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The Third Chapter by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot – A BOOK APPRECIATION BY NEENA VERMA

Book Appreciation by Neena Verma

Neena Verma, Ph.D., PCC is a scholar-practitioner of AI-based OD. She is an ICF-PCC credentialed coach, specialising in leadership, systemic and transcendence coaching. An accredited sensitivity trainer and certified AI practitioner, she has developed a number of coaching and OD models. As well as extensive editing experience, including the February 2013 and November 2016 issues of AIP, Neena has authored two books and numerous articles.

For those who are fifty plus in age, what was your state (emotional and mental, more than physical) at the threshold of this part-intimidating, part-inviting stage in life! And those who are soon to be there, how is yours as you are awaiting the arrival of the golden jubilee of your life? Whether you entered the post-fifty life with dread of ageing, or with invitation for rediscovery and continued growth – Third Chapter is here to inspire and engage you with new and/or reaffirming insights and wisdom.

In essence

The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Harvard professor and MacArthur prize-winning sociologist, invokes the reader for “creative and purposeful learning” in what she calls the “Third Chapter” (the phase between fifty and seventy-five years) of life. The author travelled for two years, interviewing forty people in their “Third Chapter” of life – listening to their stories punctuated with success, vulnerability, intrigue, passion, rediscovery – to understand what motivates creative renewal and purposeful learning in life after the age of fifty. Her fascinating study unravels insights from the way these people have transformed and reinvented themselves, continuing to learn and grow with purpose, courage and creativity.

The author begins by invoking the reader, or shall I say the “Third Chapter” seeker, to “face the mirror”. She talks of “confessional moments” when people begin telling their story beyond the laments of old age, in “hushed, tentative tones”, making peace with “old/new mirror image”. These are stories of courageous people in their “Third Chapter” who acknowledge the intimidating view of old age that typically signifies “inevitable decline”, and yet refuse to be preoccupied with such “depressive” view.

Finding their stride

The book moves on to talk about “twin emotions” of “loss and liberation” through stories of leaving behind the known, trysts with the unknown and learning new things. People “confess feeling irresponsible”, taking “inappropriate” risks – letting go of their safe anchors, and sailing new oceans in what are generally perceived as years of slow-down. Facing “chasm of emptiness” and sense of feeling unproductive and powerless, these people live periods of “limbo”, and traverse the uncharted paths, curiously searching for identity and wholeness in the “Third Chapter” of life. In their journey of transition, they create self-empowering narratives and find their “stride”. At some point, the tentative leaving with fear transforms into liberating leaving with grace. Recognizing “strength and synergies of both and more”, these people move forward “slower and deeper” rather than “faster and farther”, creating a life of generativity rather than resigning with stagnation.

Taking forward the metaphor of “both and more”, Prof. Lawrence-Lightfoot delves into the phenomena of “constancy and change”. Citing life-span theorists, she raises an inquiry about the idea of retirement – talking of the challenges associated with choosing engagement over retreat, labour over leisure, and reinvention over retirement. She argues that research trends indicate shifts in attitude of people in their “Third Chapter” of life, “many of whom are yearning for lives of active engagement, purposefulness and new learning”. One of her interviewees talks of feeling like a “gray-haired adolescent” acknowledging her old age, but riding on her energy and commitment. In the process she is able to leverage both “old and new”. Another admits feeling uncertain, yet also convinced that the paradigm shift will only come from faith.

The author suggests that in composing a new life in their “Third Chapter”, people have to heal their wounds. This calls for the journey back home – revisiting “old burdens”. She found that in retelling their stories, her interviewees would suddenly “stumble upon a detail, a metaphor” that would prove cathartic, help them cleanse old wounds and heal themselves, preparing for what was unfolding ahead. While one interviewee calls this his “reclamation project”, another feels happy getting out of the “toxic-waste dump of anger” that “wouldn’t explode” but would keep leaking. Expressing awe at this “childbirth”-like process, he avows the “awakening” that it ensued.

Looking back, according to Prof. Lawrence-Lightfoot, is not just about cleansing old wounds and unburdening, but more about preparing to “give forward”. She contends that many among those wanting to create a meaningful life in their “Third Chapter” feel a compelling urge to give forward, contribute and make an imprint. There is a deeply moving account from an interviewee’s story about her “Third Chapter” journey. Absorbing the pain of listening to horrifying stories of violence, gang-rapes, and murders of children that women in displacement camps had been suffering, she deployed her “new layer of skills” to spread awareness about the gruesome conditions in Sudan and in doing so influenced policy-makers.

Transcending boundaries: A four-step process

Transcending boundaries in quest for new “intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and relational” dimensions in the “Third Chapter” of life, the author offers a four-step process. The first is to be curious, to wonder and be interested in learning something new. The second is about letting go of the fear of the unknown. She suggests this comes from acknowledging the fear and taking the leap of faith, thereby opening the path for next step, i.e., willingness to be vulnerable. Creating life of meaning and growth in the “Third Chapter” asks for courage to be exposed to risk of loss, hurt and judgment. The Third Chapter interviewees emphasize the “value of failure” as an important way to learn. “Developing empathy” is the fourth step that the author underlines as being uniquely empowering in their journey to “becoming new”.

“New learning”, in the Third Chapter, Prof. Lawrence-Lightfoot upholds is about “crossing borders across landscapes rich with complexity and colour” which are full of “open vistas and blind alleys”. This new learning, she claims, manifests in body, voice and soul. An interviewee shared having learnt to “think with body” not just mind, being able to notice and feel sensations in his body, and making meaning thereof. Some people “discover their voice”, able to assert with confidence and courage. And some others don’t just find new purpose, skills or vocations – they find a new “being at the core”.

Circling back to the start, where she invoked the reader to “face the mirror”, the author concludes by discussing the “cracks in the mirror” – the contrasting opposites of feeling “evolved and complete” yet also “needy and young”. The poetry by Nikki Giovanni that opens this chapter beautifully summarises the process of holding with power and grace these opposites in the “Third Chapter” of life, and realizing that

we also are what we wish we did,
and age teaches us,
that even that doesn’t matter.

As I close

It is hard to critique Third Chapter, at least for me. The subject, the depth of inquiry and understanding, the stories and their wisdom, the synthesis by Prof. Lawrence-Lightfoot, her eloquent writing – everything makes this book a compelling read, particularly for those on the quest for creative learning and purposeful renewal in their life after the age of fifty. I feel that this book would be no less interesting and insightful for anyone younger seeking abundance and growth.

For the academically oriented, the author’s expertise and experience across sociology, education and human development is unmistakably evident. Her unique “portraiture” approach brings out the essence of universal significance from a small sample of forty. Strengthening her argument with the wisdom of established theories and models by experts like Erickson, Bateson and more, the author makes a convincing case for both individual and collective benefits of continued learning and purposeful engagement in the “Third Chapter” of life. The book flows well, with narrative accounts and insightful conclusions, though intermittently it may feel a bit discontinuous, what with stories and synthesis all coming together in one (longish) sentence. Yet this is more than made up for by the author’s easy, eloquent and evocative writing.

It can be argued that the small (forty) and selective (mostly well-educated and privileged) sample leaves the author’s work insufficient for making empirically comprehensive conclusions. That said, I would encourage the reader to make an objective engagement with the subject and the book. There are lessons of universal appeal in the very personal stories and Prof. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s insightful synthesis. The reader’s guide at the end of the book is a useful aid in making a deeper connection with the essence of this unique book about successful ageing.

The author closes the book with poignant poetry by her final interviewee, who found her light in her journey through the darkness. I have no better way to close my write-up than simply quoting the same with appreciation and gratitude –

After a long seeking
I gave up on all mirrors.
Then feeling a way forward in the fog
Without a lamp or even a candle
And absent any guide at all,
One starless night I stumbled
Upon this place of water where
Gleaming in its darkest deeps,
My own two astonished eyes.
Light.

The book is easily available on all online market places.

https://www.gse.harvard.edu/faculty/sara-lawrence-lightfoot and
http://www.saralawrencelightfoot.com/public-life.html

ISBN – 978-0-374-53221-5

GRIT by Angela Duckworth – A BOOK APPRECIATION BY NEENA VERMA

Book Appreciation by Neena Verma

Neena Verma, Ph.D., PCC is a scholar-practitioner of AI-based OD. She is an ICF-PCC credentialed coach, specialising in leadership, systemic and transcendence coaching. An accredited sensitivity trainer and certified AI practitioner, she has developed a number of coaching and OD models. As well as extensive editing experience, including the February 2013 and November 2016 issues of AIP, Neena has authored two books and numerous articles.

If I were to describe in few words the essence of best-selling book Grit by Positive Psychology exponent Angela Duckworth, it would be through the phrase

As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.

In her seminal work, Angela Duckworth presents unique aspects and interpretations of the age-old human phenomenon of “grit”. Her fascinating book on the subject evokes more than just interest and curiosity. It inspires you to show up, for grit in author’s view is “all about showing up”. Duckworth builds a case for effort to be the differentiator without which talent alone cannot necessarily predict success. She argues that often it is effort that makes or mars someone’s pursuit of success and excellence, not ability, as is popularly perceived.

Showing up, backed by purpose, passion, perseverance and practice, is what Angela Duckworth calls “grit”. This book comes from a daughter whose father valued talent, but thought of her as “no genius”, a researcher who, having nearly missed the application deadline, went on to receive the coveted MacArthur Fellowship. Interestingly she received this “genius grant” for research that establishes passion, perseverance and effort as equal, if not better, predictors of success than genius or inborn talent.

At the heart of this book

The heart of this book sings of effort, passion, perseverance, practice, purpose and hope. Through her research across wide spectrum of people and occupations, including cadets, army special forces, sales people, graduate students as well as success patterns, spelling contests and more, Angela Duckworth convincingly builds the case for grit, something that she explains has four components – interest, practice, purpose and hope. She offers an amazing model of success that presents “effort” as the differentiating pivot.

Her model raises hope for those perceived (by themselves, by others or in tests) as less talented by emphasising that skill can be enhanced by applying effort, and higher achievement is possible by combining skill with effort. So effort counts twice. Simple. Not simplistic. It is worth asking why so many of us do not apply the requisite effort. Because, she explains, we tend to get “distracted by talent” – over-prizing ability, often at the expense of effort. Her research has found that some of those who drop out do so despite talent since they don’t give effort its due. In contrast, there are some who rise to the occasion, in a way that has nothing to do with talent or ability. Grit calls for a “never say die” attitude – a conscious decision to persevere and continue making concerted, consistent efforts.

Of the various examples she cites, I am moved by the contrast between Bill and Hillary Clinton. While Bill Clinton is widely applauded for his natural political genius, Hillary has had to work hard to prove herself and gain attention. Yet she may never earn her due.

Angela Duckworth argues that obsessing over talent may tilt the perceptual bias against those who work hard but are less talented. Even worse, there may be many who avoid working hard because they don’t think of themselves as “smart enough”, and hence see “no point toiling”. Thus, the case for grit, effort and perseverance. This raises the question, what is grit? How does it show itself?

Grit

Simply put, it is about developing clarity of purpose and direction, about pursuing the chosen objective with a ferocious determination, hard work and resilience. Duckworth’s construct of grit is a combination of four elements –

Passion Being interested in what we do and loving it to the core.

Perseverance Determined practice – focused, full-hearted, challenge-exceeding, following the mantra of “whatever it takes” and daily discipline of doing it to get better and better.

Purpose Being able to see and pursue the integral connection of one’s work with others’ wellbeing in the larger realm.

Hope Rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance. Some of us are born with an inherent tendency for hope, a “sunny disposition”. Others can consciously practice a hopeful view. Hope happens at all stages of gritty pursuits, not necessarily the last and final stage.

Duckworth highlights the importance of goal-hierarchy – having a top, higher-level goal that sets the direction for mid- and lower-level goals. She argues that “gritty people” are clear about formulating low-level goals, or what can be understood as immediate tasks and activities that align to mid-level goals which are unified by an ultimate top-level goal. It may seem a bit regimented to those whose preference is abstract learning and growth. Duckworth’s point, though, is about purposefulness and usefulness of effort with direction.

Grit grows

Most behavioural traits have nature–nurture influences. Grit is no different. Duckworth says that grit can be nurtured because it is about choice, interest, passionate and purposeful practice, self-conditioning, determined and perseverant effort. She is so committed to this aspect of mindful cultivation and the growth of grit from the inside out that she has devoted an entire section of a chapter each on interest, practice, purpose and hope.

It would be good to understand Duckworth’s construct of purpose. She explains it as “the intention to contribute to the well-being of others.” She uses the widely known parable of bricklayers to explain how gritty people feel a greater sense of purpose. Grit grows from the inside out when people choose interests that serve their larger purpose, put in passionate determined efforts, stay direction-focused and maintain a hopeful view.

Duckworth’s keenness to emphasise that grit can be cultivated and grown is reaffirmed by another section of the book devoted to explaining how grit can be grown from the outside in. Parenting children for gritty behaviour is a great place to start. Duckworth advocates wise parenting whereby parents are perceptive to children’s psychosocial needs and are able to balance the supportive and demanding aspects of parenting. Schools and organisations have an equal chance to create a playing field of grit. It is quite likely that a culture of grit teaches one to be gritty, and the reverse is just as likely, where gritty members of a culture influence new norms in their sphere of inculcating and practising grit.

What stands out for me

Sharing the story of Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, Duckworth cites his favourite Teddy Roosewelt quote:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

This and many other stories, facts, arguments and insights make an evocative appeal for grit in Duckworth’s book. There is research-based articulation of the argument, and there are abundant individual stories. There is even a grit-scoring test to help the reader discover and/or sculpt their “gritty best”. There is Angela Duckworth’s own life story … insightful and inspiring.

From this abundant treasure house, if I were to pick one thing that stands out for me, it is the simple explanation by Will Smith, the Grammy award-winning musician and Oscar-nominated actor, for his extraordinary and acclaimed ascent.

The only thing distinctly different about me is that I am not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked. Never. Period.

Will Smith believes in effort and puts in effort that is manifold his talent. And with this description, Will Smith has gifted me the metaphor of “treadmill” – a metaphor that inspires, coaxes and challenges me to be gritty and grittier. Many thanks Angela Duckworth for sharing this and more.

As I close

Grit has inspired a thoughtful reorganization of work for a lazy (professional work-wise) and non-gritty (easily distracted and low on focus) person like me. This phenomenal book by Angela Duckworth, herself a true embodiment of Grit, is encouraging me to take my life purpose seriously, rearticulate my mid-level goals accordingly and, most importantly, to organise my everyday efforts with consistent focus and time-respectfulness.

Grit richly combines research, narrative and insights. What I am left wondering is – whether case for grit is being made by downplaying talent. There is consistent keenness to establish grit as the differentiating pivot, and not without reason. It makes sense. I wonder, though, if such a one-sided focus discounts the multiplier effect of talent. I would have benefitted more by finding clearer patterns of both grit and talent, standing apart or playing together. Also, most of Duckworth’s work seems to be with the elite and/or privileged. It would have been interesting to know how her findings hold with a more wholistic and representative population.

In some ways, “grit” seems similar to “growth mindset”. Both emphasise the value of perseverance and learning ability. For those who have read about the latter, I would still recommend reading Grit for its unique offer – “effort counts twice”.

I close my appreciative review with excerpts from Duckworth’s beautiful poetic depiction of MacArthur genius awardee Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of what it is like to write …

and wake up the next day …
and refine it
and come the next day …
and refine it a little bit more
and do it again …
and then one more time …
and if you have done that
that is a success

Angela Duckworth’s story starts with being told that she was “no genius”. Her story reaches a crescendo with her pioneering work in redefining “genius” as “grit”. I enjoyed reading this exceptionally riveting book, and hope you will as well. The book is easily available on all online market places, including Amazon.

Angela Duckworth is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change For Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics. She is the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development. A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Angela Duckworth has advised the White House, the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams, and Fortune 500 CEOs.

https://angeladuckworth.com/about-angela/

Collins

ISBN 978-1-5011-1111-2

 

Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness

By Joan McArthur Blair & Jeanie Cockell

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018

ISBN – 978-1-5230-8255-1

Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry is a book truly from the authors’ hearts to that of the reader. There are several poetic invocations running through this book. One such invocation calls the reader for new knowing …

There are times
You are called to new knowing
And you are compelled to answer

And that is what this book is all about – new knowing for leaders to build resilience using Appreciative Inquiry.

The authors begin by presenting their book as a commentary. They have various reasons for doing so – what appeals me the most is their submission that this book represents “our perspective, not the only perspective.”

Most leadership approaches and models focus on the outer world in which leaders must lead with strength. Few touch upon the inner world where leaders must acknowledge their own vulnerability, allow it an honest, compassionate expression and inquire appreciatively into the complex phenomena of hope, despair and forgiveness. That is what makes this book stand apart with meaning and courage. The authors present a model called “Appreciative Resilience” to help leaders explore and develop ways to foster resilience for themselves and the people they lead. Let us have a brief view of the unique leadership model this book presents.

Core proposition

The authors’ unique construct of appreciative resilience aims to help leaders build a personal call to resilience. Their work is rooted in Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a strengths-based approach to deep systemic change and development. The outer circle of their twin-circle Appreciative Resilience model explains its guiding pillars – Appreciative Inquiry (AI); AI principles; AI processes; AI leadership; and “being AI”. While AI is clearly the “catalytic force” of their model, to me the essence of all these pillars is perhaps being AI – the embodiment of AI principles and process in one’s leadership work and resilience practice. The authors’ elaboration of AI principles in the context of appreciative resilience is delightful reading, not just for the uninitiated, but also for the seasoned AI practitioner.

The inner circle of their Appreciative Resilience model is the essential offer of this book. This circle is formed of an interplay of what the authors call the states or elements of appreciative resilience – hope, despair and forgiveness.

Hope – The authors emphasise that hope is a matter of intentional practice. In the context of leadership, the authors aver that a conscious intent and effort to create a space for hope is essential to foster appreciative resilience. While they acknowledge that hope is not always a reflex or easy response, they also explain with snippets how Poetic principle of Appreciative Inquiry helps one to choose focus, re-perceive, reframe and practise a hopeful view. They support their belief that “knowing leadership has a rhythm of growth and loss, holds one to hope” with a touching account of a leader whose leadership is embedded in the “hope of the gardener” metaphor…

…sometimes, despite all the necessary prep … the seeds blow away, the plant withers, the bugs attack or the bloom fades before it flowers … I prepare again … next time the garden will be different and will grow … always be the gardener, revel in the possible, despite stormy weather, scattered seeds, invasive pests

Despair – The authors underline that despair is an essential companion of leadership. As humans, we all know despair well and also understand its dense nature. Authors focus on leadership and organisational despair. They emphasise that systemic forces make it hard for leaders to separate personal and collective despair. They present the appreciative practices of tracking and fanning to help leaders stride meaningfully through collective immobilisation.

Forgiveness – The authors’ approach to forgiveness embodies grit and grace. Their notion of forgiveness is founded in the human phenomena of equanimity, compassion, unconditional regard and human goodness. They describe forgiveness as a “conscious act” that helps one understand that:

The worldview of the other person may have more merit and there is sense in allowing meeting of two perspectives. This calls for heightened awareness of perspective.

Forgiveness is much more complex than most other psychological experiences. It is a profound choice. It calls leaders to have a steely appreciative will to practice forgiveness.

By choosing to forgive, leaders foster future focus, generate possibilities and enable movement for growth.

Perhaps one of the most poignant calls that the authors offer is a “determination to see that others both deserve and don’t deserve forgiveness, and to offer it up anyway”.

Relevance

The authors’ offer of appreciative resilience is not just reflective or philosophical. They share enough to support its active practice. There are stories and prose, reflection prompts, practices, exercises, interview questions, even a workshop design. For scholars, this model is founded in the science of Appreciative Inquiry, and artfully built on the authors’ personal and professional practice of their model. They seem to have researched widely and deeply. While their model remains at the center, the simplicity and lyrical feel of the writing is almost equally captivating. Expressions like “inviting tension as a muse” and the “ability to see the horizon” inspire meaning and stir thought.

What stands out for me

The authors’ courage to bare their hearts and their generosity in sharing make this book special for me. They hold themselves with rare gracefulness and strength while sharing their own struggles and vulnerability. I find the authors’ approach to forgiveness and resilience uniquely inspiring. It is amazing how they have humanised the same in a leadership context.

What resonated deeply with me is the poetry at the start of each chapter, not just because I am a poet myself, but more so because of its invocative appeal. Reading about the authors’ model, named ALIVE (appreciate, love, inquire, venture and evolve), took me back to my first meeting with them. In a corridor conversation after attending their workshop at World AI Conference 2012, I offered ALIVE as an acronym of my experience to Joan McArthur-Blair. I was touched by her openness to understand my view of love, appreciation and evolution, and the grace with which she asked for my consent to use this acronym.

I am sure their work is much more expansive than my in-the-moment reflection and gift of an acronym. Yet I felt both humbled and happy to find it holding a space in their consciousness. Apart from this, there are many other facets of their model and book that feel “like my own” or “about me”, and I believe other readers may also feel the same. This is the beautiful highlight of this book – it enlightens what is deeply personal yet essentially universal with a poignant feeling and thought.

The authors emphasise that the “appreciative resilience model and this book are not linear journeys”. They encourage the reader to make the meaning personal and chart their own journey to resilience through hope, despair and forgiveness.

What else

There are aspects of authors’ model and this book that may come across as more philosophical than practical, more personal than universal. That said, book is full of stories and vignettes that the authors share from their practice, lending their model integrity. The authors’ poetic style of writing may not find favour with the readers who prefer a more prosaic style of writing. But that exactly is the unique value of this book – combining philosophical with practical and poetic with prosaic.

On the surface, this book seems to be about “resilience”. In effect, the authors offer leadership concepts, insights and practices for deep learning and transformation. I would encourage leaders, leadership professionals, teachers and students alike to read with faith and objectivity alike.

I will close with a quote from Nancy Ortberg:

Leadership stands at the crossroads of what we do and who we are, and that is a profound place. It requires that we become stronger in our resilience and forgiveness and determination and love.

(From Nancy Ortberg, Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands: Lessons in Non-Linear Leadership, published by Tyndale in 2008.)

Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness is easily available from all online market places.

Dr Joan McArthur-Blair is an inspirational writer, speaker and facilitator who specialises in the use of AI to foster leadership, strategic planning and innovative strategies for organisational development. She loves writing, speaking and facilitating, and works with groups of all kinds to make a positive difference.

Dr Jeanie Cockell is an educational and organisational consultant. She is a leader in AI, with extensive experience in facilitating, presenting, training, coaching, conflict resolution, leading and collaboratively designing strategies for individuals, groups, organisations and communities to build positive futures.

Together

The authors are co-presidents of Cockell McArthur-Blair Consulting. Grounded in a life time of leading, they have co-authored Appreciative Inquiry in Higher Education: A Transformative Force, and Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness.

Discover more about them and the book at https://cockellmcarthur-blair.com

Book Appreciation by Neena Verma

Neena Verma, Ph.D., PCC is a scholar-practitioner of AI-based OD. She is an ICF-PCC credentialed coach, specialising in leadership, systemic and transcendence coaching. An accredited sensitivity trainer and certified AI practitioner, she has developed a number of coaching and OD models. As well as extensive editing experience, including the February 2013 and November 2016 issues of AIP, Neena has authored two books and numerous articles.

 

Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive

Book Appreciation by Neena Verma

Neena Verma, Ph.D., PCC is a scholar-practitioner of AI-based OD. She is an ICF-PCC credentialed coach, specialising in leadership, systemic and transcendence coaching. An accredited sensitivity trainer and certified AI practitioner, she has developed a number of coaching and OD models. As well as extensive editing experience, including the February 2013 and November 2016 issues of AIP, Neena has authored two books and numerous articles.

Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive

By Barbara Fredrickson

Oneworld Publications, 2010

ISBN – 978-1-85168-790-9

Positivity is such an everyday word, thrown in casually as a state-descriptor, advice, a judgement, a sermon, even a lament if it is perceived to be missing or inadequate. We all seem to be experts on positivity. Yet if we were to try to support our understanding of positivity with an intellectual argument, we might have little to say beyond a subjective understanding which may or may not hold meaning for others.

The seminal work of Barbara Fredrickson presents a unique view of “positivity”. We may all be familiar in our personal or relational experience of what she calls “inner well-spring of positivity” and “negativity landmines”. However, what we may not be so clear about is the intricate nature of the phenomenon called “positivity” and the impact it creates when we “broaden and build” our outlook. The author presents an interesting concept called open heart study (not surgery!) which, according to her, not only creates a self-renewing experience of positive emotions but also an upward spiral of growth. Let us discover more about her book.

The hallmark themes

The first key theme running throughout the proposition of Fredrickson’s work, is two core truths about positivity. The first core truth is that “positive emotions open our heart and make us more receptive and creative”. What is new or ground-breaking about this? It is Fredrickson’s experiments-based explanation of the difference that positive experience, negative experience and neutral experience states make on the outcome of the task we undertake. Though these conditioned states were tested as design experiments, they established outcomes consistently found to be true, even as lived experiences. This core truth explains the essence of the “broaden effect”, the first distinctive proposition made by the author.

The second core truth presented by author asserts that “positivity transforms us for the better”, unleashing opportunity to grow and expand our psychological, mental, social and physical resources. Again, this core truth may seem like what is already obvious and widely known. Indeed, it is. With the second core truth that Fredrickson describes as “build effect”, she helps clarify our instinctive, inherited knowledge by sharing results of her open-heart study experiments.

What stands out for me is the story that author chose to describe to build the case for open-heart effect. This riveting transformation story says more than her research on more than over hundred stories of personal change, collected with real-time data and researched with scientific rigour.

Nina’s story

Nina’s transformation speaks to my heart, not because the protagonist is my namesake (albeit with different spelling), but because it feels so “my-own”. I like to think that in different parts and aspects, this story would feel so my-own to many readers. Nina’s transformation is an inspiring account of purposeful, mindful, self-responsible positivity practice creating a life-affirming upward spiral of personal growth. Starting with a low positivity ratio of 1:1, punctuated by overwhelming stress, the feeling of being “in a rut” with psychosomatic symptoms (terrible headaches, stomach pains and failed attempts to conceive) she grew to feel acceptant, forgiving, kind, self-loving and naturally appreciative of seemingly small but subtle life-giving experiences and the wonders of nature. Over time Nina’s positivity ratio grew to an impressively high 6:1. In her words, her positivity journey resulted in “finding myself again”. The heartening highlight of her story is that in course of time she gave birth to twins.

So how did this magic happen? She attributes it to a combination of meditation and conscious positivity practice which, over time, became reflexive habits. This is how open heart study unravels the not-so-obvious truth about positivity – that it takes conscious, heart-felt practice to make positivity a real, lived experience, much more than nicely worded positivity commonplaces.

The portfolio of positive emotions

Another theme of the book is Fredrickson’s description of ten forms of positive emotions. Reading about them in isolation may not make much of mark, until you read about the portfolio of these positive emotions that one can self-build. Such a personally designed positive emotion portfolio helps because different emotions may need different methods to grow.

Perhaps the most practically useful theme of the book is the positivity ratio. Fredrickson expands her positivity framework by incorporating the mathematical model of her broaden-and-build theory, developed by Marcial Losado, the scholarly practitioner of positivity. Together they establish a positivity-ratio tipping-point of 3:1. She backs it with her positivity-ratio self-test.

At first glance this test may seem simplistic and temptingly deceptive. But a deeper view helps one notice the clever clustering of three emotions together to describe each of the twenty self-mapping invites: I prefer to call them invites rather than commonly used “item/statement”, because each of these statements took me to one or another lived life instance. This provided opportunity for me to revisit, without ruminating, parts of my history with reflective, self-inspiring invites to learn, change and grow.

The reader may well be right to think that lot of what is written about positivity, strategies and the tools to increase it is common knowledge. However, this book makes a difference by substantiating and building what we already seem to know, with the science behind positivity and by explaining the principles behind the practice tools. Importantly, the ground-breaking research about positivity is presented in a way that speaks convincingly both to the rational, scientific minded as well as the intuitive, in-the-flow reader.

Hard and soft ‘positivity’

Barbara Fredrickson establishes her credibility as a scientist of psychology. Her focus on quantitative evidence and command of inferring meaning from the same is impressive. There are data and more data, at times disrupting the flow of reading. There are parts where the author seems overly concerned with explaining what seems clear and understandable, such as explaining why she approximated a mathematical derivative of the tipping point for the positivity ratio from 2.9013:1 to 3:1. She is, by her own admission, “a measurement junkie”. But that is exactly the distinctive appeal of her work.

Some phrases and titles, like “positivity feels good”, “decrease negativity”, “increase positivity” may seem so trite that the reader feels like putting the book down. Even if such common-place references, data and scientific focus feels a bit too much, I would encourage the reader to stay tuned for the anecdotal elaborations of the subject. Barbara Fredrickson deftly and evocatively combines the scientific argument with the human element of positivity.

In particular, her own stories about her meditation experience, about the 9/11 tragedy in the United States, and about how her husband’s surgery and life-threatening condition put her in a state where living her own concepts helped her broaden and build her resources, grow more resilient, and “for the first time learn to truly receive”. Each story gives a heartening glimpse of the human behind the scientist; that is the paradoxical beauty of the book. Her other admission also inspires – “I’d long known the benefits of positive emotions in a scholarly way; I felt those benefits now more intensely and poignantly that ever before.”

Though the title and focus of the book is positivity, Fredrickson’s work is realistic in its acknowledgement of negativity. To her credit, she offers a fair view of appropriate negativity, arguing that human flourishing would be limited if negativity were denied its natural existence as an essential part of human life. She explains this with the wonderful analogy of levity (the force that lifts one skyward) and gravity (the opposite force that pulls one earthward). She argues that human flourishing needs an optimal combination of both these forces. Her simple, yet strong, explanation is that while appropriate negativity keeps one grounded in reality, heartfelt positivity provides the lift needed for buoyant, flourishing life. Even as the author has heavily dosed her work with data and scientific evidence, to her credit she keeps affirming the inherent human truth that positivity is positive only when heartfelt and authentic.

Fredrickson offers several positivity-practice tools, some of which may seem simplistic and familiar. That said, even though they may feel familiar, many of us do not actively and consistently practice positivity. This is where this book’s positivity toolkit may serve as a reminder for us to consciously practice positivity.

I have read this book before. Re-reading it and writing a review reinforced essential aspects of the phenomenon of positivity, as it also opened new vistas. A reader like me might wish for less data and analysis and more anecdotal flow of the book. However, this is exactly the creative challenge and invitation for us – to open ourselves to a unique, fresh scientific understanding of the phenomenon of positivity, supported by personal stories in fair measure. And, of course, for left-brained, rational-preferring readers, this book is a treat.

The book is easily available on all online market places.

Barbara Fredrickson is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (a.k.a. PEP Lab) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Winner of several awards for her research and teaching, her research establishes with scientific evidence how positive emotions, fleeting as they are, can tip the scales toward a life of flourishing. She created her broaden-and-build theory to describe how positive emotions shape people’s health and well-being.

Discover more about her, the ‘Positivity’ book, the ‘Positivity Ratio’ self-test and her other tools at – https://www.positivityratio.com/

Conversations Worth Having: A Book Appreciation by Neena Verma, PhD

Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement by Jacqueline Stavros and Cheri Torres

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018 ISBN 978-1-5230-9401-1

…conversations that allow for creation of new images and metaphors … trigger insight … change how people think … direction spirals upward and possibilities are generated , are the conversations worth having…

With their book Conversations Worth Having, Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres present a unique perspective to conversations at all levels of human engagement – individual, relationship, groups and organizations.

Conversations are at the core of human meaning-making and the social construction process. We may know each other as acquaintances, associates or in relationships. But it is through our conversations that we develop a “knowing” about each other, sometimes even about ourselves.

The authors propose that most elevating experiences happen around conversations that are appreciative in tone and inquiry-based in approach. Here, the meaning of appreciative goes beyond mere praise or compliments, and implies hope, curiosity, inspiration, genuine interest, co-creativity, possibility and more.

Conversations Worth Having and their two dimensions

The authors present a four-window view of the nature of conversation, described in two dimensions (Table 2.1, Page 29) –

The nature of the conversations

Inquiry-based

Statement-based

Appreciative

Conversations worth having

Affirmative conversations

Depreciative

Critical conversations

Destructive conversations

No prize for guessing which of these conversations are worth having! As the authors insist, conversations with an appreciative stance and inquiry-based approach “add value, strengthen connections, expand awareness, create an upward spiral of confidence, stimulate meaningful engagement and inspire positive action.” To their credit, the authors acknowledge the contextual usefulness of affirmative and critical conversations as well. Their focus, though, remains on “conversations worth having” which are facilitated by two appreciative practices.

Practice 1 – Positive framing

Capturing the spirit of AI principles, the authors suggest that “our framing and questions are fateful”. Of the many inspiring concepts that the book talks about, I find that the simple, elegant and highly effective conversational practice of Positive Framing resonates particularly with me, as practiced through a simple three step technique called Flipping, whereby a problem statement is –

Named » Flipped (as its positive opposite) » Framed (reframed proposition)

The authors have reinforced my belief that a problem when flipped (reframed in a way that shifts the view and moves the situation/person/process towards generative outcomes) transforms itself into a possibility hitherto unnoticed or unattended. I first learnt the art of reframing a problem into a possibility (articulating the positive opposite and reframing the proposition) from Dr Mac Odell, an acclaimed AI and positive change leader. I have practised this widely in both work and life contexts, building and broadening with my humble creation – an AI-inspired tool called “Fruit-Cause Synthesis”. But there will be another time and space to talk about that. Let us move on to the authors’ second appreciative practice.

Practice 2 – Generative questions

The authors begin by quoting generativity pioneer Gervase Bushe, describing the phenomenon as, “the creation of new images, metaphors, representations, that change how people think, stimulate compelling images that people act on”. Broadening the concept, authors present conversational practice of generative questions – questions that shift the tone and direction of a conversation, allowing different and diverse perspectives, bringing out unexplored wisdom, and stimulating creativity and innovation. These questions keep the focus on solutions and possibilities by inquiring about and into positive deviance, exceptional successes, unnoticed opportunities and unexplored potential. You may want to read real-time examples of generative questions (Table 3.2, Page 61, Chapter 3) and the impact they create. If for some reason you can’t read the whole book but want to experiment with its core offering, begin with these conversational practices, in Chapter 3.

That said, I would like to believe that once you pick it up, you will be immersed in the book, if for no other reason, then surely for the heart-warming and wisdom-inspiring real-time stories that the authors share from their rich professional practice and personal experience. Each story offers a unique way to transform potentially unproductive, even damaging conversations into those worth having, thereby opening space for collaborative exploration, creative dialogue and possibilities for innovation. Each of these stories leaves one wiser.

They say sometimes the endings are openings for new vistas, and the story about Ally Stavros (daughter of author Jackie Stavros) in the last chapter is that hallmark story. This story brings out the unique any time, any place, any situation meaningfulness aspect of conversations, that is the topic of this chapter. This story touched my heart most warmly and resonated with my own life story – bearing loss and transcending grief as a bereaved parent. What is helping me stay in faith and continue to have reverence for life is the deep appreciation mindset, including towards my loss, without denying my pain. As Ally wisely puts, “desperate times … should never have to go through again, but if so … I know where and how to start the conversation”. In that sense, this book makes a distinctive appeal in helping one learn the value and art of having a generative conversation with oneself.

Lo and behold, there is more in this seemingly small book – the art of whole-system conversations that tap into collective wisdom and unleash systemic potential. Organizational development and change practitioners would sure love this. Do read the Fairmount story (Page 86, Chapter 5) of using AI to leverage the power of whole-system conversations.

All this is not unrealistically positivity-biased. The authors back their long and rich practice-based knowledge with the conceptual soundness of Appreciative Inquiry principles, and grounded research from new science, positive-image/positive-action, and positive psychology areas. They cite findings from neurological research about the brain chemistry caused by strong beliefs and imagery, and the brain processing of imagery. And they draw insight from the positive psychology research about positive emotions.

I loved reading and writing an appreciation-review for this book. I resonate most with the two practices of positive framing and generative questions. As practitioner of generative conversations, I know firsthand the value they create. The book flows with ease, appeal and impact. I highly recommend this book to leaders, coaches, OD and change practitioners, and just about anyone who is keen to kindle and enhance generativity in life and work.

So, what more to expect from the authors? I would love more about the how – the process of designing conversations worth having. They have talked lucidly about the “what” and the “why” of conversations worth having. They have also explained the “how” of it, albeit mostly with help of stories and examples. I hope authors offer a more nuanced explanation of the process of designing conversations worth having. This could be immensely helpful for uninitiated-yet-keen learners, and of course also for those more experienced. Maybe in an expanded edition?

The book is easily available on all online market places, including Amazon.

Jackie Stavros 

Jackie Stavros is a professor at College of Management, Lawrence Technological University; Appreciative Inquiry strategic advisor at Flourishing Leadership Institute; and an associate at Taos Institute. She works across all sectors and in a variety of industries in leadership development, strategic planning, organization development, and change using Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and SOAR. She has presented her research and work and trained others in AI and SOAR in over 25 countries.

Cheri Torres

Cheri Torres is a senior consultant at NextMove.is, partner at Innovation Partners International, and an associate at the Taos Institute. She works with organizations in every sector to support effective leadership, team excellence, and culture change. She has trained thousands of trainers and teachers in the use and practice of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Facilitation.

Discover more about both the authors and the book at
https://www.conversationsworthhaving.today/meet-the-authors/

Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett

There is a certain quality which can only be obtained by improvisation … being on the brink of the unknown … and when you go out there you have all your preparation, sensibilities and prepared means … but it is a leap into the unknown.

Frank Barrett, in his seminal work, “Yes to the Mess” offers fresh and unique leadership lessons with “jazz” as the evocative metaphor for improvisation. Barrett’s riveting book makes a convincing case for “jazz improvisation” as the transformational way of leadership in dynamic, volatile environments, where chaos, complexity and ambiguity punctuate all contexts of organizational life.

First the title

The title of the book is at once both intriguing and inviting. So what does the author mean by “Mess”, and “Yes”!

Frank Barrett is talking of the subtle, almost invisible, as also the glaring erupting changes in organizational life, as what he calls “mess”: changes for which there are no, or at best hazy cues, meaning that need you to experiment with possible solutions for which there is no clear way to know outcome or guess implications. There is incomplete, even missing information, and yet decisions are to be taken, actions to be initiated.   

It is in such conditions and environments that the author proposes that managers invoke and apply “affirmative competence”, an “implicit YES”, that enables them to move forward when faced with “messes not of their making”. This affirmative YES, the author proposes, opens the “state of radical receptivity” – a state where human beings and systems are able to sense and interpret the subtle and strong cues, and “respond meaningfully in the moment” with known and emergent skills. He calls this phenomenon of saying “Yes to the Mess” the improvisation mindset – which equips managers to be mindful, adaptive and creative, and able to “discover the future as it unfolds”, as well as to “discover themselves”.

This book

Through rich and mesmerizing stories of jazz and jazz musicians, business cases, and personal anecdotes, Frank Barrett helps the reader learn, without teaching.

“Yes to the Mess” teaches how to transform complexity into creativity, and do what the best leaders and teams do – improvise. This book is a treasure house of gripping lessons and fascinating insights.

It is difficult to capture in a short review the rich repertoire of compelling vocabulary, and the seven principles that the author offers to understand and practise strategic improvisation. I share below few phrases that have stirred me the most, followed by a brief account of the seven principles.

Collaborative witnesses and catalysts … those supposedly on opposite/different sides, can together bring “new, unanticipated elements into conversation” and groove towards “mutual experience and knowledge”.

Emergent system … is smarter than the individual members.

Bricolage … The art of using whatever is at hand. Organizational life is punctuated with vague happenings, to be dealt with using limited resources. So what works is employees’ emergent ingenuity, resilience and pragmatism.

Groove …  The dynamic interplay, the mutual tuning-in, the empathic competence. When people find a groove with one another, they perform beyond their individual capacities.

Generous listening … Listening with the selfless suspension of ego. The author talks of Miles Davis’s open, appreciative and generous ear that hears strengths even when weaknesses are shining through.

Comping … Willingness to be a thinking partner, being aware of where the other person is headed.

Seven Principles

Art of unlearning … The author invokes leaders to challenge themselves beyond the known, to deliberately disrupt routines, explore and stretch learning into new and different areas.

Affirmative competence … An affirmative belief that a solution exists, this principle is about being open to the unfolding situation, being able to interpret what is still vague and hazy, being able to stay “radically receptive” and respond meaningfully in the moment.

Performing and experimenting simultaneously … “If you are not making a mistake, it is a mistake”, the author quotes from Miles Davis, the great jazz composer who, it seems, is author’s ideal model for the “jazz improvisation” metaphor. Barrett talks of “enlightened trial and error” which helps people feel safe to make mistakes, fail, leverage the unexpected results for iterative improvisation, and take advantage of errors and gain emergent insights.

Minimal structure, maximal autonomy … This principle invites leaders to design an organization that has both sufficient structure and autonomous “choice-points”, so as to foster a culture of innovation.

Jam and hang-out – learn by doing and talking … The author talks about “opportunistic conversations” that happen when people are offered space and an opportunity to jam.

Followership as a noble calling … Citing the phenomenon of comping (accompanying), the author argues that organizations should foster the art of followership – supporting others to think and be their best, following and accompanying them in their journey for excellence.

Provocative competence … is the ultimate extent of appreciation where one is able to “see” others’ potential even when there is no obvious glimpse of it. The author talks of the gift of “learning vulnerability” which empowers one to traverse through the unfamiliar territory.

What resonates with me: ‘Take a knee’

There are several phrases and concepts that I would love to talk about if a book review offered space for that. I share instead one story from the book that made deep impact on me. Interestingly this is a non-jazz story in the rich medley of stories about author’s central metaphor of jazz.

“Everybody smile … Don’t point your weapons … Take a knee”, is what Lt Col Chris Hughes ordered his troops when an increasingly hostile crowd surrounded them, influenced by a rumour that Hughes’ battalion was charging on the mosque to arrest the high cleric, whereas the battalion’s mission was cooperation and protection for the high cleric. Later when he was interviewed to share where did he learn his strategy? “Nowhere, I was making it up on the spot,” Hughes said.

This story for me captures the essence of the “jazz improvisation” metaphor and the “Yes to the Mess” offer by Frank Barrett.

In the long list of concepts and principles, I am particularly keen to learn deeper and practise “generous listening” and “comping”. The introvert, reclusive me is looking forward to jam and hang-out and do-talk-learn-create together.    

So is this all jazzing?

Well, broadly, “Yes” – a large part of Barrett’s seminal work “jazzes” with me. There are aspects that may come across as not-so-pragmatic. My guess, though, is that such exceptions would be subjective in nature. Most concepts and principles in this book derive their essence from the jazz metaphor. Barrett’s model of “improvising organizational life” is essentially emergent, like its central metaphor of “jazz music”. Those who see an invittation in the uncertain, ambiguous and complex may love and benefit immensely from this book. Those who feel safe and comfortable with known and proven methods may find Barrett’s propositions impractical, perhaps even daring.

“Yes to the Mess” is at once philosophical as well as pragmatic. The book has an evocative, poetic feel. It was a breezy read for me, an otherwise slow reader. I would encourage students, teachers and all practitioners of organizational change to read, reflect and allow this book to “jazz” their thoughts about leadership and organizational change. On the surface, this book seems to be all about “jazz improvisation”. In effect, it is about leadership insights and practices for improvisation and innovation processes.

I close my review with the quote with which Barrett starts his preface.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
Theodore Roethke

The book is easily available on all online market places, including Amazon.

Frank Barrett

It would be tempting to present Frank Barrett in conventional ways, highlighting his professional richness. I would rather quote his self-description … “I am a jazz pianist. I am also a management professor, and it is safe to say I have learned as much about leadership and organizational behavior from my riffing at the piano as I have from my academic experience”.

Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4221-6110-4

Discover more about Professor Frank Barrett at www.nps.edu/web/gsbpp/faculty

Book review by Neena Verma

Neena Verma, Ph.D., PCC is a scholar-practitioner of AI-based OD. She is an ICF-PCC credentialed coach, specialising in leadership, systemic and transcendence coaching. An accredited sensitivity trainer and certified AI practitioner, she has developed a number of coaching and OD models. As well as extensive editing experience, including the February 2013 and November 2016 issues of AIP, Neena has authored two books and numerous articles.

How To Be A Positive Leader & Practicing Positive Leadership – books reviewed by Sarah Lewis

How To Be A Positive Leader (2014, Dutton and Spreitzer editors, Berrett-Koehler); and Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results (2013, Cameron, Berrett-Koehler)

Why these books?

Both these books claim to offer practical ways to develop positive leadership. I felt they might have something to offer an appreciative practitioner.

In both books a considerable number of AI ideas and useful appreciative practices are to be found, although not labelled as such.

Brief account of the books

Practicing Positive Leadership follows on from Cameron’s excellent book Positive Leadership. A key figure in the field of positive organisational scholarship, he promises to spell out the practices that make a positive leader. Dutton and Spreitzer, also well known in the positive psychology field, present an edited text, pulling together practical advice from other experts in particular aspects of positive psychology. Both books are aimed at the managerial market. They are written in plain English with footnotes rather than in-text references. In the main the footnotes are adequate although not exhaustive and there are some untraceable assertions in the texts. In both books a considerable number of Appreciative Inquiry ideas and useful appreciative practices are to be found, although not labelled as such.

How To Be a Positive Leader

In this “how-to” book each of the contributors follows a format of introducing the concept, articulating the benefits of this practice, directing individuals and organisations in how they can increase their practice while finishing with a case-study that shows the concept in action. It works well as a formula, presenting an easy-to-follow read.

They have pulled together some of the best known names in positive psychology and asked them to talk on their specialist area, for instance Dutton herself on “Building High Quality Relationships”, Wrzesniewski on “Engaging in Job Crafting”, Cameron on “Activating Virtuousness”, and Quinn on “Imbuing the Organization with a Higher Purpose”. Although labelled differently, some of the ideas turned out to be familiar, for instance the “Outsource Inspiration” chapter by Grant.

Outsourced inspiration refers to the motivational effect of having contact with end users. For instance, at a university call centre devoted to contacting alumni for funds to support current deserving students, just a five minute face-to-face contact with a student who explained the difference a grant had made to their education and prospects resulted in an increase of 142 percent in weekly minutes on the phone and 171 percent in weekly revenue, compared to two control groups. To my mind this is great supporting evidence for the efficacy of the whole system principle of AI.

Another example of where positive psychology produces research that backs up existing appreciative practice is the chapter on “Cultivating Positive Identities”, which presents the GIVE model developed by Roberts, Dutton and others. This model suggests that one of the strategies to develop a positive identity is to “envision best possible selves and best possible futures” (p. 61). The chapter concludes with a very powerful case-study of the power of talk (in this case to affirm positive identity) as a secretary averts a school shooting disaster by talking the gunman into a peaceful surrender by affirming that he was a good human in trouble rather than a useless person (as he felt). Again this acts to confirm the AI emphasis on the power of talk.

Practicing Positive Leadership

This book presents five strategies for exercising positive leadership: creating a culture of abundance; developing positive energy networks; delivering negative feedback positively; establishing and achieving Everest goals; and applying positive leadership in organisations. From the very beginning, where he talks about framing activity to focus on the positive (so not so much “eliminating waste and inefficiency” as “building sustainable improvement”, p. 1), it is clear this approach resonates with AI. This impression is reinforced when he comments that “positive leadership is heliotropic”, with “kindness and gratitude” acting as the sunlight towards which positive leadership grows. Throughout this text there is mention of the importance of language (p. 28), the importance of stories (p. 44), and strengths (p. 58).

The book generally offers useful ideas and practices. The chapter on giving negative feedback positively is particularly helpful on a micro- or tactical level, while the chapter on applying positive leadership is based on his and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework at the macro- or strategic level. This chapter offers a relatively sophisticated overview of leadership, and brings in other models such as Kano’s (p. 133) to support the argument. The final chapter offers a useful summary of the whole book.

In summary

These books offer easy-to-read guidance on practical steps towards positive leadership. They also contain useful research findings, including statistics. They are both well-organised and presented. For those new to the area, and the research, they would both make a very good, light-read introduction. For those looking for data to build their case for appreciative practice, there is a lot here.

My take on the books

These books are written from a managerial perspective based unquestioningly on an underlying business-case philosophy of increased productivity. To anyone who has made a study of positive psychology, much of the material will be familiar; yet there are still nuggets of information in the statistics quoted, for instance. The practices recommended are sound and helpful for leaders, consultant and coaches.

Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis, C. Psychol., is an experienced strengths-based organisational consultant. She has particular expertise in Appreciative Inquiry and other co-creative change processes. Her latest book, Positive Psychology and Change, is available now.

 

Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies PROFIT from Passion and Purpose – reviewed by Sarah Lewis

I went to the World Appreciative Inquiry Congress in Orlando, USA last year where this book was positively recommended by various luminaries such as David Cooperrider. After I heard about it for the third time, I thought I would investigate.

Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies PROFIT from Passion and Purpose, by Raj Sisodia, David Wolfe, Jag Sheth

Brief account of the book

The book is based on two rounds of research undertaken by the authors in collaboration with their MBA students. They identified the organisations initially by asking the question “Tell us about some companies you love. Not just like but love.”

They evaluated the suggested organisations against some criteria and produced an initial batch of 18 companies that qualified, expanded to 62 in the current edition. The headline criteria are that, to qualify as a firm of endearment, the company or organisation must be passionate about doing good while doing well, and must be equally committed to doing well by all its shareholders, e.g. partners, investors, customers, society and employees. In addition there must be evidence that they live these values.

The headline news is that when they then compared the performance of these Firms of Endearment against the Good to Great companies and the Standard and Poor Top 500, they outperformed them against the market by four to six times. In other words, while Good to Great and Top 500 companies outperformed the market, the Firms of Endearment, particularly the American ones, outperformed the market even more, in a 6 to 1 ratio (p. 20). So of course the question is: chicken or egg? Interestingly, much later in the book, a model is presented that suggests that initially a company has to “establish a strong market position and a predictable stream of profits” before it can advance up a hierarchy equivalent to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At stage two of this Kyosei hierarchy “managers and workers cooperate”; at stage three the organisation “extends cooperation to customers, suppliers, communities and even competitors”; and finally, at stages four and five, gets to address global imbalances and help governments solve global problems (p.157).

In attempting to explain the rise of the Firm of Endearment as a successful business model, they suggest it is part of a wider 21st century zeitgeist, prompted in part by an ageing population experiencing the psychological process of “generativity”: “the disposition of older people to help incoming generations prepare for their time of stewardship of the common good” (p xiii-xiv). Many of these ageing baby boomers are also, of course, in senior and influential positions in business life. They also believe that the world is experiencing a strong search for meaning, which is driving people to look beyond the relationship of an organisation to their purse, to a relationship that speaks to their hearts, their passions and their values. This is described as “A transition from material want to meaning want.” (p. xxvii). The authors describe this as the emergence of the “Age of Transcendence”, suggesting that in this new age, organisations will need to connect with six specific senses – design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning – to engage and influence their stakeholders. All of which are asserted to have deep roots in the brain’s right hemisphere and all of which of course resonate with AI. There is a suggestion that we are moving from a “having” society to a “being” society. One can’t help noticing this resonates rather with our straitened and benighted times where there is less “having” to be had.

The book draws on its more than 60 exemplar organisations to illuminate the various features of a Firm of Endearment and how they are expressed differently with the various stakeholders. For example, it recounts how Costco implements practices that reduce staff turnover, increase per-person productivity and support good efficiencies that create a virtuous circle that allows the organisation to both pay better wages and generate more income per person than rivals in the same industry (p.35). Wegman is quoted to illustrate that high quality, highly motivated staff can result in a doubling of margin per square foot against the industry average, a gain which more than offsets their proportionally greater wage bill (p. 61).

In summary

There is no doubt the authors have identified an interesting group of organisations. A key question is whether, as argued, they are harbingers of a new age, or whether they are outlier organisations of a type that have always existed. The book itself starts well, but for this reader became progressively less interesting.

My take on this book

I can see why David and others got excited about this book. It is centred on answering a great AI question “How are we going to make this company an instrument of service to society even as we fulfil our obligation to build shareholder wealth?” (p. 3) and gives good, quantified answers to that question. The evidence that organisations can be good and do well is very convincing and valuable. The authors have clearly contributed immensely to the business case for Appreciative Inquiry.

The text is clearly located in idea that “Business is by far the greatest value creator in the world” (p. xv) and argues that we need to “Understand the power of capitalism to transform our world for the better” (xvi). This belief underpins the “Business as an Agent of World Benefit” AI project.

However, the book proceeds as if a concern for the common welfare is a new phenomena, with no reference to the Quaker-run businesses, for instance, of the 19th and 20th centuries. I could also take issue with the unintended sexism of calling older women ‘postmenopausal’ while older men are referred to, somewhat more graciously, as ‘grandfathers’ (p. xxviii). Similarly the first time the female personal pronoun pops up, is in relation to a hypothetical customer (p. 7); none of the experts or CEOs quoted to this point (or at all, according to memory but not rigorously checked) are female.

This book offers support to the Appreciative Inquiry project. It will also give you case study stories for your presentations. In addition there are some great statistics in here, but you have to dig through a lot to find them. I confess I didn’t finish the book.

Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy

This book claims to offer an alternative way of organising that breaks away from the command-and-control model or as the author of the book calls it, “the predict and control” model. This seemed sufficiently in line with our aspirations as Appreciative Inquiry (AI) practitioners to warrant further investigation.

Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy, Brian Robertson Portfolio Penguin, June 2015

Brief account of the book

The book has noble, honourable and inspiring intentions: it offers holacracy as a “new operating system” for organisations that will create a “peer-topeer distributed authority system”. This operating system creates empowered people who are clear about the boundaries of their authority, about what they can expect from others, and are able to be highly effective in their roles. In this model the organising process itself becomes the ultimate power, more than any individual, and every individual can have a voice in designing and altering the process. It is a flat system of roles and links that delivers high autonomy. It is predicated on a system of roles (essentially disembodied job descriptions), decision-making circles (meetings by another name) and a process of links. It bravely attempts both to relieve leaders of the pressure of the demand of omnipotence, and to make it possible for weak signals of dysfunction, lack of alignment, gaps in accountability, missed opportunities etc. to be attended to promptly and effectively by empowered individuals. It offers a clear process for distinguishing working in the business from working on the business. It presents a view of strategy as “dynamic steering” by simple rules or principles towards a general purpose. In this way it attempts to simulate evolutionary development processes and indeed sees itself as an evolutionary model.

Reading this book was an interesting experience. The book is a “how-to” book and it sets out the process model in great detail, describing the purpose of key facilitator roles and the process of key tactical and governance meetings (“circles” in the terminology of the model). It is not hard to tell that the author and originator of this model has a software development background. My initial impression reading it was reminiscent of getting to grips with the complex board games of allies and axis that my sons and husband loved to play some years ago: a complex set of rules about the properties and powers of various pieces and cards subject to the rules of the dice. In the early stages as much time was spent consulting the rule-book as playing the game.

If this, then that

As I read on I realised there was a strong binary flavour underpinning much of the process, an “if this, then that” logic driven by an implicit flow chart of binary decision-making. The author’s argument is that these tight constraints work to create an empowered freedom within them. However, it is noticeable that much of the instruction reads “no discussion allowed” as the process is strictly followed. In essence he is trying to programme out the negative aspects of the human element in this organising process and to create an organisational process that functions effectively despite the emotionally and relationally wayward behaviour of people. This takes a lot of discipline on the part of all the players; which is to say it takes organisational energy.

The author is honest enough to point out that this new process does not always “take” in organisations despite various people’s interest, energy and support. He identifies that the key challenge, which is also at the heart of the model’s power, is the need for those with current power in the system to give it up. The author is of the opinion that after an initial period of painful discipline, the benefits will become clearer to all and the process will become more self-maintaining. It is clear that not all organisations make it over the hump. Similarly, while initially he took a whole-system “all or nothing” approach to implementation, he has since softened his views and in this book he offers a chapter on “holacracy-lite” possibilities that offers guidance on how to implement parts of the process.

In summary

The book is well written, offering a clear and detailed explanation of theholacracy organising process with a worked case study and anecdotes from experience used to illuminate how the various meetings and roles work. My take on the model presented This model is likely to appeal to those who have great faith in rationality and like highly structured, detailed and disciplined processes. In this sense it reads as very bureaucratic. It put me in mind of Lean, another process that, in theory, makes perfect sense; however in practice often takes a lot of energy to maintain. Both demand great human discipline. Robertson is clear that the role of facilitator “requires that you override your instinct to be polite or ‘nice’ and that you cut people off if they speak out of turn”, amongst other skills and abilities. In this way it is trying to programme out the emotional, irrational human decision-making influences such as ego, fear and group think, to create a less contaminated system of governance.

In many ways this model seems aligned with Appreciative Inquiry and co-creative ways of thinking. For example, it is more wedded to biological than mechanical metaphors, it prioritises adaptability over predictability, and it is focused on releasing collective intelligence within a leader-ful organisation. However, it seems to work against human nature, or human psychology, rather than with it. It is this constant fight against core features of human systems that, in my opinion, is at the heart of the gap between the promise of these kinds of models and the frequent experience of the lived reality.

However, I do think it offers a real, well-thought-out, and to some extent tried and tested alternative to our current creaking-under-the-strain-in-the-modern-era command-and-control organisational model. It will be interesting to see to what extent it is adapted across the organisational domain and I would love to hear from anyone who has either direct experience of working in an organisation based on this model, or who has attended training on it.

Sarah Lewis

 

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