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


The Thought Leader Interview: Meg Wheatley

Under his leadership, more and more people in Columbus became trained in productive conversational processes that include all relevant stakeholders in figuring out problems and solutions. This form of leadership continued to spread into many types of institutions — the Ohio Food Bank, hospitals, Ohio State University, even to a federal initiative on homelessness.

Another example is the “Warriors Without Weapons” program that the Elos Institute initiated in Brazil and has spread around the world. In most aid efforts for people on the margins of society, there’s an assumption that their poverty includes a lack of capacity to help themselves. But Elos gathers people together to “play a game,” as they call it. The game is actually an experience of people coming together for days or weeks, outsiders working side by side with residents, to do extraordinarily difficult work, such as cleaning up and rebuilding neighborhoods. They invoke the spirit of play (which is different from fun) to get people past their fear and preconceptions. The participants take risks because it’s “just a game”; they compete with one another; there’s an engaged quality to their relationships. In this way, very difficult work gets done that would otherwise be overwhelming.

In Walk Out Walk On we tell the story of the cleanup of a large, waste-ridden, abandoned warehouse that people in the neighborhood wanted to convert to a community space. Those engaged in the cleanup could spend only 15 minutes each day inside this hellhole; they had no idea if that would be enough to accomplish their goal, but they did realize that had they worked any longer in such terrible conditions, they would have been overwhelmed and given up. And they did accomplish their goal within 30 days!

S+B: These sound like glimpses of a very engaged way of taking initiative and conducting work. But you would be unlikely to see it within the walls of, say, a major consumer products or energy company.
No, I disagree. Good leadership can be found in pockets within any large organization. I’ve dubbed them islands of possibility in some of my past work. The leaders of these pockets routinely meet goals, motivate employees, and achieve high levels of safety and productivity. But, ironically, they never change the behavior of the majority of the organization — even though these few islands reach or exceed the goals set by senior management. There’s a lot of evidence that innovators get pushed to the margins. You’d expect that they would be rewarded, promoted, and given the responsibility of teaching everyone else how to do the same. But instead, they’re ignored or invisible. Sometimes their bosses acknowledge their success, but offhandedly say: “I don’t know how you got these results.” And they don’t show any interest in learning about it. I think of this as an autoimmune response. Bosses don’t want to know how you achieved your results if it’s contrary to the way the system works (or doesn’t work). If they became genuinely interested in these innovative approaches, they’d have to change themselves.

At the same time, most of us know from our own experience what kind of leadership works best. I’ve asked people of many ages, in many cultures, to talk about a leader they were happy to follow and what made that leader memorable. Several factors, such as integrity, a sense of humor, and a clear direction and vision, often come up. But the most common characteristic of good, memorable leaders is that they create the conditions for people to be encouraged, challenged, and supported, to become stronger and more capable as they do their work. The descriptions are always the same: “The leader thought about me and trusted me (just as I trusted him or her). He or she believed that I was capable and supported and encouraged me to stretch and excel; the leader was not focused on making himself or herself look good.”

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