How to Lead through Hospitality, Rather than Heroics

Not domination but hospitality must become the leadership norm

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” Albert Einstein wrote. Western consciousness of the past 300 years gave us a paradigm of leadership based on individualism, fear and control.

Speaking at the National Institute for Leadership Development (NILD) conference in Phoenix in November, Dr. Margaret Wheatley said our image of a leader needs to shift from hero to host.

She’s been writing for years about leadership and the new science, where self-organizing systems work through chaos and relationships. The essays in her latest book, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (Berrett-Koehler 2005), find ancient roots for the “new” leadership, which emerges from community instead of trying to dominate.

 “We are all bundles of potential that manifest only in relationship,” she said. No living thing lives alone, a truth that Western organizational literature rejects as too touchy-feely.

Suicide is one symptom of our isolating individualism. Economically impoverished Senegal has no suicide, homelessness or hunger, she said. Unlike Americans, particularly American male leaders, people in Senegal have each other.

People as machines

Newtonian physics, clockwork models of the universe and the Industrial Revolution profoundly changed Western thinking.

Workers became machines whose value depended on their efficiency. Leaders were heroic individuals who stood in front and told people what to do.

Corporations became legal “persons” without emotions or humanity. Companies hire and fire at whim as bosses say, “I don’t need an attitude survey. I know they hate me.”

We put people in sterile cubicles and expect them to go as fast as machines. Lunch at your desk; take work home in the evening. Then we downsize and expect people to go faster, doing in one day what used to take three.

“The engineering image we carry of ourselves has led to organizational lives where we believe we can ignore the deep realities of human existence,” she writes in Finding Our Way.

We ignore the need for meaning, love and acknowledgement; the fact that people have emotions and families; the complexity of everyday life. We want it simple and predictable.

That doesn’t work. People don’t act like machines, no matter how often they’re told to. They resist in subtle ways or turn the resistance inward. She said about 35% of workplace absences are related to stress.

Leaders try to analyze what’s wrong and seek a technical solution. Under the paradigm of leader as hero and follower as machine, they have two choices. They can blame themselves, as women tend to: “I didn’t communicate clearly enough” or “I didn’t show enough vision.” Or they can blame the people they lead and attempt to recharge their batteries.

Motivating from fear

“How do you hold your empire under your thumb even when you’re out of the office?” she asked.

Command-and-control leaders try to motivate through fear. When people don’t respond, they ratchet up the fear level. No Child Left Behind is a fear-based effort to improve education.

As a society we live in constant fear. Every month brings a new pandemic. Travelers don’t learn anything from orange terrorist alerts in airports except to stay frightened.

Believing aggression solves conflict, we don’t implement, we deploy. We assume people can’t be trusted. “The fear and aggression become so normal that we don’t even realize our own actions,” she said.

Do you feel like you’re losing your memory? It’s related to chronic anxiety, not age. Look back over the past two years and ask yourself:

  • How am I being influenced by these times?
  • Am I making decisions alone?
  • How often do I engage others?
  • How patient am I with difference?
  • How often do I learn from experience?
  • How often do I talk with colleagues about principles and values?
  • How often do I take time for reflection?
  • Is my trust of others increasing or decreasing?
  • Do I get angry more easily?
  • Am I healthier, or more stressed and fearful?

When we feel threatened and helpless, our “reptilian brain” takes over. This is the brain stem, which works on stimulus and response to help us survive in situations where there isn’t time to think.

Survival comes first, so everything else stops working when the reptilian brain kicks in. Losing 80% of our brainpower, we resort to strongly entrenched behaviors and automatic routines.

“Under threat we lose the ability to see patterns,” she said. “It’s almost physically impossible to connect the dots.”

Tend and befriend

Creativity can emerge only when people feel secure. That doesn’t mean they have to know what’s coming; no one ever does. Leaders can host islands of peace where people hold hands to face the unknown future together.

UCLA psychologist Dr. Shelley Taylor and colleagues found that in response to a crisis, “fight or flight” is only half the story. Research on fight-or-flight responses focused overwhelmingly on men, assuming women’s monthly cycles made their behavior too unpredictable to study.

Taylor and colleagues noticed that when grant funds were threatened, only the men went into their offices and closed the doors. The women gathered in the kitchen and talked. Stressed women might also phone a friend or “do lunch.”

Many species show this gender difference, including humans, they found. While males fight or flee, females respond to stress by

  1. protecting and nurturing their young and
  2. seeking out social contact and interpersonal support.

The researchers called women’s pattern “tend and befriend.”

Could that be why women live longer? Without an immediate physical life threat, tending and befriending is healthier. It lowers blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol. It’s healthier for community too, giving women a leadership edge.

Islands of peace

If you want to make change, host safe places for people to come together. Learning begins when people feel safe enough to take risks.

“What if our offices were islands of peace?” she asked. Real change begins at the grassroots. It starts with small in-formal conversations at the kitchen table or in a peaceful office and grows from there.

Don’t wait for a crisis to start the conversations. Since we can’t foresee the future, the best way to prepare for it is to nurture the quality of our relationships.

What story in your life has brought you to where you are today? “Expect among our colleagues that each of them will have a story worth telling,” she said.

Discuss things that matter: your values, stories and inner lives. Build understanding and trust. Use reflection to get in touch with the teacher within.

Reflect with colleagues, without an agenda; it’s the single simplest thing you can do. Meet once a month or more often for people to dump their issues. Far from wasting precious time, this cleans up the meetings that do have an agenda to focus on the task at hand.

People need to know there’s a place they’ll be heard. It’s like the pediatrician who put an end to midnight calls by scheduling no appointments between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m., freeing the time for last-minute emergencies. Knowing they could be seen in the morning took stress off the parents and made them more willing to wait.

We become human by talking and listening to each other. Individual heroes and impersonal corporations have failed at leading people as though they’re machines. That paradigm, now ending, has brought overwhelming problems that we can’t solve from the same level of consciousness that created them.

Today we need leaders to host the conversations from which solutions emerge. Not domination but hospitality must become the leadership norm.

Guiding groups in this spirit is spiritual work. It’s centered in ideas that spiritual leaders have taught for millennia: life is uncertain, meaning is what motivates, courage comes from the heart, service brings joy, we are all interconnected and we need peace of mind.

People are not machines. Speed is not the measure of value. We become human in slowing down and talking with one another. Women who follow the impulse to tend and befriend can be the leaders who help the conversations to happen.

Contact: Dr. Margaret J. Wheatley

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