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


The Thought Leader Interview: Meg Wheatley

Months after Hurricane Ike devastated Houston in September 2008, I received a text message from a friend who is CEO of a large nonprofit there. She was sitting in a meeting with government officials from FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. The level of bureaucracy was heartbreaking and infuriating; people whose homes had been hit hard by the storm were still living with nothing, and nobody knew when the aid that was promised would come (it didn’t arrive for 16 months). Her text message said: “Every day I make a choice not to give up.”

For me, that’s the essence of perseverance. Day by day, situation by situation, you become more conscious of your choices. Sometimes the best response is to keep going, as my friend did. Other times the best choice is to withdraw for a while, reassess the complexity of the situation, and see what will serve your cause, your people, and yourself. You don’t persevere by constantly pushing your head against a wall or by burning out.

It’s also comforting to remember that perseverance is the story of humankind. We all come from ancestors who persevered. We wouldn’t be here without them. It’s our turn now.

S+B: If Perseverance is about being lost, then Walk Out Walk On is about being found — the community-building efforts that you and your coauthor, Deborah Frieze, have worked with. Where did the title come from?
It was coined by a group of students who left high school in India. The school officials had called them “dropouts.” They responded, “No, we’re not failures. The education system is the failure. We know we can contribute more and learn more if we leave this school.” They called themselves “walk-outs.” A bit later, they added “walk on” — meaning that after you walk out, you have to move forward and find a place where you can make a difference. The full phrase is a declaration of commitment to your own potential.

Often, when people walk out of a difficult job or position, they’re full of fear. They don’t know where they’re going. But they know that if they stay, they’ll continue to lose their self-confidence; they’ll continue to shrink and wither. I met a woman who worked for one of the large pharma companies; they’d been through three major mergers during her 12-year tenure. One day she noticed that her job title was now listed as “income-generating unit” on a budget sheet. In other words, she was regarded as a commodity. She thought, “This isn’t the same company I was working for before the mergers.” When she resigned, she told her boss that these transactional values were the reason. He responded, “Don’t leave; we’ll pay you more.”

Walking out of a limiting situation doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the company — or even leaving your position. It means discarding some of the prevailing beliefs that blind you to the capacity that’s in yourself and other people. And opening yourself up to more contribution, intelligence, and capability.

S+B: Can you give an example?
In Columbus, Ohio, several years ago, a group of leaders of local healthcare institutions came together, along with some community members, with the idea that they could rethink their purpose — from the zero-sum game of treating the sick, to a system that would promote optimal health. The convener was Phil Cass, the CEO of the Columbus Medical Association, which is a physicians’ professional group that includes a medical foundation and a free clinic. To bring all these people together, he had to shift his own internal construct of what it meant to be an effective leader. He was already a skilled, traditional heroic leader; now he became the kind of leader whose first responsibility is not to command others, but to ensure that they feel invited and welcome, so they can participate in making something happen that none of them could do alone.

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