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 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Meg Wheatley

An expert on innovative leadership warns that too many companies are reverting to fear-driven management. Instead, executives should hold to their values and build healthy corporate communities.

With her first book, Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe (Berrett-Koehler, 1992), Margaret J. (Meg) Wheatley began developing a body of work around the links between organizational learning, innovative leadership, and such fields of thought as chaos theory, quantum physics, and neuroscience. Around the same time, she cofounded the Berkana Institute, a U.S.-based not-for-profit organization, dedicated to experimental efforts to build healthy communities around the world, often in highly impoverished areas with many serious challenges. During the next 15 years, Wheatley’s views on communities, and her experience with innovative management practice, made her a central figure in a wide network of pioneers in organizational learning and change.

Then, starting in the mid-2000s and accelerating with the economic crisis of 2008, Wheatley noticed new levels of anxiety among her friends, clients, and business acquaintances. Even the most performance-oriented innovative leaders, when confronted with the harshness of global competition or other severe business pressures, felt compelled to cut back their participative management practices — often at the expense of profitability and growth.

Wheatley responded by turning simultaneously inward and outward. During a 15-month period, she produced two very different books. The first, Perseverance (Berrett-Koehler, 2010), is a small, personal book, a meditation on tenacity in the face of adversity. It is written explicitly for people dedicated to organizational change, who have suddenly found their work much more difficult, and who are looking for ways to sustain their effort and their peace of mind.

Walk Out Walk On, coauthored with Deborah Frieze (a former co-president of the Berkana Institute), is subtitled A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now (Berrett-Koehler, 2011). It describes seven innovative leadership and community-building initiatives: a self-organizing university in a highland Mexican village, where students build small-scale technologies such as bicycle-powered water pumps as a means of local empowerment; a Brazilian institute that sets up “30-day games” in which players come together to improve conditions in debilitated neighborhoods; a Zimbabwean village dedicated to self-sustaining agriculture in the midst of politically created famine; a remarkable network of people transforming healthcare, education, and social service institutions in Columbus, Ohio; and similarly groundbreaking initiatives in South Africa, India, and Greece. The organizers of all these endeavors walked out of restrictive or confining ways of thinking, and Wheatley argues that anyone can do the same — which might mean changing jobs in some cases, but always means shifting perspective within one’s current situation.

We conducted this interview on several occasions in 2011: first by telephone, then at the annual summer workshops of the Authentic Leadership in Action (ALIA) Institute (where we both teach), and finally at the Cape Cod Institute (where Wheatley leads a seminar each summer). Wheatley’s theme, the value of conscious perseverance, may particularly resonate with strategy+business readers — many of whom face the challenge of managing high-commitment, high-performance enterprises in the face of intensive competitive pressure and rising uncertainty.

S+B: Why is perseverance important right now?
Because so many innovative leaders are struggling to do good, meaningful work in a time of overbearing bureaucracy and failing solutions. Everyone is working harder, and in most cases, in greater isolation. The current pace of work and life, along with increasing fear and anxiety, make it more difficult to have the energy and enthusiasm to keep going. Years of good efforts have been swept away by events beyond anyone’s control, such as the economic crisis or the natural disasters of the past decade.

And decisions made by politicians and senior executives have been very damaging to those long-term efforts: They capriciously eliminate or withdraw funding for programs and processes that have proven successful. It is a very difficult time for innovative leaders.

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