I have just come back from 2 pretty frustrating days of meetings in Canberra. The good news is two great positives have come from those two days of frustration
Firstly I had an epiphany. I know why farmers farm. Despite everything they go through to produce food and fibre for too often, too little return there IS a huge reward. That reward is satisfaction of knowing that you get up every day and have the ability to achieve something very important and most of the time you do it. My last two days in Canberra have shown me that there are a lot of people who don’t get that opportunity and certainly not people who spend most of their lives going to meetings
At Clover Hill Dairies that reward is the satisfaction of supplying 50,000 Australians with nature’s perfect nutrient dense cocktail “milk”. Three times daily we have the satisfaction/reward of seeing the cows coming into the dairy, the cups going on, the milk traveling from the cow’s udder at 37 degrees through a series of stainless steel pipes to the first plate cooler which drops the milk to 17degrees C then to the second plate cooler which drops it to a further 8 degrees and then into the vat. The vat’s role is to drop the milk to the required just less than 4 degrees C and maintain that temperature until the milk tanker (or the money truck as Nick calls it) arrives. All this in the blink of an eye lid. Not quite that fast but you get the picture. All this exciting stuff is happening right in front of you. So rewarding. So satisfying.
The second realisation I had is that it is no different at the top of the ladder as it is as the bottom. Too many “leaders/spokespeople” do not come to decision making table prepared to bring the solutions and/or be part of the solution. When this doesn’t happens its the same old same old and it doesn’t matter how good the facilitation process is, everybody walks out the door shaking their heads, too often blaming the facilitator and the facilitation process at the two meetings I attended was just fine no complaints from me there.
Its horrifying really. People at all levels just don’t have the skills sets to participate effectively in meetings. BTW There were no farmers in the room at either of these meetings. On Monday the people in the room were high end service providers and the like to the agrifood sector
So the second positive is going forward the Young Farming Champions program will now incorporate a session/s on how to turn up at the decision making table with the solutions and effectively participate in meetings.
I for one will be attending those sessions with my eyes and ears wide open. Ready, willing and able to learn because for me there would be nothing more less satisfying than waking up everyday and finding yourself part of the problem.
A reader of my post today has drawn my attention to the work and writings of Margaret Wheatley who hails from US?. Yes Julie you were spot on. I am indeed very impressed
I have cut and pasted one of her articles found at this link so you can see if what she has to say resonates with you http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/Leadership-in-Age-of-Complexity.pdf. Have you taken on the hero role at some stage in your life? Then like me this quote will particularly resonate with you.
“This hero’s path has only one guaranteed destination—we end up feeling lonely, exhausted and unappreciated”.
Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host
Margaret Wheatley with Debbie Frieze ©2010 published in Resurgence Magazine, Winter 2011
For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it’s our desire to
be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out.
Constantly we are barraged by politicians presenting themselves as heroes, the ones
who will fix everything and make our problems go away. It’s a seductive image, an
enticing promise. And we keep believing it. Somewhere there’s someone who will make
it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, inspiring, brilliant,
trustworthy, and we’ll all happily follow him or her. Somewhere…
Well, it is time for all the heroes to go home, as the poet William Stafford wrote. It is
time for us to give up these hopes and expectations that only breed dependency and
passivity, and that do not give us solutions to the challenges we face. It is time to stop
waiting for someone to save us. It is time to face the truth of our situation—that we’re
all in this together, that we all have a voice—and figure out how to mobilize the hearts
and minds of everyone in our workplaces and communities.
Why do we continue to hope for heroes? It seems we assume certain things:
• Leaders have the answers. They know what to do.
• People do what they’re told. They just have to be given good plans and
• High risk requires high control. As situations grow more complex and
challenging, power needs to shift to the top (with the leaders who know
what to do.)
These beliefs give rise to the models of command and control revered in organizations
and governments world‐wide. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy submit to the
greater vision and expertise of those above. Leaders promise to get us out of this mess;
we willingly surrender individual autonomy in exchange for security.
The only predictable consequence of leaders attempts to wrest control of a complex,
even chaotic situation, is that they create more chaos. They go into isolation with just a
few key advisors, and attempt to find a simple solution (quickly) to a complex problem.
And people pressure them to do just that. Everyone wants the problem to disappear;
cries of “fix it!” arise from the public. Leaders scramble to look like they’ve taken charge
and have everything in hand.
But the causes of today’s problems are complex and interconnected. There are no
simple answers, and no one individual can possibly know what to do. We seem unable
to acknowledge these complex realities. Instead, when the leader fails to resolve the
crisis, we fire him or her, and immediately begin searching for the next (more perfect)
one. We don’t question our expectations of leaders, we don’t question our
desire for heroes.
The Illusion of Control
Heroic leadership rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a
world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently
uncontrollable. No one is in charge of our food systems. No one is in charge of our
schools. No one is in charge of the environment. No one is in charge of national
security. No one is in charge! These systems are emergent phenomena—the result of
thousands of small, local actions that converged to create powerful systems with
properties that may bear little or no resemblance to the smaller actions that gave rise to
them. These are the systems that now dominate our lives; they cannot be changed by
working backwards, focusing on only a few simple causes. And certainly they cannot be
changed by the boldest visions of our most heroic leaders.
If we want to be able to get these complex systems to work better, we need to abandon
our reliance on the leader‐as‐hero and invite in the leader‐as‐host. We need to support
those leaders who know that problems are complex, who know that in order to
understand the full complexity of any issue, all parts of the system need to be invited in
to participate and contribute. We, as followers, need to give our leaders time, patience,
forgiveness; and we need to be willing to step up and contribute.
These leaders‐as‐hosts are candid enough to admit that they don’t know what to do;
they realize that it’s sheer foolishness to rely only on them for answers. But they also
know they can trust in other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done.
They know that other people, no matter where they are in the organizational hierarchy,
can be as motivated, diligent and creative as the leader, given the right invitation.
The Journey from Hero to Host
Leaders who journey from hero to host have seen past the negative dynamics of politics
and opposition that hierarchy breeds, they’ve ignored the organizational charts and role
descriptions that confine people’s potential. Instead, they’ve become curious. Who’s in
this organization or community? What skills and capacities might they offer if they were
invited into the work as full contributors? What do they know, what insights do they
have that might lead to a solution to this problem?
Leaders‐as‐hosts know that people willingly support those things they’ve played a part
in creating—that you can’t expect people to ‘buy‐in’ to plans and projects developed
elsewhere. Leaders‐as‐hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from
many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and
possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute, and that most
people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work. And these leaders
know that hosting others is the only way to get complex, intractable problems solved.
Leaders‐as‐hosts don’t just benevolently let go and trust that people will do good work
on their own Leaders have a great many things to attend to, but these are quite
different than the work of heroes.
Hosting leaders must:
• provide conditions and good group processes for people to work together.
• provide resources of time, the scarcest commodity of all.
• insist that people and the system learn from experience, frequently.
• offer unequivocal support—people know the leader is there for them.
• keep the bureaucracy at bay, creating oases (or bunkers) where people are less
encumbered by senseless demands for reports and administrivia.
• play defense with other leaders who want to take back control, who are critical
that people have been given too much freedom.
• reflect back to people on a regular basis how they’re doing, what they’re
accomplishing, how far they’ve journeyed.
• work with people to develop relevant measures of progress to make their
• value conviviality and esprit de corps—not false rah‐rah activities, but the spirit
that arises in any group that accomplishes difficult work together.
Challenges from Superiors
It’s important to note how leaders journeying from hero to host use their positional
power. They have to work all levels of the hierarchy; most often, it’s easier to gain
support and respect from the people they lead than it is to gain it from their superiors.
Most senior leaders of large hierarchies believe in their inherent superiority, as proven
by the position they’ve attained. They don’t believe that everyday people are as
creative or self‐motivated as are they. When participation is suggested as the means to
gather insights and ideas from staff on a complex problem, senior leaders often will
block such activities. They justify their opposition by stating that people would use this
opportunity to take advantage of the organization; or that they would suggest ideas that
have no bearing to the organization’s mission; or that people would feel overly
confident and overstep their roles. In truth, many senior leaders view engaging the
whole system as a threat to their own power and control. They consistently choose for
control, and the resultant chaos, rather than invite people in to solve difficult and
Leaders who do know the value of full engagement, who do trust those they lead, have
to constantly defend their staff from senior leaders who insist on more controls and
more bureaucracy to curtail their activities, even when those very activities are
producing excellent results. Strange to say, but too many senior leaders choose control
over effectiveness; they’re willing to risk creating more chaos by continuing their take-charge, command and control leadership.
Those who’ve been held back in confining roles, who’ve been buried in the hierarchy,
will eventually blossom and develop in the company of a hosting leader. Yet, it takes
time for employees to believe that this boss is different, that this leader actually wants
them to contribute. It can take 12 to 18 months in systems where people have been
silenced into submission by autocratic leadership. These days, most people take a wait and see attitude, no longer interested in participating because past invitations weren’t
sincere, or didn’t engage them in meaningful work. The leader needs to prove him or
herself by continually insisting that work cannot be accomplished, nor problems solved
without the participation of everyone. If the message is sincere and consistent, people
gradually return to life; even people who have died on the job, who’re just waiting until
retirement, can come alive in the presence of a leader who encourages them and
creates opportunities for them to contribute.
Leaders ashosts need to be skilled conveners. They realize that their organization or
community is rich in resources, and that the easiest way to discover these is to bring
diverse people together in conversations that matter. People who didn’t like each other,
people who discounted and ignored each other, people who felt invisible, neglected, left
out—these are the people who can emerge from their boxes and labels to become
interesting, engaged colleagues and citizens.
Hosting meaningful conversations isn’t about getting people to like each other or feel
good. It’s about creating the means for problems to get solved, for teams to function
well, for people to become energetic activists. Hosting Leaders create substantive
change by relying on everyone’s creativity, commitment and generosity. They learn
from firsthand experience that these qualities are present in just about everyone and in
every organization. They extend sincere invitations, ask good questions, and have the
courage to support risk‐taking and experimentation.
Are You a Hero?
Many of us can get caught up acting like heroes, not from power drives, but from our
good intentions and desires to help. Are you acting as a hero? Here’s how to know.
You’re acting as a hero when you believe that if you just work harder, you’ll fix things;
that if you just get smarter or learn a new technique, you’ll be able to solve problems
for others. You’re acting as a hero if you take on more and more projects and causes
and have less time for relationships. You’re playing the hero if you believe that you can
save the situation, the person, the world.
Our heroic impulses most often are born from the best of intentions. We want to help,
we want to solve, we want to fix. Yet this is the illusion of specialness, that we’re the
only ones who can offer help, service, skills. If we don’t do it, nobody will. This hero’s
path has only one guaranteed destination—we end up feeling lonely, exhausted and
It is time for all us heroes to go home because, if we do, we’ll notice that we’re not
alone. We’re surrounded by people just like us. They too want to contribute, they too
have ideas, they want to be useful to others and solve their own problems. Truth be told, they never wanted heroes to rescue them anyway.
Parts of this article are excerpts from Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey Into
Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze.