A few weeks ago I spent a Friday afternoon with Margaret Wheatley and about four hundred other folks who came to hear her talk about SPIRITED LEADERSHIP IN CRITICAL TIMES . The talk cosponsored by Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality and the Loyola Center for Spirituality was held at St. Catherine University in St. Paul Minnesota. Her talk was balanced by the music and songs of singer/songwriter Barbara McAfee.
Wheatley is one of my favorite authors on the topic of leadership. At the end of her three hour discussion I came away feeling energized to go out into our troubled world and find ways to make it better place. What follows are some of the highlights that I took away from the afternoon of her sharing of what she believes leaders will need in order to thrive in these troubled times.
She opened the afternoon by asking the attendees, “Who do you choose to be for this time?” To be an effective leader requires that we know who we are and what is important to us. We need to know what it is we long for. Evaluating these important issues is what will ground us. And she reminded us that struggling with the difficult issues of our day “it’s no big deal, it’s just our turn”. According to Thomas Merton, “Humans have a responsibility to their own time.” And indeed if we don’t step up to deal with the issues of our day, who will?
And with that she launched into what she described as “the depressing journey of our time”. In these dark times we cannot change the world as it is, but we can open ourselves up to it and find gentleness, decency, and bravery that is available to all of us. Many of us are experiencing the feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted.
She shared an excerpt from a recent email she had received that explained how the sender felt like she was crossing a raging river by hopping from rock to rock, but the rocks seemed to be disappear below the surface of the water before she could reach them and she worried that her next step might l cast her into the current out of site of the distant shore.
We are told that “we need to do more with less” and we face increasing conflicts, fear and anxiety, and more polarization. And those who attempt to lead us prey on our fear and anxiety and try to terrify us of their opponents. Instead of trying to understand the complexity of the problems we create, we look for someone else to blame. And because of our failure to think critically about the issues, we simply blunder our way from one crisis to another, blaming the other, and allowing our burgeoning bureaucracy to keep us tied to our meaningless work.
And in this constant crisis mode we try to find quick fixes to our problems. One example she shared was the old slogan that is still relevant to today, “Drink Coffee. Do Stupid Things Faster with More Energy”.
And it is these futile attempts that bring about the feelings we have that were portrayed in the cartoon she showed with the title “THE HISTORY OF MAN” - followed by a frame with a man asking the question “WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?” - followed by “THE END”. Our busyness and dysfunction block our ability to answer the question and learn from the answer before it is too late.
And so in these trouble times where there are no large institutions that are working well, where bad values dominate, and where we have desperate men blaming women (a reference Wheatley was making to the recent news of the Catholic Church clamping down on nuns in the United States), where do we turn?