What Does it Mean for Professionals to Grow Up?

Years ago I had the opportunity to work with a wise man.  He was a successful executive in a big company and over the years we have stayed in touch.  He is now long retired.  He sent me a reflection in which he looks back at what matters to him now.  He speaks with the passion of engagement and of building teams of committed people.

I can almost guarantee that any person who goes to work every day dedicated to giving their best efforts will be highly valued and will also maximize their own job satisfaction.  I have seen that repeatedly demonstrated during my career.  When a supervisor builds a team of such workers, one at a time, who are truly personally committed to giving their best personal efforts… the results for the organization are always outstanding… and the individuals are almost always personally highly satisfied.  I had the opportunity to build such teams several times during my career and working with these highly motivated teams was the most rewarding part of my career.  In fact, looking back, these experiences are more valued than any monetary or promotional rewards I was fortunate enough to receive. 

Recently I was with my colleagues Kim Cameron and Jane Dutton.  We were at an event in which we were recognized for founding the field of positive organizational scholarship.  The majority of people in the audience were young scholars.  Jane, who is one of the most recognized individuals in the field of organizational research, leaned over and whispered, “This means more to me than anything else I have accomplished in my career.”  She was referring to the founding of the field and the fact that hundreds of young people have become engaged in a new and lasting community of learning.

I told her I had similar feelings.  When I later reflected on the conversation, I decided to make a list of the high points of my career.  Near the top of the list was a similar experience.

When I was a young scholar, a dean wanted me to take the position of department chair.  I was dead set against it.  He persisted for a long time and I eventually gave in.  Over the next five years, I became fully engaged in turning the department into a cohesive and high-functioning educational community.  It happened.  Because it happened there were positive repercussions in that department for three decades.  Many of the people benefiting today have no idea what happened then.  When I look back at my career, these acts of servant leadership and meaningful community bring great satisfaction.

In one of the Peter Pan movies, there is a song with a line declaring, “I won’t grow up.”  Sometimes this determination to not grow up is called the Peter Pan Syndrome.  This leads to a key question, what does it mean to grow up as a professional?

At the start of one’s career, it is normal to be obsessed with acquiring technical competence, obtaining the right position, gaining recognition, and moving up the hierarchy.  It is an ego-based perspective in which the organization is seen as a place where one competitively pursues external rewards.  Some people never grow out of this orientation.  Yet there is an alternative: you can choose  to grow up and become a positive leader who puts the collective good first.



  • My retired friend has a theory of job satisfaction. What is it and what makes it unique?
  • What does he mean when he speaks of reaching one person at a time?
  • Why does becoming an authentic leader require the transcendence of ego? What does this have do to with growing up?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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