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.
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