Restoring Hope to
the Future Through Critical Education of Leaders
Margaret J. Wheatley ©2001
Published in Vimukt Shiksha, a Bulletin of Shikshantar--The People's Institute
for Rethinking Education and Development, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India, March
2001 An abridged version has been published in Non-Profit Quarterly, Boston,
MA. Fall 2001.
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 everywhere-of 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 teen-ager 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.
Isolation is one barrier to courageous action. Time is a second one. In
most countries, time is evaporating. Technology has played a large role
in this, speeding up human interactions to the speed of light, even though
we can't, as living beings, work any faster than the speed of life. In
highly technological societies, leisure time and private life are fast
eroding by the ever-invading demands of cell phones, e-mail, and the assumption
that workers should be available 24/7. In societies where technology is
not yet so invasive, the very complexity and multiplicity of problems
that confront leaders is destroying their time to deal well with any one
Under the relentless pressure of time vanishing, we are losing many essential
capacities of being human: the time to think and reflect; the time to
be in relationships; the time to develop trust and commitment. In essence,
we are forfeiting our unique human qualities in exchange for speed.
There is at least one other great destructive force at work globally,
and that is the American management model. Leaders everywhere, no matter
what their culture or tradition, are pressured to focus on numeric measures
of efficiency and narrow measures of success, i.e. growth and profit-making.
These practices are not sufficient to create a healthy and robust workplace
or planet. American businesses that only focus on these narrow goals fail
as well. As these too-narrow measures roll out around the world, they
create the conditions for large-scale destruction of cultures, habitats,
and the human spirit. Yet few local leaders can withstand the pressure
to be "modern" and so they forfeit their own experience and wisdom about
what works best within their own traditions and practices. It isn't just
pop culture and fast food that is creating a monoculture across the planet;
it's also the spread of one management model, a model that is inherently
destructive of life.
Paula Freire said that "reality doesn't change itself." If this is an
accurate portrait of today's reality, then we-people everywhere--must
be the agents of change. We need to create the conditions where we can
think, where we can notice what's going on, and where we develop companions
for the work that is required. It is the opportunity to develop these
conditions for critical education and action that energizes me now. Our
initiative is called: "From the Four Directions: People Everywhere Leading
the Way." And this is what we do.
In local communities everywhere, leaders are invited (by a small group
of local hosts) to meet regularly to think together, develop clarity about
their practices and values that work to affirm and sustain people, and
to support each other's courageous acts. Each circle is a site for critical
education. People become more knowledgeable about what is going on in
their world, and they develop new strategies for how to influence their
world. They teach one another, relying on their experience and compassion.
Over time, these local circles become good communities of practice-leaders
emerge with greater skills to affect change in their world, wherever they
are called to be leaders. Working locally, we act as a global leadership
development effort, raising the standards of effective leadership in thousands
of communities and changing the global definition of what good leadership
For these circles to give birth to new ideas, new courage, and new companions
for the journey, we use the simple and ancient practice of good human
conversation. We provide support for how to create the conditions for
meaningful and deepening conversation. We also insist that these leader
circles include as diverse a mix of people (age, gender, organizational
type) as is possible in that community. A core value of From the Four
Directions is that "we depend on diversity." We know that people need
to be talking to one another again, across all the boundaries and hurts
that have been created. And we know also that new solutions are only available
when new people are in the conversation. Most communities in the world
struggle with diversity-be it ethnic, religious, gender or age-based.
In every circle, in every country, we strive to gently open the boundaries
and extend welcome to those formerly excluded. We want to help reweave
the broken bonds that are a major dilemma of all societies.
Our second core value is: "We rely on human goodness." We believe that
the solutions needed at this time are not at all technical, but profoundly
human. We will find the answers to complex issues, and we will find the
courage to push back against the destructive practices of globalism, only
if we find each other. In this time when there is growing evidence for
human badness, there is the growing need to rely on the fact that most
people, no matter their culture or physical conditions, have goodness
in them. They, we, want to live with other people in more harmonious and
humane ways. We develop greater clarity in leaders everywhere about
human potential and the positive impulses that motivate people-the search
for meaning, the need for good relationships, the opportunity to grow
and contribute to others.
The focus of conversation in a From the Four Directions circle is leadership-those
values and practices that are life-affirming rather than life-destroying.
We aspire to support changes in the leadership of local communities everywhere,
developing leadership practices at the local level that can restore hope
to the future. But we also aspire to change the direction of our global
future. We want to create a global voice on behalf of those practices
and values that nourish and sustain the human spirit and all life. To
achieve this, we are relying on a change theory taught to us by other
In nature, change doesn't happen from a top-down, strategic approach.
There is never a boss in a living system. Change happens from within,
from many local actions occurring simultaneously. When these local actions
learn about other local actions, their own activity is strengthened. But
even more is available. As local groups network together, they can suddenly,
and always surprisingly, emerge into a global force. This global force
is far stronger than the sum of the parts, and it is also different than
the local actions that gave birth to it. These global forces are the result
of emergence, and they are known as emergent phenomena.
Always they possess great power, and always they are a surprise.
Globalism is a perfect example of an emergent phenomenon. No one planned
it. It emerged from many local actions on the part of corporations and
nation states, actions available in the absence of laws and policies for
a new, inter-national environment. Globalism organized around only a few
values--those of growth and profit-making. And suddenly, we live in the
midst of its powerful pressures, organizing societies and organizations
in ways that few people want, and that only a very few are benefiting
Once an emergent phenomenon has appeared, it can't be changed by working
backwards, by changing the local parts that gave birth to it. You can
only change an emergent phenomenon by creating a countervailing force
of greater strength. This means that the work of change is to start over,
to organize new local efforts, connect them to each other, and know that
their values and practices can emerge as something even stronger.
From the Four Directions seeks to use emergence intentionally.
Now that many local circles are up and running, we are beginning to network
them together, experimenting with multiple ways of doing that. When a
leader circle in Montevideo, Chile discusses the same issue as a circle
in New Delhi, or when a Zimbabwean circle talks with a Danish circle about
their experience with citizen democracy-we know that such connections
have a powerful impact on personal leadership behavior.
We also believe that as people realize the problems they face are shared
by others in different parts of the globe, that they instantly recognize
these as systemic issues. There is no better way for people to
become skilled systems thinkers than to realize their problem is not unique
to them, but is affecting many others in diverse parts of the global system.
One outcome of From the Four Directions is to create thoughtful and practical
systems thinkers around the world.
Our greatest intent is to create a global voice for change in the practices
and values used in all types of organizations everywhere. To create
such an emergent phenomenon, we consciously connect circles to one another,
publicize our efforts, and soon hope to host regional, in-person conferences,
and engage in any other means of developing good, meaningful connections.
Using the great goodness of many, and actively developing the critical
thinking and relational skills that make us human, we intend to astonish
the world with what becomes possible when we nourish and sustain the human
As of this writing (March 2002), From the Four Directions has trained
people to be circle hosts from more than 30 countries: in Africa, all
of Europe, India, South America and North America. For more information
on this initiative, and if you'd like to join us, please go to:
or phone, The Berkana Institute, 801.376.8847.
Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.
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