Recently I spoke on the phone with a man who has been a CEO for many years. He spoke of leading in years of prosperity and then facing a great economic crisis. The value of his company plummeted overnight. In such cases, the world of business offers a conventional logic for moving ahead: bankruptcy. He said, “But I was raised to believe that bankruptcy was not okay. There were innocent people who I did not believe should be hurt.”
In that moment, his conscience called him to a journey off the established path. Bankruptcy is not pleasant but it is efficient. For the self-interested, it is the established path, and therefore the path of least resistance. The CEO now had to cut his own path. He described his difficult learning journey as a “long slog.” Yet eventually he saved the company. In reflecting on this, he said, “It was my finest hour.”
Positive organizational scholarship asks, “What is a person, group, or organization like at their best?” In other words, the discipline is about observing people in their finest moments, learning from their excellence, and conceptualizing the process of conceptualizing new paths.
Robert Fritz tells us that nature follows the path of least resistance. A river does not flow uphill; the water moves along the lowest existing points. He argues that human behavior is the same. We are what social scientists call “path dependent.” We are determined by the past cut of the river—in this case, the culture in which we live. We defy nature, however, when we have a purpose that attracts us to a new path.
It is widely recognized that culture determines individual behavior. Yet when a leader turns to conscience and brings it to culture, the causal arrow reverses. Suddenly the individual is creating the culture. When this happens to us, we often see it as one of our finest moments.
- When have you seen someone else bring conscience to culture?
- What has been your finest hour as a leader?
- What could you do today to turn your culture more positive?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?