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Leader of the Month for April 2005:

Dr. Meg Wheatley

Meg Wheatley

Meg's story:

Margaret Wheatley is an internationally acclaimed speaker and writer and President emeritus of The Berkana Institute.  She has been an organizational consultant and researcher since 1973 and a dedicated global citizen since her youth.  Her first work was as a public school teacher and urban education administrator in New York, and a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea.  She also has been Associate Professor of Management at the Marriott School of Management, Brigham Young University, and Cambridge College, Massachusetts. 

For the past decade, she has been working with an unusually broad variety of organizations on all continents.  Her clients and audiences range from the head of the U.S. Army to twelve year old Girl Scouts, from CEOs to small town ministers.  This diversity includes large corporations, government agencies, healthcare institutions, foundations, public schools, colleges, major church denominations, the armed forces, professional associations, and monasteries.  All of these organizations are wrestling with a common dilemma—how to maintain their integrity and effectiveness as they cope with the relentless upheavals and rapid shifts of these chaotic times.  But there is also another similarity: A common human desire to live together more harmoniously, more humanely.

The Berkana Institute is a global charitable leadership foundation begun in 1991, dedicated to serving life-affirming leaders.  Berkana has always experimented with the new ideas, processes, and structures that represent the future of organizing.  The Institute has worked in dozens of countries, many of them in the third world, supporting local leaders to create positive change in their communities, villages, and organizations.  Berkana has discovered that the world is blessed with tens of thousands of these courageous leaders.  They are young and old, in all countries, working in all types of organizations and communities.

She has served in a formal advisory capacity for leadership programs in England, Croatia, Denmark, Australia and the United States, and through her work in Berkana, with leadership initiatives in India, Senegal, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Meg’s path-breaking book, Leadership and the New Science was first published in 1992, and has been translated into 17 languages.  This book is credited with establishing a fundamentally new approach to how we think about organizations.  It is a standard text in many leadership programs, and has won notable awards, including “Best Management book of 1992” in Industry Week, Top Ten Business Books of the 1990s in CIO Magazine, and Top Ten Business Books of all time by Xerox Corporation.  A new edition was published in 1999, significantly revised, updated and expanded.  The video of Leadership and the New Science, produced by CRM films, has also won several film awards.

Her newest book is Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (2005, Berrett-Koehler Publishers). Finding Our Way is a collection of her practice-focused articles, where Meg applies the themes addressed throughout her career to detail the organizational and personal practices and behaviors that bring them to life.

Meg received her doctorate from Harvard University’s program in Administration, Planning and Social Policy.  She holds an M.A. in Communications and Systems Thinking from New York University, and has also been a research associate at Yale University. She has received several awards and honorary doctorates.  The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) has honored her with the title “a living legend.”

About Dr. Meg Wheatley

Author, Speaker & President of the Berkana Institute

Home: Provo, Utah, USA

Personal passion: That we really understand how good we are as a species and that there is no greater resource to us than each other with our great human spirits. And these days, when so much human badness is available daily, it is really essential that we remember that we can rely on human goodness. That has been the essence of my message no matter what I am talking about: that we can rely on human goodness.

Most admired leader: One of them is Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller. He was someone who walked his talk and really taught me a lot.

Favorite book: Poetry in general as a category. I often go to our good poets to find comfort, ideas, and insight.

Favorite quotation: "We were together. I forget the rest."  The quotation is attributed to Walt Whitman. The reason I like this quote is because the solution to all our dilemmas is in the quality of trusting relationships that we have with each other. I see that in countries where the people are really desperate and have no material comfort and no money. They have each other, and therefore they have a lot of what we lack. The only thing that is important really is the quality of our relationships. But once we have good relationships, we can accomplish all the things that we are longing to accomplish.

Place in the world you most like to visit: For many years, it was South Africa, because of the vitality and exuberance and hopefulness that is there. And I still like to go there. But now, as I get older, I like it more quiet, so I like to go anywhere where there is real wilderness.

Recent honor: In May 2003, Meg received the highest award given by ASTD, the “Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance.”  The citation for this award included this description: “Meg Wheatley gave the world a new way of thinking about organizations with her revolutionary application of the natural sciences to business management.  Her concepts have traveled across national boundaries and through all sectors.  Her ideas have found welcome homes in the military, not-for-profit organizations, public schools, and churches as well as in corporations.  Through the Berkana Institute, a charitable foundation which she started in Provo, Utah, Wheatley is supporting the development of local leaders in over 40 countries to foster societies that tap and evoke the best of human capability.  Through her interdisciplinary curiosity, Meg Wheatley provides new insights into the nature of how people interact and inspires us to build better organizations and better societies across the globe.”

Tenneson Woolf shares the following about Meg, "One of Meg's gifts as a leader is that she has articulated well a different framework for leading. That framework comes from a story of self-organization, living systems, and life-affirming leadership. Meg has told the story with dedication and courage. She has lived the story with presence, patience, and heartfulness. She has invited many to discover the story with love and gentle guidance. That kind of presence and leadership helps many people recognize what they most care about in their hearts and to then join with others to make amazing contributions with spirit and talent."

Dr. Meg Wheatley and Leadership

Book recommended for aspiring leaders: I recommend my newest release, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. It is written for all levels of leaders.  There are tons of books I would tell people to stay away from. Whenever you are looking for advice, you want to stay away from people who tell you they have the answer and people who present the fixed model of a step by step process. That is what has led to so much failure in our ability to lead well. The biggest problem is that we have so many leaders who have been brought up to disrespect and not trust people in general. If you do not trust people, you put a lot of rules on them, you punish them, you force them to do what you want, and it just does not work. It is really common these days. I recommend anything you read that makes you realize that people are great. Look for books stating that we as a species can be trusted, want to work together, and are creative.  Read anything that brings up your assessment of human nature in general. In other words, you might end up reading a religious text to feel that way. 

Traits most important in a leader: First, a willingness to rely on other people--not solely yourself--for the answers. Realize that you can not do it alone. The really big thing is that if you want to be trustworthy, you have to do what you said you are going to do; you can not say one thing and do another. The lack of integrity in our leaders to just say the right words but then do the opposite is really an epidemic of a lack of integrity. You do not fool people. If you want to be a trusted leader, you have to walk your talk.

What are some leadership highlights you have experienced? They are always the same: when a group of people realizes they are creative and talented and when an individual realizes that they have far more to offer than they thought. Those moments when a group almost transcends and becomes more than the sum of its parts and becomes a really powerful imaginative collective. The moments in which a group may have worked hard, struggled, and been in a lot of conflict, but suddenly the moment arrives when the solution becomes known to everyone in the room and everyone in the room is on the same page all of a sudden. I love those moments! Do you experience those often in your work? Yes, if you use the right process you can get there pretty regularly. What process do you use? There are a lot of processes. They require involving a very diverse group of people and generating a lot of information. You do not use any kind of a traditional linear process but really aim to generate so much interesting, relevant information that people get confused. Once they get confused, they give up their certainty, and then they move into a kind of openness that allows a kind of greater collective wisdom to come through.

What leadership changes would you like to see? I would like to see more people applying the ideas and practices that many of us have been experimenting with for many years. For example, I would like to see people pull back from this movement towards more control and more command which is really destroying people’s initiative. How do you see the military playing into this command and control mentality? I have worked with the Army and the greatest surprise of working with them is that they know that you do not get anything done through command and control when you are in the heat of battle. At that time you have to have everyone engaged, being a good thinker, and feeling free to make decisions in the moment that they think will best serve the common mission. It is one of the ironies that we associate command and control with the Army, but when you are in battle you do not experience command and control. You experience very distributed leadership and a lot of self organizing in the moment.

Advice to aspiring leaders: Understand that if you feel called to be a leader, that that is a very important thing to honor, but you are called not to make money or not to use the power for yourself but for the greater good.

How do you define leadership? A leader is anyone who is willing to help. That was based on our experience that people everywhere are stepping up to address the most difficult problems in order to really find solutions amongst themselves. They do not wait for formal or large systems to solve their problems for them. When you take that definition of leadership, you realize that the world has an abundance of great leaders, but we are just not looking in the right places for them right now. At Berkana, we just want people to see where there are dramatically different and very hopeful forms of leadership and community participation springing up in sometimes the most difficult places that exist. We want people to see the new leadership, and it is the kind of leadership that we believe quite strongly is the kind of leadership the world really needs. How are we currently doing in our society? There was interest in improvement going on for years, but we have recently clamped down and retrenched because leaders and people are so afraid these days that we have really taken a great leap backwards. We are really in a culture of fear right now: fear of uncertainty, fear of terrorists, fear of each other, and fear of the government are all present. Additionally, I think in this culture we are imprisoned by our comforts and our status and thinking that we can have it all. Therefore, we are less likely to take risks than in other places. It seems very evident to me, and I am frustrated by it.

What is the essence of your story? There is a story that I get asked a lot about and therefore tell. How did you get into this? How did you end up doing what you are doing? I basically unknowingly followed the advice of Joseph Campbell that you are to "Follow Your Bliss." I always followed the things that interested me even if I was anxious that it was not making sense or that I was being too eclectic or that I was flip flopping around. But I really could not avoid just following what felt interesting, and as I got older, it provided the means for me. I had dabbled in so many fields that I could now really pull it all together in a synthesis that made sense to me and to many others. That ability to synthesize would not have been available to me had I just gone deeper and deeper into one field.  So that advice to "Follow your Bliss" has been very important to me. To find out more about Joseph Campbell's statement to "Follow your Bliss," click here.

The following quotation comes from Meg's website: "For many years, I’ve been interested in seeing the world differently. I’ve wanted to see beyond the Western, mechanical view of the world and see what else might appear when the lens was changed. I’ve learned, just as Joel Barker predicted when he introduced us to paradigms years ago, that 'problems that are impossible to solve with one paradigm may be easily solved with a different one.'" Asked to expand upon this view, Meg shares, “The way we are trained to see the world is that people and organizations are machines. Things can be taken apart, analyzed, fixed, put back together, and they all work well. It does not work at all for human beings or for organizations or societies. Over and over again I have been out in nature--where I love to be--and seen all the interconnectedness of things, how one thing affects another. If you pull the thread, you get the whole system. Nature has been my best teacher in that way."

Where to Go for More About Dr. Meg Wheatley

Visit Meg's website at http://www.margaretwheatley.com.

Visit the Berkana Institute's website at http://www.berkana.org/index.html.

Check out Meg's newest book, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time.

Finding Our Way