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I’m a big fan of Margaret Wheatley. Her work has come up in two conversations in the past few days and, as I always pay attention to the universe, it makes some sense for some reflection riffing on her work.

One of Meg’s recent contributions to leadership development is the idea of the importance of palliative-care competencies. The model says that every organism and every organization follow a life cycle; there is birth, growth, flowering, decline and death. And one of the great frustrations in our time and civilization is that we aren’t really good with decline and death.

As someone who has sat with a significant number of dying people in my time, I have seen family and friends react and respond in all and sundry ways when confronting a dying person, and most common is the sense of “I don’t know what do to or to say.”

The same is true when a project or a team or even an organization has reached its natural end. There are competencies required for good palliative care for organizations and teams; listening, clarity, holding each other accountable, patience and courage are a few of them. 

And one of the remarkable things that happens to organisms and to organizations, as they move towards death is that new possibilities, new "shoots," if you will start to appear. They are often lonely, even convinced that they are the only ones like this. In the midst of the dying organization, there appear these tiny moments of possible future. For example, in the midst of the crumbling global financial institutions, what appears but a group of smaller banks and credit unions called the Global Alliance for Banking with Values. Or in the midst of steady declines in mainstream church attendance, there are churches with quite impressive growth numbers compounding year after year.

And so as leaders, we also need neo-natal care competencies. Competencies like, empowerment to give the neo-natals room to grow, networking skills to link them across the organization, into other organizations and even across nations and oceans. (What Tom Peters calls the “Sri Lanka Effect”, whereby the most innovative ideas come from the "hinterlands.")  Neo-natal competencies like, mentoring and learning to ensure that the best skills and wisdom from lessons learned are passed on, and competencies like patience to allow for the neo-natals to take the new organization in the direction it needs to go, and not in the direction the dying organization wants it to go.

And so, like so much else in leadership, we must find balance between the skills of honouring and letting go as an organization dies, and tending and growing as new ideas and possibilities emerge.

May this week be a week of balance for each of us.

This blog was originally posted to Dare Communications, and appears here with permission.


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Alisdair is a coach, facilitator and key note speaker with a mission to support people in the vital work of changing their minds.