Leadership : Elan at Work

Pat_McLaganPat is Chairman of McLagan International, Inc., Washington D.C.

She helps companies move into a high performance, participative way of operating. McLagan is co-author of The Age of Participation: New Governance for the Workplace and the World, On-the-Level, Communicating About Performance, and many articles about people and management practices in corporations.

Pat is the 2nd woman and 15th member of the HRD Hall Of Fame, a member of the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame. She holds the American Society for Training and Development highest award, and the Larry Wilson Leadership Award. She is Professor of HRD at Rand Afrikaans University, a member of the ASTD Council of Governors, and on the editorial board of Advances.


I’m trying to think of the times I felt – knew – of "Elan" at work. Where energy FLOWED, where people or an organization were either at one with the moment, or where something turned – was in the process of turning.

Turning? "Turning" as in exposing other sides; shifting. Or, as the new scientists say, dissipating!! Moving to higher levels of energy, complexity, and organization. Reorganizing. Reassembling. Creating or recreating.

I’ve Experienced it with and in Individuals

There’s the time, for example, in South Africa, when an old shop steward – ready to retire – got up in front of a group of managers and workers as part of a change process, and said, "I never thought an old man could feel so important to the future." A parallel in the United States? A local union executive close to retirement who committed to "creating a new relationship between labor and management" in one of the oldest corporations in the country – knowing that he was swimming uphill and that his time was running out.

Or, the many times when a courageous woman in a huge corporation, a woman with very little formal power, position, or academic background, found the energy to stand for her beliefs and cause – and re-found it , re-found it, re-found it, despite barriers that would have stopped a Mack truck.

And, the steady, centered leadership of a female executive in the 70’s, as she raised the functional excellence standards of one of the world’s leading corporations – did it with discipline, constancy, universal fairness, and a commitment to being a leadership role model and sponsor for women with and after her. For her, as for most people with Elan, there were no models, no assurances. There was just conviction, vision, and raw power of heart and muscle that going against the forces requires.

I think, too, of a dear friend who overcame learning disabilities and grew into a voice that calls and echoes throughout the world on platforms with the likes of Peter Drucker. He helps set new standards of service in corporations and agencies everywhere. His personal presence and integrity are an Elan that lights fires and hope wherever he goes.

Then, there are the so many examples of missed Elan. We all crave it – the feeling of and being in flow. But, there are many ways to be led astray!! Think of the Engineering executive at a big aerospace company. At 7:00 in the evening he is putting on his coat, feeling drained. "I’ve been here since 6:00 am, he tells me, "and I haven’t gotten a thing done!!"

"Tell me about your day," I say. And he tells his story. "I started out getting ready for some budget discussions. Then, there was that long and testy meeting with Manufacturing – we just can’t get our designs to be produced right. Without lunch, I spent 3 hours in performance discussions with my teams. And, we’re getting ready to propose a whole new organization structure for next year. I just didn’t get a thing done today!!"


For many people, his situation was a chance for Elan. But not for this executive. There was just no real soul connection for him. He’d spent 13 hours at work and felt he accomplished nothing. Of course, he’d been doing managerial, or leadership work all day. But, for him, this was not valued work. His internal valuing system just didn’t recognize it. He would have felt much better and more whole if he’d been designing an airplane or a fuel cell. Then, his Elan would have flowed. Instead, he ended a long and demanding day feeling drained and insignificant.

Elan is, after all, a very personal thing. It is about the connection of energy and soul to life and work. It is about expansiveness and synergy. It’s about being in a state where the equivalent of massive chemical and physical changes can occur, where fires can spark from two cold pieces of wood. Or, where unnoticed people suddenly explode to life – move into the light and heat -- because a new insight occurs. Or they shift their internal thermostat to notice forces that are new. (Think of our Engineering executive changing his internal evaluation system to support his managerial rather than his bench engineer role!!).

The Chairman of one of the world’s most controversial and (today) respected utilities sparked Elan, for example, when he admitted to his top 50 executives that he had learned and changed in the last 5 years of massive change in the corporation. This seemingly insignificant and obvious comment, coming from the chief patriarch of the corporation, unleashed a tsunami of energy. Why? The top role model acknowledged that it was okay to learn and grow. For many executives, the unwritten rule is "look omnipotent, for the need to change is an admission of weakness and failure. So, look perfect and in control at all times." Now, we all know this is impossible. We are all human. And, the need to learn is accelerating. No one can be on top of everything. We all know it, yet buy into perfection models. Leaders isolate themselves or stay involved in everything, and the rest of us gossip about the fact they really don’t know it all.

Think of the Elan that is released when we stop buying into the fiction of perfection. We can be ourselves. We can learn, take risks and fail, and openly and consciously take our learning's into the future. The energy explosion is profound.

I know Elan personally!

Courage is certainly a theme. For me, my life pattern and personal experience of Elan has taken at least three forms. One Elan expression I am very proud of is that I take a stand. I put myself into situations that are very risky – where I can lose business, battles. I do not do this without thought. I try not to do this in ways that deny other’s right to express. But, I do it on principal, whatever the personal consequences, and often sacrificing my very ingrained need to be liked. And – know what? My courage to speak up OFTEN makes a difference in the conversation, in decisions, in actions, in how people think going forward. In these moments, I feel that I am helping to co-create the universe. I feel my presence here matters to the future in some way. I feel Elan. It is tangible, present, affirming.

On some issues, taking a stand may have cosmic implications. I believe that energy exists simultaneously in many interrelated channels: intrapersonal, interpersonal, social, global, universal. Our evolution occurs simultaneously on all these levels, with changes in one spreading to others. Consider, for a moment, the shift from patriarchal to participative values. This is happening simultaneously on the intrapersonal level (we struggle to integrate all the parts of ourselves as we develop), the interpersonal level (in marriage, between parents and children), the social level (think about the shifts trying to occur in the workplace, in social and governmental institutions), global (think of challenges of having the interests of all the species and parts of the globe heard and considered). When I take a stand against autocracy in my personal relationships, I take a stand that reverberates across all the channels. I can’t just act in one: energy, Elan, doesn’t work that way!!

My second personal pattern of Elan is a connection of humor. I’m not a naturally funny person. But, I do find that when I take myself less seriously, when I admit to and celebrate my foibles, when I somehow tap into the flow of life that is truly funny and takes me and us off guard to see the conventional in a new light…..it’s then that bursts – laughters – of energy break loose. Connections spontaneously occur – combust. We all go into a different zone of consciousness where there is no time – only energy and insight. I want to spend more time in these Elan spaces. I sometimes think I’d like to spend a day in Robin William's brain to experience the world that way for an extended period rather than in blips. Perhaps this is what more of the planet needs to keep us in a space where we can deal with issues and opportunities unencumbered by our personal programs and conventions.

Then, there’s the beautiful Elan of touching others’ lives – sparking insights, courage, confidence. We truly can play a role in stimulating and amplifying new life in others. Sometimes, for me with my own unique skills, I just say things and "am" a person that others take courage from. At other times, my attention helps others see that they are valuable and important. Things I say that are caring – even when critical – also unleash Elan. We all do this. I am just thinking about the signals I see and hear. Others’ eyes light up for an instant. They tell me years later that something I did (and maybe don’t even remember) made a profound difference in their lives. They thank me for being there. This is an amplification of energy that is very subtle, but profound. The energy baseline of the earth changes.

Elan is what Institutions should be about

For what other purpose do institutions exist than to amplify Elan? If people and resources could collectively accomplish the same things as institutions, then – why institutions? How do we talk about institutional purpose other than to be clear about the value of being a collective rather than a gaggle of individuals.

An institution needs to be more than the sum of its parts. And, this must occur as a net effect after accounting for the loss of energy in creating and sustaining the institution. Think about it. The costs of being a collective include creating and agreeing on processes, systems and hierarchies (yes, hierarchies!! nature has them, but they don’t lead to the kinds of domination that we have evolved in our human inventions!!). And, there are the costs of matching the needs, intentions, and visions of the people with the needs, intentions, and visions of the institution. Anyone who has tried to get alignment in any institution – regardless of size – knows how very energy-absorbing this is.

Yet, with all the energy (Elan) costs, there are tremendous benefits that can occur. Anyone who doubts the possibilities must only think at the smallest level. Think of a relationship you have where 1+1 always equals more than 2. Your ideas and intentions spark off each other, and some new and powerful synergistic solution or idea appears. When this happens, you have just experienced Elan.

Or think about the energy that flows when a leader really brings formal resources together with a highly motivated and focused workforce. Probably my best story of this explosion of energy is the NASA of the 60’s and 70’s. Combine talented and dedicated scientists and engineers with a strong national purpose and a vision of accomplishing the impossible. Voila!!! Elan!!!! I consulted with NASA for over 10 years and saw Elan at work. I heard stories and myths – including the heroic epic of bringing a crippled spaceship home by slinging it around the moon. Then, I felt the Elan as professionals in NASA centers across the country grappled with the profound technical challenges of the Space Shuttle.

Elan was built into the NASA culture. Virtually every scientist or engineer had stories of sleepless nights in auditoriums during a space flight – waiting to see if the latest grand leap in technology would achieve the mission; ready to tackle the impossible if there were problems. What would any executive group today give to have an organization so united by vision, so committed to delivering, that energy virtually spills out of the buildings. And, all this with very few procedural hurdles. Expensive? Yes!! But we reap the rewards in bigger visions and technology transfers even today.

Then, there’s General Electric Company. It has an Elan at the core that allows it to constantly reframe and reinvent itself. It’s Elan is an invisible network that carries strategic priorities so quickly into the vast empire’s energy stream, that it continues to be one of the world’s most admired corporations. Where else can you find such an array of technology upgrades, dramatic improvements in cash management, fundamental shifts in portfolio contents, employee-assisted workout, or multi-sigma quality improvements. Over the past 30 years GE has accomplished these and many other transformations – in fractions of the time it would take any other institution even a quarter its size.

Institutional Elan is a very powerful but misunderstood phenomenon. I think of it as a network of energy that, when tapped into, can flow everywhere and pop up anywhere. It takes time and energy to set up. To some of us, it is called "culture." To others it is "the way we work around here." The words "risk," "energizing," "flow," "challenge," "trust," "fun," "partnership" "together we can do it," are familiar words in an Elan organization. In an Elan organization, the management processes (how strategy is developed and communicated, how people set goals, the feedback processes) are open and two-way. They rivet attention and energy. Customers matter and everyone is hooked into some larger purpose of service – including executives – including union leaders.

The awakening of Elan is a breathtaking experience. I have been in many rooms where I have seen this beautiful and sometimes fierce energy awaken. It’s as if the organization has been in a long, Rip Van Winkle sleep – dreaming a low dream. The dream? That managers can’t be trusted. That they are inevitably suspicious autocrats. And, that workers are lazy, or always in search of the easiest way – need control. But, at the core, most of us don’t want to live our lives in that low scenario. We know it is not worthy of us, whether we have formal power and position, or are just bringing ourselves to a collective experience. Perhaps some people do consciously buy into that low dream – are ready to sabotage and take advantage of whatever chance for personal gain at little cost. My own experience is that these are exceptions to the rule. What are not the exceptions are the many people who have (I hope, temporarily) bought into the low dream vision of work. But, their own high dream hopes for something else are very near the surface. They are like dry tinder. Strike a match and an explosion of energy occurs.

Victor Frankl wrote just after World War II, about the essence of what is catching fire for so many people today: it’s our search for meaning. Our very life force thirsts for it. It is a thirst that can be quenched by just shifting the organization’s story about why it exists. Ultimately we work, not for shareholders, but for customers and future societies. They are, after all, the groups that will vote with their purchases and their policies. Shareholders will win big, of course, but a higher stock price is a dead end as far as meaning goes.

The truly great companies, of course, flood themselves with meaning. Medtronic employees know that every pacemaker they make is part of a dramatic patient story. People who clean operating room floors know that their attentiveness can prevent deadly attacks of septicemia. People who develop Internet software know that we are changing the relationship capacity of people everywhere in the world. People in global toothpaste companies know that their customers won’t have to go through the agony of lost teeth at a young age. There is a meaning story in most organizations – just waiting to be told, just waiting to be touched and amplified by the people who will make it come alive in big ways in the future.

Elan is Life Force

Life in all its forms, we now know, does more than evolve in a linear or incremental way. It virtually goes into periods of instability and then explodes into new forms of order and competence. This is a lesson the New Scientists teach. It is a lesson of energy. It is a lesson that requires us to tolerate instability and uncertainty. It is a lesson that teaches us to focus on the big things (like meaning,) and let go of control of some of the little things (like going through the hierarchy to get the right people involved in decisions).

And, Elan rarely springs forth out of nothing. Those energy waves that shift mindsets however briefly, or forever change the course of things, are born in the very systems and events and personalities that they replace. The quality obsession was seeded in an age of push-mass production. Customer focus was born in an age of internal measures. Elan energies swirl around beneath the surface until they have enough force to break through and become new themes – only to be replaced someday by the forces that they birth.

Winds whip    
                                                            past a tender shoot
                    hurling sleet and casting gray.. 
                                        threatening life. 
But the shoot    
                    bends to wind  
It bows and twists   
                    takes on new shape and strength
Deep-spread roots draw nurturing soil  
And then, a lull   
It stands aslant    
and sends elastic nets of new spun tree 
A balance set to pull new sun  
                    and flex new winds.

© Pat McLagan  

E-mail 100076.746@compuserve.com. Visit McLagan International, Inc.

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