In a March 2022 webinar titled Thinking like a System and Leading with Humility, celebrated author Margaret Wheatley reflected on the seemingly incompatible concepts of leading, system and humility. Who else besides Wheatley could make sense of such a combination?
The rich conversation that ensued was moderated by Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria, BC. Organized by the Tamarack Institute’s Deepening Community team, this event attracted hundreds of participants from across Canada and across the world.
Local issues, systemic causes
Mayor Helps began by sharing the challenges she faces as a leader of a provincial capital, including issues that had been making national news for months: the housing shortage, the climate disasters in BC, the work of decolonization and anti-racism, the Freedom Convoy, and so on.
She delved into the underlying systemic causes for these issues and shared her deep concern about the growing rift being caused by individualism. People have lost the ability to have an open-hearted conversation with someone who holds a divergent opinion, she explained, saying that she fears that unless we can relearn this skill, we will “get stuck” and be unable to find any solutions. People need to regain their sense of belonging to a collective, she believes.
In her constituency, Mayor Helps regularly invites residents to come to her office during specified hours to share their concerns and grievances. She continually makes the effort to listen without judgement and to engage them in finding solutions.
Reflecting on Ukrainian resilience
Margaret Wheatley spoke soberly about the current situation in the world, referring often to the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. What a poignant time to hear her read her poem “I Want to Be a Ukrainian,” written in 2005 after the Orange Revolution – the first time, she explained, that the Ukrainians demonstrated their “incredible perseverance and spirit” in standing up for their right to exist.
This powerful poem is a call to action, a condensed version of the kind of person she calls on us to be.
Working on the issues in front of you
Mayor Helps asked Wheatley how to work on systems change while striving to untangle these difficult issues at the local level. Wheatley maintains that, as community leaders, we need to tackle all issues at the local level. “The only possibility of health and change,” no matter what level the problem, “is local preparedness, and mitigation, and resources to support post-disaster.”
She urges us to overcome our fear and hesitation, and to “just work on the issue in front of you.” Wheatley said she has adopted a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt as a motto: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
She also commented on how much respect and empathy she has for leaders today who are often working in a “vicious and brutal environment.”
Acting as an individual without acting on individualism
Like Mayor Helps, Wheatley laments the fact that people have become so polarized in their views and unable to hear each other, much less consult with each other.
“Everyone is in their own cave,” she explained. The solution, for her, lies in the work each individual must do themselves and at the local level.
For the individual, Margaret has much solid advice and strategies for coping and thriving. She urges each person to take a clear, hard look at the current situation and to “free ourselves of the blinders” that “hope and optimism” can become if a person is stuck in their fear and anger. Rather, we should pause, she says, be contemplative, and be silent in order to find our true selves and be able to move beyond fear and aggression.
Each person must make the choice about who they want to be: will they remain in self-protection mode, or will they transition into a mode of service to others? One strategy she described for finding inner calm and strength is the “Taking your Seat” practice, shown in this video: Margaret shares 2 practices; Taking your Seat & Tonglen
Can we all be leaders?
Mayor Helps concluded by asking Margaret what gives her an “unshakeable confidence in the human spirit?” Margaret responded that she finds hope in witnessing people rise to the occasion – just like the Ukrainians in this pivotal moment in history – fighting for their rights in spite of the harrowing odds.
Margaret asserts that the human spirit cannot be vanquished. Her perspectives give us courage and determination to be leaders in our own communities, leaders who are able to listen to divergent views –and this is where the humility comes in, because we need to look beyond our own opinions and beliefs to find those common values that we can all rally around.
Yes, we can all be leaders. In fact, we all need to be leaders – walking and talking with humility, listening, and making the choice to serve others in our neighbourhoods and localities. The world will be a better place if we all “take our seat” and choose this path.
You can find this important conversation, and many other resources, on the landing page for the recording.
- Watch the webinar recording: Thinking Like a System and Leading with Humility
- Read The world is coming apart at the seams and what can we do about it by Mayor Lisa Helps
- Order Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time by Margaret Wheatley
- Watch Who Do You Choose To Be? Restoring Leadership as a Noble Profession by Margaret Wheatley
- Visit Margaret Wheatley's website