Conversation as a Vehicle of Leadership and Emergence

Conversations are the foundation of our social world. Furthermore, they are the means by which we engage in internal dialogue and reflection, founding our internal world and our ability to learn. Conversations connect our personal internal world with another reality.. the others around us, and the Other who surrounds us. Conversation founds not only connection, friendship and community, but also prayer.

Consider learning. It could be argued that all learning is founded on conversation, even if that dialogue is only internal. Single loop learning becomes double loop learning when it becomes conversation and dialogue. Language forms the boundaries of our world, and conversation is the means by which we explore and grow in understanding.

Recently organizational theorists have been paying attention to conversation as the fuel of learning communities and the stuff by which organizations learn, adapt and change through shared knowledge. Since change is the order of the day, and since networks are increasingly important to us as we attempt to understand our world toward influencing change, conversation is inextricably linked to leadership.

"The most powerful organizational learning and collective knowledge sharing grows through informal relationships and personal networks -- via working conversations in communities of practice." Fritjof Capra, Creativity and Leadership in Learning Communities

Furthermore, since organizations face special challenges in a world of rapid change, the balance between design and emergence becomes critical. In human organizations, both types of structures are always present. The designed structures are the organization's formal structures, which are depicted in its official documents and describe the organization's mission, its formal policies, its strategies, and so on. The emergent structures are the organization's informal structures-the alliances and friendships, the informal channels of communication (the "grapevine"), the tacit skills and sources of knowledge that are continually evolving. These structures emerge from an informal network of relationships that continually grows, changes, and adapts to new situations.

How do we facilitate emergence, which is essential to survival in a rapidly changing environment? One of the keys is conversation. Margaret Wheatley notes that, "Facilitating emergence means first building up and nurturing networks of communication in order to "connect the system to more of itself."

With this conviction that conversation founds learning, leadership and emergence, I have been collecting reflections on conversation. The following pieces come from a variety of sources: Jesus Creed, Dwight Friesen, Fritjof Capra, Kilpatrick, Falk and Johns, and Margaret Wheatley. Enjoy.

Part I Jesus Creed

A genuine generous orthodoxy is conversational in style and in relationships. Conversation transcends everything we are and do. If we define "conversation" properly, it moves beyond "chatting" to become central to who we are and what we are aboutl.


The first element of the conversational style is that Orthodoxy recognizes that the Triune God is essentially "conversational" in essence. That is, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit interrelate and interpenetrate one another in love and beauty and, in so doing, establish that the fundamental ground of all reality is relational or conversational. (Again, this is called the perichoresis, and it is rooted in John 10:38 and worked out in the Cappadocian theologians like Gregory of Nyssa.)

The second element is that God has chosen to converse with the created world by manifesting himself in that creation and by revealing himself and speaking to that creation -- both in acts of history (Exodus, Exile, Cross, Resurrection, etc) and in Scriptural witness.

The third element of conversation is the Spirit of God who speaks to everyone, everywhere and always has and will. God desires for humans to "converse back" with him.


A generosity of such an orthodoxy means first of all that we, as humans, need to learn to listen to God's conversation with us in creation. There is more so-called natural theology in the Bible than most recognize: but Psalms 8, 19, 104, as well as Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22.

Second, it means we need to see that before it all and beyond it all is conversation. God's own eternity past is one of ceaseless inter-conversation and God's eternity future is one of eternal conversation with the perfected created order (including humans).

Third, Scripture is God's special form of conversation with humans: here God spoke, here God still speaks. We need to read, not to master but to be mastered; we need to listen, not so we can known but so we can be known. And we need to do this together, as a community, because as God's conversation is interpersonal so ours is as well.

Fourth, we suggest that God's redemptive work is to re-establish the conversation between God and us, between us and us, and between us and the world. We call this "reconciliation," but if we follow the thread of this post, then I see no reason why we can't see it as a conversation. This is the work of the Holy Spirit and we need to be open to the Spirit's conversational impulses and urges.

Finally, because God has engaged us in conversation, we need to engage one another in conversation and see it as the center of the Church's Kingdom mission -- knowing that being known is as important as knowing, and loving one another is as important as being loved. All of this implies, of course, that we are on a journey, we don't yet know as will know (and shouldn't pretend to), we need to converse with every human being -- whether in our community of faith or not, whether our gender or not, whether educated or not, whether anything we prefer or not.

Part II: More on Conversation

It is only through conversation that we connect. The importance of connection in networking, participative and egalitarian movements that are not therefore top-down, managed organizations is noted by Margaret Wheatley when she writes, (Goodbye Command and Control)

Mort Meyerson, chairman of Perot Systems, said that the primary task of being a leader is to make sure that the organization knows itself. That is we must realize that our task is to call people together often, so that everyone gains clarity about who we are, who we've just become, who we still want to be. This includes the interpretations available from our customers, our markets, our history, our mistakes. If the organization can stay in a continuous conversation about who it is and who it is becoming, then leaders don't have to undertake the impossible task of trying to hold it all together. Organizations that are clear at their core hold themselves together because of their deep congruence. People are then free to explore new avenues of activity, new ventures and customers in ways that make sense for the organization. It is a strange and promising paradox of living systems: Clarity about who we are as a group creates freedom for individual contributions.

In his own take on leadership as process Dwight Friesen observed that, "Leadership is about conversation. Leadership has less to do with the clarity of vision, and much more do to with the quality of conversation.

"How one fosters conversation is everything. Bringing self to the table, creating open space, speaking, naming, surrendering the need to be right, etc. Hidden agendas, unstated vision, passive aggressive needs to control, and rigid categories are just a few of the many ills ready to subvert [a learning] conversation."

German sociologist Niklas Luhmann describes human community as "a network of conversations." From this perspective the best way to nurture community is to facilitate and sustain conversations. Organizational analysts Brown and Isaacs asked effective leaders to describe quality conversations. In response the common characteristics were listed as,

  • a sense of mutual respect
  • taking time to talk and reflect on what is really important
  • listened even when there were differences
  • accepted and not judged by the others in the conversation
  • exploring questions that mattered
  • developing a shared meaning that wasn't originally there.

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on March 16, 2005