Leadership In Turbulent Times Is Spiritual
Margaret J. Wheatley ©2002
Why has the topic of spirituality entered our organizational and professional
lives? In the past several years, spirit and work have come together
in many interesting questions. Is work a spiritual endeavor? Do we have
a sense of vocation or calling? Can we bring our soul to work? Is it
valid to even ask that question? Are leaders strengthened by faith in
a higher power? Should good leaders act as "servant leaders" in the
tradition of spiritual teachers or Jesus?
I don't think it accidental that questions from the domain of spirituality
have moved into leadership. In fact, I think it's an unavoidable consequence
of this time of turbulence. As our world grows more chaotic and unpredictable,
we are forced to ask questions that have, historically, always been
answered by spiritual traditions. How do I live in uncertainty, unable
to know what will happen next? How do I maintain my values when worldly
temptations abound? What is the meaning of my life? Why am I here at
this time? Where can I find the courage and faith to stay the course?
Humans have sought answers to these questions for as long as we've been
conscious and reflective. It is a fundamental human characteristic to
ask "Why?" We are able to stand outside our immediate circumstances
and look forward into the future, and to look backward and interpret
the past. No matter how poor or desperate we are, we always need to
know why things are happening. Every culture has its rituals and spiritual
practices to answer the question "why?"
As our age has become more chaotic and complex, we've turned for answers
to the real god of Western culture, science. We've asked scientists
to explain to us how to deal with uncertainty, chaos, and catastrophes.
We've hoped that the mathematics of complexity science would help us
get a grip on the complexity of our organizations. We've wanted chaos
science to reduce our fear of living in chaotic times, to teach us how
to stop the unpredicted events that suddenly destroy lives and futures.
We want the science of chaos to not just explain chaos, but give us
tools for controlling the chaos.
But of course, this god of Science can only fail us. Chaos can't be
controlled; the unpredictable can't be predicted. Instead, we are being
called to encounter life as it is: uncontrollable, unpredictable, messy,
surprising, erratic. One of my own spiritual teachers commented once
that, "the reason we don't like Life is that it behaves like life."
Many people have a spiritual practice and rely on it to help them succeed
as leaders and work colleagues. But in a more subtle form, I hear spiritual
thinking whenever anyone talks about their work as a vocation or call.
The notion of "vocation" comes from spiritual and philosophical traditions.
It describes work that is given to us, that we are meant to do. We don't
decide what our vocation is, we receive it. It always originates from
outside us. Therefore, we can't talk about vocation or calling without
acknowledging that there is something going on beyond our narrow sense
of self. It helps remind us that there's more than just me, that we're
part of a larger and purpose-filled place.
Even if we don't use the word vocation, most of us yearn to experience
a sense of purpose to our lives. People often express the feeling of
life working through them, of believing there's a reason for
their existence. I always love to hear a young person say that they
know there's a reason why they're here. I know that if they can hold
onto that sense of purpose, they'll be able to deal with whatever life
offers them. We avoid being overwhelmed and discouraged by knowing there's
a meaning to our lives. The stronger our sense of vocation, the more
resilient and courageous we are. And we can only develop a sense of
purpose or vocation from believing in a power and order greater than
Another frequent indication of spiritual thinking is the commonly heard
comment: "There are no accidents." If nothing happens accidentally,
if we believe in synchronicity, then where does that order come from?
That is a question only answered by spiritual thinking.
Leaders today face spiritual challenges
I believe that leaders today are faced with enormous challenges, most
of them not of their own doing. As times grow more chaotic, as people
question the meaning (and meaninglessness) of this life, people are
clamoring for their leaders to save and rescue them. Historically, we've
too often given away our freedom and chosen dictatorship over uncertainty.
People press their leaders to stop the chaos, to make things better,
to create stability. And even leaders who would never become dictators,
those devoted to servant leadership, walk into this trap. They want
to help, so they exert more control over the disorder. They try to create
safety, to insulate people from the realities of change. They try and
give answers to dilemmas that have no answers. No leader can achieve
this, and it is always liberating to realize that.
Leadership through command and control is doomed to fail. No one can
create sufficient stability and equilibrium for people to feel secure
and safe. Instead, as leaders we must help people move into a relationship
with uncertainty and chaos. Spiritual teachers have been doing this
for millennia. Therefore, I believe that the times have led leaders
to a spiritual threshold. We must enter the domain of spiritual traditions
if we are to succeed as good leaders in these difficult times.
The essential work of leaders
Here are some principles that describe essential perspectives, beliefs,
and work for leaders now. Each of these comes from spiritual thinking
Life is uncertain. How can a leader help people understand that
change is just the way it is? In Buddhist thought, the source of real
happiness comes from understanding this fact. Instead of holding on
to any one thing or form, we learn to expect that it will change. We
become willing to move on rather than cling desperately to old practices.
As a leader, it doesn't help to accuse people of being resistant to
change. We all are. But when leaders give people time to reflect on
their personal life experiences, they notice that they've changed many
times in their life. They know how to do this. They also may notice
that at those times when they've "let go", they haven't died.
Life never stops teaching us about change. As leaders, hopefully we
can be gentle guides and coaches so that people discover their own life's
Life is cyclical. Poet David Whyte has noted: "If you think life
is always improving, you're going to miss half of it." Life is cyclical-
we pass through different moods, we live through seasons, we have times
of rich harvests and times of bleak winter. Life uses cycles to create
newness. We move from the old to the new only as we pass through the
cycle of chaos. We need to let go of the old (which always feels terrible,)
before new life and capacity can arise. Instead of fleeing from the
fearful place of chaos, or trying to rescue people from it. leaders
need to help people stay with the chaos, help them walk through it together,
and look for the new insights and capacities that can emerge.
In Christian traditions, times of chaos have been called "dark nights
of the soul." In our present culture, we call these "clinical depressions."
(I prefer the spiritual term.) In the dark night, we feel devoid of
meaning, totally alone, abandoned by God. But this is the condition
for rebirth, for a new and stronger self to emerge. You probably have
walked through many dark nights and I encourage you to think how you
changed, what new capacities you possessed when you emerged back into
Meaning is what motivates people. There is nothing that motivates
we humans more than meaning. I've seen many disillusioned and depressed
staff groups develop high levels of energy and insight when they were
asked to think about the meaning of their work. Consultant Kathy Dannemiller
always asks groups to think about how the world will change because
of the work they're doing. In such brutal times as these, when good
work gets destroyed by events and decisions far beyond our influence,
when we're so overwhelmed with tasks that we have no time to reflect
for even a moment, it is very important that the leader create time
for people to remember why they're doing this work. What were we hoping
to accomplish when we started this? Who are we serving by doing this
I have always been astonished by the deep meaning people ascribe to
their work. Most people want their work to serve a greater good, to
help other people. People who make dog food reflect that "pets contribute
to human health." Manufacturers of toxic chemicals in West Virginia
want to do their work safely in order, "to make the world safe." We
have an easier time of remembering the meaning of our work in certain
professions, such as healthcare, education, and non-profits. But we
seldom have time, especially in these professions, to pause for a moment
and reconnect with the initial idealism and desire to serve that led
us into our profession. But our energy and rededication is only found
there, in our ideals.
Service brings us joy. Over the years, I've interviewed people
who participated in disaster relief. I've always been astonished to
notice that no matter how tragic and terrible the disaster, they always
spoke of that experience with joy. They've led me to realize that there
is nothing equal to helping other people. In service, we discover profound
happiness. We all witnessed this in the days after September 11th. A
comment that still brings tears to my eyes was made by a survivor who
said: "We didn't save ourselves. We tried to save each other."
The joy and meaning of service is found in every spiritual tradition.
It was once expressed very simply to me. "All happiness in the world
comes from serving others; all sorrow in the world comes from acting
Courage comes from our hearts. Where do we find the courage to be
leaders today? The etymology of the word courage gives us the answer.
Courage comes from the old French world for heart (coeur). When we are
deeply affected, when our hearts open to an issue or person, courage
pours from hearts. Please note that courage does not come from the root
word for analysis, or for strategic planning. We have to be engaged
at the heart level in order to be courageous champions. As much as we
may fear emotionalism, leaders need to be willing to let their hearts
open, and to tell stories that open other peoples' hearts.
We are interconnected to all life. Every spiritual tradition speaks
about oneness. So does new science. As leaders, we act on this truth
when we're willing to notice how a decision might affect others, when
we try and think systemically, when we're willing to look down the road
and notice how, at this moment, we might be affecting future generations.
Any act that takes us past the immediate moment, and past our self-protective
ways, acknowledges that there's more to life than just us. I learned
a wonderfully simple way to think about our actions from a woman minister.
She told how anytime she makes a decision, she asks herself: "Is this
decision going to bring people together? Will it weave a stronger web?
Or will it create further disintegration and separation?" I like to
ask another question as well. In what I am about to do, am I turning
toward others, or turning away? Am I moving closer, or am I retreating
We can rely on human goodness. This is the first value of The Berkana
Institute, where I serve as president. We rely on the great generosity
and caring of humans. We know that there's more than enough human badness
in the world, but that badness only pushes us to rely even more on human
In your own leadership, what qualities of people do you rely on? I believe
in these dark times that we can only rely on the hope, resiliency, and
love that is found in the human spirit. Many people through history
have suffered terribly. Those we remember and admire-Helen Keller, Nelson
Mandela, Ann Frank, war veterans, Holocaust survivors, cancer survivors-demonstrate
what is best about us. We love to hear their stories because they illuminate
what is good about being human. Vaclev Havel, President of the Czech
Republic, says that hope is not a result of the condition of our lives.
It is fundamental to being human. (The state motto of South Carolina
is similar: "If I breathe, I hope.")
We need peace of mind. All spiritual traditions teach us ways
to find peace of mind and acceptance. In the research on mind-body health,
cultivating peace is a prerequisite for health. And who do we like to
be around? Do we seek out angry or peaceful people? Do we find relief
in noise or in quiet? As leaders, we need to find ways to help people
work from a place of inner peace, even in the midst of turmoil. Frantic
activity and fear only take us deeper into chaos. I've observed the
power of starting a meeting with two minutes of silent contemplation.
Or, when the meeting gets heated, of asking people to stop talking and
just be silent for a few minutes. It's amazing how differently we come
back into the fray if we've had those moments to pause. Few of us want
to work as crazily as we do; most of us hate meetings where tempers
boil over. Brief moments of silence can work wonders-silence is truly
the pause that refreshes. Educator Parker Palmer tells of his discomfort
at working in a Quaker organization, where they observed five minutes
of contemplative silence before the start of every meeting. At one meeting,
when there was a particularly difficult issue on the agenda, he was
relieved to hear the leader announce that because of this serious issue,
that today they would not spend the first five minutes in silence. But
then, to his dismay, he heard her announce, "Instead, we'll take twenty
minutes for silence."
Attending to your personal spiritual health
I'd like to offer just a few simple practices that I personally can't
live without if I'm to maintain a sense of focus and peace as a leader.
1. Start your day off peacefully. I've raised a large family,
so I laugh as I state this. But I've learned that I can't expect to
find peace at work. However peaceful I am as I enter the office, that's
probably my peak peaceful experience of the day. So I have a strong
motivation to find peace before work. There are many ways to cultivate
peace at the start of your day. You can drive to work in silence. Or
listen to a particularly soothing piece of music. You can reflect on
a spiritual phrase or parable. You can take a few minutes to just sit,
either meditating or focusing on a lovely object. You can look for something
beautiful outside your window. As your day grows crazier, it helps to
know what peace feels like. Sometimes you can even recall that feeling
in the midst of very great turmoil.
2. Learn to be mindful. Anytime you can keep yourself from instantly
reacting, anytime you can pause for just a second, you are practicing
mindfulness. Instead of letting your reactions and thoughts lead you,
you step back and realize you can choose your reaction. Instead of being
angry, you hesitate for a moment and realize you have other responses
available. Instead of saying something hurtful, you pause and give yourself
3. Slow things down. If you can't slow down a group or meeting,
you can at least slow down yourself. I've learned to notice how I'm
sitting. If I find myself leaning forward, moving aggressively into
the discussion or argument, I force myself to sit back in the chair,
even for just a moment. If I find my temper rising, I slow down and
take just one deep breath. These are small things, but they yield big
4. Create your own measures. We all would prefer to be better
people. We don't like to be angry, fearful, or to be creating more problems
for other people. But how can we know when we're succeeding in becoming
people we respect? What are our personal measures? Some people create
a measure such as telling fewer lies, or speaking the truth to people
more often. Some notice how they are more patient, or angry less often.
I also use the question of "am I turning toward or away" as a personal
measure of good behavior.
5. Expect surprise. We're old enough now to know that life will
keep interrupting our plans and surprising us at every turn of the way.
It helps to notice this wisdom that we've been forced to accumulate.
Surprise is less traumatic once we accept it as a fact of life.
6. Practice Gratefulness. Most of us have been taught this, but
how often do you take time, daily, to count your blessings? The wonder
of this process is that as we take this daily inventory, we grow in
gratefulness. We start to notice more and more-people who helped us,
grace that appeared, little miracles that saved us from danger. The
daily practice of gratefulness truly changes us in wonderful ways. And
when you develop the practice of expressing your gratefulness to colleagues,
your relationships improve dramatically.
I believe, because you are human, that you've already experienced the
powers, fears and joys that I've described. It is more important to
access your own wisdom than to seek advice from anyone else. Life is
a consistent teacher. It always teaches the same lessons. Change is
just the way it is. Peace is not dependent on circumstances. We are
motivated by meaning. We want to express our love through service. And
when we believe that, as leaders, we are playing our part in something
more purposeful than our small egos can ever explain, we become leaders
who are peaceful, courageous, and effective.
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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