When Patrick met Meg…

Well… I really felt like a groupie at a ‘In conversation with Meg Wheatley’  event yesterday:

Leadership in These Times Facing Reality | Claiming Leadership | Restoring Sanity. 

To be up close and personal with someone whose books has had such an impact and influence on me over the years was pretty awesome.

Meg shared her latest thinking in her new book Who do we choose to be?’ in which she develops the idea that modern culture has power over and on us, and to stand apart from this is a choice. Her prognosis is bleak… things will continue to fall apart, especially in America where she feels that there is a “war going on for the human spirit”. 

I live in America – its a terrifying time – we are in an age of destruction.

Power and greed seems to be more powerful than common good.

Politics seems to be about creating fear. When people are fearful, we become savages.

What do we need in this context? According to Meg,

We need leaders who recognize what harm is being done to people and planet through practices that dominate, ignore, abuse, and suppress the human spirit.

We need leaders who are willing to sacrifice self for others.  Sacrifice means to make something ‘scared’.

We need to work in small groups, create islands of sanity, that generate generosity and grace.

We reflected on Gandhi’s thoughts on 7 Social Sins:

Following a discussion about whether these were too propositional, too judgemental, too binary and therefore unrealistic/simplistic, Meg was adamant that this was a helpful frame from which to make sense of what’s going on in the world today. And that, there was a need to take an ethical stand.

She put forward the idea that one way to take a position is to create “islands of sanity” where we are – where those committed to serving others use their power and influence to co-create relationships that bring about generosity, contribution, community and love, no matter what. Inspirational stuff. 

At the beginning of the day Meg asked those in the room to re-call a time where we chose to be the kind of leader we are today, to rekindle this memory, and to tell the story about that. I have many! One is about how in 1992, her book Leadership and the New Science precipitated the journey I am now on as a systemic practitioner. As a disillusioned HR Manager, it was liberating to ‘discover’ that there was another, non-mechanistic, non-positivist, way of looking at organising and leadership. I will always be grateful for this gift! The following quote from Issac Newton sums up how I feel:

At the end of the day, I had to tell Meg about my other hero John Shotter, who once said to me:

The question is not what should we do, but rather who do we want to become.

Don’t do things better, do better things…

I’ve been glued to the recent BBC documentary about the Vietnam war. It’s a compelling but utterly depressing watch. As the credits rolled at the end of the last episode rolled, I found myself asking whether the world has learnt from this tragic, but on hindsight, avoidable human catastrophe? In that this experience has not prevented America from going to war again, the answer is no. What they have done, however, is to get better at warfare. Exponential improvements in war tech and greater investment in armaments have seen to that.

When discussing my doctoral research, people often ask, why study ‘leadership’, especially when there are a myriad of leadership theories and models already out there? Too many to mention, hence the question.

Well, I’m not interested in learning about leadership per se. What I am curious about is, what our notions of leadership, does. What kind of world do they create?

In 2008, Pearce (Littlejohn and McNamee, 2013) made the distinction between research that helps us do the same things better, and research that helps us do better things. He elaborates this by citing the example of wars… “rather than learning how to fight wars in new places such as outer space, a better thing to do might be to learn how to make peace so that we don’t need new weapons when we move into out space”.

I’d like to think that this applies to my research on leadership. It is not about perpetuating current leadership discourse by doing it better, but rather to suggest doing something better by altogether re-framing leadership.


Littlejohn, S. W. & Mcnamee, S. (2013). The Coordinated Management of Meaning: A Festschrift in Honor of W. Barnett Pearce, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

What is a vision?

We had a guest keynote speaker at work today. He asked ‘what is vision?’

If, like me, you also suffer from presentation fatiguetitus, this is when you start to feel your energy drain to your feet. I slump a little, fold my arms and brace myself for the obligatory I’d like you to ‘discuss this in groups’.

Like the well trained pew fodder we are, the audience dutifully got on with the discussion. And then, right on cue, the speaker, yes the one who just asked us to have a discussion, but now completely ignoring everything said in groups, begins to answer his own question… “it’s an idealised image of a desired future state. It’s the purpose that motivates you to keep going. It’s something that inspires passion. It’s something I have. It’s something you need”.

As the speaker enthusiastically persevered with his attempt to make the audience accept the need to have a vision, I tune out… On the contrary, I thought, ‘vision’ could simply mean the ability to see something in the moment. To discern how underlying assumptions shape reality. To notice how power is used in the moment. To see how certain voices are privileged and others ignored in the moment. More importantly, to discern if what is being made in conversation is life-giving and honouring to all, and if not, to invite self and others to co-create a more grace-full world.

Christian Leaders : Does your Vision Statement or Strategic Plan meet the Psalm 23 test?

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Does it acknowledge the Lord? Does it reflect needs rather than wants?

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters,

Is it task-focussed, driven by human (you) endeavour? Or is led by God and characterised by His easy yoke and peace?

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Is it restorative, just and gives glory to God?

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Is it based ON God-given en-COURAGE-ment?

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Is it overflowing with God’s love?

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Is it life-giving?






What social norms are repeating patterns of behaviours re-creating in your workplace?