This question “Who do I choose to be today” has been a strong part of my practice as a leader, mother, wife, friend, sister and daughter for a while now.
How do I choose to respond to the chaos, the inherent unfairness, fear and panic in our world? Do I add to it by creating more chaos or fear? Do I choose to yell at my kids when they make me late for something? (‘Yes’ is probably the honest answer here!)
Do I bury my head in the sand about the pressure our kids are under from social media, or do we talk about it? Do I blame others and lash out when under attack or do I keep on focussing on what matters and do the right thing? Do I choose to keep believing that I can save the world, make it a better place, exhausting myself in a cycle of success and failure? Or do I let that go and face both realities of the awfulness of our global predicament and the beauty of ordinary every day living?
My path to this practice began in the bath one Saturday morning in 1999, when reading Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. I was a driven thirtysomething with a senior job in the NHS, and a thirst for working out how to do good for others. Within Meg’s book, the chapter on information (and enabling it to flow to liberate life itself) reduced me to tears. I now understood how to create the conditions for others to flourish and do good work, and realised that this would mean roles like ‘managers’ were unnecessary.
I now knew that people create their own way of being effective with the right information and with a clear, shared and purposeful intent. Understanding and then being able to put that simple idea into action lead me two years later to call a halt to a ‘safe’ career path towards becoming an NHS chief executive. For me, changing the system from within had found its limitations and I moved towards holding a narrative that working outside of it, I could free it. I could still change the world, just from the outside.
During this time, I joined Meg and 30 others from around the globe creating a community of life-affirming fellow learners in an initiative called From the Four Directions. I saw that I was not alone in my sadness about how broken the world was. Over the next few years I experimented with many tools for dialogue, conversation and ways of living that were both liberating and purposeful.
My week learning working and living as a community in Slovenia using Open Space Technology put fire in my belly (as my Open Space teacher Toke Møller would say) for self-organisation, and yet I still suffered from the boom/bust cycle of an activist. My work, now as an organisational design consultant, meant that I could see so much: the shifts in people’s capability to listen and understand others; the crushing exhaustion when, in organisations, life was squashed out of existence; and the effect of rage at others that then led me to make some rash choices.
I remember making myself pretty much unemployable (some would say I still am) by publicly railing against my clients for their smallmindedness and not seeing the bigger picture.
Becoming a parent was yet another opportunity to change the world. My fantasy was that I too could create kids who would do better than our generation, or actually my parents’ generation. I practised attachment parenting, fussed about the impact of early education on my kids’ future ability to stay curious and solve the world’s problems, worried about whether GMO soya would damage their brains and stressed over the idea of nappies lasting 1000s of years in landfill.
With all this in the foreground I crashed and burned! Becoming a parent was really my opening into becoming a fully fledged human being. I had to confront all my demons at once: my sense of failure, my impotence, my rage, my self-criticism — oh the list could go on.
Three things saved me from this crash: some deep inner work; my partner’s patience and love; and a practice Meg introduced to me from her teacher Pema Chödrön:
“When things fall apart, feel the pain, let go and ‘allow’ — in order to welcome what is.”
‘What is’, as it turned out, was actually quite nourishing and when my kids were four and one I became a co-founder in an organisation called Here, whose purpose is ‘Care Unbound’, creating more possibilities for care in every moment.
Ten years ago, during our early years in start up, my energy was still on how to radically transform healthcare systems. We learned to improve things for people, we reduced waiting times, integrated previously fragmented services, reduced waste, made people better and happy. We laugh now at the early days of our adventure. We were bold and a little bit too confident (or brash), in our assertions that we could do it better than others.
The pattern of activist crash-and-burn followed us organisationally and personally. We had some amazing successes and when it went wrong, it really went wrong. We made some friends and some enemies along the way. Some relationships even now are fragile as a result of the worldview we held during this time.
Meg Wheatley’s book So Far from Home took me three years to get the courage to read. I wasn’t ready to confront the realities of our time, and I wasn’t ready to give up the narrative that I, or Here, could change the world. I wasn’t able to move beyond the boom-and-bust cycle of hope.
Fear, on the other hand, was an old friend. As an entrepreneurial social enterprise, fear of failure, of something not working was always present. Over time we developed the skill to feel it, but not act from it, or not always act from it. When I did it never had good consequences; it never moved anything forward. What led me to pick up So Far from Home was coming out of another dark time of exhaustion and overwhelm, and observing myself and the healthcare system make the same mistakes that had been made ten years ago without learning.
I began to appreciate that creating a workplace where people came to do purposeful good work — where people developed meaning from their work — was good enough. I guess I gave up believing I could change the world. Instead I realised that I — and we — had been creating ‘an island of sanity’, a workplace where difference is honoured, where we try to do good and sometimes we fail — and where failure is inevitable when you learn how to do something new.
More recently I have realised that this takes courage in the current climate, and that courage comes from my relationship with myself and with others. That courage needs nurturing in others, by slowing down, taking time to reflect and knowing when it’s time to stand firm for what you believe in and when it’s time to protect and retreat.
In the past I would have ended this piece with a call to action, now I am more inclined to offer a question:
Who do you choose to be?
You can hear Margaret Wheatley speak at Meaning 2017 on 16 November in Brighton, UK where she’ll also host a discussion based workshop. Here have partnered with Meaning to bring Meg and her teachings to the event.