What Ghandi Teaches us About the Emergent Process

Near the end of the 1982 film Gandhi, there is a scene that captures the emergent process. Gandhi announces that he will march 200 miles to the sea. There, in violation of British law, he will make salt. He sees salt as an important symbol. The sea belongs to India and yet Indians are not allowed to make salt. They must buy it from the British. During the march, he calls on all Indians to raise the flag of free India. The British decide to ignore the entire process.

Gandhi begins the march and a foreign correspondent named Vince Walker accompanies him. Walker writes for the New York Times. There are some British officers standing nearby. Walker asks if an arrest will end the process.

“Not if they arrest me and a thousand others. It is not only generals who can plan campaigns,” Gandhi replies.

Walker then asks, “What if they do not respond?”

Gandhi replies, “It is the function of a civil resistor to provoke and we will continue to provoke until they respond or change the law. They are not in control. We are.”

Here we might stop for a moment and think about this exchange. Is Gandhi correct? Is it possible for one man to be in control of the British Empire?

Gandhi is in control. The British are trapped in the assumptions of the conventional mental map, but Gandhi is bilingual. He can see things they cannot see. The blindness of the British is revealed in the next scene.

The march to the sea is successful. World reaction embarrasses the British, and the viceroy meets with his generals. The generals report that salt is being made everywhere. The leaders of congress are selling salt on the streets.

The viceroy orders the process stopped. He wants everyone but Gandhi arrested. The theory is to first cut Gandhi’s support out from under him and then deal with him later. In the scene that follows, a general reports that they have arrested nearly 100,000 people. All the leaders and all their families are in jail, and yet the process goes on. The enraged viceroy asks, “Who is leading them?”

The baffled general answers that he does not know.

Here we see the blindness of the British. It is a blindness shared by most of humankind. Living from the conventional mental map, the viceroy and generals assume a hierarchy exists. Their strategy is to remove the leaders from the top of the hierarchy so the organization will crumble. But, when they remove the leaders, something incomprehensible occurs. The movement grows and flourishes.

At this point in the story, Gandhi announces that the next day he will lead a march on the Dharasana Salt Works with the expressed purpose of closing it down. The viceroy, still operating from the conventional mental map, orders Gandhi’s arrest and demands that the salt works be kept open at all costs. In the next remarkable scene, hundreds of people line up outside the salt works. A man gives a simple speech. “They expect us to lose heart or to fight back; we will do neither.” Then, the first row of men walks slowly into the British lines, where they are clubbed and beaten. The women drag them away and apply first aid. The next row of men walks slowly into the clubs. The brutal, but inspiring, process continues.

Through it all, Walker is recording the event. He eventually goes to a phone and dictates the story to the New York Times. “Without any hope of escape from injury or death, it went on and on and into the night. Women carried the wounded and broken bodies from the road until they dropped from exhaustion. But still it went on and on. Whatever moral ascendancy the West held was lost here today. India is free. She has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.”

In fact, it would take several more years before the British formally withdrew from India. But this amazing event was the tipping point; it mattered as much as Walker suggests. It took place with Gandhi and all of India’s formal leaders in jail. The system of change was emergent and self-organizing. Gandhi understood something the viceroy and the generals could not understand. He knew how to initiate and trust the emergent process.

The Positive Organization – p.91

Facilitate Emergence (Trusting the Process)

There was a CEO of a large corporation—I will call him Dan—who was a brilliant man with a thirst for action and achievement. During his first five years as CEO, he not only globalized the company but also drove it to impressive levels of profit. Wall Street was delighted. As he entered his sixth year, things grew more difficult. He had stretched the system as far as it would go. As he wrestled with his challenges, he began to talk about the need for values and the commitment to values. He wanted to develop a high-performance culture.

“Sooner or later, every leader comes to understand how little power he or she really has. I will take you back to when this was just a North American business. A person could get things done continuously, consistently. As we became more complex and the environment more intense, it became impossible to get things done through the force of leadership. Everything in my mind has always been so clear and logical. I felt, if we just do what we know how to do every day, this thing will work. I had this grand scheme and grand design and grand vision, and I thought I could articulate it and get people lined up. It did not happen. It absolutely did not happen. I think that I had to come to grips with the fact that it is not enough for me to be committed, to have a plan and understand where we are going. I realized I had to get everyone engaged and committed.”

There is an important lesson here. Dan was so brilliant and forceful that, for five years, he was able to “will” his company to success. He then discovered the limitations of power. The conventional mental map suggests that a CEO is a king with unlimited power. Yet Dan discovered that force of leadership and brilliant expertise is not enough. To move to a higher level of corporate performance, Dan had to have a company of “engaged and committed” people. Dan was becoming bilingual. He had just discovered the positive mental map, which added complexity to his current mental map. This meant that he was ready to learn about the emergent process.

Shortly after making that statement, there was a meeting of the company’s top 100 leaders. The objective was to deal with some difficult issues around collaboration and compensation. A gifted HR leader designed the meeting. He recognized the difference between a technical problem that is solved through the application of existing knowledge and an adaptive problem that is solved through collective learning (3). He indicated that the real issues would be put on the table, and an authentic conversation would occur.

Dan was conceptually committed to the process. We all knew, though, that when the inevitable conflict began to surface, he would have a strong temptation to take control. The HR leader explained that Dan needed to stop himself from taking control. Several people would be working as facilitators and would help the participants own their conflict and keep moving. He told Dan to “trust the process.”

The HR leader then went out and had a coin made. The coin said, “Trust the process.” He told Dan he needed to put it in his pocket, and, whenever he wanted to take control, he needed to squeeze the coin and hold back.

The issue of collaboration and compensation was introduced at the meeting of the top 100 leaders. The major issue was that people were compensated according to the continent on which they worked, and it was causing silo behavior. The company was not functioning as a whole. As the issue was addressed, the predicted conflict emerged. During one break, a very concerned participant told me he had never seen the company so divided; he was fearful of what might happen next. Teams continued to meet and discuss the issue. In the afternoon, we assembled as a large group. One team articulated what kind of collaboration was necessary and proposed a radical shift in the compensation system. Another team made a similar proposal. In a short time, there was a consensus. The people had embraced a shift that was far beyond what Dan would have dared to propose.

Later, the HR leader asked Dan what he was feeling when the conflict was high. Dan said, “I was squeezing that coin so hard, I think I bent it.”

At the heart of the conventional mental map is the assumption of knowing. An expert solves a technical problem by applying knowledge. At the heart of the positive mental map is the assumption of collective learning. People pursue a purpose they do not yet know how to accomplish. As they move forward, they learn and adapt, eventually producing a new level of understanding and order. For someone living from the conventional mental map, emergence is difficult to comprehend, and trusting the process is nearly impossible.


What does emergence mean to me?

What does it mean to trust the emergent process?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Igniting Potential

My grandson had a birthday. His parents decided to celebrate in two places. First we all took a ride on a pirate ship. Then we went to a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, which offers a plethora of mechanized, carnival-style games and a kid-friendly menu. The contrast between the two organizations was instructive.

We set out with three children to ride the pirate ship. Before embarking, each child was asked to show his or her muscles, and each was given a pirate name tag. The children then had their faces painted and they were assisted in putting on pirate clothes. The 20 or so children then got in a circle and learned to yell pirate words at Captain Ruby and Captain Rusty, who were inspiring, humorous, and joyfully expressive in everything they did with the kids. The children marched to the ship, learned the safety rules in a minute, and then set sail.

Every moment was a moment of full engagement. The kids found a lost treasure map, pulled a bottle out of the sea with a message in it, used water cannons to shoot Blackbeard out of his small boat, found the key to his treasure chest, and located and pulled his pirate booty out of the sea. Each child got a part of the treasure, and then they pulled a bottle of pirate “grog” from the water.

At the end of the trip, our grandchildren spontaneously approached their parents and sincerely thanked them for giving them the experience. The rest of the day, at home, they talked about pirates and played pirate games.

I found out that during the warm months, this business runs six trips a day, seven days a week, and they are always full. On the way home we stopped at the local swimming pool. A number of young families were there. My son-in-law made sure to tell each set of parents about the pirate ship and how it was one of the best things the family ever did. Each couple paid careful attention and it occurred to me that they were likely to become future customers.

Next we went to Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. We were greeted efficiently by a young woman who went through a checklist of what would happen. She was doing her job, but she was less than excited about it. We seemed to be one more family in a long day of families. There was no personal connection of any kind. The kids received tokens and then enjoyed using them to interact with machines that mechanically rewarded them with tickets. Then we went to the birthday area and engaged in a ritual programmed by videos. The young woman stood next to Chuck E. Cheese and the two of them waved and wiggled as the video dictated. We did a few other well-organized things, cashed in our tickets, and went home.

The kids were pleased with their experience at Chuck E. Cheese and would be glad to go back. But my son- in-law had a different perspective. He said, “I have always been a fan of Chuck E. Cheese, but after the pirate ship, it just does not measure up. In fact, I was miserable most of the time.”

His wife challenged this, and he reconfirmed his position. This led to an interesting discussion. I asked him to compare the two experiences. He pointed out that the “pirates,” Ruby and Rusty, were fully and creatively engaged with the children. The children felt safe and stimulated, cared for and challenged. Because they were fully involved, their imaginations were completely stimulated. They left with a vast number memories and new ideas in their heads. They felt great. The delighted parents then spread the word and new families are likely to show up to buy the same memorable, meaningful experience.

I responded that it was not just the kids and the parents who were delighted. Ruby, Rusty and the rest of the staff also seemed to be delighted.

The Chuck E. Cheese visit seemed to be driven by conventional assumptions. It seemed that the management at Chuck E. Cheese made the assumption that if the employees were scripted well enough, customers will have a good experience. They were successfully scaling entertainment. Most children want to go back to a Chuck E. Cheese experience. It is a good organization and a money maker.

On the other hand, Chuck E Cheese is not an excellent experience. A positive organization is a place where people flourish and exceed expectations. This happens because they are fully engaged.

In a positive organization people feel valued. They feel invited to engage in experiences that ignite their potential. They sense that they are becoming more courageous, competent, intelligent, caring, unified or visionary. Since they are getting extraordinary value they are willing to make extraordinary commitment. The result is a system in an upward spiral. Everyone is fully engaged and performing beyond conventional expectations.


What is the most engaging organization I know?

How can engagement be increased?

How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?

Presencing the Future

When I teach executives how to move into the fundamental state of leadership, I often suggest that they must come to embrace the future and embody the vision that they seek to realize. Many find this idea hard to understand. In the book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Scharmer and Kaufer write that to bring possibility to reality, leaders must make a shift from a conventional “ego perspective” to a nonconventional “eco perspective.”

“This inner shift, from fighting the old to sensing and presencing an emerging future possibility, is at the core of all deep leadership work today. It’s a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart. It is a shift from an ego system awareness that cares about the well being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well being of all, including oneself. When operating with eco- system awareness, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of our emerging or essential self— that is, by a concern that is informed by the well-being of the whole.”

The authors go on to propose that judgments must be suspended and attention refocused. One must let go of the past and embrace the future that is trying to emerge through us. This is what they mean by “presencing” the future. We must become a present manifestation of the future that is trying to unfold. They argue that this is, perhaps, the most important of all leadership capacities.”

In short, I believe that we all tend to live in a comfort centered, externally driven, self-focused and internally closed state. We can choose to live in a purpose centered, internally driven, other focused and externally open state in which we co-create the emerging future with others. As we do, we begin to see the future, we commit to it and we begin to live from it. We become a living symbol of what we are trying to bring about.

Bo (Shembechler) Knows Leadership

At the University of Michigan we once had a colorful football coach named Bo Shembechler. When he retired, Bo spent a year being a color commentator on the network broadcasts. After the one year he quit. People asked him why. My memory of his answer was this.   “They wanted me to criticize the coach after the play was run. Any idiot can criticize a coach after the play is run.”

Critics live in the certainty of hindsight. It is a safe place to be. Managers, like the rest of us, tend to look for solutions to problems that guarantee success and protect against criticism.   We all want to be safe.

Managers become leaders when they let go of their desire to be safe and stand in the crucible of uncertainty making decisions that may or may not succeed. As they learn from each success and each failure, their vision and strategy evolves. Through this process of iterative learning they move the organization in the same way a coach moves his team through a football game. Being a leader requires more than content expertise. It requires the courage and confidence to decide while in the crucible of uncertainty, and the courage and humility to make the right adjustments.

There’s no Checklist for Culture Change

My colleague, Jeff Liker, is an expert in the implementation of lean manufacturing, a process which originated at Toyota.  Jeff told me that only 2 percent of the companies that have implemented lean manufacturing have achieved anticipated results.  The failures represent billions of dollars in lost value.  The problem is not with the technology.

There is something that few Western managers understand.  Successful implementation involves joining with others in the co-creation of the emerging future.  In other words, the organization has to become a system of learning.  The culture has to become more positive, open and responsive.

Western companies operate with a checklist mentality. An expert comes up with the “correct” way to do something, builds a plan, trains the people, and audits the change progress.  This is called change management.  The great thing about change management is that it is fast and efficient. The bad thing is that is seldom works. Worse, most people fail to see why change management does not work.

Thirty years ago I was with a leader who had led the successful transformation of an auto plant.  At the time he was trying to explain his success to other plant managers and the teaching effort was not going well.  He later explained that the plant managers wanted “a checklist” so they could engage in a linear and controlled process of implementation.  They did not want to hear about such things as participation, risk-taking, continual experiments, authentic communication, mutual learning, the transformation of assumptions, and the joint implementation of new ideas.

When it comes to culture change the average manager in the United States tends to fail for the same reasons the average manager failed three decades ago. The implementation process involves collective learning.  It is messy, risky and requires more mental and emotional work than you can do with a simple checklist.  The challenge is to understand positive leadership and how to co-create the emerging future.