#61 Living into a New Consciousness


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

Adapted Excerpts #5 from the Précis

by Helene O’Sullivan, MM

Depending on Diversity

When a paradigm no longer provides reliable guidance for how to live in the world, the most common response is to grasp hold of it more firmly.  As it dawns on us that we do not know how things work – that it is not working – we become more insistent that it has to work just as we thought it did. Opening to the uncertainty, to the need for a new way of seeing is not what we humans do well. We use our big brains and our powers of cognition to resist change.

Our skills at manipulating information lead us to become more fundamentalist, more certain. At a certain point, we realize it is just not working. Often it takes a major crisis to wake people up.  The crises are already here. If we are willing to notice our own pursuit of certainty, to see that our favored ways of working are not working, then we can use these magnificent powers of perception to obtain a clearer sense of reality.

In the After Action Review (AAR) process (see #60), the core strength is the profound respect for different perceptions. It is acknowledged from the start that everyone who was involved in the situation under review saw something that others probably missed. Or they saw things that only they could have noticed because of where they were at the time or what role they play in the organization.  We need to depend on divers-ity. It is not about respecting differences for ethical reasons alone. It is recognizing that none of us can ever see the situation clearly enough to act well on our own. Working with diversity is a life-saving capacity as well as an honoring of one another.

Diversity is valuing difference because it makes a difference; we see more when there are more of us seeing. We know more when everyone’s perspective is sought and incorporated into our learning.

Participative processes, listening skills, conflict resolution, problem-solving ~ these need to be in everyone’s repertoire. They all require that we take time: to think, to calm down, to sit still, to listen quietly, to not react instantly, nor get distracted or  impatient, to not pull out our cell phones. These are processes that reawaken our powers of cognition, reinstitute thinking, and redirect our attention to one another.   We learn to make sense of what formerly overwhelmed us, not only because we have opened our own minds, but, as a collective of minds, we see more clearly. And the phrase “We are in this together” takes on real meaning. The task of all of us is to ensure that thinking and learning together is the way we do our work and is our highest priority.


In 21st century science, the very disparate fields of biology and physics have come to a shared understanding: everything we observe is not a separate “thing” but a participant in a vast web of relationships.  Living systems and the universe are best understood as layers of networked relation-ships.   Nothing living lives alone. The shift in understanding became clear as the blinders of mechanistic thinking were torn off by the paradoxes revealed in scientific evidence. Life insisted on being understood differently, and this fundamental change introduced a type of ethics to biology.

Ethics is how we behave

when we decide we belong together.”

With this ethic of collaboration, individual behavior takes on new meaning. As an organism interacts with its environment, individual actions impact the health of the ecosystem far beyond its nearest neighbors.

Collaboration is the process that creates an ecosystem; greed destroys it. A system’s view of life includes the qualities of harmony, balance, beauty ~ familiar experiences when we are gazing at mountains, flowers, streams and everything else natural.

Emergent Systems Cannot be Changed

Our costly attempts at organizational and social change have mostly failed. We tried to change individual behaviors, and we used linear approaches of goal setting, measures and accountability. Logically, it all made good sense. Individual behaviors caused problems. Complex problems needed to be broken down into chunks and then desig-   nated as tasks to specific individuals or teams. If everyone knew they would be held accountable for results, they would be motivated to do the work, and change would happen.  This still seems like a reasonable strategy and is the predominant approach. Yet still our failures continue at an egregious rate.

Life changes through emergence not incrementally. Instead of the simple sum of individual parts, life mixes it all up in networks of relationships and produces something new. Every part is playing its part, doing what it is created to do, commun-icating with its neighbors, adapting to environmental shifts. And then, quite suddenly, something else emerges that is unlike the parts that created it. Emergence always presents us with a surprise.  Take the example of chocolate chip cookies. Consider the ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, water, salt, chocolate chips. None of these can predict the flavor of the cookie.   You cannot find a cookie in the ingredients. When they come together something new is formed and you cannot take it apart to go back to the original ingredients.

The hard-to-accept news about emergence is that once a culture or pattern of response has emerged, you cannot go backwards.

There is nothing to do but start over.  We start by returning to our identity, the source of self-organization, reclaiming what we still believe in, what description gives meaning to who we want to be. The nuns introduced me to the concept of “Refounding,” a process described in Vatican II. Together they spent long hours contemplating the initial energy and inspiration of their founders.  Drawing on those powerful ancestral currents, they could then discern how best to embody these in the present context.  I have used this process many times with organizations and it always re-establishes direction and purpose in inspired, clear ways.

This is our work as leaders, to focus within our sphere of influence accepting the harsh reality that we cannot change the global culture that has emerged. Freeing ourselves from an emergent culture is an act of conscious rebellion. We know we cannot change what has emerged, so we walk out of it to begin again. What will emerge as we reclaim life-affirming identities? What new culture will form in ourselves, our families, our organizations?  It all depends on the values we embed  (embrace, incorporate) at the start.  If we embed ecological values, if we focus on relationships, if we position learning as a core value, if we seek to behave as partners with life, then we have a strong chance to self-organize as individuals living and working purposefully together in healthy community. How wonderful to be able to see clearly, and know what to do!  

Leading with Emergence

Working with emergence means we are fully engaged, carefully observing what is going on as we do our work, learning from experience, applying those learnings, adapt-ing, changing.  Life is dynamic, changing frequently and surprisingly. But it is not really a mystery. Life is lawful ~ there is a reliable logic to the laws of nature, cause and effect.

Life’s surprises are not surprising ~ we just were not paying attention to the right things.  We get blindsided, but life does not act blindly or randomly. It is possible to under-stand the multiple causes that were the source of our surprise. We simply need to engage our intelligence, open our percep-tions, get past our close mindedness, and ask, “What just happened? Why do we think it happened?”

What are the values, intentions, principles for behavior that describe who we want to be? Once established, are these common knowledge, are they known by all? As we work together, do we refer to our identity to make decisions? How do we respond when something goes wrong? Do we each feel accountable for maintaining the integrity of this identity?  These questions lie at the epicenter of creating a healthy self-organiz-ing group or organization. They bring us back to alert, open behaviors ~ the true sanity of any living system. A living system is a learning system. 

If we are working well with emergence, these questions become part of our everyday perceptions. We do not ask them occasionally or once a year at a retreat. We all have to become more observant, more open to differing perceptions, more open to new interpretations. The leader is in the position to see the whole organization. No matter how willing people might be, everyone is overwhelmed and consumed with their own work. Sane leadership is developing the capacity to observe what is going on in the whole system and then either reflect that back or bring people together to consider where we are now.  This is working with emergence and self-organization in a dynamic, organic way.

The Joy of Interbeing

My own experiences have helped me to understand what others describe as their most joyful moments.

How can joy be available in moments of great suffering?  All around us, lives are threatened, unstoppable destructive forces are at work, everyone is stretched beyond physical limits to help, rescue, save. For the rest of their lives, people will recall the intensity and horror ~ and the joy.

The presence of joy even in the worst experiences is explained in this biblical promise: “Whenever two or more are gathered, there will I be also.” Joy arises from self-transcendence. We transcend the limits of self. We transcend our needs for personal safety or caution. We discover new powers, new ways of being. 

Joy is a reliable consequence of self-transcendence.

In the worst conditions, our most noble human qualities

are right there, offering us the capacity to help, to love, to console.

Joy is an experience of the dance of energies, celebrating this Oneness within each of us. 

Beyond this self we have been protecting, we enter a sacred world,

a bundle of belonging, returning to one another by being

fully present to one another.

As we gather together to create islands of sanity, we will have many moments

of grace and joy ~ Guaranteed!