Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time

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9781576754054: Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time
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Margaret Wheatley is president emerita of The Berkana Institute and an internationally acclaimed speaker and writer. She has been an organizational consultant and researcher since 1973, and has been Associate Professor of Management at the Marriott School of Management, Brigham Young University, and Cambridge College, Massachusetts. She is the author of the bestselling Leadership and the New and Turning to One Another and coauthor of A Simpler Way.

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The New Story is Ours to Tell

Willis Harman, an invaluable mentor to me and many people, changed my work with a letter he wrote me in 1994. Willis urged me to continue speaking my message but warned me not to derive it solely from science. As he did with so many, he wanted me to understand the deeper premises of modern science, which, for all the “new science” hoopla, were anything but new. He encouraged me to explore the deeper values and premises of my work that were far more important than any science.

I contemplated his letter for months. I realized that I was using the science to get the attention of those who could hear this message in no other form. (When I told Willis this, he laughed and applauded my clarity. If you’re being Machiavellian, it’s good to realize it.) What was “my message” from the new sciences has grown in depth and strength into a “new story.” It is sourced from many traditions, not just Western science, and I offer it to any individual or group that is willing to listen. I am less focused on persuasion and more engaged in the telling of a story that gives hope and possibility to us all.

Many people hold this new story. Traditional cultures have held it for centuries, even as they’ve been told their ways are primitive or backward. But for us growing up in the West, many of us falter in expressing this voice because we’ve been told that these ideas which we feel intuitively—about leaders, organizations, and people—are crazy. It is time to change this definition of craziness. We, in fact, represent the new sanity—the ideas and values and practices that can create a future worth wanting.

Those who carry a new story and who risk speaking it abroad have played a crucial role in times of historic shift. Before a new era can come into form, there must be a new story. The playwright Arthur Miller noted that we know an era has ended when its basic illusions have been exhausted. I would add that these basic illusions not only are exhausted but also have become exhausting.

As they fail to produce the results we want, we just repeat them with greater desperation, plummeting ourselves into cynicism and despair as we lock into these cycles of failure.

I was introduced to the critical nature of the teller-of-new-stories role in reading the work of physicist Brian Swimme and theologian Thomas Berry. They wrote a new story of the universe, based on their belief that creating a new cosmic story is the most important work of our times. It is the new stories that will usher in a new era of human and planetary health.

Lest you believe that cosmic stories can only be told by physicists or theologians, their idea of a cosmic story is one that answers such questions as, What’s going on? Where did everything come from? Why are you doing what you do?

I believe that you and I have important themes to contribute to this new cosmic story. I would like to contrast in some detail the new and the old stories. My hope is that in seeing the great polarities between these two, you will feel more strongly called to give voice to the new.

For more than three hundred years, Western culture has been developing the old story. I would characterize it as a story of dominion and control, and all-encompassing materialism. This story began with a dream that it was within humankind’s province to understand the workings of the universe, and to gain complete mastery over physical matter. This dream embraced the image of the universe as a grand, clockwork machine. As with any machine, we would understand it by minute dissection, we would engineer it to do what we saw fit, and we would fix it through our engineering brilliance. This hypnotic image of powers beyond previous human imagination gradually was applied to everything we looked at: our bodies were seen as the ultimate machines; our organizations had all the parts and specifications to assure well-oiled performance; and in science, where it all began, many scientists confused metaphor with reality and believed life was a machine.

This dream still has immense hypnotic power over us. For every problem, we quickly leap to technical solutions, even if technology is the cause of the initial problem. Science will still save us, no matter the earthly mess we’ve created. In our bodies, we long to believe the promises of genetic engineering. Our greatest ills, perhaps even death, will vanish once we identify the troubling gene. We need only invest more in technology to yield unsurpassed benefits in health and longevity, and all because we are such smart engineers of the human body.

In most of our endeavors—in science, health, management, self-help—the focus is on creating better-functioning machines We replace the faulty part, reengineer the organization, install a new behavior or attitude, create a better fit, recharge our batteries. The language and thinking is mechanistic. And we give this image such hegemony over our lives because it seems our only hope for combating life’s cyclical nature, our one hope of escape from life’s incessant demands for creation and destruction.

When we created this story of complete dominion over matter, we also brought in control’s unwelcome partner, fear. Once we are intent on controlling something, we feel afraid when we meet with resistance. Since nothing is as controllable as we hope, we soon become entangled in a cycle of exerting control, failing to control, exerting harsher control, failing again, panicking. The fear that arises from this cycle is notable in many of us. It’s especially notable in our leaders. Things aren’t working as they had hoped, but none of us knows any other way to proceed. The world becomes scarier as we see daily the results of our ignorance and confront our true powerlessness. It is from this place, from an acknowledgment of our ignorance and lack of power, that the call goes out for a new story.

But the old story has some further dimensions worth noticing. This story has had a particularly pernicious effect on how we think about one another, and how we approach the task of organizing any human endeavor. When we conceived of ourselves as machines, we gave up most of what is essential to being human. We created ourselves devoid of spirit, will, passion, compassion, emotions, even intelligence. Machines have none of these characteristics innately, and none of them can be built into its specifications. The imagery is so foreign to what we know and feel to be true about ourselves that it seems strange that we ever adopted this as an accurate description of being human. But we did, and we do. A colleague of mine, as he was about to work with a group of oil company engineers, was warned that they had “heads of cement.” He cheerfully remarked that it didn’t matter, because they all had hearts, didn’t they? “Well,” they replied, “we call it a pump.”

The engineering image we carry of ourselves has led to organizational lives where we believe we can ignore the deep realities of human existence. We can ignore that people carry spiritual questions and quests into their work; we can ignore that people need love and acknowledgment; we can pretend that emotions are not part of our work lives; we can pretend we don’t have families, or health crises, or deep worries. In essence, we take the complexity of human life and organize it away. It is not part of the story we want to believe. We want a story of simple dimensions: People can be viewed as machines and controlled to perform with the same efficiency and predictability.

It is important to recognize that people never behave like machines. When given directions, we insist on putting our unique spin on them. When told to follow orders, we resist in obvious or subtle ways. When told to accept someone else’s solution or to institute a program created elsewhere, we deny that it has sufficient value.

As leaders, when we meet with such nonmechanical responses, we’ve had two options. We could criticize our own leadership skills, or we could blame our followers. If we the leader was the problem, perhaps it was due to poor communication skills; perhaps we weren’t visionary enough; maybe we’d chosen the wrong sales technique. If “our people” were the problem, it was because they lacked motivation or a clear sense of responsibility, or it could be that this time we’d just been cursed with an obstinate and rebellious group. With so much blame looking for targets, we haven’t taken time to stop and question our basic beliefs about each other. Are expectations of machinelike obedience and regularity even appropriate when working together?

Trying to be an effective leader in this machine story is especially exhausting. He or she is leading a group of lifeless, empty automatons who are just waiting to be filled with vision and direction and intelligence. The leader is responsible for providing everything: the organizational mission and values, the organizational structure, the plans, the supervision. The leader must also figure out, through clever use of incentives or coercives, how to pump energy into this lifeless mass. Once the pump is primed, he must then rush hither and yon to make sure that everyone is clanking along in the same direction, at the established speed, with no diversions. It is the role of the leader to provide the organizing energy for a system that is believed to have no internal capacities for self-creation, self-organization, or self-correction.

As I reflect on the awful demands placed on leaders by the old story, I wonder how anyone could survive in that job. Yet the mechanistic story has created roles for all of us that are equally deadly. It has led us to believe that we, with our unpredictable behaviors, our passions, our independence, our creativity, our consciousness—that we are the problem rather than the blessing. While the rest of nature follows obediently in the great mechanistic parade of progress, we humans show up as rebellious and untrustworthy. Our problematic natures are the very reason we need to create organizations as we do. How else could we structure such recalcitrance into vehicles of efficient production?

In this story, such key human traits as uniqueness, free will, and creativity pose enormous problems. Machines are built to do repetitive functions that require no thought and minimal adjustment. Conformity and compliance are part of the expectations of this story. Creativity is unwanted, because it is always surprising and therefore uncontrollable. If we tolerate creative expressions, we find ourselves with unmanageable levels of diversity. A machine world is willing to sacrifice exploration for prediction. Guaranteed levels of performance are preferable to surprising breakthroughs. In our machine-organizations, we try to extinguish individuality in order to reach our goal of compliance. We trade uniqueness for control, and barter our humanness for petty performance measures.

It is one of the great ironies of our age that we created organizations to constrain our problematic human natures, and now the only thing that can save these organizations is a full appreciation of the expansive capacities of us humans.

So it is time for the new story. Our old one, with its alienating myths, is eating away at us from the inside, rotting from its core. Fewer of us tell it with conviction. Many more of us are beginning to understand that our experience and our beliefs tell a story that celebrates life rather than denying it. We can see these in the pronounced increase in conversations and writings about destiny, purpose, soul, spirit, love, legacy, courage, integrity, meaning. The new story is being born in these conversations. We are learning to give voice to a different and fuller sense of who we really are.

I would like to characterize the new story as a tale of life. Setting aside our machine glasses, we can observe a world that exhibits life’s ebullient creativity and life’s great need for other life. We observe a world where creative selfexpression and embracing systems of relationships are the organizing energies, where there is no such thing as an independent individual, and no need for a leader to take on as much responsibility for us as we’ve demanded in the past.

As I develop some of the major themes of this new story of life, I will be drawing first on the work of modern science. However, science is only the most recent contributor to a story that is very ancient. We find this story in primal wisdom traditions, in indigenous tribes, in most spiritual thought, and in poets old and new. It is a story that has never been forgotten by any of us, and that has been held for us continually by many peoples and cultures. Yet for those of us emerging from our exhaustion with the old mechanistic tale, it feels new. And it certainly opens us to new discoveries about who we are as people, as organizations, and as leaders.

For me, one of the most wonderful contrasts of the old and new stories is described in a passage in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control. As he reached for language to describe life, he moved into sheer exuberance. (I always pay attention when a scientist uses poetic language—I know that something has touched him or her at a level of awareness that I don’t want to ignore.) Kelly was trying to describe the ceaseless creativity that characterizes life. He said that life gives to itself this great freedom, the freedom to become. Then he asked, “Becoming what?” and went on to answer:

Becoming becoming. Life is on its way to further complications, further deepness and mystery, further processes of becoming and change. Life is circles of becoming, an autocatalytic set, inflaming itself with its own sparks, breeding upon itself more life and more wildness and more “becomingness.” Life has no conditions, no moments that are not instantly becoming something more than life itself. (Kelly, 110)

Kelly’s passionate descriptions of processes that inflame, breed more life and wildness, create more deepness and mystery, stand in stark contrast to the expectations we have held for one another. I like to contemplate Kelly’s description of life with the lives we describe when we design an organizational chart. The contrast between the two is both funny and sobering. Could we even begin to tolerate such levels of passion and creativity in our organizations? But can we survive without them?

In the 1960s, the great American poet A. R. Ammons told the same story in different and precise language:

Don’t establish the

boundaries

first

the squares, triangles,

boxes

of preconceived

possibility,

and then

pour

life into them, trimming

off left-over edges,

ending potential:

let centers

proliferate

from

self-justifying motions!

In both science and poetry, we are remembering a story about life that has creativity and connectedness as its essential themes. As we use this new story to look into our organizational lives, it offers us images of organizations and leaders that are both startling and enticing. It offers us ways of being together where our diversity—our uniqueness—is essential and important. It offers us an arena big enough to embrace the full expression of our infinitely creative human natures.

And for the first time in a long time, it offers us the recognition that we humans are, in the words of physicist Ilya Prigogine, “the most striking realization of the laws of nature.” We can use ourselves and what we know about ourselves to understand the universe. By observing with new eyes the processes of creation in us, we can understand the forces that create galaxies, move continents, and give birth to star...

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9781576753170: Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time

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ISBN 10:  1576753174 ISBN 13:  9781576753170
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9781458777652: Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time

ReadHo..., 2012
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9783498073282: Leadership and the new Science

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