Meg Wheatley Preaches a Revolution Led by Women

It’s time for the women to gather!

“It’s time for the women to gather,” said Dr. Margaret Wheatley, writer, organizational consultant and president emeritus of The Berkana Institute, a global charitable leadership foundation. “It’s time for the women to save the world. It’s as serious as that.” With those words, Wheatley opened her keynote at the Women’s Leadership Institute held at Mount Mary College WI in October.

“We’re living in a culture that’s telling us that the law of love is not how the planet works,” she said. “It’s a time when women’s leadership is the last hope. We have to pull ourselves out of this mess.” The world’s future depends upon us claiming the leadership that we know works.

One sign of problems is that we’re not taking care of our children, nor the women who are their caretakers. “We’re not paying attention to our children and our mothers,” noted Wheatley. “What species is so stupid as not to care about its children?”

Everyone is so focused on their own issues that no one is paying attention to what’s actually going on in the world. The longer that fear and busyness distract us, the faster we come to extinguishing ourselves. “There’s no more time left,” she said. “We cannot continue to work in the way we’re going and expect any future whatsoever.”

Weapons of mass distraction

Wheatley defines a leader as anyone who wants to help. Unfortunately the concept of leadership has been co-opted, reverting to the strong-man image of an effective leader, a com-mand/control model characterized by a take-charge male. “I was so puzzled as to why we’ve chosen this type of leader,” she said. “In my work on uncertainty, I’ve found we cause more problems by moving power back to the top.”

One of the great myths underlying leadership is that leaders know what to do: They have all the answers and we simply need to trust them, a familiar rhetoric.

Command and control leadership assumes you can tell people what to do and they’ll do it. “Everything alive reacts, but never obeys,” said Wheatley. “But the leadership model pretends it isn’t so.” When used in high-risk situations, the command/control model prevents higher-ordered thinking that would ultimately lower the risk.

Fear is a great motivator. The potential for a disastrous avian flu outbreak is one example of the behavior of our current leaders. “We don’t even know if this flu can transfer from birds to humans, much less from human to human,” she said. Why, Wheatley asked, are we so distracted at this point about something that doesn’t exist, rather than what already has hap-pened, like Hurricane Katrina?

“Why rely on strong leaders when we really need to rely on people?” she quoted from singer Harry Belafonte. “The only source of truth and hope we have is the people.”

The power of community

Sure, there are some bad women leaders and some good male leaders. But traditionally leadership is broken down into archetypes: male leadership focuses on getting things done, taking charge and acting systematically, while female leadership focuses on creating conditions for life.

Women’s leadership makes it possible for other peoples’ contributions and creativity to surface. “One thing I’ve learned about being outside this country,” said Wheatley, “is that as a human species, almost all of us want to contribute to one another. We underestimate the power of community.”

In the African country of Senegal, poverty and disease are rampant. But one thing that country doesn’t have is suicide. The Senegalese people believe in each other. No one goes hungry or homeless.

Mother Teresa used to remark how the West actually is poorer than many countries having fewer material goods. We’ve forgotten the power of belonging and caring. When you feel like you belong, you never enter into the despairing place that leads to suicide.

The female archetype knows we can’t go it alone. When humans feel united and like they’re accomplishing something useful, they can survive and feel joy in even the most horrific of circumstances.

Women are the ones who really suffer, when as a nation, there’s an inability to recognize that relationships are all that there is. Our culture needs a system, policy, or regulation that supports creativity, love, caring and stepping up to make something better.

Science is discovering that the basic unit of this universe is relationships. Even in the quantum world, the smallest particles don’t show themselves unless they’re with another particle.

Women tend and befriend

When threatened with a crisis, the traditional response is fight or flight. But women faculty at UCLA noticed something different. Whenever some type of crisis hit the department, the male faculty hid in their offices while the women gathered in the kitchen.

So the women looked for studies to explain this phenomenon. What they discovered was that during a crisis, women didn’t actually fight or flee, but instead gathered together to take care of the children.

If the male model is command and control, the female model can be described as “tend and befriend.” “This is good news for the species,” Wheatley quipped. “At least 51% of us have those capabilities.”

The kind of leadership possible in the tend/befriend mode is highly participative and relational but focuses on the real issues. Meetings of women are very different from meetings of only men. Men stick to agendas. Women leaders tend to notice how people are reacting. It’s not pure power. There’s attention given to inclusion.

But there’s room for improvement. “We could do a better job of including those whom we normally ignore,” said Wheatley. “To really work with diversity for me is a survival skill.” We must ask, “Who else needs to be here?”

Wheatley told of visiting a community college whose mission was to give students a quality experience. But the college hadn’t thought about bringing students into the discussions. “We exclude relevant parties, especially when we think we don’t have the time,” she admitted. “Every time you make a decision for someone else, you end up cleaning up the mess you made by excluding them.”

In our haste to make decisions and act, we don’t always notice that our actions may cause unintended consequences. “For me, the only way through is to talk and explore the process,” said Wheatley. “When I go forward with the principle that the solution is already in the organization, I’m honoring the people.”

Epidemic of worker disengagement

Throughout her travels, Wheatley often hears stories of how people in large organizations are being treated inhumanely. The United States currently has the world’s highest levels of disengaged workers. Some 75% of American workers admit they show up for work, but don’t do anything. One quarter of those workers sabotage their employer, file lawsuits and make angry statements against their companies. “The younger workers aren’t even showing up,” said Wheatley. “They’re not playing the game the way us older folks did. They see through it.”

Many of those in the millennial generation are starting their own companies. These young workers have watched their parents be abused and want no part of it. Some younger leaders are being described as “walk outs.” They’ve walked out of corporate America so they can walk on and find a way to contribute and make a difference in a little part of the world.

One place where disengagement is rampant is in the Detroit automotive plants. Each day, some 17 to 20% of workers fail to show up. Others show up, but are part of the phenomenon called “warm chair attrition”—the chair is warm, but no one’s home. “When you abuse people and use them and treat them like robots, you get robotic people,” she said.

Plant managers are hiring ex-military drill sergeants as supervisors. They pay absentee coordinators $50,000 a year to walk around the plants with clipboards and note who’s there and who’s working and how long employees are taking for lunch. It’s an example of the Old Guard trying to put pressure and exert fear and control and rule by policies.

But by choosing the wrong leadership approach, organizations like them are destroying themselves and their employees.

“As women, we have to be the ones to stop it,” said Wheatley. “If we sit back now and don’t move forward with clarity, I’m afraid things are over. How much more aggression will appear, fear will appear, before we say ‘This is enough?’” Ralph Nader once said that the easiest way to control people is to lower their expectations. How many of us have let go of our expectations? “The real tragedy is in the United States we’re losing confidence in ourselves to take action,” said Wheatley.

“We really need to understand, as we withdraw into our own lives, that we are allowing disaster, deterioration, dehumanization that can only lead to a terrible future,” warned Wheatley. “I’m preaching a revolution.”

Contact Wheatley at 801.377.2966 or
Visit her Web site at

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