Remarkably, it is 14 years since an email I sent about lighting on her DVD, resulted in an invitation to meet Margaret Wheatley for breakfast. We’d met briefly a few times at presentations she had done in the D.C. area. But this was just the two of us, talking for hours over breakfast at the Washington Hilton.
This was post-9/11, and just as her book “Turning to One Another” was coming out. Meg’s earlier books, “Leadership and the New Science” and “A Simpler Way” were widely praised, and were at the forefront of applying understanding of complex adaptive systems science, to the dynamics of organizations and change leadership.During our conversation, Meg told me a story about the initial success of her first book, “Leadership and the New Science.” She said that the praise and publicity had brought her a lot of attention. “I thought I was going to change the world” she said. “But I quickly learned that the world didn’t want me to change it.”
Meg went on to say that she was noticing emerging trends and patterns in the world, suggesting that “dark times were ahead.” Remember that this was in 2002. I had a sense of what Meg was getting at, and I asked, “so what are you doing now?” Her reply was simple and elegant, even as it was frightening in what it might mean for society. “I’m looking for fellow tellers of the new story.” Quite a few years later, Meg wrote about this sense of what is happening to us, in her book “So Far From Home.” Its basic premise and observations flow directly from what Meg Wheatley said to me that day over breakfast.
Today the world awakened to the news from the UK. A slim majority has voted for the UK to withdraw from the EU. World markets have reacted very negatively to the news. What drove the majority of voters in the UK to make this choice? Some factors seem fairly clear, such as fears about the impact of immigrants and refugees. Some consequences will take time to emerge, such as the new border arrangements and trade arrangements the UK must now implement.
As in the U.S., voters do not always seek the full set of facts and data that are available. The same internet that puts the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands, also serves to rapidly amplify lies, opinions, and misunderstanding. Not knowing is easily and quickly turned into a shared fear, and the fear, in turn, becomes amplified into hate and even violence.
If the vote in the UK is a sign of the “dark times ahead” that Meg Wheatley foresaw 14 years ago, what is likely to happen to society? H. G. Wells cautioned us about the rise of dictators and the denial of science and knowledge in his book, “Things to Come.” You can watch the entire 1936 film on youtube. In the story, decades of war, fueled by an egotistical dictator known only as “The Boss” are further ravaged by a spreading plague. Knowledge and science are gradually lost, and the capacity to make fuel, and operate airplanes, are likewise gone. But one day, a sound not heard for many years, come over the city. A plane brings the keepers of knowledge and science. These were keepers of the old ways, and yes, “tellers of the new story.”
Will we recede into more localized communities, even tribal groups? Will the globalized patterns of culture and trade give way to more basic competitive behaviors? Will mutual gains yield to positional negotiation and conflict?
Are we “so far from home” that we will cluster with others of like mind, even into isolation from those whose thinking is very different? Is a level of complacent ignorance pushing us over the cliff of relative stability, into a time of chaos? How will we re-organize and be together, in compassion, curiosity, and courage. How will we find the way back to inquiry, learning, and understanding, in respectful dialogue together?
Tomorrow’s just a day away.