What is Our Role in Creating Change?

by Aerin Dunford January 4, 2009

by Margaret Wheatley, 2008

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Proceed until apprehended!
— Diana Vander Woude

Several years ago, I read of a Buddhist teacher who encouraged people filled with despair over the state of the world.  His advice was simple and wise: “It’s our turn to help the world.” I love this statement because it reminds us of other times and other people who stepped forward to help create the changes that were necessary.  We do live in an era that is unique in at least two ways.  For the first time, humans have altered the earth’s ecology and created consequences that are just beginning to materialize in frightening ways.  And we are aware immediately of tragedies and horrors everywhere in the world, no matter where they occur.

But for all of human existence, no matter how terrible the time, there always have been people willing to step forward to do whatever they could to create positive change.  Some succeeded, some did not.  As we struggle with our own time, it’s good to remember that we are standing on very strong shoulders that stretch far back in history.

In working with many people in very different cultures, I’ve learned to define leadership differently than most.  A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.  It might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school; or a rural village that works to get clean water; or a worker who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in his workplace; or a citizen who rallies her neighbors to stop local polluters.  Everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, people step forward to try and make a small difference.

Because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders.  Some people ask, “Where have all the leaders gone?”  But if we worry that there’s a shortage of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place, usually at the top of some hierarchy.  Instead, we need to look around us, to look locally.  And we need to look at ourselves.  When have we moved into action for an issue or concern that we cared about?  When have we stepped forward to help and thereby become a leader?

The process that creates change in the world is quite straightforward.  We notice something that needs to be changed.  We keep noticing it.  The problem keeps getting our attention, even though most people don’t notice that there’s even a problem.  We start to act, we try something.  If that doesn’t work, we try a different approach. We learn as we go. We become very engaged with the issue, spending more and more time on it.  We become exhausted by our efforts, but still we keep going.  The issue keeps calling to us.  Any time we succeed, no matter how small the success, we gain new energy and resolve.  We become smarter as we learn more about the issue and understand it better.  We become more skillful at tactics and strategies.  As we persevere, and if we are successful, more people join us.  Sometimes we remain as just a small group, sometimes we give birth to a movement that involves tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

This is how the world always changes. Even great and famous change initiatives begin this way, with the actions of just a few people, when “some friends and I started talking.”  Including those efforts that win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2004, Wangari Maatai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in organizing The Greenbelt Movement which had planted over thirty million trees in Kenya and east Africa.  Wangari was a biology professor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.  In a meeting with other Kenyan women, she learned that the fertile and forested land of her youth had been devastated.  All the trees had been cut down for coffee and tea plantations.  Local women now had to walk miles for firewood, and the water had become polluted with chemicals and run-offs from the plantations.

Can I Be Fearless?

by Alexis Schroeder September 21, 2008

By Margaret Wheatley, 2008

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Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions. —Hafiz

Human history is filled with stories of countless people who have been fearless. If we look at our own families, perhaps going back several generations, we’ll find among our own ancestors those who also have been fearless. They may have been immigrants who bravely left the safety of home, veterans who courageously fought in wars, families who endured economic hardships, war, persecution, slavery, oppression, dislocation. We all carry within us this lineage of fearlessness.

But what is fearlessness? It’s not being free of fear, for fear is part of our human journey. Parker Palmer, an extraordinary educator and writer, notes:

“Fear is so fundamental to the human condition that all the great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to overcome its effects on our lives. With different words, they all proclaim the same core message: “Be not afraid.” . . . . It is important to note with care what that core teaching does and does not say. “Be not afraid” does not say that we should not have fears—and if it did, we could dismiss it as an impossible counsel of perfection. Instead, it says that we do not need to be our fears, quite a different proposition.”

If fear is this fundamental to being human, we can expect that we’ll feel afraid at times, perhaps even frequently. Yet when fear appears, we don’t have to worry that we’ve failed, that we’re not as good as other people. In fact, we’re just like other people! What’s important is to notice what we do with our fear. We can withdraw or distract or numb ourselves. Or we can recognize the fear, and then step forward anyway. Fearlessness simply means that we do not give fear the power to silence or stop us.

In my own experience, I think there’s an important difference between courage and fearlessness. Courage emerges in the moment, without time for thought. Our heart opens and we immediately move into action. Someone jumps into an icy lake to save a child, or speaks up at a meeting, or puts them self in danger to help another human being. These sudden actions, even if they put us at risk, arise from clear, spontaneous love.

Fearlessness, too, has love at its core, but it requires much more of us than instant action. If we react too quickly when we feel afraid, we either flee or act aggressively. True fearlessness is wise action, not false bravado or blind reactivity. It requires that we take time and exercise discernment. Zen teacher Joan Halifax speaks about the “practice of non-denial.” When we feel afraid, we don’t deny the fear. Instead, we acknowledge that we’re scared. But we don’t flee. We stay where we are and bravely encounter our fear. We turn toward it, we become curious about it, its causes, its dimensions. We keep moving closer, until we’re in relationship with it. And then, fear changes. Most often, it disappears.

I’ve heard many quotes from different traditions that speak to this wonder of fear dissolving. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” “The only way out is through.” “Put your head in the mouth of the demon, and the demon disappears.”

Some of my best teachers about fearlessness are part of a global network of younger leaders (in their teens, twenties and thirties) with whom I’ve worked for several years. They call themselves “Walk-outs.” They walk out of work and careers that prevent them from contributing as much as they can, they walk out of relationships where they don’t feel respected, they walk out of ideas that are limiting, they walk out of institutions that make them feel small and worthless. But they don’t walk out to disappear–they walk out to walk on. They walk on to places where they can make a real contribution, to relationships where they’re respected, to ideas that call on their strengths, to work where they can discover and use their potential.

From these younger leaders, I’ve learned the importance of asking periodically, “What might I need to walk out of?” It’s a big question and it demands a lot of bravery to even ask it. By posing this question, we’re being brave enough to notice our fears and see them clearly. We’re being brave enough to recognize where we’re called to be fearless in our own lives. This powerful question helps us discover the places, the work, and the relationships that we need to walk on to in order to realize and offer our gifts.

I hold a vision of what’s possible if more of us are willing to practice non-denial, if we look clearly at what frightens us in our personal lives and in our society. With clearer vision, we could walk through our fear and say “no” to what disturbs us. We could walk on and take a stand. We could refuse to be cowed or silenced. We could stop waiting for approval or support. We could stop feeling tired and overwhelmed. We could trust the energy of ‘Yes!’ and begin to act for what we care about.

Restoring Hope to the Future Through Critical Education of Leaders

by Aerin Dunford March 30, 2001

by Margaret Wheatley, 2001
First published in Vimukt Shiksha 

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This is a dark age, when everything must justify its existence in terms of how it benefits the economy. The economy is no longer seen as the means to create just and good societies; it has become the end in itself. Nowhere is this clearer than in the field of education. We educate students so they can get jobs; we collect statistics that demonstrate the monetary benefits of education to the individual; we increasingly focus schools and higher education on training, teaching those subjects defined as important by the workplace. As with all other aspects of modern life in the era of globalization, education has become just one sector of the economy.

But stretching back over millennia, education has always been the means to change society, to create new ideas and practices, and therefore new futures. And in the 20th century, the practice and theory of Critical Education emerged as a powerful demonstration of how education, used with the poorest, could develop the skills and understanding needed to change their world. Quite recently, as I’ve been increasingly distressed over how education everywhere is being usurped by the economy, I have returned to the work of Paulo Freire, Cesar Chavez, and other Latin American revolutionary thinkers. They have helped me determine what I can do to try and reverse the destructive and dehumanizing trajectory created by the New Economy. I would like to describe how their inspiration has materialized in the work that I now do.

When I feel brave enough to say it (which I do now) my new work is to create a populist revolution among leaders everywhere. I, with many talented and exceedingly dedicated colleagues around the world, are working to establish leadership circles in local communities everywhere. We believe that as leaders meet regularly and talk about their practice, their concerns, their hopes, that they will develop enough clarity and courage to stand up to the pressures of globalism and act as leaders who support and nourish the human spirit and all life.

It’s important for me to state at the outset that we have a rather revolutionary definition of “leader.” We believe that a leader is anyone who wants to help at this time. We meet these people everywhereof all ages and in all communities and professions. It can be a mother who wants her children’s school to change; a local nurse who wants clean water in the many villages she serves; a teenager who refuses to wear the clothing of a corporation that uses sweat shops; a corporate executive who wants to stop unethical practices or the day-to-day disregard of the needs of employees; a farmer who wants to preserve traditional farming methods.

These new leaders are appearing at an increasing rate in local communities around the world. They each are motivated by a desire to change some aspect of their world. They are not motivated by self-interest or greed. They want to help others. But they often feel isolated and alone. Few of them realize their concerns and generosity are shared by an increasing number of people. And it is difficult to act with courage when you feel you’re the only one.

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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The Irresistible Future of Organizing

by Aerin Dunford August 1, 1996

by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, 1996

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Why do so many people in organizations feel discouraged and fearful about the future? Why does despair only increase as the fads fly by, shorter in duration, more costly in each attempt to improve? Why have the best efforts to create significant and enduring organizational change resulted in so many failures? We, and our organizations, exist in a world of constant evolutionary activity. Why has change become so unnatural in human organizations?

We believe that the accumulating failures at organizational change can be traced to a fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are machines. Organizations-as-machines is a 17th century notion, from a time when scientists began to describe the universe as a great clock. Our modern belief in prediction and control originated in these clockwork images. Cause and effect were simple relationships; everything could be known; organizations and people could be engineered into efficient solutions. Three hundred years later, we still search for “tools and techniques” and “change levers”; we attempt to “drive” change through our organizations; we want to “build” solutions and “reengineer” for peak efficiencies.

But why would we want an organization to behave like a machine? Machines have no intelligence; they follow the instructions given to them. They only work in the specific conditions predicted by their engineers. Changes in their environment wreak havoc because they have no capacity to adapt.

These days, a different ideal for organizations is surfacing. We want organizations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent–attributes found only in living systems. The tension of our times is that we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines.

It is time to change the way we think about organizations. Organizations are living systems. All living systems have the capacity to self-organize, to sustain themselves and move toward greater complexity and order as needed. They can respond intelligently to the need for change. They organize (and then reorganize) themselves into adaptive patterns and structures without any externally imposed plan or direction.

Self-organizing systems have what all leaders crave: the capacity to respond continuously to change. In these systems, change is the organizing force, not a problematic intrusion. Structures and solutions are temporary. Resources and people come together to create new initiatives, to respond to new regulations, to shift the organization’s processes. Leaders emerge from the needs of the moment. There are far fewer levels of management. Experimentation is the norm. Local solutions predominate but are kept local, not elevated to models for the whole organization. Involvement and participation constantly deepen. These organizations are experts at the process of change. They understand their organization as a process of continuous organizing.