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


The Thought Leader Interview: Meg Wheatley

I’ve heard this in so many different cultures that it’s convinced me that there’s only one type of leadership that people respond to positively. If we want people to contribute; if we want them to get smarter as they solve each problem or go through each crisis; if we want to develop our organizations to be responsive, smart, and enduring, then we have to change the way we lead. We cannot continue to lead from fear and control. People will step up to today’s challenges only if they are led with encouragement and support, and trusted to contribute.

Islands of possibility are important because leaders have to intentionally create places where people can contribute. Part of a leader’s work is to create firewalls to keep out the bureaucratic, change-resistant forces of the larger organization, so that staff feels free enough to innovate and create. It’s no surprise to me that inside these islands, people meet plan, become more intelligent and responsive to demands and crises, and generally become more capable.

And sadly, it’s no longer surprising to me that the larger organization ignores these islands of possibility. It’s a terrible waste but it’s just the way it is. I wrote Perseverance so people who are doing things right and making a real contribution could keep going in the face of this dynamic of being pushed to the margins, ignored, or misunderstood.

Those of us who are in that position have to expect that we will encounter a lot of difficulties. We’ll feel a lot of strong emotions such as anger or grief; our good work will go unrewarded. Once we know that these things will happen, we can more consciously choose our responses. We can choose to keep going, to influence where we can, to make a difference in the lives of our staff, and to be the kind of leader that people remember with gratitude. We can become skilled at negotiating within those large, frightened bureaucracies so that people can still do good, meaningful work inside them.

S+B: In a talk at the ALIA Institute last summer, you said that the only leaders who succeed are those who have some kind of personal spiritual discipline.
Yes, I’m convinced of this. By discipline, I don’t mean meaningless, repetitive, boring practice. That disables people. Nor do I mean religious practice per se. I mean some regular activity that leads you to reflect on your struggles and challenges in a larger context. For one of my friends, Alcoholics Anonymous serves that role. For others, it can be prayer, meditation, or time in nature. I’m not sure about running or other physical exercise, because I think a practice has to connect you to the rest of life — to take you out of the false perception that you are the center of the universe.

Without that discipline, I don’t see how leaders can maintain their integrity and focus. The prevailing mass culture has schooled a lot of people to follow their passion, find their calling in life, and do what they love. Then they encounter setbacks, failures, disappointments, and very subtle impediments — for instance, their loved ones say, “Why are you working so hard here?” Many people quit. That’s what’s essential about discipline. You do it day after day, even when it’s boring, because you believe ultimately it will lead to a good outcome. The fruit of all this effort becomes apparent only after a long time when it seems not to be going anywhere. Work can begin with passion, but it’s only through discipline that people can persevere.

Brain research is also clear on why we need quiet time, especially when under stress. This spring, I went on a long, solo retreat. I didn’t interact with anyone except my teacher. I witnessed my own mental capacities coming back in full flower. I regained great powers of memory and concentration. I could understand complex ancient texts. I was so mentally alive. Now that I’ve returned to my overly distracted life, I am back to old ways; I’ll walk across a room and not remember what I went looking for. But now I know that my memory loss isn’t caused by aging or deterioration. The cause is distraction, and working in an anxious world. I can regain my mental capacities if I regularly take the time to slow down and focus.

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