Leaders Let Go of Control

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. Consider an illustration from the book Life at the Edge of Chaos: Creating the Quantum Organization (4).

In the book, author Mark Youngblood tells the story of a warehouse in Dallas that was being inventoried for the first time. Youngblood was a consultant leading the initiative. Sally was the manager representing the client organization. Youngblood knew that the process of counting and reconciliation would border on chaos. He expected the individual team members to think for themselves. He expected the team to move forward—improvising and learning constantly.

The process started well, but then a very uncomfortable Sally stepped in and took control. She became the centralizing mechanism demanding that each person report to her and follow her direction. At first this caused things to go smoother. But then, the number of problems began to expand. Each one was unique and took considerable time to resolve. People began waiting around while Sally solved their problems. Soon she was overwhelmed and then she collapsed in exhaustion.

When she was no longer in control, team members returned to the original approach. Empowered actors combined in the process of collective learning. By morning, the project was complete.

In the story, Sally comes off as a kind of villain. Uncomfortable with what she perceives as chaos, she seizes control. In fact, what she did is what the viceroy would have done, it is what Dan would have done, and it is what almost all of us would have done. Her behavior is a reflection of the conventional mental map. She could not conceive or trust the process of self-organization.

The Positive Organization – p.94-95

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

Commitment to the Collective

Many people have difficulty with the notion of commitment to the collective purpose. Operating from the self-interested assumptions of the conventional map, one survives by competing for limited resources. Life is a game and you win by being clever, not by embracing a higher purpose, living with integrity, serving the common good, and cocreating the emerging future.

By operating from an eco-perspective, we are modeling moral power. We invite others into a repaired moral system. As they chose to change, they also moved from the ego-perspective to the eco-perspective. Because they do, they can turn their organization more positive.

Truth Speaks to Power

In a positive culture, truth speaks to power and power listens and changes. In such an organization, the people can more effectively cocreate the emerging future. Through authentic dialog, people in lower positions also begin to feel safe and able to look at shortcomings. Authenticity allows people at all levels to open to all of reality. When everyone is open, everyone can join in learning how to change.

The Positive Organization, p. 58

Unique Culture

I was slated to visit the Republic of Georgia in Eastern Europe. I had been asked by my son-in-law, who was the cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy, to help with a cultural challenge in a work section at the embassy.

In the embassy work section that I was asked to help, there was a large group of Georgians who had worked there for years. They were managed by Americans who typically served for only two to three years at a time. The Georgians were described by the Americans as being resistant to change. The Americans, on the other hand, were described by the Georgians as having a tendency to come in with a change agenda, as generally not listening to the Georgians, and as rarely being able to get them to talk in the first place. Since external resources were shrinking and the workload was increasing, there was a need for the Americans and Georgians to collaborate more fully, but such collaboration was prevented by the existing organizational culture.

They patiently explained that American approaches to engagement would not work in their country. I should simply plan to present information. I was strongly advised not to anticipate meaningful participation of any kind.

These were two invitations to live in the conventional mental map. I have had many such invitations. The pattern is usually the same. The sponsors or authority figures patiently explain their “unique culture” and the constraints embedded in the culture. Typically, the constraint is that the lower-level participants in the culture have spent their lives passively listening to teachers, bosses, and other experts. When asked for their opinions, which isn’t often, they never speak up.

The statement made by the Georgians about my “American” approach makes me smile. Everywhere I go in the United States, I run into people who want me simply to present information. They also patiently explain why in their supposedly “unique” culture the people do not necessarily speak openly. Often, the explanation is that an authority figure will be in the room, and it will not be possible for people to speak up. After all, the organization is a political system.

While nationality does play a role, the real issue is not the geography of the planet but the geography of the mind. People in organizations across the planet live in fear. Staff people who plan events tend to take the safe route. They design events to be processes of information dissemination and the people are thus further trained to be passive recipients. No other alternative can even be imagined, for it would be outside the conventional mental map.

The misconception across the planet is that positive organizations cannot be created in a given context. What we believe determines what we can imagine. What we believe determines the reality we will continually bring into existence by our behavior. To turn an organization positive, we have to increase consciousness. Exposing people to a surprisingly positive context does this. It opens them to the positive mental map.

The Positive Organization – p. 65-66

Leaders Ignite Potential

People caught in the conventional mental map may be full of fear or doubt, but, despite what they believe, say, or do, most have a desire for a better future. Beneath their conventional fears is a hunger for a better life. This means there is a potential in organizations that many fail to see. The leader’s task is to see the latent potential, to ignite the spark, and to build belief in the reality of possibility.

The Positive Organization – p.65

Breaking Down Invisible Barriers

My son-in-law James is multilingual.  We spoke at length about the process of learning new languages and how that connects to adding the language of the positive mental map to the conventional map.  In our conversation about becoming bilingual he made an important observation about posturing, authenticity and bonding.

“When I walk in to any restaurant in the Republic of Georgia (where he was living at that time), they automatically know I’m not an native.  So they are gearing up to try and use English.  This may make them less approachable and that will influence our interactions because we are both feeling fear.  Both of us are afraid the other will judge our ability to communicate.  So I try to employ humor or I ask for help, or I do something to be vulnerable.  If I am speaking authentically, it helps break down the language barrier.

If I am speaking their language to show off, which I’ve done, I’m simply speaking to impress the person I’m with.  Whenever I do that, it’s not authentic and it results in greater distance and no connection.  I’ve learned over and over the hard way that whenever I employ my foreign language for the purpose of impressing others, it hurts communication.  When I lose the front and I’m authentic and vulnerable and open to learning and trying to connect, they relax, they open up, and they usually laugh.  Fear can disappear. ”

-The Positive Organization, p. 49-51

Becoming Bilingual

The conventional mental map is not our only choice.  The positive mental map offers the language of possibility.  Most people don’t look for or find this map unless they have experienced a crisis of some sort, which breaks down their conventional assumptions and allows them to be more open.  When they do this, they begin to evolve into a more complex thinker.  Acquiring this positive mental map is a lot like becoming bilingual.  It is a journey, not an instant transformation.  It involves taking risks, failing your way forward, and having the confidence to keep trying.  Learning a new language doesn’t mean forgetting your native language; rather, it adds a greater capacity to communicate and learn.

-The Positive Organization, p. 30

A Framework of Organizational Tensions

In building a positive organization, the first challenge is to see the organization not as a static entity, but as a system of tensions.  The second challenge is to see all the tensions and not just the ones we are trained to see.  This means we have to see the whole system.  The third challenge is to realize that positives like full engagement can turn into negatives like exhaustion.  The task is to hold the dynamic system in the positive zone of the diagram below.

The Positive Organization (p. 15)

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