Keynote Address: AMI Speech at CU

Administrative Management Institute, Cornell University • Cornell University, July 25, 1999

Welcome to the Institute. I am pleased and honored to be here with you tonight.

I want to commend each of you for taking time out of your busy schedules to participate in this institute. There are many demands on your time, and in the summer particularly, one could always opt for the beach or the mountains instead of professional development. I believe that events like these are very important. Retreats, of which I consider this to be one, do not suggest the absence of work or activity but rather the opportunity to step back, reflect, get some perspective on life and work. We get or take few such opportunities. In my capacity as president, I regard them as essential, on a par with real vacations which I treasure. In the words of John R. O’Neil, "To practice introspection and self-observation without distraction, busy people need to retreat in some manner from their workaday lives."1

Tonight I am not going to talk about parking, space, Y2K, resource allocation or grade inflation. Rather, I want to talk with you about the work you do and the challenges and excitement it presents.

Tonight I want to share some thoughts with you about effective leadership and organizational vitality. I am not prone to title remarks, but were I to do so with these, I would entitle them "Resilient Organizations, Resilient Leaders." Within the past two years I have had the good fortune to take a three-month mini-sabbatical and attend a weeklong retreat for senior women in higher education, occasions which provided opportunities for reading and reflection.

In my remarks tonight, I will focus on three ideas: Vaill’s notion of the nature of work and its current context; Wheatley’s ideas about how new developments in the world of science, including chaos theory, inform our notions about organizational theory and the work of leaders; and finally, a few of my thoughts about how leaders maintain resiliency in their own lives in order to effectively carry out their professional responsibilities.

I will begin with Vaill’s ideas. Peter Vaill coined the notion of permanent whitewater as the metaphor for the context of work in organizations today. Vaill uses this phrase "permanent whitewater" to describe the "complex, turbulent, changing environment in which we are all trying to operate,"2 and to metaphorically define "the difficult conditions under which people exercise their will and judgment within society’s macrosystems."3 When one hears the term "whitewater" one envisions water moving at a rapid pace, turbulence, and waves that are graded on a scale from 1 to 5 with respect to level of difficulty. One thinks of risk, the need to be ever vigilant as one negotiates through sets of rapids, and the fact that even if one navigates one’s way through the same whitewater area with frequency, the pitfalls will never be identical due to changing water levels that can dramatically alter the course. When one experiences life on the water, the whitewater portions are both anticipatory and exhilarating. Navigating a craft through whitewater requires us to think fast and react quickly to the unknown and to the unforeseen. And the real treat -- once you are through a series of rapids -- is the calm that follows and the sense of accomplishment that accompanies that.

Vaill characterizes the pace of our work today, beginning with our expectations, and all that we believe needs to be done, and the rapid pace of change in the environment in which we work, as a state of permanent whitewater. I think it is an apt if troublesome metaphor. It makes one breathless. To function in permanent whitewater suggests that we must be always "at the ready," in a state of constant tension about what lies ahead, with opportunities for feeling some accomplishment in navigating through some tricky class five rapids, but without the deep breaths associated with the calm that follows. The metaphor suggests an environment full of uncertainty, a continuous state of unexpected problems and situations where, in Vaill’s words, "no number of anticipatory mechanisms can forestall the next surprising, novel wave."4 Even for the most avid canoeist or kayaker, I believe that the notion of permanent whitewater is not all that appealing since, as Vaill says, "permanent whitewater means permanent life outside one’s comfort zone."5

Does the metaphor accurately describe today’s environment and if so what does it say about leadership? Obviously none of us lived 100 years ago. Perhaps someone in my position at an event like this back then would be up here saying these same things. However, present day thinking suggests that we do live in an extraordinarily fast-paced world that shows no signs of slackening, with remarkable access to information and global connections, making everything seem possible and immediate, yet compounded by resource constraints, cost pressures, and efficiency and accountability considerations that put increased pressure on us and all of our organizations.

If this indeed is our environment, what does it require of our leaders? In Vaill’s view, it requires us to be, more than anything else, learners. It suggests that we focus on framing questions not answers. We must acknowledge that we and our colleagues are engaged in doing new things all the time, dealing with situations and ideas that have not been there before. Just think about planning libraries and information systems for the next five to ten years. It means there are no days when we have "done it" or when things are settled, even if we do have days when the rapids are class one and require less acute attention. Such an environment requires us to be the kind of leaders who acknowledge the capacity and talent in others, give people the rope they need to run with things, and support them in their navigation of uncharted waters. It requires quick thinking, courage to make and remake decisions, and a keen sense not to say "I don’t’ know exactly" but rather "I have the capacity to figure it out."

Vaill does not speak much to the notion of what we can do, if anything, to calm the whitewater, but I think of this often. To what extent can we moderate the pace within our organizations and offices? How can we be quick and nimble without using up all of our energy reserves? How do we get used to the notion that whitewater, not flat water, is the everyday norm? One thing we can do is to discuss these realities with our colleagues, so that they have a better understanding of their own work context, including the source of some of their own feelings of panic or lack of control that they experience at times in their work. I also think we have a responsibility to pay attention to those things that unnecessarily compound the situation. These seemingly insignificant things distract much of our time and energy. For example:

  • What committees/task forces do we need?
  • How frequently and for how long should meetings last?
  • What reports do we really need people to do? What deserves to be put in writing? (Very little in my view.) How has e-mail helped and to what extent has it just created another layer? (You come back to the office to find print mail, voice mail, and e-mail.)
  • Where are some best practices that we can emulate? What can we adopt from others and not create from scratch? Even in this world where so much is new, there still are opportunities for us to look around and steal what is worth stealing.
  • What can we stop doing? Our organizations are, by definition, creative entities, full of new and exciting ideas. We are not skilled at casting off existing activities and programs.
  • What can we do, as leaders, to shape an agenda that is reasonable? How can we not take on the world in a week, month, or year because of our own creativity, interests, or impatience?

I could go on and on, but my point here is that I believe the permanent whitewater metaphor is apt. It provides us with an understanding of organizations as ever-changing, and management as a set of fluid responsibilities, "a performing art."6It underscores the important role of others as partners and resources in the watercraft, all doing many things we have never done before, where we "must find ways to do something [we] have never done before yet where there is little precedent or ‘best practice’ to guide [us]."7 Even if the leader is the rudder person or the coxswain, everyone in the craft has a key role to play where overconfidence on the part of the leader or any other member of the team can put the group at risk. Be confident, but not overconfident, in your own interpretation of situations and events. Look to others frequently and be open to their interpretations as well.

Focus on learning and encourage others to do likewise. As Vaill cautions us, "When preoccupied with getting things done, it suppresses our attention to our own learning,"8

This focus on managerial leadership as learning requires from us a different kind of attention and orientation. However, organizations expect leaders to exude confidence, direction, clarity and results. This can create tension within organizations as leaders work to adopt new approaches to their work, previously unknown within the organization, against a backdrop of expectations grounded in a different view of organizational reality and the role of leaders.

This quotation sums up well what the reality of permanent whitewater requires of us and everyone in leadership positions: "Managerial leadership itself is primarily learning. There is nothing static about it, nothing fixed, nothing constant from person to person or from situation to situation. Instead, it is a moment-to-moment process of grasping (learning) the needs and opportunities for influence that are found in situations and realizing (learning) what purposeful things one can do there."9

Now I will to turn to some of the ideas from Margaret J. Wheatley’s work. I will use a number of her quotations as she is more eloquent than I. Vaill’s work speaks to how the nature of managerial leadership is affected by the external environment and to rapid pace of change. Wheatley’s works, on the other hand, focuses on the nature of organizations and the work of leaders.

Wheatley postulates that our thinking about organizations, their structures and their dynamics, are grounded in 17th century physics and the Newtonian view of science. She says that we have tended to manage by "separating things into parts." We focus on the control of activities, to engage in "complex planning for a world that we keep expecting to be predictable."10 Wheatley urges us to modernize our perspectives on organizational theory by grounding our current assumptions in scientific discovery of the new times: quantum physics, chaos theory, and molecular biology. Any physicists or biologists here? With new science as our frame of reference, we need to acknowledge, as in chaos theory, all that cannot be defined, mapped out or controlled within organizations. She postulates that organizations are "…conscious entities possessing many of the properties of living systems."11 She teaches us about self-organizing systems, where energy is ever-present and its release is what propels the system to new dimensions. Within such a framework, she asks us questions such as, "How can we create organizational coherence? How do we create structures that move with change, are flexible, adaptive? How do we enable rather than constrain? How do we learn to distinguish between order and control?"

She warns that if we hold onto our outmoded view that organizations are predictable entities that we can control and order, we lose their energizing capacities as we are focusing on the wrong things. We have tried, too often, to look at organizations as a set of discrete entities that we need to order, to bring together as a whole. She suggests, rather, that the world is inherently orderly if we allow it to be, and that we err and waste everyone’s time when we try to impose a false sense of order on it.12 Wheatley advises that, "All this time, we have created trouble for ourselves in organizations by confusing control with order."13 She argues that, "We are afraid of what would happen if we let…elements of the organization recombine, reconfigure or speak truthfully to one another…afraid that things will fall apart"14 when in fact such an orientation on the part of leaders may indeed cause things to fall apart. She and Kellner-Rogers capture these ideas in these words: "Instead of being free to create, we impose constraints that squeeze the life out of us. The organization no longer lives...Too often the organization destroys our desires… They forget they are self-organizing. Sometimes, so do we."15

Wheatley challenges our conventional thinking about organizations and leadership, asking us why we put such a high value on equilibrium, versus novelty and surprise. Equilibrium, although it has an appealing ring when we equate it with the absence of craziness, describes a condition where the net result of all activity is zero. She argues that "to stay viable, open systems maintain a state of non-equilibrium, keeping the system off balance so that it can change and grow."16 Off balance in this context does not imply something negative, i.e. a problem, but rather indicates a critical characteristic of open systems that leaves them receptive to transforming energy. We expect things at work to go smoothly, yet most of our important work has to do with something that "comes up unexpectedly." These things are both the good opportunities and the bad news. Wheatley writes that "resiliency not stability becomes the distinguishing feature of effective organizations."17 She goes on to say, "Stasis, balance, equilibrium -- these are temporary states. What endures is process -- dynamic, adaptive and creative."18 It seems to be a better use of our time as leaders to get out of the way and capture the good things that do occur naturally within organizations, rather than to hold out false expectations that we can neaten up and bring order to something where dynamism is essential.

In Wheatley’s view, quality relationships and information are at the heart of effective self-organizing systems and these must become the focus of the leader’s work.

She regards the quality of relationships as the source of a positive or negative charge within organizations. "Those who relate through coercion or from a disregard for the other person create negative energy. Those who are open to others and who see others in their fullness create positive energy."19 We all know this but in the application of chaos theory and systems theory to organizational life, it takes on increased relevance and importance. You, and all leaders, are the role models for the quality of relationships within organizations. Everything you do, all your interactions with others, tell people what you think is important and conveys your regard for others. Whether we realize it or not, people watch all the moves a leader makes, consciously or not. Don’t be paralyzed by this reality. Rather, recognize this power of all we convey through our actions, especially how we interact with and treat one another.

In my view, Wheatley's notion of quality relationships also refers to organizational connections: thinking outside the box or across organizational boundaries. We do not work in separate channels or silos. That we encourage and seek natural connections not necessarily obvious at the outset allows us to create rich opportunities for problem-solving, creativity, and organizational development.

In Wheatley’s view, information is the second key element at the heart of any effective organization, its vital nourishment and life source. Citing work on chaos theory she says, "In fact, the greatest generator of information is chaos" where so much goes on that researchers monitor "every moment of the system’s activity, lest they miss something."20 Yet Wheatley tells us that managers "have no desire to let information roam about," to let it, in her words, "procreate promiscuously, where it will, to create chaos. Our management task is to enforce control, to keep information continued... Information chastity belts are a central management function."21

Yet we know that if we err on the side of too much control of information at least two things can happen: too little information is shared and in its absence people make it up; alternatively, a lack of ownership develops within the organization once perceptions develop that "they," not "we," are the only ones in the know. The organization suffers as a result. "When we shrink people’s access to information, we shrink their capacity."22 Wheatley challenges us to look anew at the issue of information, toward the development of effective organizations, to realize that "information is the source of order, an order we do not impose."23 In my view, most organizational information is ours, not mine, and people operate much more effectively when they have quality information. In the context of systems development and self-organizing systems, Wheatley underscores the importance of accessible information to the healthy development of any organization. The challenge for leaders is often figuring how to best disseminate and share information in an accessible way.

The quality of relationships and the availability of information come together as the essential elements of organizational evolution. "Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into others disciplines or places; from active, collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries."24 Yet Wheatley advises that, as quantum reality teaches, all "solutions are temporary and specific to a context," requiring, therefore, ongoing attention to quality relationships and quality information in order to effectively meet the next challenge or opportunity.25

I walk away from Wheatley’s readings with a keen sense of the energy that exists within organizations and the challenge we face in constantly and consciously assuring conditions for its release and connectedness across the organization. Against this backdrop of new understanding of organizational dynamics, the work of leaders involves the following: setting a general sense of direction for the organization, articulating a set of core values and expectations, and then getting out of the way so that others can flourish. It is important not to be caught in old fantasies of "running" the organization and doing everyone’s work for them. Research continues to show that the greatest motivator is the intrinsic nature of the work people do. Our responsibility is to not to interfere too much with that.

How does this all tie together and inform us about our work? In their respective ways Vaill and Wheatley teach us that our work -- the pace, the ever-changing nature of today’s world, and the information explosion -- and the essential nature of organizations as living self-organizing systems create a job description for leaders that requires us to be learners, listeners, process people, liberators of the wisdom and energy of others, sharers of information, interpreters of meaning, setters of expectations -- including the core values that our organizations need to live by in order to be resilient. Vaill and Wheatley teach us that if we attend to what the real work of leaders is today, there will be more energy, ideas, and power within our organizations than we could have ever imagined.

Is this easier than operating in the old mode of thought? No, because it requires us to attend to the intangible and to let go of control. Yes, because it teaches us to stop attending to the uncontrollable and it frees us from any assumption that we must "figure it all out" and then let others know the answers. It directs us to acknowledge all the energy within an organization. In the end, it is different and requires us to take risks of a different sort: to provide leadership that enables organizations to be agile and adaptive, building on the collective wisdom that exists within them.

How do you stay resilient so that you can be the leader you need to be? As leaders, everything we do reflects our inner selves. As leaders it is critical that we be authentic and be whoever we are wherever we are. So who are you and how do you continue to develop yourself? To be effective leaders, you must attend to your physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. We are not our jobs, we are individuals with interests and identities who happen to hold these positions at this time in our lives. What nourishes you? What keeps you going? What refuels your battery? Others look to you to be a source of energy and inspiration. You cannot be that when you are spent without any reserves. Who are you beyond your work? What are your interests? What aspects of yourself do you wish to further develop? Work on those. Take time for this and realize that it is as important as the work you get paid to do. In the end, effective leadership comes from effective people. Who we are is the basis of how we lead and how we learn.

In closing, I leave you with these words from DePree. "Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do."26 And, "Style is merely a consequence of what we believe, of what is in our hearts."27

Hold onto those words as you continue to carry out your leaderly duties and take your place as a learner within your organizations. All the best.



1. John R. O'Neil in The Paradox of Success, 1994

Estela Mara Bensimon & Anna Newman, Redesigning Collegiate Leadership (1993).

Robert Birnbaum, How Colleges Work (1988).

Lee G. Bolman & Terrence E. Deal, Leading With Soul (1997).

Constance H. Buchanan, Choosing to Lead: Women and the Crisis of American Values (1996).

Max DePree, Leadership is An Art (1989).

Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (1991).

Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994).

Craig Hickman, Mind of a Manager; Soul of a Leader (1992).

Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (1997).

Jennifer James, Thinking in the Future Tense: A Workout for the Mind (1996).

Robert H. Rosen, Leading People (1996).

Peter B. Vaill, Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water (1996).

Peter B. Vaill, Managing as a Performing Art (1989).

Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science (1992).

Margaret J. Wheatley & Myron Kellner-Rogers, A Simpler Way (1996).