Where Business Looks for Answers

As our world grows more chaotic and unpredictable, says Margaret Wheatley, we’re asking questions that can only be answered by spiritual traditions.

Margaret Wheatley
1 July 2002

As our world grows more chaotic and unpredictable, says Margaret Wheatley, we’re asking questions that can only be answered by spiritual traditions.

Why has the topic of spirituality entered our organizational lives? In the past several years, I’m hearing more and more questions like these: Is work a spiritual endeavor? Do we have a sense of vocation or calling? Can we bring our soul to work? Is a good leader a “servant leader” in the tradition of Jesus and other spiritual teachers?

I don’t think it’s accidental that these kinds of questions are asked of our organizational lives. In fact, I think it’s unavoidable, a consequence of this turbulent time. As our world grows more chaotic and unpredictable, we’re asking questions that can only be answered by spiritual traditions. How do I live in uncertainty? How do I maintain my values when worldly temptations abound? What is the meaning of my life? Where can I find the courage and faith to stay the course?

As our age has grown more chaotic, we’ve turned first to the real god of Western culture-science. We’ve asked scientists to tell us how to deal with uncertainty, chaos and catastrophes. We’ve hoped the complexity of science can explain the complexity of organizations and we’ve asked science for tools to stop the unpredicted events that suddenly destroy lives and futures.

But of course, science can only fail us in that. Chaos can’t be controlled; the unpredictable can’t be predicted. Instead, we are called to encounter life as it is: uncontrollable, unpredictable, messy, surprising, erratic. Pema Chödrön has commented that “the reason we don’t like life is that it behaves like life.”

Our spiritual thinking shows up in subtle ways. If we describe our work as a vocation or calling, that is a spiritual perspective. Vocation is work that is given to us, that originates from outside us. To talk about calling is to acknowledge that there’s something more than just me, that I’m part of a larger and purpose-filled place.

We also reveal spiritual thinking whenever we comment, “There are no accidents.” If nothing happens accidentally, where does that order come from? That is only answered by spiritual thinking.

Here are several other descriptions of these times, each of which have been the domain of spiritual thinking and traditions.

* Life is uncertain. Will we develop a new relationship with change and uncertainty? In Buddhist thought, the source of happiness is knowing that things will change. Instead of clinging to the past, we move on. Contrast this source of happiness with the American right to “the pursuit of happiness.”

* Life is cyclical. Poet David Whyte notes that if we think life is always improving, we’re going to miss half of it. Life is cyclical-we pass through different moods, we live through seasons. Life uses cycles to create newness. Only as we let go of the old (which always feels difficult) can new life and capacity arise.

In Christian tradition, times of chaos are called “dark nights of the soul.” (In our present culture, we call these “clinical depressions.”) In the dark night, we feel devoid of meaning, totally alone, abandoned by God. But this is the condition for rebirth, for a new and stronger self to emerge. You probably have walked through many dark nights and I encourage you to think about how you changed, what new capacities you possessed, when you emerged back into the light.

* Meaning is what motivates people. I have always been astonished by the fact that most people want their work to serve a greater good, to help other people. People who make dog food reflect that “pets contribute to human health.” Even manufacturers of toxic chemicals in West Virginia pledge to work safely in order “to make the world safe.” There is nothing that motivates us more than meaning. In such brutal times as these, when good work gets destroyed by events and decisions far beyond our influence, when we’re so overwhelmed with tasks that we have no time to reflect for even a moment, it is very important that we remember why we’re doing our work. What were we hoping to accomplish when we started this? Who are we serving by doing this work?

* Service brings us joy. When I’ve interviewed disaster relief workers, no matter how tragic and terrible the disaster, they have always spoken of the experience with joy. They’ve led me to realize that there is nothing that equals helping other people. In service, we discover profound happiness. We all witnessed this in the days after September 11. The joy of service is in every spiritual tradition. Shantideva says simply: “All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.”

* Life requires courage. Where do we find courage these days? Courage comes from the French world for heart (coeur). When our hearts open to an issue or person, courage arises from our hearts. If we’re willing to let our hearts open, and to tell stories that open other peoples’ hearts, we find our courage.

* We are interconnected to all life. Every spiritual tradition (and new science) speaks about oneness. We demonstrate awareness of interconnections when we notice how a decision might affect others, when we notice how, at this moment, we might be affecting future generations. I learned a simple question from a woman minister. For every decision, ask yourself: “Is this decision bringing people together, or will it create further separation?” I ask another question as well: As I act, am I turning toward others, or turning away? Am I moving closer, or am I retreating from them?

* We can rely on the human spirit. In my own organization, The Berkana Institute, we rely on human goodness. We know there’s terrible human badness in the world, but that badness only pushes us to rely even more on human goodness.

In these dark times, we need to trust the hope, resiliency and love that characterizes the human spirit. Vaclev Havel, president of the Czech Republic, says that hope is fundamental to being human; it is not based on circumstances. (The state motto of South Carolina is similar: “If I breathe, I hope.”)

* We need peace of mind. All spiritual traditions teach how to attain peace of mind. Frantic activity and fear only take us deeper into chaos. In mind-body research, cultivating peace is a prerequisite for health. I love it when a meeting starts with two minutes of silent contemplation. Or when a meeting gets heated and people call for a few minutes of silence. We return to the fray differently if we’ve had those moments to pause.

Educator Parker Palmer tells of his discomfort at working in a Quaker organization where they observed five minutes of silence at the start of every meeting. One time, when there was a particularly difficult issue on the agenda, he was relieved to hear the leader announce that, because of this serious issue, they would not spend the first five minutes in silence. But then, to his dismay, he heard her announce, “Instead, we’ll take twenty minutes for silence.”

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley is the author of Leadership and the New Science and co-author of A Simpler Way. She is the president of the Berkana Institute, a non-profit foundation supporting the discovery of new organizational forms.