From education to employment

Leading with different awareness

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd

It is probably a sign of midlife that thoughts of one’s own death pass through one’s mind rather more often than in one’s youth.  Recently it has been on my mind rather more frequently and it helped me think about leadership and sustainability in a new light.

Can living with death awareness improve our sustainability thinking?  Does it enable us to care more for the long rather than the short term? Reflecting upon my own career I seemed to move about quite a bit in order to “make a career”. After a few years’ of peripatetic teaching I moved to my first middle management job up North; it was definitely a career move. The possibility of being a head of department at 29 was attractive. I had no intention of staying and I was back in London within two and a half years.  I saw it as a pit stop along my career path. Although I cared about my work, the people I worked with, the students I worked for and the organisations I was in, I gave little real thought to the effects my pit stops may have had on the communities I was essentially there to serve. My career moves were, bluntly speaking, driven by my ambition. Career equalled achievement, climbing the ladder, a certain income and hence a stroking of the ego.  Naturally, at the time I lacked the awareness to realise it.  I rationalised that I was there to bring long needed change, to implement government policies, to make a positive contribution. I never thought to question the worldviews that had been handed down to me by observing and emulating others.  I had bought into a system that we, as a society, have co-created.  Now that I have come to a different realisation I am asking myself how much more good I could have done if I had been able to start letting go of my ego earlier on, if I had appreciated the transience of all things including that of my life, if I had acted from the relative unimportance of myself, due to my ephemeral nature?  Would I have been able to facilitate more sustainable improvements for communities?

In the UK, the rest of Europe and in many other parts of the world, society is going through a number of key crises.  The crisis that gets the most media attention is the economic one even though the social and particularly the environmental problems are of much more far reaching and long-term consequence.  We really need to halt and ask ourselves why that is.  We are seeing many public service budgets, including that of education, being slashed by huge percentages.  Leaders and managers are tasked with taking “difficult decisions”.  They are meant to sack staff or rather “delete posts”.  In some instances they are expected to cut services.  Some places are looking at selling buildings and public land because this will provide a-once-off cash injection that helps to balance groaning budget lines. Some changes are badly needed and actually bring about improved service delivery, but in others they reduce the resilience of the communities they are there to serve. Studies of nature show us that resilience is brought about through modularity, variety and redundancy.  Nature is not efficient in our sense of the word.  By reducing these characteristics, in the name of efficiency, we can bring instability to our environmental, social and economic systems.  While in the short-term no harm seems to be done, the long-term consequences can be affecting lives for many generations to come.  Libraries, youth service facilities, children’s centres and local learning provision going means lack of public community spaces, loss of early intervention and therefore accumulating problems for later. How much are these decisions taken with a long-term view?  And what is a long-term view in the first place?

In considering our live spans as a yardstick of measuring the significance of events, we have created timescales that in the great scheme of things are insignificant.  When we think about the fact that the planet is approximately 4.45 billion years old, 70 or 80 years, an average European human lifespan, are totally insignificant.  When we are talking about resource depletion and about approximate dates for peak oil or peak water, we discount predictions by scientists if they are a few years out, not noticing that these variations are mere insignificances even if they amount to 10, 20 or even 30 years. Like so many things, long-term is relative to what it’s measured against. And it is the same in leadership positions.  The more we move about, the less we realise that when we go into organisations and turn them round in a few years and then move on to the next post, that we can often not see the real impact we have had on the communities and the staff who make up the organisation.  What in the short-term may have been judged good because it increased efficiency or contributed to government priorities, may in the long-term be seen differently but most of us will have long gone, in one way or another, unable to witness the real effect. Politicians are in this situation to the extreme – short-termism rules.

There is no blame, as we have created society that works like that.  The system rewards those who excel the most quickly, who can show results, who meet targets, who have the highest positions, who have most influence, status, the biggest house and most money.  These are not absolute truths, they are rules that we have created – rules of what gets rewarded and what does not.  It is however us who keep perpetuating this system through the aspirations we instil into the young people and adults we work with as well as our own children.  We have created a society that by and large does not have sufficiently regard for natural laws, where death is considered the enemy, that needs to be fought at all costs, rather than being a natural part of life, that in its inevitability needs to be embraced and that can inform our lives for the better.  Death can be a compass for what values and attitudes are worthwhile to adopt.

I have heard a story about Native Americans and their use of the children’s fire. Meetings in that particular tribe were held in a circle, both men and women were equally represented as were different generations.  There were however two elders, one man and one woman who were allowed to veto decisions taken in the medicine wheel.  They represented the children’s fire that was lit in the middle of the circle and which represented the lives of future generations.  If a decision was proposed that the elders considered endangering good life prospects of future generations, leading to the extinguishing of the children’s fire, they could veto it. What different decisions would be taken in parliament, in business and our own organisations if we safeguarded the children’s fire?

Would we take different decisions if we judged them by the lifespan of several generations rather than our own? Would politicians and other leaders act differently if they kept the awareness that one day they are going to die more at the forefronts of their minds?  This is not about morbidity but about the fact that we cannot take anything, whether possession, status or relationships with us on that final journey, we can only leave things behind.  What is the legacy that we want to leave behind for our own children and future generations?  Is it material wealth or a pristine environment that provides healthy water and food for many more generations?  Is it possessions or a balanced climate?  Is it about making a career or contributing to society and enhancing the natural environment?  Would we create a more resilient and sustainable society, if we could live in awareness of our transience?  How can we foster death awareness whilst enjoying life?  How can we as learning organisations foster this awareness in our learners and how does this affect the values we are trying to teach?

It is unlikely that we will change the system in one swoop, we can however change our awareness, the conversations we have and the questions we ask.  The system cannot but change, if we act out of a different awareness. In chaos theory an example of a butterfly flapping its wings causing a hurricane is used to exemplify the non-linearity of complex systems.

If anything, what would you be doing differently as a leader if you were deeply connected to your own transience?  What do you want to be your legacy for your community, when you move on to your next post and how would conversations and decisions change if you guarded the children’s fire in all your meetings?

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can also follow Andrea on Twitter Change that Matters is hosting a  workshop on Dynamic Facilitation and Wisdom Councils a change process developed by Jim Rough who will be facilitating the three-day professional training 5-7 March 2012 in London – for details and registration please visit

(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)

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