If you can even call it a debate, last night’s toddler-like banter was troubling in every way – a low point in American politics in an already upsetting time. In my sleepless night processing the debacle, I’ve been continually reflecting on Margaret Wheatley’s 2017 leadership book: Who Do We Choose To Be?
Wheatley draws on two disparate kinds of literature to “summon us to be leaders for this time as things fall apart, to reclaim leadership as a noble profession that creates possibility and humaneness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil.” (8) The two lenses are the science of living systems and the pattern of collapse of complex civilizations.
The book is not a hopeful volume. Wheatley has rejected altogether what she describes as the ambush of hope. She believes it is too late for this, at least at the global or in America the national scale. She laments, “I’ve read too many authors who lay out the reality of our situation in stark detail, but then in the last pages feel the need to say something hopeful even though it contradicts their own argument. I have no interest in grasping after or reviving possibilities that have already passed. I have an intense desire for us to step forward as leaders for this time, hearts and minds fully open and wise, in service to whomever needs us.” (22)
Early in the volume, she requests that readers approach the book using a “Dwelling Mind.” In my reading, I followed this advice and took the time to pause and reflect on each section. The hard copy is laid out in a way that makes this easy – it is a work of art. I found her words to be true: “If we dwell with the increasing uncertainty of this time and not rush to that comfortable place of action, dwelling mind supports the emergence of clarity for our chosen role as leaders.” (23)
As last night’s debate makes clear for America, and a cursory glance through global headlines reveals for most nations of the world, we are in a time of decline. Reading lines like this invokes pain and fear, and optimists like me want to grasp for the line of hope that we expect to be next. Where is the “But…”? Wheatley encourages us to mindfully face the reality that is so obviously before us. “We can no longer solve the large-scale global problems of this time at large-scale levels: poverty, economics, climate change, violence, dehumanization. Even though the solutions have been available for a very long time, they require conditions to implement them that are not available: political courage, collaboration across national boundaries, compassion that supersedes self-interest and greed. These are not only the failings of our specific time in history; they occur in all civilizations at the end of their life cycle.” (10)
Drawing upon historians such as Sir John Glubb and Joseph Tainter, Wheatley walks the reader through the stages of collapse that have characterized societies throughout human history. Glubb summarizes these stages that tend to run their course in ten generations or about 250 years. They include 1. Age of Pioneers. 2. Age of Conquest. 3. Age of Commerce. 4. Age of Affluence. 5. Age of Intellect. 6. Age of Decadence. The final two, which Glubb described in his book in 1976, are worth considering verbatim from Wheatley:
Five – Age of Intellect: “The arts and knowledge flourish in the midst of decline. Intellectuals are prevalent and engage in incessant talking as a substitute for action. The belief takes hold that problems can be solved by mental cleverness rather than selfless service and courage. Natural sciences advance but do not prevent decline. Civil conflict increases even as the empire is under dire threat. Instead of banding together to preserve the nation, internal political fractions seek to destroy one another.” (36)
Six – Age of Decadence: “Wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism, and high levels of frivolity. A celebrity culture worships athletes, actors and singers. The masses are distracted by entertainment and sporting events, abandon moral restraint, shirk duties, and insist on entitlements. The leaders believe they are impervious and will govern forever. This age also develops the welfare state as imperial leaders generously build universities and hospitals, give grants to university students, support the young and the poor, and extend citizenship to everyone. When they run out of money, all this benevolence disappears and these institutions shut their doors.” (36)
We’re likely past the tipping point for many of the challenges confronting our civilization. The fires on the west coast and hurricanes on the east in yet another record warm year should serve as a wake-up call that, if there is time to slow down anthropogenic climate change before the great barrier reef is bleached and the Greenland ice sheet slides into the sea, that time is quickly fading. We are in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction on the planet – and we are the cause. Yet we continue to ignorantly blaze into the future in a fog of faith that our technological sophistication and the myth of progress will save us. But we are blind. “Lost in the seduction of technical creativity, we fail to see what else is going on. What’s happening in society to relationships, to poverty, to violence, to alienation? What’s happening to our land, our traditions, our people? Why have more than 65 million people fled their home countries and now live as refugees? What’s being done to address our enduring human needs for home, for community, for contribution, for good work, for safe children? And what about our planet?” (41)
Wheatley rejects the capacity of global and national leaders to do anything about these challenges. “The powerful always defend the status quo because it is the source of their power and privilege. Any change that benefits others would destroy their position. And their position is all they care about defending.” (10) Her hypothesis is not encouraging and is best received with a spirit of mindful resolve or bourbon. “For those not blinded by the false promise of progress, we may understand the dire state of this civilization. If you’re paying any attention to the news from everywhere, it’s hard to avoid the specter of collapse.” (32)
If Wheatley is correct and we are in the final phase of Glubb’s stages, this is a moment for each of us to slow down and ask fundamental questions about what it means to be human in this time, and particularly what it means for our domains of leadership. We could choose to bury our heads in the sand and lose ourselves to withdrawal, suppression and denial – or we can choose to step into these times with sober-minded resolve. “Do we, as most do, fall into private collapse consumed by fear and despair? Do we become one who does nothing but complain for what has been lost? Do we succumb to grief for the suffering of so many? Do we give up and pursue whatever time is left in hedonistic pursuits? Do we cocoon in self-protection bubbles with a nine-foot TV screen and Surround Sound? . . . Or do we acknowledge where we are and step forward to serve?” (32)
If 2020 is any indication of what is in store for us, 2021 will not be much better. “Systems that are failing now will continue to deteriorate. Uncertainty, confusion, and fear will continue to predominate. People will withdraw further into self-protection and strike out at those different from themselves. Corrupt leaders will intensify their false promises, and people will subjugate themselves to their control. The chaos cycle predicts this has to happen, that things must fall apart. And human history documents in astonishingly clear detail the pattern of collapse that all civilizations go through.” (8)
How, then, should we react? For Wheatley, “Blind reactivity and fear is not the answer. Self-protection is not the answer. Denial is not the answer. Sane leadership is.”
What is sane leadership? That deserves its own post, and I’ll provide it shortly. But first, I’ll walk you through how I came across Wheatley’s work in the first place through a second post on emergence.