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Fearlessness: The Last Organizational Change Strategy

Corporate courage has faltered in the wake of September 11, 2001, and the dot-com crash. Management expert Margaret Wheatley says that leaders must face reality — and maybe abandon e-mail.

If a company is only as good as its people, companies today have much to worry about. The reason: Their employees are under unprecedented strain. In an economic environment that demands increased productivity, leaders are tightening control over their organizations and asking employees to do more work in less time. At the same time, employers are paying little attention to their employees’ development or satisfaction. Margaret Wheatley, an expert in management, founder of the Berkana Institute, and the author of Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Berrett-Koehler, 2006) and, most recently, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), suggests that leaders at all levels can cope with this situation with fearlessness — by building a strategy driven by quality and the values of the people in their organization, rather than by quarterly performance. But she also believes that very few public companies will lift themselves above the short-term fray to get this message.

Wheatley sat down with strategy+business in June at the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to discuss how fearlessness plays a critical role in addressing the problems facing corporations today.

S+B: In the new course you’ve developed for the Authentic Leadership Program at the Shambhala Institute, you talk about fearlessness and why it’s significant. Where does this idea come from?
For several years I’ve noticed a deep disappointment and despair, even among businesspeople whom I had formerly thought of as engaged, capable leaders. During the 1980s and ’90s, I spent a lot of time working on large-systems change, helping organizations become more committed and productive, with the full engagement of people at the top. Many of these people were heroes to me. They knew about the value of participative management; they had made great gains in both the traditional measures of profitability and in innovation and viability. But since 2001, pressures on leaders have increased dramatically. They no longer have time or flexibility. They feel caged, oppressed, exhausted. The demand for quick results and the pressure from boards of directors and oversight committees leave them no time for development or learning.

So I watched these leaders revert. “Forget about values, learning, or participation. We just need to execute.” By which they mean, “Drive performance now.” This business rhetoric, the notion of execution, is really quite violent: You “execute” people. It gives me the shivers.

Watching this made me start to think about fearlessness: Who, in these organizations, was going to take a stand on behalf of quality and other values? And if people did take a stand, would it even make a difference?

That thinking led me to a more populist position than I had ever held before. I gave up on the idea of change led by senior executives. I started looking for people inside the organization who were interested in change, encouraging them to do what they could, but not to wait for people at the top — to just act within their own domain. I believe there’s still a possibility of creating beneficial results on these “islands of hope” within the larger companies.

S+B: When did this change take place, and why did it happen? What’s the cause?
I started to see a difference around 2001 in response to September 11, and also in response to corporate scandals and the end of the dot-com bubble. Once fear set in and risk increased, too many leaders reverted to command and control. This was exacerbated by the impact of technology, globalization, and constant communication. I speak to a lot of people in corporations, and they say there’s no time to think. No one has time to learn from experience. If a move doesn’t work the first time, you pick up the pace the second time. Maybe it’ll work then. People in project management and training have incredible time-compression demands.

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  1. John Jones, DeAnne Aguirre, and Matthew Calderone, “10 Principles of Change Management,” s+b Resilience Report, 4/15/04: Techniques to help companies with large-scale transformation. Click here.
  2. Margaret J. Wheatley, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (Berrett-Koehler, 2007): A collection of practice-focused articles on organization, leadership, management, and social change. Click here.
  3. Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Berrett-Koehler, 2006): Wheatley explores how quantum physics, game theory, and science can be applied to leadership strategies and the structure of groups. Click here.
  4. The Berkana Institute Web site: A not-for-profit global leadership organization founded by Margaret Wheatley. Click here.
  5. Margaret Wheatley’s Web site: Includes links to her articles and books. Click here.
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