#58 Living into a New Consciousness


Facing Reality – Claiming Leadership – Restoring Sanity By Margaret J. Wheatley

 Adapted Excerpts #2 from the Précis

by Helene O’Sullivan, MM

A Living System

A living system has permeable boundaries and sense-making capacities. It is an open system, capable of exchanging energy with its environment rather than using up a finite amount. If it opens to its environment, it takes in information, a form of energy.  It notices changes and disturbances that it then processes, free to choose its response.  This is life’s essential process – using cognition and self-organization to adapt and change. 

A living system can reorganize itself to become more fit, in the evolutionary sense,

to survive and flourish.  Through its exchanges of information, it creates newness and diversity, sustaining itself through shifts, crises, and catastrophes.  All of this is possible and commonplace as long as the system remains open, willing to learn and adapt. By staying open, living systems resist the arrow of time and the Universe’s movement to increasing disorder by using their cognition to adapt.

A healthy living system is a good learner and can thrive even though its environment is moving toward increasing disorder.  But to do so it must be actively engaged and aware. If living systems close down, they wear down and death is assured.

If you are paying any attention to the news from everywhere, it is hard to avoid the specter of collapse.  But then what happens? Do we, as most do, fall into private collapse consumed by fear and despair? 

Do we become one who does nothing but complain for what has been lost?   Or do we acknowledge where we are and step forward to serve? We must wake up to where we are in order to positively change where we are.  The natural march of time toward disorder can be counteracted and even reversed by awareness and learning. Blind reactivity and fear is not the answer. Self-protection is not the answer. Denial is not the answer. Sane leadership is.

What is sane leadership?

It is the unshakeable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind.  It is the commitment to create the condi-tions for these capacities to blossom, protected from the external environment. It is the deep knowing that, even in the most dire circumstances, more becomes possible as people engage together with compassion and discernment, self-determining their best way forward.

This leadership is no longer available at the global level. There, the pattern of collapse is manifesting with astonishing speed. But within our sphere of influence, there is so much we can do. We can train ourselves to see clearly, and wherever we are, whoever we are with, we can choose actions based on insight, compassion and wisdom.  If we choose this role for our-selves, we are joining those few who, throughout history, always step forward to serve in a time of collapse.

Choosing to Lead Well in Collapse

While there are very destructive dynamics at play as our civilization travels down the arrow of time, these dynamics do not have to wield influence on anyone or any group that is willing to be open to its environ-ment, use its intelligence, and bravely face reality. 

Whenever we are open rather than closed, we become alive, a living system capable of self-organizing into new order rather than succumbing to disorder. The good news is that this is happening in many places, enlivening places resisting disorder by using their hearts and minds as well. And every one of them is grounded in an ethic that places people at the center of all decisions and actions. This is sanity in action!

In the tragedies of the refugee crisis, in the complexities of a broken healthcare system, in communities torn apart by fear and hatred, in exhausted professionals, we find a new way to serve ~ everywhere there are communities, programs and organiza-tions that are learning, adapting, and creating effective responses that are making a true and positive contribution. But we need to keep this in perspective. These leaders cannot prevent the unraveling of our global civilization and this is not their ambition. They aspire to make a profound difference locally, in the lives of people in their communities and organizations.

They also know that their successful initiatives that took such dedication and endurance to create are vulnerable to the destructive politics and behaviors inherent in a dying culture. At any moment, they or their programs may be swept away or severely hampered by thoughtless political decisions.  There are no assurances they will achieve long-term impact or be rewarded for success from the leaders above them who are possessed by fear.

And yet these leaders persevere because they are committed to doing the best they can for people.  They have learned that nearly all people desire to do good work in good relationships with their colleagues.

In full awareness of the trials and tribulations that will not cease, they offer their leadership skills to create islands of sanity, places of possibility and sanctuary where the destructive dynamics of collapse are kept at bay ~ for as long as they can.

Leading an Island of Sanity

I feel confident that there is only one style, form of leadership that people respond well to. And they respond, because it honors and supports them to be fully human.  To determine your own definition of good leadership think about your history:

  1. Recall those leaders you have most admired, those with whom you were happy to serve. What were their behaviors? How did you feel working with them? What kind of worker were you, including the quality of what you produced? How do you feel about them?   
  2. Recall your own moments when you were proud of the leadership (either formal or informal) you provided to your organization, family, friends, community. What did you do? How did you behave toward others? What were the results of your leadership? Are you still in a relationship with any of them?

Answer these questions and you will know how to be a good leader as you work locally. A core survival skill in difficult situations is to maintain a sense of humor. Even with the intensity of feelings that flood over us as we contemplate collapse, it is essential that we not take everything too seriously. The Hopi prophecy teaches, “At this time in history we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.” Maintaining a sense of humor gives us the capacity to observe the suffering/failures with enough distance that we can see it more clearly.

Irony and humor (not sarcasm) are critical skills to wise discernment. In order to laugh, we have to take in a lot of informa-tion and see things from a different perspective. Sarcasm, on the other hand, is just observing from a distance through the eyes of cynicism.  It does not connect us in any way, nor enable action or relationship.

Where Is Your Organization?

In the descriptions of the pattern of collapse, there is both the human element or moral decay and the systemic element of institutional rot. Increasing disorder is fueled by money replacing service as the core motivator, hierarchical leaders focus on maintaining power at all costs, the disappearance of the future from decision making, the preservation of the status quo by the few elites who prosper from it. As things deteriorate, relationships disinte-grate into distrust, self-protection, and opposition.  Internal conflicts increase and no one even notices threats to the whole as they fight for their piece of the pie.

Translating these predictable behaviors into assessments of an organization seems quite straightforward.  Below are some questions that have proven useful. The real learning comes from noticing what is changing, and in which direction, as you explore each topic. Each demonstrates your commitment to opening to what is and offers possibilities for engaging people to join you in developing an island of sanity.

  1. Quality of relationships: If you were to create a trend line from a few years ago to now and a few years ahead, how are people relating to each other? Has trust increased or declined? Are people more self-protective or less so? Are they more willing to be there for one another, to go the extra mile or not?
  2. Fear versus love: If these are the two ends of the spectrum of human emotions, consider where you see examples of each. Also look for tendencies: which reaction, fear or love, is more likely in specific situations or with specific issues? Are either of these emotions coming to dominate as time goes on? Are you or others more fearful? Is fear used to motivate people?
  3. Quality of thinking: When a crisis happens, how do you respond? Are your values used to resolve the crisis? Do you consider the future? Is long-term thinking still happening (in conversa-tions, decision making, planning)? Has it made an impact? If so, is this visible to people? How difficult is it to find time to think, for yourselves and others?
  4. Willingness to contribute: What invita-tions to contribute have you extended and why? How have people responded? What are your expectations for people being willing to step forward?
  5. The role of money: How big an influence, as a percentage of other criteria, do financial issues have on decisions? Has money become a serious concern for you? For others? Has selfishness replaced service?

Answering these questions with love and concern can yield enormous benefit to our aspirations in bringing greater sanity into the community and among members and beyond.