Leadership for Uncertain Times

Finding Our Way: Leadership For An Uncertain Time by Margaret Wheatley
(An excerpt)


There is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. I have declared this for many years and seen it to be true in many places. This simpler way feels new, yet it is the most ancient story there is. It is the ancient story demonstrated to us daily by life, not the life we see on the news with its unending stories of human grief and horror, but what we feel when we’re in nature, when we experience a sense of life’s deep harmony, beauty, and power. It is the story of how we feel when we see people helping each other, when we feel creative, when we know we’re making a difference, when life feels purposeful.

For many years, I’ve written and spoken about this ancient new story, and how we might apply it in organizations and communities around the world. I’ve learned that as we understand how living systems operate, we develop the skills we need: we become resilient, adaptive, aware, and creative. We enjoy working together. And life’s processes work everywhere, no matter the culture, group, or person, because these are basic dynamics shared by all living beings. As we work with life, we also rediscover another gift, the great potential of the human spirit. I’ve worked in many places in the world of extreme material poverty. But that challenge fades in comparison to those of us who have forgotten how resilient and vast the human spirit is. Mother Teresa once said that the greatest poverty she saw was in the West because we suffer from spiritual poverty.

Western cultural views of how best to organize and lead (the majority paradigm in use in the world) are contrary to what life teaches. Western practices attempt to dominate life; we want life to comply with human needs rather than working as partners. This disregard for life’s dynamics is alarmingly evident in today’s organizations. Leaders use control and imposition rather than self-organizing processes. They react to uncertainty and chaos by tightening already feeble controls, rather than engaging our best capacities in the dance. Leaders use primitive emotions of fear, scarcity, and self-interest to get people to do their work, rather than the more noble human traits of cooperation, caring, and generosity.

This has led us to this difficult time, when nothing seems to work as we want it to, when too many of us feel frustrated, disengaged, and anxious.

The Era of Many Messes

I find it important, periodically, to ask people to step back and try to see the big picture. This is difficult to do when we’re stressed by so many pressures at work and at home. But when we shift to fifty thousand feet, it’s easier to see that our impotence is not a result of personal failings. Instead, failing to achieve good results is a consequence of living in this time when we’ve reached the end of a paradigm. Many of our fundamental beliefs and practices no longer serve us or the greater world. Worse than that, too many are causing harm and distancing us from the very skills, knowledge, and wisdom that would help. This is the era of many messes.

Some of these we’ve created (although not intentionally,) because we act on assumptions that can never engender healthy, sustainable societies and organizations. We act as if humans are motivated by selfishness, greed, and fear. That we exist as individuals, free of the obligation of interdependence. That hierarchy and bureaucracy are the best forms of organizing. That efficiency is the premier measure of value. That people work best under controls and regulations. That diversity is a problem. That unrestrained growth is good. That a healthy economy leads naturally to a healthy society. That poor people have different motivations than other people. That only a few people are creative. That only a few people care about their freedom.

These beliefs are false. They’ve created the intractable problems that we now encounter everywhere. If you look globally, it’s hard to find examples in any country or any major sector—health, education, religion, governance, development—of successfully solving dilemmas. Attempts to resolve them lead only to more problems, unintended consequences, and angry constituents. While millions of people work earnestly to find solutions, and billions of dollars are poured into these efforts, we can’t expect success as long as we stay wedded to our old approaches. We live in a time that proves Einstein right: “No problem can be solved from the same level of thinking that created it.”

Wheatley, Margaret J. (2005). Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (pp. 1-3).  Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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