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.

Journeying to a New World

by Aerin Dunford March 29, 2006

by Margaret Wheatley, 2006

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Twelve years after preparing the Second Edition of Leadership in the New Science, I’m still trying to come to terms with the experience of seeing, feeling, tasting and working earnestly from a new paradigm while living in the old one. And I’m more concerned than ever that we understand how crucial it is that we stay together and support one another.

I was in this work a few years before I was able to identify its real nature. I realized that I and others weren’t asking people simply to adopt some new approaches to leadership or to think about organizations in a few new ways. What we were really asking, and what was also being asked of us, was that we change our thinking at the most fundamental level, that of our world view. The dominant world view of Western culture–the world as machine–doesn’t help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously.

Once I understood the nature of the work, it helped me relax and be more generous. I learned that people get frightened if asked to change their world view. And why wouldn’t they? Of course people will get defensive; of course they might be intrigued by a new idea, but then turn away in fear. They are smart enough to realize how much they would have to change if they accepted that idea. I no longer worry that if I could just find the right words or techniques, or describe multiple case studies, I could convince people. I no longer expect a new world view to be embraced quickly; I don’t know if I’ll see it take root in my lifetime. I also know that people are being influenced from sources far beyond anyone’s control. I know many people who’ve been changed by events in their lives, not by words they read in a book.

These people have been changed by life’s great creative force, chaos. One of the gifts offered by this new world view is a clearer description of life’s cyclical nature. The mechanistic world view promised us lives of continual progress. Since we were in control and engineering it all, we could pull ourselves straight uphill, scarcely faltering. But life doesn’t work that way, and this new world view confirms what most of us knew–no rebirth is possible without moving through a dark passage. Dark times are normal to life; there’s nothing wrong with us when we periodically plunge into the abyss.

Over the past years, nudged by the science, I have come to know personally that the journey of newness is filled with the black potholes of chaos. The science has restrained me from trying to negotiate my way out of dark times with a quick fix. But even though I know the role of chaos, I still don’t like it. It’s terrifying when the world I so carefully held together dissolves. I don’t like feeling lost and emptied of meaning. I would prefer an easier path to transformation. But even as I experience their demands as unreasonable, I know I am in partnership with great creative forces. I know that chaos is a necessary place for me to dwell occasionally. So I have learned to sit with these dark moments–confused, overwhelmed, only faintly trusting that new insights will appear. I know that this is my only route to new ways of being.

The more I contemplate these times, when we truly are giving birth to a new world view, the more I realize that our culture has to take this journey through chaos. The old ways are dissolving, and the new is only beginning to show itself. To journey through chaos, we must engage with one another differently, as explorers and discoverers. I believe the passage is possible only if we claim these roles. We need to realize that no single person or school of thought has the answer, because what’s required is far beyond isolated answers. We need to realize that we must inquire together to find the new. We need to turn to one another as our best hope for inventing and discovering the worlds we are seeking.