Synchronicity 2nd Edition
The Inner Path of Leadership
Joseph Jaworski (Author)
Publication date: 05/16/2011
Bestseller over 175,000+ copies sold
This long-awaited second edition includes two new chapters. The first features excerpts from the hundreds of letters Jaworski has received testifying to the profound impact of the book's message. The second describes the latest steps in Jaworski's journey, which led to his discovery of four principles that, when embraced, allow us to access the ultimate source of wisdom and creativity.
This long-awaited second edition includes two new chapters. The first features excerpts from the hundreds of letters Jaworski has received testifying to the profound impact of the book's message. The second describes the latest steps in Jaworski's journey, which led to his discovery of four principles that, when embraced, allow us to access the ultimate source of wisdom and creativity.
—James MacGregor Burns, Pulitzer Prize–winning presidential biographer and Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government, Emeritus, Williams College
“An insightful, profound, and readable contribution to understanding the personal side of leadership.”
—Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, and author of SuperCorp
“An unusually thoughtful exploration of the ‘inner' aspects of leadership, particularly in the business arena, surfaces in Joseph Jaworski's Synchronicity. Eschewing easy answers and ten-point plans to success, presenting the insights he has garnered from forward-looking thinkers including David Bohm and Rupert Sheldrake, Jaworski offers a searching and wise brief that deserves to be read in boardrooms everywhere.”
“Synchronicity is an intensely personal and compelling book. As I reeled from Jaguars to mountaintops to oil companies and a rare window on history, I was grateful that Joe Jaworski let us travel with him on ‘the inner path of leadership.'”
—Frances Hesselbein, President and CEO, Leader to Leader Institute
“From seemingly simple early chords, this book develops into a prophetic symphony by its conclusion.”
—M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled
“Synchronicity is a book that anyone serious about leadership will have to read.”
—Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline
“Synchronicity illustrates that leadership is about the release of human possibilities, about enabling others to break free of limits—created organizationally or self-imposed. Although this book describes the author's personal journey, it contains profound messages about organizational learning and effectiveness.”
—Phil Carroll, President and CEO Emeritus, Shell Oil Company
“Written from the heart as well as the head, Synchronicity is the story of one man's journey toward the place we all must go in the century ahead. Jaworski's life demonstrates that the immense cultural and institutional change that a livable future demands can begin anytime, anywhere, in anyone, even those who have benefited greatly from the old order of things.”
—Dee W. Hock, founder and President and CEO Emeritus, Visa International
“Jaworski's personal search for insight and inspiration is told so compellingly that the reader hardly notices how deep is the philosophy of leadership it conveys—and how broadly relevant to leaders in every domain.”
—Harlan Cleveland, former President, World Academy of Art and Science
“I've spent my life writing about a new way to think and to be. Joe Jaworski has spent his living it. His deeply personal vision of Servant Leadership, nurtured by a courageous openness to love, to pain, and to his own and others' experience, is told with a profound simplicity. Synchronicity touched deeply both my head and my heart.”
—Danah Zohar, coauthor of Spiritual Capital
“No other book is like this one. Its gripping life stories punctuate a how-to on managing toward ‘predictable miracles' by exploring your ‘cubic centimeters of chance.' What a wake-up call!”
—Tom Brown's Top Ten Business Books of 1996
“Joseph Jaworski pinpoints the astonishing encounters that manifested in his life when he followed his inner compass. Wise guides rose spontaneously; fate cleared blockages; love was caught in an airport passing; even an ermine communed eye to eye. Jaworski's life story teaches us how to recognize and respond to our own moments of inner knowing and how these personal shifts can reverberate in the world.”
—Lois Farfel Stark, American Leadership Forum Fellow and President, Stark Productions, Inc.
Introduction by Peter Senge
PART ONE: PREPARING TO JOURNEY
2. Making a Mark
3. The Journey Begins
5. Grand Prix Test Run
6. The Art of Loving
8. The Dream
10. Collapsing Boundaries
PART TWO: CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
11. The Mystery of Commitment
12. The Guide
13. Synchronicity: The Cubic Centimeter of Chance
PART THREE: THE HERO'S JOURNEY
14. The Moment of Swing
15. The Wilderness Experience: A Gateway to Dialogue
16. Dialogue: The Power of Collective Thinking
17. Lessons: Encountering the Traps
18. The Power of Commitment
PART FOUR: THE GIFT
19. The Return & Venturing Forth Again
20. Setting the Field
22. New Frontiers
23. A World of Possibilities
24. Creating the Future
Epilogue: Bretton Woods and Hadamar
About the Author
The Centre for Generative Leadership
by Peter Senge
TELLING A STORY
For many years I have told people that, although there are a lot of books on leadership, there is only one that serious students have to read—Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf. Most recent books on leadership have been about what leaders do and how they operate, why the world makes life difficult for them, and what organizations must do in order to better develop leaders. These books are packed with seemingly practical advice about what individuals and organizations should do differently. Yet few penetrate to deeper insights into the nature of real leadership. By contrast, Greenleaf invites people to consider a domain of leadership grounded in a state of being, not doing. He says that the first and most important choice a leader makes is the choice to serve, without which one’s capacity to lead is profoundly limited. That choice is not an action in the normal sense—it’s not something you do, but an expression of your being.
This, too, is a book that anyone who is serious about leadership will have to read. Synchronicity builds directly on Greenleaf’s thinking and goes further, especially in illuminating the nature of the choice to lead and the deep understanding or worldview out of which such a choice might arise.
For Greenleaf, being a leader has to do with the relationship between the leader and the led. Only when the choice to serve undergirds the moral formation of leaders does the hierarchical power that separates the leader and those led not corrupt. Hierarchies are not inherently bad, despite the bad press they receive today. The potential of hierarchy to corrupt would be dissolved, according to Greenleaf, if leaders chose to serve those they led—if they saw their job, their fundamental reason for being, as true service. For this idea we owe Greenleaf a great debt. His insights also go a long way toward explaining the “leaderlessness” of most contemporary institutions, guided as they are by people who have risen to positions of authority because of technical or decision-making skills, political savvy, or desire for wealth and power.
Joe Jaworski takes Greenleaf’s understanding further. He suggests that the fundamental choice that enables true leadership in all situations (including, but not limited to, hierarchical leadership) is the choice to serve life. He suggests that, in a deep sense, my capacity as a leader comes from my choice to allow life to unfold through me. This choice results in a type of leadership that we’ve known very rarely, or that we associate exclusively with extraordinary individuals like Gandhi or King. In fact, this domain of leadership is available to us all and may indeed be crucial for our future.
I believe this broadening of Greenleaf’s original insight is so relevant today for two reasons. First, Joe’s book shifts the conversation beyond formal power hierarchies of “leaders” and “those led.” Increasingly, hierarchies are weakening, and institutions of all sorts, from multinational corporations to school systems, work through informal networks and self-managed teams that form, operate, dissolve, and re-form. It is not enough simply to choose to serve those you are formally leading, because you may not have any formal subordinates in the new organizational structures. Second, Joe’s book redirects our attention toward how we collectively shape our destiny.
In the West we tend to think of leadership as a quality that exists in certain people. This usual way of thinking has many traps. We search for special individuals with leadership potential, rather than developing the leadership potential in everyone. We are easily distracted by what this or that leader is doing, by the melodrama of people in power trying to maintain their power and others trying to wrest it from them. When things are going poorly, we blame the situation on incompetent leaders, thereby avoiding any personal responsibility. When things become desperate, we can easily find ourselves waiting for a great leader to rescue us. Through all of this, we totally miss the bigger question: What are we, collectively, able to create?
Because of our obsessions with how leaders behave and with the interactions of leaders and followers, we forget that, in its essence, leadership is about learning how to shape the future. Leadership exists when people are no longer victims of circumstances but participate in creating new circumstances. When people operate in this domain of generative leadership, day by day, they come to a deepening understanding of, as Joe says, “how the universe actually works.” That is the real gift of leadership. It’s not about positional power; it’s not about accomplishments; it’s ultimately not even about what we do. Leadership is about creating a domain in which human beings continually deepen their understanding of reality and become more capable of participating in the unfolding of the world. Ultimately, leadership is about creating new realities.
Exploring such a view of leadership through a book is almost a contradiction in terms. Because this territory can’t be fully understood conceptually, any attempt to digest and explain it intellectually is at best a type of map. And the map is not the territory. To understand the territory, we must earn the understanding, and this understanding doesn’t come cheaply. We all earn it in our life experience. I think this is one part of what Buddhists mean by “life is suffering.” We have to suffer through life, not in the sense of pain, but in terms of living through it.
One way “to live into” these subtle territories of leadership is through a story. When Greenleaf wrote Servant Leadership, he “entered” through Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East, an autobiographical account of one man’s journey in search of enlightenment. Along the way, the narrator’s loyal servant, Leo, sustains him through many trials. Years later, when the man finds the esoteric society he is seeking, he discovers that Leo is its leader—so the servant is the leader, and leadership is exercised through service.
Here also Joe enters through a story: his own. The result is an unusual book—rare among leadership books and rare among business books—a personal, reflective account of one person’s journey. This may present some difficulties for readers used to “expert” accounts of leadership that give advice and propound theories. Yet Joe’s insights about leadership and the process by which he came to those insights are inseparable. His life has been his vehicle for learning, just as his learning has been about how leaders must serve life.
Furthermore, this is not just Joe’s story, for Joe’s personal story is interwoven with epochal events in which we all participated. This story begins when his father, Leon Jaworski, became the Watergate special prosecutor. During the investigation, Colonel Jaworski became deeply disturbed by the growing evidence implicating Nixon and his closest aides in the Watergate conspiracy. The only person he felt he could talk to without fear of compromising the investigation was his son Joe, also a lawyer. Father and son asked each other the same questions the nation would soon ask: How could this have happened? How could we have come to this—our highest and most trusted officials acting like common criminals?
Living with these questions eventually led Joe to a remarkable series of undertakings. After several years of wrestling with his calling, he decided to leave the prestigious international law firm he had helped build. He struck off into completely foreign territory—public leadership—and created the American Leadership Forum (ALF). The vision of ALF was to establish a national network of talented and diverse midcareer professionals committed to bringing forth a new generation of public leadership. Today, ALF programs operate in a number of communities and regions in the United States with successful results. After almost ten years, Joe stepped down as chairman of ALF and accepted the position as head of the scenario planning process for the Royal Dutch Shell Group of companies. In this job, he helped shape what many regard as the premier planning process of any large corporation.
For me, Joe’s story represents one person’s journey taken on behalf of all of us who are wrestling with the profound changes required in public and institutional leadership for the twenty-first century. Our lifelong experiences with hierarchy cast a long shadow, making it difficult for us to think outside the framework of hierarchical leadership. Abuses of hierarchical authority like Watergate, sadly, are still with us today, eliciting deep concerns about our collective capability to lead ourselves. The ALF saga shows what a small group of committed people can do to positively affect public leadership.
Especially interesting for me is the juxtaposition of the ALF and Shell experiences. Joe’s years at Shell provide a unique inside look at how Shell’s planning process operates, including the first public presentation of the two long-term global scenarios that are now guiding thinking among Shell managers worldwide. Large multinational corporations like Shell represent a new form of social system in the world, with immense power, for good or ill, to influence the future. Today, the global corporation transcends national boundaries and has an impact in the world that goes beyond even that of governments. In this book, we begin to get a glimpse of how this power might positively influence the future. In particular, we see how the scenario process can nurture creative new ways of thinking about and influencing the future both within and beyond the corporation itself.
MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE PEOPLE
My contact with this book also begins with a story. It was autumn, 1992, and I was in London on the way home from a European trip. I was meeting Joe for breakfast, having not seen him for some five years. In the meantime, he had left ALF, where I had helped in the early start-up period from 1980 to 1983, and he had already been working for Shell for two years. Coincidentally, I had known two of his predecessors in the position, Pierre Wack and Peter Schwartz, as well as Arie de Geus, the former head of all planning for Shell, and had some idea of the extraordinary nature of the job Joe now held. So I was eager to see my old friend and get caught up on his activities.
As he told me about the exciting work of developing Shell’s new global scenarios, I became increasingly engaged. Then he told me about the book he was writing. In many ways Joe is a shy person, so writing a book about his life does not come easily. Yet he felt his story contained important lessons that could be shared only through a book. On the one hand, there were the fascinating stories of ALF, and now Shell. But on the other, below the surface detail of these activities, were the profound personal changes Joe had gone through, guided by a series of meetings with remarkable people such as John Gardner, Harlan Cleveland, and some of the leading scientists of our time. I was stunned when Joe told me about meeting the physicist David Bohm in 1980, a meeting I had never known about. As time had passed, Joe had come to realize that this meeting was pivotal, and that the conversation with Bohm had planted seeds within him that had taken years to develop and that now were leading him to a radically new view of how human beings could shape their destiny. When our breakfast ended, I told Joe I would do anything I could to help him finish this book.
I, too, had had a pivotal meeting with David Bohm. It was in 1989, as I was in the very final stages of writing The Fifth Discipline. David gave a small seminar at MIT for a group of us interested in his work on dialogue. At the time, I was searching desperately for a deeper theoretical understanding of a particular phenomenon I had observed in teams, which I felt was essential to understand the discipline of team learning. Over the years my colleagues and I had come to use the term “alignment” to describe what happens when people in a group actually start to function as a whole. We would use examples like extraordinary jazz ensembles and championship basketball teams to evoke a sense of what alignment was all about. But I knew at a deeper level I could not begin to explain how this mysterious functioning as a whole actually came about.
I also knew that what I was looking for was not available in mainstream contemporary management theories about teams. Many of these theories are essentially individualistic in nature, grounded in individual psychology or the psychology of groups. I felt deeply that this phenomenon of alignment was not individualistic at all, but fundamentally collective. I knew of no theory that in any way started to explain how the seemingly mysterious state of “being in the groove” (as the jazz musicians call it) or “in the zone” actually works. Theories based on individual reasoning, interpersonal interactions, or behavior patterns in groups seemed inherently inadequate.
In the seminar, as Bohm described his work on dialogue, I said to myself, “At least now I know I’m not crazy.” Bohm talked about the phenomenon of thought and how our patterns of thought can hold us captive. “Thought creates the world and then says ‘I didn’t do it,’” he said. He talked about a “generative order” in which, depending on our state of consciousness, we “participate in how reality unfolds.” Bohm’s theory went beyond interdependence to wholeness. Interdependence is something you can see. For example, a mother and a child are interdependent in countless ways you can observe. Such interdependence is a sort of window into a deeper domain of wholeness. Interdependence exists at what Bohm called the “explicate” level. But wholeness exists at the “implicate,” which is the unmanifest or premanifest level. When we are engaged in something that is deeply meaningful and are attuned to one another, human beings can participate in the “unfolding” of the implicate wholeness into the manifest or explicate order.
Now, this conversation in 1989 with David Bohm was a sort of seed planting for me as well. I knew I only dimly grasped what Bohm was saying, parts of which resonated deeply with me. Other parts seemed strange, foreign to any way I had been trained to think. Over the years, reading and rereading Wholeness and the Implicate Order, where Bohm lays out the basic theory, had helped. But when Joe started to tell me that morning about his conversation with Bohm, I realized that here was a very special gift. Later, when Joe showed me the transcript of the conversation (he somehow had had the presence of mind to tape the meeting), I was struck by the simplicity and clarity of Bohm’s way of explaining his thinking to Joe. In many ways, the personal nature of Joe’s questions seemed to allow David to speak personally as well. Having studied his work, I can say that there are subtleties to David’s thinking that I only began to understand through Joe’s meeting with him. I realized that, in a sense, Joe and the story he was and is living out had the potential to become a vehicle for communicating David’s seminal insights to a much bigger audience than he would ever reach with his own writings.
Perhaps in some way David and the other leading thinkers with whom Joe met sensed this as well. Otherwise, it is hard to understand how these meetings even would have occurred. By the time Joe met him in 1980, Bohm was already a famous physicist. Einstein had once said that Bohm was the one person from whom he ever understood quantum theory. Bohm had written the leading textbook on quantum theory in the early 1950s. Why would this man, who was quite reserved and protective of his privacy, agree, on one day’s notice, to spend the next afternoon with a strange American lawyer who had just called him on the telephone?
The answer lies in part in Joe’s personal qualities, which somehow make it possible for people to open up to him. Joe has less investment in appearing to understand things than almost anybody I know. He’ll often say, “You know, I don’t think I really understand it,” or, “I’m not sure if I’m doing it justice.” To have accomplished what he’s accomplished, and to have the kind of fame that he inherited from his father, and still to have retained that childlike quality of being able to wonder, is really extraordinary. I’ve never met anybody who’s as good at wondering as Joe is. Perhaps this is one reason people are so open around him.
Another less obvious reason is that people like Bohm probably had a sense that it was important to talk to Joe. They felt they should spend time with him. There is a sense of destiny that travels with Joe. It’s a very subtle phenomenon to describe because many people have lofty goals, and many people have a sense of self-importance. Joe has absolutely none of that. The sense of destiny I experience around Joe is actually around him, not in him. It’s not in his personality. If Joe says, “This is really important,” it’s because that’s the reality he’s seeing, not because he’s expressing an opinion. Little of him blocks what’s going on around him.
I’ve come to appreciate that one of the gifts of artists is the ability to see the world as it really is. The vision of what painters or sculptors intend to create is critical, but it is of little use if they cannot accurately observe the current state of their creation. Most of us aren’t very good at perceiving reality as it is. Most of what we “see” is shaped by our impressions, our history, our baggage, our preconceptions. We can’t see people as they really are because we’re too busy reacting to our own internal experiences of what they evoke in us, so we rarely actually relate to reality. We mostly relate to internal remembrances of our own history, stimulated and evoked by whatever is externally before us.
Somehow Joe has a more direct relationship with things than most of us, and I think this is what sensitive people see in him. It’s not just that Joe is a good listener, or a good questioner, or a childlike learner. I think people such as David Bohm have the feeling that by telling Joe their story, their story will actually be heard. A type of fidelity emerges from this. Joe tells his story, but our experience of it is much more like looking through a window than watching a movie. We don’t just hear his memories, we look through his experiences at something that was actually there. And when we can see what is true, something new can show up. I think this is why people like David Bohm and the biologist Francisco Varela, who have come to understand what it means to operate clearly in the moment, believe they must spend time with this person.
I share these impressions of how Joe works not to flatter him but, I hope, to help you appreciate at a more personal level what this story is all about. If we could only see reality more as it is, it would become obvious what we need to do. We wouldn’t be acting out of our own histories, or our own needs, or our own purely reactive interpretations. We would see what is needed in the moment. We would do exactly what’s required of us, right now, right here. This is precisely what David Bohm was talking about when he spoke of living one’s life by “participating in the unfolding.” You can’t do that unless you can actually see what is right before you. In this way, Joe’s story is a beautiful demonstration of the personal orientation required for a learning organization to operate.
Moving as it does between historic public events and key intellectual developments, Joe’s story naturally draws us in. We are all seeking greater insight into these remarkable times, when there is so much cause for both despair and hope. Even though our political and institutional leadership is losing respect and credibility, and core societal crises fester, we are gaining a greater understanding of how the universe works. A historic shift in the Western scientific-materialistic worldview is occurring. Perhaps the two are connected. Perhaps our institutions and leadership are, by and large, grounded in a way of thinking about the world that is increasingly obsolete and counterproductive. Perhaps that is why they are falling apart.
The new leadership must be grounded in fundamentally new understandings of how the world works. The sixteenth-century Newtonian mechanical view of the universe, which still guides our thinking, has become increasingly dysfunctional in these times of interdependence and change. The critical shifts required to guarantee a healthy world for our children and our children’s children will not be achieved by doing more of the same. “The world we have created is a product of our way of thinking,” said Einstein. Nothing will change in the future without fundamentally new ways of thinking. This is the real work of leadership. And this book is a good place to begin the work.
FUNDAMENTAL SHIFTS OF MIND
As the book was nearing completion, the story implicit in Joe’s experiences began to emerge with so much coherence that it seemed to just tell itself. Through a series of working sessions with Joe and Betty Sue Flowers, Joe’s editor, we’d find, again and again, whenever something was unclear, we’d simply ask Joe, “Well, tell us what actually happened,” and he would. As we listened, we’d shake our heads and say, “Well, just write it that way.” Eventually, the whole process began to resemble a sort of personal archeology as Betty Sue and I would simply guide Joe in sharing his first-hand experience.
Then I began to feel that we needed to step back from the story and reflect more broadly on the whole journey. At one level, the larger purpose of the book was to suggest that we can shape our future in ways that we rarely realize. What made Joe’s story so compelling was that it offered an emerging understanding of how this might come about.
One afternoon I asked Joe, “What are the guiding principles, or the organizing principles, with which this book is concerned?” Almost without hesitation, he responded by describing certain necessary shifts of mind and the consequences of these shifts. He acknowledged that this was all very new to him and that these ideas should be treated as preliminary insights, initial glimpses into a vast new territory. Nonetheless, I think they will be helpful, especially for those readers who would like a conceptual road map before embarking on Joe’s journey.
First, Joe said, we need to be open to fundamental shifts of mind. We have very deep mental models of how the world works, deeper than we can know. To think that the world can ever change without changes in our mental models is folly. When I asked Joe more specifically what these changes might be about, he said that it’s about a shift from seeing a world made up of things to seeing a world that’s open and primarily made up of relationships, where whatever is manifest, whatever we see, touch, feel, taste, and hear, whatever seems most real to us, is actually nonsubstantial. A deeper level of reality exists beyond anything we can articulate.
Once we understand this, we begin to see that the future is not fixed, that we live in a world of possibilities. And yet almost all of us carry around a deep sense of resignation. We’re resigned to believing we can’t have any influence in the world, at least not on a scale that matters. So we focus on the small scale, where we think we can have an influence. We do our best with our kids, or we work on our relationships, or we focus on building a career. But deep down, we’re resigned to being absolutely powerless in the larger world. Yet, if we have a world of people who all feel powerless, we have a future that’s predetermined. So we live in hopelessness and helplessness, a state of great despair. And this despair is actually a product of how we think, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
For the most part, this despair is undiscussable, especially among successful people. We don’t want to talk about it, because we want to maintain a facade of having our lives together. So we create all kinds of diversions. Our culture itself offers abundant diversions. It tells us that all we need to worry about is how we look. Work out, get the body in shape, dress well. Life is about appearances. Diversions also exist in the story we tell about the world—that the world is dominated by politics and self-interest, for example. All these diversions are simply ways of covering up the deeper sense of despair arising from our feeling that we can do nothing about the future.
But when we go through this shift of mind, we begin to realize that the sense of despair we’ve been feeling arises out of a fundamentally naive view of the world. In fact, absolutely everything around us is in continual motion. There’s nothing in nature that stays put. When I look at the leaves on the tree, I am really seeing a flowing of life. Those leaves won’t be on that tree in a couple of months. At this very moment, they’re changing. Before long, they’ll be a different color. Before long, they’ll be lying on the ground. Before long, they’ll be part of the soil. Before long, they’ll be part of another tree. There’s absolutely nothing in nature that stays put.
One of the great mysteries of our current state of consciousness is how we can live in a world where absolutely nothing is fixed, and yet perceive a world of “fixedness.” But once we start to see reality more as it is, we realize that nothing is permanent, so how could the future be fixed? How could we live in anything but a world of continual possibility? This realization allows us to feel more alive. People like David Bohm and the management expert W. Edwards Deming had just such vitality. Where did they get it? Perhaps they had less of their consciousness tied up in maintaining the illusion of fixity, so they had a little more life left in them. Because of how we think, we’re strangling the life out of ourselves. When we start to see the world more as it is, we stop strangling ourselves.
That afternoon when we talked, Joe said, “When this fundamental shift of mind occurs, our sense of identity shifts, too, and we begin to accept each other as legitimate human beings.” I’ve only just now reached a point in my life where I can begin to appreciate what it would actually mean to accept one another as legitimate human beings. Part of that ironclad grip on ourselves which maintains the illusion of fixity involves seeing our own selves and each other as fixed. I don’t see you; I see the stored-up images, interpretations, feelings, doubts, distrusts, likes, and dislikes that you evoke in me. When we actually begin to accept one another as legitimate human beings, it’s truly amazing.
Perhaps this is what love means. Virtually all the world’s religions have, in one way or another, recognized the power of love, this quality of seeing one another as legitimate human beings.
“Then,” Joe said, “when we start to accept this fundamental shift of mind, we begin to see ourselves as part of the unfolding. We also see that it’s actually impossible for our lives not to have meaning.” The only way I can experience my life as meaningless is to work as hard as I possibly can to tell myself it has no meaning. At a deeper level of reality, my life can’t help but have meaning, because everything is continually unfolding, and I am connected into that unfolding in ways that I can’t even imagine. It takes no effort of will, no particular skill, no learning, no knowledge. It is actually my birthright. It’s what it means to be alive. Robert Frost said that home is that place you shouldn’t have to earn. We don’t have to earn this type of meaningfulness in our lives. It is already present.
Joe said, “Operating in this different state of mind and being, we come to a very different sense of what it means to be committed.” In our traditional image of commitment, things get done by hard work. We have to sacrifice. If everything starts to fall apart, we try harder, or we tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, or that we don’t care enough to be that committed. So we vacillate between two states of being, one a form of self-manipulation, wherein we get things done by telling ourselves that if we don’t work harder, it won’t get done; and the other a state of guilt, wherein we say we’re not good enough. Neither of these states of being has anything to do with the deeper nature of commitment.
When we operate in the state of mind in which we realize we are part of the unfolding, we can’t not be committed. It’s actually impossible not to be committed. Nothing ever happens by accident. Every single thing is part of what needs to happen right now. We only make the mistakes that we have to make to learn what we’re here to learn right now. This is a commitment of being, not a commitment of doing. We discover that our being is inherently in a state of commitment as part of the unfolding process. The only way to be uncommitted is to lose that realization, to once again fall into the illusion that we aren’t participating in life. This discovery leads to a paradoxical integrity of surrender, surrendering into commitment: I actualize my commitment by listening, out of which my “doing” arises. Sometimes the greatest acts of commitment involve doing nothing but sitting and waiting until I just know what to do next.
In most of our organizations today, managers who adopt this attitude would be considered nonmanagers because they are not doing anything to fix problems. We’re hooked on the notion that commitment and activity are inseparable. So we create a continual stream of activity, making sure that everybody sees us doing lots of things so they’ll believe we’re actually committed. If we stay busy enough, maybe we’ll even convince ourselves that our lives have some meaning even though, deep down, we know they couldn’t possibly have any meaning, because everything is hopeless, and we’re helpless, and we couldn’t possibly affect anything anyhow.
One of the interesting indicators of this paradoxical connection between our sense of helplessness and our ceaseless activity is how much difficulty we have actually saying, “You know, I can’t do anything about that.” We often find that people in organizations have to create a belief that they can make change happen in order to justify their meaningless activity. So they’re caught in an enormous set of contradictions. At one level, they believe they can’t influence anything. At another level, they create a story that says, “We can make it happen,” and they busy themselves doing things that they know won’t have any impact. It’s like rats on a treadmill; they get tired after a while. Recently a very successful manager told me that she had suddenly realized that all her life she had just been treading water. We live in a contradictory state of frenzied commitment, of treading water, knowing we’re actually not going anyplace. But we’re terrified that if we stop, we’ll drown. Our lives will be meaningless.
When this new type of commitment starts to operate, there is a flow around us. Things just seem to happen. We begin to see that with very small movements, at just the right time and place, all sorts of consequent actions are brought into being. We develop what artists refer to as an “economy of means,” where, rather than getting things done through effort and brute force, we start to operate very subtly. A flow of meaning begins to operate around us, as if we were part of a larger conversation. This is the ancient meaning of dialogue: (dia • logos) “flow of meaning.” We start to notice that things suddenly are just attracted to us in ways that are very puzzling. A structure of underlying causes, a set of forces, begins to operate, as if we were surrounded by a magnetic field with magnets being aligned spontaneously in this field. But this alignment is not spontaneous at all—it’s just that the magnets are responding to a more subtle level of causality.
When we started the MIT Center for Organizational Learning a few years ago, a most remarkable thing began to happen. People just started showing up. In one period of about two or three months, three incredible women showed up. I had met them eleven years before at a particular meeting, and I had begun to think about them again because the work they were doing connected in important ways to new developments at the Center. But I didn’t know how to reach any of them, or even where they lived. Within two months, each of them had called and said she had learned about what we were doing and wanted to see how she could help.
The causes of such incidents are very hard for us to understand, but it appears that when we start to operate in this new state of mind, grounded in this different commitment, something starts to operate around us. You could call it “attraction”—the attractiveness of people in a state of surrender.
Lastly, when we are in a state of commitment and surrender, we begin to experience what is sometimes called “synchronicity.” In other words, synchronicity is a result. It’s important to understand the underlying causes of synchronicity, because if we don’t, we might actually try to bring about synchronicity in the same way we try to control the rest of our lives. People tend to elevate synchronicity into a sort of magical, mystical experience. In fact, it’s very down to earth. Water flows downhill because of gravity. Of course, gravity itself is a pretty mysterious phenomenon. It seems to be a type of field, as if all physical objects in the universe have some attraction for one another. But even though no one knows exactly how gravity works, we can observe the result: water flows downhill. We don’t argue about the result because it is observable. That’s much the way synchronicity seems to operate in this field of deep commitment.
In the same sense, this attractiveness, the field that starts to develop around people who have experienced these shifts of mind, creates a phenomenon that Joe calls predictable miracles. “Miracle” is a funny word because it connotes the unusual or mysterious. But in fact, what is “miraculous” might be just what is beyond our current understanding and way of living. If we were not making such an immense effort to separate ourselves from life, we might actually live life day to day, minute by minute, as a series of predictable miracles.
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