Leadership dilemmas can
only be answered through spiritual and philosophical traditions
"I’d like to offer just a few simple practices that I
personally can’t live without if I’m to maintain a sense of
focus and peace as a leader...."
by Margaret J. Wheatley, The School Administrator Web
Edition, September 2002, Spirituality in Turbulent Times
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Why has the topic of spirituality entered our organizational
and professional lives? In the past several years, spirit and
work have come together in many interesting questions. Is work
a spiritual endeavor? Do we have a sense of vocation or
calling? Can we bring our soul to work? Is it valid to even
ask that question? Are leaders strengthened by faith in a
higher power? Should good leaders act as “servant leaders” in
the tradition of spiritual teachers or Jesus?
I don’t think it is accidental that questions from the domain
of spirituality have moved into leadership. In fact, I think
it’s an unavoidable consequence of this time of turbulence. As
our world grows more chaotic and unpredictable, we are forced
to ask questions that historically always have been answered
by spiritual traditions.
How do I live in uncertainty, unable to know what will happen
next? How do I maintain my values when worldly temptations
abound? What is the meaning of my life? Why am I here at this
time? Where can I find the courage and faith to stay the
Humans have sought answers to these questions for as long as
we’ve been conscious and reflective. It is a fundamental human
characteristic to ask “Why?” We are able to stand outside our
immediate circumstances to look forward into the future and to
look backward and interpret the past. No matter how poor or
desperate we are, we always need to know why things are
happening. Every culture has its rituals and spiritual
practices to answer the question “Why?”
As our age has become more chaotic and complex, we’ve turned
for answers to the real god of Western culture—science. We’ve
asked scientists to explain to us how to deal with
uncertainty, chaos and catastrophes. We’ve hoped that the
mathematics of complexity science would help us gain a grip on
the complexity of our organizations. We've wanted chaos
science to reduce our fear of living in chaotic times, to
teach us how to stop the unpredicted events that suddenly
destroy lives and futures. We want the science of chaos to not
just explain chaos but give us tools for controlling the
But of course this god of science can only fail us. Chaos
can’t be controlled. The unpredictable can’t be predicted.
Instead, we are being called to encounter life as it is:
uncontrollable, unpredictable, messy, surprising, erratic. One
of my own spiritual teachers commented once that “the reason
we don’t like life is that it behaves like life.”
Work as Vocation
Many people have a spiritual practice and rely on it to help
them succeed as leaders and work colleagues. But in a more
subtle form, I hear spiritual thinking whenever anyone talks
about their work as a vocation or calling.
The notion of vocation comes from spiritual and philosophical
traditions. It describes work that is given to us, that we are
meant to do. We don’t decide what our vocation is. We receive
it. It always originates from outside us. Therefore, we can’t
talk about vocation or calling without acknowledging that
there is something going on beyond our narrow sense of self.
It helps remind us that there’s more than just me, that we’re
part of a larger and purpose-filled place.
Even if we don’t use the word vocation, most of us yearn to
experience a sense of purpose to our lives. People often
express the feeling of life working through them, of believing
there’s a reason for their existence. I always love to hear a
young person say that they know there’s a reason why they’re
here. I know that if they can hold onto that sense of purpose,
they’ll be able to deal with whatever life offers them. We
avoid being overwhelmed and discouraged by knowing there’s a
meaning to our lives. The stronger our sense of vocation, the
more resilient and courageous we are. And we can only develop
a sense of purpose or vocation from believing in a power and
order greater than our own. (Often, as a beleaguered educator,
it’s difficult to remember the deep sense of calling that
brought us into education. Periodically, it’s helpful to ask
yourself to recall your initial idealism, what it felt like to
know that your vocation was to be a public educator.)
I believe leaders in all fields today are faced with enormous
challenges, most of them not of their own doing. As times grow
more chaotic, as people question the meaning (and
meaninglessness) of this life, people are clamoring for their
leaders to save and rescue them.
This is truer in public education than in any other
profession. Educational leaders bear the brunt of all of
society’s dilemmas and problems. Instead of supporting these
leaders as they deal with this unending complexity of social
problems, communities more often demand that superintendents
fix everything. When they don’t succeed at this superhuman
challenge, they’re dismissed and another potential savior is
Historically, people have often given away freedom and chose
dictatorship over uncertainty. People press leaders to stop
the chaos, to make things better, to create stability. And
even leaders who would never become dictators, those devoted
to servant leadership, walk into this trap. They want to help,
so they try to exert control over the disorder. Such attempts
to impose control usually result in even more chaos. Or
leaders hope to create safety, to insulate people from the
realities of change. They don’t reveal what’s really going on
or they give false answers to dilemmas that have no answers.
Leadership through command and control is doomed to fail. No
one can create sufficient stability and equilibrium for people
to feel secure and safe. Instead, as leaders we must help
people move into a relationship with uncertainty and chaos.
Spiritual teachers have been doing this for millennia.
Therefore, I believe that these times, with their irresolvable
challenges and turbulence, have led leaders to a spiritual
threshold. We must enter the domain of spiritual traditions to
find the help we need if we are to succeed as good leaders in
these difficult times.
The Essential Work
Several principles describe important perspectives, beliefs
and work for leaders right now. Each comes from spiritual
thinking and traditions.
* Life is uncertain. How can a leader help people understand
that change is just the way it is? In Buddhist thought, the
source of real happiness comes from understanding this fact.
Instead of holding on to any one thing or form, we learn to
expect that it will change. We become willing to move on
rather than cling desperately to old practices.
As a leader, it doesn’t help to accuse people of being
resistant to change. We all are. But when leaders give people
time to reflect on their personal life experiences, people can
notice that they’ve changed many times in their life. They
know how to do this. They also may notice that when they’ve
let go and surrendered to life, they haven’t died.
Life never stops teaching us about change. As leaders, we want
to be gentle guides and coaches so that people discover their
own life’s wisdom.
* Life is cyclical. British-born poet David Whyte has noted:
“If you think life is always improving, you’re going to miss
half of it.” Life is cyclical—we pass through different moods,
we live through seasons, we have times of rich harvests and
times of bleak winter. Life uses cycles to create newness. We
move from the old to the new only as we pass through the cycle
of chaos. We need to let go of the old (which always feels
terrible) before new life and capacity can arise. Instead of
fleeing from the fearful place of chaos or trying to rescue
people from it, leaders need to help people stay with the
chaos, help them walk through it together and look for the new
insights and capacities that can emerge.
In Christian traditions, times of chaos have been called “dark
nights of the soul.” In our present culture, we call these
“clinical depressions.” (I prefer the spiritual term.) In the
dark night, we feel devoid of meaning, totally alone,
abandoned by God. But this is the condition for rebirth, for a
new and stronger self to emerge. You probably have walked
through many dark nights and I encourage you to think how you
changed, what new capacities you possessed when you emerged
back into the light.
* Meaning is what motivates people. Nothing motivates humans
more than meaning. I’ve seen many disillusioned and depressed
staff groups develop high levels of energy and insight when
they were asked to think about the meaning of their work.
Consultant Kathy Dannemiller always asks groups to think about
how the world will change because of the work they’re doing.
In such brutal times as these, when good work gets destroyed
by events and decisions far beyond our influence, when we’re
so overwhelmed with tasks that we have no time to reflect for
even a moment, it is very important that the leader create
time for people to remember why they’re doing this work What
were we hoping to accomplish when we started this? Who are we
serving by doing this work?
I always have been astonished by the deep meaning people
ascribe to their work. Most people want their work to serve a
greater good, to help other people. People who make dog food
reflect that “pets contribute to human health.” Manufacturers
of toxic chemicals in West Virginia want to do their work
safely in order “to make the world safe.” We have an easier
time of remembering the meaning of our work in education. But
we seldom have time to pause for a moment and reconnect with
the initial idealism and desire to serve that led us into this
truly noble profession. But it is important to take the time,
as a staff group, to recall that initial enthusiasm and
hopefulness. If we can remember it, we find new energy and
rededication for our work.
* Service brings us joy. Over the years, I’ve interviewed
people who participated in disaster relief. I’ve always been
astonished to notice that no matter how tragic and terrible
the disaster, they always spoke of that experience with joy.
They’ve led me to realize there is nothing equal to helping
In service, we discover profound happiness. We all witnessed
this in the days after September 11. A comment that still
brings tears to my eyes was made by a survivor who said: “We
didn’t save ourselves. We tried to save each other.”
The joy and meaning of service is found in every spiritual
tradition. It was once expressed very simply to me: “All
happiness in the world comes from serving others; all sorrow
in the world comes from acting selfishly.”
* Courage comes from our hearts. Where do we find the courage
to be leaders today? The etymology of the word courage gives
us the answer. Courage comes from the old French world for
heart (coeur). When we are deeply affected, when our hearts
open to an issue or person, courage pours from our hearts.
Please note that courage does not come from the root word for
strategic planning or multivariate analysis. We have to be
engaged at the heart level in order to be courageous
champions. As much as we may fear emotionalism, leaders need
to be willing to open their hearts and tell stories that open
other peoples’ hearts.
* We are interconnected to all life. Every spiritual tradition
speaks about oneness. So does new science. As leaders, we act
on this truth when we’re willing to notice how a decision
might affect others, when we try to think systemically, when
we’re willing to look down the road and notice how, at this
moment, we might be affecting future generations. Any act that
takes us past the immediate moment and past our
self-protective ways acknowledges that there’s more to life
than just us.
I learned a wonderfully simple way to think about our actions
from a woman minister. She told how anytime she makes a
decision, she asks herself: “Is this decision going to bring
people together? Will it weave a stronger web? Or will it
create further disintegration and separation?” I like to ask
another related question as well. “In what I am about to do,
am I turning toward others or turning away? Am I moving closer
or am I retreating from them?”
* We can rely on human goodness. This is the first value of
The Berkana Institute, where I serve as president. We rely on
the great generosity and caring of humans. We know that
there’s more than enough human badness in the world, but that
badness only pushes us to rely even more on human goodness.
In your own leadership, what qualities of people do you rely
on? I believe in these dark times that we can only rely on the
hope, resiliency and love that is found in the human spirit.
Many people through history have suffered terribly. Those we
remember and admire—Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank,
war veterans, Holocaust survivors, cancer
survivors—demonstrate what is best about us. We love to hear
their stories because they illuminate what is good about being
human. Vaclev Havel, president of the Czech Republic, says
hope is not a result of the condition of our lives. It is
fundamental to being human. (The state motto of South Carolina
is similar: “If I breathe, I hope.”)
* We need peace of mind. All spiritual traditions teach us
ways to find peace of mind and acceptance. In the research on
mind-body health, cultivating peace is a prerequisite for
health. And who do we like to be around? Do we seek out angry
or peaceful people? Do we find relief in noise or in quiet? As
leaders, we need to find ways to help people work from a place
of inner peace, even in the midst of turmoil. Frantic activity
and fear only take us deeper into chaos.
I’ve observed the power of starting a meeting with one minute
of silent contemplation. Or, when the meeting becomes heated,
of asking people to stop talking and just be silent for a few
minutes. It’s amazing how differently we come back into the
fray if we’ve had those moments to pause. Few of us want to
work as crazily as we do. Most of us hate meetings where
tempers boil over. Brief moments of silence can work
wonders—silence is truly the pause that refreshes.
Educator Parker Palmer tells of his discomfort at working in a
Quaker organization, where they observed five minutes of
contemplative silence before the start of every meeting. At
one meeting, when there was a particularly difficult issue on
the agenda, he was relieved to hear the leader announce that
because of this serious issue that today they would not spend
the first five minutes in silence. But then, to his dismay, he
heard her announce, “Instead, we’ll take 20 minutes for
I’d like to offer just a few simple practices that I
personally can’t live without if I’m to maintain a sense of
focus and peace as a leader.
* Start your day off peacefully.
I’ve raised a large family, so I laugh as I state this. But
I’ve learned that I can’t expect to find peace at work.
However peaceful I am as I enter the office, that’s probably
my peak peaceful experience of the day. So I have a strong
motivation to find peace before work. There are many ways to
cultivate peace at the start of your day. You can drive to
work in silence. Or listen to a particularly soothing piece of
music. You can reflect on a spiritual phrase or parable. You
can take a few minutes to just sit, either meditating or
focusing on a lovely object. You can look for something
beautiful outside your window. As your day grows crazier, it
helps to know what peace feels like. Sometimes you can even
recall that feeling in the midst of great turmoil.
* Learn to be mindful.
Anytime you can keep yourself from instantly reacting, anytime
you can pause for just a second, you are practicing
mindfulness. Instead of letting your reactions and thoughts
lead you, you step back and realize you can choose your
reaction. Instead of being angry, you hesitate for a moment
and realize you have other responses available. Instead of
saying something hurtful, you can pause and give yourself more
* Slow things down.
If you can’t slow down a group or meeting, you can at least
slow down yourself. I’ve learned to notice how I’m sitting. If
I find myself leaning forward, moving aggressively into the
discussion or argument, I force myself to sit back in the
chair, even for just a moment. If I find my temper rising, I
slow down and take just one deep breath. These are small
things, but they yield big results.
* Create your own measures.
We all would prefer to be better people. We don’t like to be
angry, fearful or to be creating more problems for other
people. But how can we know when we’re succeeding in becoming
people we respect? What are our personal measures? Some people
create a measure such as telling fewer lies or speaking the
truth to people more often. Some measure if they are more
patient or less angry. I also use the question of “Am I
turning toward or away?” as a personal measure of good
* Expect surprise.
We’re old enough now to know that life will keep interrupting
our plans and surprising us at every turn of the way. It helps
to notice this wisdom that we’ve been forced to accumulate.
Surprise is less traumatic once we accept it as a fact of
* Practice gratefulness.
Most of us have been taught this, but how often do you take
time daily to count your blessings? The wonder of this process
is that as we take this daily inventory, we grow in
gratefulness. We start to notice more and more—people who
helped us, grace that appeared, little miracles that saved us
from danger. The daily practice of gratefulness truly changes
us in wonderful ways. And when you develop the practice of
expressing your gratefulness to colleagues, your relationships
Because you are human, you’ve already experienced the powers,
fears and joys that I’ve described. It is more important to
access your own wisdom than to seek advice from anyone else.
Life is a consistent teacher. It always teaches the same
lessons. Change is just the way it is. Peace is not dependent
on circumstances. We are motivated by meaning. We want to
express our love through service. And when we believe that, as
leaders, we are playing our part in something more purposeful
than our small egos can ever explain. We become leaders who
are peaceful, courageous and effective.
Meg Wheatley is president of the Berkana Institute, P.O. Box
1407, Provo, UT 84603. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her most
recent book is Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to
Restore Hope to the Future.