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Robert Quinn
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Fundamental State of Leadership Emerges at Crunch Time

8/29/2005 --

Professor Robert Quinn urges leaders to draw upon past experiences to increase their "moments of greatness."

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—A leader's best work emerges when he or she is not attempting to imitate others; rather, the finest work of a leader comes from drawing upon personal values and capabilities.

Robert Quinn, the Margaret Elliott Tracy Collegiate Professor in Business Administration and professor of management and organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, calls this the fundamental state of leadership. In his paper, "Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership," Quinn suggests that a leader's most effective tools are his or her own life experiences.

"This is a frame of mind we tend to adopt when facing a significant challenge—a promotion opportunity, the risk of professional failure, a serious illness, a divorce, the death of a loved one or any other major life jolt," he said. "Crisis calls, and we rise to the occasion."

But, he adds, leaders need not spend time in the "dark night of the soul" to reach this fundamental state. They can make the shift at any time by asking and honestly answering four transformative questions:

  • Am I results-centered? (Willing to leave a comfort zone to make things happen.)
  • Am I internally directed? (Behaving according to values rather than bending to social or political pressures.)
  • Am I other-focused? (Putting the collective good above personal needs.)
  • Am I externally open? (Receptive to outside stimuli that may signal the need for change.)

"When we can answer these questions in the affirmative, we're prepared to lead in the truest sense," Quinn said. "Of course, we can't sustain the fundamental state of leadership indefinitely."

Quinn finds these four qualities—results-centered, internally directed, other-focused, and externally open—to be at the heart of positive human influence, which is generative and attractive. A person without these four characteristics can also be highly influential, but his or her influence tends to be predicated on some form of control or force, which does not usually give rise to committed followers. By entering the fundamental state of leadership, a leader can increase the likelihood of attracting others to an elevated level of community, a high-performance state that may continue even when the leader is not present.

Because people usually do not leave their comfort zones unless forced, many find it helpful to follow a process when they choose to enter the fundamental state of leadership. Quinn teaches a technique to executives and uses it in his own work. It involves asking awareness-raising questions designed to help people transcend their natural denial mechanisms.

"When people become aware of their hypocrisies, they are more likely to change," he said. "Those who are new to the fundamental state concept, however, need to take two preliminary steps before they can understand and employ it."

Step 1: Recognize that they have previously entered the fundamental state of leadership. As they recount their experiences, they begin to see that they also are returning to moments of greatness. Painful experiences often bring out a person's best self. Recalling the lessons of such moments releases positive emotions and makes it easier to see what's possible in the present.

Step 2: Analyze their current state. When in the fundamental state, a person takes on various positive characteristics, such as clarity of vision, self-empowerment, empathy and creative thinking. Most would like to say they display these characteristics at all times, but really do so only sporadically.

Fatigue and external resistance pull leaders out of the fundamental state of leadership. But each time it is reached, they return to their everyday selves a bit more capable, and able to boost the performance of the people around them. Quinn proposes that this process over time can create a high-performance culture.

Comparing normal with optimal performance often creates a desire to elevate what an individual is doing now. Knowing they've operated at a higher level in the past instills confidence that they can do so again; it quells the fear of stepping into unknown and risky territory.


Written by Nancy Davis

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone:(734) 936-1015 or 647-1847
Email:bernied@umich.edu