Who Do We Choose To Be, Part 2: Emergence

The reason I initially reserved from the library Wheatley’s Who Do We Choose To Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity is because I found a reference to her writing on emergence, and this has been a theme of my research for fifteen years. Her book offered more than I anticipated in terms of leadership for today’s world, though her sections on emergence were not necessarily new. Nonetheless, they are central to her argument.

I usually use water to illustrate emergence, which is the idea that reality comprises various strata and that each new stratum has powers, mechanisms and properties that were not present in its building blocks. New levels of reality “emerge” out of those beneath them. So, when two hydrogen atoms bond with one atom of oxygen, you have something completely new – water – and it has powers and properties not available at the previous scale. Wheatley uses cookies for her more delicious central illustration (227). A cookie comprises various ingredients, none of which result in the mouth-watering goodness of this well-baked delight. Life itself is emergence – the stream of consciousness enabling you to read this blog is mysteriously emerging from over 37 trillion cells as well as highly complex systems and processes. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I used emergence in the social sciences to consider how churches emerge from congregants and denominations emerge from churches. More recently, I’ve been looking at emergence in terms of broader degradational trends in culture, especially the mental health crisis among youth and young adults and aspects of racism and polarization. I believe emergent powers materialism offers a helpful lens to consider how we may create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world – or so I hope.

Wheatley’s perspective is not as initially optimistic. She recognizes that life does change through emergence and is firm in her analysis that once a culture has emerged, it cannot be reversed through any form of reductionism. Changing the players at the table, focusing on behaviours, or creating new incentive systems will not work a culture backwards. For Wheatley, all we can do is start over – and this is part of her leadership approach in our troubling times. 

“We start over by turning to our identity, the source of self-organization, reclaiming what we still believe in, what description gives meaning to who we want to be… This is our work as leaders, to focus within our sphere of influence, accepting the harsh reality that we can’t change the global culture that has emerged. There is no way to unwind where we are. We could have changed the ‘growth is good, extract everything you can’ mindset when we were first warned of the impact this was having on the planet… We didn’t.” (228)

The new emergent culture of global capitalism is in control. The only option for Wheatley is rebellion – walking out and beginning again with new values. Moving forward means working with emergence to be “fully engaged, carefully observing what’s going on as we do our work, learning from experience, applying those learnings, adapting, changing. In other words, behaving like everything else alive does.” (231) Wheatley is essentially arguing for an ecological approach that mimics systems in the environment and asks fundamental questions such as:

  • “What are the values, intentions, principles for behaviour that describe who we want to be? 
  • Once established, are these common knowledge, known by all? 
  • As we work together, do we refer to our identity to make decisions? 
  • How do we respond when something goes wrong? 
  • Do we each feel accountable for maintaining the integrity of this identity?” (232)

Her approach is highly relational, and this jives with the view I take as well. Through our relationships, we can come back to a flourishing culture and environment. “We are not broken people. It’s our relationships that need repair. It’s relationships that bring us back to health, wholeness, holiness.” (240)

Wheatley does not get into the more advanced mechanisms that social scientists such as Margaret Archer delineate for wrestling with how individual human agents can change the culture. Archer’s morphogenetic approach involves mindfully subjugating our internal conversations to transform the culture within and around us rather than replicating it. But without the in-depth analysis, Wheatley grasps the spirit of the morphogenetic approach. The critical application requires consideration of scale. Changing culture is not done at national and global scales – it happens intra and interpersonally. 

“If we are working well with emergence, these questions (listed above) become part of our everyday perceptions. We don’t ask them occasionally or once a year at a retreat. We all have to become more observant, more open to differing perceptions, more open to new interpretations. However, only the leader is in the position to see the whole organization. No matter how willing people might be, everyone is overwhelmed and consumed with their own work. Sane leadership is developing the capacity to observe what’s going on in the whole system and then either reflect that back or bring people together to consider where we are now.” (232) 

And this brings us to the next, final part of the review of Wheatley’s insightful leadership book: creating islands of sanity. She argues that we cannot reverse our society’s collapse at higher scales by our leadership no matter how good and sane we are. Amid collapse, we see that “the loss of complex systems pushes people back on their own resources; they retreat into clans and ethnicities. Historically, people revert to the worst human behaviors, struggling to survive such great dislocation. A few people step forward to do what they can, acting heroically and embodying the qualities of compassion and insight.” (249)

In my next post, I’ll reflect on sane emergent leadership in a time of collapse.

Part 1: Collapse
Part 3: Islands of Sanity