Who do we choose to be
Preparing Yourself for Times of Profound Disruption
Could you become or could you mentor people to become leaders to guide us through turbulent times? I reviewed the recent work of many authors writing in the field of self-organization and leadership while doing background research for my latest book: Do-it-Yourself Leaders: Beyond Hierarchy – A Self-Organization Workbook . Margaret J. Wheatley’s book, Who Do You Choose to Be: Facing Reality / Claiming Leadership / Restoring Sanity , stands out as one of the most inspiring books I have read in some time. The author is a highly regarded management consultant and teacher whose earlier book Leadership and the New Science is a standard reference in the field and a bestseller. (see www.margaretwheatley.com).
Wheatley summons us “to be leaders for this time of profound disruption, to reclaim leadership as a noble profession that creates possibility and humanness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil”. Wheatley’s leaders ‘lead’ by example, they demonstrate that they care by encouraging others to become more humane, to have healthy family lives, to be sensitive to the needs of others, to inspire generosity, to contribute to society and to the broader community. Wheatley believes that in order to become a leader one must gain knowledge about or become successful at self-managing the following elements:
1. The arrow of time – Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end – Wheatley provides many examples of the reality that no matter how strong a society, community, organization, family or an individual is, all will travel through this cycle.
2. Identity – Living systems change in order to preserve themselves. We ourselves are living systems so this applies to us as well. Consider the implications on societies as they pass through the era of post-truth, where the truth has become passé. Emotions, feelings and beliefs, not facts and objectivity, shape public opinion. Each day the news carries numerous examples of the effect of the post-truth era on society at large. Consider as well the effect on each of us as individuals. A lack of objectivity can lead to fear of the unknown, resistance to change, suspicion of that which is new and different resulting in a change in identity and a reduced quality of life.
3. Information – Wheatley writes “It is better to learn than to be dead”. She explains that our references to reality have changed dramatically. In the past information was a source of order; we could form opinions based on facts. But now facts are intentionally corrupted and used by bad leaders to create disorder, to serve their own ends. She proposes that the circulation of misinformation via the Internet and especially digital social networks empowers bad leaders to control public sentiment to a degree that exceeds their wildest dreams. Wheatley concludes that the digital age has destroyed the information age. She writes that when thinking falters, living systems are at risk and in the context of an organization, faulty thinking leads to death. Wheatley illustrates this through a description of her work with the US Army and their process for deep learning, or learn to learn via their “After Action Review”.
4. Self-organization – Or How to Establish Order for Free. Wheatley describes self-organization as a means to establish order free of charge. She stresses that a prerequisite for successful self-organization is to have a clear identity that is adaptable and to be able to develop new capabilities in response to developments within the larger system e.g. to respond effectively to change. But human beings have needs that can supersede openness and curiosity and impede innate intelligence, such as the need to belong and the need to feel accepted. Managing these potentially confounding aspects of our humanity calls for excellence in leadership. Leaders need to establish a common identity amongst colleagues that is transparent and well understood by everyone, whilst guarding preserving individuals’ autonomy. She explains that personal autonomy is needed so that each person can decide for herself or himself how to put that identity into action moment by moment. The challenges of leading in this manner, the skill required to do it well and the benefit such leadership imparts to societies and individuals are some of the reasons why Wheatley describes leadership as a noble calling. Effective leaders can guide us towards success, whether the goals are preservation or destruction, peace or for violence.
5. Perception – What You See Is All You Get. Wheatley builds on old and new knowledge about what we know, but even more about what we don’t know. The study of human psychology teaches us that our brains dictate what we perceive, yet our perceptions may be right or may be totally wrong, ‘untrue’. This phenomena, known as cognitive dissonance, explains why a group of people can be given identical information but each individual can derive radically different conclusions from it. We simply are not capable of seeing the world as an objective self-existing reality. Even with the aid of advanced scientific equipment total objectivity is impossible for humans. People will deny or ignore that which does not fit their mindset or their world-view. Therefore, leaders need to accept diversity, to even cultivate and depend on diversity. For it is by consolidating diverse perspectives we may be able to construct a more complete truth.
6. Interconnectedness – Nothing Living Lives Alone. We exist in a bundle of life. It is said that “a person is a person through other people”. This is the basis of the Ubuntu Philosophy . Archbishop Desmund Tutu said that It is not “I think therefore I am, but rather, I am human because I belong, I participate, I share”.
Udentity is a word coined by members of the NGO ubuntu4u to describe a shared identity. Udentity is defined as you and us uniting, universal, ubuntu and useful. Udentity is a critical dynamic and organic variable to be tended and nurtured by leaders as part of the starting material and ongoing fuel for implementing and managing self-organization.
I have tried in this blog to convey why I found Wheatley’s book to be so inspirational and so relevant to today’s world, not only from the perspective of the workplace or the world of politics, but relevant in our day-to-day lives with our friends and family. Wheatley summarized her thesis as follows:
Today’s leaders may be called upon to be Warriors for the Human Spirit, to take a position, to adjust this position as needed and to maintain it. This calls for a high level of confidence and determination and is born from calm, preparedness and discipline. The distinction between self-help and self-knowledge for the development of the Warriors is important. There are thousands of self-help methods available to design a better you. Wheatley believes that the key to success as Warriors for the Human Spirit is to aspire to high levels of self-awareness and, importantly, to learn to trust ourselves, to believe in our abilities, to be compassionate with ourselves. Self-compassion is not to be confused with self-love of the common self-help variety. Rather, by committing to self-awareness we improve the quality of support we can give to others. Margaret Wheatley is now 70 years of age. Her aspirations have become simplified in a sense, but no less profound and no less inspirational. Wheatley wants to leave behind a legacy of strong shoulders, strong enough for others to stand on and strong enough to carry them forward into whatever is to come.Read more