Margaret J. Wheatley Interview Transcription 20131101, Friday, November 1, 2013, River’s Edge Cleveland, Rocky River, Ohio
Hi, I’m Margaret Wheatley. I’ve worked out in the world now for forty years supporting leaders on all continents except Antarctica. And in virtually all types of organizations and communities. I began my life feeling very attracted to being out in the world, I do consider myself a global citizen at this point, and I began my global work by being in the Peace Corps in the 1960’s three years after it
Since that time, I’ve had amazing opportunities to work with great thinkers, great leaders and being everywhere from Aboriginal communities in many places to cabinet ministers and a few governments. So, it’s that range of experience that I really rely on now whenever I speak about global trends, what’s happening in the world, and how my work has evolved I think reflects that forty year journey.
A number of people have noted, if they’re reading all of my books, and I have seven books by now, which is another shocking thing, how my thinking has evolved from my practice being out in the world. I started out with Leadership in the New Science, believing that if you presented the evidence, and presented a stunningly good idea, with results that were guaranteed to enhance productivity, motivate people to be more creative, to be more committed to the organization. My belief at that time, this is twenty-one years ago, twenty-two years ago I’m speaking about, was quite innocent, it was the belief that good ideas well presented will change the world. Well, I’ve had twenty-two years of disappointment with that, but its learning, its not so much disappointment as it is learning. What I’ve learned is that when you’re changing at the level of a world view a mental model or a paradigm, whatever you want to call it, people do not accept the evidence, they’re not interested in taking on new ideas because what it threatens is their world view and it threatens the work that they’ve done, the things they’ve habituated to do, the techniques they rely on, so nobody really wants to eagerly encounter a new idea if it requires that level of shift in what they do and how they think. But of course there are always people who are ahead of the new ideas and just appreciate the fact that somebody has put it into writing. And I’ve gotten a lot of that appreciation, people who say to me, “Yeah, this is what I sense, this is what I knew” and many of them are women because this is about a relational world where everything becomes possible through our relationships, that’s quantum theory as well as a good humanistic point of view.
So, in the ensuing years, I’ve written six other books, and they have gradually shifted from, here’s what you do if you want to create community, here’s how to think and practice if you really want to develop organizations that can rock and roll in chaotic circumstances. But my work in I would say, the past three books, so that would include Perseverance, Walk Out Walk On- which is designed as a learning journey into communities that have given up the old ways and are learning to live the future now, and my most recent book, So Far From Home: Lost and Found in a Brave New World, those three books plus the more recent editions of my first one, Leadership in the New Science, have shifted dramatically from wanting to just better explain how these concepts from chaos theory, and complexity theory, and quantum theory, can really manifest in new organizational forms. That was the old dream, and now they’re much a voice of warning, a voice of summoning to realize that the world that has emerged is not of our doing, it has emerged in spite of our best efforts to change it for the good, it’s based on values that are absolutely contrary to those that many of us have held dear and worked hard to manifest in the world. And so my more recent books are around the question of, Who do we choose to be now that’d we’ve fully faced the world that has emerged? And so I personally shifted from thinking we can change systems, thinking we can change things at a larger, greater level of scale. And I’ve really come to terms with the fact that you don’t change an emergent system. And that’s one of the great, really big differences between an understanding of change from a new science perspective and understanding change from our more mechanistic approaches. Once a system has emerged, and you never see it coming in all of its qualities or capabilities, once a system has emerged you don’t change it, you can’t work backwards. This is where reductionism just fails completely.
The organizations that I observe, the governments that I observe, the people that I support, even if they’re doing great work and they have a lot of evidence that they are achieving really good results, these programs can be swept away in an instant by our most vile politics. And I’m not just speaking of America, I mean it’s the great tragedy that this move to abolish good social welfare programs in the name of austerity measures is a complete disrespect and disregard for the future and for the citizens of these different countries. So, in the face of seeing that, and seeing it over and over again and working with the people who had these great programs and who are now devastated by the inherent disrespect for their efforts, or the invisibility of their efforts, or the not caring for their efforts it’s in the face of that that I wrote a book called Perseverance, which is a moment to moment, day to day guide to how we don’t get drowned out by the meanness, the criticism, the setbacks, the failures and how we truly become people who persevere, not because our values and practices are common now, in fact they stand up in great contrast to what is, but it’s because we are the people, as one of my teachers said, “it’s just our turn” to serve the world.
That’s really been the fundamental shift in my own work and it’s very clearly expressed in my newest book, So Far From Home: Lost And Found In Our Brave New World, because in that book I’m asking us to go deeply into what is, to see it without the blinders of denial, and to accept what I consider to be a much more noble role for ourselves, that of Warriors for the Human Spirit. Can we be the people who aren’t going to change this emergent system? I would like us to take our energy from that effort, because it’s horribly disappointing and I have been there many times, and I work with people still trying to turn things around at the systems level, I no longer believe that’s possible, I do believe that what’s possible is we make a commitment to practice the values that we cherish, the practices that we know support other people’s creativity and commitment, and that we be leaders of, it is a counter force, a counter revolution. I don’t think it’s going to change the dominant systems, some people still do, but I don’t. However, it does give us a kind of nobility of purpose that I think leaders, and generally, people are craving at this time. Life has become so impossibly meaningless, that it’s really a wonderful opportunity if we realize we’re not going to change the larger system, but that we can create, what right now I’m calling “islands of sanity” in the midsts of this very crazed, lunatic, charged sea. I can’t even come up with strong enough adjectives to describe the level of insanity that’s taking place. But I do know that in every hard time, there are always people who stand up for what’s right, who stand up for each other, and that’s what my work is now. Everywhere I’m speaking and in my writing, I’m inviting us into this role of Warriors for the Human Spirit. The word “warrior” is problematic, I understand that, but I take it from the Tibetan word, “paowo” which means one who is brave. One who is brave enough not to use aggression, not to use fear to accomplish their ends, what they need to happen, that’s a hard one in this culture because we’re just swimming in aggression. (Editor's note: see "Spiritual Warrior")
If you just look at current advertisements you see. It’s all about being first, being best, being hardest, being toughest, no matter what you’re facing. One of my favorite current commercials that is so aggressive is about hurricane season. There is someone standing in front of a house, this is an advert for generators, so you’ll have electricity when the storm takes out the electrical system. And the person is just standing there saying, “Mother Nature, bring it on!” Like I can take you. What kind of craziness are we in really? So, Warrior for the Human Spirit, refuses, or works very hard, not to use aggression, not to use that combative attitude, that arrogance that I’m better than you, I’m bigger than you and we should do things my way. Those are all more subtle examples of arrogance. But we not only commit to trying to work together using generosity, compassion and insight, but we also base our own struggles, and our own bravery on our beliefs about human goodness and what people are, which I think we’ve lost completely any sense of human capacity, such as compassion and generosity. And in this day and age there’s more than enough examples of mean spiritedness, greed, dishonesty, etc., etc.
However, we have to be the ones who believe that other people are as motivated by good qualities as we are. I have found in my work with leaders, this started with Leadership in the New Science, is that, what do you believe about the people who work for you? Do you believe that they are as capable, as creative, as committed as you the leader are? Because if you don’t believe they are just like you, then you will act as we see most leaders acting these days with arrogance, with superiority, elitism. I mean the rise of an elite class that just distains everyone else is a sign, it’s always part of the pattern of civilizations going down. And I observe this everywhere and I observe it in too many leaders. The belief that I’m in this for myself and I’m just going to take what I can and I’m going to have a good life because other people really aren’t as good as me. And I like to say it that boldly because I think that really is what’s going on.
Now, those of you who are even watching this I would assume are of the other variety, where we really understand that people are worth struggling for, they’re worth trying to become an effective leader for but the current climate for leadership is not that. The current climate is that people need to be controlled, they need to be distrusted, they need to be monitored, they need to be measured, I mean how else can you explain this burgeoning bureaucracy that’s going on right now? Everywhere where people are just under the burden of more and more reports, more and more measures that don’t make any sense. That kind of meaninglessness now pervades most workplaces, the overly bureaucratic ones. And for me, that’s just another testimony to the fact that we’ve gotten engaged in organizing processes that are based on a profound, enduring distrust of people. And so we need we need to be controlled. That’s my base explanation for why there’s so much, such an exponential increase in bureaucracy and bureaucratization. And it’s driving people crazy, and we’re becoming cynical, we’re becoming robotic, we don’t find meaning at work nearly as much as we did.
Personally, and going back to the trajectory of my work, I feel that when I was an active consultant and really doing large systems change in large organizations and governments, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was a whole different feeling about human potential. And then we had the human potential movement. But I’m just speaking about it in terms of leadership. Leaders, at least enough of them to encourage us who were consulting, really did want to create robust workplaces, where people were engaged, where people felt creative because they knew that yielded good results. But that’s disappeared. That disappeared around 9/11 in my own perception and we just clamped down on people and now we’re just clutched in this culture of fear and aggression. So, it becomes increasingly difficult for good leaders, leaders who knew what to do, to even do it now. I think that’s one of the dilemmas of leadership right now: there isn’t enough space, there isn’t enough room and there isn’t enough acceptance of doing the things that more experienced leaders know work best if you want to motivate people and if you want to create innovative workplaces.
So, I now think, and I try to encourage those leaders who do know better and newer leaders, that in using any of these processes which engage people, which rely on people, this is counter the culture, this is a revolutionary act. And therefore, so if I put this together, we’re not going to change the larger system, but we certainly can stand up and do what we can, where we are, with the resources we have in order to create these islands of sanity. They’re islands of possibility, they’re islands where people’s relationships with one another are healthy again, where it feels good to work together again, and where we can be creative. But I put a big barrier up to our thinking that if we do this right, we’re going to turn this world around. Because there’s no evidence to support that. Absolutely no evidence.
In my own work with leaders these days, I am strongly encouraging, I would say even insisting that they pay attention to three things, and only three things. And the first thing is to pay exquisite attention to relationships. This is the fabric, the means for us to persevere, for us to enjoy whatever work we’re doing, no matter what happens in the larger sea of insanity that I portrayed. And we still, in our hurried lives, we are so overly distracted these days, that we’re operating, this culture operates as a great centrifuge extractor in which we are being separated, a centrifuge machine takes what is formerly together and separates it through speed. And I think that’s what’s happening in this culture. So, paying attention to relationships as the first responsibility of the leader because that gives you the means to do good work. That gives people enough sense of confidence, trust, we get away from this knee-jerk blame, blaming individuals of not being willing to take risks because there’s so much blame just looking for people to pin it on. So, that’s the first thing, is to pay exquisite attention to relationships.
The second one, is again very simple but it feels always bizarre to me to have to say this, which is, we need to restore thinking to the workplace. We need to come together in regular, informal non agenda meetings that are reliable, they don’t go away when things get too busy or a crisis hits. But we need to come together and just problem solve together, I mean we’re dealing with complex problems, they require a variety, a diversity of viewpoints, they require time. My favorite quote of the month is, “The cause of problems is solutions.” That’s from the old radio television announcer, Eric Sevareid, so it’s probably from the 1970’s. But, it’s true that the cause of problems is solutions, or our short term solution, our instant fixes, our not wanting to deal with anything in terms of even more than three months. I mean just look at the US budget process or the EU’s budget process right now, it’s absolutely ridiculous. So, we need to be the ones, in these islands of sanity who are restoring thinking. It doesn’t take much, it just takes hospitable space, reflective time, time enough, and welcoming people in to this, for some people a new experience and for us old ones, it’s a remembered experience of what it feels like to sit there and figure things out together. So, that’s a hugely important aspect of leadership these days and it takes a lot of courage to start because people will say, “Well, I’m too busy” but in fact that’s further evidence you need to gather people together on a very regular basis to think together about what’s up, what are our current issues, our problems, our crisis, whatever.
The third, non-negotiable demand that I’m making of leadership these days is to have a personal practice for reflection. And a personal practice for reflection is a way of garnering a sense of peacefulness. Without that we just get eaten alive. I work with a bunch of senior leaders in the national park system, and dealing with the incoherence and the brutality and the viciousness of Washington politics requires a level of internal strength, and calm, and being able to access your own integrity, your own peacefulness. Well, you don’t get that out in the world. You get that from some form of regular practice in which you are quieting the mind, or being in nature, or walking your dog, or doing a sport that’s high involvement, but something that gives you a sense of balance, groundedness, centeredness and therefore peacefulness.
Resilience Through Compassion and Connection Margaret Wheatley, invited guest, in a public conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Orleans on May 17, 2013. Click/tap the image to listen to the conversation. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Wheatley.)
Editor's note: Margaret Wheatley is president of The Berkana Institute, a global charitable leadership foundation.
Margaret J. Wheatley
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Related Interview Materials at I-Open Media Libraries:
Margaret J. Wheatley, systems thinking, theories of change, chaos theory, leadership, learning organization, self-organizing, A Simpler Way, Leadership and the New Science, Turning to One Another, Finding Our Way, Walk Out Walk On, So Far From Home, i-open, river’s edge cleveland, rocky river ohio
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