What does it take to lead in times like ours?

Reflections on our Perseverance event with Margaret Wheatley

How do we persevere in times like ours, when nothing is clear and everything keeps changing? How do we stand our ground when the only constant is our values, beliefs and mindsets? Keep on reading to learn more about our two-day Perseverance learning event with Meg Wheatley in October 2019 as well as for information on our brand-new residential programme with Meg in March 2020.

Together with Margaret Wheatley, writer and practitioner in systems thinking and leadership, over 130 leaders from across public service and beyond explored what it takes to persevere in times like ours – and (likewise importantly) – what does not deserve our perseverance. Over the course of two days filled with insightful teachings, inspirational stories and collaborative group exercises we worked on the skills needed to stand our ground and keep leading with clarity.

Specialising in Organisational Behaviour, Meg’s approach includes Systems Thinking, Theories of Change, Leadership and the Learning Organisation and believes in the idea that “real social change comes from the ageless process of people thinking together in conversation.” Her expertise therefore perfectly complements Collective Leadership’s vision and mission of initiating positive system changes through collaboration across public services and the wider society. 

Meg teaching us about Perseverance and how it differs from Resilience

Meg opened the event by defining Perseverance. Perseverance is the persistence and effort required to do something and keep doing it till the end, even if it’s hard. It is to keep going with clarity about why you are doing what you are doing.  Perseverance is not giving up. Yet, Meg reminds us, that Perseverance differs from Resilience. Whilst resilient people can withstand pressure and bounce back over and over again, persevering people know what they stand for and who they serve.

“People who Persevere learn how to deal with Fear, Aggression, Failure, Criticism, Betrayal, Exhaustion & Despair” – Meg Wheatley

In order to retain the capacity to lead with clarity, persevering people apply skills to overcome obstacles and even emotions which prevent them from staying on course. Inspired by Meg’s illustrative teachings and inspiring quotes from her book, participants then got together to identify the skills needed to persevere. Rather than looking at textbook examples, Meg urges us to look at our ancestors and even ourselves, and explore how we have remained steadfast and capable in difficult times in the past.

Group Work

 “In persevering, we need the unshakeable confidence that people can be generous, creative & kind” – Meg Wheatley

Vital skills we discovered are to face reality, remain faithful to our purpose, work ethically together, and restore sanity where we can by maintaining an “unshakeable confidence that people can be generous, creative and kind”.  We have to learn to take nothing personally, even though we experience the feelings associated with our work personally. As a leader we have to ask ourselves the question: “who do we choose to be – and who do we choose to be when things come undone?”

Some of the practices we then worked with individually, and together, centred around:

  • Paying exquisite attention to relationships: critique everything based on its impact on relationships and when things get harder, bring in more connections.
  • Looking at how we respond when things go wrong: if through blame, we can miss our contribution to the issue.  How can we hold each other to account ethically rather than blaming?
  • Restoring proper thinking time: how much time do we give to thinking, reflecting and learning from experiences?  We need to make and protect the time regularly which could mean saying no to taking on more at the expense of good work.

Linda Hunter’s beautiful drawing below perfectly illustrates how we as leaders have to act in order to keep our head over the water. Drawing on the theme of ‘water’, the illustration shows a person swimming against currents, representing ours and other people’s exhaustion, aggression, criticism, betrayal, failure and fear. We have to learn to work our way through them, keeping our head above water – all the while knowing that the currents will change again and accepting that we could fail. Check out Linda’s Blog here if you would like to see and learn more about Linda’s art for Collective Leadership.

Linda’s drawing showing a person (leader) swimming against the currents

After this inspiring morning and afternoon, Meg left us with three questions to contemplate on:

  1. What is the work I am currently doing that deserves my perseverance?
  2. What is the work that needs doing? This work might not necessarily be the work that I feel called to or passionate about.
  3. Am I the one to be doing it?  Do I have the skills and allies to meaningfully contribute to it? Is the timing and other conditions right in my life?

“Ethics is what we do when we decide to belong together”– Meg Wheatley

The next day, the groups came together once again to unravel what challenges they currently face in their leadership and which skills would give them the capacity to face them. Having been reminded of the importance of connections, emotions, other ways of knowing and the impact of relationships, which is often missed when measuring what matters in our activity, we rethought how deeply rooted our connections are and how we can collectively reignite our passions and work better together.

Topics in the group discussions included the ‘Dundee Think Global, Act Local initiative’ (for more information read up on Darryl’s blog here), how to have conversations that cross divides between polarised viewpoints, creating and embedding opportunities for Collective Leadership across our public services, supporting strategy and sustainability of an ethical business model, developing “kitchen table” conversations and many others.

“Kitchen table” conversation

Event attendee Manira Ahmad, Head of Local Intelligence at NHS NSS, says the “kitchen table” conversations released her “inner super power”:  

“#DwellingMind – little did I know when I started the short yet insightful journey in the company of Meg Wheatley and a group of 130 leaders from across the system, I would have ended having opened up heart, mind and soul to my own inter-connectedness and my hidden creativity. I had been harbouring an inner super power which flourished when connecting across generations around a “kitchen table”. How transferable was my ability to have open dialogue in my homely setting into other environments? Well, I found out through the passion of others that we are “one”, our existence does not stop and start at work or home, or indeed is not defined by a job title. Our humanity is what makes us US, what makes me ME and my relationships provide me with the much needed endorphins to focus on what truly matters.

The importance of focusing our minds in getting “back to basics”, it seems so simple yet we have collectively made ecosystems so complex that without this additionally we don’t feel a sense of belonging. Making the systemic more attractive than the simplicity. Though I do see around me a new wave, the rise of Courageous Leadership. Individuals that are keen to connect the system to more of itself thus allowing the growth of ethical behaviour.”

Manira Ahmad

“The time of the lone wolf is over”

Working together to progress on challenges exemplified Meg’s assumption that “Joy comes from working together as good human beings”, and is not dependent on external circumstances. This resonated especially well with participants as the feedback on Twitter illustrates.

Attendee’s tweet shows the poster of a poem from the Hopi Nation – a source of inspiration

Margaret shared with us, some of the commitment of being what she calls Life-affirming Leaders or “Warriors for the Human Spirit”:

  • We commit to not adding to fear and aggression
  • We create good human community with what we have with whoever is here
  • We rely on joy arising, coming from working together, not dependent on external circumstances, in selfless action
  • We require a good sense of humour!

There has been a lot of positive feedback of the event. Please also have a look at some of our Twitter feedback below and read through Darryl’s blog post on LinkedIn here

This leads me to the question, in this time of disruption and confusion, what can we do? […] Tapping into our inherent kindness and compassion we put out every day, listening to each other with respect. That is in a little way what I hope to bring closer into reality with Emerging Dundee: Act Locally, Think Globally, and a Local Currency.

Darryl Gaffney du Plooy

Margaret is coming back to Scotland in early March 2020 to host a residential training programme for a small cohort on “Life Affirming Leadership: Developing the Skills of Insight and Compassion”.
If this sounds intriguing to you, take a look at the information and application form here (we expect there to be a lot of interest so apply soon if interested!).