Disturb Me, Please!

by Alexis Schroeder August 1, 2000

By Margaret Wheatley, 2000
Fi
rst published in The Works: Your Source to Being Fully Alive

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If we are people exploring the unknown, if we are to be the pioneers and discoverers of the new world, then I’d like us to notice the presence of some essential but unusual companions. One of our greatest friends on this journey of discovery is a very strange ally–disturbance. It feels important to me to highlight disturbance’s role as a friend because I have come to see certainty as a curse. This was not a realization that came easily to me. I, like most of you, was raised in the traditions of Western schooling. Knowing the right answer was always rewarded. Intelligence was equated with how well I did on tests, and most tests were about knowing the right answer. Later, as a leader, I was promoted for my certainty–I had the vision, I knew how to get there, and people would follow me based on how well I radiated that certainty, how well I disguised my fears.

But everything has changed since those sweet, slow days when the world seemed knowable and predictable, when we actually knew what to do next. The growing complexity of our times makes certainty about any move or any position much more precarious. And in this networked world where information moves at the speed of light and “truth” mutates before our eyes, certainty changes and speeds off at equivalent velocity.

But in spite of these new realities, it is very difficult to surrender certainty-our positions, our beliefs, our explanations. These things lie at the core of our identity-they define us as us. Yet in this strange new world, I believe we can only succeed in understanding and influencing this world if we are able to think and work together in new ways. Our most cherished beliefs, our greatest clarity must be offered up. We won’t necessarily have to let go of everything we believe and know, but we do have to be willing to let them go. We have to be interested in making our beliefs and opinions visible so that we can consciously choose them or discard them.

There’s another reason that our certainty needs to be surrendered. We live in a dense and tangled global system. Inside this complex and interconnected world, everyone has a different vantage point. It is true biologically that there is no one else exactly like us. But we are less sensitive to the fact that we each see things differently. Because everyone sits in a different place in the systems of work, community, and individual lives, we will each see the world from a unique vantage point. As complexity grows, we need more colleagues, not fewer, to describe to us what they see, what it looks like from their perspective.

The very complexity of life ensures that no one person can explain what is going on to everyone else, or assume that their point of view is the right one. We can look at this complexity as a new Tower of Babel, where we can’t hear each other because of so much diversity. Or we can look at it as an invitation to come together and truly listen to one another-listen with the expectation that we will hear something new and different, that we need to hear from others in order to grow and survive.

The need to relinquish our certainty lies at the heart both of modern science and ancient spirituality. From the science of Complexity, Ilya Prigogine tells us that, “The future is uncertain. . . but such uncertainty lies at the very heart of human creativity.” It is uncertainty that creates the space for invention. We must let go, clear the space, leap into the void of not-knowing, if we want to discover anything new.

Core Practices of Life-Affirming Leaders

by Alexis Schroeder September 21, 1999

By Margaret Wheatley

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Here are some of the behaviors and practices of leaders who are able to nourish and evoke the best qualities in people. By doing so, these leaders affirm life’s capacities to self-organize in creative, sustainable, and generous ways.

Know they cannot lead alone. In these complex times, no one person is smart enough to know what to do. Many different perspectives are necessary in order to gain a fuller understanding of what is happening.

Have more faith in people than they do in themselves. This is especially important in organizations and nations where people have been oppressed or told they’re not capable of being creative or powerful. Leaders patiently and courageously insist on peoples’ participation as the means to discover their potential and contribute to the organization.

Recognize human diversity as a gift, and the human spirit as a blessing. We each see the world differently. When we share these unique perceptions, we gain a larger perspective of what’s going on. And it is only our great human spirits that bless us with hope and possibility even in the worst circumstances.

Act on the fact that people only support what they create. And only act responsibly for what they care about. Therefore, leaders engage people in anything that affects them. Decision-making processes expand to include more and more voices.

Solve unsolvable problems by bringing new voices into the room. Systems grow healthier as they connect with those formerly excluded. New and different information changes how we define the problem, and make new solutions available.

Use learning as the fundamental process for resiliency, change and growth. When reflection and learning are built in to all activities and projects, people become intelligent. We quickly find workable and innovative solutions. Without reflection, we keep repeating our mistakes.

Offer purposeful work as the necessary condition for people to engage fully. When people know why they’re doing their work and connect with the purpose of it, they then assume responsibility for that work. They become creative and work hard to find the most effective solutions.

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