Monday, October 08, 2007

23. The Life of an Apostle

The following is taken from Margaret Wheatley's website

The challenges of paradigm pioneers.
While those who want to support new leaders are struggling with the dilemma of scale, individual leaders face very challenging conditions. They act in isolation, often criticized, mocked, or ignored by the prevailing culture. They have no way of knowing there are many more like them, pioneers struggling with new ways of leading. It is a constant struggle to maintain focus and courage in the midst of such criticism and loneliness. And, there are other challenges for these pioneers. These arise from the dynamics of paradigm shifts and how people generally behave when confronted with a new world view.

New leaders must invent the future while dealing with the past.

In speaking with these new leaders, it is very clear that they refuse to carry the past into the future. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past having, in many cases, personally suffered from ineffective or brutal leadership. They want to work in new ways, but these new ways of organizing, the new processes for implementing change, have yet to be developed. It is their work to invent them, and so they do double duty. They must simultaneously invent a new process or organizing form, and also solve the problems created by past practices.

It is difficult to break with tradition

It is not easy to invent the new. It is difficult to break free of the training, history, and familiar practices of the prevailing culture. New leaders certainly know that bureaucracy doesn't work, that corruption destroys communities, that aid administered from the top down most often fails. They refuse to repeat these practices, but they, like all of us, have been raised in these traditional ways. Past habits of practice exert strong pressures. When crises mount and people feel fearful and overwhelmed, we default back to practices that are familiar, even if they are ineffective.

Supporters want them to look familiar.

Those with the means to support new leaders often complicate their pioneering work by wanting them to use familiar and traditional leadership processes. Those with resources often feel it too risky to support experiments with new practices. It feels safer to ask for traditional strategic plans, business plans, measurements, and reports, no matter what the context of the initiative. On the surface these seem to be important skill sets, but there is now substantial research demonstrating the failure of these methods to produce desired results in the most traditional of organizations. Perhaps supporters are risk-averse, perhaps they are unaware that these methods don't work. Whatever the reason, sponsors insist that pioneering leaders conform to the past. Resources are not available unless new leaders can demonstrate competency in familiar leadership practices, even those that have consistently failed to achieve sustained change.

And when resources are scarce, and competition grows among different projects, it is easy for pioneers to lose their way. Against their best judgment of what works in their community, they agree to comply with procedures and practices they know can't succeed. Over time, they fail, not from lack of vision or willingness to experiment, but because they have been held back from those experiments. We destroy these pioneers by insisting that they conform to the mistakes of the past.

There is no room for failure.

As pioneers, it is impossible to get it right the first time. No one has yet drawn accurate maps--explorers learn as they go. The maps that pioneers create will make it easy for large populations to migrate easily to the future, but their own explorations require great sacrifice and constant learning. Our present culture doesn't support this kind of experimentation. We want right answers quickly; we ask people to demonstrate success early in their ventures. We evaluate them based on short-term measures. We seldom give adequate time for the explorations and failures that are part of mapping a new territory. Instead of offering additional resources to their explorations and experiments, we abandon them in favor of safer projects that employ familiar, flawed means.

We want them to fail.

This is the greatest, unspoken difficulty pioneering leaders encounter. Society does not want them to succeed. To acknowledge their success means we will have to change. We will have to abandon the comfort of our familiar beliefs and practices. People naturally flee from such changes and thus, even as the old ways fail, we hold onto them more fiercely and apply them more zealously.In his seminal work on paradigms, Thomas Kuhn described the behavior of scientists when confronted with evidence that pointed to a truly new world view. (see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996, 1974) When the new evidence clearly demonstrated the need for a change in paradigms, scientists were observed working hard to make the evidence conform to their old worldview. In defense of the old, they would discard or reinterpret the data. (This was always done unconsciously.) And in the most startling instances, they actually would be blind to the new information-even with the data in front of them, they literally could not see it. For them, the new did not exist.

When the paradigm is changing, it is common to experience each of these dynamics. How often do we see an innovative approach, and then characterize it as traditional? How often do we observe new leadership practices and deny their existence? How often do we treat their successes as anomalies or as exceptions to the norm? How difficult is it for us to acknowledge them for what they are, radical departures from tradition, the first trail markers of our way to the future?

Mohammed Junus, the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and pioneer of micro-lending to the poor, tells the story of trying to get support from traditional bankers for his first loans to poor people. Dr. Junus wanted to loan very small amounts of money (often not more than a few dollars) to give Bangla people the means to start their own businesses. Whatever evidence he presented, the bank's reply was always the same: "The poor are not credit worthy." Frustrated, he then loaned his own money to the poor, and was paid back on time. But the bank's response was the same. Even after several years of successful lending to the poor, Dr. Junus was still greeted with the same old belief, "The poor are not credit worthy." He realized that no matter how much evidence he might accumulate to demonstrate the contrary, the banks would never see his evidence nor change their beliefs. (Grameen has since loaned millions to the poor, and developed a model for micro-lending that is used worldwide.)

I couldn't help but think of apostles as I read this article.

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