Excerpt from Indirect Work — Carol Sanford’s Latest Book
Albert Einstein, in his characteristically pithy and quotable way, once said that “you can’t use an old map to explore a new world.” Yet even with the best intentions, this is what most of us do most of the time.
I believe that many people, perhaps most people, seek to lead moral lives. That is, to the best of their abilities we seek to do what is right and good in order to have a beneficial effect in the world. At the same time, I believe that it is no accident that people fail over and over again to produce these intended effects. In their efforts to do good they are unintentionally keeping in place the very infrastructures (mental and physical) that they would like to transform.
Well-intentioned people, businesses, and organizations everywhere suffer from this dilemma. Even as they promote their achievements to their customers, stakeholders, and the world at large, they recognize that things around them are not really changing. This, they assume, is because not enough people are doing what they are doing, and so they advocate more strongly for their approach. It doesn’t occur to them that their approach might be precisely what is creating the ceiling that they are bumping up against and, because they are the ones we look to as leaders of social change, that we are all bumping up against together.
What they can’t see is that their thinking and actions are based on an outdated and discredited understanding of how the universe works, a condition they share with most of us. Collectively, we are trapped in a mechanistic (or even more archaic) paradigm, and this causes us to make seemingly logical and ethical choices that actually produce destructive results. The urgent question now is how to provide leadership that is more appropriate to the world we find ourselves in, a world that is in crisis precisely because of the paradigms from which we’ve been operating.
We look to the moral and honorable people among us for leadership. We recognize their agency, that they have willingly taken up responsibility as stewards for the world they find themselves in. But they are hindered in their ability to do this work by a failure to understand living processes and the ways change happens in human systems. Unfortunately, because they are honorable in their intentions, it can be very hard for them and for us to see that they are a large part of the problem. Yet any time we operate from a mechanistic paradigm — when, for example, we create programs and certifications and ideal solutions to take to scale — we reinforce the underlying patterns that are the source of the problems we wish to solve.
I hold a premise that all human beings share responsibility for making this shift in how they see the world, whether or not they have awakened to it. Our work as a species is to be conscious participants in and stewards of life’s evolutionary processes. To do so will require far more from us than simply to repair the damage we’ve done to the world and to one another, and it will require more than becoming better people. It also requires us to examine and make discernments about how we think, how we make sense of things, and how we shape our actions accordingly. We must undertake to do this ongoingly, bringing it into every aspect of our lives and institutions, because it’s a capacity that needs to be built and evolved. Without this most fundamental change in ourselves, we can’t bring about the change we seek in the world.