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A Passion for Sustainable Change: SOMO Leadership in Cleveland

By on September 2, 2011 – 1:10 pm  One Comment

Elaine O'Brien, PhD, MAPP '08, CAPP, is founder of Move2Love Training & Positive Therapy. She received her PhD in Kinesiology from the Temple University College of Public Health, Well-Being and Social Justice. A positive psychology, performance, and fitness/lifestyle medicine strategist, Elaine aims at enhancing the quality of life and vibrant health of her community and business clients. Elaine has given presentations around the world inspiring people to move more, enjoyably, and well. Full bio. Elaine's articles are here.

SOMO Learning Lab at CASE Western Reserve Univ, July 2011. 'The best emotional stimulus package ever'

The week of September 19 marks the third annual Sustainable Cleveland 2019, an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) summit led by Dr. David Cooperrider for the city of Cleveland.

Brainchild of Mayor Frank G. Jackson, this summit attracted a whopping 700 people, from residents to CEOs, invested in and dedicated to Cleveland’s economic thriving. In 2009, the AI summit brought SOMO Cleveland into existence. SOMO Cleveland has since then turned into a business to build social- and emotional- capacity in people to think differently – expansively, positively, flexibly – so that changes in city culture are sustainable.

After attending a SOMO learning lab, Dr. Roger Saillant, Executive Director of The Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at CASE Weatherhead, remarked, “I believe that SOMO could accelerate what needs to be discovered about sustainability and resiliency, which will put us all on a better path.”

Louis Alloro, a M.Ed. and UPenn 2008 MAPP, is part of the SOMO Leadership strategy team hosting and facilitating learning experiences based on the principles of applied positive psychology. The team’s aim is inspire and support people to lead towards well-being in their own lives such that they inspire and support transformation in others. SOMO is an outgrowth of Louis’ MAPP Capstone where he developed the framework he calls Social-Emotional Leadership.

Louis was recently named a Fellow for the Center for Consciousness and Transformation (CCT), George Mason University. I had a chance to catch up with him and learn more. Here’s an interview and update:

Elaine: Congratulations, Louis! I can see a sparkle in your eyes and feel the positive emotion you’ve been generating around SOMO Leadership. Tell me more about what’s cooking in Cleveland?

Louis: Our aim is to bring about sustainable, positive emotional and behavioral changes in Clevelanders… and beyond. We’ve intentionally created a new word, SOMO, to inspire curiosity in this place-based transformation initiative. Essentially, we’re helping people learn how to become more mindful of their thinking patterns and perhaps create new neural connections which will help them get more of what they want: more health, more wealth, more joy, more love – and then inspire others to do the same.

Cleveland was at the height of the industrial revolution and at one time thriving. Like most rust belt towns, as the economy shifted away from manufacturing, people didn’t adapt easily to something new. The time is now to adapt, and Cleveland is pregnant with possibility. As Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives but the ones most responsive to change.” SOMO builds that adaptive muscle and reminds people that we are powerful enough to create sustainable positive change in our lives.

Circles of change

Elaine: The current economic environment is generating opportunities in places like Cleveland, to rebuild its economy, retrain its workforce, and lead the way in sustainability practices. Louis, can you express your hope and dreams around your leadership in “this place-based transformation,” and perhaps, define it?

Louis: SOMO is a dynamic, socially constructed positive intervention, which makes it hard to define. We’re running learning labs throughout Cleveland and in many settings: in businesses, schools, community groups, living rooms, public parks, bars. Learning labs are places for people to come together for an experience of applied positive psychology. They leave us all feeling energized, engaged, and alive. Each lab is different, though several essential ingredients are the same: including the sharing of wins, the learning of a snippet of research (and then its application), and a call-to-action.

Elaine: How are you getting participation?

Louis: We started running labs regularly on February 14, 2011, Valentine’s Day. We’ve run labs every month since. At first, we had to do much of the inviting. Now, participants come into one lab and become the hosts of the next one. People are tapping into their social networks and gathering their friends, colleagues, and families. We’re building a TRIBE. See Seth Godin’s book of the same title.

Elaine: What are some the positive interventions you are applying in your learning labs?

Louis: The labs are all socially constructed. We bring some content – a piece of applied positive psychology, like the ABC approach for resilience or Shelly Gable’s Active Constructive Responding or Strengths – but the rest is created by the people who attend around the environment where it takes place. It’s organic, as in going with the flow. For example, when we were in a public park last month, we all took our shoes off and ran our feet through the grass to experience savoring and luxuriating.

Elaine: Who is the “we” on your team?

AI Leads to Change

Louis: They are the people and organizations on the ground in Cleveland, who share a vision for a more positive future. Collaborative partners include Adele DiMarco Kious of Currere, a Cleveland-based organizational design firm. Adele and I connected in Cleveland at the first Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Summit in 2009, and we’ve been partners, co-creating since.

A recent MAPP graduate, Carin Rockind of CLeaR, joined the team within the past year. Carin is an expert in Positive Psychology and located in Cleveland – an alignment made in heaven. We’ve also partnered with amazing individuals and organizations across Cleveland who share in our vision for a more positive future here in Cleveland and beyond. Our funding and research partner is George Mason University, the Center for Consciousness & Transformation.

Elaine: I know one of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 goals is to build a thriving economy. How does SOMO contribute?

Louis: We are inspiring people to inspire others to leverage strength, collaborate, and innovate. Christakas and Fowler’s research shows that people’s happiness depends on the happiness and well-being of those to whom they are connected. They followed 4,739 participants over twenty years and found that happiness clusters (that is, groups of happy people are socially connected) could be explained by the spreading of happiness rather than by a tendency for happy individuals to associate.

SOMO has been successful to date because it starts with an individual’s decision to be his or her best self. Since SOMO is about place-based-transformation, we’re leveraging the research of Christakas and Fowler to demonstrate in real time what happens to social networks where SOMO Leaders stand up to take action. Instead of pointing fingers outward, we encourage an inward look.


Alloro, L. J. (ongoing). Enabling Positive Evolution Blog.

Alloro, L.J. (2008). Shift happens: Using Social-Emotional Leadership to create positive, sustainable cultural change. University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons.

Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Fowler, J.H. & Christakis, N.A. “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham heart study,” British Medical Journal 337 (2008): a233a. Abstract.

Godin, S. (2008). Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Portfolio Hardcover.

Hall, N. (2007). Is feeling better as easy as ABC? Version for a general readership included in Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.

Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Turner, D. (2007). Active Constructive Responding – with a Twist. Positive Psychology News Daily

Positive Psychology Resources: Active Constructive Responding.

Sustainable Cleveland 2019

SOMO Leadership Labs. From the site: “SOMO Leadership is an intentional effort at building social- and emotional-capacity in Clevelanders to get more of what they want in life – more health, more wealth, more joy. We do this one person at a time, in learning labs akin to the “mind gym” where people learn to think more expansively & flexibly.”

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