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Beyond Innocence: Creating a Space for Wisdom in Organizations
Kate Regan, Ph.D.

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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
Understanding Innocence

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 so blind.

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 subgroups.

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 hold.

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 but air.

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 personally.

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 divergent parts.

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 edges.

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 demonstrates this.”

If the Child is Safe

We pray for children
       Who sneak popsicles before supper,
       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 them die,
       Who can’t find any bread to steal,
       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 before Tuesday,
       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 fairy,
       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 daytime,
       Who will eat anything,
       Who have never seen a dentist,
       Who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
       Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
       Who live and move, but have no being.
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 chance.
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?

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