Skip to main content

Whatever the problem, Community is the answer

President's Blog | Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Margaret J. Wheatley

I buy more books than I read. The shelves in my basement are full. Some I’ve read multiple times. Many I haven’t. Gifts, impulse buys, good intentions. I’m a pretty quick adopter of new technologies. I use Audible and other audiobooks, iBooks, and my Kindle app. But I’m also old school in a lot of ways. Among them is I like books. Hardcover or paperback, but books I can put on a shelf. Books I can write in the margins, underline passages I like, annotate with exclamation points and question marks, and dog-ear pages. I love to dog-ear pages.

Recently I had the good fortune to visit Kenya with my son, Sam. We enjoyed learning from the kind people we encountered, trying to communicate in Maasai and Swahili. The trip meant long plane rides, long bus rides, and long periods of time off the grid. A great opportunity to catch up on my reading, so I loaded up my backpack. One that I included was Perseverance by Margaret J. Wheatley. The book was written in 2010. I probably bought it new, and probably haven’t picked it up since. I was introduced to Meg Wheatley’s work in the mid-nineties. I read her book Leadership and the New Science as a Ph.D. student and loved it. I still have that edition from 25 years ago on my shelf, dog-eared and underlined. I’m sure that’s why I bought Perseverance years later. Or maybe someone gave it to me. I don’t remember.

Dr. Wheatley offers inspiring insights on personal growth, leadership, and ideas about how to be at your best when you’re challenged the most. She is clearly influenced by Buddhist teaching, but also by Walt Whitman, Lily Tomlin, and the occasional bumper sticker.

She begins the book with a letter from the elders of the Hopi Nation. The letter urges us to “let go of the shore. Push off into the middle of the river, and keep our heads above water.”

And I say see who is there with you
and celebrate.
At this time in history,
we are to take nothing personally,
least of all ourselves,
for the moment we do,
our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.

The letter closes with this challenge: “For we are the ones we have been waiting for.” It’s our turn.

With that as the first page, how can you not read on? One of the things that struck me as I read was that Perseverance was published eight years ago. So much has changed, yet her guidance is still relevant. Maybe more so now than when it was originally published. Here are a few of the many passages that that spoke to me, with some personal context:


She urges us to join together and use uncertainty as an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to rely on one another. “With other lost companions, relax into the unfamiliarity of this new place, senses open, curious rather than afraid.”

She wants us to keep an open mind, to always be open to new ideas. It’s OK not to know. That’s how we learn. If we’re not learning, we’re not growing. If we’re not growing, we can’t lead effectively. Once we allow ourselves the space not to know, to embrace uncertainty, to make mistakes, to be wrong but to learn and come back next time better prepared, that’s when we can truly use curiosity to our advantage. To help us grow. She believes that “this kind of open-ended inquisitiveness captures the spirit of enthusiasm, or heroic perseverance.”

She cautions that it’s difficult, but worth it:

The challenge is to refuse to categorize ourselves. We don’t have to take sides. Much better to dwell in uncertainty, hold the paradoxes, live in the complexities and contradictions. That is what uncertainty feels like and it’s a very healthy place to dwell.

She points out that curiosity is a great response to uncertainty. Just by being curious, we make ourselves available to new ideas and new relationships. When we’re in this space of curiosity, we’re “willing to be surprised rather than having to get it right. We’re interested in others’ perspectives, intrigued by differences, stimulated by new thoughts.”

The wrong approach to uncertainty is to try to exercise control we’ll never have. By remaining open to new thinking, uncertainty can be a very productive place. Once again, she encourages us to let go of the shore. “All it requires is letting go of uncertainty and admitting we don’t know what we’re doing. Let the experiments begin.”

Let the experiments begin. I love that.


Those who teach or farm or lead know that they’re rarely present when their hard work pays off. It’s a leap of faith that requires continuous learning and great discipline. Dr. Wheatley quotes Brazilian theologian Rubem Alvez: “So let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. This is the secret of discipline.”

It takes discipline to be great at something. Those who excel get up earlier or stay up later. Or both. They stay at the table when others lose interest. Before an athlete, a musician, or a writer succeeds in public, they’ve failed, been discouraged, and almost quit countless times in private.

Dr. Wheatley observes that “discipline is a strange and foreign concept to many people today,” and too few are prepared to do the actual work that needs to be done. “The work will, at times, be boring, repetitive, uninteresting, senseless.”

This is why discipline is so important. If you have a daily regiment – exercise, meditation, prayer, sports, music, writing – you’ve learned to do the same thing day after day. You don’t abandon it when it gets boring. You don’t avoid the repetition. You learn to just do it, because you know that the repetition and boredom eventually serve your goal.

The discipline to persist when things aren’t going our way, or moving as fast as we’d like, is a key to ultimate success. Dr. Wheatley urges us to be open to trying new approaches, to keep learning, and to use the lack of progress to our advantage. She challenges us to “loosen our grip, let some fresh air into our opinions, and bring new voices and more diversity.”

When we get stuck, when nothing seems to be moving and there’s nothing we can do, this means that a very fruitful time is at hand. But these fruits come at a cost – we have to be willing to let go of what we’ve been holding onto – our opinions and beliefs, our current ways of perceiving things, our old methods and techniques.

Patience, Compassion, and Humility

A critical aspect to being a leader that matters is communication. It’s especially important – and especially difficult – during times of great change and uncertainty. It’s something I’m always trying to improve upon, and I have a lot of room for improvement. Dr. Wheatley offers good advice on helping people understand through patience and compassion.

When people look at new ideas through their familiar lens, all they see is a haze of disconnected statements and ideas. And it’s not about helping them connect the dots – we’re presenting ideas that, to them, don’t even look like dots.

Patience is the only remedy for this situation. And compassion. Let’s redefine our task and challenge ourselves to become gentle guides to the world as we see it, not fierce advocates for our view of reality.

She points out the importance of humility in effectively leading change. It’s about the work, not the leader.

If we’re set on creating change, on doing things differently, we must be prepared for loneliness. As someone noted, “It’s lonely to get to the future first.” We can’t expect to be joined by a lot of people. We will always be the minority. We have to expect to be invisible, even if our new approaches are very successful. Below the radar, if we don’t need recognition, we can get a lot of good work done.

She ends the book with a poem of her own, reminding us that the wind – any opposition – is not our enemy. Nothing in life is. “The wind to carry you forward will find you when you are ready.”

I haven’t met Dr. Wheatley, but I’d sure like to. She has had an impactful career as an author, leadership coach, and activist. She is co-founder and President of the Berkana Institute. The Berkana Institute works to develop resilient communities. Their creed: “Whatever the problem, community is the answer.” Love that. Incidentally, the artwork for Perseverance was done by Asante Salaam. In Swahili, asante means “thank you.”

Go to 2018 Archive Go to the President's Blog