Who Do We Choose To Be?

Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity | Opening Chapter

Opening Chapter – Who Do We Choose to Be?

Let your wisdom as a human being
connect with the power
of things as they are.
~ Chögyam Trungpa, Buddhist teacher

An Invitation to the Nobility of Leadership

It is possible, in this time of profound disruption, for leadership to be a noble profession that contributes to the common good. It is possible, as we face the fearful complexity of life-destroying problems, to experience recurring moments of grace and joy. It is possible, as leaders of organizations, communities, and families, to discover deep and abiding satisfaction in our work if we choose not to flee or withdraw from reality. It is possible to find a path of contribution and meaning if we turn our attention away from issues beyond our control and focus on the people around us who are yearning for good leadership and engage them in work that is within reach. It is possible to use our influence and power to create islands of sanity in the midst of a raging destructive sea.

So much is possible if we consciously and wisely choose how best to step forward as leaders for this time.

This is a book that offers a path for leaders to engage well and sanely with the destructive dynamics of this time that now manifest at every level, from individual to organizational to global. We enter the path by bravely facing reality, willing to see with clarity and discernment where we are and how we got here. We seek to understand the forces at work that created this present world, not the one we have spent long years laboring to create, but a world that increasingly harms most and benefits scant few, a world stubbornly spiraling toward self-destruction.

Many of us feel that we have no choice but to protect ourselves from the increasing harshness and horrors of this world by withdrawing, staying busy with minor tasks, suppressing emotions of despair, grief, powerlessness. Some seek comfort by denial, creating personal bubbles to shut the world out. But the desperate effort that goes into withdrawal, suppression, and denial robs us of the very energy we need to be good leaders. The energy now spent on self-protection can be converted into positive energy if we’re willing to encounter reality and see it clearly. Facing reality is an empowering act—it can liberate our mind and heart to discern how best to use our power and influence in service for this time.

We cannot change
the way the world is,
but by opening to the world
as it is we may discover that
gentleness, decency, and bravery
are available, not only to us,
but to all human beings.

~ Chögyam Trungpa, Buddhist teacher

What Time is it on the Clock of the World?1

It is accurate to label this time as uncertain and chaotic, spinning wildly out of control.2 Every day we experience disruption, swerves in direction, short-term decisions that undo the future, propaganda, slander, lies, blame, denial, violence. Communities and nations are disrupted by terrorist acts, cumbersome bureaucracies block services, people retreat in self-protection and lash out in fear, angry people strike back at their governments, leaders stridently promise security and outcomes that we know can’t be true, tensions between people reach hateful proportions, and confusion and exhaustion sink us into despair and cynicism. This is the age of retreat: from one another, from values that held us together, from ideas and practices that encouraged inclusion, from faith in leaders, from belief in basic human goodness.

There are some who define this chaotic time as filled with potential, basing their hopefulness on the workings of chaos described in new science. They want to ‘blow up’ the current system or contribute to its quick demise and use the ensuing chaos as the opportunity to create healthy new systems. Their hope is based on an innocent misunderstanding of the chaos cycle. Chaos can be a generative force for change or a cause for disintegration and death. Either way, it requires a descent into chaos, when everything falls apart. It is this part of the cycle that we need to prepare for.

The chaos cycle is triggered by changes in the environment; these external changes force the system to abandon its old ways and respond to the new. Everything that held it together—its beliefs, meanings, and structures—no longer work now that the environment has changed. And so the system falls apart. It descends into chaos and finally reaches a bifurcation point, where it has two choices: Either it can reorganize using new beliefs and structures that work well in the changed environment. Or it can insist on the old ways, fail to reorganize itself, and die. Both rebirth and death are possible as an outcome of the passage through chaos. So there is a slight basis for those who welcome in this time of disruption and chaos as the means to create healthier, more humane and life-affirming ways of living on this planet, for as long as the planet will have us. But we can’t get there from here without traversing through the falling-apart stage. We cannot simply leap to new ways of being; first, we must prepare for disintegration and collapse.

The ceremony of
innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction,
while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
~ W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Systems that are failing now will continue to deteriorate. Uncertainty, confusion, and fear will continue to predominate. People will withdraw further into self-protection and strike out at those different from themselves. Corrupt leaders will intensify their false promises, and people will subjugate themselves to their control. The chaos cycle predicts this has to happen, that things must fall apart. And human history documents in astonishingly clear detail the pattern of collapse that all civilizations go through.

This book is born of my desire to summon us to be leaders for this time as things fall apart, to reclaim leadership as a noble profession that creates possibility and humaneness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil.

I know it is possible for leaders to use their power and influence, their insight and compassion, to lead people back to an understanding of who we are as human beings, to create the conditions for our basic human qualities of generosity, contribution, community, and love to be evoked no matter what. I know it is possible to experience grace and joy in the midst of tragedy and loss. I know it is possible to create islands of sanity in the midst of wildly disruptive seas. I know it is possible because I have worked with leaders over many years in places that knew chaos and breakdown long before this moment. And I have studied enough history to know that such leaders always arise when they are most needed.

Now it’s our turn.

Who Do We Choose to Be?

This needs to be stated clearly at the outset: we can no longer solve the global problems of this time at large-scale levels: poverty, economics, climate change, violence, dehumanization.3 Even though the solutions have been available for a very long time, they require conditions to implement them that are not available: political courage, collaboration across national boundaries, compassion that supersedes self-interest and greed. These are not only the failings of our specific time in history; they occur in all civilizations at the end of their life cycle.

This is a bitter pill for activists and all people with discerning, open hearts. We understand the complexity of global problems; we have thought systemically to define root causes; we have proposed meaningful solutions, but we are impotent to influence those in power who ignore our efforts.4

The powerful always defend the status quo because it is the source of their power and privilege. Any change that benefits others would destroy their position. And their position is all they care about defending.

As a lifelong activist focused on changing leadership in large systems, as one still inside those large systems as a consultant, advisor, and friend, I realized years ago that large-scale change was not possible. Leaders were grasping for control, overreacting to crises rather than thinking systemically, treating people as ‘units’ rather than as humans. Yet I also met and worked with extraordinary leaders who were creating islands of sanity where good work still got done and where people enjoyed healthy relationships in the midst of chaotic conditions, fierce opposition, heartbreaking defeats, lack of support, isolation, loneliness, and slander. I have been with them in circumstances that caused most other leaders to give up and walk away, yet still they kept going. You will learn about a few of them in these pages.

Several years ago, in the face of irreversible global problems and the devolution of leadership, I began to challenge every leader I met with these questions: Who do you choose to be for this time? Are you willing to use whatever power and influence you have to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere?

Now I’m asking you.

Two Lenses

Many lenses can be used to bring our current time into focus. Clear seeing is available by studying history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, theology. Each of these disciplines provides concepts and beliefs that explain human behavior, both individually and collectively. In this book, I use two lenses: the new science of living systems and the pattern of collapse in complex civilizations. Each of them is a powerful lens on its own; I have found that together they offer tremendous explanatory power for where we are, how we got here, and the choices we must make as leaders.

Science of Living Systems

The science of living systems is a powerful explanator of human behavior and the world we inhabit. We are alive, we inhabit a living planet, and we are subject to the dynamics of living systems whether we acknowledge them or not. These dynamics are ‘scale-independent’ and can be used to explain what’s going on—cause and effect—from single individuals to the entire planet. Why are we witnessing exponential increases in narcissism, polarization, conflict, aggression, dictatorships, climate change, species loss? Each of these terrible realities can be understood using the lens of living systems.

New science revealed, through decades of experimentation and evidence, that living systems organize using dynamics that include self-organizing based on identity, relationships woven together in complex networks, an inherent order displayed in chaos and complexity, the role of shared meaning to create coherent yet nonpoliced actions among individuals.

Globally, a noteworthy minority of leaders in all types of organizations and professions were inspired by these images of creativity and chaos, order without control, interdependent systems growing in capacity and complexity, the primacy of relationships. Such promises motivated many to work to create healthy communities, organizations, and societies. Now, in spite of our years of dedicated efforts, we are greatly fatigued and in deep inquiry as to how we might best contribute. And no wonder. Our work, as good and wise as it was, has not borne fruit at large levels of scale, even though we have shining examples of what’s possible at local levels.5

Life’s dynamics do not change. They are reliable ways of understanding how life organizes, functions, and responds. This is my intention, to bring a level of understanding to what has happened in the past decades, not so that we can fix the large systems that now dominate and destroy, but so that we can do our work wherever we are, whatever it is, refusing to comply or participate with dominant culture and instead, as leaders, continue to work in partnership with life, restoring sanity wherever we can.

The Pattern of Collapse of Complex Civilizations

As many have commented, the only thing evident from the study of history is that we humans fail to learn from history. Yet those who do study the history of civilizations have illuminated the pattern of the rise and fall of complex human societies. The pattern of collapse is remarkably consistent, describing how humans always behave, even down to specific behaviors. To learn about this pattern is at once very troubling and very relieving: it’s good to understand where we are so we don’t keep struggling against inevitable behaviors and grieving to see where we are because of what can’t be changed. I have delved into the excellent body of literature on the collapse of civilizations for several years now; for this book, I’m primarily working with two: The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter and The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival by Sir John Glubb.

Both Glubb and Tainter have derived the pattern of collapse from studying complex human civilizations since Sumer, 3000 BCE. (I have also brought in anthropological research that reveals patterns of behavior going back more than 300,000 years, before hominids were sapiens.) Tainter’s work, first published in 1987, is acknowledged as the seminal work in establishing the pattern of collapse. He is a superb and dedicated scholar, both humble and clear. Over several years, he studied in depth many different societies; as he did so, the pattern became so clear that he felt no need to continue to study others in detail. “Collapse is a recurrent feature of human societies, and indeed it is this fact that makes it worthwhile to explore a general explanation… The picture that emerges is of a process recurrent in history and prehistory, and global in its distribution.”6

Tainter’s analysis of collapse includes civilizations on all continents and focuses on the sociopolitical aspects. Sir John Glubb studied thirteen civilizations in Europe and the Middle East, and of moral decay from generation to generation that ends in collapse after ten generations. “The life-expectation of a great nation, it appears, commences with a violent, and usually unforeseen, outburst of energy, and ends in a lowering of moral standards, cynicism, pessimism and frivolity.”7 As you will learn here, he describes specific behaviors and attitudes of each age that read like news stories of our current time, but that are characteristic of all civilizations in their final days.

While each scholar highlights different aspects, the pattern is the same: No matter the geography, ethnicity, or spiritual traditions, humans always develop high culture, hierarchy, civic institutions, religion and the arts, and then, when in decline, our negative behaviors are also identical. I feel confident in labeling this the true DNA of our species, how we organize and behave through generations of creation and decline, no matter who we are culturally, where we are geographically, or when we lived in human history.

As I worked with both of these lenses—the science of living systems and the pattern of collapse—I found they were an excellent pair. They could explain how our unique digital culture has intensified our civilization’s movement through the last stages of collapse, yet also how the behaviors of each stage are predictable and inevitable.

The reason why complex
societies disintegrate is of vital importance
to every member of one,
and today that includes nearly
the entire world population.
~ Joseph Tainter

Form Follows Function: The Design of This Book

For many years, I have needed to know what to do, how best to use my heart and mind and energy to meaningfully serve as things fall apart. This book mirrors my own process: using the lens of new science to understand where we are and how we got here, using the patterns of complex civilizations to deepen my historical awareness, and then reflecting on what I’ve learned from working with leaders who did not lose their way but persevered in doing the best that was possible in difficult, even dire circumstances.

Here is a guide to the design of this book, how I’ve chosen to organize its many different elements. This is a complex work because it needs to be, and in the next essay I describe “Dwelling Mind” as the way to work with this material slowly and thoughtfully. I set out to answer three questions, each of which embodies one of the subtitles:

  1. Facing Reality: Where are we and how did we get here?
  2. Claiming Leadership: What is the role of leaders now?
  3. Restoring Sanity: How do we create islands of sanity that sustain our best human qualities?

In every section, these questions are explored in detail in short essays, grouped under these three headings.

I begin each section with What Science Teaches—explaining a specific dynamic common to all living systems. I describe how this dynamic is defined and used by scientists to explain observable phenomena in the known Universe. The six dynamics featured are The Arrow of Time; Identity; Information; Self-

Organization; Perception; Interconnectedness. (These are very similar to the science I used in Leadership and the New Science. This is deliberate.)

Following the science are several essays under the heading Facing Reality. In these essays, I use the lens of science to describe the causes of many of our most troubling and disturbing personal and social behaviors, especially those of importance to leaders. These dynamics of living systems work powerfully and irrevocably in us; even if we ignore them, they are always operating.

Adding to the lens of science, I use the pattern of collapse of complex civilizations to further understand where we are. Where do our behaviors and cultural phenomena place us on the timeline of collapse?

Here’s an example of how these two lenses weave together: The most powerful organizing dynamic in life is identity. The first act of life is to define a self, whether a micro-organism or a human being. In humans, how we define ourselves determines our perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, values. Today, it is this primary dynamic of identity that drives social media and has led to its overbearing, distorting presence in our lives. Social media enables a culture of manufactured identities, where people create any self that ensures their popularity. In the Digital Age, identity has changed from a culturally transmitted sense of self within a group to an individual one, where you can be anything you want.

In this maelstrom of constantly changing selves, ideas of objective truth and integrity disappear. Ethics and taking a stand don’t matter; popularity does.

This understanding of how identity has created our present-day culture can be easily plotted against Glubb’s Six Ages of Collapse. At first, in the Pioneer Age, identities form from a sense of honor and commitment to a cause. Sacrifice and service are the guiding values. Midway, all civilizations evolve into the Age of Commerce, where money and wealth become the organizing identities. Service gives way to getting rich. In the final stage, the Age of Decadence, celebrities—athletes, musicians, and actors—are revered and people lose themselves in wanton pleasures. (In November 2016, President Obama awarded Presidential Medals of Freedom primarily to athletes, musicians, and actors.)

This is one example of how the two lenses combine to sharpen our understanding of where we are, how we got to here, and how best to serve as we journey the well-trodden path of collapse.

Subsequent essays are organized under Claiming Leadership and Restoring Sanity. In these, I answer the questions: What are we to do as leaders, given this reality? What is sane leadership? I use a combination of commentary, actual practices, quotes, and story to bring into focus the qualities and actions that support good leadership on an island of sanity. The stories I tell are of leaders I worked with closely, who used living systems dynamics in healthy and life-affirming ways. These leaders are exceptionally diverse in who they led (from nuns to military commanders) but deeply unified in how they work with people and partner with life. They are all leaders that people admire for their achievements; I admire them for the depth of their intelligence, integrity, and great hearts and minds. It is an honor to bring them into these pages and into your awareness.

Each of these leaders is a Warrior for the Human Spirit and, in the concluding chapters, I bring in my current work, to train leaders to develop the qualities of compassion, discernment, and presence that are essential leadership skills these days. Starting in the late ’90s, I began teaching about spiritual warriorship, how to lead without using aggression or fear to accomplish our goals. I described them in a preliminary way in So Far from Home (2012). Since then, I have been actively training leaders globally in the skills of Warriors for the Human Spirit, work that I expect to continue for as long as I am able. Clearly, the need for such leaders now grows exponentially.

The Warriors arise
when the people need protection.
The human spirit needs protection.
May the Warriors arise.

Dwelling Mind

I have intentionally designed this book for you to read slowly and contemplatively. Curiosity and openness are important generally, but I’m sensitive to the emotional impact of reading this material, absorbing where we are as a civilization. I expect you will be both inspired and overwhelmed, depressed and committed. I had all these experiences as I was writing this. The openness of the pages and the photos are there to encourage you to rest and absorb the material. It’s tough to take this in and strong emotions will arise.

I also don’t want us to get caught in the ambush of hope. I’ve read too many authors who lay out the reality of our situation in stark detail, but then in the last pages feel the need to say something hopeful, even though it contradicts their own argument. I have no interest in grasping after or reviving possibilities that have already passed. I have an intense desire for us to step forward as leaders for this time, hearts and minds fully open and wise, in service to whomever needs us.

Please don’t go through this material quickly. You do a disservice to yourself and to your potential offerings as a leader if you do. I have put in a great deal of information and included many footnotes; I felt these were necessary to develop a depth of understanding. As I was writing, I kept wondering if anybody reads footnotes any more—my publisher tells me that people read the back cover, the front cover, and perhaps the introduction. If you’ve read this far, it seems you’re not that sort of person. I can’t imagine a more important task than to consciously choose who we want to be as a leader for this time. We must understand the time we’re in, focus our energy on what’s possible, and willingly step forward to serve the human spirit.

This book is designed to invite you into dwelling mind.8 Most of us have the tendency to read something quickly and then rush into action, to quickly figure out a response. As leaders and consultants, this is what we get paid for! It’s also a very human approach for dealing with uncertainty and strong emotions—we rush to fix rather than allow the profound discomfort that arises from difficult information. Yet if we dwell with the increasing uncertainty of this time and not rush to that comfortable place of action, dwelling mind supports the emergence of clarity for our chosen role as leaders. This is my frequent personal experience. As I tune into what’s going on and allow my grief and outrage to be present, they quietly transform into ever-deepening motivation to offer my best service wherever opportunities present themselves.

I urge you to let go of the comfort of a quick response and, instead, in the spaciousness of your mind, welcome in everything: thoughts, feelings, sensations. Allow them to just be there, meeting up with one another, combining and recombining. Nothing is immediately clear, but given time and the workings of nonlinearity, your ideas and feelings may self-organize into insights. Many scientific breakthroughs were the result of this process of relaxing the mind, allowing things to dwell without any need for resolution, and then the a-ha moment. Sometimes scientists were so fatigued or frustrated that they walked away from the problem. They took a stroll or a nap and then were surprised by a clear insight, image, or solution.9

If we are to step forward with true confidence as leaders for this time, if this is the role you choose for yourself, then please give your mind and heart time to dwell in the difficulties that lie ahead, and the frequent opportunities we will have to serve the human spirit. In a memorable scene in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf counsels Frodo who, in grief and fear, is protesting against his assignment that he must destroy the ring of power, wanting to refuse his destiny.

So do all who live to see such times.
But that is not for them to decide.
All we have to decide is what to do
with the time that is given us.
~ J. R. R. Tolkien


1 This is a question posed by Grace Lee Boggs, the great activist, revolutionary, and community organizer who participated in many of the major social movements in America beginning in the early 1950s. Grace died in Detroit at age 100 in 2015.

2 The acronym, coined by the U.S. military, is VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

3 See my book So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2012).

4 Pope Francis’s encyclical in the spring of 2015, “On Care for Our Common Home” (Laudato Si), was a brilliant systemic analysis of causes and solutions to climate change. But these solutions require a level of cooperation between nation-states, dissolution of the huge egos of those in power, and sacrifice from developed nations that will not happen even though the consequences of self-protection rather than intense cooperation are terrifyingly clear.

5 I’m sure you know of many local efforts that have produced great results. My coauthor Deborah Frieze and I wrote about seven such communities in Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2011).

6 Tainter states the objective of his work is to develop a general explanation of collapse, applicable in a variety of contexts, and with implications for current conditions. This is a work of archaeology and history, but more basically of social theory. Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology) (Kindle Location 124).

7 Sir John Glubb. The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival (1976),

8 The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) introduced the term dwelling mind, in contrast with rational mind.

9 One of the most well-known examples of this is the story August Kerkulé told of how he discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule in the 1860s. In a reverie or daydream, he saw a snake seizing its own tail (the ancient symbol of the Ouroboros). This vision, he said, came to him after years of studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds.