relationships, and makes the outcomes generative. All these dynamics loop back on us and we flourish in an upward cycle of self-actualization. 

An Illustration

I recalled my own experiences working with the man who made the second statement. He so believed in the vision that he pursued it constantly. I watched him lead his organization with passion and noted that he had extraordinary influence. When he spoke, people listened and willingly devoted themselves to the pursuit of the vision. He did not force them. He declared the vision with such confidence that for him the future already seemed to exist. It was an authentic message about an authentic vision.

I remembered how he was always extending himself, moving forward by trial and error. He was open to taking risks and learning. It did not embarrass him to learn from failure. He always shared his vulnerability, and he constantly talked about the vision. 

Others tended to trust him. They slowly embraced the vision and then began to pursue it with the same passion he displayed. They often came to him with willing contributions of their own, contributions he did not know to ask for. The future was being co-created in the present by people unified in a system of collective intelligence.   

His experience, and the results he achieved, violate many normal assumptions. Trust replaces fear. The future becomes more attractive than the past.  Passion replaces complacency.  Individuals of self-interest become a collective in pursuit of the common good. The mind of the authority figure is replaced by collective intelligence. Hierarchical control gives way to spontaneous contribution. The differentiation between present and future dissolves as the future is co-created and emerges in the present moment.

How to Bring People to the Common Good: What Authentic Leaders Learn about Higher Purpose

May 13, 2013 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

I was doing a week of executive education with senior government leaders. Many had military backgrounds. In the middle of the week, one of them pulled me aside and told me why he had recently left a high-paying corporate job.


He said that, when he was an officer in the Army, he had to make the conscious decision that he was willing to die in pursuing his various missions. Why? When you have to attack a high-risk objective, he explained, it becomes probable that some of your people are going to die. Everyone is aware of the probability.

There is a paradox. It is crucial that everyone is willing to die because that commitment actually reduces the probability of death. Total commitment leads to greater effort and higher coordination. Higher coordination increases the likelihood of collective success and decreases the number of people who are likely to die. If everyone is willing to die it becomes probable that more people will live.

A major determinant of total commitment among the troops is their perception of their leader’s commitment to the group. No matter what the leader says or does, the troops can tell if the leader is authentic, and if the leader is willing to do what the leader is asking them to do. If the leader is willing to die for the group, the troops are more likely to make the same commitment. Continue Reading →

How to Read a Book like Adam Grant’s “Give and Take”

giveandtake-coverBy Ryan W. Quinn

Our friend and colleague, Adam Grant (whose work we have featured in this blog before), has a new book that is receiving wonderful media attention from outlets as diverse as the New York Times Magazine and the Diane Rehm Show. The title of his book is Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, and it has its own accompanying web page, blog, assessment tool, and opportunity to nominate and highlight givers you know and admire. The book is fun to read and well-grounded in research. As with anything I’ve known Adam to do, it is a high-quality product and worth the investment. Rather than review his book in the typical fashion, however, I would like to take a different approach. I would like to discuss how a person should read a book like this.

Continue Reading →

Becoming a Master of Influence

By Robert E. Quinn

I was invited to meet with a group of young professionals in medicine to discuss the topic of becoming a change agent. I started with two questions. First, I asked them each to define the term. “A leader,” they responded. “Someone who can stimulate people to feel, think, see and do things in a new way.”

Next, I asked them to differentiate between a novice, an expert, and a master. This was difficult, but one person finally gave an answer I found striking. He said a novice is someone who is just learning. An expert is a person who learns to effectively lead his or her own organization or group. A master is a person who takes the principles of leadership and generalizes them in such a way that that can effectively lead any organization or group.

Two people came to mind. The first was Gandhi and the second was a public school teacher. Continue Reading →

Learn Your Way In: Hunger to Get Better, Persist through Experiences, and Watch Competencies Emerge

By Robert E. Quinn

I recently listened to a talk by Fred Keller, the CEO of Cascade Engineering, a company recognized for its positive approach to business. One of the unusual practices for which Cascade is known is  bringing in people who are on the welfare rolls and turning them into productive employees.

This idea originated in a casual conversation between Keller and another man, who agreed to champion the idea and work on it. They brought in 12 people who were on welfare. In a short time, however, they were all gone. There were many problems that made the idea impractical. The man was ready to give up on it.

But Fred Keller encouraged the man to reconsider. “We needed to discover how people on welfare feel and think,” he recalled. “We needed to understand them and their culture so we could support them effectively.” So the man kept trying. They ended up going into the literature, talking with the people, and working to understand the culture of poverty.  Over time, the company learned how to do what it did not know how to do. Continue Reading →

Work-Life Enrichment and Being Willing to Die for the Organization That Would Kill You for Caring

By Ryan W. Quinn

There is a phrase used in Bob Quinn’s book Deep Change that is intentionally provocative—perhaps a little too provocative: “being willing to die for the organization that would kill you for caring.” I once had a discussion with someone about this phrase, and her reaction was immediate and visceral: “I can’t see why anyone would die for their organization. I wouldn’t.”

I can understand why she felt that way. In a world where there seems to be a new biggest scandal every year from corporations, governments, religions, and other organizations, many of our organizations inspire more mistrust than they inspire commitment, and certainly not sufficient commitment to fall on the sword for them. And, frankly, if I am going to feel that level of commitment for anything, it would be more likely that I would feel it for my family or other loved ones, not my organization.

The lack of commitment we feel toward our organizations, however, may say more about our particular view of our organizations than it does about who does and does not deserve our commitment. In fact, sometimes, our lack of commitment to our organizations may, in fact, hurt our families or loved ones (and, conversely, our lack of commitment to our families and loved ones may hurt our organizations). Continue Reading →

Thriving: What It Is and What It Takes

March 7, 2013 / General /

By Shawn E. Quinn

“Employees are not just satisfied and productive but also engaged in creating the future—the company’s and their own.”

“Employees have a bit of an edge—they are highly energized—but they know how to avoid burnout.”

Do these two sentences resonate when you think about your employees and your organization? As managers and leaders, no doubt all of us would answer yes—even if a bit of wishful thinking is involved.

Thriving—truly thriving—is possible and even likely when you factor in the latest research on what you can do to move your organization more in this direction, and what happens when you do. Continue Reading →

Access Your Sense of Awe: Finding Meaning in Your Work

By Robert E. Quinn

I remember a heart surgeon once telling me about his work. “Sometimes a person is dying,” he said quietly. “I take their heart into my hands, and when I am finished, they are alive.” He made this simple statement with awe and humility at how meaningful this experience was for him every time. 

It’s a feeling I know. It occurs when I do cultural surgery. I am regularly asked, for example, to help senior management teams. These are brilliant, successful people with years in business. Their salaries are often staggering. So what could they possibly need from me?

The invitation comes because they know they need to make a fundamental change that they don’t know how to make: to turn themselves into a team. They don’t know how to lure conflict to the surface and transform it into creative collaboration. Yet it’s critical to the organization’s health that they do so. Without a cohesive team, there is no synergy,

This condition is a “silent killer” because few organzations are ready to admit they’re not optimizing their potential. When a team is not cohesive, there is no synergy, which can cause a chronic condition that may indeed threaten the life of the organization. Continue Reading →

How Do You Write Your “Opus”? By Doing What You Love to Do

By Robert E. Quinn 

Recently, I rewatched the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. When I reached the last scene, I started to cry.

Mr. Holland aspires to write a great symphony. Because he needs money, he takes a job as a teacher, devoting his passion for music to the composing he does in his spare time—and in obscurity.

As a teacher, he is initially ineffective. As the film unfolds, he learns to relate to his students, and then to invest in them. At the end of the movie, many of his former students hold an event to celebrate his life. Aware their beloved teacher feels like a failed composer instead of the phenomenal educator they know him to be, one student makes a moving tribute in a single sentence: “We are your symphony, the music of your life.”  

Mr. Holland evolved into a great teacher as he learned to let his passion for the creation of music spill over into the creation of learning. He came to love the creation of the capacity to create. As he turned the joy of music into the joy of learning, he was letting his passion flow into his students. Yet the normal and natural desire for fame and fortune kept him from fully understanding the magnificence of the symphony he was actually writing.

I cried because Mr. Holland’s struggle is my struggle, it is the universal struggle, it is a wonderful struggle in which we learn that we are at our best when what we do we do because we love it.

Choosing to Love: A Radical Way to Change How You Live

By Robert E. Quinn

An old friend’s father taught her love was a choice.  So, she told me, wherever she is and with whomever she finds herself, she makes the choice to love the people she is with.

I found this striking.  As long as I have known her she has seemed filled with love. She is one of my favorite people.  Yet never had I heard this story or realized that she lives the way she does by proactive choice.  She was making a claim that violates normal assumptions.  Love is not something you occasionally fall into. It is something you can continually create.  In fact, in her way of living, love is a skill to be developed through the process of conscious choice. 

Question: How would your life change if you chose to master the skill of love?