Walking Out and On



All systems go through lifecycles. There’s progress, setbacks, seasons. When a new effort begins, it feels like spring. People are excited by new possibilities, innovations and ideas abound, problems get solved, people feel inspired and motivated to contribute. It all works very well, for a time.


And then, especially if there’s growth and success, things can start to go downhill. Leaders lose trust in people’s ability to self-organize and feel the need to take control, to standardize everything, to issue policies, regulations and laws. Self-organization gets replaced by over-organization; compliance becomes more important than creativity. Means and ends get reversed and people struggle to uphold the system rather than having the system support them. These large, lumbering bureaucracies—think about education, healthcare, government, business—no longer have the capacity to create solutions to the very problems they were created to solve.

When a system reaches this stage of impotence, when it becomes the problem rather than the solution, we as individuals and communities have a choice. Either we struggle to fix and repair the current system, or we create new alternatives. New alternatives can be created either inside or outside the failing system. But if we choose to walk out and walk on, there are two competing roles we’re called upon to play: We have to be thoughtful and compassionate in attending to what’s dying—we have to be good hospice workers. And we have to be experimenters, pioneers, edge-walkers. Playing these dual roles is never easy, of course, but even so, there are enough people brave enough to do so.

Skilled hospice workers offer comfort and support to those at the end of their lives far beyond attending to physical needs. They help the dying focus on the transition ahead, and encourage them to see what their life has taught them—what wisdom and values shine clearly now that the distractions are gone.

Walk Outs need to do this kind of hospice work on ourselves. Even as we stop struggling to fix things, even as we reject the status quo, we don’t leap empty-handed into the future. We need to consciously carry with us the values and practices that feel essential. What have we learned, what do we treasure as the means to create good work, fulfilling lives, meaningful relationships? From our many experiences—the battles, victories, disappointments, successes—we need to glean our hard-won wisdom and preserve it at all costs. This is what we’ll most need as we walk out and walk on to give birth to the future.

Inside dying systems, Walk Outs who Walk On are those few leaders who refuse to work from the dominant values that permeate the bureaucracy, such things as speed, greed, fear and aggression. They use their formal leadership to champion values and practices that respect people, that rely on people’s inherent motivation, creativity and caring to get quality work done. These leaders consciously create oases or protected areas within the bureaucracy where people can still contribute, protected from the disabling demands of the old system. These leaders are treasures. They’re dedicated, thoughtful revolutionaries who work hard to give birth to the new in very difficult circumstances.

And then there are those who leave the system entirely, eager to be free of all constraints to experiment with the future. You’ll read their stories in the next pages. But even though they might appear to have more freedom than those still inside, they encounter many challenges that restrict their actions. Old habits and ways of thinking constantly rear up on their path. It’s easy to get yanked backwards, or to doubt that this is the right direction. It takes vigilance to notice when these old ways of thinking block the path ahead.

Pioneers have to expect to feel ignored, invisible and lonely a good portion of the time. What they’re doing is so new and different that others can’t see their work even when it’s staring them in the face. These are difficult dynamics to live with, especially when you know you’ve done good work, that you’ve solved problems that others are still struggling with. This is why it’s so important that pioneers work as community, encouraging one another through the trials and risks natural to those giving birth to the new in the midst of the breakdown of the old.

If you’ve walked out of confining situations, you’ve probably experienced at least some of these dynamics. They’re easily observable in the lives of innovators and courageous leaders everywhere. They’ll be quite noticeable in the stories you’re about to hear as we journey through these seven communities. In each visit, we’ll see how these difficult dynamics lose their power as we work together in community.  It’s so much easier to keep walking on when we’re in the company of kindred spirits.