Medium 9781523083657

Who Do We Choose To Be?

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This book is born of my desire to summon us to be leaders for this time as things fall apart, to reclaim leadership as a noble profession that creates possibility and humaneness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil.

I know it is possible for leaders to use their power and influence, their insight and compassion, to lead people back to an understanding of who we are as human beings, to create the conditions for our basic human qualities of generosity, contribution, community and love to be evoked no matter what. I know it is possible to experience grace and joy in the midst of tragedy and loss. I know it is possible to create islands of sanity in the midst of wildly disruptive seas. I know it is possible because I have worked with leaders over many years in places that knew chaos and breakdown long before this moment. And I have studied enough history to know that such leaders always arise when they are most needed. Now it's our turn.

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8 Chapters

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1. The Arrow of Time

ePub

Everything Has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End

Machines wear down and die.

Living systems, if they learn and adapt, do not.

— Margaret Wheatley

The observable Universe and everything in it moves in one direction: from birth to death, from hot to cold, from creative energy to useless energy, from order to disorder. Everything comes from what preceded it. Nothing is reversible. This is the Arrow of Time.

The arrow of time applies to all closed systems in the known Universe, but the new sciences revealed that it is not the predetermined fate of living systems. A living system has permeable boundaries and sense-making capacities. It is an open system, capable of exchanging energy with its environment rather than using up a finite amount. If it opens to its environment, it takes in information, a form of energy. It notices changes and disturbances that it then processes, free to choose its response.

This is life’s essential process—using cognition and self-organization to adapt and change. A living system can reorganize itself to become more fit, in the evolutionary sense, to survive. Through its exchanges of information, it creates newness and diversity, sustaining itself through shifts, crises, and catastrophes. All of this is possible and commonplace as long as the system remains open, willing to learn and adapt.

 

2. Identity

ePub

Living Systems Change in Order to Preserve Themselves

The first act of life is to create a boundary, a membrane that is the cell’s identity. It defines an inside and an outside, what it is, what it is not.

— Margaret Wheatley

Living systems create themselves. They (we) are all self-authoring. We always and only organize around an identity, a membrane or boundary that distinguishes us from everything else. Without identity, there would be no means to differentiate one thing from another. There would be no possibility to organize into greater complexity and order. Without identity, it would be a never-ending mess of primordial soup devoid of form and possibility.

There are alternate theories for how life began about four billion years ago, how the first chemical reactions occurred to create the first cells. Where did the energy for those first chemical reactions come from? Was it in the primordial soup of ocean struck by lightning, or in heat vents deep on the ocean floor, or on the new planet’s fiery surface? What we do know is that life began with membranes, with boundaries that created cells by separating them from everything else.

 

3. Information

ePub

It’s Better to Learn Than Be Dead

A living system does not need any information from outside to be what it is, but it is strictly dependent on outside materials in order to survive.

— Fritjof Capra

Information is the invisible lifeblood of all living systems. Everything that is visible as a shape or form at the material level exists because of the way information was processed. This is information’s role: it provides the ingredients for life to organize itself into a living system capable of growth and adaptation. This function is in the word itself: in-formation.

A system’s semipermeable boundary is its sense-making or information-processing function. Beyond the boundary there is always more data to process; chaos is the greatest creator of information—every moment is rich with newness. Using cognition, a living system decides what to pay attention to and how best to respond. From the booming buzzing confusion, everything alive makes sense for itself, transforming data into meaningful information. Cognition does not require a brain; even single-cell organisms such as slime mold learn and change in response to their environment.1 Every living organism must have cognition because it is the only way life takes form, through organizing information. Without cognition there cannot be life.

 

4. Self-Organization

ePub

Order for Free

The world is not to be put in order, the world is order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.

— Henry Miller, playwright

Everything alive forms nothing into something by creating an identity for itself. This is the dynamic of self-organization—life’s capacity to create order from chaos, to create growth and potential where there was none. The process of self-organizing is in the term itself: There is a self that gets organized.

Living systems are self-organizing; they exchange information with their environment and use that information to adapt to changed conditions. Information is filtered through their identity, determining what’s relevant and what’s not. All of life possesses the essential freedom to decide what to pay attention to and how to respond to what they just noticed.

Without the filter of identity, there can be no sense making and no living system. With a clear identity, the system develops, adapts, and creates new capacities.

 

5. Perception

ePub

What You See Is All You Get

Organisms do not experience environments. They create them.

Richard Lewontin, geneticist

Perception makes the world go ’round. At least this is how we perceive it. Truly, we do not know what the real world might be. We can only see it through our sense-making capacities, which include our physical senses, scientific equipment, and experiments. None of these gives us the ability to know what might be going on outside of our very limited perceptual means. Yet as humans, perceptions are all we have to answer our biggest questions: What is life’s meaning? What is the Universe? Who are we as a species? The ultimate question for Western science was first asked in the early 1700s by Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Even with our very limited means, understanding how we perceive has become a critical element in theories of biology, psychology, epistemology, and cosmology. If we understand both the capacities and limitations of our perceptual abilities, we might be able to learn how life came to be, how it works. And we might develop physics that can better explain the workings of the cosmos. We might even understand ourselves better and stop driving one another crazy.

 

6. Interconnectedness

ePub

Nothing Living Lives Alone

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

John Muir, conservationist

How do we understand life and the Universe? In twenty-first-century science, the very disparate fields of biology and physics have come to a shared understanding: everything we observe is not a separate “thing” but a participant in a vast web of relationships. Living systems and the Universe are best understood as dense layers of networked relationships. Even a single cell is a complex network, far beyond the imaginings of scientists until a few years ago. Nothing living lives alone. This shift in understanding became clear as the blinders of mechanistic thinking were torn off by the paradoxes revealed in scientific evidence.

Life insisted on being understood differently and everything changed. The pursuit of basic building blocks gave way to subatomic particles understood as bundles of energy potential that become visible only in relationship. (This is why there are particle colliders—no particle is visible until it collides with another energy at extreme high speeds.) Molecular biology, in its search to identify discrete genes as causal, as specific on and off switches, had to yield to the realization that genes are but one actor among DNA’s many components—described by one scientist as an ensemble of actors.1 Individual species, all plants and animals, lost their identity as individuals fighting against one another in the struggle for survival; now they are understood as necessary participants in an ecosystem where all benefit if balanced relationships are maintained. Even treasured theories of change changed, from linear incremental steps to observing that new systems suddenly arise through emergence.

 

7. Who do We Choose to Be?

ePub

Each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it.

— Nicholas Carr

We are not the first leaders to be stewarding a time of disintegration, fear, and loss. But none of us has been prepared for where we are. If we are older, we honed our leadership skills in a time of growth and possibility, when change was in the air and everything seemed possible. New paradigms led to new processes; new processes of systems thinking and participation yielded great results. Growth seemed good, and even as we were increasingly aware of the suffering of those far from us, our lives kept moving forward in a good way. Many of us heard and responded to the cries of the world. We took on the work of addressing urgent problems of the environment, turbo capitalism, human rights, poverty, health, the marginalized and oppressed.

This is what I remember vividly about the world I lived and worked in before 9/11. I was hopeful we would change the world—an attitude I have long since rejected as a distraction and waste of energy. We were confident that change was possible. It was possible because we were talented, dedicated. and caring people, armed with new tools of systems thinking, wise about human motivation, trained in the skills of participation, listening, conversation, community building. As leaders, we were smart enough to figure things out, to organize and mobilize on behalf of worthy causes. We would create positive change. Without a doubt.

 

8. No Matter What

ePub

Because they trust themselves they have no need to convince others by deception. Since their confidence has never deteriorated, they need not be fearful of others.

Chögyam Trungpa, Buddhist teacher

There have been a few times in this book when I’ve linked together concepts that may have felt strange, such as when I paired the leaders of social change movements and terrorists. In this essay, I believe it is essential to link confidence with humility. But it may take some explaining.

Confidence, in our deranged identity-manipulating world, has deteriorated into entire industries designed to pump us up with slogans, posters, coffee mugs, cards, even billboards in the United States. We’re supposed to believe that we can be anything we want—the greatest, the fittest, the smartest, the fastest—need I go on? And we’re supposed to tell everyone about it—all the time. This is hype and self-promotion, not confidence.

In fact, it works in the obverse: the less confidence we have, the more we brag about ourselves. This dynamic has been well entrenched in human behavior for eons, but social media has raised it to an art form.

 

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