In this time of pandemic there are and there will be opportunities to do the impossible.
In a room full of wonderful executives, I began to teach about how to learn from and create social excellence. Social excellence is what gives rise to doing the impossible.
When I begin this topic there is usually skepticism. We were negotiating this predictable stage when a man raised his hand. I will call him Larry.
Larry made a declaration. He said, “I believe in doing the impossible. My team does the impossible.” The people in the room were not sure how to react. This could be the statement of an arrogant bragger who is full of hypocrisy. Yet Larry seemed to speak with an authentic voice.
At this moment, another man raised his hand. He said, “I just want to back Larry up. My team interfaces with his team. They really do achieve the impossible.”
I thanked both men and asked them a few questions. We then went on with the discussion.
At the break, Larry approach me. With genuine gratitude, he told me that he loved the first two hours. He was learning many things that validated his beliefs and that gave him new language to communicate what he was already doing. I expressed my appreciation. Then Larry blurted out a surprising fact. He said, “I am a high school drop out.”
I spent the evening thinking about Larry. The next morning we were talking about how to learn from social excellence. I pointed out that when people are exposed to social excellence, they often fail to focus on it and learn from it. I asked people to raise their hands, if on the previous day, they sought out Larry and pilfered him with questions about how to do the impossible. To my surprise, one hand went up, I was expecting zero.
I said, let’s do something unusual. Let’s choose to learn from social excellence. I invited Larry to come sit in the front of the room. As he walked up I told him I was going to do a hard interview. He never flinched.
I asked him to convince me that his team could do the impossible. He shared a story about a process upon which the entire corporation was dependent. The process was deeply flawed but no one dared to tinker because the whole company could go down. Larry described taking on the challenge with no idea how to solve it. The only asset he had was the confidence that existed in his team. His team shared the belief that together they could learn to meet the challenge. He described the outcome of the project and everyone in the room recognized that, in fact, the team did the impossible. There was a sense of reverence.
I asked Larry about his graduate education. He said he had none. I asked where he graduated from college. He said he did not. I asked where he graduated from high school. He said he was a high school drop-out. I responded, “Most of people in this room have graduate degrees, and you are telling me that you never graduated from high school?” With no embarrassment whatsoever, he reaffirmed that he lacked any degrees. I already knew this but wanted to emphasize the point for everyone else in the room. Here was a man excelling as a leader in the company, and he had far less education that anyone else in the room.
I asked Larry to share his journey. He said he thinks his journey has taken him through four phases. In phase one, he was a teenager living in a car. He came from a dysfunctional family and the only thing he knew is that he had to change his life. He intuitively knew he had to commit to a life of learning and contribution. So he made the commitment.
He secured a low level job. Computers were just coming on the scene and the company had a crisis no one could solve. Larry declared that he loved computers and told higher level people he could solve the problem if they let him. While it was unthinkable to give someone at his level such an important task, they had no other option. Larry had no idea what to do, but threw himself into the learning process. He worked night and day until he resolved the issue.
At that point he did something surprising. It reflected a level of maturity that some people never reach. He simply shared the solution. He made it a point to not expect reward or recognition. He disciplined himself to see his intense work as his willing contribution. This very young man was committed to live his life with an orientation to continually contribute.
The only immediate reward was a “thank you.” Yet there was a long-term effect. People noted Larry’s ability and his attitude. Soon he was given new challenges. Eventually he was given rewards including promotions. He went to levels that exceeded his educational qualifications. I would suggest that Larry was walking a path in which the coming of those rewards was inevitable.
Phase one was getting started.
Phase two was about becoming an expert and an authority figure. Because he was committed to learning, Larry accumulated great knowledge. Knowledge allows one to problem solve. Larry fell into the natural pattern of telling his people what to do. As this phase continued Larry became increasing unsettled. While he was behaving logically, he knew something was wrong.
He had some life jolts. In the process he began to see that being an expert manager was a logical but ineffective way to behave. Given his own journey, he could see that the people around him were teeming with potential. Yet the potential was unrealized and the basic problem was Larry’s orientation to authority and expertise.
Larry became more aware of the difference between knowing and learning. He began to relate to his team as a leader rather than a manager. His emphasis was on purpose and learning. He gave his people “impossible tasks.” He did many surprising things. One was to create a culture that celebrated failure as a step in the learning process.
Soon his team was exceeding expectations. People began to love what they were doing. The team began to believe in their ability to co-create solutions to impossible problems. When challenged, their response is “We will figure it out.” Larry began to see his team as a reflection of his original commitment to learning and contribution.
At this point in the interview, Larry said, “I am moving into a new phase.”
I asked him to identify the new phase. He said he could not. He could feel himself moving to a new level but he was not sure what the level was. We ended the interview. The people in the class were transfixed.
That night I was saying goodbye to the group. Larry waited until everyone was gone. He said, “I have being thinking about it. Maybe the next step is learning how to smooth the curve. Instead of doing the impossible and then falling off a bit for renewal, maybe there is a way to continually renew in real-time. We talked about how that might occur. I gave Larry a big hug and asked him to stay in touch.
- How do normal people react when asked to take on an impossible task, why?
- Of the claims made by Larry, which one do you find most worthy of reflection?
- Larry moved from novice, to expert manager, to master leader. He has the ability to learn from and create social excellence. How is it possible to make this journey without a formal education, what is the key to becoming a leader? If you have an answer, what is the implication for you and for your organization?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?