Chapter OneAppreciative Leadership Now
The world has changed. Approaches to leadership that served well in the past do not address the challenges of the twenty-first century. Appreciative Leadership does.
We have crossed a threshold to a new era: one that demands a radical shift in leadership strategies and practices. Few places on the planet are untouched by the "progress of the industrial age" and the "dawning of the electronic age." Cities and local markets from New York to Chang Mai to Santiago to Lahore all feature cars, computers, and cell phones. Our planet is wrapped in a web of airplane routes, satellite orbits, and telecommunication signals.
New Approaches to Leadership for the New Global Society
This transformation from an industrial age to an electronic age brings us face to face with the reality of our interdependence. As inhabitants of the earth, we are connected—from the air we breathe, to the water we drink, to the energy that powers our lifestyles, to the pain, hunger, and sorrow in the eyes of children around the world. With the help of technology, we have discovered, as if for the first time, something that has always been and will always be: we are all related.
Acknowledgment of this interdependence leads us to profoundly shift what we wish for and expect from leadership. Success in the future will go to those who help us come into harmony, among ourselves and with the planet—to those who help us to thrive as one global community. President of the World Business Academy Rinaldo Brutoco affirmed this when he stated, "Now more than ever, the world business community must face the inescapable conclusion, at the core of the Academy's very existence: business must be willing to become responsible for the whole of global society."
To meet this challenge, leadership now—in the twenty-first century—must be aware of and respond to four trends currently defining the social milieu of organizations and communities:
1. New generations have come of age. Younger people expect different things from work, from community, and from leadership than the generations that preceded them. Today, people want to be engaged and heard. They want to be involved in the decisions that affect them and to be acknowledged for a job well done.
2. Diversity is the norm. Organizations and communities are no longer homogeneous. Whether local or global, small town or corporate, they are composed of people with a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, of differing ages and preferences. Speaking many languages and sharing many different histories, people in today's organizations want leadership to be collaborative and just.
3. Institutions are being reinvented. The context of leadership is no longer stable or predictable. In all sectors of industry and society, institutions have failed and are being reimagined and redesigned. These new institutions are more fluid and more agile. In them, distributed leadership and power emerges as people self-organize to meet the needs of the whole.
4. Holistic, sustainable approaches are essential. Today's decisions will cast the die for generations to come. The most pressing social, economic, environmental, and political challenges of our time are global in nature. They cannot be resolved by one person, one country, or one business. They require unprecedented appreciation of differences and collaboration. In short, they call for Appreciative Leadership.
What Is Appreciative Leadership?
Appreciative Leadership is a philosophy, a way of being and a set of strategies that give rise to practices applicable across industries, sectors, and arenas of collaborative action. The following definition of Appreciative Leadership is full of potential. As you read it ask yourself, "What does this mean to me and for the way I work?" We also suggest that you offer it up for discussion among colleagues and team members. Read it to them and discuss, "What does this mean for us and for the way we work together?"
Appreciative Leadership is the relational capacity to mobilize creative potential and turn it into positive power—to set in motion positive ripples of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, and performance—to make a positive difference in the world.
Embedded in this definition are four formative ideas about Appreciative Leadership: (1) it is relational; (2) it is positive; (3) it is about turning potential into positive power; and (4) it has rippling effects. You may also realize, as many others have, that each of these four ideas represents a paradigm shift : a clear movement away from the habitual, traditional, and individualistic command and control practices of leadership toward "a new normal": the positive, socially generative principles, strategies, and practices of Appreciative Leadership.
Appreciative Leadership Is a Relational Capacity
All work, indeed all life, occurs in relationship. It is our experience that while there are individuals called "leaders" and there are individuals that others perceive as leaders, nothing of worth happens without the involvement of many people. Professor Kenneth Gergen offers the most substantive understanding of relational capacities in his book Relational Being. In it he describes the paradigm shift from "individualistic" views of leadership to "relational" views, saying, "None of the qualities attributed to good leaders stands alone. Alone, one cannot be inspiring, visionary, humble, or flexible. These qualities are the achievements of a coactive process in which others' affirmation is essential. A charismatic leader is only charismatic by virtue of others who treat him or her in this way; remove the glitter in their eyes and the 'charisma' turns to dust.... Leadership resides in the confluence."
We have chosen, therefore, to write about leadership: the relational processes and practices through which people come together to make things happen. Sometimes people come together as leaders and followers. Sometimes they do this as equals, each bringing different strengths, resources, and capacities; other times they come together as diverse stakeholders collaborating to cocreate (or coauthor) something like a better business model, a more environmentally friendly product, or a more socially and economically feasible health care system. No matter what the form, relationships are at the heart of leadership and its capacity to make things happen. Imagine the confluence of relationships in this brief story:
Patricia Arenas, former director of Havana's Human Change Project, has traveled around the world to culturally diverse countries, including Russia, Mexico, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Denmark, to study and to share her work. She has said, "It's the same on the ground here in Cuba as it is most places; it's all about the people and relationships." Curious to explore the positive collaborative potential of the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) process in Cuba, she and her colleagues invited a team of Appreciative Inquiry experts led by Dr. Diana Whitney to Cuba for research. The question was, "How might Appreciative Inquiry support the work of the Human Change Project, throughout the country, with members of community and business organizations?"
Fifty Cuban organizational consultants met with the American researchers for two days. They explored both how and where to experiment with the AI process. Patricia commented at the time, "Building on what already works well seems hardly revolutionary, but it really is. It is a big change for people to stay focused on and study what's working. They are so used to talking about what needs to be fixed." Almost a year later, the research showed that Appreciative Inquiry was being used to revamp university curriculums, to manage the cleanup of the Bay of Havana, and to build on the many strengths of Cuba's world-famous public health system.
The idea of leadership as a relational capacity resonates with the South African notion of ubuntu. From the Zulu and Xhosa languages, the word ubuntu is translated to mean, "I am because you are—I can only be a person through others." It suggests that a leader's identity, indeed anyone's identity, rests at the center of relatedness. Appreciative leaders "are" because of the people with whom they work and serve. Firefighters know this perhaps better than anyone else:
Coloradans still remember the devastating wildfires of 2002 triggered by a severe drought. Federal and state agencies struggled for months to douse the fierce blazes that swept through forests and towns. Volunteer fire departments made up of families, friends, and neighbors in the small mountain communities simply didn't have the fire protective clothing or equipment to adequately fight off a threat of this magnitude. Seeing this, a charitable foundation quickly sent representatives on site with checks in hand to offer support. Foundation representatives weren't prepared for the reaction they received. Rather than accepting the full amount, many fire chiefs accepted only a portion of the funding and asked that the remaining funds be given to neighboring fire departments also in need.
Relational capacity does not mean, as is so frequently taught, that you must therefore go out and "make relationships," as if they don't already exist, in order to work or to live well. Instead, it means that you must accept relationships as always present, as here from the beginning, as surrounding us, and as infusing us with their presence. Your Appreciative Leadership task is then to become relationally aware, to tune into patterns of relationship and collaboration—that is, to see, hear, sense, and affirm what is already happening in order to best relate to it and perform with it.
We experienced a deeply moving example of this a number of years ago, at a Taos Institute conference in Belgium. The "polyphonic" singing group Capella Pratensis performed Gregorian chants in a historic chapel. We were enchanted by the group's music and later by their description of their process: They arrive early to the space where they will perform. They listen to the sounds already present, and when they sing, they sing into and in relation to the sounds of the space. At that moment we could not imagine a more beautiful sound or a more relational process.
The relational capacity of Appreciative Leadership, to tune into positive relational patterns—what we call the positive core of any person or group—and to work with them, is a starting point for all positive change. It is especially relevant in organizations and communities when the configuration of relationships need to change— for example, when a new member joins a team, a department gets a new head, two units or organizations merge, or when a new project is launched. In all cases, Appreciative Leadership is implicitly and explicitly relational, living and working with awareness of and care for the group's impact upon other people, all living beings, and the earth.
Appreciative Leadership Is a Positive Worldview
In the closing chapter of their book Appreciative Leaders: In the Eye of the Beholder, consultants Marge Schiller, Bea Mah Holland, and Deanna Riley describe Appreciative Leadership as a "worldview." Indeed, it is a worldview—that is, it is a set of beliefs and a way of seeing the world, people, and situations—that is uniquely and, by choice, positive and life affirming. And as such, this positive world-view informs all that is Appreciative Leadership: its identity, strategies, practices, and results.
Appreciative leaders hold each and every person in positive regard. They look through appreciative eyes to see the best of people. They seek to treat all individuals positively, with respect and dignity, no matter their age, gender, race, religion, or culture—even education or experience. They believe that everyone has positive potential—a positive core of strengths and a passionate calling to be fulfilled—and they seek to bring that forward and nurture it. Take Mary Beth's story as an example. Having contributed positively to her organization for nearly 10 years as the manager of human resources, she approached her boss asking to move into the operations side of the business. Together, she and her boss negotiated a plan: she would attend a few outside classes and workshops to obtain some crucial skills she was missing, and the boss would find a new place for her in the organization, where she could learn and grow with support. Within a year, the transfer was achieved. Nearly a decade later, she serves as a senior operations leader in one of the company's largest and most profitable business units.
Appreciative leaders see the glass as half full. They look for and are able to consistently see the inherent positive potential in any situation, no matter how dire it may seem. They understand the value of positive images to inspire and give hope. They share stories of success and offer images of possibility so that others have a positive path forward. Rather than talking about what cannot happen, what the problem is, or why things won't work, they talk about what is needed, what is possible, and what will be done. Their positive worldview often takes form as a can-do attitude.
On the heels of a narrow loss in the New Hampshire primary election of 2008, soon-to-be-president Barack Obama demonstrated this positive worldview in what was described by some as one of the most inspiring concession speeches ever delivered:
For most of this campaign, we were far behind. We always knew our climb would be steep. But in record numbers, you came out, and you spoke up for change. And with your voices and your votes, you made it clear that at this moment, in this election, there is something happening in America.... We are ready to take this country in a fundamentally new direction.
We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change....
We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
Appreciative leaders are affirmative by choice. They use positive approaches to get positive results. A central measure of success is, "Contribute good to the day." What this means is that at the end of the day, appreciative leaders can describe what they did that day to add value to others, to bring out the best of people or situations, and/or to set positive ripples in motion.
Appreciative Leadership Turns Potential into Positive Power
Appreciative Leadership is more than a worldview. It is a way of being—a set of strategies and related practices—that makes things happen and gets results. Appreciative Leadership assumes that each person has a positive core, an implicit source of goodness and positive potential awaiting discovery, recognition, and realization. Appreciative Leadership senses potential and turns it into positive power—that is, into life-affirming results. Trusting that with few exceptions, each person has the capacity to make a meaningful contribution, appreciative leaders see it as their job to draw out and nurture potential and to ensure conditions for its success. In so doing, they turn human potential into positive power.
Appreciative leaders often see potential in people and situations where others do not. When they do see potential, they talk about it, engage with others, and act on it. As the following story shows, appreciative leaders see potential and bring forth positive power even in situations of great distress:
After living and working in the United States for 20 years as a successful beautician, Zemi Yenus returned to her home of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to be with family. She quickly became troubled by the numbers of child prostitutes she saw on the streets and began to imagine what their lives would be like if their outer beauty was used differently. Little by little and child by child she transformed her home-based beauty parlor into a beauty school that has graduated over 150 skilled beauticians.
Besides learning technical beautician skills, the students learn how to organize and run a small business, how to work as a team, and how to use their own transformations to give back to the community. Classes are, to a large degree, planned and organized by the former street kids. Boys and girls learn together to break stereotypes and gender roles. Rap sessions are held once a week, giving students and alumni an opportunity to celebrate learning and help each other overcome challenges like abuse at home or temptations to make more money on the streets. Most rap sessions also include some form of a talent show to highlight students' unique strengths and creativity.
Costs associated with the education program are heavily subsidized by local and international grants, but the longer-term plan is that the network of beauty parlors will some day be able to fund the education/transformation of other students and provide graduates with a strong employment path. After visiting the school recently, an international aid worker commented, "It was incredible to see the self-confidence of a 15-year-old girl running a meeting of 50 students. She facilitated in such a way that the boy running the meeting next week would know where she left off and where he would begin. I thought to myself, 'Wow, if we could all work that way, what a world we would have."'
In addition to starting the NIA Foundation to help Ethiopia's street kids, Zemi has also built on her experience to start Ethiopia's only center for autistic children.
With the support of Appreciative Leadership, many people outgrow the limits of their realities and move into a larger more appreciative world—like lotus flowers growing from the mud. Professor David Cooperrider has suggested that this happens through inquiry. He has written, "The appreciative leader enlarges everyone's knowledge and vision of the appreciable world—all the strengths, capacities, and potentials—not by having solid answers but with expansive questions. It is precisely through inquiry itself that appreciative leaders realize and unleash not their own but other people's genius." Indeed, by engaging with people in communication, inquiry, and collaboration, you can unleash potential, generate performance, and ensure the creation of worthy results.