The Transformative Power of Positive Leadership

General John Michel of the U.S. Air Force has graciously written this post for my blog.  To say I'm honored is an understatement. Gen. Michel is finishing his assignment as Commanding General (CEO) at NATO Air Training Command in Kabul, Afghanistan in a few weeks. Gen. Michel knows more than most of us ever will about leadership in ever changing complex, complicated, dynamic, multi-cultural, life-and-death situations (see bio at the end)  Thank you, John, yes for this post but more so for your integrity, dedication and service to preserve the freedom we have the luxury of taking so for granted.  

"It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult undertaking which, more than anything else, determines its outcome."

William James

On 16 October 2005, an incredible feat was achieved sixteen miles West of Denver, Colorado.  What was once considered one of the most contaminated and environmentally dangerous locations on earth, was reopened to the public as a pristine wildlife refuge in one-sixth the time and less than one-sixth the cost of original clean-up estimates. In tangible terms, a project initially forecast to span 70 years and cost taxpayers $36 billion was completed 60 years ahead of schedule and $29 billion dollars under budget....a feat the government's own General Accounting office declared unlikely, if not impossible.

In their book, Making the Impossible Possible, Leading Extraordinary Performance The Rocky Flats Story, Kim Cameron and Michael Lavine chronicle how in 1989, following years of complaints from workers, Unions and environmental regulators, the FBI raided the Rocky Flats Nuclear facility and shut it down. Three years later, the facility was permanently closed by order of President George H.W. Bush.

Shortly thereafter, the Department of Energy conducted a careful study of the site's residual pollution and concluded that the clean-up and closure of the facility would require a comprehensive effort on a scale that had never been attempted in United States history. Yet, less than ten years after beginning the massive cleanup effort, every building at Rocky Flats had been demolished, all radioactive waste had been removed, and all soil and water had been remediated to a level that exceeded federal cleanliness standards by a factor of 13.

In the end, the transformation of Rocky Flats wasn't merely a matter of going from good to great. It was nothing short of altering awful to astonishing. And the best part is it offers all of us a series of compelling leadership lessons on how each of us can promote positive change in our surroundings-one willful choice at a time.


It would have been understandable if everyone charged with sanitizing Rocky Flats had focused on all the challenges that were to be overcome.  What, with scores of contaminated buildings, 5,000 disenfranchised employees, and enormous quantities of weapons-grade nuclear waste, there was no shortage of problems to be tackled.  Yet history confirms those charged to lead this change effort chose to spend far less time fixating all that was wrong and instead, opted to channel their energy into creating ways to make things right.

Over the course of the last decade, I have been privileged to lead three massive, multi-billion dollar change efforts myself. In the process, I too have learned that in every organization something works and change can be proactively and positively managed. Yet, for as simple as this idea may sound, it's important to understand this is not our natural approach.

The traditional approach to leading change is to identify a problem, do a diagnosis, and seek a solution. In other words, the primary focus is on what is wrong or broken. This makes sense when we consider most of us have years of practice in the art of problem-solving so we shouldn't be surprised to discover we frequently find exactly what we are looking for: That which isn't working.

Conversely, some of us learn along life's journey the same lesson the leaders of Rocky Flats understood. Namely, there is actually greater power, energy and opportunity in allowing our successes to crowd out the unsuccessful. As psychologist and psychotherapist Carl Jung highlighted, a challenging problem is rarely solved. Instead it is outgrown, as a newer, stronger interest compels us to direct our attitudes and actions in a more compelling direction. Much like a plant naturally grows toward the light, the fact-of-the-matter is we each yearn to be exposed to positive forms of leadership.

Now I know the definitions and variations of leadership abound.  Yet after a quarter century of studying and, more importantly, applying leadership to a whole host of challenges and opportunities, I've found leading effectively is less about your ability to plan, organize, set a direction, establish a strategy or execute meticulously. Yes, these things are important and necessary, but they are insufficient in themselves. You see, relying on these more traditional forms of leadership leaves out the most powerful act of leadership there is: equipping, encouraging, empowering and ideally, inspiring those around you to use their personal influence to leave the world around them better than they first found it.

The key word in this personal definition of leadership is positive influence. Specifically, resolving do what you can, when you can, where you can to add tangible value to your surroundings. Those leaders who guided the improbable (and now historical) transformation at Rocky Flats did not succeed because they opted to do more of the same. Rather, they chose to envision a future that was a collage of bests. They effectively instilled in every member of the team that they were each doing something purposeful, meaningful and important, igniting a cycle of positive change that propelled the organization to heights no one had once thought possible. So how can you use your personal influence to become a more effective, positive leader? I recommend you begin by putting into practice the following principles:

Embody Optimism. Positive leaders allow their example to speak for itself. They choose to believe that they will find a way to be successful - even in the face of what seems to be insurmountable obstacles. Hannibal (the great Carthaginian military commander) once said, "We will find a way, or make one." Allow your enthusiasm and optimism to compel others, in the words of my favorite Nike commercial, to "Do Hard Things." Let your positive example inspire others to be and do their best.

Elevate Morale:  Orienting toward the positive goes beyond just a few people doing the right things for the right reasons; it involves everyone within an organization collectively performing in a manner that has an impact on both people and results. Make the most of opportunities in your sphere of influence to communicate and demonstrate compassionate support for those around you. Take time to honor people for their contributions and acknowledge their individual talent. Resolve to do your part to create conditions for every member of your team to flourish and thrive and come fully alive.

Enhance Inquiry: Author and innovation expert Warren Berger reminds us in his wonderful book, A More Beautiful Question, one of the most powerful forces for igniting positive change in business and in our daily lives is the simple, under-appreciated tool called inquiry-smart, frequent question asking. Leaders who make it a priority to question--deeply, imaginatively, frequently--are more likely to identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and view as opportunity what others largely see as obstacles. The leaders of the remarkable Rocky Flats transformation succeeded because they appreciated the value of raising questions no one else was previously asking-and discovering powerful answers in the process. Take a page from their playbook and opt to be a leader who assumes less and question more. Make inquiry your priority.

Value People Above Things....Always:  Positive Leaders are not confused about life's most precious and valuable commodity-healthy, effective, mutually beneficial relationships.  Although we certainly need systems, processes, technology, and a host of other tools and platforms to accomplish our goals and objectives, none of these are a suitable substitute for the power of people working toward a common, compelling cause. Never lose sight that as a leader, what stands the test of time isn't the projects you completed, the awards you amassed, or the rank you achieved. What matters more than anything are the lives you touch-for good-along the way. Never, never forget that people are always more important than things.

All of these characteristics have one thing in common. They are contagious. As a leader, you have the opportunity every day to inject energy and passion into your team or organization. You can choose to use your positive influence to do everything in your power to leave the world better than you first found it.

Radioactive waste not required.

General John E. Michel:  John is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. The senior-curator for, he is an accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster who has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. His award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. In addition to serving our nation as an active duty General Officer in the United States Air Force, John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. He is blessed to be married to the most patient person on the planet and together, they have two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website,