Meg Wheatley began her working life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea. Through the Berkana Institute, a charitable foundation which she co-founded in 1992, she has helped strengthen communities and develop leaders throughout the third world. As a management consultant she has served large and small, public and private organisations in USA, Europe and Australia. When not travelling the world helping others, she returns home to the quiet wilderness of Utah. She has two adult sons, five step-children, twenty-two grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. In 2003, The American Society for Training and Development honored her for distinguished contribution to workplace learning and development and dubbed her a living legend.
Wheatley has a B.A. in History from the University of Rochester; an M.A. in Communications and Systems Thinking from New York University and an EdD from Harvard in Administration, Planning and Social Policy. She has been an Associate Professor of Management at the Marriot School of Management, Brigham Young University, and Cambridge College, Massachusetts.
As she studied and consulted, Wheatley observed a disconnect between theory and reality in our understanding of leadership and how organisations worked.
As she says in the introduction to Leadership and the New Science:
Why do so many organizations feel so lifeless?
Why do projects take so long, develop ever greater complexity, yet too often fail to achieve any truly significant results?
Why does progress, when it appears, so often come from unexpected places. Or as a result of surprises or synchronistic events that our planning had not considered?
Why does change itself, that event we’re all supposed to be “managing”, keep drowning us, relentlessly making us feel less capable and more confused?
And why have our expectations for success diminished to the point that often the best we hope for is endurance and patience to survive the frequent disruptive forces in our organizations and lives?
Leadership and the New Science is about discovering order in a chaotic world. Wheatley draws on new discoveries in biology, chaos theory, and quantum physics to develop her theories on how we can live and work well together. Relationships matter; life is a vast web of interconnections where cooperation and participation are required; chaos and change are the only route to transformation. She stresses the importance of identity, of clearly understanding the purpose of the organization:
When an organization knows who it is, what its strengths are, and what it is trying to accomplish, it can respond intelligently to changes from its environment… If people are free to make their own decisions, guided by a clear organizational identity for them to reference, the whole system develops greater coherence and strength.
She stresses the need to involve everyone who has something to contribute; and to make information readily available:
We cannot continue to use information technology and management systems as gatekeepers, excluding and predefining who needs to know what. Instead we need to evoke contribution through freedom, trusting that people can make sense of the information because they know their jobs, and they know the organizational or team purpose. Restricting information and carefully guarding it doesn't make us good managers. It just stops people doing good work… Information provides true nourishment; it enables people to do their jobs responsibly and well.
Paul Simon sang that a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. We focus on what we have decided to measure; we select the data that supports our case. We should not be surprised that the results are sub-optimal.
In Wheatley’s view:
We need a constantly expanding array of data, views and interpretations if we are to make wise sense of the world.
We need to include more and more eyes. We need to be constantly asking: “Who else should be here? Who else should be looking at this”?
She stresses the need for leaders to let go, to trust and empower their workmates:
Hierarchy and defined power are not what is important: what is critical is the availability of places for the exchange of energy…When leaders strive for equilibrium and stability by imposing control, constraining people’s freedom and inhibiting local change, they only create the conditions that threaten the organization’s survival.
Leadership and the New Science first published in 1992 is now in its third edition. It has won numerous awards and has changed the way we think about organizations.
Meg Wheatley has continued to develop her ideas through her consulting and her seminars. In addition to the new sciences, she brings to her work the wisdom and perspectives she has witnessed in other cultures and spiritual traditions. In A Simpler Way, co-authored with Myron Kellner-Rogers, she addresses the question of how could we organize human endeavor if we developed different understandings of how life organizes itself. Finding Our Way is a collection of practice-focused articles. You may find her concepts easier to comprehend if you read these works first.
Her most recent works include Perseverance, So Far From Home, and Walk Out Walk On.