Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret Wheatley (or simply Meg) for the first time. I was part of a circle conversation about leadership, arranged by my good friend Carsten Ohm. Meg is the author of (among others) A simpler way and Turning to one another.
We had a very diverse group in the circle, and as always the discussion was deep and intense. Megs presence gave the discussion an added dimension, because she could use her background and experience to point out the deeper roots of the discussion at a few critical points.
We started from the definition of a leader, that they use in the Berkana Institute, namely that a leader is someone who wants to help (or someone who wants to contribute to positive change).
From this the discussion went to whether you can help people at all (something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately), to what it means to help and why we help people.
At one point Meg pointed out, that in her experience this discussion could only take place in the western world. African and Asian cultures would never doubt whether we can and should help each other – they are more comunally oriented, where our culture is more individualistic. In Africa people are closer to each other, families are extended way beyond parents and siblings and it’s taken for granted that you can and should “interfere” in other peoples lives.
Our challenge now is to find a way to integrate these world views. There is little doubt in my mind, that the individualistic life style has taken us about as far as it can. If we go further in that direction, we will achieve very few positive results, but we will increase the feeling of loneliness and isolation that is so prevalent in the west today. In short we need to become better at being together, and one way of doing this is conversation circles. Conversation is the human way of thinking together, and Meg explores this in her book Turning to one another, which also includes ten suggestions for conversation topics.
As always, the circle conversation left me feeling a little drained (in a good way). It’s a paradox, that this way of talking slows the conversation down, but actually makes it much more intense. And this results primarily from the fact, that while there’s a little less talking going on, there a hell of a lot more listening. I can just feel new ideas popping up, both when somebody is talking and during the silences.