NOTE: This interview excerpt is transcript only
Meg Wheatley is a true warrior for the human spirit, recognized for her decades of work in organizational leadership and community development. Meg’s impact has been felt from the Fortune 100 level to the National Park Service to aboriginal villages in Australia. She has dedicated herself to empowering communities on every inhabitable continent to cope effectively with the changes of our times. Meg has published eight award-winning books, each of them an invitation to explore worldviews and ways of being our best selves in order to ensure a sustainable future. In this interview, Meg teaches us about inner and outer dimensions of restorative leadership.
On Leading Transcript
Seana Lowe Steffen, host: What do you love about your life?
Meg Wheatley, guest: I love everything about my life. I have a life that is so blessed that I continuously express thanks for it. I love the experiences I’ve had, I love the harsh things I’ve learned. The fact that I am so well-accompanied on my path with spiritual teachers that support me, guide me. My family as well, healthy and fully functioning. And my work is now truly at the stage where I have been out there long enough that I can see the impact it’s had, and that is very lovely. Yet I'm not driven anymore by needing to make an impact. I moved out into the world fully in 1966 when I went into the Peace Corps in Korea as my first really big edge of going adventuring into a totally foreign traditional culture, and from then it’s been continuous exploration. I can’t imagine a more blessed life, including things like divorce and severe injuries at one point in my life, but it has been extraordinary.
Seana: If you could change one thing in the world with a snap of your fingers right now, what would you change and why?
Meg: I would very quickly want people to re-understand, re-identify with what we as human spirits are capable of. I think the greatest loss that I would say leads to everything else is this complete separation from ourselves. ...We think some people are less human than us, we think some people are not human, and we think our workers do not need to be treated as anything except vehicles of production, even after all these years of knowing better… It’s this basic disconnect from not understanding ourselves. There’s a wonderful line in Neruda where he said, “Not understanding is threatening ourselves with death.” So that’s what I would want is for people instantly to wake up to the fact that, “Oh my gosh, we’re here, we’re together, we’re human beings, we have all these emotions, we have all these drives, we have all these wonderful capacities and these things we have to struggle with, great!” And to truly engage with each other again.
Seana: What does sustainability mean to you?
Meg: It means being able to continue on. There are several aspects of sustainability. One is working with life’s processes. I think I’ve been very clear about that in my own writing, of being neighbors rather than controllers. There is this great principle in eco-thinking that nature bats last. Nature always has the last word. Our getting away from our dominant paradigm is to understand that we participate, and that sustainability is not up to us actually, except that now it is because we’ve messed it up so profoundly. It’s becoming a dancer rather than a dominator, for one thing, but it’s also understanding that life goes on. ...The earth is sustainable, just not in this form. We may lose photosynthesis, even, but the earth continues on in one form or another. So sustainability is really our issue and for me it is at the level of mind change, at the level of worldview. What does it take for things to renew, for things to continue long term? What does it take to shift our perspective to view ourselves as participants and not as the dominator species? Life knows how to sustain itself and we could learn from it.
Seana: For many years you have been asserting that there is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. What is that simpler way?
Meg: It is understanding that the planet knows how to work. That life knows how to create the conditions for its own sustenance, nourishment and sustainability, and that when we work with life’s dynamics, then life becomes simpler. Our struggle right now is in trying to get this huge planet of dynamics and forces and processes to conform to our wants, so we destroy wetlands, we create massive deserts. Wherever we go, we create a disruption and systems don’t work as well or as sustainably. It seems to me that the simpler way is about understanding that life has these wonderful dynamics of creativity, adaptation, ability to change, community, coming together. Stop trying to deny those dynamics and start to use them. For example, when you work with people and you understand that just about everyone can be creative, everyone can be a good learner, just about everyone wants to work well with other human beings – well, those are fabulous dynamics. Why couldn’t we organize a society in such a way to capitalize on them? We have lots of evidence of what’s possible when you’re working with life as a partner and harnessing these dynamics of creativity and learning and community.
Seana: In Finding Our Way you say, “America has embraced values that cannot create a sustainable society and world. We organize too may of our activities around beliefs that are inherently life destroying. We believe that growth can be endless, that competition creates healthy relationships, that consumption need have no limits, that meaning is found in things, that aggression brings peace.” If you could wave a magic wand and re-create the system, what values and beliefs would underlie our organizations?
Meg: Okay, so I’m going to push back on the magic wand imagery because it doesn’t really take a magic wand.
Seana: Please do.
Meg: These values and behaviors that I am about to name are already in practice and have been in practice for millennia. The only magic wand would be to lift the veil from our eyes or help us see that what we’re striving for doesn’t require magic, it just requires a change of our lens and what we’re willing to notice and what we’re willing to value. So could we understand that communities, living systems, survive and grow based on collaboration? Any species that comes in and just takes as much as it can either destroys the ecosystem and then destroys itself, or learns to adapt and learns to get along and not take so much. These examples are everywhere. What we really need to understand is that the current values that we’ve been sold don’t lead anywhere good, and people know that if you talk to them long enough. ...What we remember over a lifetime is what we should be thinking about right now. We remember the moments of being together in true communion. We remember the moments of feeling satisfied that our children became good people, or that others helped us when we were in need. So I think, maybe why I like the word restorative that you are using, is we have to reconnect with our experience and not let somebody else tell us what it is or what it should mean, or give it a tag line or an identity or a number in a box. We just need to really be more aware of the things in our life that have been most satisfying. Then it’s absolutely clear what good sustainable human values are.
Seana: I wonder, what is the role of right work and right action in our times?
Meg: That’s a great question because where the business culture takes us is focusing on right work as what will get you ahead. This is what the culture says, so you should be looking for work where you have the ability to progress, to impress your bosses, to get ahead, to make a lot of money, to have power and influence. Whereas true right work is this deep inner knowing that no matter what, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And when you have that kind of… clarity, when you are truly knowing that this is my work to do, then everything shifts. Right work is another word for inner knowing, so it can be a very quiet confidence. The confidence and the trust that I’m doing the work that I’m supposed to be doing… I couldn’t not do it. I would have died had I not done it, or I would have not been able to live with myself. These are all very personal imperatives. So this is why we have to know ourselves and be able to listen to ourselves, and not the crazy cacophony of voices from the outer world.
Seana: In Leadership and the New Science you state that, “We need the courage to let go of the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished.” What does that look like?
Meg: Given where we are now in this age of destruction... (t)he task is to realize that we know the old ways aren’t working, and it’s to step off… to claim our yearnings and our intuitions. People are still holding on desperately, which is normal. When an old system is dying, people practice the old ways more viciously. As it fails and fails, they just do more and more of the same with increasing viciousness, and I use that word quite deliberately because that’s what’s obvious. Just look at any of our public debates right now, and all you see is viciousness, really. So for those of us who have these intimations of, "Another world is possible, a simpler way is possible," the minute you step into that space you realize that you’re surrounded by other people who have already taken that step. So part of it is understanding that our colleagues, our new colleagues and friends who are already pioneering the new and responding to these voices and intuitions and yearnings, they’re already out there, and it’s not until you take the step and renounce the old that you discover that you have a lot of companions.
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Listen Deeply For Connection And Insight
Since 1966, Meg Wheatley has worked in the world seeking to understand ways of perceiving and working that give us the capacity to deal well and sanely with this troubling time. Her work, writings and teachings are a constant and consistent invitation to see the world with new eyes. She guides that, if we are to contribute to this unendingly complex world and the complicated, exhausting lives we now live, we need to develop much greater insight and understanding before we choose our actions. She now trains Warriors for the Human Spirit.
"I believe we can change the world if we start talking to one another again." With this simple declaration, Margaret Wheatley proposes that people band together with their colleagues and friends to create the solutions for real social change, both locally and globally, that are so badly needed. Such change will not come from governments or corporations, she argues, but from the ageless process of thinking together in conversation.
Perseverance is designed to offer guidance, challenge, clarity and consolation to all the people doing their work day-by-day. The topics are not the usual inspiring, feel good, rah-rah messages. Instead, Wheatley focuses on the situations, feelings, and challenges that can, over time, cause us to give up or lose our way. Perseverance is a discipline—it’s a day-by-day decision not to give up. Therefore, we have to notice the moments when we feel lost or overwhelmed or betrayed or exhausted and note how we respond to them. And we have to notice the rewarding times, when we experience the joy of working together on something hard but worthwhile, when we realize we’ve made a small difference.