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It Starts With Uncertainty

MARGARET WHEATLEY and PEMA CHÖDRÖN discuss how organizations can acknowledge their confusion and trust in the goodness of the underlying order.

Margaret Wheatley: I see the essence of my work as becoming comfortable with uncertainty, which is actually a chapter title in my book, Leadership and the New Science. I came to that work initially through science, through an understanding of chaos as having a deeper order revealed in it, and as a person who had worked in organizations a lot.
I remember the great revelatory moment I had when I was writing my first book that order and control are two different phenomena. In the Western leadership tradition, we believe that order is only available through the control that we exert. But I realized that order is available through different processes that have nothing to do with our own authorship—that this world is in fact exquisitely ordered, but not necessarily for our own purposes. The Western tradition is to play God with the world, assuming that nothing happens unless we make it happen.
We feel we have no support from natural processes, no support from life, and that we can only make the world the way we want it by the force of our own effort. That’s a great deception in Western thought, and it’s been a hindrance in leadership practices. I like to quote Chuang-tzu, from the third century BCE, who had a very different approach to leadership. He said it’s more a matter of believing the good than of seeing it as the result of our effort.
So as leaders, do we believe we are participating in a world that knows how to organize itself? Do we realize we are working with people who have great reservoirs of goodness, commitment and creativity? Or do we, in the traditional Western model, feel that if there’s good in the organization, it’s only because of our own qualities of leadership? I have realized over time that the real role of a leader is not to control but to midwife—to evoke those qualities of commitment, compassion, generosity and creativity that are in all of us to start with.

Pema Chödrön: Meg, I was electrified by your article “Consumed By Either Fire or Fire,” because while it talks about personal journey, the implications for leadership are profound. Here is the question that came up for me. You talk about the need for leaders to trust the goodness of people and not feel they have to control things. It seems to me, though, that this means the employees themselves have to have a lot of trust in their own goodness, and they have to have the inner strength that allows them not to freak out in the face of insecurity and uncertainty.
I would guess that the traditional leadership policies you’re trying to change come from the fact that people are so afraid of paradox, so afraid of uncertainty. It takes a lot of bravery even to consider that uncertainty is not a threat, that in fact it’s creative and powerful.
I spend a lot of time in my own teaching proclaiming that truth, and it makes me realize again and again how it comes back to the individual journey of mindfulness. It requires being able to look bravely at yourself without running away from what you see, because resting with the ugliness, the chaos and the confusion in yourself is the path to happiness and creativity and flexibility.
To me, the point where people get stuck is exactly here. They have so little trust in their ability to rest with negativity and uncertainty that whenever they detect a hint of paradox or not knowing, they become afraid and do all kinds of conformist, fundamentalist things to become secure again.

Margaret Wheatley: In your book When Things Fall Apart, you quote Trungpa Rinpoche as saying that this is a dark time when people lose faith in themselves and so lack courage. To me, that’s a very clear statement of what’s going on now, because we are at a point where we feel very badly about who we are as a species. There is all this self-loathing and the messages we give each other are filled with what’s wrong with us. Whether it’s at the individual or organizational level, we’re focused on pathology and use a lot of very negative terms to describe our experience.
Then if that self-loathing is combined with a culture that emphasizes control, it holds you accountable for making things work all the time—without failing, without feeling confused or overwhelmed by uncertainty. We hold each another accountable for achievements that are in fact impossible, because we can’t pretend that chaos doesn’t erupt in our lives and that we have it all figured out. We just can’t pretend that. But our organizations insist on that illusion and make us feel badly for not being able to live up to it. These world views converge on us and we’re left loathing ourselves and feeling overwhelmed.
Yet I also know people have a clear recognition that most of us are good and want to serve others. We know compassion is available in our selves and that we will experience compassion from others. So many people are realizing that the only way to go through this increasingly crazy time is to focus on ourselves—not in a narcissistic way, but understanding that the source of peace and the place to find rest is within.

Pema Chödrön: The thing that intrigues me is how society and organizations can encourage the things that meditation fosters at the individual level. It was very much Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision that we work at both the individual and community levels. He talked a lot about enlightened society—about creating communities that foster this trust in the goodness of human beings. We think too small; we are confined by our beliefs, and one of the main beliefs that confines us is in our own inadequacy, our own imperfection.
Before you can truly know what compassion is, you have to develop equanimity towards that which is threatening, disagreeable or fearful. Equanimity and compassion don’t come from transcending these things; they come from moving closer to what scares you, threatens you, causes you to become aggressive and selfish, and so forth.
This requires a lot of courage, but I find that’s a message people can accept. Interestingly, the idea of developing courage doesn’t seem to trigger people’s inadequacies. I think they know they have some courage. The problem is they think they’re supposed to be courageous in facing the outside world, whereas what is so profoundly transformative is the courage to look at yourself. It’s the courage to not give up on yourself, even though you do see your aggression, jealousy, meanness, and so on. And it turns out that in facing these things, we develop not self-denigration but compassion for our shared humanity.

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