Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today's Challenges from Around the Globe

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The Narrative We Feed Gets Stronger


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(22 July 2020)

by Kathleen E. Allen, President, Allen and Associates, USA

Leadership is about being able to see the current reality, identify what is not working, and imagine a better future. Unfortunately, we have many opportunities to see what is not working these days. Our public health, education, policing, social justice, economy, and political systems are all showing fracture lines. We are seeing our world as a place where benefits and burdens are not widely shared. With this growing awareness, we have an opportunity to envision a new way of moving forward. During this time, it's important to remember that we are in the midst of creating a new narrative for ourselves, our communities, and our world. We have to pay attention to moving forward, adapting, and evolving so that we ultimately become better.

There is a Cherokee Legend about Two Wolves that captures the difficulties and possibilities embedded in the tensions we are experiencing today.

An old Cherokee man is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me." He said to the boy.

"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old man simply replied, "The one you feed."

Old and new ways of thinking, being, and acting

I love this story because it invites the complexity of life in ourselves and our organizations to be named. Individually and organizationally we have a fight going on between our old narratives and a new narrative that is being born. Do we live our lives focusing on self-interest, separation, and self-protection? Or do we see connection, cooperation, and people's capacity to care about a larger shared purpose?

Do we see our organizations as objects and do we objectify the people in them, or do we see organizations as living systems, and the people in them as evolving and learning in their search to become their best selves? These are a few of the ways our worldview provides insight on the internal struggles we live with. What do we want to become? What do we want our organizations to become?

What we pay attention to gets stronger

In the legend, the wolf you feed gets stronger. In organizations we can feed our victimization, our apathy, and our boredom. We can feed our cynicism about others and use it as an excuse to not care about the mission or purpose. If we pay attention primarily to our self-interest, we will use that same lens to judge the motivations of managers and leaders. We will dismiss what they say because we assume they are always motivated to serve themselves first over others, including the organization, the customers, employees, and the environment.

But we can choose to pay attention to other possibilities. We can choose to believe that the people we work with are working together for a higher purpose; that they will help each other to become better; and that they are motivated by purpose and making the world better. If we use this as a lens, we approach others with a cooperative intention. We see the good in others instead of ego, anger, arrogance, resentment, etc.

We get to choose which wolf to feed.

News vs. experience

I am struck by the growing gap between what I experience in my consulting work and the way our society is portrayed by the news. Our political reporting would suggest that no one works for the country anymore, that we are all focused on ourselves or our party. The news is feeding this narrative which makes the narrative even stronger.

However, in my day-to-day life, I find people across the political spectrum can and will work together to make their communities stronger and more equitable for all. I am blessed to work with competent, innovative, and purposeful people all the time. They are gracious and trustworthy. They care about people and their communities and "do good" on a regular basis. What we pay attention to helps strengthen this kind of behavior.

Focusing on the "good wolf" will help us make it through our current environment, even with all its uncertainties, toward a better worldview.

Remember, the worldview and the "wolf" we feed gets stronger.

Kathleen E. Allen Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today's World and writes a weekly blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership based in lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net. She is President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership coaching, innovation, and organizational change in organizations. Kathleen is a long-time member of the ILA and co-convener of the Sustainability Leadership member community.

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