Who Do We Choose To Be, Part 3: Restoring Sanity

It is a bizarre world now, and it seems to get more insane, polarized, aggressive and anxiety-provoking every day. Nova Scotians are burning indigenous fisheries, the Government of Alberta is attacking health care structures amid a pandemic, and the US election is a dumpster fire that may end in a non-peaceful transition of power. Wheatley’s book predates these particular incidents, but all of them fit her premise that we are in the midst of a culture of collapse – that our era of greed and dominance needs to transition to something more loving and humane. 

I’d like to believe there is more hope than she brings to the table. As a Buddhist, Wheatley interprets the world cyclically and naturally sees our civilization as the end of a cultural cycle. Thus there is nothing individual human agents can do to hold back the tide of insanity at national or global scales – it is what it is. As a Christian, I would disagree on some of these points and argue that this is a time for prayer, fasting and repentance – and that there is ample evidence in history that societal change is possible without war, famine, plague and death. National leaders can arise who inspire humility, service and calm over greed, individualism and violence. But where are they!? Our world is warming, and the ocean is acidifying, poverty and human sufferings are increasing. Our systems are not working, and things are getting worse as we seek distractions instead of solutions. Instead of coming together, we are turning upon one another. 

“As things deteriorate, relationships disintegrate into distrust, self-protection, and opposition. Internal conflicts increase and no one even notices threats to the whole as they fight for their tiny piece of the pie. Leaders use fear to control and manipulate people and everyone moves into self-protection. Distractions, entertainments, and entitlements become primary instruments of allaying people’s fears and controlling them.” (54) 

What I like most about Wheatley’s book is not her prognosis of collapse but her prescription for renewal. Recognizing the emergent nature of reality, she offers strategies for leaders of households and organizations such as businesses, congregations or even small universities to bring sanity during the contextual chaos. This begins with a leader stepping back and looking for trends in how organizational culture is changing. She offers five snapshots in this regard: 

Quality of Relationships: If you were to create a trend line from a few years ago to now and a few years ahead, how are people relating to each other? Has trust increased or declined? Are people more self-protective or less so? Are they more willing to be there for one another, to go the extra mile, or not? What’s your evidence for any of your conclusions?  

Fear versus love: If these are two ends of the spectrum of human emotions, which I believe they are, consider where you see examples of each. Also look for tendencies: which reaction, fear or love, is more likely in specific situations or with specific issues? Are either of these emotions coming to dominate as time goes on? In your leadership, what role does fear play? Are you more fearful? Are you using fear to motivate people? 

Quality of thinking: When a crisis happens, how do you respond? Are your values used to resolve the crisis? Do you consider the future? Is long-term thinking still happening (in conversations, decision-making, planning)? Has it made an impact? If so, is this visible to people? How difficult is it to find time to think, both for yourself and others? 

Willingness to contribute: What invitations to contribute have you extended and why? How have people responded? Ongoing, what are your expectations for people willing to step forward? Are those higher or lower than a few years ago? 

The role of money: How big an influence, as a percentage of other criteria, do financial issues have on decisions? Has money become a motivator for you? For staff? Has selfishness replaced service? How do you know?  

Wheatley suggests responding to an organizational culture focused on fear and the bottom line of money by revitalizing corporate identity around what it means to be human. Sane leadership is “the unshakable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind… It is the deep knowing that even in the most dire circumstances, more becomes possible as people engage together with compassion and discernment, self-determining their best way forward.” (32) Leaders need to resist reactivity, self-protection, and denial and instead use their power and influence “to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere.” (11) She borrows from Grace Lee Boggs to describe how in islands of sanity, we must rely on human human beings, linked our species’ technical name: homo sapiens sapiens. (166) Top-down god-playing leaders who have narcissistically ascended above other human human beings will not create islands of sanity. 

To be sane in today’s world, Wheatley suggests new skills. She advocates mindfulness as a mechanism to deal with the difficult emotional and personal triggers that emerge every day (264). Mindfulness practices will enable a leader to create space to find responses that generate possibilities rather than aggression and to develop a stable mind. “The intent of any mindfulness practice is to know yourself, not to become peaceful. Knowing how your own mind works makes it possible to stay present and engaged in hypercharged situations without losing your cool… There is no other way to prepare oneself for the difficulties, tragedies, and insanity that will continue to escalate. We can’t change this world, but we can change ourselves so that we can be of service to the world.”  

Leaders also need to develop participative process skills, especially listening, conflict resolution and problem-solving (198). The mark of a sane leader is collaboration, not decisiveness. Meaningful work involves a life of service, and thus servanthood should be the mark of a leader. “In this time of rising insanity and brutality, work that engages our better human qualities is a gift we can offer to others. This is why we create islands of sanity, so that more of us can experience the gift of doing meaningful work on behalf of others. How wonderful to have the chance to engage together in doing good work, no matter what is going on around us. We are richly blessed.” (270) This highly relational approach gets back to the root of what it means to be a human being. Life is about connectedness and relationships. “In a world preoccupied with meaningless tasks, people are ever more eager to engage in work that offers a chance to contribute, to remember how good it is to be a thinking, contributing colleague. These days, having one good conversation can reintroduce us to what it feels like to be in a satisfying human relationship. The same is true when we have the opportunity to think together and come up with a solution to a troubling situation. The human qualities that have become distant memories, or never known at all, come flooding in when we work together for a common purpose. Meaningful work reawakens us to what it feels like to be human human beings.” (267) 

For a long time, I thought I might be able to change the world. In middle age, I’m much less optimistic that my fantasies of ending poverty, alleviating the mental health crisis among young adults, or solving climate change will come to fruition through my influence. I resonate with Wheatley’s wrestling about what it means to make a difference in the world today. “If it’s not creating change at the large scale, if it’s not striving to reintroduce sane decision making into large systems, if it doesn’t stop the disintegration, then what does it mean to make a difference?… I have sat with this question for years, and I haven’t found an answer that stops the niggling voice of ‘yes, but surely you can think of something with more impact…’ The simple answer is found in all philosophies and spiritual traditions: Focus on serving others. Serve the individual; serve small groups; serve an entire community or organization. No matter what is going on around us, we can attend to the people in front of us, to the issues confronting us and there, we can offer what we can. We can offer insight and compassion. We can be present. We can stay and not flee. We can be examples of the best human qualities. This is a life well-lived, even if we didn’t save the world.” (269) 

Ultimately, Wheatley asks who we choose to be as a leader in this time (249). In her wrestling with this question, she has concluded that this means becoming a warrior of the human spirit. She links this to the Tibetan Shambala Warriors who would arm themselves only with compassion and insight. “A Warrior for the Human Spirit is a decent human being who aspires to be of service in an indecent, inhumane time… Warriors remember what it means to behave decently, ethically. We remember the capacities that every human being possesses. We affirm and work with these forgotten qualities through our presence and our wise actions. And in all we do, we consciously try to refrain from adding to the confusion, aggression and fear overwhelming most people.” (255) 

She finds Warriors of the human spirit in her study of the history of collapsing civilizations, quoting historian Sir John Glubb: “While despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realization of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could enable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.” (252) 

Finally, Wheatley concludes with the most meaningful passage for my own wrestling with where I might go to serve in these troubling times. I’m already there, and likely you are as well: “Wherever you’re working is where you take your stand. You don’t have to go looking for new places, other issues, compelling causes. If you’re in a school, a financial firm, the UN, a refugee camp, a small nonprofit, a church, a hospital – wherever you are, stay there and notice the abundance of warrior opportunities. It may well be they you are already operating in this way – speaking up against unjust actions, influencing policies to address root causes, reminding decision makers what statistics mean in terms of human costs, going to bat for a colleague who’s been wrongfully harmed by administrative action, calling attention to new populations that need services, bearing witness to those whose suffering cannot be solved, comforting a sorrowful person or child… What’s common in all these actions is that human beings are at the center. By our actions, we call attention to people and their suffering. And we act where we can to support and console those near us.” (263) 

Part 1

Part 2

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