Roots of Aliveness: Leading as a Living Process

by Margaret Wheatley December 6, 2007

by Michael Jones, 2007

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whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

Just to make clear
Where they come from

—Charles Olsen, “These Days”

It has often been said that our span of awareness is a mile wide and an inch deep. The quality of our inner life is frequently overlooked in our efforts to cope with the daily demands and expectations of our outer life. One enabling metaphor that helps us look at this is the ecology of a tree. The outer life is symbolized by the leaves and branches; they correspond to a life of reactivity and busyness—of action plans, performance goals, desired outcomes and results. Sometimes we direct our attention down a little, to the trunk and lower limbs. Here we look at structures, strategies and processes. Where we spend the least of our time is the ground underneath. Yet it is the roots and the soil that give the tree resilience and the strength to grow and weather sudden changes year after year.

The shift from focusing on the trunk and the branches to the ground beneath corresponds to a shift of awareness from a factory-production mindset to a more adaptive-artful one. Giving our attention to the ground beneath an organization or a community involves an artful process of creating form out of ambiguous and variable circumstances. This includes the very precise and complex interaction among many subtle variables including energy and space, tone and atmosphere, rhythm and time. Our language shifts from action and meaning to story, metaphor, felt experience and the underlying stillness that holds it all.

Root systems, like artists, learn to create in the moment, to search for the soil conditions that feel most fertile and alive, to inquire, to sense and absorb, to follow their attractions, to invent and change course in the moment and to feel their way. In other words, in their search for connective and fertile ground, roots travel a road less traveled, just as we do as we seek to find our way.

Yet we are still influenced by an industrial-age mindset that impedes our ability to adapt creatively in a time of complexity and sudden change. We still tend to rely not on our own deep intuition but on external authority, preconceived actions and mechanisms for scheduling and control. Management theorists Henry Mintzberg and Alexandra McHugh write:

Strategies (and this may apply for life as well as leadership and organizational strategies) grow like weeds in a garden; they are not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse… Sometimes it is more important to let patterns emerge than to foresee an artificial consistency… Sometimes an individual actor … creates his or her own pattern. …Other times, the external environment imposes a pattern. In some cases many different actors converge around a theme, perhaps gradually, perhaps spontaneously. …To manage in this context is to create a climate within which a wide variety of strategies can grow.

What can we do to create the ground for roots systems that are resilient and life affirming?

Disturb Me, Please!

by Margaret Wheatley August 1, 2000

By Margaret Wheatley, 2000
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.