A life-and-death choice for everyone

Monday, Feb. 13, 2017 6:59 PM

Who knew that an Army colonel’s wisdom could be so timely? Along with many of us, Margaret Wheatley didn’t.

Wheatley is a writer, teacher, and speaker whose area of expertise is organizational leadership in chaotic times. In an online interview with Scott London she tells the story of her relationship with the Army. It is an organization, she writes, that “had never been part of my belief system or my politics, actually.” As a person who studies organizations, she came to believe that “the Army is more interested in learning from its experiences than any organization (she) had ever been in.”

The reason the Army is such a successful “learning organization” is summarized in a statement by the aforementioned colonel: “We realized a while ago that it’s better to learn than be dead.”

Whoa! That seems to me to be wisdom that more than a few individuals, as well as organizations would do well to heed. It is wisdom that can apply to couples in relationships; to governments from small town to national; to multinational corporations; and, since this is a “religious column,” I would be remiss if I did not include to religious groups.

Learning – it doesn’t sound that hard. But there are challenges that precede our0 ability to learn. The first of these, and maybe not the least, is to believe what the Army knows – that death is an option. As individuals, none of us doubts that we will die someday. We do, however, tend to avoid this bit of truth as often as we can.

In the same way, organizations can begin to think they will go on forever, never considering they could die. Those who are outside the organization sometimes even buy into this delusion. Who hasn’t heard, “they are too big to fail?” There’s nothing more sobering than living with the presence of death, like the folks in the Army do. It not only brings into focus what is truly important, it can also open doors to learning new ways of thinking, acting and even being.

Our resistance to change provides another challenge to our ability to learn. We all need something that is familiar or predictable or gives meaning to our lives. Whether it is a maxim, a teaching, a scientific fact, or what we’ve been told is an eternal truth, we cling to it tightly, especially when we sense it is losing credence or authority in the world around us. We tend to grasp onto it even more tightly when, in the silence of our hearts, we are the ones who begin to wonder if what we had thought was immutable might be wrong. Cognitive dissonance is the enemy of “the way it has always been.”

We humans don’t like change. We are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We want to feel as though we have the answers, even if we don’t. Wheatley is adamant that “We’re not in cultures which support learning; we’re in cultures that give us the message consistently: ‘Don’t mess up, don’t make mistakes, don’t make the boss look bad, don’t give us any surprises.’”

Maybe this is what J. was referring to when he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Who, more than little children, revels in exploring, trying, and testing everything ... and cares not one whit if it succeeds or not? And surprises? The more there are, the greater the delight. For little children it’s all about learning.

Wheatley quotes Mort Meyerson who says that for us to have “learning organizations” we need leaders whose first task is “to make sure the organization knows itself.” Leaders as mirrors – a concept that is in distinct contrast to “how it has always been.”

In our religious organizations where Father (or the equivalent) has historically always been right; in our political organizations where the Fathers of countries have historically been set apart; in the corporate world where the captains of industry have tended to rule; and in our personal relationships where TV has told us “Father knows best,” maybe the future is calling us to organize ourselves in what for us are new and creative ways. Learn or die. We have a choice.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or