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The Servant -Leader: From Hero to Host
An Interview With Margaret Wheatley © 2002

On November 15, 2001
, Larry C. Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf
Center for Servant-Leadership in Indianapolis, and John Noble,
Director of the Greenleaf Centre-United Kingdom, met with
Margaret Wheatley in Indianapolis, Indiana. What follows is a record of the
conversation that took place.

Larry Spears: Do you recall when you first encountered Robert Greenleaf ’s writings
and any remembrances of your initial impressions?

Margaret Wheatley: I’ve been trying to remember. I think it was through
Max DePree. What I enjoy most about Greenleaf ’s work is realising that
every time I go back, I read something that feels completely new and relevant.
And each time I’ll read a paragraph or an article it suddenly feels completely
contemporary and relevant and it’s different from what I noticed last time. In
that way his work stays very contemporary and exceedingly relevant. I think
that’s the mark of a great thinker. It’s not just that he was a visionary and saw
the need for the servant as leader. It’s truly great concepts and ideas that are
timeless and fundamental. That’s what I enjoy most. Every time I pick up
anything of his to read I realise that I’m going to be surprised again. It’s not
the same old thing.

Larry Spears: Is there any particular thought or idea about servant-leadership
that has struck you as a source of wisdom or importance?

Margaret Wheatley: I was recently struck by Greenleaf ’s admonition to “do
no harm.” I’ve been saying to a number of colleagues that doing no harm is
becoming exceedingly difficult. It’s not just about doing good, it’s actually
avoiding harm. We don’t see the consequences of our actions. America is in
the midst of a huge “wake up call” about what is the cost to the rest of the
world for us to be living the life we are living. It isn’t about terrorist activity;
it’s about noticing that we put an extraordinary demand on the rest of the
world for resources and energy, and that our way of life does not work well
for most other people because of the demands we put on them. So that’s what
I’ve been feeling about “doing no harm”—we don’t even know what we’re
doing that’s causing harm. I know Greenleaf wrote that in a much simpler
time, but I was really struck by that this time through.

Larry Spears: In light of the events of September 11th have you any thoughts as
to what servant-leadership has to offer to the world today that might be useful, and
what we who are involved in this work may be thinking positively about?

Margaret Wheatley: That’s a very important question. I have been asking:
“What is the leadership the world needs now and what are we learning about
leadership from actually being followers?” By this I mean some of us who
have been leaders are now followers, watching our government and our military
trying to lead us. What are we learning about all this? I think the questions
are writ large. “What are you learning now that you are a follower?
What makes for effective leadership?”

Now more than ever, we have to fundamentally shift our ideas of what
makes an effective leader. We have to shift them away from this secretive,
command and control, “we know what’s best.” We have to leave all that
behind, even though it may be effective in the moment. I’m certainly learning
that there are different needs at different times when you are a leader.
Different styles, different modalities. But what I find in servant-leadership
that I still find missing in the world is this fundamental respect for what it
means to be human. And I think that right now the greatest need is to have
faith in people. That is the single most courageous act of a leader. Give people
resources, give them a sense of direction, give them a sense of their own
power and just have tremendous faith that they’ll figure it out.

We need to move from the leader as hero, to the leader as host. Can we
be as welcoming, congenial, and invitational to the people who work with us
as we would be if they were our guests at a party? Can we think of the leader
as a convenor of people? I am realising that we can’t do that if we don’t have
a fundamental and unshakeable faith in people. You can’t turn over power to
people who don’t trust. It just doesn’t happen. So what I think I’m learning
from September 11th is that it’s possible that people really are motivated by
altruism, not by profit, and that when our hearts open to each other we
become wonderful. The level of compassion and gentleness that became
available, taking a little more time with each other, all of that, I think, has
shown me the things that I have treasured for a long time in people. But I
think it’s very clear, and so we have an opportunity to notice how good we
are. If you don’t have faith in people, you can’t be a servant. I mean, what
are you serving? If you’re not serving human goodness, you can’t be a servant.
For me it’s just that simple. There is no greater act on the part of the leader
than to find ways to express that great faith in people.

The other part about the timelessness of servant-leadership is, what do
you do if you can’t control events? There is no longer any room for leaders to
be heroes. I think one really needs to understand that we have no control,
and that things that we have no control over can absolutely change our lives.
I think it will take a little while for Americans to really accept that there is no
control possible in this greater interconnected world. There are lots of things
we can do to prepare, but there is no control. One of the great ironies right
now is that no matter how good you were as a business before September
11th and no matter how skilled you were at planning, and no matter how
skilled you were at budgeting, everything’s shifted. The only way to lead
when you don’t have control is you lead through the power of your relationships.
You can deal with the unknown only if you have enormous levels of
trust, and if you’re working together and bringing out the best in people. I
don’t know of any other model that can truly work in the world right now
except servant-leadership.

Even within the military, command and control is not what’s making it
work right now, and it hasn’t for a long time. I was just reading about a huge
fiasco with the Delta Force as they went into Afghanistan at the start of our
military action there October 2001. Instead of their normal procedure,
which is to operate as small teams, and work in quiet and stealth they were
parachuted in—100 of them—because that’s how central command decided
they should be used. And they were furious, absolutely furious! They nearly
got killed, they got out by the skin of their teeth, and they had several casualties.
They exclaimed, “You can’t do this to us! We know how to fight. You
can’t create these huge theatrical events and you can’t have centralised control
and expect us to do our job.” So, even under the façade of command and
control, one of the things I’ve always noticed in the military is that it works
on the basis of deep relationships, long-term training and relying on every
individual soldier—especially in special operations. I can’t think of any other
model than servant-leadership that works in times of uncertainty. Our time
is now!

John Noble: What were the markers in your life, the people and events that have
shaped your thinking and helped to get you to where you are now?

Margaret Wheatley: The list of people changes depending on where I am
right now in my life. But I do believe that there were seminal events, there
were a few moments that I will always remember. And the reason I don’t want
to go for people is that the list keeps changing. Just now, the people who
inform me most are the earlier historians, like Otto Spengler and Arnold
Toynbee, who had this organic theory of civilizations as living beings, which
is quite similar to how I’m feeling about this time in history. It’s one of
decline, the winter of Western civilization.

In terms of events I think that the one that is still really pertinent to me
was when I realized that as consultant, no matter what we did, we really didn’t
succeed. I was working as consultant to a large consultancy firm and
asked them to recall a successful engagement and what made it work. I realized
that people couldn’t, and if they did it was one little event in a long
stream of work. I’ve had the same experience of feeling completely frustrated
and I wrote about this in Leadership and the New Science. I think it was
that realization that opened me to asking if there might be another way of
looking at all of this? That’s when I really started looking back to my former
discipline, science. I feel very grateful to have studied what I studied so that
at one point I could bring it all together. I was comfortable reading science
and loved the scientific imagination and also had the historical imagination
and love of literature, and loved to be in philosophical questioning. And all
of those weren’t connected for me until I grew to notice that they could be
connected. What I’m doing now is not anything I actually created. It really
does feel like the work I’ve been prepared to do.

John Noble: Over the last few years we have increasingly heard the phrase “spirituality
in the workplace”. What does that phrase mean to you and where have
you seen spirituality in the workplace particularly epitomized?

Margaret Wheatley: For a long time I was terrified by the phrase, the combination
of spirituality and the workplace. I was afraid of how we might use
spirituality rather than simply honoring the fact that people are spiritual
beings, people have spirit. This is not even a religious viewpoint. There is
such a thing as the human spirit. It’s an awareness that people have something
beyond the instrumental or the utilitarian. People have deep yearnings, a
quest for meaning, and an ability to wonder. This is a non-religious view of
what spirituality might mean.

When did we forget this, about being human? When did human beings
become so instrumentally viewed, and when did we start to see ourselves as
objects, just to be filled with information and sent to work? When did we
lose that awareness? It’s just mind-boggling if you think about it. I feel the
same sort of puzzlement at the whole focus on emotional intelligence now.
When did we forget this? It really shows you the bizarre side of our Western
civilisation, that we have to relearn what is so obvious in other cultures.

When spirituality became connected with the workplace in the 1990’s
it was initially just another way to motivate people. There were many of us
saying, “be careful here”. Because, if the only reason a boss is going to
acknowledge that someone has a spiritual life is to figure out how to get more
work out of them, and if they don’t get more work out of them, are they then
going to forget the fact that we all have spirit?

Then we had a nice shift to the idea that if you don’t acknowledge that
people have spirit, you really can’t have a productive workplace. It wasn’t using
spirit for productivity; instead, it was acknowledging who the person is, who
the whole person is. Now I see our spirit in the questions we’re asking. People
are questioning the meaning of life. The meaninglessness of just working
harder, consuming more, becoming disconnected from your children, these
large questions have started to well up in people. We do all have spirits.

In terms of organizations, I look to see those organizations that describe
back to me a real understanding of what is a human being. They don’t have
to use the words “soul” or “spirit”, but I get from them that they have a deep
appreciation of fundamental creativity and caring, that they really rely on the
wholeness of the people who work there. I haven’t seen it in a lot of large corporations
recently. Even those that had those strong values, they’ve been
whipped around in the past year. But I consistently hear this from smaller
manufacturing companies. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with those
folks because they really understand and rely on the people who work there.
They do all sorts of innovative things without consciously talk about spirituality
in the workplace. What they talk about is human beings. That’s more
than enough for me! You know, if we can just understand what it means to
be human then that brings in our spirits.

John Noble: “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been a favorite film of mine for as long as
I can remember, and George Bailey a personal hero. How did you make the connection with servant-leadership and how did you set about making that wonderful

Margaret Wheatley: Well, I have to give credit to the producer, who didn’t
know a lot about servant-leadership and just said to me “I think this movie is
about servant-leadership”. I just said, “Please let me write this”. It was interesting
for me knowing the lens they were going to use to go into that movie,
which I hadn’t really watched carefully—it’s always on at Christmas. I think
it came at the right time because I was into my own developing awareness of
how confining it was to believe we knew what our life purpose was, and I had
just written about that in what was a sort of spiritual autobiography.

I got into the film having already had that awakening in my own consciousness,
that you really need to stay available to life and to what life wants
you to do. When I looked at the movie, it was just such a great teacher for me,
personally, about what it’s like to be present and respond to the needs of people
as they come to you. To be able to see that at the end of your life there was
direction, there was guidance, but the only way you were aware of the guidance
was to just surrender. And, of course, that’s the highest spiritual practice.

Larry Spears: Can you elaborate a little on some of the qualities that George Bailey
has as a servant-leader?

Margaret Wheatley: What’s interesting about George Bailey is his unintentional
servant-leadership, which is also spontaneous and from the heart. I
think it’s an interesting question for any of us if we just felt free to go where
our hearts led us in the moment. How do we respond to someone instead
of hiding behind a role or some old rule—this is something that I think Jim
Autry’s poetry really captures. If, in a workplace, and someone comes to you
with a deep need and you can only respond with, “Well, this is the policy.”
Or, “I’m sorry. I’d love to make an exception, but if I make an exception for
you I’d have to make an exception for everybody.” It’s just one of the most
crippling phrases and thoughts we have in our society. You know, we just
can’t seem to respond at the level of the individual. We think that if we do,
everyone else will be angry at us or want the same thing, yet it’s not how life
is at all. It is about what George Bailey did, that individual response, in the
moment where he let his heart open and lead him. And when you do that
you don’t actually feel that you are sacrificing something. It’s really interesting
that when you are responding as your heart leads you, you are actually
deeply satisfied even though, as in the case of George Bailey, it led him to an
entirely different life. It didn’t lead him away from Bedford Falls, and it didn’t
lead him out into the world. His heart just kept him responding to current
crises at home. But I don’t think in those moments that we experience
it as sacrifice. We experience it as very fulfilling always to just respond to a
person who needs something.

What I see in organizations are the boxes of our understandings of who
we can be for each other. And those boxes in our organizations, which are
also boxes of the psyche, really make it impossible for most people to act
spontaneously the way George Bailey did, to just help when help is needed.
When there’s a crisis of any kind, whether it’s a crisis like in that movie, or in
real life like the crisis we’ve recently gone through, we don’t see people hesitating
to figure out how to serve. People don’t hesitate; they just hope that
what they’re doing at a very instantaneous and spontaneous level will help
somebody else.

What I think about crises is that it’s an easy opportunity to see how
good we are, spontaneously. But if you look at life in organizations. it’s amazing
how fear-based they are, so that we are afraid of spontaneity. We are
afraid of people’s spirits, actually. We are afraid that if we give people any
room they’ll go off on some crazy direction with the work. I encounter this
all the time. A manager will say, “We can’t just give people choice here, we
can’t give people enough room to define meaningful work for themselves
because God knows what they’ll do.” We always assume that they’ll take the
organization in a completely different direction. We are so afraid of each
other that we want to box it into a plan, to a job description. And the loss of
that, what we lose with that fear of each other, is extraordinary.

I am frequently struck by the great tragedy of how we have constructed
work, the great loss. We’ve made it so hard to be in good relationships, we’ve
made it so hard for people to contribute, we’ve made it so difficult for people
to think well of themselves and then we say, “As a leader I’ll come and I’ll
pump you up and I’ll give you my vision, I’ll make you feel we can do it.”
But it’s not based on a deep love of who people are, a deep respect. As a
leader, how do you pump up what has been killed?

I actually had an experience of this on a symbolic level. I was with a
group of nuns in a chapel and one of them fainted, and before the medics
came (apparently this was not unusual, because she had some sort of condition)
nobody panicked. They called 911, but before help got there we just
sat there in prayer for this person as other sisters went up and held her—it
was all very gentle. And then the medics rushed in and they had oxygen and
they had defibrillators, all sorts of high tech equipment, and they surrounded
this woman and just started clamping machines on to her body and then
pumping in oxygen. I thought they were blowing up a balloon!

The symbology of it for me is that we are in our organizations and we’ve
actually created a lot of death and destruction and a complete loss of people’s
confidence in themselves. Leaders don’t have confidence in people. And then
we rush in with this high tech machinery, and just try and pump up people
and motivate them with a new initiative or a new computer system or a new
leadership vision. But what goes on in organizations is often not based on
people being human. It’s based on people being objects to be used for the
accomplishment of goals of a very utilitarian kind.

“Whom do we serve as leaders?” I’ve asked that question of a lot of people.
Whom do we serve? We are serving human beings. That is a radical
shift in this culture at this time. But we are serving human beings, and the
best way to know who another human being is, is to notice yourself fully,
what you need, what’s meaningful to you, what gives you heart in your work.
If we could just notice our own humanness it would be a very big step forward
to being able to relate to other people. If we are a leader, especially if we
notice our own humanness, we notice that we have spirit, we notice that we
have questions of meaning. I think all of the work that is done in helping
leaders to wake up to their own humanity and their own spirituality is very
essential work. It also keeps us away from using servant-leadership as the next
instrument of control.

Larry Spears: There’s one more theme in “It’s a Wonderful Life” that strikes me.
There is a Quaker phrase, “Speaking truth to Power”. Have you found ways in
your work to encourage people to lovingly confront the people in power when
things are not right and need to be addressed, but in a way that also honors those
in power as human beings?

Margaret Wheatley: I have. In the past I have relied on processes that would
allow people to listen to each other, and I haven’t relied on what I would rely
on now, which is personal courage. I was just reading a survey of 50,000
workers in which half of them said they’d never dream of speaking up at
work. And we are dealing with many, many years now of people having tried
to give voice to their concerns and then being met with rebuff or ridicule or
being told, “It’s not your job!” And so we have had now for a long time an
incredibly dependent work force that is quite hostile. So we get Dilbert!
is the best representative of our deep cynicism for all those years of
disrespect and maltreatment. People say to themselves, “Well, I’m not going
to tell them anything, because they don’t listen and they’re a bunch of idiots,
and I tried and it didn’t work.” We have our own internal conversation that
keeps us from stepping forward. But then as employees we just get angrier
and angrier and sometimes that erupts at meetings. This sometimes happens
if there’s a leader who says, “Well, I really want to find out what the pulse of
the organization is. I’m going to start doing breakfast meetings”. And then
all they get is grief from people. I think it’s one of the worst things you can
advise a leader to do, especially if you know there’s all that pent up anger.

What I found works is if I can shift the content of the conversation and
the dynamic, so as to move it from cynicism and anger to something more
helpful. To do this, I change who is in the conversation. If the organization
is struggling with something, and it’s stayed within a certain level of employ-
ees and the boss, or we are trying to think through an issue but it’s just our
small little team; whenever we’re stuck, then is the time to invite people in
that aren’t normally included. It’s the simplest solution but it’s so powerful.
It’s actually a biological principle, which is when a living system is suffering
and in ill health, the way to create more health is to connect it to more of
itself. You create feedback loops from different parts of the system. It works
at the level of our own bodies as a living system in that if we’re suffering from
some disease it doesn’t help to just treat the symptom, we have to look at our
whole life and look for information from other parts of our system. What are
our sleeping patterns, what is our anxiety level, what’s our exercise level? It
doesn’t work to look at just the one problem. We need information from our
whole system. This same activity also works brilliantly in organizations, to
bring in customers, to bring in students, to bring in congregants, to bring in
the people we think we don’t need to hear from. Usually we fear hearing from
them, because we believe we’ll only hear complaints and anger. But in fact
when you create more diversity, more plurality in the conversation, people
step forward and demonstrate that they too care about the organization.. As
a process I rely on this now to an extraordinary degree. If we are in a certain
pattern, if we are angry with each other, if we can’t figure out how to solve the
problem, bring in new voices. And then all the dynamics shift and you get
really useful information that helps you then to see the problem differently.

I have a great belief in the power of whole systems, getting the whole system
in the room. And it changes us from being angry and rigid: it changes us
as individuals to realizing that, “Wow, I never thought of that!” “Gee, do you
really see it that way?” We’re going through that at a national level right now.
I mean, there are new voices in the room. We’re learning a lot about Islam, we’re
learning a lot about oil and Arab-U.S. relations, we’re learning a lot about
globalization. We have available now a lot more information that can really
help us change our minds, as long as we are willing to be in that conversation.

If you want to change the conversation you change who’s in it. That
doesn’t mean that you have to coach people on how to be empathic presenters
to a leader. You don’t have to coach a leader on how not to get angry if
someone’s giving them terrible feedback. You just get out of those intensely
personal and confrontational moments because you have a lot of new voices
in the room. And people really do get interested as soon as they realise there
is a fundamentally different perspective available. Most people actually get
interested in that. I have been in hierarchical situations where the voice that
shocked everyone with its perspective was a young woman. A new employee,
female, who suddenly said something and everyone went “Wow!” I’ve
also seen it happen in faculties when we listen to students for the first time,
or we listen to the people who hired our graduates. You never know where
these comments are going to come from. They’re usually so shocking that
people are humbled and climb down off their soapboxes.

I want very much to say something about personal courage. One of the
things that is sorely lacking in our lives is a necessary level of courage to stand
up against the things we know are wrong, and for the things we know are
right. There has been a kind of complacency—it feels more fear-based to
me—where people, especially in organizations, are too afraid to speak up and
we have become, I believe, moral cowards in a way. We give all sorts of reasons
why we can’t speak up. There are so many grievances in organizations
that I think people have developed a sense of helplessness about it, and I
understand that feeling of helplessness and saying, “I would never speak up.”
But I also live with an awareness that if we don’t start speaking up we are
going down a road that will only lead to increased devastation, and destruction.
Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is
for good men to do nothing.”
Julian of Norwich said, “We must speak with a
million voices: it is the silence that kills.”

I think we’re in that place right now, and what I find personally so
uncomfortable is that as much as I want to raise my own voice on behalf of
several different issues, I notice that I feel more powerless than at any time in
my life. I think that’s part of the tension of this time, realizing that we have
to lift our voices for the things that we believe in, whether it’s inside an organization,
or as a nation or as a planetary community. We feel that there are
serious things that require our voice, and yet we also feel that it may not make
a difference. That’s the place I’m in every day right now. The other forces at
work are exceedingly more powerful. I wonder whether we can rally ourselves
as people around the things we care about, and really make the change. The
essence of my work right now is based on that belief that we can get active in
time, but I also realize that this is a time when there are exceedingly strong
countervailing forces from our leaders. For example, leaders pursuing aggression
as the solution, or business still wanting to maintain its hegemony in the
world without assuming responsibility for broader needs, or America still
believing it can act in isolation; can we raise our voices on behalf of a different
form of capitalism, a different form of compassion in our foreign policy,
a different form of leadership in our organizations? I know if we don’t raise
our voices I can predict the future and it’s very dark. If we do raise them, well,
it has worked in the past. I am hopeful that it will work now, but I’m not
nearly as certain as I’d like to be.

John Noble: In Leadership and the New Science you said that vision could no
longer be the prerogative of the leader or CEO and increasingly vision would have
to be the shared vision of everyone in an organization. From your experience are
you seeing that happening?

Margaret Wheatley: The deeper theory under those statements was that
vision was a field and that fields are those invisible forces that shape behavior.
I find a lot more credence is being given to the understanding that there are
fields we can’t see, invisible influences that affect behavior. People would have
called that far-out thinking before, but I find that people are much more open
to that today than ten years ago. Creative vision is a powerful influence in
shaping our behavior and you don’t need to specify a lot of controls or roles
if you have vision. People can do what they think is right and it will lead to a
very coherent organization that is moving in concert towards achieving it’s
vision. I have certainly come across a number of organizations that are working
that way now, but I’ve also experienced in the last year or two that we’ve
been in an enormous leap backwards organizationally since times started to
get uncertain. And now we’ll just have to wait and see whether this level of
uncertainty leads us forward into new ways of leading, or even further backward
into command and control.

One of the possibilities is that try as we might we will realise that command
and control just doesn’t work because you can’t control! We might be
learning that. But recently, I have seen an enormously retrogressive movement
in organizations based on fear, based on a weakening economy, based
on what I think is a normal human reaction that when you get scared, you go
backward; you default to what didn’t work in the past! The power of vision
to rally people or to give people a reason to live, to work hard and to sacrifice,
we are seeing that at the national level right now. I don’t necessarily think
we’re seeing it in its best form. It’s true that in human experience, “if there is
no vision the people perish”, and whether there’s a scientific explanation for
that, or a spiritual explanation—I’d be just as happy these days with the spiritual
definition—which is that a vision gives us a sense of possibility, a vision
gives us a sense of working for something outside our narrow, self-focused efforts
and therefore it rallies us at our deep human level to be greater than we are.

I’m happier with that explanation than field theory, and the reason I’m
happier with it is that it is much more focused on what are the capacities in
being human and how we can bring these forth. Science helps people be
comfortable with that, and feel a little more trusting that you can create order
through having a clear vision. But the next part of that is just as important.
Once you have a clear vision you have to free people up. This is where autonomy
comes in. People need to be free to make sense of the vision according to
their own understandings and their own sensitivity to what’s needed. If you
combine the sense of great purpose and human freedom, if you can combine
a vision that brings out the best of who we are and then gives us the freedom
in how we’re going to express that, that is how things work, in my experience.

John Noble: I previously worked for an organization where I once suggested that
the leaders should begin to stand aside and ask the next generation of leaders for
their vision and then begin to work with that in order to create a new future. My
thought was that the current leaders could assume the role of stewards, supporters,
servants. It didn’t happen. Have you come across an organization that has
worked in this way?

Margaret Wheatley: Yes. It was the U.S. Army, under General Gordon R.
Sullivan. I am in absolute support of what you were trying to do. When
General Sullivan was Chief of Staff, which was in the early to mid 90s, he said
he spent 50% of his time thinking about the future and how to create an
army for the world that was not yet known. He did simulations, he did think
tanks, he did all sorts of scenario planning on what would the world be like
and how could you create the army and technology to defend it. He had to
think 15 years ahead, minimally. He was really pushing out as far as he could
see, using very good minds. So I did find that kind of thinking in the armed
services. Then the marines got into it seriously, and the air force did, too.
But I think it’s the only place I’ve seen it.

What I see in common contrast to that is organizations where to even ask
younger people what their vision is feels like a breach of cultural norms like
“They should be respecting us! ” “Who are they? They don’t know anything!”
This is what I run into when I ask educators to involve students. We don’t
look to our younger generations as a source of any kind of wisdom and partly
I think that’s because, as a culture, we so fear dying and we so fear aging.
You created the role of elder there, and you were asking the senior people to
become wise people who would be acting in service to the next generation.
That’s really counter cultural in the West. You could have found support for
that in most other cultures, but not in the West where we have so feared
aging. As one of my African friends says, “You call your elders elderly, and
that’s part of the problem!” To actually ask leaders to think of themselves as
elders and stewards for the future is a radical proposition. I think it’s very
important work and I’m not surprised it didn’t go anywhere because of the
weight of the culture.

One of the things I’ve been quite intrigued by is the number of younger
leaders I have encountered who are college age, who are now intent on training
high school kids to be leaders. They’re not even looking to us anymore!
They’d love it if we talked to them, but they acutely feel the need to steward
younger people. I find that quite remarkable. I’ll tell you why it’s so difficult,
I think, in the corporate arena. Maybe our short-term focus is shifting now,
and one of at least the temporary consequences of September 11th is the realization
that you just can’t spin these organizations for the short term, because
you don’t even know what the short term is. But when General Sullivan
retired from the army and went to serve on corporate boards, he was dismayed
that nobody was thinking about the future. He said they’d spend hours
figuring how to get the stock price up by half a penny yet nobody was talking
about how to develop the next generation of leaders.

I think it’s for us to develop inter-generational collaboration. You were
suggesting something much stronger than that. But just to call in the voices
of the future into our present deliberations is not happening enough, and yet
it is one of the most powerful things. Once you get people into these intergenerational
conversations it is so inspiring for everyone to be talking with
each other. It’s the right work, but very difficult to do.

Larry Spears: In Leadership and the New Science you wrote, “Love in organizations
is the most potent source of power we have available.” What do you think
that servant-leaders inside our many organizations can do to unleash love in the

Margaret Wheatley: It’s simple; just be loving! Why has expressing love
become such a problem when it’s a fundamental human characteristic? This
is where I think we have over analyzed and over complexified something that
is known to everyone alive. Babies know how to unleash love. It’s all about
our relationships and being available as a human, rather than as a role. It’s
about being present and being vulnerable and showing what you’re feeling.
You know, we don’t want to reveal who we are. Even the best of leaders try
to be objective, rather than relational, and that’s supposedly adding value to
our work lives if we treat each other objectively. But it’s again one of those
huge things we get wrong. You can’t have love if you can’t have relationships,
and you can’t have relationships with one another if you have this curse of
something called being objective or, one size fits all as a policy, or having to go
by the manual. I can feel the fear that so many of us have that, “Well, if it’s
not objective, we couldn’t possibly live in the messiness and the intimacy that
would come about by treating each human being as their own unique self.”
But I think that objectivity makes it impossible to be loving. Objectivity
doesn’t allow love, because love takes you to intimacy and uniqueness and
very personal territory. We need to get away from the belief that you can run
an organization using what are called objective measures or objective processes,
which are actually just completely de-humanized. The fear of love in
organizations is that it makes your life as a leader far more complex. But it
also makes you much more effective.

I was just listening a few days ago to a woman who had recently retired
as the chief of the Calgary Police Force and she talked about what it took to
be personally available and present for each of those officers, so that she was
always embodying the values, finding ways for them to embody the values,
and believe in the values and become the kind of police officers they wanted
to be. She worked from a very clear perspective that it’s not the corporate values
that count, it’s whether people can enact their personal values inside the
corporation. I thought that was a brilliant re-thinking of that. She would
work with everyone on what they were trying to accomplish and the values
they were trying to bring forth. And from those, of course, you get a wonderful
corporate culture and very strong values. But she kept saying that this
was enormously time-consuming and was very difficult work that required
her to be there all the time. And so I understand why leaders don’t want to
go down this love path or the relationship path, because it requires so much.
But that’s where I think you have to want to believe in people. I believe on
September 11th there were numerous corporate leaders who suddenly realized
that people really were the most important thing to them, even though
an hour before they’d been working a system that ignored human concerns.
But then they got the wake up call of their life. When I said that you have to
want to believe, you really have to want to have relationship, and there are an
awful lot of people in our workplaces, not just leaders but whole professions,
who have never wanted relationships. They’ve wanted the work, and hopefully
we are now realizing, most of us, how important relationships are.

Larry Spears: For many, serving others is inextricably tied to their own sense of
spirituality. Are there practices you have found useful in terms of how we can better
develop our own servant’s heart?

Margaret Wheatley: Well, I think first I would just underline where you’re
focused, which is we do need practices to develop this, and I would say the
“this” we need practices for is to open our hearts. For most people it’s not
something you can rely on as spontaneously occurring. For some it is but,
especially if you’re in the workplace, your heart gets pretty hardened. You
shut down, or you just find that you can’t express your love and compassion
and so you take it elsewhere. So, even if you start out with a naturally open
heart and a generous spirit towards others, there are many, many structures
and processes in modern work and modern life that actually close us down.
So we do need a practice to maintain an open heart.

I am a strong believer in meditation personally, but I think any process by
which you withdraw from the world and focus on your own inner grounding
is useful. For some people, that’s running; for some people, it’s playing tennis.
I can get very similar grounding when I horseback ride, because you can’t
lose your attention for too long without losing your seat! For some people it’s
walking, or flower arranging. Whatever it is, it’s just to notice what it is that
revives your sense of feeling grounded, present, and peaceful. I have often felt
that I need to leave my room peaceful in the morning because I don’t expect
it to get any more peaceful while I’m out doing work. So that’s the first discipline
— practicing what gives you your grounding and your peace, and to
not let it slip away. The world just keeps pulling at you and I find that every
so often I have to say, “OK, Meg. Just notice you’re spending less time cultivating
your peacefulness and let’s get back to serious practice.” People of any
religious order know the value of a routine to one’s practice, whether it’s a
daily liturgy or a daily practice. Whatever it is, it’s the routinization that really
helps over time. So, it’s not just episodic, or only when you feel like it. Your
whole being benefits from knowing every morning you’re going to pray or
run or whatever. So, I find it needs to be rouitinized.

Once I decided that the work was really how to keep my heart open,
that led me to a number of practices beyond my own meditation, although
some of the meditations I work with now are traditional practices to keep
your heart open. One of the ones I’ve loved the most is to realise that when
I am suffering, whatever it is— whether it’s anger, fear, feeling discounted or
treated rudely or whatever— I remember that the experience I’ve just had is
an experience that millions of people around the world have, just by virtue of
being human. If I’m sitting in a hotel room one night feeling lonely, just for
a moment I might reflect that, “Just like me, there are millions of people
around the world feeling lonely at this very moment.” This practice has been
an extraordinary gift, of going from your personal experience outward to the
human experience. Your own private experience is being felt by countless
other human beings, and somehow this changes the experience from personal
pain and anxiety to your heart opening to many others. And then when I
see someone else I think, “You’re feeling just the way I do.” That practice has
opened my heart more than any other single practice and has made me feel
part of the human experience and the human family.

Larry Spears: What do you find most compelling about Buddhist practice?

Margaret Wheatley: What I find to be enormously helpful about a Buddhist
perspective on life is that it really isn’t a religion. It is actually just a way to
live your life. I have my own very eclective theology. I was raised Christian
and Jewish, so I started out with that eclecticism, and Buddhism has really
introduced me to the day-to-day practices that I feel have really opened my
heart and made me far more understanding and gentle. And, what is more
important to me, it has made me far less likely to condemn quickly and far
more willing to be in the presence of suffering and not to run from it. And
to bear witness, to just be with whatever’s going on and not to be afraid of it.
All of that is not a theology, it’s a practice. In my new book [Turning to One
Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future,
2002] there’s this very strong influence about the practice and I have a whole
section on bearing witness—of just being with another person’s experience
and not having to fix it, or counsel someone away from their grief. It’s actually
very fulfilling, and it takes the stress off when you stop feeling that you
have to fix people’s human experience. You just have to be there. These are
capacities I didn’t have, but now have, since I started doing these practices.

I have found that many Buddhist practices have helped me be with people
differently and have changed my expectations of what needs to happen if
I’m just with someone. Just being with someone has become really important
rather than saying the right phrase or the right word that will fix it. Now,
the irony of this is that I’m still a public speaker who gets up on stage allegedly
to say things that will fix things, and yet what I’m finding – and I’ve heard
this from other speakers as well – is we are realising it’s who we are when we
are up there, and not what we’re saying. And so I very much want to be the
presence of peace and possibility for people. I feel that is something I can be,
and have been, and in order to be that I need to experience peace fairly regularly
from this much deeper place which is available to me through my different
practices. I think that the central work of our time is how to be together
differently. Can we live together with our hearts open, with our awareness
that we can’t stop suffering, that we can certainly be with it differently? Can
we notice where we are causing harm and try at least to do no harm? And
can we be together without fear of what it’s like to be together, to really just
not be afraid to be with other people? That would be a huge step forward for
a lot of us. And we’re all crying for it, we’re all crying to be together in more
loving ways because this is what it is to be human. So many of us were overwhelmed
by the experiences of September 11th, but we saw people being
together without the divisions that had separated them moments before.
Buddhism is a series of practices that keep my heart open and keep me being
present, rather than fleeing from what is day-to-day life. In that way I think
it has also saved my life.

John Noble: In many organizations the word “change” has become a noun rather
than a verb and all too often phrases such as “You are afraid of change” are used
to hurt each other. When you have encountered this in organizations how have
you addressed the problem?

Margaret Wheatley: There’s a wonderful quote from a contemporary
Buddhist who said, “Change is just the way it is!” I’ve worked a lot and written
quite a bit on how we are actually responsible for creating resistance to
change. I don’t know who said it first but, “We don’t resist change; we resist
being changed.” Most organizations fail to involve people in the design of
change, in the re-design of organizations, or they don’t involve people soon
enough or substantially enough. What we get is something that is predictable
in everything that is alive, from bacteria on up. When you do something to
another living being, that being has the freedom to decide whether it’s even
going to notice what just happened or what somebody has done. So, the first
freedom is you choose whether you notice or not. And the second freedom is
you are then completely free to choose your reaction to it. You can’t impose
change on anything alive. It will always react, it will never obey. This is one
of the principles I’ve embraced for many years. Life doesn’t ever obey, and yet
we still think in organizations that we’ll find the perfect means, the perfect
vision, the perfect writing, the perfect Powerpoint presentation to get people
to say, “Great! This is just perfect!” And instead, what people do is change
the plan, file it away and never look at it again, or modify it. We look at all
that and we say they are resisting change, but they’re not. They’re responding
like all life does—they are reacting. And they’re actually being quite creative.
I’ve asked people to just look at that dynamic which is so fundamental.

We get in organizations and we forget about that dynamic which we all
know so well and we say, “I’ll tell you what to do and you’ll do it.” And it
doesn’t happen. I must have asked this of tens of thousands of people, “Can
you think of a time in your experience when you gave another human being
a set of directions and they followed them perfectly?” And in the few cases
where people have followed the directions perfectly I’ve asked, “Did you actually
like that person?” Because those people are robots, those people aren’t
there. We’ve destroyed their spirits. If they do just what we say we have killed
the spirit. And we don’t like being around those people. We have a profound
disrespect for people who act like automatons, even though, if you look at
most managers, they still think they want an automatic obedient response.
So, if life doesn’t obey but it always reacts, then the other principle from that
is that if you want people to support something they have to be involved in
its creation. This has been a very old maxim in the field of organizational
behavior, that people support what they create. I say that people only support
what they create.

What this means for any organizational change process, most of which
have been appallingly disruptive and have failed, (we now know that almost
80% of them fail) is that they should make sure that they only use participative
processes. That doesn’t mean having everyone involved in every decision,
but just to be thoughtful and creative about how we are going to bring along
everybody and involve people at different points so that this truly is owned
by everyone, because it’s their creation. It’s a no-brainer; these things work!
I find when I speak about participation people still think that I mean everybody
in the room doing all of the work at the same time. But it’s not that.

I’ve worked with small teams of employees and charged them with, how
are you going to involve everyone in your network, everyone in your department?

And they are much more creative! They’ll do TV shows, they’ll actually create
simulations to put people through the same experience that they have just
had. They’re enormously creative. I’ve also found, over time, that when
you’ve charged a small group of employees with making sure that everyone
knew about it, that the whole organization seemed to pay attention, and then
it was very easy for people to know about it. I also work with the principle
that participation is not a choice. If you don’t get people involved, you’re just
breeding resistance and sabotage that you’ll then spend months or years trying
to overcome.

Larry Spears: Leadership and the New Science is generally considered to be one of
the most important books on leadership to be published in the last decade or longer.
Did you have a sense when you were writing it that you were on to something?

Margaret Wheatley: I didn’t have a sense of what I was on to. I didn’t really
understand that I was presenting an entirely different world view. I
thought it would be easier to convince people of the shifts that would need
to take place because I didn’t know it was about changing a world view, and
changing a world view takes a long, long time. The original 1992 edition had
a lot of questions, but as far as I can remember I hadn’t the faintest idea what
this work would mean. I just wrote it because it felt like the work I was supposed
to be doing. I can’t remember now who I was while I was writing it.
I can remember some of the fear and hesitation, experimenting with a new
voice as a writer, and all of that, but I don’t remember what I thought.

Larry Spears: Was your move to Utah significant in the writing of Leadership
and the New Science?

Margaret Wheatley: It was absolutely tied to that book coming forth. I told
my friends in Massachusetts that had I stayed there I’d have written deep,
introspective works in the tradition of some writers there and I realized, retrospectively,
that I needed the open space. The West for me is freedom, and
the wilderness is for me the deepest experience of harmony. I live in the
wilderness—or it’s at my back. I had no idea why I was moving to Utah at
the time. I think it was just to be liberated into life, really, into the experience
of what is space and wilderness and sky. And also just the incredible
beauty of Utah. The red rocks of Utah are still my most sacred place to go.
Again, I had no idea of why I was going—it felt really weird—but now it feels
like, “Of course! That was it!”.

John Noble: Your new book is entitled, Turning to One Another—Simple
Conversations to Restore Hope for the Future. What led you to choose the subject
of conversation?”

Margaret Wheatley: Actually, I didn’t choose the subject of conversation. I
chose the action of turning to one another, and conversation is the simplest
way to do that. To actually be willing to listen and talk to other human beings
is the way throughout time that we have thought together, and dreamed
together. The simple act of conversation seems so far removed from our daily
lives now, and yet we all have a vague memory of what it was like. Since
September 11 we have been profoundly different conversationalists and felt
the need to talk to each other and to be together. So I rely on the ancientness
and primalness of human beings being together, and being together through
this act of listening and talking as a way for us to surface, or to develop,
greater awareness of how we are reacting to what’s going on in the world.
Therefore, hopefully, from that greater awareness of what we care about, what
we’re talking about or struggling with at a very personal level, we will become
more activist. We will become more intelligent actors to change the things
we think need changing.

That idea is based on a more recent tradition in Paulo Freire’s work
called critical education which is, you create the conditions for change by educating
people to the forces and dynamics that are causing their life. You can
start that work through conversation, (or through literacy training as Freire
did.) In conversation, people can become more aware of what their life is,
whether they’re happy, what they might do to change it. Then people do
become activists, because it’s their life, and their children’s lives that are affected.
Those are the deeper underlying threads that led me to write the book,
which is different from anything I’ve written before. It’s not written just for
leaders or people in organisations. I wrote it for the world. I don’t mean that
to sound pretentious, it’s just that the people I work with now are in so many
different countries, all ages, and I just kept them in my imagination when I
was writing, and I wanted to make sure that it didn’t assume anything except
our common humanity and our common desires for a world that does truly
work for all of us. A world that is based on our common human desires for
love and meaning from work and a chance to contribute.

The other piece that truly informed this was my experience with the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which was life-changing
for me. I only attended it once but followed the proceedings every time
I was in South Africa during its three year history. And the one day that I
went was unbelievably impactful. It was when the parents of a young
American Fulbright scholar who had been murdered, Amy Biel, were present.
Their daughter had been slain in one of the townships after driving into a
very angry crowd. Her parents were there listening to the description of her
death by her killer, and they were sitting next to the mother of the killer, sitting
two rows in front of us. It was an experience you don’t normally have in
your life, one of such forgiveness, and violence, and repentance. The primary
thing I learned in observing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings
was that the power of speaking your experience is what heals you. The
power of feeling we are heard is what heals us. It made bearing witness a
much easier act. I don’t have to fix the person—I just have to really listen. And
from that experience I started to see it in so many different settings how,
when we truly listen to people, they can heal themselves. My trust in conversation
is that it also allows that level of listening, and there are other people
who have written specifically about conversation. I am using the process
to restore hope to the future; that was the underlying theme. I wrote it in
March, 2001 and I had no idea of what was to come on September 11th. But
I could already see that the future was looking pretty hopeless, and I had a lot
of people saying, “What’s this mean, restore hope to the future?” And now we
all know.

Larry Spears: Do you have any words of hope or advice for servant-leaders around
the world?

Margaret Wheatley: Well, a few phrases come to mind from a wonderful
gospel song, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” This is the time for
which we have been preparing, and so there is a deep sense of call. Servantleadership
is not just an interesting idea, but something fundamental and vital
for the world, and now this is the world that truly needs it. The whole concept
of servant-leadership must move from an interesting idea in the public
imagination toward the realisation that this is the only way we can go forward.
I personally experience that sense of right timeliness to this body of
work called servant-leadership. I feel that for more and more of us we need
to realise that it will take even more courage to move it forward, but that the
necessity of moving it forward is clear. It moves from being a body of work
to being a movement—literally a movement—how we are going to move this
into the world. I think that will require more acts of courage, more clarity,
more saying this has to change now. I am hoping that it will change now.

Margaret Wheatley Bio
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.

Booklet 7
The Servant-Leader:
From Hero to Host
The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership


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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 five books: Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science (18 languages and third edition); Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future (7 languages and second edition); A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (3 languages). An organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, and a professor in two graduate business programs, she has been awarded several honorary degrees and distinctions. 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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