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


The Thought Leader Interview: Meg Wheatley

In addition, the opportunity is lost to cultivate the intelligence, contribution, and engagement of people throughout the organization. When the next crisis comes, people will be less prepared; they’ll leave it to the leader to solve it. When that doesn’t happen, they’ll kick out the leader for not being heroic enough as an individual. This pattern is visible in the statistics on CEO churn that strategy+business publishes. Over the past 10 years, the average tenure of CEOs has gotten shorter. [See “CEO Succession 2010: The Four Types of CEOs,” by Ken Favaro, Per-Ola Karlsson, and Gary L. Neilson, s+b, Summer 2011.] I have a lot of sympathy for leaders who think that it’s their job to keep things in control, but when they use fear as a motivator, they shut down people’s brains and, as leaders, create the conditions for everyone to fail.

S+B: What’s the alternative?
When you’re lost in the wilderness, the only way to survive is to admit that you’re lost — and to stop looking for signs that might confirm that you know where you are. Your old ways of doing things won’t get you out of this situation. Once you realize this, you can look clearly around you, and seek information that will help you rethink what to do. You don’t have to change the situation you’re in; you have to change your mind about it.

For any situation where the old maps are failing, you need to call together everyone who might have information that’s needed to construct a new map. This includes people at all levels of the system — anyone who plays a role that’s relevant. Especially as you face increasingly complex problems that have no easy answers, you need to be brave enough to seek out perspectives from all parts of the system. It takes a lot of courage for a leader to say, “Our problems were caused by complex interactions. I don’t know what to do, but I know we can figure it out together.”

S+B: Isn’t this problem limited to the U.S., Europe, and Japan?
Even in other countries, uncertainty is rearing its ugly head. A colleague in Australia invited me to speak at a forum for CEOs, built around reflection and long-term issues. I said, “You know, in the U.S., you wouldn’t get anyone to attend.” He said that Australia was different; they had survived the global financial crisis pretty well and didn’t share our despair or cynicism. Then came the floods, hurricanes, fires, and more economic turbulence. He wrote me back and canceled, saying that in this new, crisis-stricken environment, none of the CEOs he knew had any time for reflection, either. They were now in panic mode and resorting to command-and-control-style management. A very forward-thinking Australian CEO told me that he’s never experienced such fear-based and risk-averse behaviors as those that now characterize Australian leadership, in both business and government.

S+B: If the situation is this grim and pressured, how can you expect people to rethink the way they operate?
It’s more interesting to reverse that question. Because the situation is so grim and pressured, why aren’t we rethinking how we operate? We are at a turning point. Either we continue to descend into incompetence and failing solutions or we realize where we are and see new ways of thinking and acting. One of my favorite quotes, applicable to this moment, is from the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi: “Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk, and this is the edge of the roof.”

There are always choices. Everything in our world — what we do, who we like, what we dislike — is a choice. When we realize this, and start to act on it, we regain our freedom and control. That doesn’t mean quitting your job out of frustration. It means thinking more deeply about the choices you have made, the choices you will make in the future, what you stand for, and your choice to persevere.

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