Margaret Wheatley: The deeper theory under those statements was that vision was a field and that fields are those invisible forces that shape behavior. People would have called that far-out thinking before, but I find that people are much more open to that today than ten years ago. We might be learning that. The power of vision to rally people or to give people a reason to live, to work hard and to sacrifice, we are seeing that at the national level right now.
Science helps people be comfortable with that, and feel a little more trusting that you can create order through having a clear vision.
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But the next part of that is just as important. Once you have a clear vision you have to free people up. This is where autonomy comes in. John Noble: I previously worked for an organization where I once suggested that the leaders should begin to stand aside and ask the next generation of leaders for their vision and then begin to work with that in order to create a new future.
My thought was that the current leaders could assume the role of stewards, supporters, servants. Have you come across an organization that has worked in this way?
Margaret Wheatley: Yes. It was the U. Army, under General Gordon R.
I am in absolute support of what you were trying to do. He did simulations, he did think tanks, he did all sorts of scenario planning on what would the world be like and how could you create the army and technology to defend it. He had to think 15 years ahead, minimally. He was really pushing out as far as he could see, using very good minds. So I did find that kind of thinking in the armed services. Then the marines got into it seriously, and the air force did, too.
You created the role of elder there, and you were asking the senior people to become wise people who would be acting in service to the next generation. You could have found support for that in most other cultures, but not in the West where we have so feared aging.
I find that quite remarkable. But when General Sullivan retired from the army and went to serve on corporate boards, he was dismayed that nobody was thinking about the future. You were suggesting something much stronger than that. But just to call in the voices of the future into our present deliberations is not happening enough, and yet it is one of the most powerful things.
Once you get people into these intergenerational conversations it is so inspiring for everyone to be talking with each other. This is where I think we have over analyzed and over complexified something that is known to everyone alive. Babies know how to unleash love. We need to get away from the belief that you can run an organization using what are called objective measures or objective processes, which are actually just completely de-humanized. The fear of love in organizations is that it makes your life as a leader far more complex.
But it also makes you much more effective. I was just listening a few days ago to a woman who had recently retired as the chief of the Calgary Police Force and she talked about what it took to be personally available and present for each of those officers, so that she was always embodying the values, finding ways for them to embody the values, and believe in the values and become the kind of police officers they wanted to be.
I thought that was a brilliant re-thinking of that.
She would work with everyone on what they were trying to accomplish and the values they were trying to bring forth. And from those, of course, you get a wonderful corporate culture and very strong values.
But she kept saying that this was enormously time-consuming and was very difficult work that required her to be there all the time. But then they got the wake up call of their life. When I said that you have to want to believe, you really have to want to have relationship, and there are an awful lot of people in our workplaces, not just leaders but whole professions, who have never wanted relationships. Larry Spears: For many, serving others is inextricably tied to their own sense of spirituality. So, even if you start out with a naturally open heart and a generous spirit towards others, there are many, many structures and processes in modern work and modern life that actually close us down.
So we do need a practice to maintain an open heart. I am a strong believer in meditation personally, but I think any process by which you withdraw from the world and focus on your own inner grounding is useful. So, I find it needs to be rouitinized. Once I decided that the work was really how to keep my heart open, that led me to a number of practices beyond my own meditation, although some of the meditations I work with now are traditional practices to keep your heart open.
Your own private experience is being felt by countless other human beings, and somehow this changes the experience from personal pain and anxiety to your heart opening to many others. Larry Spears: What do you find most compelling about Buddhist practice? It is actually just a way to live your life. I have my own very eclective theology. I was raised Christian and Jewish, so I started out with that eclecticism, and Buddhism has really introduced me to the day-to-day practices that I feel have really opened my heart and made me far more understanding and gentle.
And, what is more important to me, it has made me far less likely to condemn quickly and far more willing to be in the presence of suffering and not to run from it. You just have to be there. Just being with someone has become really important rather than saying the right phrase or the right word that will fix it. And so I very much want to be the presence of peace and possibility for people.
I feel that is something I can be, and have been, and in order to be that I need to experience peace fairly regularly from this much deeper place which is available to me through my different practices. I think that the central work of our time is how to be together differently.
Can we notice where we are causing harm and try at least to do no harm? That would be a huge step forward for a lot of us. So many of us were overwhelmed by the experiences of September 11th, but we saw people being together without the divisions that had separated them moments before. Buddhism is a series of practices that keep my heart open and keep me being present, rather than fleeing from what is day-to-day life.
In that way I think it has also saved my life.
When you have encountered this in organizations how have you addressed the problem? What we get is something that is predictable in everything that is alive, from bacteria on up. So, the first freedom is you choose whether you notice or not. And the second freedom is you are then completely free to choose your reaction to it.
It will always react, it will never obey. This is just perfect! If they do just what we say we have killed the spirit. We have a profound disrespect for people who act like automatons, even though, if you look at most managers, they still think they want an automatic obedient response. This has been a very old maxim in the field of organizational behavior, that people support what they create.
I say that people only support what they create. I find when I speak about participation people still think that I mean everybody in the room doing all of the work at the same time. And they are much more creative! I also work with the principle that participation is not a choice. Larry Spears: Leadership and the New Science is generally considered to be one of the most important books on leadership to be published in the last decade or longer.
Did you have a sense when you were writing it that you were on to something? I just wrote it because it felt like the work I was supposed to be doing. Margaret Wheatley: It was absolutely tied to that book coming forth. The West for me is freedom, and the wilderness is for me the deepest experience of harmony. I had no idea why I was moving to Utah at the time. I think it was just to be liberated into life, really, into the experience of what is space and wilderness and sky.
And also just the incredible beauty of Utah. The red rocks of Utah are still my most sacred place to go. That was it! What led you to choose the subject of conversation?
I chose the action of turning to one another, and conversation is the simplest way to do that. To actually be willing to listen and talk to other human beings is the way throughout time that we have thought together, and dreamed together. The simple act of conversation seems so far removed from our daily lives now, and yet we all have a vague memory of what it was like. Since September 11 we have been profoundly different conversationalists and felt the need to talk to each other and to be together.
We will become more intelligent actors to change the things we think need changing. You can start that work through conversation, or through literacy training as Freire did. I wrote it for the world. A world that is based on our common human desires for love and meaning from work and a chance to contribute.
The other piece that truly informed this was my experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which was life-changing for me. I only attended it once but followed the proceedings every time I was in South Africa during its three year history. And the one day that I went was unbelievably impactful. It was when the parents of a young American Fulbright scholar who had been murdered, Amy Biel, were present.