I was asked by someone who read the first draft of this paper, if
it was a journal entry. In a way it is. It began for me as a riot of
questions about whether or not organizations could heal society, not
because of a product they produce or a service they provide, but because
they had the capacity to hold something larger than the individual but
smaller than the community. Could they, as a microcosm of society, hold
the tensions that rip communities apart? Could organizations take the
issues that crossed the boundary from the community and bring them into
an alchemical stew that generated collective wisdom? Could the organization
return that wisdom to the community? These mind-rumblings have led me
along an interesting path on which I invite you to walk with me.
Fall, 2002 – dawn
My initial reflections began to emerge a number of years ago when
the WorldCom Wireless scandal came to light. I had had a cell phone
agreement with WorldCom. Not long before the accounting scandals were
headline news I entered into a long and frustrating conversation with
the company to try and straighten out a number of confusing and inaccurate
bills, and end my service agreement. We finally agreed on what I owed
the company, and I paid the bill, but I was told I could not end the
contract without paying a fee. I was asked why I would want to end my
service since we had just straightened everything out. I explained that
it was clear to me, as an outsider, that there was a serious breakdown
in the system, and that accurate information was not flowing between
the right departments. I was convinced that the problems we had just
resolved would reoccur. We ended the agreement without penalty.
As I shared my story with friends and acquaintances I discovered that
I was not alone. Most everyone I spoke with was frustrated by WorldCom’s
accounting practices and when they had tried to resolve the issue they
had encountered very aggressive collections employees. I remembered
at the time thinking, “how can the people who work for WorldCom
work for a company with such a poor reputation and shoddy accounting
practices?” Shortly afterward, the story of the accounting scandal
and ensuing bankruptcy broke. The broadcast I listened to reported an
interview with employees asking them the same question I had. How did
they feel about working for a company with such a poor reputation? Employees
reported that they had no idea what was going on in the company. They
believed they worked for a wonderful company, and were shocked by the
investigation, the allegations and the findings. I wondered how this
could be when they must have received hundreds, thousands of calls like
mine everyday from frustrated and angry customers. I walked away from
the television righteously shaking my head over how people could be
I was recently reminded of my self-righteousness by a conversation
with a friend. “I can always get the first line of the song. It’s
the rest that’s a little tricky,” said George McCauley,
a friend and Jesuit priest, when I asked him for his thoughts on the
child abuse in the Catholic Church. “ I think it’s about
innocence,” he said. I was not only puzzled, I was indignant.
How could anyone who knows anything about the Catholic Church “expect”
it to be innocent? “You’re not serious?” I spluttered.
According to the dictionary innocence is the freedom from sin or moral
wrong. It comes from the Latin root meaning no harm. It means simplicity,
lack of guile or cunning, lack of knowledge or understanding. In examining
this definition I realized that I was certainly not without knowledge,
yet I had been taking up my role in the Church as if I were. I was a
student of church history and had been an organizational consultant
to churches—many of them Catholic. For twenty years I had known
first hand or from other consultants of cases where sexual abuse had
been swept under the rug, and the offending priest transferred. Yet,
I was taking up my role as a parishioner in the Catholic Church as if
I were innocent and without knowledge. I had to look at the fact that
I was acting just as shocked and horrified about the sexual abuse scandal
in the Catholic Church as everyone else around me.
As I studied my newfound self-awareness I realized I was in the company
of the WorldCom employees I had so righteously dismissed. The desire
for innocence, the desire not to know, seemed to be widely shared. I
was not alone in my desire not to see, not to remember what I knew.
How could this be? How could this desire for innocence so overwhelm
us that we failed to see, and then tragically fail to act in service
of what we know to be right?
The answer to this question is not terribly difficult to understand
from the psychological perspective of the individual. It is a difficult
developmental task to hold onto information about oneself that is incongruent
with one’s core identity. It is hard to belong to groups or organizations
that behave in ways that are inconsistent with our core values. Yet
that is precisely where we often find ourselves. When we find ourselves
in places and with people with whom we have opposing values, we are
faced with the opportunity to move beyond our comfort zones and see
beyond our innocence. We are graced with a moment in which we might
face the fact that if we do not speak for what we believe in, we collude
with what we reject.
One strategy for dealing with the incongruence and the guilt of collusion
is to simply forget what we know, to deny what we see and to remain
innocent. Innocence allows us to believe that good and evil, generosity
and greed, vulnerability and invincibility, competence and incompetence
can be split off from one another. Innocence allows us to believe that
there is an “other” that embodies the opposite of what we
do not want to, cannot, or refuse to hold as the core of our identities.
Innocence allows us to hold onto our core identities as good and worthy
and to locate the opposite characteristics in another. It allows us
to take a stand with those characteristics we value, and to war against
that which embodies the opposing characteristics. Innocence is about
a desire to avoid the struggle of integrating our own human complexity.
My conversation with my friend forced me to acknowledge that I had
used this strategy. I had a great deal of knowledge about the underbelly
of the Catholic Church and I had chosen, albeit unconsciously, to act
as if I didn’t. I had chosen to ignore what I knew simply because
I did not know how to integrate it. I could not hold the human complexity
of this institution alongside my faith. I split the good from the evil,
hanging on to one and alternately condemning or denying the other.
This behavior allowed me to see myself as separate from the organization
I was condemning. Others manage the conundrum of belonging to organizations
whose values and behaviors they cannot support by simply leaving the
organization. When the organization is one that we voluntarily belong
to, the choice to leave may not be too difficult. My family is replete
with ex-Catholics. When the organization is one that pays our salaries,
the solution becomes more difficult.
Like employees who find it difficult to leave organizations with business
practices that contradict their value systems but pay their salaries,
I was not ready to leave the Catholic Church. But neither was I willing
to remain blind as a way of tolerating values I did not hold, and behaviors
I did not support.
As I embarked on this study of collective intelligence and spiritual
wisdom I began with my own experience. I began by recognizing the ways
in which the desire for innocence captured me as well as thousands of
others in large organizations, and relieved us from struggling with
what we knew or suspected. But, if I were to follow my own experience,
I had to recognize that there came a time of awakening—not one
moment, but many moments when I knew, or had inklings, that something
was amiss, and from those moments on, innocence was a choice. Each time
we are drawn from our slumber we have the opportunity to search for
a way of seeing that is deep enough to hold what we know, and what we
are afraid to know.
Winter, 2003 – morning
Disturbance and Diversity: The Pathways to wisdom
I approached this path cautiously especially after a conversation
with my daughter’s freshman biology teacher. She had just completed
her doctoral dissertation in which she explored the hypothesis that
disturbance is required to preserve diversity, and only when sufficient
diversity is present is an ecosystem able to maintain its balance.
I was struck by this hypothesis. It occurred to me that this view of
biological systems might be applicable to human systems, and particularly
to my search for wisdom in organizations. But this idea was hard to
entertain because it was so contrary to the way I thought. By nature
and by training I sought to pull things together, to resolve conflict,
to hope for, if not expect, the “happy ending.” I read articles
with an eye toward the list of bulleted recommendations for making things
work. This announcement by my daughter’s biology teacher about
the nature of biological systems was hard to stomach for a person who
felt like a failure if she couldn’t bring peace to warring organizational
At the same time this notion of biological systems supported the intuitive
leanings I had that wisdom only showed up in environments that were
big enough to hold opposing views. I was beginning to think that wisdom
only graced those spaces that could tolerate the voice, the disturbance,
of the “other.” While I had certainly enjoyed the comfort
of innocence, I wasn’t sure that wisdom could exist where there
was a commitment to comfort and security. Having recognized that I was
part of a system that had been abusive to children, I was coming to
see that we did harm inadvertently when we refused to see, within ourselves
or the groups to which we belonged, our own capacity for evil. Thus
we do harm that we do not intend, but for which we must take responsibility
if we are to seek wisdom. But does my search for wisdom require that
I seek out disturbance? If I seek diversity is disturbance inevitable?
What would be required of me if I chose the path of wisdom? These musings
felt dangerous. I had the premonition that this may not be an easy path.
While innocence had been comfortable, keeping me safe and secure with
a view of the world that supported my beliefs, the search for wisdom
felt frightening. I was fearful that this journey might lead me into
the desert, where I would find myself eating locusts and wild honey,
and raving like a wild woman.
Wisdom requires not only knowledge, but also the ability to discern
and make a just decision. It requires the ability to see both sides,
to hear opposing views, to speak to the issues in such a way that opposites
are not split off from one another into warring camps. Wisdom is about
wholeness, and the capacity to hold opposing forces. Wisdom is the opposite
of innocence as I have defined it. Wisdom is a commitment to see and
hold the whole.
The most famous wisdom story we have is the story of King Solomon listening
to two women’s’ claim on a child. Knowing that the true
mother would never let harm come to her child the King ordered that
the child be cut in two so each woman might have one half of the baby.
The true mother gave up her claim to the child in order to protect it.
In this Old Testament story, Solomon was acknowledged as the wisest
king in history because he “knew the hearts of men.” Later
actions might make us wonder how truly wise Solomon was, but perhaps
it can be said that Solomon was able to recognize a wise heart when
he saw it, for in this story it is the mother who is truly wise. It
is she who can tolerate the pain of giving up her child, in service
of the joy of knowing her child will grow to adulthood, even if it is
at the hand of another woman. Solomon is but the muse in this story
pointing to the virtue when it appears, and thus he is granted the characteristic
that he has seen. But, as can be seen in the mother’s choice,
wisdom is not so easily lived.
Spring, 2003 -- afternoon
Convinced that it was the exceptional individual that chose the path
to wisdom, I was not at all sure that organizations could achieve wisdom
even if they wanted to. The very nature of organizations and the requirement
that they achieve specific objectives made it difficult, if not impossible,
to entertain anything that was contrary to those stated objectives.
Leaders who seek diversity and entertain disturbance are rarely held
up as models to follow. Diversity and disturbance are rarely seen as
the means of achieving an organizational goal on time and on budget,
regardless of the fact that differing views elicit more creative and
comprehensive solutions to problems.
In order to explore the appearance of collective wisdom, and the belief
that it showed up in organizational environments that could tolerate
disturbance, I interviewed four people whom I had worked with on a project
for a large county public health agency. I chose this particular public
service organization for two reasons. First, public organizations, by
their very nature, must maintain some conscious relationship to the
community that houses them. There are a variety of ways that they can
dull that relationship but the job requires that some connection to
the community be maintained. Maintaining a connection to the community
means that an organization is exposed to, and must respond to, extreme
opposites. How would the organization work with the diversity that it
encountered in the community, and that showed up in the executive group,
the management teams, and among the employees?
Second, the leader of this organization seemed very much aware that
the issues from the community filtered across the boundary of the organization
and he was committed to hearing and working with the voices of the community.
Toward this end he had restructured and redefined the task of the public
health nurses. Rather than just providing direct service to clients,
nurses participated in community health teams to do community organizing.
This new community organizing effort was aimed at sparking the community’s
ownership for the health issues that arose from its frayed infrastructure.
In this new organizational design the Director had created an opportunity,
for the voice of the community to emerge, be heard, and be engaged in
dialogue with the bureaucratic governing bodies of the city and county.
I spoke with Arnold, the Director of this county public health department,
and I also spoke with three consultants who, along with me, had collectively
worked at the executive level, the middle management level and at the
service provider level of this agency. The members of this consulting
team had many years of experience working with, and in, organizations.
Carl had been the superintendent of a public school district for over
twenty years, and had retired just prior to joining our consulting team
and beginning work with this agency. He held a doctorate in social psychology
from a prominent university. Elaine held a master’s degree in
public administration and had worked with various organizations including
hospitals, schools and social service agencies for eighteen plus years.
Manuel held a Master of Science degree in psychology and had been the
director of a county mental health agency for a number of years. He
taught at a local university and had been doing organizational consulting
for over fifteen years. The consultants were well acquainted with public,
as well as private and not-for-profit organizations. When I spoke with
them I asked them to draw on all of their organizational experiences
to answer my questions.
Collective Innocence – Collective Blindness
In conversation with my colleagues I found that the commitment to
innocence, albeit unconscious, exists at the individual, organizational,
community and societal levels. Looking at our own health and wealth
alongside the disease and poverty of those we serve can be unbearable.
In service of their sanity, employees reduce the complexity of organizational
and community systems and see only the individuals they serve. They
often operate from individual motivations, rather than from organizational
objectives that ask them to see, hold, and make sense of large community
system issues. Manuel described the ways in which service providers
disconnect their clients from the reality that they are part of a larger
community. They see the client as a single customer who needs some type
of intervention. The major dilemma in agencies is cases vs. mission.
By seeing only the client, and believing that they have provided the
best service possible, employees are able to keep the blinders in place
that allow them to work to their own internal mission. No longer seeing
the organization and its call to a vision that holds the community,
they are driven by their own motivators—their dedication to their
profession and their professionalism, their commitment to a routine,
or the desire for that new couch when the next pay check comes in.
Recognizing that the commitment to innocence went far beyond the individual,
both Manuel and Arnold spoke to the social and governing structures
that made it difficult to move beyond our collective blindness. Contending
with 77 different funding sources, all of which require different ways
of accounting for the use of monies, Arnold struggled to keep the organization
focused and connected to the community. Manuel noted that this funding
structure had been in place for years, and even though various agencies
had merged recently, creating “supra-agencies,” little had
changed. Because funding structures had not changed, service agencies
found themselves in competitive battles for survival. Both in the contentiousness
that emerged, and in the peace of various brokered compromises, the
voices of the community were silenced and solutions that addressed collective
community problems overlooked.
Observing that bureaucratic, economic, and psychological structures
seemed, at least unconsciously, designed to limit our ability to see
and respond effectively to the voices in the community, I wondered what
it was we didn’t want to see. What was the dilemma that we, as
a society, didn’t want to hold? What were the voices we didn’t
want our organizations to confront us with? From what did we want to
remain innocent? Manuel’s response brought me to one of those
moments where I had the opportunity to consider something I didn’t
want to see.
Manuel: We truly do not care about those in need.
We espouse spiritually, we espouse intellectually, we espouse in our
right deeds to do so, but we don’t give a shit about people
in need. This is all about the collective unconscious. We truly do
not care about the (social) casualties. That’s the bottom line.
So how does an organization overcome that? It doesn’t. It has
to stay collusive. If you stop all the shouting it might get heard,
but the voices stay contentious to make sure that the voice of the
disenfranchised doesn’t come filtering up.
…Then people who see this and take on the collective guilt,
try to do something in the interest and service of the community as
penance, and we end up creating these illusions… these collective
illusions that we are doing something in the interest of the community…but
generally we are only doing something for the parts of the community
that are doing well. And that does not include (the disenfranchised).
So out of our guilt we create this illusion that we are doing something
What we don’t say is “we don’t really give a shit
about the needy,” whether it’s because they’re poor,
whether it’s because they are ignorant or whether it’s
because they are uneducated, whatever it may be. … It’s
an inherent dilemma of the class system. What I meant to say when
we were talking about the definition of wisdom is that wisdom also
includes the failures. Wisdom includes the fears. Wisdom includes
the convergence of what is known and what is still not known. Wisdom
is about acting with the knowledge that you won’t be able to
predict an ultimate consequence of an action or a decision you make
in an organization.
True wisdom has to hold ambiguity. But wisdom is not only about holding
the fears, the failures, the unknowns and the mistakes. It is also
about the horrors. Wisdom is about being able to hold the horror…
the worst possible outcome … You know the ultimate horror of
public health is an epidemic run rampant and wiping out the whole
society good and bad. And guess where that epidemic is going to start
or be perceived to have started? Not in the good pieces—in the
bad pieces—in the unhealthy, in the uneducated, in those without
healthcare. Where’s that epidemic going to start?…It won’t
be in (the wealthy neighborhoods). Public health (has to carry this)
dilemma. (Society’s) unconscious mandate to public health is
“you protect us from them.” It is distasteful to keep
the voice of the disenfranchised alive.
My conversation with Manuel and my other colleagues made it clear that
the psychological and bureaucratic structures we have created to keep
us from seeing at individual, organizational, governmental and societal
levels, will not change easily if at all. We will be struggling with
our collective pull toward innocence for a long time into the future.
Responding to those moments that call us to see, that nudge us to awaken,
requires commitment and vigilance.
Summer, 2003 -- dusk
Down but not out, I wondered if collective wisdom ever even showed
up in organizations, and if it did, what did it look like? If leaders
recognized that their organizations were embedded in systems that facilitated
innocence, what did leaders do, and where did they find the strength
to continue the quest for wisdom?
Collective Wisdom Glimpsed
My colleagues described brief moments, brilliant flashes, when something
appeared in groups and organizations that they would describe as collective
wisdom. It was not an easy phenomenon to describe. My colleagues used
words like “magic, synchronicity, humming, firing on all cylinders”
to describe the moments that most aptly depicted group experiences of
collective intelligence and spiritual wisdom. They all agreed that these
moments did not occur until all the voices in the group had been heard
from, and there was the feeling that the “group mind” was
big enough to hold opposites.
Their descriptions of this experience led me to believe that if one
were trying to foster collective wisdom there was an altogether different
trajectory for group development than Tuchman’s model of forming,
storming, norming and performing. It was more like forming, storming,
holding, and evolving. “Evolving” seemed to be the group
or organizational equivalent of collective intelligence and spiritual
wisdom. It was evidenced when there was collective learning present.
Collective learning is different from a series of synchronistic, but
individual “ah-ha’s” in the group. Collective learning
happens at the group level. It is as if the entire mental kaleidoscope
of the group shifts at once. The result is that the group as a whole
evolves to a more advanced developmental level which shows up in the
values used to ground decisions. Elaine described this process.
Elaine: When significant emotional change happens,
when movement occurs in groups, it has always been because there has
been an opportunity for an opposite point of view to come in. It has
always been as a result of the resistance of one entity, one individual
vs. the group. But that resistance paled because somebody bent forward,
leaned in. They allowed themselves to take in what they had been rushing
away from. …you would literally experience the group getting
it. They got to a place where there was recognition on the part of
the whole that they had just climbed on board around something together.
It happened over a period of time… but people saw it …
and then they suddenly got it, and they were able to move to the next
level of work.
What brought it about? It generally appeared because of the strength
and determination of individual members or a leader. And then the
group joined in attempting to create a process and medium by which
the collective wisdom of the group was always the currency. Collective
wisdom was the only way that any major, lasting change would take
I remember working with a management team. At first —it was
one at a time, one at a time, …then at some point you saw the
team arrive somewhere that they had never lived. The people in the
organization, and the staff literally felt magical. It was a collective
sense that they had learned something from one another without (it
being taught). They had gotten somewhere, and they collectively began
to speak to what was going on (both positive and negative). There
wasn’t an impatience that ushered someone into silence. They
were allowed to have time to sort, to fret, to resist and to lean
in as far as they could lean in. I remember these people talking about
love. Finally getting to the place where they were talking about the
role of love in groups, in the workplace, in institutions.
Wisdom is present in an organization when the collective can hold a
vision of the whole and take action from that perspective. It is evidenced
by the fact that departments can meet across boundaries, and are able
to take responsibility for the whole. It is present when they are willing
to recognize redundancy, and respond to it rather than working from
an ego place intent on preserving the power or turf of their departments.
Arnold reported, “We’ve started to meet with social services
and probation because our clients are showing up in those departments
as well. If we can find some understanding and some answers who cares
where we find them?”
The experience of collective wisdom in the organization can eventually
bring the organization to a place where it can go beyond the community
norms, and yet hopefully, bring the community with it to discuss and
confront the unspeakable, to create a place that can hold all the pieces.
Arnold acknowledged that race was a charged issue that nonetheless needed
to be addressed.
Arnold: Now the one thing that we haven’t
done that we’re going to do is talk about the issue of race.
We must talk about race because as I look at our health status the
majority of people who have the highest rates of morbidity and mortality
exist among African and Latin people. Why is it? Why is it that an
African-American child for the most part has an asthma rate three
times higher than his white counterpart? Or if it’s a male,
4-5 times higher. Why is that? Why is it that the highest rate of
heart disease, cancer, strokes, and AIDS is among the African-American
population? Why is that? And what does that mean to us here? We haven’t
had that conversation… We talk about it in passing, but we have
not devoted a day, a week, to actually sit down and have that conversation.
And we are at that point. Not because anything has happened but we
have to have this conversation.
We also have to have the conversation about the fact that everything
is not black or white. You know white people are usually the standard
to measure other folk against. Well what’s that all about? You
know, if it’s a black/white issue, what happens if I’m
brown, or if I’m red or if I’m yellow? You aren’t
even talking about me. So how am I supposed to feel about that? You
don’t even give me a voice. These are some of the issues that
are felt that we have to figure out how to look at, and very few organizations
are able to do that in a healthy way.
As I listened to the voices of my colleagues, I realized that collective
wisdom in organizations is fleeting. One must not become attached to
the comfort and sense of achievement that comes when issues are neatly
resolved, or even when divergent voices come together, for “coming
together” is like the wind. It blows where it will.
Arnold: So maybe it’s a myth that it comes
together. Maybe it comes together like this Halloween party we had
today where about 100 people showed up, and then they dispersed. Maybe
it comes together around an issue and it disperses. I struggle with
that all the time. On the one hand I’d like to be able to report,
“we came together as a public health department …”
But I don’t know if that will ever, ever happen. So I think
the leadership style has to be one that addresses these general themes
as they come forth. The environment tells you, “Arnold you have
to bring these together.” And maybe it’s not possible.
I began to ponder how the experience of collective wisdom might not
be altogether pleasant. It would put me in a room with people who said
things I didn’t want to hear. Just when I thought we might begin
to see eye to eye, and that the group might reach that new level of
patience and understanding that Elaine spoke of, the moment would pass.
I would be pulled out of my comfort zone and ushered into a place where
I could not be sure of what I knew, where I could not hold onto a formula,
and just when I thought I had it, I would find myself clutching nothing
Clearly the search for collective wisdom was not for the faint of heart.
It seemed to be made of the stuff we find in fairy tales when the knight
had to search out the demon dragon in his lair and brave his fiery exhaust
in order to accomplish his mission. Leaders who were willing to ask
employees to confront and hold the whole, listen for what the disturbance
had to teach them, have conversations about the unspeakable and take
those conversations back to the community, had to be willing to embark
on the hero’s journey. Who were these people?
Fall, 2003 -- evening
Leaders of Collective Wisdom—Creators of Space
I looked to Arnold, Carl, Elaine and Manuel to describe their experiences
as leaders and to provide stories of leaders they had known who failed
or succeeded in creating a space for collective wisdom to emerge. The
first thing they spoke of was the traditions they had grown up with
that grounded them in communities of connection. Both Arnold and Carl
spoke of an African wisdom that valued the collective over the individual.
Ironically, what became apparent was that the individual leaders who
stood apart, and who were able to create the environment that called
forth collective wisdom, came from collectives. They came from people,
traditions and ancestors whom they called upon to center them. They
came from communities where people worked with one another, depended
on one another, ate together and celebrated life and death together.
At the heart of their experience was a belief in the power of the collective
and the sense that communities of connection had shaped their souls.
It seems that communities of connection create the first space in which
individuals face and rest with, both the horrors and the joys of life.
Manuel recognized that it was these same dilemmas of life that made
their way across the boundaries of our organizations, and that leaders
are challenged to hold.
Manuel: Wisdom happens because people in organizations
try to solve the dilemmas of the communities at large. Part of what
we are working on in organizations, even though it may be at an unconscious
level, are the dilemmas of the world, the dilemmas of life. The very
few who do it (who seek and develop wisdom) are people who truly celebrate
people’s community engagements, familial engagements, life engagements
because it is what keeps people whole. As people feel more competent
about managing life then that wisdom gets brought back into the workplace.
And that synergy is huge. …
In an attempt to create a space for collective wisdom to grow the leader
must create an environment that can tolerate different and opposing,
often contradictory voices. How do leaders create space for the disturbance
of life to show up in their organizations?
We know from all the leadership and management gurus that leadership
requires both power and authority, power coming from the core self and
authority from the organization. As I investigated the emergence of
collective wisdom in organizations I found that power, the thing that
animates the lifeless clay of authority, is the essential ingredient.
The power that can generate wisdom comes from the experience of opposites
that live within us: passion and lifelessness, vulnerability and invincibility,
action and immobility. Splitting these characteristics off from one
another and projecting one half of the duo onto another person or group,
either for good or evil, allows us to remain innocent and keeps us blind
to how the power of opposites lives and operates in us.
Elaine described a point within a group of physicians she was working
with where group members finally looked around at one another and began
to withdraw their projections of power onto one or two senior members.
In that moment the group recreated itself. Each member reclaimed his/her
own power by owning and acknowledging his/her personal experiences.
In so doing, a holding environment was forged that could tolerate the
appearance of each member’s personal vulnerability as well as
his/her competence and prestige in the world. Group members began to
examine the ways in which keeping personal information transparent in
collective settings, even though it left them feeling exposed, strengthened
the group’s capacity to learn collectively.
Arnold, who is actively in the midst of forging an environment where
collective wisdom can emerge, pushed people, at all levels in the organization,
to move beyond their comfort zones and see the poverty, the violence
and the faces of the disenfranchised that co-existed with the wealth
and comfort in his community. He pushed employees to find their passion
and their power, to discover creative solutions that break with tradition
and to take action.
Arnold: I could leave my office, go around the block
to the freeway, drive up 35th to Redwood road, turn left and go to
my home. I don’t have to see any poverty. None. But I am one
of the chief decision-makers in the county. I’m one of the group
who is in a position to make major decisions, which affect a lot of
peoples lives. So if I make a decision based on my way home, shame
on me. Shame, shame on me. And a lot of us make these decisions. So
I say to the people sitting around this table, “if you’re
going to make these decisions about someone else’s life then
you need to know something about their lives. ” So I’m
having ride-alongs with the police. And a ride-along with the police
is not riding in the car with the window up and the radio on listening
to your tunes and feeling air-conditioned.
Our staff also spends time at juvenile hall and goes to some of the
inner city schools. Some of these schools scream out to you when you
walk into them, “Fuck you! I don’t give a fuck about you!”
And how they scream out is…if you look at the bathroom the bathrooms
look worse than (horse) stalls at the racetrack… they have no
toilet paper. They are nasty; they are dirty. It’s just abysmal.
And so to me, if I’m a kid, the school’s saying, “I
don’t give a shit about you.” Or you go to the classrooms…
your friend, who lives in another part of town, has these new textbooks
and he says, “Have you seen this new book I really like this
new textbook we have.” And you look at the textbook and say,
“well I’ve never seen it before” because your textbooks
are old. Your textbooks are designed to keep you from being up with
the current technology. Those of us who are going to make the decisions
need to have a collective wisdom, a collective understanding, a collective
experience so we can in fact see what is going on in our environment
and then make the decision.
Encountering the disturbance externally is the beginning, but each
person in the group must encounter his/her own internal discomfort with
the discord that reality has shown them. They must find their passion
and their voice, and take action to quell the discord, to balance the
inequalities, to cure the ills, and still the disturbance they have
felt. This is the point at which we take up a cause and take action.
In order to create an environment that might facilitate wisdom, we must
first mobilize our passion to right a wrong, and then recognize our
helplessness to make it right. Carl spoke of a leader’s ability
to do this as a developmental issue, and cautioned leaders to be gentle
with themselves as they try to hold the whole.
Arnold described his own movement through this process. He described
his perspective of the inequalities that existed around him and how
his passion pushed him to action and caused him to make changes. Often
when leaders try to bring about change they stand on the side of the
minority voice within the organization. Finding a way to stand with
the voices for change in order to reinforce them, and at the same time
not alienate the majority, is no easy feat. It is not easy to keep from
being captured by one side or the other. As leaders, once we acknowledge
our own biases and establish our direction, the sub-sector of the group
that holds the same view as we do will mobilize, and take up the cause.
The sub-group that holds the opposite view will also mobilize to lead
the charge against us. As the fight ensues it is easy for the leader
to become completely identified with the group that supports his/her
view. It is difficult to cross the chasm to the other group’s
view. Arnold lived through this experience when he restructured the
public health teams. He stood on the side that said the best place to
serve the community was in the community where the clients live. The
other voice said, “We don’t need to do that; we need to
operate out of (this building). What we have now is working; let’s
not change it.” This voice was so loud and aggressive that Arnold
was forced to listen and make room for it.
An organizational change of one sort or another can be the impetus
that enables the leader and the group to recognize that the external
disturbance is in fact an internal disturbance. In that moment when,
if only briefly, we stop and listen to the opposing view we have the
opportunity to recognize that the disturbance belongs to us. It lives
in us and if we are to be at peace with ourselves we must find a way
to hold both views. It is the leader or consultant’s journey to
follow the path that the group’s dilemmas light for them. The
leader must encounter the group’s dilemmas honestly and personally.
Each of the people I interviewed spoke of encountering contradictions
Carl: How can I hold my African descent identity
and be an American at the same time? Some people think that’s
not possible. … When you look at schools, you see that over
and over again. For example, the black staff comes to me and say,
“Kate’s teaching this, but she’s a racist.”
What they are saying is that because you are white, you are not competent
to teach black kids. The splitting off, and the collusion they want
me to join, is to say that I am black, they are black, and therefore
we are both, because of our blackness, competent to teach black kids.
We may not know anything about mathematics or reading or how to diagnose
the actual problem the child is having either in math or reading.
Those are all competency issues and so … holding the opposites
is to hold both who I am as a black person and my competence as well
(which requires that I serve all the children in the district). I’m
going to think about my competence and think about being black at
the same time. There is a natural order to things, which all groups
and organizations participate in. As you examine the task and try
to make decisions about what sophisticated skills, hypotheses and
thinking to apply to that, you are at the same time provoking the
unconscious, and the unconscious can if we choose to let it, enrich
our effort to work on the task. It is going to increase our competence
in working with an already complex situation…
Recognizing Internal Disturbance
Making the transition from seeing the disturbance externally to seeing
it internally is the slippery slope. We are standing in the place where
we have passionately given voice to our beliefs. Our passion has pushed
us past our need to be politically correct. In order to arrive at wisdom
we must enter that place in which we will throw stones and riot in the
streets. It is the place in which we will shed blood, ours and others.
It is a necessary place, an inevitable place on the path to wisdom.
To arrive at the place of wisdom we must pass through the darkness,
where there are “wars and rumors of wars”. But few groups
or individuals arrive on the other side of that darkness where there
is an openness to each moment. Where, detached from our judgments and
the terror of holding the opposites within ourselves, we allow the experience
of each moment to find its own unique response in us.
In order for individuals in a group to get to the place where they
are able to internalize the disturbance, to tolerate the contradictions,
they may need a leader who can hold the opposites within him/herself.
Arnold: How do I as the Director of this organization,
be an African person and be fair? I’ve been called an Uncle
Tom because I serve everybody in the County. How do I reconcile (serving
everyone) when I see the majority of the people who have the highest
morbidity, I mean twice, three times, five times higher being African
people. How do I deal with that within myself as well as within the
organism I’m a part of?
Kate: How do you?
Arnold: Sometimes poorly. It’s a struggle.
I try to find …a way to be fair. I always think about George
Orwell’s Animal Farm and how the pigs were the lowest things
in the field, in the mud, in the dirt. They pushed their way into
the house and they were meaner than the farmer. So the question is
how not to be the one who was in the field and is now in the house
being worse than the previous thing. How do I make sure that the most
needy communities get what they need, which right now happens to be
African Americans which is where we are for historical reasons. It
was that way by design and how does one break out of it (and still
serve everyone)? So how do I do it? I certainly struggle with it.
I certainly think about it. And what I look to is fairness. I try
to be a fair person. I try and be the person, that if I saw myself,
I would like that person. …The way that you don’t get
locked (onto one side) is that your heart tells you what to do. And
the question is am I brave enough to do what my heart tells me to
do? You know you can tell by your heartbeat. And then the question
is—Arnold are you brave enough to walk against that current
or are you not? Are you just going to let that current push you over?
In the disturbance we once again have the opportunity to encounter our
own diversity and the source of our wisdom if we allow the disturbance
to rise in us and come to the surface of consciousness. Carl spoke of
letting something that he observed in his organizational world fire
his passion, and then observed how the external pattern that had sparked
his ire, existed in him.
Carl: What was racist in some respects was-- here
we are all peers …we are all superintendents. I’d say
something. Total silence. Then the conversation would go on, and a
white colleague would say the same thing or paraphrase it, and (the
group) would become animated and go on about “we’ve got
to do…” And I’m thinking, “I know I didn’t
just see that happen.” So I think, “Ok, the next time
I see that happen I must speak to it.”
Later I’m thinking about it, and I realize my wife tells me
something and I’m silent. I think, “Whoa, this is interesting.
What am I enacting in these two situations? What is it that I’m
carrying for both situations that I have to learn from? I got to the
place where the more I started speaking to the silence in the first
case, the less I would have a silent reaction to my wife. The silence
was just a defense… because if I said something I’d have
to acknowledge the validity of her observation. The experience with
the superintendents and the experience with my wife were subtexts
of one another.
Seeing the disturbance within ourselves, encountering the opposites
within ourselves is the stuff that heroes’ journeys are made of,
and subsequently moving a group from the place where they encounter
the disturbance externally to where they encounter it internally is
like passing over the fires of the river Styx. Many never make the leap
or return from the journey. In order to generate a collective experience
of wisdom the leader must be willing to let the passion, power, and
action in the group emerge. This means being willing to let go of the
reins and acknowledge that s/he is one among many. Arnold spoke of the
need to accept the fact that some days he was seen as the leader and
some days he was not. Leadership and the perception of his leadership
were fluid. But sharing this power can be frightening especially when
fires erupt between the sub-groups. If the sectors and sub-groups cannot
cross one another’s boundaries to interact, the leader or consultant
must forge the holding environment from their own psychological grit.
Elaine described her work in one group, where co-leaders took on the
differing views in the groups and could not forge any type of environment
that could hold the work of the two sides. In this case Elaine held
the space for the two halves to meet, and while they recognized their
differences neither the leaders, nor the organization, could hold the
Carl spoke of internalizing a group’s war when the sub-sectors
of his organization could not find ways to participate in a dialogue
with the opposing view. He described the toll it took on his health.
He also described a time when he was pulled to one side, when negotiations
broke down and the environment that held both views collapsed. To this
day the memory of his decision to stand with one side, using his power
and calling on his connections to defeat the opposing view, had painful
It is incredibly difficult to hold our own complexity and diversity
and not get captured by one side of the argument. Thinking we will save
our sanity, we reduce complexity by splitting off parts of ourselves
into the unconscious but find ourselves becoming shells of the people
we thought we were. Captured by, or choosing to stand with one side,
leaders often struggle to forgive themselves for not holding a space
for all the voices. Elaine described this experience.
Elaine: …I mean I think I have forgiven myself
for this but I was much more on the side of the black female because
I experienced so much intended or unintended racism in this organization
and …was so disturbed by that. I was disturbed by the lack of
leader attention to this, so I think I came down and took sides. When
my own failing popped out it was hard for me to sit in a neutral place
… this was an unsalvageable situation. Collective wisdom was
never to be. … It took a long time to let myself off the hook
for not being able to be there for them because I ran into such a
deep part of my life, which was, …is … how racism is so
embedded--how it is so deep in people that they can’t come up
and see it.
Making space for the emergence of wisdom in groups and organizations
was not for the faint of heart. I was humbled by the courage of those
who sought it, and wondered how they stayed the course.
Winter, 2003 – midnight
The Practice of Leaders Who Seek Wisdom
Wisdom, whether it is individual or collective, is a sustained struggle.
When you live the journey long enough and trod the path between the
opposites frequently enough the feeling of duality diminishes. Carl
noted that holding the opposites becomes an integral part of seeing
the whole picture. The experience of continual polarity, and the continual
interplay of opposites is unending.
I asked if anyone I spoke with maintained a personal practice that
kept them centered. Both Carl and Arnold meditated and went to the gym.
Arnold showed me notes he kept on his desk and in his planner to remind
him of the practices he wanted to live. He shared with me two pieces
that, by chance, were meditations on holding the opposites.
The Paradox of Letting Go
When I let go of what I am I become what I might be.
When I let go of what I have I receive what I need.
By yielding I endure. The empty space is filled.
When I give of myself I become more.
When I feel most destroyed I’m about to grow.
When I desire nothing, a great deal comes to me.
Have you ever struggled to get work and love and finally given up
and found that work and love were suddenly there?
Do you want to be free and independent?
Conform to God’s law. That’s how everything happens anyway.
When I give up trying to impress a group, that’s when I become
very impressive, but when I am just trying to make myself look good
the group knows and they don’t like it.
My best work is done when I forget my own point of view.
The less I make of myself the more I am.
When I yield to the wishes of the person working I encounter no resistance.
This is the wisdom of the feminine. Let go to achieve. A wise leader
If the Child is Safe
We pray for children
Who sneak popsicles before
Who erase holes in math workbooks,
Who can never find their shoes.
And we pray for those
Who stare at photographers
from behind barbed wire,
Who can’t bound down
the street in a new pair of sneakers,
Who never “counted potatoes,”
Who are born in places we
wouldn’t be caught dead,
Who never go to the circus,
Who live in an x-rated world.
We pray for children
Who bring us sticky kisses
and fistfuls of dandelions,
Who hug us in a hurry and
forget their lunch money.
And we pray for those
Who never get dessert,
Who have no safe blanket to
drag behind them,
Who watch their parents watch
Who can’t find any bread
Who don’t have any rooms
to clean up,
Whose pictures aren’t
on anybody’s dresser,
Whose monsters are real.
We pray for children
Who spend all their allowance
Who throw tantrums in the
grocery store and pick at their food,
Who like ghost stories,
Who shove dirty clothes under
the bed, and never rinse out the tub,
Who get visits from the tooth
Who don’t like to be
kissed in front of the carpool,
Who squirm in church or temple
and scream in the phone,
Whose tears we sometimes laugh
at and whose smiles can make us cry.
And we pray for those
Whose nightmares come in the
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who aren’t spoiled by
Who go to bed hungry and cry
themselves to sleep,
Who live and move, but have
We pray for children who want to be carried
And for those who must,
For those we never give up
on and for those
Who don’t get a second
For those we smother…and for those who will grab
The hand of anybody kind enough
to offer it.
The New Year - Dawn
Is wisdom to be found in organizations? Yes, but it isn’t come
by easily. Can the wisdom generated in organizations heal our communities?
Perhaps, if we define healing as creating a place that will hold our
divergent voices as opposed to fulfilling our fantasy of what is right.
But it is dangerous to make our worth dependent upon our success.
The search for wisdom is a human journey. Wisdom is not an experience
of the spirit because spirit does not have a boundary from which to
generate opposites. Splitting is an experience of limitations. It requires
skin and bone. From a western Christian perspective one might say that
it was our boredom with innocence, with not knowing, that gave rise
to original sin, and it is only in original sin that we find the potential
for wisdom. The humanity that creates the cauldron in which splitting
occurs is also graced with a pull toward wholeness.
The appearance of collective wisdom within organizations can seem about
as likely as winning the lottery. Staying the course requires strength
of spirit and psychological grit. It exists only where great opposing
forces live. It is generated by disturbance and kept alive by diversity.
Wisdom lives most solidly in our humanity. It emerges when we wrestle
with our opposites, and as Elaine said, “lean into” the
disquieting moments that challenge our core ego identities. It peeks
out when, with grace and humility, we find our human vulnerability and
share it with others. Wisdom appears when we listen as others share
their vulnerability with us, and when we struggle to hold that experience
no matter how different and contradictory it is to ours. Wisdom cannot
be found in anything but reality. It is not the product of Disneyland
fantasy, but it can be had if we have the courage for it.
Who will seek the path?