For anyone who questions rigid hierarchies and power structures or just feels discouraged or deflated by them, the book Walk Out, Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now, by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, is worth checking out.
“Walk Outs,” the authors write, are “people who bravely choose to leave behind situations, jobs, relationships and ideas that restrict and confine them, anything that inhibits them.” They “walk on” to “ideas, people, and practices that enable them to explore and discover news gifts, new possibilities.” Rejecting rigid hierarchies and outworn notions of how things should be done, they learn and create new things.
The book traces seven projects in different parts of the world where individuals and communities created something out of what looked like nothing, relying not on outside expertise or a pre-designed plan, but on the dreams, ingenuity and creativity of local people joining together to build something they need. I won’t get into the different projects here, which are really pretty amazing and worth reading about. But I do want to share a few choice observations on power and hierarchy from the authors that could apply as much to a modern workplace in midtown Manhattan as to an impoverished favela in Brazil, the site of one of the projects described.
In physics, power is defined as the rate at which work gets done. This works fine for machines, but it has no relevance for humans. Yet many leaders assume that people are machines, that we can be programmed, motivated and supervised through external force and authority. This “command-and-control” leadership smothers basic human capacities such as intelligence, creativity, caring and dreaming. Yet it is the most common form of leadership worldwide. When it doesn’t work, those in power simply apply more force…. People resist the imposition of force by withdrawing, opposing and sabotaging the leader’s directives…. This destructive cycle continues to gain speed, with people resenting leaders and leaders blaming people.
This cycle not only destroys our motivation, it destroys our sense of worth…. It’s also visible in rigid hierarchies where people, confined to small boxes, can’t remember when they last felt good about themselves or confident in their abilities.
Power of this kind has a predictable outcome: it breeds powerlessness. People accept the message they’ve heard so consistently, that they’re helpless without a strong leader. They become dependent and passive, waiting for a leader to rescue them, and their growing dependency leaves leaders with no choice. They must take control if anything is going to get done.
What if solving a problem were instead approached as playing a game, write Wheatley and Frieze, and everyone with something at stake were invited to participate?
Games invite us to let go of our resignation and our sense of limitation – and simply to start dreaming, creating and imagining…. In the logic of play, people are invited to break rules, experiment, innovate, and be original…. Play returns us to a state in which we can see what’s possible–not what’s so…. We are inspired to experiment, to try out new ideas, to take ourselves a little less seriously. We do not have to conform to what we already know.
That’s the reasoning underlying the kind of leadership that leads to the stunningly successful projects described in this book.
It’s also consistent with new social science research showing that people perform much better and have far more energy for tasks they choose to do because the outcome matters to them, even if the task itself seems somewhat tedious, than for work they don’t really care about. And people generally care far more about work they’ve chosen, using methods they’ve created, than work they’re told to do following someone else’s dictates.
All of this may seem obvious. But it’s surprising how few leaders in workplaces consider this. As I’ve written before, your boss may or may not be among the more enlightened leaders, but there are ways of setting your own goals and choosing your own means of accomplishing them that can go a long way towards putting you in the driver’s seat of your own work.
And if your job really doesn’t allow you that? Then it may be time to “walk out” and “walk on.”