Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change

Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change

by Robert E. Quinn

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Building the Bridge As You Walk On It tells the personal stories of people who have embraced deep change and inspired author Robert Quinn to take his concept one step further and develop a new model of leadership—“the fundamental state of leadership.” The exploration of this transformative state is at the very heart of the book. Quinn shows


Building the Bridge As You Walk On It tells the personal stories of people who have embraced deep change and inspired author Robert Quinn to take his concept one step further and develop a new model of leadership—“the fundamental state of leadership.” The exploration of this transformative state is at the very heart of the book. Quinn shows how anyone can enter the fundamental state of leadership by engaging in the eight practices that center on the theme of ever-increasing integrity—reflective action, authentic engagement, appreciative inquiry, grounded vision, adaptive confidence, detached interdependence, responsible freedom, and tough love. After each chapter, Quinn challenges you to assess yourself with respect to each practice and to formulate a strategy for personal growth.

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Publication date:
J-B US non-Franchise Leadership , #204
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Read an Excerpt

Building the Bridge As You Walk On It

A Guide for Leading Change
By Robert E. Quinn

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-7112-X

Chapter One

Building the Bridge As You Walk On It

"I decided to acknowledge my fears and close off my exits. Suddenly, my workplace became a place filled with people doing their best to either avoid deeper dilemmas or face them and grow. The previous importance of titles and roles began to melt away before my eyes.... My own change of perspective led me to see a new organization without having changed anyone but myself." -Jeremy Fish

How do we create extraordinarily positive organizations? This is the central question that integrates the research of my colleagues at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship.

The organizations we study tend to excel in two areas. They do very well at accomplishing their central, instrumental task, like making quality products, educating people, or providing health care. And they also excel in a second domain. The people who work in them tend to flourish. They are deeply connected to the objective, and they are deeply committed to one another. As a result, the organization can do things that other organizations cannot do.

I usually refer to such organizations as productive communities. They are not only highly productive but highly nurturing places. They are places where people live by the highest of human values, extending themselves for the instrumental purpose and for one another.

Recently my colleagues and I visited such an organization. We went with the director of nursing at a large hospital to visit one of her outstanding units. As always happens when we visit these kinds of settings, we were inspired by deeply committed human beings performing well beyond normal expectations.

We asked some questions about their culture of success, and they spent a half-hour describing the innovative practices that had developed in the units. These practices were unique and very impressive. It would have been tempting to believe that they were the explanation. Eventually the director of nursing shook her head. She said, "Don't be fooled by these practices. They are important, but they are a consequence, not the cause."

The other people in the room nodded. They all knew what she was talking about. One of them began to speak of the woman who had run this wonderful unit for over a decade. They spoke of her in reverent tones. We posed probing questions, asking them to describe specific incidents. Some of the respondents spoke in tears as they shared the ways this woman had changed their organization and their lives.

Afterward the director told us that of her sixty managers, she has five or six like the woman we just heard about. No matter where she assigns them, they build units that achieve extraordinary performance.

One of my colleagues asked, "What do they do?" There was a long silence. Finally the director said, "That is the wrong question. It is not what they do, because each one of them is unique in how they pull it off. It is not about what they do; it is about who they are."

In that last sentence is a key to positive organizing and productive community. Management and leadership books are naturally preoccupied with the search for behaviors, tools, techniques, and practices that can be exported and imitated elsewhere. It may be that they are telling us about the wrong thing. Organizational excellence tends not to be a function of imitation. It tends to be a function of origination. It begins with one person-the one in ten who has the capacity to create productive community. In this hospital, five or six out of sixty supervisors fit this category. If we examine one hundred plant managers or one thousand CEOs, we tend to find the same pattern. The majority are normal. And a few are extraordinary in that they know how to enter a creative personal state that gives rise to a creative collective state. I call that personal state the fundamental state of leadership. The collective state is productive community, which emerges as someone in the fundamental state of leadership attracts others into the process I refer to as "building the bridge as you walk on it."


As I noted in the introduction to Part One, this book originated in the messages I received from readers of my book Deep Change. The people who wrote to me usually told me how they had used the book's concepts to navigate a personal crisis or lead the transformation of their organization. Later, I contacted them and asked them to write a full account of what had happened. They shared cases ranging from very personal transformations to the transformation of major organizations. As I read those cases, I began to have new insights about the process of deep change. Eventually I began to formulate a new concept: the fundamental state of leadership.

In this book, you will meet some of these people. You will discover what the fundamental state of leadership is and what practices are likely to help you enter it. As preparation and background, let's do a quick review of the notion of deep change.


An anchor on a ship is a device attached by a rope or cable that is cast overboard. The anchor digs into the bottom and holds the ship in place. The anchor is thus a useful tool that keeps the ship from aimless drifting.

In a dynamic world, the tools that we usually see as assets can turn into liabilities. I remember, for example, watching a movie about a ship caught in a sudden storm. As the storm grew in ferocity, the sailors realized that they had to cut away the anchor. They chopped madly at the rope so they could avoid being swamped. Their only hope was to ride out the storm on the tumultuous sea. They needed to be free from what was normally a useful source of stability. Their lives depended on it.

Over time, it is natural for both individuals and for organizations to develop anchors. Individuals, for example, develop a system of beliefs about how they can best cope in a world of scarce resources. This system becomes a personal identity. We sometimes refer to this anchor as an ego. Organizations also develop systems of belief about identity and coping. We refer to this anchor as the organizational culture. The individual ego and the organizational culture are normally valuable sources of stability.

Yet like ships, individuals and organizations are often confronted by storms. As individuals, we may need to cope with physical illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, abusive treatment, burnout, job loss, or other life demands. In organizations, we may need to cope with recession, new competitors, regulatory changes, evolving customer preferences, and many other such challenges.

These storms are usually preceded by dark clouds and other signals of danger. While the signals often call for a transformation, or what I call deep change, we tend to resist. When our old habits of thought and action seem to be ever less effective in the face of the change, we are slow to abandon them in favor of learning our way into a transformed state. To cut away our anchors and move forward into the storm of real-time learning is no easy decision.

In fact, rather than accepting the need for deep change, most of us practice denial. We rationalize away the signals that call us to courage and growth. We work very hard to preserve our current ego or culture. To give them up is to give up control. Normally we work hard to avoid the surrender of control. Instead, we strive to stay in our zone of comfort and control. Given the choice between deep change or slow death, we tend to choose slow death.

Yet nature tends to have its way with us. The path to slow death still ends at death. For individuals, it can be the death of the ego or the body. For corporations, it can be the death of a particular set of assets or the overall enterprise. As we progress down the path of denial, our agony grows. The growing pain tends to force us to do what we do not want to do. We make deep change.

When we make deep change, we enter the fundamental state of leadership. This central concept will be developed and defined over the next several chapters. Here we meet some people who have learned to make deep change. Their stories provide a first look at what it means to enter the fundamental state of leadership. From these stories, we can also specify the objectives of this book.


Jeremy Fish is a physician and an executive who was in charge of a transformation at a regional medical center in California. He found this task most challenging. In fact, he describes his feelings as the "emotions of a patient facing cancer." As he moved forward in the transformational process, he felt a combination of fear, hope, and dread.

Most managers charged with leading a transformation have such feelings. As they move forward, they become increasingly aware of the political dangers. They begin to feel more and more insecure. While trying to convey confidence, they find themselves contemplating escape strategies that will minimize the political damage to their careers. As they do this, they deny that they are doing it. Integrity decays, and insecurity grows. While verbally they continue to call for the commitment of others, they implicitly, but clearly, communicate their hypocrisy. In response, people espouse commitment while actually withholding commitment. Frustration, distrust, and conflict expand. The leader becomes even more insecure and intensifies the effort, which makes everything worse. The vicious cycle then continues to expand, sucking the leader and the project into the vortex of failure, the very thing the leader feared in the first place.

Jeremy reports reading Deep Change and how he came to recognize his self-deception. In his words, "My fear of being fired, ridiculed, or marginalized at work was impairing my ability to lead. I also saw how my 'exit strategy' of leaving if things got uncomfortable rather than face my fears and discomfort was impairing my ability to commit fully to leadership."

Jeremy was an executive, yet he was no different than most first-line employees. It is normal for all people in organizations, from the janitor to the CEO, to live in fear. It is normal for people in organizations to say one thing while believing another. This means that hypocrisy is normal. The recognition of his hypocrisy led Jeremy to make a decision that was not normal. Since the decision was exceptional, the results were exceptional as well. He reports:

I decided to acknowledge my fears and close off my exits. Suddenly, my workplace became a place filled with people doing their best to either avoid deeper dilemmas or face them and grow. The previous importance of titles and roles began to melt away before my eyes. Feared organizational figures became less menacing.... My own change of perspective led me to see a new organization without having changed anyone but myself. I brought my new perspective to my role.

Although Jeremy made a fundamental commitment, he still did not know exactly how to get where he wanted to go. In a transformation, we never do. Nor did it put him in control of the process of transformation. During a transformation, we cannot be in control. So what good was the commitment? The commitment moved Jeremy to a new state, or way of being: the fundamental state of leadership. In this state, we see ourselves differently, more positively. We therefore see others differently, more positively. What were once constraining problems are suddenly seen as rich opportunities. When we enter the fundamental state of leadership, we tap new sources of power and, as the next case shows, attract others to join us on the transformational journey.

In this illustration, we find the first objective of this book: to help people who are in charge of change efforts to enter the fundamental state of leadership. As we will see, when this happens, a unique set of behaviors, tools, and techniques will naturally arise to facilitate the emergence of a more productive community.


Mike Alvis is a retired military officer who now works as a consultant. He spent much of his time with General Eric Shinseki, former chief of staff of the army. Shinseki's vision for the transformation of the army was one of the most ambitious undertakings of any chief of staff since General George Marshall. The vision called for a dramatic shift to a lighter and faster army.

The concept was simple, but the amount of change involved was staggering. Although Shinseki had a vision, he did not have a map telling him how to negotiate his way through all the required changes. No visionary ever does. When we commit to a vision to do something that has never been done before, there is no way to know how to get there. We simply have to build the bridge as we walk on it. I sometimes refer to this process as "walking naked into the land of uncertainty" or "learning how to walk through hell effectively."

The early years of army transformation were very difficult. Shinseki did what he had to do. He pushed on, taking one step at a time. Shinseki's role became punishing. He experienced many dark nights of the soul. With each big, symbolic move, he came under intense criticism. He was privately criticized by those on the inside and publicly attacked by the media. What was particularly remarkable about Shinseki is that he never displayed any ego needs. Unlike Jeremy, who was initially afraid of what might happen to him, Shinseki was fearless. He was not concerned about looking good. And although his critics questioned the wisdom of his every move, they never questioned his motive. It was clear that he was doing what he thought was best for the army. So he just kept doing what he thought was right, absorbed the pain, and pushed on.

Mike Alvis had an inside view of each move that Shinseki made. Watching the chief of staff had a major impact on Mike. His own level of commitment began to deepen. As this happened, Mike, like Jeremy, began to see his world differently and to relate to people in a new way. He stopped seeing the resisters as "the enemy." He says, "I started to meet people where they were." And as he started to see them differently, he began to work with them differently.

Mike shares another interesting point about the transformation of the army. Outsiders assume the army changes when a commander gives an order. As with all other organizations, when the army culture is threatened, people resist. In fact, it is often the people at very high levels who become the invisible resisters.


Excerpted from Building the Bridge As You Walk On It by Robert E. Quinn Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Quinn’s work captures a crucial truth about great leadership—that it is about who we are and not what we do. In facing our fears and harnessing our uniqueness, we bring forth the capacity for inspired leadership and for enduring change. Robert Quinn is a gifted storyteller. This is his best book to date.”
—Peter J. Frost, Edgar F. Kaiser Professor of Organizational Behavior, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, and author of Toxic Emotions at Work

“Quinn's fundamental state of leadership is fundamentally uncommon. Rather than focusing on how to lead others, he has served up authentic insights on how leaders can best lead themselves.”
—Jim Haduan, CEO, Root Learning, Inc.

“Read this book only if you are willing to address the fear that keeps you from leadership, and from profound change in yourself and others.”
—Allan R. Cohen, Distinguished Professor of Global Leadership, Babson College, and coauthor of Power-Up: Transforming Organizations Through Shared Leadership

“Quinn takes us to the chasm where deep change is lived and led—then guides us over it.  Practical scholarship. Masterful teaching.”
—Philip Mirvis, coauthor of To the Desert and Back: The Story of One of the Most Dramatic Business Transformations on Record

“A gem of a book, as wise and practical a guide on individual and organizational transformation as you’ll find anywhere.”
—Warren Bennis, university professor, University of Southern California and coauthor of Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders

“The process of becoming a leader or revitalizing yourself is chaotic and frightening. Through many inspirational stories in this book, readers will find the courage to embrace a truly transformative change.”
—Richard E. Boyatzis, professor and chair of the Department of 0rganizational Behavior, Case Western Reserve University, and coauthor of Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence

“Prepare yourself for a journey into intellectual, emotional, and spiritual integrity—a journey this will span the remaining course of one's life.”
—Allen C. Bluedorn, author, The Human Organization of Time

“Bob Quinn makes exquisite use of real life experiences in such a way that his book is engaging as well as profound. It speaks to me directly.”
—Ricardo B. Levy, founder, chairman of the board, Catalytica Energy Systems, Inc.

“This book is not about superheroes, but about how each one of us how the power to create positive change – if only we are willing to see and step into our own capabilities.”
—Professor Sim B Sitkin, director, Fuqua-Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, Duke University

“For someone who has struggled for 25 years with change personally and professionally—as an internal change agent,  external consultant, and academic—Building the Bridge as You Walk on It provides a profound integration of the self/other/organizational contexts and a timely reminder that all change is self-change.”
—Mike McGrath, vice president of consulting services, Executive Development Associates

“I picked up "Building the Bridge..." on a gray, rainy, California morning thinking I would peruse a few pages before a nap. I laid the manuscript down only when the last page had been turned many hours later. No nap! Instead a bright awakening to insight and wisdom regarding leadership that Robert Quinn lucidly structures through stories carefully paired with precise conceptualization.”
—Andre' L. Delbecq, Thomas J. and Kathleen L. McCarthy  University Professor, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University

“Quinn details the practices to follow in the journey towards the fundamental state of leadership. Leaders of corporations, governments, nonprofits, community action, families, academic departments-all find resonance with this book!”
—Laurie N. DiPadova-Stocks, founding director, Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement, Northern Kentucky University

“This book provides a guide for change that leaders at all levels of the organization can understand and use. More importantly it will help them become people who really like themselves. Because they live and act from principle, they will not have to worry about the craziness of organizations and life.”
—Professor Lloyd Baird, director, the Leadership Institute, Boston University

“With more and more people reading this book the notion of resistance to change may gradually fade. Quinn’s attractive concept of positive deviancy is not only an antidote to resistance but a way of thinking and acting that embraces change.”
—W. Warner Burke, Edward Lee Thorndike Professor of Psychology and Education; Teachers College, Columbia University

“Effective leadership is crucial for successful organizational change, but the person as leader is often ignored in discussions of change. This wonderful book places the person of the leader front and center. It invites, encourages and inspires its readers to find in themselves the leadership of which they are capable.”
—Jean M. Bartunek, professor of organization studies, Boston College

“This book highlighted for me that leadership is an endogenous development, not an exogenous event. The most effective leaders are those whose who remain coachable themselves, and focus on developing themselves.”
—Bert Whitehead, author, Facing Financial Dysfunction: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things With Money

“If you or your family or your organization are in pain, and you want the pain to stop but it won’t, read this moving, action-oriented book. ”
—Bill Torbert, author, Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership

“Robert Quinn's book is fascinating, I wish it's valuable insights had been available to me when I lead a major bank. It is so easy to glide along in your comfort zone. I was particularly taken by the quote, ‘real leadership is about moving forward in faith and doing so requires both head and heart.’”
—Jack Hoag, director, First Hawaiian Bank and BancWest Corp

“Bringing integrity and humanity clearly into leadership study, Quinn's work recognizes that leadership is not a mere fragment of life-not something you leave behind as you close your office door-and not organizationally constructed.  It is truly for all seasons and settings, integrally woven into our lives and psyche, grounded our best selves.”
—Laurie N. DiPadova-Stocks, Ph.D., founding director, Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement, Northern Kentucky University

“Bob Quinn makes exquisite use of real life experiences in such a way that his book is engaging as well as profound. It speaks to me directly.”
—Ricardo B. Levy, founder, chairman of the board, Catalytica Energy Systems, Inc.

Meet the Author

Robert E. Quinn is the author of Deep Change and Change the World, both from Jossey-Bass. Quinn helps business and government leaders understand and manage organizational life through his teaching, consulting, books, and numerous published articles. He holds the Margaret Elliott Tracy Collegiate Professorship of Business Administration and is Professor of Organi-zational Behavior and Human Resource Management at the Graduate School of Business, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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