Among the MAPP alumni demonstrating the applicability of positive psychology over a broad range of professions are corporate CEO Peter Worrell LPS’09; Primrose O’Teng LPS’09, a United Nations civilian peacekeeper in the Sudan; and Peter Minich LPS’06, a practicing physician and transplant surgeon, who is also an author, educator, and leadership consultant.
From day one, Worrell, 52, was adamant about making his MAPP experience relevant to his job as the chief executive of the Bigelow Company, which provides strategic advice to owner-managed enterprises. “I don’t give up my time lightly,” says Worrell, who commuted to Penn from his home in New Hampshire. “I’m a practitioner in the middle of my career, and I was dead serious about applying what I learned in the real world.”
A student of behavioral economics who joined the Bigelow Company the day after he earned an MBA from Babson College in 1980, Worrell was looking for an academically rigorous program that would provide him with a theoretical foundation in positive psychology to complement his existing expertise.
He learned about Seligman’s work while serving on a panel on behavioral economics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Behavioral economics looks at the way people make risky decisions incorrectly, and I wondered why we spent so much time talking about mistakes,” he recalls. “Afterwards, a participant told me about Seligman’s work. I looked up the MAPP program and applied instantly.”
Last fall, Worrell invited University of Michigan professor and Seligman co-author Chris Peterson and another scholar who teaches in the MAPP program—Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore—as featured speakers at the annual Bigelow Forum, to which his company invites about 100 strategic advisors from around the country.
The reaction was “electric,” says Worrell. “I think Chris was blown away by the fact that we were actually using the tools, like the VIA signature strengths, to impact our business.” (VIA, for values in action, is a survey devised by Peterson to measure 24 character strengths.)
Positive psychology’s insights have also affected the way he deals with clients, Worrell adds. “Now when I approach a client I do not ask them about the problems or weaknesses in their businesses. I ask them to tell me about the times the business was at its best. It has been enormously successful.” Along those lines, Worrell is expanding his capstone research, which identified the signature strengths of entrepreneurs, to make it directly applicable to family owned businesses, which represent a large percentage of his clientele. “The program provided me with the tools and vocabulary to truly set our business apart from other strategic advisors,” he says. “Positive psychology is a differentiator.”
After almost 10 years of working for the UN as a civilian peacekeeper, predominantly in Darfur, Primrose O’Teng, a 30-year-old native of Botswana, knows firsthand that the process is painstaking. And while she is still inspired by the founding mission of the United Nations, a call “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” she is not immune to the frustrations that often accompany long-term peacekeeping obligations. “For the amount of financial and human resources being expended, overall peace consolidation under both the peacemaking and peacekeeping processes remain lamentably low,” she emails from Khartoum, Sudan. “I feel that efforts to promote and maintain peace in conflict settings still need improvement.”
She believes that MAPP provided her with the tools and evidence to support her growing belief that the traditional method of peacekeeping focused too exclusively on what was going wrong in areas in which the UN was trying to negotiate and maintain harmony. “Failing to take stock of where societies were doing well was, more often than not, leading to a distorted perception of the problems that existed and a failure to recognize people’s capacity to deal with them,” she notes. “I am interested in how we can pursue UN ideals while taking into account individual responsibility and empowerment.”
Today she is an advocate for what she calls “strength-based peacekeeping,” using processes she learned in MAPP. For example, an approach called Appreciative Inquiry (defined as “the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them”) can help “to devise shared positive objectives for peacekeeping operations or indeed, countries which those operations are intended to serve,” she says. She is also sharing tools for resilience (like increasing positive emotions or focusing on strengths) with her fellow peacekeepers, who are frequently deployed to hardship areas for years at a time.
Having come to the MAPP program looking for “an innovative way to create sustainable peace,” O’Teng believes she has not only found it, but is practicing and promulgating it. And while change may not happen overnight, she is confident that she is making inroads with those responsible for policy making. Soon, she writes, “the ideas will be widely adopted throughout the UN. While this may take time, my passion for it, and my belief in the veracity of positive psychology principles, makes me believe it’s worth the effort.”
As a physician who has practiced on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, Peter Minich knows firsthand about the failures of different healthcare systems to deliver quality care to patients. Minich, 47, spent the first decade of his medical career directing kidney-transplant programs in Chicago and Nashville. By the mid-1990s, he says he “saw the profession at a crossroads. We could continue to deliver what was being deemed cost-effective care, but which was really less than was possible, or we could develop positive models for change.”
Frustrated by the anger and apathy evinced by many of his colleagues—“a classic example of learned helplessness,” he says, invoking Seligman’s formulation—Minich enrolled in the PhD program at Vanderbilt University in organizational leadership, where his research focused on modeling physician leaders.
What he discovered was that simple changes in physician behavior could often lead to better outcomes for the patients as well as the hospital. “There was a financial model for what I was doing,” he explains. “Complications are costly. If we can give physicians the tools and skills to communicate how they can help avoid complications, it is often a win-win situation.”
A case in point was the transplant unit that Minich headed at Centennial Hospital in Nashville, where he tripled the size of the program in five years, completing 100 transplants with 100 percent success. “I inherited a program filled with high-risk patients, and what I demonstrated was that the hospital could achieve the most profit, with the best patient outcomes, even with a high-risk population,” he says.
While in Nashville, Minich met James Pawelski, who was then teaching philosophy at Vanderbilt. Pawelski introduced him to Seligman and, after coming to Penn to head the MAPP program, encouraged Minich to become a member of its first class.
For his MAPP research, Minich focused on the effects of thoughts and emotion in behavior, furthering his expertise in both the psychology of leadership and the interplay between mental wellness and disease, an area of critical importance in his clinical practice. “The MAPP program added more theory and depth to my work,” he says.
Today, besides having authored two books—Sick Patients Sicker System (with Terrence Deal) and Rethinking Power in Healthcare: What to Do When Authority Fails and Patients Suffer—Minich runs a private practice in Toronto and is chief of urology and serves on the faculty at Cleveland Clinic Canada. He has also worked with many healthcare organizations around the world, including the Canadian Medical Association and the Health Corporation of America. He is the founder of the Center for Clinician Leadership, runs leadership retreats for hospitals and healthcare organizations, and has made it his life’s mission to improve the quality of care delivered in hospitals.
Worrell, O’Teng, and Minich are representative of alumni who speak of “MAPP magic.” The attractions of the program are such that, “every spring we have to work on the ‘I don’t want to leave syndrome,’” says MAPP associate director of education Deborah Swick. In response, program leaders have devised a yearly summit weekend to which alumni—some 40 of whom attended the most recent gathering—are invited to share their experiences with current students. Caroline Miller remembers Seligman telling her class that he didn’t want them there “unless we could add to the tonnage of happiness in the world.” MAPP alumni seem to have taken the assignment to heart.
Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09 last wrote about alumnus Scott Mackler’s battle with ALS.
May|June 2010 contents