Death is an inevitable reality. It comes to individuals, ecosystems, and entire civilizations, as all things have a beginning and end. Sometimes death comes quickly; other times it comes slowly. Our current cultural reality finds us in an extended season of death. We are situated in a global pandemic that has disrupted political, economic, social, and religious structures in significant ways. How we navigate these deaths will determine our ability to bring forth holistic and healthy new ways of living.
Margaret J. Wheatley examines the rise and fall of civilizations, biological systems, and leadership postures in Who Do We Choose to Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. Citing work by Sir John Glubb, she notes a particular pattern to the rise and fall of civilizations. In the course of ten generations (roughly 250 years), regardless of technological advances, civilizations all rose and declined through six stages: The Age of Pioneers, The Age of Conquest, The Age of Commerce, The Age of Affluence, The Age of Intellect, and the Age of Decadence. Based on the Age descriptions, we fall solidly into the Age of Decadence where “wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism, and high levels of frivolity.” In this age, celebrity culture reigns supreme alongside the entertainment and sports industries. Leadership sees itself as impervious, destined to rule indefinitely. Welfare systems are built to care for the poor, but when monies run out, those systems shut their doors, leaving many destitute.
Wheatly highlights the “myth of progress,” where humans, specifically over the past 300 years, believed if they simply progressed in their intellect, technology, and ways of living, their developed society would continue for generations to come. Sadly, this is not the case, for “the very innovations that gave capacity end up destroying a civilization,” as people fall blind to the breakdown of interpersonal relationships and diverse systemic ecosystems.
Prior to Wheatly’s published text, Simon P. Walker made similar observations where “Western civilization is nearing the end of its current life cycle. The (2008) economic crisis is merely a manifestation of a wider, more systemic breakdown of our civilization.” He notes the breakdown of our social, political, economic, and religious structures. He highlights how consumerism has increased the fragility of those structures, and how decreased social capital contributes to societal collapse. Thirteen years later it is clear that sometimes the death of a particular society is slow and gradual, as circumstances continue to worsened for much of the American population.
As the complexity of society increases, so does the specificity of leadership. Leaders become less nimble and able to adapt, leaving gaps in support systems for large pockets of society. This is especially true as systems inevitably die. This specialization leaves leaders skilled at birthing and growing processes little ability of facilitate the contraction and death of those same systems.
Such focused leadership is a detriment to the communities and organizations served. During times of uncertainty and death, two primary types of leadership are needed. The first is an adaptable leadership, which Walker calls leadership mobility. Leadership mobility utilizes different forms of power to achieve particular goals. Walker notes that “mobility is the most important capacity a leader needs to develop” to be effective in their role. Mobility can be learned, but it takes practice. Tips to develop increased mobility in leading include: purposely stepping into roles that require you to lead in different way, reflecting on experiences when different strategies are used, inviting others to speak into your life to help evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, serving others in a capacity that doesn’t require you lead, being attentive and noticing what is happening in the present, laying down power to make sure you don’t need to be powerful, and being patient, allowing yourself to become increasingly undefended during a time of waiting.
The second type of leadership is one grounded in empathy and compassion. As ideological, societal, and structural systems crumble, grief and confusion mount. Walker suggests society will go through “the usual stages of the grieving process,” including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While his intent is good, his grief model is outdated. Grief surrounding death and loss is much more complex and unpredictable than he infers. Leaders need to move proximate to death and be well versed in psychological, theological, and cultural aspects of grief to help individuals and communities navigate the collapse of particular aspects of their society.
We live in tumultuous and anxious times. Leaders who effectively employ leadership mobility and empathy will not only do well to care for those experiencing death and grief in their communities, but will also help their communities endure the pain associated with the birthing of new life that is sure to follow.
 Margaret J. Wheatley. Who Do We Choose to Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017) 34-36.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 38-41.
 Simon P. Walker. The Undefended Leader: Leading with Nothing to Lose. (Piquant Editions Ltd., 2010) 321.
 Ibid., 330-395.
 Ibid., See Part 2B for the eight strategies of power in an organization.
 Ibid., 290-291.
 Ibid., 297-298.
 Ibid., 404.