A Voice in the Wilderness

I’d consulted with a major Midwestern power company for a while, when a leader in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W.) said to me, “You are a voice in the wilderness.”

At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a voice in the wilderness or an advocate for some obscure theory. I focused my work—based on my real-life experiences–and attention on transformation and the leadership necessary to bring forth such difficult change in organizations. There was dire need for such renewal: few organizations achieved excellence and fewer yet could sustain distinction once realized.

I was fresh from my 18 year career at the Star Tribune newspaper where, in my last position, I had led a successful transformational change effort in a large business unit. When we began, I thought of how much I would be able to change the enterprise. But I was probably changed the most. My eyes were opened to the vast untapped human potential available to those who learned to think differently about leading groups of people. I left the company to complete a Ph.D. in leadership and organizational change and to share what I’d learned with leaders.

I tried to teach the leaders of the power company how to free their employee’s potential by inviting workers to get involved and to create conditions where each person could feel valued, involved, and informed—alien ideas in a mechanistic system. I wanted leaders to embrace tough love, lead from their values and humanize the huge enterprise. I believed the leaders would leap at the chance to improve the bottom line in dramatic fashion and reduce the time, energy and vast expense of constant conflict and litigation with the union represented employees.

I was mistaken.

The personal growth the leaders must make to lead such change felt too scary for them. I found the same in other organizations. Leaders wanted change; they didn’t want to do the hard work of change. My personal goal changed from “change the world” to “do what I can.”

I made each job an effort to plant the seeds of organizational enlightenment: those moments of metanoia that changed the inner person. Over 13 years I met a handful of leaders who understood and embraced the insights. But most could not summon or sustain the courage and commitment to undertake their own transformations and to confront angry and painful resistant to deep change.

After 13 years, tired and in need of renewal myself, I retired.

I never thought that calling on people to embrace the humanity of others would be a voice in the wilderness. The wily veteran of the I.B.E.W. was right.

We need many voices with moral courage to call out in the humanistic wastelands of our organizations and institutions.

More so today than ever before.