For Workshop 6, Faith and Conflict, Activity 3, Leadership Lessons for the Real World
“Leadership Lessons for the Real World,” Leader to Leader, Summer 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Margaret J. Wheatley. Fair use.
People often comment that the new leadership I propose couldn’t possibly work in “the real world.” This “real world” demands efficiency and obedience and is managed by bureaucracy and governed by policies and laws. It is filled with people who do what they’re told, who sit passively waiting for instructions, and it relies on standard operating procedures for every situation, even when chaos erupts and things are out of control.
This real world was invented by Western [European] thought. We believe that people, organizations, and the world are machines, and we can organize massive systems to run like clockwork in a steady-state world. The leader’s job is to create stability and control, because without human intervention, there is no hope for order. It is assumed that most people are dull, not creative, that people need to be bossed around, that new skills only develop through training. People are motivated using fear and rewards; internal motivators such as compassion and generosity are discounted.
This is not the real world. The real real world demands that we learn to cope with chaos, that we understand what motivates humans, that we adopt strategies and behaviors that lead to order, not more chaos.
Here is the real world described by new science. It is a world of interconnected networks, where slight disturbances in one part of the system create major impacts far from where they originate. In this highly sensitive system, the most minute actions can blow up into massive disruptions and chaos. But it is also a world that seeks order. When chaos erupts, it not only destroys the current structure, it also creates the conditions for new order to emerge. Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.
This is a world that knows how to organize itself without command and control or charisma. Everywhere, life self-organizes as networks of relationships. When individuals discover a common interest or passion, they organize themselves and figure out how to make things happen. Self-organizing evokes creativity and leads to results, creating strong, adaptive systems. Surprising new strengths and capacities emerge.
In this world, the “basic building blocks” of life are relationships, not individuals. Nothing exists on its own or has a final, fixed identity. We are all “bundles of potential” (as one scientist described quantum particles). Relationships evoke these potentials. We change as we meet different people or are in different circumstances.
In this historic moment, we live caught between the mechanical worldview that no longer works and a new paradigm that we fear to embrace. But this new paradigm comes with the promise that it can provide solutions to our most unsolvable challenges.