Meg Wheatley’s words of wisdom for uncertain times

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I recently read a book by Margaret Wheatley, called Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. If this isn’t an uncertain time, I don’t know what is, so I thought I would share some of MW’s thoughts. If these resonate with you, I recommend the book in its entirety. She shares many wonderful (and faintly Buddhist-flavoured) insights into hope, surrender, and the beauty of shared human endeavour.

The New Story is Ours to Tell

For a long time, possibly inspired by Isaac Newton, we have had an image of human society as a machine, and we have mostly focused on creating better-functioning machines.

“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… I would like to characterise 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 self-expression and embracing systems of relationships are the organising 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…”

So MW is endorsing a way where we let go of our white-knuckled death-grip on fate, and relax into the trust that life is not out to get us. In all honesty, our ability to control life is limited (as COVID has reminded us) and we can either fight that reality, or accept it with grace and work with it.

MW endorses self-organising systems, analogous to what we see all around us in nature. Nature has no CEO determining its strategy, nor deciding what species gets “promoted” and which is “fired”. It is a beautifully messy, chaotic, but ultimately intelligent system that has done an amazing job of evolving without anybody taking charge.

This kind of organisation is:

  • Adaptive
  • Flexible
  • Self-renewing
  • Resilient
  • Learning
  • Intelligent

… attributes found only in living systems.

[Self-organising systems “have the capacity to create for themselves the aspects of organisation that we thought leaders had to provide. Self-organising systems create structures and pathways, networks of communication, values and meaning, behaviours and norms. In essence, they do for themselves most of what we believed we had to do for them. Rather than thinking of organisation as an imposed structure, plan, design, or role, it is clear that in life, organisation arises from the interactions and needs of individuals who have decided to come together.”

The human desires that lead people to organise — to find more meaning in life, to bring more good into the world, to serve others — come from this new story of self-organisation.

“Life seeks organisation, but it uses messes to get there. Organisation is a process, not a structure.”

This process of organising involves:

  • Developing relationships from a shared sense of purpose
  • Exchanging and creating information
  • Learning constantly
  • Paying attention to the results of our efforts
  • Coadapting
  • Coevolving
  • Developing wisdom as we learn
  • Staying clear about our purpose
  • Being alert to changes from all directions

In this new story, we discover a world where life gives birth to itself using two powerful (but sometimes contradictory) forces:

  • the need to be free to create one’s self
  • the need to reach out for relationships with others.

“In human nature, we struggle with the tension between these two forces. But in nature, successful examples of this paradox abound and reveal surprising treasures of insight. It is possible to create resilient and adaptive communities that welcome our diversity as well as our membership.”

To create communities that thrive in the paradox, ask these questions:

  • What called us together?
  • What did we believe was possible together that was not possible alone?
  • What did we hope to bring forth by linking with others?

And this requires a new kind of leadership:

“Leaders who live in the new story help us understand ourselves differently by the way they lead. They trust our humanness; they welcome the surprises we bring to them; they are curious about our differences; they delight in our inventiveness; they nurture us; they connect us. They trust that we can create wisely and well, that we seek the best interests of our organisation and our community, that we want to bring more good into the world.”

In other words, they don’t try to bribe us with job titles or financial rewards, which ultimately lead to disengagement, envy, and bitterness. (See Barry Schwartz’s short but powerfully insightful book, Why We Work.)

There are 3 conditions of self-organising organisations:

  1. Identity: the sense-making capacity of the organisation. An organisation with a coherent centre is able to sustain itself through turbulence because of its clarity about who it is. To return to natural analogy, no species tries to be another — apart from maybe the occasional family dog that wants to be a human (see The Art of Racing in the Rain — a charming story, written (obviously) by a human pretending to be a dog who wants to be a human — hmmm, charming, but how very anthropocentric.)
  2. Information: the medium of the organisation. Only when information belongs to everyone can people organise rapidly and effectively around shifts.
  3. Relationships: the pathways of organisation. Who is available, what do they know, and how can they reach each other?

We recognise that no one person or leaders has the answer, that we need everybody’s creativity to find our way through this strange new world.

Goodbye, Command and Control

“Amid all the evidence that our world is radically changing, we retreat to what has worked in the past. These days, leaders respond to increasing uncertainty by defaulting to command and control… we don’t need more command and control; we need better means to engage everyone’s intelligence in solving challenges and crises as they arise.”

Leaders need to:

  • foster experimentation and tolerate “failure” so long as it leads to learning
  • help create connections across the organisation
  • feed the system with information from multiple sources
  • help everyone stay clear on what we agreed we wanted to accomplish and who we wanted to be

When Change is Out of Our Control

Strategies that used to work, don’t (see my post on The Rise and Fall of the Human Empire), and organisations often sacrifice the leader who “failed” rather than examine the system as a whole. There is a danger that people who have honed their skills to predict the future have been rewarded well for them, but their expertise blinds them to what is happening in the present.

The Great Paradox is that it is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be:

“The best way to prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust each other. If we can rely on one another, we can cope with almost anything. Without each other, we retreat into fear.”

This reminds me very much of the Statement of the Hopi Elders, which carries great wisdom for these times, and which MW has also written about, in Perseverance, the only book I took with me on my boat.

Life is uncertain: “The reason we don’t like life is that it behaves like life.”

Life is cyclical: David Whyte: “If you think life is always improving, you’re going to miss half of it.”

We can choose to resist, or to embrace the gifts of confusion:

“Knowledge is born in chaotic processes that take time. The irony of this principle is that it demands two things we don’t have — a tolerance for messy, nonlinear processes, and time. But creativity is only available when we become confused and overwhelmed, when we get so frustrated that we admit we don’t know. And then, miraculous, a perfect insight appears, suddenly… Great insights never appear at the end of a series of incremental steps. Nor can they be commanded to appear on schedule, no matter how desperately we need them. They present themselves only after a lot of work that culminates in so much frustration that we surrender. Only then are we humble enough and tired enough to open ourselves to entirely new solutions.”

Old-school as they may sound, metrics are important, but they have to be the right kind of metrics:

“Measurement is critical — but only when it provides feedback. All life thrives on feedback and dies without it. We have to know what is going on around us, how our actions impact others, how the environment is changing, how we’re changing. If we don’t have access to this kind of information, we can’t adapt or grow.”

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MW offers some useful questions (reminiscent of Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-prize winning work on the management of the commons):

Who gets to create the measures? Generated by those doing the work. People only support what they create, and those closest to the work know the most about what is significant to measure.

How will we measure our measures? How do we keep our measures useful and current? How will we know when they are obsolete? How will we check for unintended consequences?

Are we designing measures that are permeable rather than rigid? How do they invite in, and encourage, freshness and surprise?

Will these measures create information that increases our capacity to grow the purpose of this organisation? Will this information help us grown in the right direction? Will they help us achieve our purpose?

What measures will inform us about critical capacities: accountability, learning, teamwork, quality, innovation? How can we measure these without destroying them? What ways of measuring support the relationships that give rise to these behaviours?

The real capacity of an organisation arises when colleagues willingly struggle together in a common work that they find meaningful.

The New Leadership

“I strongly believe that the old leadership paradigm has failed us and that our current systems will continue to unravel. This has changed what I do and whom I choose to support. I no longer spend any time trying to fix or repair the old or to improve old leadership methods. I spend all of my time now supporting those giving birth to the new, those pioneering with new approaches to organising and leading. In communities all over the world, many brave pioneers are experimenting with new approaches for resolving the most difficult societal problems. These new leaders have abandoned traditional practices of hierarchy, power, and bureaucracy. They believe in people’s innate creativity and caring. They know that most people can be awakened to be active in determining what goes on in their communities and organisations. They practice consistent innovation and courage — wherever they see a problem, they also see possibility. They figure out how to respond. If one response doesn’t work, they try another. They naturally think in terms of interconnectedness, following problems wherever they lead, addressing multiple cause rather than single symptoms. They think in terms of complex global systems yet also work locally.”

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Surrendering to Uncertainty

The many perils of information overload in the modern world include not only dogma, but also intellectual fragility:

“Gradually we become more certain but less informed… in a changing world, certainty doesn’t give us stability; it actually creates more chaos… I believe that this changing world requires much less certainty and far more curiosity. I’m not suggesting we let go of our beliefs, only that we become curious about what someone else believes. As we open ourselves to the disturbing differences, sometimes we discover that another’s way of interpreting the world actually is essential to our survival.”

Rudolf Bahro: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”

MW advocates the idea of groundlessness in the Buddhist sense, of stopping seeking solid ground to stand on:

“Hopelessness is not the opposite of hope. Fear is. Hope and fear are inescapable partners. Anytime we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make it happen, then we also introduce fear — fear of failing, fear of loss. Hopelessness is free of fear and thus can feel quite liberating.”

This reminds me of Pema Chodron, in her wonderful book, When Things Fall Apart:

“Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Everyday in everyway, I’m getting better and better.” We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation… Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on. If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”

Ultimately, we have to accept that our fate is unknown, and unknowable, and our destination is in fact less important than the way we conduct ourselves on the journey there. As Thomas Merton wrote:

“Do not depend on the hope of results… you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself… you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people… in the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

Other Stuff:

I was delighted recently to be the inaugural guest on a new podcast from Germany, Ein Pod Kaffee (although obviously we recorded it in English — my O-level German was nowhere near up to the task!). The podcast and the related article are here: How To Find True Meaning For Yourself.

I was also interviewed by John McCarthy, the former Beirut hostage, for the BBC World Service: Solitude: Reflections on Faith in a Global Crisis. The producer was kind enough to suggest I should have my own radio show, and is putting it to the powers-that-be at the Beeb, but I’m guessing Auntie Beeb, like everybody else, isn’t hiring at the moment. But wouldn’t that be amazing?!

Oh, and please remember to buy my new book, or if you’ve already bought it, please buy another copy for a friend!

And finally, following on from last week’s quest-fest, I have some more questions, this time of a more metaphysical nature:

We don’t know what the outcome of the COVID crisis will be. How can I sit with that yin-unknowing?

Is that the task of these times, to live with a kind of Schrödinger-style quantum indecision as to what the future holds?

Is it up to us to decide whether the cat lives or dies, depending on how we choose to respond to this situation, or how we measure it? We’ve been enculturated to behave like particles, but is this our opportunity to become waves?

What are we choosing to measure, observe, pay attention to?

What kind of awareness do we choose to bring to this — left-brain reductionist or right-brain holistic?

Is this really about the virus? Or is the virus pointing to something bigger we need to address?

This article was first posted on my website, at www.rozsavage.com. Please sign up for my newsletter at my website to get first dibs on all my content.

Written by

Former management consultant who stepped out of the ordinary to row oceans solo. Currently writing at https://www.thegiftsofsolitude.com/ and www.rozsavage.com

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