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August 2017


Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity

by Margaret J. Wheatley (Berrett-Koehler, 2017)


What are the big take-aways?


Teacher, consultant and leader Margaret Wheatley – the best-selling author of Leadership and the New Science – takes another whack at how to live and lead honorably in a troubling world in Who Do We Choose to Be?


Following up on her valiant call-to-action in So Far From Home five years ago (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library), which she then referred to as an “invitation to warriorship,” in Who Do We Choose To Be Wheatley updates and further defines what it means to be a Warrior for the Human Spirit in 2017.  She says this new 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 humanness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil” (p. 8).  Elaborating, Wheatley asserts on the same page:


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.


Why do I like it?


Who Do We Choose To Be is a riveting romp through Wheatley’s unique ability to gracefully connect diverse observations from science (especially physics and biology), organizational development (from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to the U.S. military, and beyond), various spiritual traditions (Native American, Buddhist, Christian and others) and theories of technology, civilization and collapse, in order to bolster her positions.  I don’t agree with everything Wheatley argues in this book, but as a leadership coach and consultant I think Who Do We Choose to Be is a masterpiece of the manifesto genre.


What marks this particular volume as distinctly more resonant with me, personally, than Wheatley’s previous work is that it holds itself – as well as its ideas – much more lightly.  (E.g., early on, Wheatley quotes paleoanthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan: “I should like to think that prehistoric man’s first invention, the first condition for his survival, was a sense of humor.”)  Indeed on page 266, one of Wheatley’s bullet points in the elevating principles behind her conclusory roster, “The Faith and Confidence of Warriors,” is that “[w]e encounter life’s challenges with a sense of humor, knowing that lightness and play increase our capacity to deal with suffering.”  So true, albeit difficult!  (And if you wonder what this lightness-amidst-suffering looks like in real human leadership terms, Wheatley refers to the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa as two living examples.)  Also, see her lovely segment on joy (pp. 234-36).


In what situations would this be useful?


If you’re a leader perplexed by the state of affairs in Western civilization and the globe, and you find multi-disciplinary approaches and systems theory appealing, Who Do You Choose To Be could give your spirit the intellectual boost it needs to commit to a new way of being that is, itself, a form of action.  If this statement speaks to you (p. 256), then the whole book likely will: “Throughout time, warriors arise when the people need protection.”


The final two chapters deeply define exactly what Wheatley means by a Warrior for the Human Spirit, and why you – reader – already are one or can become one if you so choose.  (She doesn’t mention BLM, but in my opinion, probably the largest organized group currently in the U.S. who most closely embodies and engages in the kind of widespread gentle warriorship Wheatley describes is Black Lives Matter.)  Wheatley offers a number of inspiring nudges toward confidence, compassion, hope, taking a stand, etc., as well as solid coaching questions (a favorite: What do you want to be remembered for?), to remind you that you already know what to do and how to do it.  Your choice now is whether to draw upon your courage to be a Warrior for the Human Spirit.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


A complement to this book which leaps to my mind is journalist Krista Tippett’s nourishing Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin, 2016), which I loved as a similarly affirming and differently wide-ranging contemplation on the state of humanity.


Also, because leading with emergence has explicitly shown up in some of my other conversations lately, and Wheatley points to it in her chapter on “Interconnectedness,” I suggest that anyone intrigued by this concept check out Joseph Jaworksi’s Source: The Inner Path of Knowledge Creation (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library).




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