These interviews took place on October 31, 2014, in San Diego, California, at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association.Learn more about Margaret Wheatley
Part oneSkip to next interview transcript
SCARPINO: We’ll turn on the main recorder. That’s working. So as promised, I’m going to read a short statement and then I’ll ask your permission and then we will get into this. Today is Friday, October 31, 2014. I have the privilege to be interviewing Margaret Wheatley at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel, which is the ILA conference headquarters.
We will include a more detailed biographical summary with the transcript of this interview, so for now I’ll provide an abbreviated overview of Margaret Wheatley’s career.
Margaret Wheatley inspires people. She has worked for more than forty years as a consultant, speaker, writer, teacher, and poet. She has brought a multidisciplinary, cross-cultural perspective to leadership, systems, and organizations—taking an approach that emphasizes relationships and service—one that brings both the head and the heart to bear on a probing examination of the human condition. She says on her website that she has been applying the “lens of living systems theory to organizations and communities” asking the central question “How might we organize differently if we understood how Life organizes?”
Margaret Wheatley earned her doctorate from Harvard’s program in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy and her master’s from New York University in Systems Theory.
Her background includes two years’ service in Korea in the Peace Corps. She has also taught both junior and senior high school.
In 1992, she served as a co-founder of the Berkana Institute. She is the author of dozens of articles and essays and numerous poems, and seven books, beginning with Leadership and the New Science (1992) and most recently So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World (2012). She has yet another book manuscript underway.
Margaret Wheatley is the recipient of several awards and recognitions. Industry Week named her first book, Leadership and the New Science, Best Management Book of 1992.
She is the recipient of several honorary doctorates.
In 2005, she was elected to the Leonardo Da Vinci Society for the Study of Thinking. In 2010, she was appointed by the White House and the Secretary of the Interior to serve on the National Advisory Board of the nation’s national park system.
She is also a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association, which is the primary reason why we are visiting today.
I would like to ask your permission to record this interview, to have the interview transcribed, and then to deposit the recording and the transcription with the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, with the Tobias Center, with the International Leadership Association where they will make both of those available to the public, perhaps including their websites.
WHEATLEY: I’m very happy to give my permission.
SCARPINO: Thank you. As I mentioned when the recorder was off, I’m going to start with some softball questions and then back up and ask some broad ones. Then we will work our way chronologically through your career.
SCARPINO: Easy one first, when and where were you born?
WHEATLEY: I was born in Yonkers, New York, during World War II, 1944.
SCARPINO: Okay. I still hear New York in your voice.
WHEATLEY: It’s there.
SCARPINO: It’s there. (Laughing.) Did you grow up in Yonkers?
WHEATLEY: I did. I lived in Yonkers, although I was traveling quite a bit also, but I lived in Yonkers until I was 30 and then moved to Massachusetts; Cambridge, Massachusetts.
SCARPINO: Where you . . .
WHEATLEY: Where I was going to Harvard. Then I married, and we lived on the North Shore of Boston until 1989 when I moved to Utah with my family.
SCARPINO: Okay. Did you have any brothers or sisters?
WHEATLEY: I have an older sister.
SCARPINO: And who are your parents?
WHEATLEY: My father was English and immigrated to this country after marrying my mother. They met in Palestine where my father was in the Queen’s Police, their peacekeeping force. My mother had been taken to Palestine by her mother who was a very active Zionist and became a well-known speaker, fundraiser for the cause of the State of Israel.
SCARPINO: Before there was a State of Israel.
WHEATLEY: Well, during that whole very conflicted period. So my mother was Jewish, my father is Anglican. I was raised mostly Christian, but in a Jewish neighborhood.
SCARPINO: But they elected not to stay in Israel?
WHEATLEY: Yes. They went to England. I don’t think anyone wanted to stay in Palestine right then, and then immediately immigrated to the US.
SCARPINO: In terms of broad questions just to kind of get an idea, the general theme of these questions is who is Margaret Wheatley, and that’s the first question I want to ask you is who is Margaret Wheatley? How do you think of yourself as a person? How do you define yourself?
WHEATLEY: Well, I was born with some gifts that I think I have used quite well. I didn’t even know they were gifts. They were just natural skills. So, I was able to see into the future. I was always able to see trends ahead of time, where things were going. I was always interested globally. I didn’t want to be located in America. These are all themes to define me right now. I was always eager to be in other cultures and developed a sensitivity to who we are as people by living in a totally foreign culture in Korea in the Peace Corps, totally foreign. They didn’t even have chocolate. (Laughing) And it was post-war. It was a foreign alphabet, a foreign language, a very traditional Asian culture. And once learning to live comfortably in that, I became skilled at and desirous of just wanting to be with people in whatever their culture is. So those were all things that started. So if I would sum up who I am right now, I have maintained my curiosity, I have maintained my interest in looking forward, in understanding what’s happening. I remember when I learned systems thinking. Now, I think I am a good systems thinker, but I do remember what a startling revelation it was when I was about 26 to get into a systems thinking program.
SCARPINO: And that was your master’s or your doctorate?
WHEATLEY: That was my master’s with the educator Neil Postman; a real ecological awareness in that program that we would now call systems thinking, but we could talk more about that later. I’m just, I’m glad that I can still be out in the world. I love being with people in different places. I really love learning about what their life is like. And, so I would define myself clearly as a global citizen and someone who—I rely on my own skillfulness at looking forward.
SCARPINO: As you look forward as a global citizen, where do you think we’re going?
WHEATLEY: I think we’re in extraordinarily terrible trouble.
SCARPINO: What makes for the terrible trouble?
WHEATLEY: We are deep in the pattern of collapse and this is a well-defined pattern. It’s something I’ve been studying for the past year-and-a-half. There’s a good body of research on the collapse of complex civilizations and you just see us in it. And the fact that it’s global this time because of globalization and the impact of being under the thumb of global financial markets and global leaders, we’re in very dire circumstances.
SCARPINO: What do you think some of the elements are that contribute to those dire circumstances?
WHEATLEY: Well, the normal pattern is that, first of all, wherever humans have been we degrade the environment. We use it up and we move on. Now the big issue is we’ve degraded the planet and there’s no place to move, although I keep meeting people who tell me of their ideas or plans. NASA is investing money in Mars now. It’s very bizarre to me. But part of the pattern is we degrade the environment. As one writer said, there’s an air of extinction that follows humans throughout prehistoric and modern times. What’s so interesting is we’ve become super religious. We pray to our gods to get us out of the mess. A second big part of the pattern is the elites always take control and use up everything for their own advantage and do not have any concern that they’re doing that. The rest of the people suffer horribly, but the elites go off into the sunset with all the resources till the very end. I think that can be applied not only to the one percent, but also to the Western world using up all the planet’s resources while the majority of people suffer terribly.
SCARPINO: So do you think the problems we face globally have their origin in the Western world?
WHEATLEY: No. This pattern that I’m describing applies to all cultures throughout time starting with Samarian culture 5000 years ago, so it’s not Western. It seems to be really human. What’s different about the Western time period now is we have global financial markets that do control everything and so the pattern of the elites taking everything for themselves now extends far beyond anything in the past, far beyond. I mean it is planetary now and that’s the ultimate concern.
SCARPINO: I’m going to actually come back to that theme, but I talked to three of your friends and colleagues.
SCARPINO: One of them was Carole Schwinn who describes you, I said “How would you describe this woman?” The first word she used was learner. She says you’re a learner. Do you agree with that? Is that a fair assessment?
WHEATLEY: I do. Yes.
SCARPINO: What do you think is the most significant thing that you have learned that you would share with us?
WHEATLEY: (Laughing.) Well, you know, you can’t ask a systems thinker to come up with one factor, one descriptor.
SCARPINO: (Laughing.) I can, but I just screwed it up, didn’t I?
WHEATLEY: No, you didn’t. I just had to give you a little coaching on that. I used to drive my kids’ teachers crazy because they would come home at nine years old, “So I have been asked to ask my parents, ‘if you were stuck on a desert island what would be your favorite food?’” And I said, “It doesn’t matter because in two weeks I would be sick of it.” (Laughing.)
SCARPINO: That’s true.
WHEATLEY: So, I would say what I have learned that truly is my ground and path and work is that we create the worlds we choose to see. The world is not as we perceive it; therefore, we’re capable of changing how we are if we focus on changing our perception. And I mean that in the most profound way.
SCARPINO: Do you think that’s possible?
WHEATLEY: Oh, I know it’s possible, yes.
SCARPINO: Carole Schwinn also described you as a keen observer of the world around you.
SCARPINO: And you have described yourself that way as well just a few minutes ago.
SCARPINO: I’m going to do it again. What do you think is the most significant thing that you observed that you want to share?
WHEATLEY: The most significant thing I have observed is the power of denial. Again, this goes back to perception. Our unwillingness to be an adaptive species and to simply charge ahead and think that we can get away with creating the world we want, violating natural laws, misperceiving the human spirit, we’re just hell-bent—and I mean that literally—hell-bent now on living through a misperception of how this place works.
SCARPINO: Why do you think that is?
WHEATLEY: I think we become—and this is true historically as a species—we create culture, and the culture instead of, usually, keeps us separated from nature. It’s like an insulation but, of course, you can’t be separate from nature. As they say in ecology, nature bats last.
SCARPINO: True. And we all need photosynthesis.
WHEATLEY: The denial of what we’re doing, what we are up against, really is stunning to me now. So this goes back to: We perceive the world to serve our own interests and then we refuse to look at the very information that would give us the capacity to survive.
SCARPINO: So is that ability both a strength and a weakness of human beings?
WHEATLEY: The ability to?
SCARPINO: Perceive the world the way we want it to be and then create it.
WHEATLEY: Yes, it’s definitely. All civilizations have a flowering of culture, high culture. I’ve just spent five days in Florence, Italy, to refresh myself. But then we destroy each other. So that’s, the pattern is the rise of culture and then we destroy each other. So I don’t know which is—you can’t take credit for one and not look at the other either way to have a full picture.
SCARPINO: You’re also a poet. I looked through some of your poetry and I ran across one that just intrigued me. It’s called “I Want to Be a Ukrainian.”
WHEATLEY: Oh yes. That’s so outdated now it’s tragic. It is.
SCARPINO: (Laughing.) Well, it has a 2005 copyright. . .
WHEATLEY: I’m taking it off my website.
SCARPINO: . . . but, I guess you must have written it before 2005.
WHEATLEY: No, I wrote it in 2005 or 2004. I think the Orange Revolution was in December because I was home sick. I was watching it on television.
SCARPINO: So for people who haven’t had a chance to look at your website, it’s only a few lines long. You wrote, “When I come of age, When I get over being a teen-ager, When I take my life seriously, When I grow up, I want to be a Ukrainian.” Why in 2004 did you want to be a Ukrainian?
WHEATLEY: Well, the poem goes on; because people there were standing up in protest. It’s actually a perfect tale for our times, but it’s very tragic. In 2004 in the Orange Revolution, the Russians had rigged the election and the person who was elected who is now president again was not the people’s choice. So they went into the streets and they stayed there for three weeks. That’s what I was writing about; the staying power of their protest, like we’re not going to leave till we get the leader we want. Well, they got the leader they wanted and that didn’t work out well. He was a big failure and so then in the—I guess it was only four years Yushchenko was in power. They had tried to poison him with radioactive substances, but everyone was really gloriously feeling wonderful when they re-did the election and he came in. He had a chief woman prime minister whose first name is Yulia. It’s like our hope for Obama. You bring in what you think will be a heroic individual and then the system takes over, plus time in the case of Ukraine. And so when he didn’t live up to the promise, didn’t deliver fast enough, and then he separated from his prime minister—I can’t remember her last name, but her first name is Yulia—and then in the next election, they voted back in the person they had thrown out originally. Well, then he went through a traditional Stalinist cleansing and Yulia ended up in prison in very harsh conditions, so much so that she became a cause celebre in Europe. Her daughter came and spoke to the US Congress about, “This isn’t right. My mother is being tortured and held in prison.” She’s out, then she got out, but the whole thing was, for me in the glory days of the Orange Revolution, it was the first time I had seen a protest that really lasted. It was more than one day on the street. Now, Occupy did that also. They came and camped and stayed. But what happened to Ukraine and now the terrible war that’s going on in Eastern Ukraine, the whole story now is, I think, gives much more insight into current politics than where you can go with a protest. These protests are not changing things, period. We got really excited about the Arab Spring and look what’s happened.
SCARPINO: Do you think that the systems we have created are resistant to change, highly resistant to change?
WHEATLEY: I think the systems we have created work very well for a few people and they don’t really care about the rest of us. These systems have been in a state of breakdown ever since I started writing, but I thought they were changeable and now I realize they’re not.
SCARPINO: That’s one of the changes in your own thinking, right? To believe that you could change the system to believe that you can’t?
WHEATLEY: That’s right.
SCARPINO: I want to follow up on this and then I’m going to come back and ask you about poetry. You talked about President Obama and the idea of the heroic individual who then gets lost in the system.
SCARPINO: Is it possible in the world we live in for there to be a heroic individual who can change?
WHEATLEY: Not within the system. Not within the system. That’s what we keep learning over and over again and we still believe in heroes. A leader can make significant change, but most of it these days is quite negative. They can undo things. They can undo good things, but they can’t get through the kind of thoughtful, humanistic, progressive ideas.
SCARPINO: When my students look at me and tell me that I’m not going to vote because it doesn’t make any difference, what should I tell them?
WHEATLEY: This is a dilemma among youth. I think we still have to vote, but I think they’re right. Us older ones don’t want to give up on the possibility. Certainly in local elections it makes a big difference, a big difference around who’s been bought by developers in your local community, what happens to the poor. A lot of the issues locally need to be addressed by governments, and they can be, but at the federal level it’s scary. I certainly ask people to vote, but with the caveat that this is maybe minimizing more damage being done, but it’s not going to give us a brand new society.
SCARPINO: Is there any way to get a brand new society?
WHEATLEY: Only through terrible revolution at this point and that doesn’t lead to anything good either. I work with people in Detroit who are very focused on creating a nonviolent revolution in America, working under the most extreme conditions and a truly fascist approach to poor people in Detroit now. It’s really horrific what’s going on there, the level of formal government. They’re working very hard to create—to use their imagination and their creativity, to create the new in the midst of the dying of the old. That’s the best I can offer also. That work is possible, but whether it changes the larger system; no, it won’t do that.
SCARPINO: I’m going to back up a minute and ask you what has attracted you to the writing of poetry.
WHEATLEY: In the past whenever I felt something really deeply, I could only express it in poetry. And I love the discipline. I was an English major as well as a history major and I love the discipline. My new book, which is coming out in two weeks, is poetry. It’s all narrative poetry and poetry.
SCARPINO: In two weeks?
SCARPINO: What’s the title of the book?
WHEATLEY: The title of the book is How Does Raven Know? Entering Sacred World, A Meditative Memoir; completely different than anything I have ever written.
SCARPINO: Raven comes out of a Native American tradition?
WHEATLEY: Raven is my totem, protector, guide, and introduced me to the fact that there’s a lot more going on in the world than our five senses let us know. So it is about sacred world, which is in every cultural tradition except scientific materialism.
SCARPINO: Like our cultural tradition.
WHEATLEY: That’s our culture, right.
SCARPINO: How did you encounter Raven as your . . .
WHEATLEY: . . . As my totem and protector?
WHEATLEY: I’ve just had extraordinary experiences with him over many years as well as other what in some places are called elemental beings, nature spirits. In Tibetan, my Tibetan practice is very rich cosmology. It has lots of other beings in it. Recently on retreat, I had some truly great support from ravens and then the book sort of appeared when I asked the question: How does Raven know? How do you know when I need you? How do you know when I’m suffering greatly and you come and give me a teaching? How’s this world work? So that’s what led to it.
SCARPINO: I’ll look forward to reading it in two weeks.
WHEATLEY: It’s a very beautiful book. It has a lot of my photographs as well.
SCARPINO: You mentioned being on retreat. Carole told me that you go on retreat for two months every year now.
WHEATLEY: That’s right; 60 days every year.
SCARPINO: In Nova Scotia.
WHEATLEY: Yes. Gampo Abbey, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, with my teacher, Pema Chodron. And I do solitary retreat for those two months.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you another broad question. This is going to require a little bit of setup for the people who are going to listen to this recording or read the transcript. In October of 2011, I had the privilege to interview Manfred Kets de Vries at the ILA meeting in London. To get ready to talk to him I did the same thing I did to get ready to talk to you. I read a great deal of what he had written, and he wrote an article that was actually published in 1994 titled “The Leadership Mystique.” I ran across a sentence in that article that just stayed in my head for weeks after I read it and so I tried it out on him. And this is what he said. He said, “All of us possess some kind of inner theater and are strongly motivated by a specific inner script. Over time, through interactions with caretakers, teachers, and other influential people, this inner theater develops. Our internal theater, in which the patterns that underlie our character come into play, influences our behavior throughout our lives and plays an essential role in the molding of leaders.” So, the question that I, it’s the same question I asked him and he looked at me and he said, “You’re putting me on your couch, aren’t you?” And I said, “You caught me.” But here is the question, using his term “inner theater,” can you tell me about your own “inner theater,” particularly about early experiences or individuals that shaped your character?
WHEATLEY: Well, I think he may be describing using the term inner theater what I’m describing by: We create the world through our perceptions.
WHEATLEY: And in my own development, learning as a Buddhist, which is now the foundation of everything, we talk about it as understanding how we have created our perceptions with the realization that whatever that inner theater is, it’s all made up. It’s all made up and you can change it through discipline and practice and awareness. So I would say that my inner theater or what I was projecting onto the world as a youth was filled with a lot of self-doubt at the same time of getting a lot of approbation from people. I was always told I was brilliant. I never understood that, but I also must say I always had a feeling of being very special and that I was going to do good work.
SCARPINO: Your parents made you feel that way or people you knew?
WHEATLEY: My grandmother did. My grandmother was the . . .
SCARPINO: Tell me about your grandmother.
WHEATLEY: Well, she was the very active world citizen, speaker, writer, fundraiser for Palestine in the State of Israel.
SCARPINO: What was her name?
WHEATLEY: Her name was Irma Lindheim. She was one of those great Edwardian ladies.
SCARPINO: British National?
WHEATLEY: No, no. She’s American, old New York family.
SCARPINO: No, okay; old New York.
WHEATLEY: Jewish. And she was a strong feminist as many of the Edwardian women were. So she was the first Jewish woman in the Army Corps during World War I. She was the first woman to study for the rabbinic, to become a rabbi.
SCARPINO: Did she actually become a rabbi?
WHEATLEY: No. She became an educator, studied with John Dewey.
SCARPINO: Oh my.
WHEATLEY: So I was brought up with all of her stories of feeling this is a very big world filled with very great people and I’m going to be one of them in some way. Then there was my British father who was always, “Don’t give yourself, everyone’s the same, everyone’s bad, don’t give yourself airs.” It’s called the tall poppy syndrome in Australia and New Zealand; like, you know, don’t think you’re better than the rest of us. So I had that dichotomy. I got a lot of, though, compliments or I guess more than compliments. I got a lot of encouragement from my professors who would sort of indicate that I was coming up with a new idea, and that’s when I developed a little bit of confidence in that area of being able to see things differently than most.
SCARPINO: So you had a grandmother who was independent, bold. . .
WHEATLEY: Powerful role model.
SCARPINO: . . .intelligent, and a dad who said. . .
WHEATLEY: No, incredible role model.
SCARPINO: . . . don’t let your bloom stick out above other people’s?
WHEATLEY: That’s right. That’s right.
SCARPINO: So how do you think that tension shaped you as a person?
WHEATLEY: I think I had a lot of, I internalized both messages.
SCARPINO: We have the amazing ability to do that, don’t we?
WHEATLEY: We do. And it took many years to get over the negative ones. And the whole British side of me—because I am quite British—I was raised really in this British home, but post World War II, which had a whole other level of, whole other quality to it. But the British are excellent at cutting down each other and other people through humor, and I had to work consciously to stop that ability. I did go to school in London, University College for a year, and I really related to my English family much more than my Jewish family at that time. And I had to get over this feeling of we’re all bad, we’re all equal; therefore, you cut people to the core with your humor. I was very good at that and I didn’t like that at all.
SCARPINO: Your mother was Jewish.
WHEATLEY: Yes, New York Jewish.
SCARPINO: Your father was Anglican.
SCARPINO: So in addition to living with the tension between a strong grandma and a dad who had the gift for cutting people down, you also lived in a family . . .
WHEATLEY: Well, my father, I want to give him credit. He was an incredibly hardworking mechanic, ran a foreign car service, was a very generous, caring person who’d been brought up in post Victorian World War I England so it was all completely repressed in him. And I really feel for what a good person he was and how hard it was for him to express emotion because of his upbringing; completely repressed emotional life.
SCARPINO: Do you think it’s important for people to learn how to express their emotions?
WHEATLEY: Well, of course. Because we’re not talking heads here. We’re people.
SCARPINO: How about your mother?
WHEATLEY: My mother was a very hardworking activist in her own right. I was brought up, I guess you would call it, working class at this point, but the distinctions weren’t true then. I remember reading a survey of women college presidents who were all my age and they were talking about they were brought up in what we would now call a working class family. You went camping on vacation. You didn’t have a lot of stuff and it was fine. But you went to a good school. We got encouraged. I always got encouraged to be educated and that came from the Jewish side of my family, for sure, and to make a difference in the world and to serve. I really credit my Jewish side for all of that encouragement. My grandmother, I remember at the age of six, telling me, “Well you have to write that Meggie.” So she was always interested in my ideas, always, and I’ve tried to do that with my own grandchildren.
SCARPINO: Your grandmother encouraged you to write?
WHEATLEY: She encouraged me to write. She wanted to know what I was thinking. She didn’t treat me as a child. She would really have serious conversations with me from a very young age, and I remember those.
SCARPINO: Did you go to public school?
WHEATLEY: Oh, of course. That’s all you did then. I mean we’re talking about—I was in school from 1949 on. It was all public schools. And we went home for lunch, and we marched out of school every day to John Philip Sousa marches. We would line up in the hall to get on the bus. This is post World War II. We would line up in the hall. They would play John Philip Sousa and we’d march out and get on the bus.
SCARPINO: So what do you think has happened to our public school systems? (Laughing.)
WHEATLEY: (Laughing.) See, I don’t want to look at any one system and say, “Well, it’s gone to hell,” because they all have basically. Our public school systems are in a disastrous state. I was deeply offended by the current issue of Time Magazine which basically is blaming teachers. This whole system has destroyed teachers and not used them as. . .
SCARPINO: Yes, hasn’t it?
WHEATLEY: They’re professionals. They are. I don’t know why anyone can sustain themselves as a teacher, and I work with a lot of them still. But what’s changed in everything is the society, the larger context. This is, I have to say, what disturbs me most about some of the thinking that’s out there, especially in the field of leadership: There’s no sense of the greater societal dynamics that are impacting, let’s just stay with education for a moment. So, what’s happening to the family? What’s happening to the home lives of children? What’s happening to the aggression in commercials and in children’s movies that are impacting how children are? And then we put them in a severe testing environment where even five-year-olds now cry. They don’t want to go to school. They don’t want to go to kindergarten. And you have teachers who have no freedom and are just teaching for the test. Then you have students who come out of that educational system who, when they go to employers—this I hear a lot—just say, “Well, just tell me what to do.” You know, what’s on the test basically?
WHEATLEY: So you can’t look at the system, any system, independent of all those social changes that are going on. And I personally feel, since I started as a teacher and I feel very connected to teachers still, very connected, they get the whole, the impact of all of those dynamics of child-rearing, family like, economic dilemmas, increased use of drugs, pornography, social media. All of those end up in the child that ends up in their classroom. And then we say it’s a problem with teachers? No. It’s a problem with the culture at large. So it’s that kind of systems analysis that I think is sorely lacking. You could ask me a question about the state of systems thinking and I’ll go off on a rant.
SCARPINO: I’m going to do that. I want to just ask you one more question about growing up, though, while it’s still on my mind.
SCARPINO: You had a strong grandmother, you had…
WHEATLEY: I had a very supportive mother.
SCARPINO: And you went to a school system that apparently encouraged learning.
WHEATLEY: It was wonderful. It was wonderful. It was the old days. It was early fifties.
SCARPINO: I went to a school like that, too.
WHEATLEY: Yeah. I mean one of the big differences is now in—because I have put a lot of kids through public school; my own. In those days, achievers were recognized. So if you were in the Honor Society that was a big deal and you got to speak at graduation and there was a lot of press we would call it now around being in the Honor Society. And now that’s not even, kids don’t want to be singled out as academic achievers because it’s not part of the culture, and there’s a whole culture now with students of sort of putting down achievers.
SCARPINO: We’re pushing the poppies down.
WHEATLEY: That’s right; cutting them down.
SCARPINO: As you look back on your growing up in public school and all that, how did that influence the person you became?
WHEATLEY: Oh, I had extraordinary teachers. I was just talking to someone yesterday who is teaching multiplication tables to junior high kids, shocked that they didn’t know it. These are kids who are in state custody and have had really harsh lives. But, I recalled in fifth grade the game my teacher—and her name—played with us to teach us multiplication tables. And then she gave us these beautiful little rocks, these polished water stones, as prizes. It was so far removed from what classrooms are like these days, in general. And, of course, we were learning that in the fifth grade. Now they’ve pushed it down to probably third grade to learn multiplication. But I still remember vividly because it was a lot of fun and social. It was a very small reward, you get a rock, but you thought it was beautiful.
SCARPINO: What was her name?
WHEATLEY: Miss Walsh. I remember her vividly.
SCARPINO: Did you ever thank her?
WHEATLEY: No. I didn’t know anything different at the time.
SCARPINO: I always wished I had gone back and thanked Miss Baldwin and I never did.
WHEATLEY: And I was close to several of my teachers in high school.
SCARPINO: Also among the people I talked to was Phil Cass. I asked him if he was doing the interview, what would he most want to ask you.
WHEATLEY: That’s great. (Laughing.)
SCARPINO: I’m going to use his question. He told me I could. So here is his question. He said, “If you reflect on your life and your writing from Leadership and the New Science in 1992 through So Far From Home in 2012,” his question is “What’s in your heart of heart now compared to when you started writing?”
WHEATLEY: I love Phil. I work with him quite a lot now.
SCARPINO: He said you’d like this question.
WHEATLEY: He is an extraordinary leader, too. He really is.
SCARPINO: I had a great conversation with him. I really did.
WHEATLEY: He is a fabulous person, yes. Very thoughtful and caring and wise. So in 1992 when I published Leadership and the New Science, I really believed that ideas change the world and that all you had to do was present a good case with evidence and people would just lap it up. I still see that in most people that they’re perfecting their ideas, they’re perfecting their model, they’re looking for a clear presentation of it, thinking that the problem is the lack of ideas. So I learned that early on that what changes people’s behavior is not just reading a book. What my books have done is, and I do take great delight in that, is for people who have intimations of a different way of doing things or have already discovered what I’m writing about, they feel confirmed or affirmed. And whenever anyone comes up to me and says, “I feel really affirmed,” then I feel fine. That’s good.
SCARPINO: That’s a common response to your writing, isn’t it?
WHEATLEY: It is. It is, because the other people go what the, is she saying? They don’t get it at all. So it’s people who have already moved into: There must be a better way; there must be a simpler way; this isn’t right, or I’m going to do it, or they have just discovered intuitively and through experience that these things work in practice. So my learning is that ideas don’t change the world or if they do—because people have pushed back at me when I say that—it takes a very long time. So I got more focused on what I have mentioned a few times of: So what are the dynamics that shape our behavior? What are, our behavior is shaped by our values, yes, but it’s shaped more by our habits and this inner theater, the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our experience. So when I wrote So Far From Home, that book really brought together everything I could see as societal dynamics that are intersecting. You create these vectors that are what’s significant. It’s never any one thing. There is no such thing as simple cause and effect. So when you start looking at multiple causes that lead to something very visible like poor leadership or the return of command and control leadership or the incredible march of measurement in thinking that numbers describe reality, all of which is only increasing in the world now, where did that come from? Well, it didn’t come from somebody making an intentional decision that ‘I think measures tell me enough to run a business.’ I do hear this comment: “Give me your numbers; tell me how you run this place.” I have heard that comment from new leaders in an organization that was taken over by them. So what’s in my heart right now is I just wish we would start to think systemically about where all these effects come from because we’re still caught in the belief that if we just fix this or we fix this or we fix this or we get a new heroic leader in, it will all be fine. So the real lack of systems thinking is creating a level of dis-concern; I won’t call it blindness. It’s like people aren’t even interested in this. And so when I’m at a conference like this, I was thinking about it overnight because I was talking to people who were telling me about their new models: Well, leaders need to look at this and this and this and then it will all be fine. So I’m back into the sorrow of realizing that for so many people in the field of leadership—now this would apply to other fields, but this is my field—in the field of leadership, we are misdefining the problem. What’s the issue? Is the issue lack of models of effective leadership? Is the issue lack of good ideas, lenses, program? No, it’s not that at all. It’s that leaders nowadays are caught in—even the good leaders like Phil Cass who I have worked closely with—just watching what a struggle it is to do anything the right way because of pressures for measurement, speed, the people that you’re working with now who are suffering greatly. I want us to redefine what the problem is here. The problem is not lack of good leadership models. It’s not. It’s not even the lack of good leaders in many cases. It’s the whole dynamics of the system that are making good leadership harder and harder. For the ones, I support leaders who are excellent leaders, but I’m watching how increasingly difficult it is for them to keep going. And the calls that I’m on, particularly with one woman leader, it’s like every so often I just have to pick her out of the basement where she’s collapsed because of all of the insanity, and yet she is doing incredibly wonderful work. This is what’s in my heart right now: Could we stop, even for a moment, thinking that the problem is individual leaders? And I’m only focusing on the good ones; there are a lot of bad ones out there and I define those as the narcissists and the people who are just in it for themselves. But I get really sorrowful about the amount of work we are putting in to developing new approaches to leadership when I think it’s a complete misdefinition of the problem. And more and more I’m asking people, “What is the problem? How did you define this problem? Because you’re presenting a solution here.” And so let’s go back because this is where systems thinking needs to be reactivated because it’s kind of disappeared. It’s disappeared in the sciences as well. It’s interesting to see how it, it’s got a lot more traction in Europe and England, especially, than here.
SCARPINO: Do you think it’s possible for most people to think in terms of a system?
WHEATLEY: I think you should ask Peter Senge that. Well, I have two views. It is possible. But when you do in, show people or people, I’ve had a process I used to use quite a lot of developing mind maps of an issue, and I got this from Marvin Weisbord in the Future Search practice, which I still love. But now when I have done it a few times in the past year or two, I have to warn people that this is going to be very depressing. So one of the responses always is, I call them the ‘oh my god mind maps’ because you look at it and you just get sobered by how complex it is. In the Future Search process, it also, though, has the impact, you let people dwell in it overnight and then they come back with good human spirits, “Well, okay, we’re going to roll up our sleeves and we are going to try and make sense of some of this.” But it’s a process of sort of collapsing with the overwhelming magnitude of all the forces that are impacting whatever the issue is. You put up the mind map. You really see all the causes and conditions, and it’s always depressing and sobering and overwhelming. And then we come back with, “Well, let’s do something, but let’s do something intelligent.” And so I love the process. But generally, most people—this is something I did put in one of my books. I was so in love with systems thinking and was in a Y2K planning meeting at the Pentagon where I was meeting with military officials, a physicist, myself, a futurist, and we were all there looking—this was two years before Y2K—and I said rather cheerfully, it was a small table, I said cheerfully, “Well, the good thing about this is it will really expose and make visible all the interconnectedness of current society and so that’ll be really good education for people.” And this physicist leaned across the table and he said, “Margaret, most people don’t want to know about interconnectedness.” And he was right.
SCARPINO: But it sounds like what you try to do when you work with people is to really reprogram the way they think based upon who they are. . .
WHEATLEY: I want to wake their minds up.
SCARPINO: . . . the educational systems they came out of.
WHEATLEY: Whatever, but it’s hard work. (Phone rings.)
SCARPINO: I want to ask you a question about your developmental journey and we are going to come back to that, but I keep thinking about the person who you must have been when you worked on Leadership and the New Science published in 1992 and then the person you were becoming when you wrote the following in 2000. You wrote: “In Tibetan Buddhism, “the root of happiness” lies in the acceptance that life is uncertain. If we expect life to change, we have an easier time of letting go. We won’t hold on quite so long to what has worked in the past, and we’ll resist grasping painfully for temporary securities. Only in our relationship with uncertainty are we able to flow gracefully with life’s inevitable cycles and to experience true happiness.” So I think the question I want to ask you for now is: How did you get from new science to Buddhism?
WHEATLEY: It was a single path actually. When I wrote A Simpler Way and during those years from ’93 to ’97, I with Myron Kellner-Rogers, Fritjof Capra, and a wonderful Dupont plant manager who really had learned about self-organization, we held these seminars. We did three or four a year at Sundance where I now live to introduce people to self-organizing systems and the whole theory of living systems. And we did it quite rigorously because we had Fritjof Capra with us and a chemist. This plant manager was a chemist as well. So, in one of those seminars, we had just published A Simpler Way, and he said, “This is a very Buddhist book,” and I had no idea what he meant. But then I also had . . .
SCARPINO: And who said this?
WHEATLEY: This Buddhist who was at my seminar, right?
SCARPINO: Okay, all right.
WHEATLEY: But I was getting a lot of feedback from women with Leadership and the New Science who said, “This is essentially a spiritual message you’re giving; when are you going to come out with it?” And then A Simpler Way I was told by every religious denomination that this was their book. So, Hassidic Jews, Christians, everyone gravitated to that book in particular as a very spiritual work.
SCARPINO: Did you intend it to be spiritual?
WHEATLEY: But it is true that one of the common phrases in Buddhist thought is everything is the result of everything else, so it’s profound interconnectedness, and everything that emerges comes from multiple causes and conditions. There’s no singular cause for anything. There’s also nothing that exists in isolation as a fixed self. So the science was very supportive of Buddhist wisdom, which is much older. I was told early on with New Science by Willis Harman, one of the co-founders of the Institute of Noetic Science, and Willis was really one of my first mentors in this field, and he and I were speaking together at a college small group conversation and he just advised me. He said, “Meg, don’t make too much of the science; it’s just catching up with spiritual traditions and spiritual wisdom.” And I said, “Thank you, and the reason I’m doing that is because as a woman it’s my science that gives me credibility.” And that proved true. There’s another part of that story. Working with the head of the US Army gave me a lot of credibility when that book first came out. But I want to stay with the question and go back to that. But for me, I’ve always written about where I am in my own journey.
SCARPINO: Your books and articles are like sign posts on the journey.
WHEATLEY: They are. And wait until you see the new one.
SCARPINO: Well I’m looking forward to it. I truly am.
WHEATLEY: So I was always a spiritual quester. I’ve always had a very personal, deep relationship with spirit. It’s taken many different forms.
SCARPINO: Which is not the same as organized religion?
WHEATLEY: Yes. But I had pretty traditional notions of God and Jesus as a young woman, and then it started to expand and become much more mystical. So, I became a student of Buddhism because it’s a very traditional path. You’re suffering so much and it offers you a way to work with your mind and change your perceptions and ground in a very ancient trustworthy wisdom that actually does work to relieve one’s suffering and to create a much greater level of contentment and peace. And it’s all learning to work with your mind. So in ’97, when my life was just falling apart on all dimensions; love, home, children, everything was just in tatters it seemed is when I discovered Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart and that began a relationship between the two of us that has been. . .
WHEATLEY: . . . one of the most blessed relationships. I have to say the most blessed relationship of my life, yes.
SCARPINO: So you read his book. . .
WHEATLEY: Her book.
SCARPINO: Her, I’m sorry, and contacted her. . .
WHEATLEY: No, I didn’t contact her.
SCARPINO: What I was thinking, of all the people who have read your books. . .
WHEATLEY: She contacted me.
SCARPINO: She contacted you?
WHEATLEY: She contacted me. That’s how it happened. She loved Leadership and the New Science.
SCARPINO: Oh my goodness. All right.
WHEATLEY: She invited me to come to one of her teachings, a weekend in Omega.
SCARPINO: So she became one of a large number of people who contacted you after they read that book.
SCARPINO: That’s interesting.
WHEATLEY: Yes, yes. But by then I had also read her book, When Things Fall Apart, and was getting very interested. She and I became dear friends. Then in ’07, I asked her to formally become my teacher, which she has done, and now she’s the one who has guided me into these long retreats and a whole path and practice. I also have a Tibetan teacher, which in my tradition you need a true Tibetan.
SCARPINO: Can I ask you the name of your Tibetan teacher?
WHEATLEY: Yeah. His name is Namkhai Norbu.
SCARPINO: Okay. So I want to go back to something that you said earlier. You mentioned that women talk to you.
SCARPINO: Do you think that women think about and understand leadership differently than men do?
WHEATLEY: Absolutely, absolutely.
SCARPINO: I’ll just stick with that subject. In what ways do you think women think of leadership and practice leadership differently than men?
WHEATLEY: Well, I think we and there’s enough research now to validate this so it’s not anecdotal. We’re much more conscious of other people in the room and so we do attend to relationships. Meetings run by women, unless they are in a corporation and they have to play it harder than the men, but meetings run by women are always a shock to men who are there. I mean, I have talked to a lot of them. We’re more focused on what everyone is thinking, so we’re attending to, in a much more participative way, much more inviting way. I think our egos are just smaller, and we do understand the power of relationships, and we do care more about people’s inner life. Now that has a downside, of course. And then people expect that of a woman leader, like ‘you’re supposed to care about me personally,’ and then you can get into all sorts of mess with it becoming far too personalized and the work isn’t getting done.
WHEATLEY: I’m quite aware of that edge that women leaders walk.
SCARPINO:Leadership and the New Science certainly encourages relationships.
SCARPINO: So is that an outgrowth of science or being a woman or both or some admixture thereof? Where did that come from?
WHEATLEY: I have no idea. I got into quantum theory through systems thinking when a colleague of mine at the college where I was teaching said, “Meg, if you’re interested in systems thinking, you should be reading quantum theory.” I said, “Give me some titles,” and he did.
SCARPINO: What was your colleague’s name?
WHEATLEY: Oh, what was his name? Grassi was his last name; wonderful renaissance scholar kind of man. I will think of, what’s his first name?
WHEATLEY: And I’ve thanked him several times.
SCARPINO: I actually didn’t mean that as an accusation.
WHEATLEY: No, I know. John; John Grassi.
SCARPINO: As I got older and reflected on my own life, I realized what a gift my junior high school English teacher had given me. I never got smart enough fast enough to go thank her before she died.
WHEATLEY: Right, right. No, I think this is a very important point. We need to be aware of those who have influenced us and we need to thank them.
SCARPINO: One more sort of general question and then we will switch the tenor here a little bit, but I talked to Juanita Brown.
WHEATLEY: Yes. So I gave you good people to talk to, didn’t I?
SCARPINO: You did. I enjoyed it a lot talking to them, so it was kind of a gift. So this is the question she wanted me to ask you and I’m going to put it in here. Her question—there were several, but this one fits here: “In the midst of all of the leadership challenges we face in the present, what gives you faith?” (Long pause.) Your friends are harder than I am.
WHEATLEY: No, what I want to give me faith is the human spirit, but it’s an act of faith. Because I once led a group with a question that still is for me the best question you can possibly ask of us, which is: What is the one bedrock belief that supports, leads to all of your work? What is the belief that if it were not true, it would just tear apart at the very foundation of your work? So you know that you hit that bedrock belief when you’re scared if it isn’t true. And for me it was: My belief in the human spirit is what I hold as an act of faith. And if that’s not true, I want to make it true. And that’s where all of these beliefs show up. Even if it’s not true, I want to make it true. So for me it’s the human spirit; what we’re capable of, our best human qualities in the midst of so many negative patterns.
SCARPINO: We have such a range of what we are capable of.
WHEATLEY: We do. Sure do.
SCARPINO: And what we can do for and to each other.
WHEATLEY: That’s right. That’s right. And the pattern of history is that we’re a very good, kind, generous to our own clan, when times are good, we get along with other clans. But the minute there’s drought, famine, war, we turn on the others and act very self-defensive. I don’t want that to happen now. It’s going to happen. It’s already happening. We are in great fear of the other. There’s even a verb ‘othering.’ And our politicians are definitely just propelling that fear of the other to shut down societies in many places; fear of immigrants, fear of terrorists, fear of pandemics, fear of whatever. It’s a very fear-governed approach right now. But, in the midst of all of that, I want those of us who are willing to be what I call in So Far From Home warriors for the human spirit. I know what I want to support. I know what I want to fight for. And it’s these better qualities.
SCARPINO: Warrior in the sense of fighting for things that are worth fighting for.
WHEATLEY: Yes. Warrior, I use it in the Tibetan sense of one who is brave, which is also true of other cultures as well, but one who protects and defends, not aggressively, though. That’s where the Tibetan word has more power.
SCARPINO: So I want to ask you a few questions that are a little easier just to put some background about you into this interview. We talked a little bit about your family and growing up and your teacher who did the multiplication tables with the shiny rocks as rewards and so on. Where did you go to high school?
WHEATLEY: I went to Lincoln High School in Yonkers, New York, which was just a real easy walk, two blocks away from my home. And it was a brand new school. So I seemed to always be in places when they’re just starting, and that’s a great benefit because it’s open and experimental, and I had a wonderful high school education.
SCARPINO: Do you remember what year you started high school?
WHEATLEY: In that school we actually, it was junior-senior high school so I started in seventh grade.
SCARPINO: What year were you in the seventh grade, more or less?
WHEATLEY: Let’s see. I graduated in 1962, so you work back six years. It must have been ’56.
SCARPINO: Okay. While you were in high school, did you have any idea of where you imagined your life would go when it was over? What did you think your future would hold?
WHEATLEY: I knew I would get out of the country. I knew I was a good writer. I knew I was a social activist, but still it was very insulated. There was only one black person in my whole school of 1200, I think, and I remember him well, but I just wasn’t, I was acculturated in New York Jewish neighborhood. But I also, I had a great interest in science and I was really encouraged in that.
SCARPINO: No one ever said, “You’re a girl, you can’t do this?”
WHEATLEY: No. My history professor in college said, “Well, I don’t like advising women to go to graduate school because you just get married and get pregnant.” I remember that comment from him, Hayden White, wonderful historian. And I remember feeling, ‘well, I’m going to marry a lawyer.’ I mean it was still the—even though I had this very strong feminist grandmother. But I never—I just had great freedom. When I look back at my life, one of the things that was unconscious but true was I was very brave about going into new situations and speaking up for people and causes and very outspoken.
SCARPINO: What causes were you outspoken about?
WHEATLEY: Well I remember, this is something that I vividly remember when John F. Kennedy was coming through our city on the way to New York on a train. They used to speak off the back of trains; well, they still do that right now. Our senior class was, none of us were allowed to leave school to go see him. And I remember calling up the superintendent of education for Yonkers because my mother was head of the PTA and he knew me and he worked closely with her, so I had that in. I remember calling him up and just saying, “This isn’t right. We should be allowed to go see him.” And he gave us permission.
SCARPINO: This was when Kennedy was running for President?
WHEATLEY: Yes. So, yes, it was 1961.
SCARPINO: When you were preparing to graduate from high school, did you automatically think the next step would be college?
WHEATLEY: Oh, absolutely. Oh, never a question.
SCARPINO: You went to Rochester University?
WHEATLEY: University of Rochester, an incredibly wonderful liberal arts school.
SCARPINO: How did you pick that?
WHEATLEY: I picked it because it was, my biology teacher, who was my strongest ally, advocate, and influence in junior, senior, I mean eleventh and twelfth grade when I really thought I was going into biology and I’d had had a lot of summer programs working in a biology lab and such; I was just aimed right for biology. She wanted me to go to one of the women’s Ivy League colleges. I don’t know what happened there, why I never even applied. I think my mother didn’t want me to go there and the University of Rochester was a very big school for New York City. I got an incredible education there, which I didn’t even realize for many years, but I was also very depressed. First of all, it’s one of the grayest places in America, which nobody knew about SAD, the seasonal affective disorder, and it was very competitive and I was under enormous pressure, self-created.
SCARPINO: To perform at a high level?
WHEATLEY: To perform. And I was very depressed, but really studied hard and then I found my liberation in going off to Europe for a year as a junior.
SCARPINO: So you must have been a very high-achieving high school student; summer programs, you got into the university.
WHEATLEY: They were never hard for me, though. I mean, it’s not high-achieving the way kids are now at all. You were expected to study and I was only in one advanced AP course, which was biology. They didn’t have the rest of them. They were very rare. I had high expectations and there were high expectations placed on me, but it was a totally different environment than now. It was much more relaxed and much more far less tension; like you didn’t have to accrue all these other activities for your college application. You didn’t even have to write very much and you certainly didn’t produce a movie the way kids do now.
SCARPINO: Or those essays.
WHEATLEY: Those essays; they are crazy now. Like everything, it’s just reached a level of competitiveness that’s really hard. I was part of the Honor Society. I was the vice president. I was never at the top. I was always second. That stayed true for all my college career, but I loved what I was studying.
SCARPINO: So when you went to Rochester, you went there as a history major?
WHEATLEY: No, I was a biology major.
SCARPINO: You started as a biology major?
WHEATLEY: Oh, yes.
SCARPINO: I read somewhere that you were a history major.
WHEATLEY: I was.
WHEATLEY: But it was that first year when I got into advanced chemistry and I couldn’t handle it. And then I went through which was truly a dark night for my young self of ‘I’m going to disappoint all these people, especially Mrs. Smith, my biology teacher, because I’m not going to major in science.’ That was really hard because I knew I was disappointing a number of people, and I went into history and English. Then I realized later on—when I wrote Leadership and the New Science, only after I wrote it did I realize I’m using all my science here and I’m using my ability to understand science and translate it for people.
SCARPINO: Is that part of your skill, your ability to translate difficult concepts for people?
WHEATLEY: Definitely. Oh, definitely.
SCARPINO: What did you learn from having to switch majors and fate? Look in the mirror and not want to disappoint people?
WHEATLEY: It was very, very hard. And my biology teacher was terribly disappointed in me. But when I wrote Leadership and the New Science and after, I thought, ‘well I was always interested in the questions of science, but not in the actual method.’ I would have ended up on a research bench? No. I majored in the history of ideas, American intellectual history. And that’s where I’m best, is looking at the broad scope and the interplay of ideas with context, with historical context.
SCARPINO: Is that what you took away from liberal arts?
WHEATLEY: Absolutely. Plus a love of poetry, literature, science, geology. There’s nothing like a liberal arts education, and it’s another source of sadness to watch it disappear now and colleges just become technical training for jobs. The longer I have been at work, the more I understand, wow, I got a great foundation at the time. They had some of the top scholars in history and philosophy and English. I benefitted from all of them but didn’t know it at the time.
SCARPINO: So you also studied at the University College of London?
SCARPINO: Was that while you were still at Rochester?
SCARPINO: So it was like a study abroad kind of program?
WHEATLEY: It was a junior year abroad. And I spent more of the, I was there for 10 months and I figured out I spent five months traveling. Only now, well a few years ago, I realized this is the pattern of my life; I teach myself. So I read up about art history and history, and then I just traveled alone or with another woman student. We hitchhiked all over Europe, which you could do in those days.
SCARPINO: In those days, yes.
WHEATLEY: I gave myself a wonderful education and barely went to class because I couldn’t stand the European style of lectures where they just get up and read. I was incensed by that. I got a wonderful education, but I gave it to myself.
SCARPINO: And then came back and finished up?
WHEATLEY: Then I finished, I graduated and went immediately into Peace Corps training.
SCARPINO: So you graduated in what year from college?
WHEATLEY: June of ’66.
SCARPINO: So Peace Corps was relatively new then?
WHEATLEY: Yes, it was the third year.
SCARPINO: What attracted you to the Peace Corps?
WHEATLEY: John F. Kennedy.
SCARPINO: Yes, who was a heroic leader.
WHEATLEY: And that idealism of service. “Don’t ask what your country can do…” I was just totally focused and very worried that I wasn’t going to get in because it was, there were psychological tests, there were health fitness tests, and the whole thing was so new nobody really knew what they were doing. In Korea, we were the first group so they really didn’t know how to train us. It was my first experience of working with group dynamics in our training program. And probably I developed an interest in group process during that training program. Then Korea itself was such a hard, but then rich experience.
SCARPINO: Where were you based in Korea?
WHEATLEY: In the southern part, Cholla Namdo Province, which is the rebellious province. And I’m still close—I mean I lived with a Korean family—and I’m still the older sister to the niece who lived with the family. She came over to America years later and lived with me. She’s a citizen. She’s a brain trauma specialist physician now.
SCARPINO: What were you assigned to do when you were there?
WHEATLEY: This is great. I was the only woman teacher in a junior-senior boys’ school. There were like 2500 males and me, which was great because had I been assigned to a woman’s school I would have been the second class citizen.
WHEATLEY: My friends were in that position. They could only hang out with the women. I hung out with the men, which suited me fine in terms of power and authority. So it was a formation experience for sure.
SCARPINO: In what way?
WHEATLEY: Sixty-five students to a room. They shared desks. They wore military uniforms. They came from outlying areas in the countryside. They were quite poor, but went on to influential positions.
SCARPINO: Did you learn to speak any Korean?
WHEATLEY: Oh yes. You had to. Oh yes. Very difficult language, though. One of the hardest, but I learned to get by.
SCARPINO: You were there for two years?
WHEATLEY: I was there for two years, signed up for a third year. Because I and my roommate, another Peace Corps volunteer, we both signed up to extend and they sent us home for six weeks. On the night I was flying back to Korea, I was with my very radical relatives in Berkeley, California, watching the Chicago Democratic Convention and the people getting beaten.
SCARPINO: In 1968.
WHEATLEY: I just sat there and thought ‘what am I doing?’ This is where I need to be. Because while I was in Korea in ’68, Martin Luther King was assassinated, JFK was assassinated, and the whole country was in such turmoil, and then watching those riots and the police brutality, I— So I went back to Korea only to pack and told them that I’ve just got to go home. So two months later, started the journey home, but also did three weeks on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to come home.
SCARPINO: So you came home via the Trans-Siberian Railroad?
WHEATLEY: Yes, and that was quite an experience.
SCARPINO: What was that like?
WHEATLEY: It was wonderful. It was a really choice experience because it was a slow moving coal-fired steam engine. It was like going through the Wild West for a good part of it, and it was three weeks on a train. We got off. We visited a school. But we were watched the whole time because we were assumed to be CIA agents in the Peace Corps. We were called peace thugs wearing, no thugs wearing peace masks. And it was a time of great tension.
SCARPINO: Was that the only time in your life you were ever called a thug? (Laughing.)
WHEATLEY: Probably. But I did get threatened in Australia a few years ago as a Guion spiritualist in an audience of Catholic teachers where there were these demonstrators—we had been warned about them—outside protesting me speaking and a radical environmentalist priest from South America. This is in the beautiful countryside of Australia in North Victoria, I think it was. I’m speaking about the power of community, and suddenly this man is rushing down the aisle to attack me screaming “heretic, heresy.”
SCARPINO: Oh my goodness.
WHEATLEY: Being it was Australia, I don’t know if they had planted people in the aisle or it was just natural instinct, but he was tackled by these two Australian men. I was on stage and basically like, “Me?” I should have just ducked I realized because it was a serious gesture, but I was just, “How could this be?”
SCARPINO: I could see where it would catch you by surprise.
WHEATLEY: Yes. Next time I would duck.
SCARPINO: What did you take away from that Peace Corps experience that stayed with you?
WHEATLEY: Everything. First of all, and I have said to many of my Peace Corps friends, what a privilege it was to live in a traditional culture before globalization. And it was post war so they were very grateful for Americans. But everything was foreign. As we left, my colleague there, Beverley, and I, as we got in the train to come home and we were sobbing. We didn’t really want to leave. We just said, “Well, we can go anywhere now.” And that’s true. I’d go still. I was in Mexico with a group and suddenly we were going out to a remote area and I feel so at home, like my work in South Africa and Zimbabwe. I just feel instantly comfortable when I’m in a community of very “strange people” living very different ways, and all of that comfort comes from the Peace Corps days. Once we integrated into that culture where nothing was familiar and the alphabet; you know there’s no signs in English. Korea has their own alphabet, Hangul, but they used a lot of Chinese characters as well. And I studied Chinese brush calligraphy and I studied taekwondo and really integrated into the culture.
SCARPINO: You studied taekwondo?
WHEATLEY: Yes, I did.
SCARPINO: Just for the benefit of anyone listening, it’s a form of martial arts.
WHEATLEY: Yes, it is a form of martial arts. When I came back from Korea and was teaching junior-senior high school, just for a semester at my old school before I went onto leading educational programs, but in my tenth grade class I was sent from Korea a copy of the magazine called Human Weapon. It had my picture on the front cover. So I just passed it around the class, and I got instant respect.
SCARPINO: So you came back for what you thought was just going to be a leave. You were in Berkeley in 1968, which Berkeley was really at the heart of the social culture movement.
WHEATLEY: Yeah, I was just staying with my family there overnight.
SCARPINO: So, how did the social turmoil in the United States influence you? I mean obviously enough to want to come home, but . . .
WHEATLEY: Well, I came home and I, after just teaching for January to June because I got home in December or November, then I got a position leading an afterschool program for poor income youth in Yonkers. It had become all Puerto Rican and black; changed greatly from my life as a youth there. Then it became the era of the Great Society so there was lots of money for programs. I developed some really good educational programs for kids and got into community work with a very skilled community developer. And then went on to a more formal structure, because we were housed in a church basement as most community programs I think still are. But I learned a lot then and had my office taken over by radical blacks at one point who got angry at me. So I was just living in that milieu. I then went on to lead educational programs for adults who were trying to finish college who were minority group adults.
SCARPINO: Same neighborhood?
WHEATLEY: It was for all of Westchester County at that point, but the same population.
SCARPINO: After that you went on to graduate school?
WHEATLEY: I went on to graduate school while I was doing that work.
SCARPINO: Oh, okay.
SCARPINO: What did you take away from that work that stuck with you?
WHEATLEY: Well, again, it was just like working with real people on real issues and feeling really comfortable. I didn’t want to work in white neighborhoods. You know, you come back from something like the Peace Corps and you’re highly critical of US culture in general. So I was more comfortable working with Puerto Rican and black citizens, for sure.
SCARPINO: Were there any parallels between working with the Puerto Rican and black citizens and being in Korea?
WHEATLEY: It was just an interest and appetite for being with other cultures rather than my own, which has stayed with me.
SCARPINO: Were you at all caught up in the turmoil of the late sixties?
WHEATLEY: Well, I was caught up in that I had my office—there was a sit-in and protest to me. And I also went and taught for the summer at the College of the Virgin Islands, which was a program just for less privileged black kids there to get into college. So I was always in this, this racial places of racial tension and I experienced it a lot. It was no fun getting your office taken over. It felt really unjust. But I lived these things firsthand.
SCARPINO: So you decided to go to graduate school at New York University.
WHEATLEY: Yes, with Neil Postman who was one of our premier thinkers and educators. He died a few years ago.
SCARPINO: In systems?
WHEATLEY: Just in education in general. He had published a book with a co-author called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Then he wrote another book the opposite, Teaching as a Conservative Activity. He always said at the end of his books, which were these very well laid out passionate arguments about schooling, he said, “We feel like the last sentence should be, after we’ve given all these great arguments, “or vice versa.” His whole focus was a program called media ecology. And he said, “I made that up so nobody could tell me I was doing it wrong.” Because it was really a program in communications and systems thinking, but what it did for me long-term, it was the place where I learned to analyze through that particular lens, was: How does any medium, like television or computers or the internet, how does that medium impact society and create society. So that has become such another foundational piece to my work, is now looking at the impact of social media, smart phones, and the internet on; its impact on our culture, which I did cover in So Far From Home in 2012. But it was a fun program and it was just so eye opening and fresh. He was like a talk show host. He would bring in really big name people to talk to us and, again, it was informal. I don’t know how many people were in the program, maybe 30. I just remember it being such a wonderful, personal experience with Neil and the others.
SCARPINO: Did you go there to study with him or did you encounter him after you went there?
WHEATLEY: No, no. I went there deliberately. I was advised to look into that. And it was just a great blessing. And then I wanted to go into the doctoral program there. I did a year of doctoral work in a fellowship program at NYU that introduced me to organizational behavior. They had no idea what they were doing around organizational behavior, but they had gotten this big federal grant with the Great Society affluence. They took in 25 of us, and that was a highly specialized program. We were paid well so I didn’t have to work, and I got really interested in organizational behavior. But I wanted to go into Neil Postman’s doctoral program in media ecology because I thought ‘I’m going to be a futurist,’ and that didn’t work out for crazy personal reasons. His girlfriend was jealous of me. She didn’t want me in the program. It was kind of funny to look back on. But it turned out to be a really good move for me because then I ended up at Harvard because they had a really good program.
SCARPINO: And you have the girlfriend to thank for that.
WHEATLEY: When I walked into the interview for the doctoral program, she looked at me, she said, “You remind me of someone. I know. It’s Hot Lips Houlihan on MASH.”
SCARPINO: Oh my goodness.
WHEATLEY: I thought ‘I’m done.’ Anyway, but in those bizarre little twists, I ended up at Harvard in the organizational behavior program and that was so much better.
SCARPINO: In what ways did it turn out to be better for you?
WHEATLEY: Well, I had great teachers there who really knew what they were doing in organizational behavior like Bill Torbert, who I have stayed in touch with. Then I got picked up by Rosabeth Moss Kanter for her new startup consulting firm, Goodmeasure, and worked with her for several years.
SCARPINO: That was actually the next thing I was going to ask you. Who was Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Goodmeasure? How did you get hooked up with them and what kinds of work did you do?
WHEATLEY: Her husband, Barry Stein, was an adjunct faculty at Harvard and he had this grant to look at New York City schools. Each school was assigned one of us young consultants. So Barry hired me and that brought me in contact with Rosabeth. Then they decided to form Goodmeasure and I became part of that.
SCARPINO: Was that your first serious foray into consulting?
WHEATLEY: Yes, yes.
SCARPINO: What did you take away from that experience?
WHEATLEY: Oh tons. I mean that’s where I learned the do’s and don’ts of consulting really because Rosabeth had entrée into some great places. Then what she did for me was really of great benefit in that she quickly sent me in where she didn’t want to go or she was too busy. So I started speaking right away, even though I didn’t have her depth of knowledge about these things. Then I started to use her theories to develop my own work. So it was a great opportunity.
SCARPINO: So you were doing this while you were still a doctoral student?
WHEATLEY: Oh yes.
SCARPINO: Okay. And when did you get your doctoral degree?
WHEATLEY: In ’79.
SCARPINO: In ’79, okay. Did you write a dissertation?
WHEATLEY: I did.
SCARPINO: What was the title of your dissertation?
WHEATLEY: You know I don’t remember the title, but the topic was about adult learning theory as applied in a corporate training setting and the conflicts between the corporate needs and what’s really best for educating adults. I remember that. And it was based on my consulting work with the Royal Bank of Canada.
SCARPINO: Oh, and the consulting work was through Rosabeth Moss Kanter?
WHEATLEY: Through Goodmeasure, yes.
WHEATLEY: But, in between all of that, in ’77 I got married. I married a widower who had five kids, so the children were age five to 16; four boys, the oldest a girl. I suddenly went from an apartment, single living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to running a large household with a big house, big Victorian house up in Amesbury, Massachusetts, with five kids and an Italian mother-in-law, and dogs. And my advisor at Harvard at the time, Badi Foster, said years later when I graduated, he said, “Well, I always knew you were going to be a TV show. I just didn’t know whether it was going to be daytime drama or evening comedy.”
SCARPINO: So you were a doctoral student, you were working for this consulting firm, you took on five children, and you were running this large house all at the same time.
WHEATLEY: And writing my dissertation.
SCARPINO: Ah, yes.
WHEATLEY: Yes, yes. My father told me I was out of my mind, and maybe I was, but it’s worked out beautifully.
SCARPINO: What was beautiful about it?
WHEATLEY: Well, I married a large family. I’m divorced from their father, but still very close to my ex-husband.
SCARPINO: I actually knew that which is why I was trying to tread around that.
WHEATLEY: Yes, and we are just a gigantic Italian-American, very loving, very close family at this point. So right now I have 21 grandchildren, two great granddaughters, and more on the way.
WHEATLEY: Because then my two natural children, the ones I gave birth to, they all have the same father, so it’s seven kids.
SCARPINO: My word.
WHEATLEY: Yes, yes. And my older stepsons and my stepdaughter have done very well in corporate America. Those three are really at the top of their profession, I would say. And we’re very close on professional issues as well as family.
SCARPINO: So I’ve been thinking about something you said a while ago and I’m going to go back and pick that up before I go forward. You mentioned science and you mentioned the Pentagon. In both cases you said those were things that gave me tremendous credibility, so let’s start with science.
WHEATLEY: Right, yes. I think it’s important to really talk about my role as a woman in all of this.
SCARPINO: That’s where I wanted to go with this, yes.
WHEATLEY: Okay. Rosabeth Kanter has been at the top of this field as a woman in the field of leadership, but I don’t think she’s there anymore. I don’t really know where I am, but I know when I look around there aren’t any other women, even though I’ve basically given up the corporate route or the big conferences. I just have no interest in that. But working up wherever I am in the field, working up as a woman has been significant. There have been many occasions where I was the only woman on the program. I would always point it out and ask why. But there have been several occasions of that when I was still doing the large corporate conference groups.
WHEATLEY: So what’s given me, I think, both my own personal confidence and public repute first was the science. So even though a lot of people still like to peg me as new age, touchy-feely, whatever—I mean there was an article about me in the Washington Journal I think it was in maybe ’93 after Leadership and the New Science had made it into the White House—that was the Clinton White House—and into the Pentagon. So I got called by this quite hostile reporter and he asked me about original sin and I just said, “Well, I think that’s just, you know, a bunch of nonsense.” And so in the article, it started out, the title was “All You Need is Love” and the word love appears once in Leadership and the New Science—and it was scary to write it at the time—but, “The most potent source of power in organizations is love,” I think was the sentence. And, of course, he picked up it. So the beginning of the article was “All you need is love so chants John Lennon and a management guru from the mountains of Utah.” Another time in another article, I was critiqued wrongly as living in California, and the critique was “She’s just been sitting in hot tubs eating too many avocadoes.” But the Washington Journal article went on to say, “When asked about original sin, Wheatley said, ‘you know, I think that’s a bunch of nonsense.’ So throw out 2000 years of Christian theology, throw out St. Augustine and just listen to Wheatley.” That’s how he spun it. However, I was invited by the Army Chief of Staff, Gordon Sullivan, who is a four-star general, one of the wisest leaders I have ever worked with, and he had read Leadership and the New Science, and he asked if I could come in and talk to him. And he assembled a group of several senior generals and the Army historian and we had lunch. In that lunch, we took on the topic of information; like what happens now that 18-year-old soldiers in tanks can see the field of battle on a screen? And they’ve had the experience of one of them getting out of maneuvers and saying, “Look, I need to be involved now,” because they could see what was going on. So they were very thoughtful. They were always looking for new ideas and read widely. So after that lunch, General Sullivan said to his aide, “I want her back.” And then he invited me, he said to me, “Meg, I want to see the Army through your eyes and I’m going to send you to where we’re changing, where we think we’re doing new stuff, and I want you to be my scout.” Now, I’m a consultant, right? So I think the word scout is like cute, you know, or that’s a nice metaphor. Well, of course, he meant it literally.
SCARPINO: He meant it.
WHEATLEY: You go out on the forward front and you report back accurately what you’re seeing so we can use it. So for the next year, maybe, I traveled around in the greatest of style. I mean there’s nothing like being from the General Chief of Staff. So I got flown in helicopters and planes and everyone wanted to impress me. They have a tradition in the Army of educating you by these incredibly ornate PowerPoints that are filled with graphs and charts and arrows and very dense text. I had to just sit through these presentations, and I wasn’t making any sense of it at all because this is the first time I’d been in the military.
WHEATLEY: My English family has a strong military background, but I had never been in the military and, of course, I was anti-military at that time I think. So three months in—and this is where the Peace Corps experience of being in a foreign culture really came into play—three months in, it suddenly self-organized and I understood everything about what I was being told, how the Army worked, and such. I had some extraordinary experiences. I got to go to a mock battle down at Fort Irwin just north of Death Valley, where there’s this huge, huge desert where they train for tank warfare. I got to go out the night before the battle and sit with the troops around a campfire and just talking to them about what was going to happen and such. It was like 2000 tanks.
SCARPINO: And this was in the 1990s that you were doing this?
WHEATLEY: Yes, this would have been ’93 and ’94.
SCARPINO: Twenty years earlier, you could have been talking to me. So what did you learn sitting around the campfire?
WHEATLEY: Well, I learned so much that I still rely on. It was the first learning organization I was ever in and probably the only one still where learning is the primary value. So we were up on this hill looking out at the desert floor and these tanks in battle—mock battle, not live ammo—and the Commander General is just—it’s like dawn and it’s cold and we are all in Army gear. I have photos of me from that time, helmet and everything. But he’s just walking around looking at all these mistakes that are being made down below and shows up on your screen when you just got hit or whatever or got ambushed, and he is just rubbing his hands saying “a lot of learning going on down there; a lot of learning going on down there.” And I have often told this story to groups. Then later that morning, I was having coffee with a Colonel and I said, “I have just never seen so much learning,” because I had also learned about the after-action review.
WHEATLEY: And I started teaching that process right away as others have done. It’s an incredible process for really learning from experience. So I said to this Colonel, “I’ve just never been in a learning organization like this.” And he said, “Oh, we figured that one out a long time ago. It’s learn or die.” And I’ve used that story lots and lots of times because that’s what we are up against, like are we going to start learning here or not?
SCARPINO: So there’s a broader application of learn or die?
WHEATLEY: And we’re in it now, really.
WHEATLEY: So those stories and many others became sort of my stock in trade for quite a while, and I felt very comfortable when I was talking to military people, police, firemen, or even in my national parks now where there’s a lot of military leakage. I know what the military is like, and there are two militaries. The first is the Pentagon over bureaucratization, rank, and you don’t make waves. The second is what happens on the battlefield and in training where it’s pure learning, self-organization. I worked with Special Forces and that became one of my great stories—is they spend as much time training how to think. They know the culture, they know the history, they know the Geneva Conventions, and these are people you trust to deal with very tense situations with enormous implications, and you trust them to go out on their own. And the reason you can trust them is because you’ve trained them to think as much as you have trained them to be physically great or great with weapons. These are the best soldiers we have, and the Army has been training more and more of them because they work best in the new war fields. But what I learned from a General, again this was one of the stories I kept speaking about, was he told me, he said, “We train them in weapons, we train them physically, we train them how to think.” He said, “My final words to them always are ‘go and do good.’” And it’s just this great release to them. I have told that story many, many times. One time I had a mother of a Special Forces man wait outside my door for two hours to thank me because I had explained to her the training her son had received that he had never . . .
SCARPINO: Which he would not tell.
WHEATLEY: Well, I mean they could tell the broad things of it. And she waited that long to thank me. It was lovely. So the other thing I really take now that I’m talking about warriors for the human spirit is I know what warriorship is. Anyone who works with the military and with these men and women, you develop the greatest respect for them, even if your values are different. My values are different, but I know about dedication and teamwork and service because of my experience with them.
SCARPINO: We started down this path because you had mentioned that working with the military gave you credibility. Do you still feel that way?
WHEATLEY: Oh gosh. Well, yes. I mean now I have my own—this is 20 years later—so there’s more that I get credit for, but it’s still one of the seminal experiences of my life, especially now that I’m drawing on the warrior image, even though it’s nonaggressive and peaceful image of the peaceful warrior, the spiritual warrior. I think this is a whole other topic, but my current opinion about the abuse of soldiers and what’s happening to them when they return it’s just horrific, but my experience of who they were and especially about teamwork. So one of the things that I’m using now more than ever was a statement that General Sullivan read to me, or recited from memory at that first, when he was commissioning me. He said, “Here is a passage from a letter that General Sherman wrote to General Grant at the end of the Civil War about why they won. And General Sherman said to Grant, ‘I always knew you thought of me and if I got in a tight place you would come if alive.’” And he said General Sullivan said, “When you understand this, Meg, you will understand what it means to be a soldier.” And I do understand it now. Berkana Institute, which is coming back to life now, is going forward with that statement, that we need to create very stable, tight groups of friends that meet on a regular basis if we are going to be warriors for the human spirit, and we’re using that quote.
SCARPINO: So that experience that you had so long ago in a different culture in Korea with all those men, did that help provide you with the tools to function in an environment that, for you, must have been quite . . .
WHEATLEY: It gave me a lot of feminine confidence. I’d always been leading with my mind, you know, very rational, abstract, and actually my time in Korea I always said developed my princess side. I was so well taken cared for and pampered and loved. I don’t think that experience gave me . . .
WHEATLEY: But I want to say one more thing about the Army senior leaders. It was the only time in my profession, at that point certainly, when I was treated both as a woman and as an expert, and somehow they balanced that out. There was a quality of courtliness towards me and the deepest respect for who I was professionally. So my final report to General Sullivan, I just wrote him a long letter about what I had seen. He called me in for several hours to talk about it, and we were with the Army historian and maybe one other General and himself. We were just sitting around a small table for hours talking about it. Because what I had seen had historical precedence and he was very historically minded, and that was a wonderful conversation. We were just exploring ideas. There was none of this testing or denial or any of the normal nonsense, so I remember it for that quality. But what I remember most is when it was over General Sullivan—and we are in his office in the Pentagon—it’s General Grant’s, Ulysses S. Grant’s, desk there and all these memorabilia. It was quite an experience. But he walked me to the door and we had been talking a lot about tank training and this big facility and whether they should continue it. And it was problematic besides very it’s expensive and it’s not the kind of warfare we are going into; should we just disband it? So it had been a very spirited conversation. And he walks me to the door and he just says, “You know sometimes, Meg,” he said, “what I worry about most is what if there’s another war and we’re not prepared?” At that moment—I still feel it—I felt oh my God; what is it like to bear that mantle of leadership, really? I can still feel it. But the second reaction I had was, “Don’t listen to me. Those were just comments. I don’t want to be responsible for America not being prepared.”
SCARPINO: Well, I’m sure in his world, he would be responsible.
WHEATLEY: Well, I know, but as a consultant, I mean it shifted me forever from this kind of casualness or ‘well that’s a good idea, why don’t try that’ to ‘oh my God, this has real consequences here; real consequences.’
SCARPINO: Did the notion of the consequences of your ideas stick with you even when you weren’t working for the military? That ideas have consequences?
WHEATLEY: Well, consultation has consequences if they listen to you. If they listen to you, and that’s why I felt so well listened to there. I have been meaning to write General Sullivan, who is still alive, this is 20 years later, and thank him for all of this. So I think this will prompt me to do that. Seriously.
SCARPINO: Well, I don’t know about you, but particularly for somebody who spent much of their life as a teacher, I mean rarely do you ever really know what impact you’ve had on people and rarely does anyone ever come back and say, “Thank you so much.”
WHEATLEY: Yes, yes. I get a lot of that, though. I think people are more sensitive these days to expressing themselves.
SCARPINO: So, we’ve got about a half an hour.
WHEATLEY: Right, but I’m happy to have us—I have a nice big room.
SCARPINO: I was asking you in a polite way if you need a break.
WHEATLEY: I do.
SCARPINO: I’m going to put this on pause.
WHEATLEY: Please do.
SCARPINO: But that other one is still going to run. So just so you know whatever we say is still being recorded.
SCARPINO: All right, we are live again. We took a break and we are reconvening. I think what I want to talk to you about for a few minutes and then we are going to—as we said when the recorder was off, we are going to talk about spirituality. You got your doctoral degree, and did you accept a position at Brigham Young University, a faculty position?
WHEATLEY: Yes, but not for several years.
SCARPINO: Okay. You were not there in 1993?
WHEATLEY: I was there from ’89 to ’93.
SCARPINO: Okay, all right. So you had your Ph.D., doctoral degree in hand.
WHEATLEY: No, no, no. I graduated in ’79 and then went into consulting full time, then spent five years teaching at Cambridge College from maybe ’81 to ’86, then went back to consulting full time, and then got the offer to move out west and teach at BYU.
SCARPINO: And you were there from about ’89 to ’93?
SCARPINO: Why were you interested in taking an academic position?
WHEATLEY: Because at that time my husband was a consultant, I was a consultant, our youngest kids were five and eight, and we were just going crazy. Plus I had gotten into horses and I loved to ski.
SCARPINO: That would be a good place for both, wouldn’t it?
WHEATLEY: So I had this fantasy that if I took a professorship—and they flew me out there to test it out for a whole semester. It was a wonderful way to get to know the place. They said, “We want you to teach for a semester and we’ll fly you home each weekend.” So for four months, I flew out on Monday, taught on Tuesday and Thursday, skied on Wednesday, and flew home for the weekend. And I realized much to my horror at first that, gosh, I really love it out here. Then when they offered me a full-time position and my husband felt it would be a good move. I did have this fantasy that I would be a ranch mom and academic. So we bought a property that I still miss, which had five acres and a beautiful horse barn and we had a gorgeous fruit orchard, and I loved it. I loved having a lot of animals. I had up to six horses. I was teaching there for about one month after we moved in August of ’89. So probably in October—I loved my colleagues there. I still do. They’re not there anymore, but we were a great group. And they had a very experimental organizational behavior department. I was brought in to teach ethics to all the professional MBAs; masters of accounting, master of public administration. I did that in a very experimental, wonderful way. Then I also taught courses in organizational change. But it must have been like in October when the dean came in and said, “Well, we need to give you a sabbatical.” So I’m going from being this crazed consultant traveling all the time, not enough time, having two small children, and suddenly I’m given nine months off with pay to sit in my new ranch and write. I had already gotten interested in chaos theory and the new science. I knew I was going to write about that. I was already teaching it. But I still remember the shock of sitting on my back deck looking at the mountains and my horses with all this free time.
SCARPINO: So you wrote Leadership and the New Science on that deck?
WHEATLEY: I didn’t write Leadership and the New Science during my sabbatical. I did a lot of research and this was in the early days of computers, really, so this was 1990–91. I had someone put all the research in certain files, but it was very clunky. That was MS DOS days, clunkiness.
SCARPINO: I remember those days.
WHEATLEY: Yes, and I was just frustrated that I didn’t sit down and write it. But I obviously wasn’t ready because in January of ’91 I went back to teaching. I had two classes of 65 students each, and it was a highly personal class where they did journals and I read their journals. So I was teaching full time, I had my family, my little ranch, and I sat down and wrote Leadership and the New Science in that context in seven weeks. I wrote a chapter a week.
SCARPINO: That’s amazing.
WHEATLEY: It is. I have written every one of my books that I’ve written, not co-authored, in a matter of weeks. What was so unusual about that is it was all new to me. I had to re-read the science over and over again, but then I could write a chapter a week and still doing a full-time teaching load. I look back at that as very blessed because now I know how much I didn’t know and yet it was accurate, especially around fractals and strange attractors. So it was all new to me. I wrote it. It turned out to be okay in terms of the correctness of the science. I had taught myself the science, also, like everything else. So when I actually went to write the acknowledgements, I gave it to the head of the physics department at BYU and said, “Please check this.” He checked it. He said, “Nothing; it’s fine.” Another scientist read it and said, “I learned a lot reading this.” I thought, well, that’s a little scary.
SCARPINO: Well, they specialize narrowly.
WHEATLEY: Yes. Then the other great gift of that book was that Berrett-Koehler, my publisher for seven books, had not yet been established and it was coming into form that summer. I think this is an important part of my story, especially as a woman writer. I finished the book. I had worked with a woman editor, who was a great help in just encouraging me because I was experimenting with a lot of different forms in that book, and she signed off on it. And I thought, ‘this is a great book, this is a beautiful baby, here.’ And then I gave it to my Harvard advisor who was a friend. I had worked with him now as a consultant also post-Harvard. And I gave it to a book editor who had done my very first book which was for women a long time ago. I don’t really talk about it. But anyway, she was a big book agent in Boston. So my Harvard advisor, all my friends were saying, “This is great, don’t change a word.” But, of course, I didn’t believe them or give them any credibility, even though they were corporate leaders, some of them. But my Harvard advisor said, “This is the self-indulgent ramblings of a 21st century mind.” Yes. And then he wrote me two pages of how to write a book. It was horrible. I never talked to him again actually. Then I took it to the book agent in Boston and she said—what was devastating in ’91—she said, “I can tell this book is written by a woman. It’s too soft. It’s too gentle. It needs to be hard hitting. I need to be able to tell someone on a plane in five minutes what’s in this book, but it needs to be hard hitting.” Well, she went off to ghostwrite Michael Hammer’s first book. So she got the hard hitting engineering, re-engineering the corporation book out. But I left her house and I thought I was devastated—and then she said, “But I might be wrong, so I’m going to take this to Viking and see what they say.” I left her house very devastated and then realized, no, I wrote this book to match the paradigm that I am describing in the book. But both of those pieces of feedback were very hard for me to take, and I went into a really deep depression about the book for about a month. This was the month of June ’91. I put the book under my desk. I actually wanted to burn it, but I thought, ‘well I’ve got 10 copies out so that’s kind of a stupid gesture.’ And I decided I’m just going to play with my kids all summer. Then toward the end of the summer, someone came up to me and said, “How is your book coming?” And I knew that was a sign, and I got it out. I had gotten a letter from Steve Piersanti at Berrett-Koehler that he was forming this new publishing company and I pushed it aside and said to the friend who gave it to me, I said, “No, no; I need a real publisher for this. I need a big name publisher.” Then there was this magical two days when this woman asked me, “How is your book?” I pulled the book out. I made these minor revisions and then I called the science book agent in New York and I left a message that I had this book. I also pulled out the letter from Steve Piersanti and read it again. The next day I got a call back from the New York agent because I had used a very big name to get in, with permission. He told me to use his name. And I had the message from the New York person and I had Steve Piersanti’s letter, and I made a decision to call Steve. When I look back now—and Steve instantly loved the book and predicted my whole future with great accuracy—he said, “This book will make you famous. There’s nothing like it and it’s reputable science.”
SCARPINO: When he told you that, did you believe him?
WHEATLEY: I got catatonic. I was just like, okay. I mean it was like full force my future coming at me and it was hard to take in. And then we started working on the book. And he now sees that it was the first book that Berrett-Koehler published, really. I mean they did two other books at the time, but this book influenced him because he’s such a great learner and he applies what’s in the books he publishes. So he applied a lot of that to not only to how he runs Berrett-Koehler because he has had other great influences like Peter Block’s stewardship book, which was again one of his first books, but it changed his idea of the kinds of books, and he went much more experimental and it had a beautiful cover, and he got out of the Jossey-Bass.
SCARPINO: And you have stayed with him and with them?
SCARPINO: So he was right. The book did make you famous.
WHEATLEY: He was right. And we realize now when we are at celebrations that we are the oldest standing members of Berrett-Koehler. And for me the great blessing is how eagerly Steve has both understood what my next book is and eagerly wanted to promote it. So I have had this great freedom of feeling I can write whatever I want to and it will probably find a home, an eager home, in Berrett-Koehler.
SCARPINO: Based upon the success of that book, did you come to think of yourself as a leader?
WHEATLEY: A leader?
WHEATLEY: No. I thought of myself as a leader when I took on leading Berkana and I realized all the dilemmas of it. But I joke now with people. I know I’m a thought leader, but I say to real leaders, “I have the easier kind of leadership. I just have to think. You have to do the day-to-day hard stuff.”
SCARPINO: Well, I was going to follow up with a thought leader question, but do you ever feel as though you have to live up to the reputation?
WHEATLEY: Not anymore.
SCARPINO: Did you at one time?
WHEATLEY: Oh yes, for sure.
SCARPINO: You had to keep being Meg Wheatley?
WHEATLEY: Well no. I’ve never understood who Margaret Wheatley is, really. Many of my colleagues have said to me, “You have no idea how famous you are, do you?” And I go, “No, I don’t,” and I still don’t. And now I don’t care. You know, I’m old and I’m not to care so that’s good.
SCARPINO: I’m going to take advantage of your offer to talk later, but I want to ask you right now about spirituality. Let’s talk about that until we have to shut the gear down in 10 minutes or so then we’ll pick up again.
SCARPINO: At the beginning of the interview, I asked you a little bit about the shift sort of from science to Buddhism and we’ve sort of hinted at that a little bit, but can you talk to me about . . .
WHEATLEY: Yes. What’s interesting to me as I’ve been thinking about it is I don’t have a story about this formed yet. So we can form one right now.
SCARPINO: That’s all right, though. That’s all right.
WHEATLEY: No, it’s good. It’s just like I have always, in Joseph Campbell’s phrase, followed my bliss and I’ve never understood aforehand the consequences of any of my books or my work in general. I have just not been tuned in to that. I was very sensitive to criticism, especially feedback from corporate groups that was just nasty; like they didn’t like anything I had said. But mainly I’ve gone through my life kind of following my bliss blinded to how other people are reacting to it, and I think that’s great. It’s given me a lot more freedom because I’m not worried about what they’re thinking.
SCARPINO: And some peace maybe?
WHEATLEY: Oh yes, increasingly now. I really know what I need to be saying to people comes from me and I have to be authentic and maintain my own integrity about what I see and say in ways that I hope people can hear. So the deep spiritual ground of my life has been from a young girl being brought up British where there is just this old Celtic residue animism and connection with the earth and love of nature. That was part of my upbringing that I have relied on my whole life, and I give credit to my father for that. And I always had spiritual questions and deep questions about the nature of God and Jesus and my relationship to the divine. And so as it got looser, you know not within an organized religion, not being told ever what to believe or do, and following the energy of my quest for spiritual connection, in some ways it’s a natural path to Buddhism because Buddhism is so much about a philosophy of how to live your life and it impacts everything; your ethics, your integrity, your relationships, your in-the-moment awareness while also trying to profoundly change your perceptions. So as I said earlier, I could trace through my work this deep connection to nature, the animism which is front and center in my newest book, my deep questions about wanting to connect to spirit, period, many different excursions into different things, and then landing in Buddhist thought at a time when it gave me the kind of relief from personal pain that is the basic promise of the Buddha. But then, again, this blessing of this deep, deep connection with Pema Chodron and her mentoring me, her teaching me, her guiding me, her friendship with me which is just incalculable treasure, and then meeting my Tibetan teacher was also a very important experience. So I feel very blessed, I feel very guided, and I feel a deep sense of responsibility now to bring these awarenesses that I have gained from Buddhism into my work with leaders and people in organizations. And I think my particular niche is: I trust what I know about life inside organizations, I trust what I see about how these different dynamics in the culture are impacting us, and I strengthen my Buddhist practice with these long retreats. And so my niche going forward is to . . .
(DOORBELL RINGS—A BREAK IS TAKEN)
SCARPINO: There we go, okay.
WHEATLEY: So, having turned 70 in August and really thinking forward of: So what is the next probably final contribution, I am defining my niche as wedding together what I know about the dilemmas and challenges of trying to lead in this time, what I see and know about the pressures and dynamics that work against us as leaders, and what I’m learning constantly through my own practice about how to maintain stability, awareness, compassion, and generosity. So the people that I’m most interested in teaching now in a spiritual retreat form are these leaders who are still trying to stay and still trying to do good work, but require enormous support and new skills and the skills that I’m learning as a Buddhist practitioner. So that’s what I have defined as my particular niche, and it brings together all the currents of my life so far.
SCARPINO: What are the skills that you have learned as a Buddhist practitioner?
WHEATLEY: Oh, I have learned how to watch myself moment by moment and not react.
WHEATLEY: And I have learned how to notice when I get hooked and I’m starting to feel quite aggressive or impatient. And I know when to withdraw to reground; what we would call recharging, but for me it’s more about, okay, I just need to come back to center. I need to understand this isn’t about me. I need to see if I can free myself in the situation of any needs I might have so I could really be of value to whoever is in front of me.
SCARPINO: I think I’m going to have to shut this over. All right, so we can reconvene here in a minute.
SCARPINO: All right, our main one is live as well. So just for the benefit of anyone who is listening to this recording or looking at the transcript, we have just moved locations and I’m continuing the interview with Margaret Wheatley in San Diego. As we were wrapping up upstairs, I asked you about spirituality. Is there anything that you want to add on that subject?
WHEATLEY: I don’t think so except as I’ve conceived my work for this next decade, it really is about combining all the threads of my life, so systems thinking, spirituality, and history and new science. All of them are coming together nicely for me.
SCARPINO: Are you still looking? As I sort of looked at your career, I thought that there is somebody who seems like she was looking for something almost from the beginning.
WHEATLEY: No, I haven’t been looking. I’ve been following, I have learned to trust that whatever I’m curious about is worth my interest.
WHEATLEY: I don’t know where the curiosity comes from. It is for certain things and not others, like in all of us. But I’ve learned that whatever I’m studying and whatever I’m interested in and if I really apply myself and go into it with good scholarship that it will turn into my next work.
SCARPINO: Do you think of yourself as a scholar? Is that part of the identity of who you are?
WHEATLEY: Not in the traditional sense of an academic, but I am definitely a scholar because of the way I study.
SCARPINO: Do you think of yourself as a thought leader?
WHEATLEY: Yes, I do now. I’ve never liked the word, but I’ve gotten used to it. But I feel pretty far out there as a thought leader now. I would like people to catch up with me, but I realized actually they are never going to.
SCARPINO: But there is something about, at least as I looked at your career as much time as I had to do it, there has certainly been an evolutionary trajectory there where you have never been afraid to find the edges and push them.
WHEATLEY: Absolutely. Right. So one of the quotes I treasure is from the British novelist who had a jihad put out on him.
SCARPINO: Oh, Salman Rushdie.
WHEATLEY: Thank you. Salman Rushdie who was talking about creative people and he said, “The artists go to the edge and look outward.” So I’ve loved being on the edge and I have looked inward and outward both, I think.
SCARPINO: Is there still an edge for you somewhere?
WHEATLEY: Yes. This new book is an edge because I’m really introducing people to a world that is not within my professional domain, and it’s why it is a memoir because it’s also my experiences that I can’t deny that are very gentle. I mean there’s nothing shocking in the book. But I hope there’s always an edge. There is so much we don’t know and just working with the mind is enough of an edge for me for the rest of my life.
SCARPINO: Do you think that one of the measures of a creative person or an effective thought leader is pushing that edge?
WHEATLEY: I think an effective thought leader and a creative person are two different categories.
SCARPINO: Okay. You caught me.
WHEATLEY: If you are focused on being effective as a thought leader then you are going to be very sensitive to your audience and how you word things and wanting to get known and you put some energy into that, whereas if you are just a creative person you just follow the creative impulse.
WHEATLEY: I think I’m more on the creative person because I really don’t care when I’m writing a book. I only write books that tell me they want me to write them. And I’ve given this advice to many fledgling authors. I don’t write to get famous and I don’t write to get well known. I write because a book has told me it’s time and this is the content.
SCARPINO: I want to go back when you were planning and thinking about what became Leadership and the New Science. I read somewhere where you wrote that after you received your doctorate you said you entered a profession that variously described as management consulting, organizational development, even organizational change, and we talked a little bit about your consulting. Then I also read that you had become discouraged about your profession’s understanding of systems. And, in fact, you had some at least published remarks . . .
WHEATLEY: That’s in the beginning . . .
SCARPINO: . . . that were pretty critical.
WHEATLEY: . . . of Leadership and the New Science.
SCARPINO: Yes. So what was going on in your profession at the time that caused you to be critical or pessimistic or both?
WHEATLEY: Well, it’s only intensified now. It was as I had described it then—I recently reread it—it’s the inability to have enough time or consistent leadership for any consulting project. Even then in the late ’80s, you’d start something and then you couldn’t finish it because the company got sold, the leader got promoted or fired, and there was all this turbulence in the environment, which looks like heaven compared to what it is now. And now there isn’t even any interest really. Companies still say, “Well, talk to us about innovation or productivity,” but that’s not really the issue. You need to look at how the whole system now operates against people doing quality work; time to think, learn from experience. These are the things that I see missing now.
SCARPINO: Do you find companies receptive to those messages?
WHEATLEY: I’m not working with corporations.
WHEATLEY: I’ve worked with a few over the years because they had a leader I wanted to support, but the dynamics are the same. I just think they’re the same in any organization. But certainly in the corporate environment, it’s really gotten insane and destructive. It’s just the push for speed, very little ethics because there’s no thinking going on. Sometimes I will speak to audiences at conferences and I’ll say, “We have to restore thinking here,” and then I always add, “I feel like an idiot having to say this.”
SCARPINO: So where do you believe that thinking went?
WHEATLEY: It disappeared with the rate of speed and with the fear and anxiety, but it would’ve been about 10 years ago when I realized I would ask people, “How much time do you spend thinking with colleagues?” and they started to laugh at me then. Now it’s beyond, beyond with that.
(A BREAK IS TAKEN)
WHEATLEY: When I question people who are presenting a new model or this is how leaders need to conceive the workplace, this is how people need to be in the workplace, where I get, I realize, a little too impatient is have you even noticed what a leader’s day is like these days? It’s not for lack of ideas. It’s lack of time, focus, values, all the things that are making it increasingly harder for good leaders to do what they used to do. So to say that the problem is with leaders for me is just ignoring the real dynamics that we should be looking at. So when I say reintroduce thinking, I’m trying to create a sea change in how people interact around their work.
SCARPINO: And the system in which the leaders are embedded?
WHEATLEY: That’s right. And I’ve been promoting this now for about four years as one of the great essential acts you must take; reinstitute regular times to think. Because that changes relationships, it changes decisions, it changes our sense of confidence and our capacity to deal with things, it creates better solutions. It really is, for me, the ultimate solution. And then people say, “Well, we don’t have time.” I say, “I rest my case.”
SCARPINO: We talked at the beginning about your colleague who suggested that you read quantum physics and then you read chaos theory and all . . .
WHEATLEY: And then the book Chaos had just come out also, yes.
SCARPINO: When I was a graduate student, I had to write an essay about energy and change. I don’t want to get into a lot of details about myself, but I remember reading and thinking and reading and thinking and reading and thinking, and it just wasn’t coming together. Then I read a particular essay by an economist and a statistician named Georgescu-Roegen. One line in there, which was about all I could understand because of all the math; just I read it and everything came together for me. For me that was kind of like an aha moment. Was there anything like that for you as you were reading and all of a sudden it went bingo?
WHEATLEY: Yes. I remember it so vividly and I have talked about it a lot, which was the moment I realized that order and control were not necessarily connected.
WHEATLEY: Now, it seems a complete no brainer, but at the time—I still remember that moment, where I was, all of that, that you can have order without control.
SCARPINO: Was there something in particular you were reading?
WHEATLEY: It was one of the books on self-organizing systems, yes. I think the other great aha when I link it back to perception was Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana’s work on The Tree of Knowledge which stated that we get triggered by the outside world, but it’s only about 10 or 20 percent of input from exterior things and then we form our perceptions from what’s already in us. I remember reading that on a plane flying to the first Pegasus Conference that I was speaking at and presenting that idea because I just thought it was so startling. And it became a very big part of what I was teaching for many years.
SCARPINO: For the benefit of somebody who might listen to this and not know, what was a Pegasus Conference?
WHEATLEY: It was a derivative of Peter Senge’s work and it was all about systems thinking, and then it became systems thinking and action.
SCARPINO: Did Peter Senge’s work have a significant influence on your intellectual development?
WHEATLEY: We actually developed at the same time. So I always found great, I used the fifth discipline when I was teaching ethics. Then Peter and I met and we started to meet at conferences and develop a friendship.
SCARPINO: Did you work together in any capacity other than a friendship at conferences?
WHEATLEY: No. We did a few great dialogues together, and then we would see each other about once a year at the Shambhala Institute Authentic Leadership in Action for a while, and we’ve really connected not so much around the systems thinking any longer, although the last public dialogue we had was just about that two years ago, but also about our Buddhist practice.
SCARPINO: So he has been on that path as well?
WHEATLEY: Yes. It is a very big part of him.
SCARPINO: You read quantum physics, chaos theory, molecular biology. My assumption will be that most of the people who will ever listen to this will never have read quantum physics.
WHEATLEY: Yes, but the misuse of the term is everywhere.
SCARPINO: Well, but we are going to try to fix that right now. So how did you see a connection between a quantum worldview and relationships and organizations?
WHEATLEY: Well, I think the ultimate, two or three, ultimate teachings from quantum theory; one is that the basic building blocks of life, of the universe, are relationships, that you can’t see anything. Even at the subatomic level of quantum particles, you cannot see them until they collide with another particle. So ‘nothing living lives alone’ is how I’ve characterized that. But looking for the basic building blocks, all the quantum scientists found was relationships. That felt fundamentally important. And the second aspect of that is that we all exist, like all life, all from particles on up, as bundles of potential that manifest in relationship. So this has a lot of corollaries in social science, such as if you tell a teacher this is a bright student no matter their behavior, the student will become bright. And if you tell the teacher, no, this is a problem student, even if it is a brilliant child, he or she becomes a problem. And how we perceive each other; now, this goes beyond stereotypes, but it’s powerful just viewed as stereotypes. But it’s a principle of science that all these potentials that we are only manifest because of who we’re talking to or what we’re reading or where we are in a physical place. So we constantly can be surprising ourself and not have to fit into these small categories of, well, I’m good at this, I’m this kind of person, all of which is happening now more and more in the culture. But that was a beautiful promise and I’ve worked with that a lot with people. I think the other aspect is the participatory nature of perception; that we create the world through how we see it and this gets very detailed in quantum mechanics and doesn’t need to be just for it to make sense that we are never truly perceiving reality. We are co-creating it with what’s out there.
SCARPINO: So if I had not used the term quantum mechanics when I asked you the question and I just played your answers back without my questions, this could sound like spirituality.
WHEATLEY: Absolutely. It’s good Buddhism I just gave you.
SCARPINO: Did you see the connections at the time?
WHEATLEY: Well, I did.
SCARPINO: Other people did.
WHEATLEY: No, I did. I did. And that’s when Willis Harman said to me, “Meg, don’t give the science too much credit because spiritual traditions have known this forever.”
SCARPINO: So on the surface for somebody who is not a scientist, chaos theory would seem to be counterintuitive to what you were interested in, in terms of organizations and order and so on.
WHEATLEY: No. Chaos theory shows you that there is such a thing as deterministic chaos which does form into patterns of incredibly exquisite shapes, unending order.
WHEATLEY: Fractals and strange attractors.
WHEATLEY: Someone pointed out to me last night that the movie Frozen, which is a very big movie—all kids love it—has a whole song about fractals, so I have to go look at it again.
SCARPINO: Actually my niece or nephew told me that.
WHEATLEY: Okay. Well, I want to go hear it. I’ve only watched the movie briefly. But the basic shift in perception that I learned from the new science and thereafter taught is that the world is inherently orderly. It seeks order, and we can participate in that. It’s not up to us. It is not our job to create organization in the way we do the elaborate organizations filled with policies and rules and such; that we could create the conditions for order to arise out of human interactions, focus on meaning and purpose of what is this work for, and we could let go of a lot of the garbage that’s out there about people needing to be controlled. And I want to say one more thing.
WHEATLEY: Presenting that has been joyful for me because I realized early on that people didn’t realize we had a choice. They thought the only form or organization is bureaucracy or hierarchy. Hierarchy is innate in nature, but bureaucracy is not.
SCARPINO: Or increasing complexity, I guess, is innate in nature.
WHEATLEY: It is, but I’ve recently been studying the nature of complexities. The systems reach an optimum point and then they break down. Complexity itself isn’t always better. One of the misperceptions of my work is people think that if it’s self-organizing, it’s inherently good, or if it is complexified, it’s inherently good. They confuse order, self-organized order, with—they put a normative value to it: So it’s good because it’s natural, it’s organic, it’s dynamic. And I’ve recently been really coming up against this. Self-organization is responsible for gangs, for terrorist groups, for any group that feels passionate. All the nastiness on the web now is a creation of self-organization, of people just being able to organize around their hatred and fear. So this is a misperception; when we say it’s organic, it does not mean it’s good.
SCARPINO: You wrote at one point, you said, “When you switch to thinking about organizations as complex living systems, you get to see a lot of processes that could work in your behalf as a leader. We can take our management metaphor, not from machines, but from the ways living systems organize and reorganize and manage themselves.” So when we take our management metaphor not from machines but from the way living systems organize . . .
WHEATLEY: This has been my whole work right there. You are defining what it has been. What does it mean to operate as a living system?
SCARPINO: Let me be a little bit more specific about that because I hope that I pushed the right button.
SCARPINO: What does that mean for leadership because this is the International Leadership Association and I’m interviewing you on their behalf?
WHEATLEY: Well, it is what I was just talking about. The difference between control and order and what your role is to create—I mean other people have misinterpreted what I’m saying or others just saying when we talk about living systems and they say, “I just need to let go. I just need to let it all self-organize. I just need to free people and they’ll do it right.” No, that is not correct. There are conditions that are imperative for leaders to create. The first is all organizing occurs around an identity, values, history, but who we define ourselves as. So that has to be in place if you want healthy self-organizing. You want healthy values rather than values of hate and fear or just greed. So that’s the work of the leader. And then I think really important work is to create the conditions and resources so that people can be together to think, to define the work, and then create a learning loop, a feedback loop, which we don’t have either. Those three things: Creating a clear sense of values and identity that are real, not bogus; creating the conditions and giving people the resources, not just of money but of time and attention, to really figure things out; and then creating very healthy feedback loops so that we are learning from experience. That’s a lot of work. It has nothing to do with policies, control mechanisms and such.
SCARPINO: We talked a little bit earlier about what happened to your manuscript after you wrote it and some of the critiques that you got that were a little sharp.
SCARPINO: But when you finished that manuscript up, did you have a sense of what you were advocating in terms of leadership . . .
WHEATLEY: I did.
SCARPINO: . . . was quite a break from the past?
WHEATLEY: No. I knew it was different, but I thought it was so enticing and so demonstrably more effective that people would just love it.
SCARPINO: So you were never worried that people who were invested in other systems . . .
WHEATLEY: I learned that early on. I remember speaking at the University of Utah and being told that after I had given this description of leadership that one of my colleagues went to his leadership class and the professor ranted for two hours about how wrong I was. And in that moment I realized ‘oh, I am threatening your life’s work.’ And I did develop much more sensitivity to the fact that if you’re invested in a research stream about whatever it is and I come in with a whole new set of basic beliefs that are different, all you’re going to do is rant and feel threatened. So I got sensitive to that after a while. One part of this whole journey has been, as I said, ideas don’t change the world, but the other really more in-depth part of that is that what happens to paradigm pioneers all of which Joel Barker described years ago. And so you are going to be misrepresented, misinterpreted, patted on the head, or just not visible at all because it’s so threatening to people when you are dealing at the level of paradigm, world views, fundamental beliefs.
SCARPINO: So at what point did you realize that you were, in fact, a paradigm pioneer?
WHEATLEY: Yes. I don’t recall. It would have been early on with Leadership and the New Science.
SCARPINO: But you didn’t see it coming when you were working on the book?
WHEATLEY: That’s the kind of blindness that’s given me a lot of freedom. It really is. I have never worried about that.
SCARPINO: Actually blindness actually didn’t occur to me.
SCARPINO: I’ve talked to a lot of people in the past 10 years who have in one way or another had a huge impact on their peers or on social organization or social thought. And some of them realized where they were heading and some of them didn’t.
SCARPINO: And I’m not sure there is a predictor in there, but it’s curious just to ask to see if they knew.
WHEATLEY: No, I got clearer and clearer of what I was doing or asking and the dynamics that I was getting hit with, and that really fed into my work of working with younger leaders and training them to expect these very negative pushbacks.
SCARPINO: I was just probing a little bit about the implications of some of the science that you read.
WHEATLEY: Oh, you’re talking about chaos.
WHEATLEY: And I think that’s another place where my work has been misperceived because people say, “Well, chaos leads to order.” No, it doesn’t necessarily. You have to create the conditions, again, of meaning, identity, values, what are we going to reorganize around now that it’s all fallen apart? So it’s not like chaos is always good. It’s an important condition if you really want profound change because what happens in chaos is like a dark night of the soul. The things that were meaningful are no longer meaningful. The things that work no longer work. And you’re in that place that is truly a liminal space. And then the only way you get out of it is to find new meaning.
SCARPINO: But is that space in part created by the infusion of an awful lot of information? I mean are you not encouraging people not to try to impose order too quickly?
WHEATLEY: Oh, absolutely. That’s true. That’s true. One of my deep concerns for this time is that information no longer changes minds. It is the source of peaceful transitions because when we don’t take in information, we only hold onto our opinions and in this media environment, in this polarized environment, we are not learning from each other anymore. And when we’re not able to be changed by information, by reports, by science, all of which you see front and center with climate change, but it’s our economic picture. I mean we just don’t care about the information if it’s different than what we are already opinionated about.
SCARPINO: Could that have anything to do with the volume of information coming at us?
WHEATLEY: It has everything to do with a climate of fear first of all; high levels of distraction, which would also be the . . . But even when you get 99% of the world’s best scientists telling you, “you have to get serious about climate change” several years ago, what happens? We discard it if we don’t want to believe it.
WHEATLEY: So when information doesn’t change us, the only thing that does is violence. And that’s a huge concern from my view.
SCARPINO: I actually had some questions I was going to ask you about your publisher and your editor, but we talked about that so I’m going to skip over those.
WHEATLEY: And I don’t have editors anymore.
SCARPINO: Well, I was actually talking about, I didn’t mean editor like edit your work. I was thinking of the person who was wise enough to realize what he got.
WHEATLEY: Steve Piersanti.
SCARPINO: Yes, Steve Piersanti. So you have since 1992 continued to challenge accepted views of systems and leadership. If I counted right, your second book was A Simpler Way, it came out in 1996, co-authored with Myron Kellner-Rogers, in which you continued to develop the theme of order arising instead of being imposed. Why that theme in the second book? And then I want to ask you who your collaborator was.
WHEATLEY: Well, that book came directly out of Leadership and the New Science. Even the title came from Leadership and the New Science because I had written there is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. Again, that book appeared and it has a particular form, a very different voice in it. It was much more poetic and it was much more emotional for people, and it was just the book that wanted to be written at that time. Some people still love it. I don’t particularly love it at all anymore, but it was a very beautiful book and certainly educated me also about design and experimenting with voice.
SCARPINO: There is that thing about writing and publishing that it’s out there and if you change 20, 25 years later, it’s still there.
SCARPINO: It’s like being a sculptor. So 1992 was a big year for you. In addition to your Leadership and the New Science, that’s the year you founded the Berkana Institute.
WHEATLEY: It was actually ’91.
SCARPINO: Oh my goodness.
WHEATLEY: Yes, you’ll have to correct that.
SCARPINO: We have just corrected it.
SCARPINO: So then 1991 and 1992 were big years. I was sort of struck by the description on your website where you said, “Berkana is an ancient Norse word for birch tree, and symbolically stands as the Norse rune for growth and rebirth.”
WHEATLEY: Right, and blossoming into new forms through gentle and persuasive action that begins with self-rectification.
SCARPINO: I actually looked up the book.
WHEATLEY: It had everything in it.
SCARPINO: Ralph Blum’s book on The Book of Runes. I actually got it. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I read the—Here is the question that I have and I kept thinking about this and either there is a good answer here or I’m barking up the wrong tree. But when I read your explanation and when I looked up The Book of Runes, I kept thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton who was a 19th Century women’s rights advocate. She wrote a letter once and she said “There’s a great deal in a name. It often signifies much, and may involve a great principle...” She was talking about women’s names and so on, so is there a great principle embedded in the name Berkana?
WHEATLEY: It’s the description of the room; gentle and persuasive movement into new forms that starts with self. It was a perfect name for us.
SCARPINO: How did your life intersect with that so that you were able to pick that as your name?
WHEATLEY: I was already using The Book of Runes and through intuition, guidance, whatever you want to call it, I was told the name would be in The Book of Runes. I was very thrilled to find Berkana because a lot of the other names were really like Algiz, Uruz. I mean they’re not nice. Berkana is a lovely name.
SCARPINO: It has that sort of poetic quality to it. It made me want to go look it up and figure out what it meant as soon as I saw it.
WHEATLEY: I’m glad you did that.
SCARPINO: So 1991, how did the mission and purpose of that institute evolve?
WHEATLEY: You know, what is so funny about Berkana is we created it with my co-author. Myron Kellner-Rogers was formative, and several friends at BYU, and we formed the whole thing and we still didn’t really know why or what our work would be. It had a very powerful mission statement about that we would create communities of support and inquiry for those seeking their salvation in the marketplace, so it had a spiritual tone. I could still use that description of my work basically. And we formed as a 501(c)3 charitable foundation and we still didn’t quite know what we were going to do, and then Leadership and the New Science came out, and it was “Oh, well of course, these things go together.” So we spent from ’92 to 1997 or 1998 really educating people about what self-organizing systems were. We were one of the early groups that also worked on dialogue—teaching dialogue when it was first coming into focus. But in 2000, because I had started working with a lot of younger leaders and just been woken up to the fact of how many of them are out there around the world in business, we completely shifted our mission to a global focus about supporting younger leaders who were trying to do things differently. And that existed for many years and resulted—it was from 2000 to 2010 or ’11—and that’s the content of the book Walk Out Walk On, which I co-authored with Deborah Frieze, and it’s really her book. She did a brilliant job with it. But she was president of Berkana after I resigned. She was co-president with Bob Stilger and they really did the work of supporting these fledgling organizations, or in some cases they were already organized and we just lended support and created a global network. So they’re described in Walk Out Walk On. And then two years ago, we just decided we don’t know what we should be doing and we’ve taken this rest, which I’m so proud of us for doing. It was very painful for people to move into.
SCARPINO: I mean, once you had that much invested, was it a challenge to say, okay, we’re going to put it to bed for a while?
WHEATLEY: Well, it was a challenge because we knew we were disappointing our colleagues, but we felt we were just overstretched. There’s no money out there. We know that. And what do the times require now? So we went into that period of reflection and we’re about to come out with these . . .
SCARPINO: I was going to say, you mentioned when the recorder was off that you are about to bring it out of hibernation.
WHEATLEY: Yes, we are in March after I get back from retreat. And we’re stepping out with a program called Gathering Friends. And we’re just helping people in the most efficient, low-cost way to give focus to creating small groups of people you know, whether it’s virtual or place-based, and to make a commitment to meet together once a month for the sole purpose of finding support and comfort, fun, and consolation so we can stay in this very hard work.
SCARPINO: What was the relationship between the Shambhala Institute and the Berkana program?
WHEATLEY: We were one of their allies.
WHEATLEY: And many people from Berkana got involved with Shambhala, many.
SCARPINO: And the Authentic Leadership in Action?
WHEATLEY: That’s the same thing.
SCARPINO: It’s the same thing? Shambhala became that?
WHEATLEY: Yes, they changed their name.
SCARPINO: So, what was the purpose of Authentic Leadership in Action?
WHEATLEY: Well, it depends who you ask.
SCARPINO: Well, let’s start with you. What did you think the purpose would be?
WHEATLEY: It was a program conceived by the senior students of Chögyam Trungpa, who’s the founder of Shambhala, the person who brought meditation to the West.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask that you say that name again because our transcriber will never get it.
WHEATLEY: It is Chögyam.
WHEATLEY: C-H-O-G-Y-A-M, but it has umlauts over the O.
WHEATLEY: Trungpa, T-R-U-N-G-P-A. He’s one of the most renowned meditation teachers. He’s been dead since 1987. But he brought forward the vision of creating an enlightened society and the vision of Shambhala warriorship, which you can read about in So Far From Home. So his senior students who had been very well trained wanted to make a contribution to the field of leadership, and Trungpa Rinpoche described authenticity, authentic behavior, that it creates a field of power around you.
WHEATLEY: This whole notion of people being willing to serve a very dark time is part of the Shambhala prophecy in Tibet. It’s a big prophecy. It’s very well known. Joanna Macy has used it quite a lot in her work and I used it in So Far From Home. So this became a global community of people who were coming together around leadership, but also seeking community. And it has just recently, I think—it came to an end, like a lot of these programs we are talking about have ended. I think they’re going to have a rebirth at Naropa University, but I don’t think it’s been signed, sealed, and delivered yet. But my feeling about it was—and it is what’s expressed in So Far From Home and my work generally—is we do need to see ourselves as warriors for this time on behalf of the human spirit and, therefore . . .
SCARPINO: I was just checking the time.
WHEATLEY: Yes, I see the clock there. Therefore, we need to band together, support each other; that’s why Berkana is coming out with a quote of “I always knew you thought of me and if I got in a tight place, you would come, if alive.” That’s the qualities we are now trying to create.
SCARPINO: I’m going to wrap this up.
WHEATLEY: Okay, I can give you a good 15 more minutes.
SCARPINO: Okay. I pulled some questions out of my reading of Walk Out Walk On . . .
WHEATLEY: Oh, okay.
SCARPINO: . . . ,my partial reading because I could only read part of it. There’s a place in the book, and I didn’t write down the page number but you probably know this better than I do, where a woman named Tuesday Ryan-Hart and then Phil Cass are inviting people who are involved in various systems in Columbus, Ohio . . .
WHEATLEY: Yes, healthcare.
SCARPINO: . . . into what they call a hosting as leadership practice.
WHEATLEY: That was Art of Hosting.
SCARPINO: Okay, so can you talk a little bit about the Art of Hosting and what that has to do with leadership?
WHEATLEY: I could, but what I would rather do is show you the trail that led to Art of Hosting because I’ve also published a number of things on shifting the leadership mental model from leader-as-hero to leader-as-host.
WHEATLEY: That goes back to creating the conditions for self-organization to happen. But for me, it’s an important part of the story to say that the relationships that were formed within Berkana then gave rise to people taking to finding their next work as wanting to work on the hosting aspects. And that started Art of Hosting, which has now grown into something much bigger beyond its founders. But its founders, all but a few, were all together in Berkana doing the work. And it’s that kind of movement forward, but also an individuation process and redefining one’s own work based on your experience in a prior organization, but the relationships that had formed within Berkana were really wonderful and so this created the conditions for Art of Hosting to then come as its own entity.
SCARPINO: So Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea of PeerSpirit teaching, what is their contribution in terms of these host circles?
WHEATLEY: They have written the best book, the deepest book, the most—well deepest is probably the word—on circle practice. I invited Christina in when Berkana was reforming globally and we were going to create circles of support and inquiry, which we did in about 30 countries. It was called From the Four Directions: People Everywhere Leading the Way. And those circles, some of them, gave rise to the more organized efforts that started that are covered in Walk Out Walk On. So I’ve always had the deepest respect for Christina and Ann, but I work with Christina more, about how they teach circle and what it really means. For them, it’s a very ancient process. So in the early, from 2000 or 2001, Christina and Ann led the training that we offered to younger leaders. We did training in England, the US, and South Africa to prepare people to host these circles.
SCARPINO: And this was training through Berkana?
WHEATLEY: It was Berkana sponsored.
SCARPINO: So Berkana was really like a seabed for a lot of ideas . . .
WHEATLEY: We were.
SCARPINO: . . . that germinated.
WHEATLEY: And bringing together the people that I knew had the right skillset.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you some summary questions.
SCARPINO: And I’m going to save time for one question that I ask everyone at the end. We actually talked quite a bit about some of the things I was going to ask you at the end, like in 1992 you still believed it was possible to effect change and you don’t really feel that way anymore. And we actually spent a fair amount of time talking about Buddhism and I have a bunch of questions that Juanita Brown suggested, but we have gone over all of those except you shared a stage, I think in Houston . . .
WHEATLEY: Oh, New Orleans.
SCARPINO: New Orleans. With Dalai Lama?
SCARPINO: What put you and the Dalai Lama on the same stage and what did that mean to you?
WHEATLEY: It meant everything to me. Still does. And it was an event sponsored by Tulane University. My work is well known in New Orleans. I’ve been there many times since Katrina, and they wanted to do it on resilience. The theme was resilience through compassion and community. So they invited me right after I had had a dream that this was going to happen. So as a Tibetan Buddhist, these things are very meaningful, that teachers do speak to you in dreams. And I had, 10 days before I got the invitation, I had a dream that I was standing next to His Holiness in absolute pure intimacy, and we were together looking off in the distance and we were talking about how can we best serve that—whatever it was, and then I got the invitation.
SCARPINO: And you were both there, both on the stage together.
WHEATLEY: And we spent a fair amount of time, there was a moment backstage when I was standing right next to him and he was being very sweet with me and holding my hand, and I thought ‘oh, this is the dream.’ But it was a wonderful experience because I felt I really contributed from my perspective both as a Buddhist and a community person. And we had a lot of fun together. The photos are luminous.
SCARPINO: I saw some of them.
WHEATLEY: Yes. So that is the high point of my life, that event.
SCARPINO: So some kind of wrap-up questions. As you look back on your life and your career, is there a single thing that you’re the most proud of? And I know that with systems theory I’m not supposed to do that, but I did.
WHEATLEY: I’m proud of my fearlessness. That sums up a lot of things we’ve been talking about. I don’t feel restrained. I don’t necessarily know that I should be afraid. And I’m constantly just awake to what interests me, and that I approach fearlessly.
SCARPINO: As you look back, again, on your life and your career, is there anything that you would change if you could do it over again?
WHEATLEY: I would have handled my children differently at the time of my divorce. That is the one thing I still regret. They’re fine with it now. They’re adults. They have their own kids. We’ve talked about it so that they’re bored with it. But that still is just a point of sorrow for me, how I didn’t handle that so well.
SCARPINO: Divorce is kind of a point of sorrow anyhow.
WHEATLEY: Well, it is. It is.
SCARPINO: Do you consider yourself to be a work in progress?
WHEATLEY: Always. That’s what life is for.
SCARPINO: Well, there’s a followup to that. What do you still want to accomplish? What remains important to you?
WHEATLEY: Well, I still want to teach and be available to people, and I still want to develop my mind much more; that’s a Buddhist mind, not an intellectual mind.
SCARPINO: I don’t mean this question to sound at all morbid, but what would you like your legacy to be?
WHEATLEY: I’ve been asked this question a lot and I’ve recently said that my tombstone needs to read—I use this phrase a lot—“We were together. I forget the rest.” And that’s what I want my legacy to be. In points of despair, because my friends and I have talked about this, we’ve gone like, “Well, we’ll just write on our tombstone ‘whatever, we tried.’” But it really is—we were together.
SCARPINO: So you’ve got grandchildren that are like four, five, six, seven.
WHEATLEY: Lots of them.
SCARPINO: So if you were going to sit down with your grandkids . . .
WHEATLEY: I’ve got grandchildren up to age 25 now.
SCARPINO: Let’s talk about the younger ones where you have to explain, but if you were going to sit down with your younger grandkids and you are just going to fill in the blank, grandma’s had a long life and has been . . . What are you going to tell them? What do you want them to know about you?
WHEATLEY: I’ve tried to be kind and generous and be of service to other people and not think so much about myself. I already have these conversations.
SCARPINO: Do you spoil your grandkids?
WHEATLEY: But I spoil my kids and my grandkids. But, more and more, I’m really trying to add my input to how they think. I’ve been commissioned by one of my sons: Please teach my kids science.
SCARPINO: So have you become your grandma?
WHEATLEY: I try to be.
SCARPINO: Strong woman, powerful influence.
WHEATLEY: I try to be, yes. I have more reach than she had because of the times and my work, but I will forever honor Irma Lindheim, yes.
SCARPINO: One more question.
SCARPINO: Is there anything that I should have asked you that I didn’t or something you wish I would have brought up that I didn’t?
WHEATLEY: No, because I’ve thought about it. I had time to think. And I’m interested to see what I said. That will be interesting.
SCARPINO: Well, it will be very interesting and very fascinating. So before I turn this thing off, I want to on behalf of myself and the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association, I want to thank you very much for being kind enough to spend a lot of time with me before you go down and stand on a stage.
WHEATLEY: But you have to realize what a gift it is to be in a reflection about one’s self with good questions, so thank you.
SCARPINO: You’re very welcome. I really appreciated the opportunity to do this.
[end of recording]