Don Michael's Death LO25654

From: Richard Karash (
Date: 11/16/00

Donella Meadows, a principal author of _The Limits to Growth_, adjunct
professor at Dartmouth College, and Director of the Sustainability
Institute in Hartland VT, writes a weekly newspaper column, "The Global

Her November 9th column concerns the death of Don Michael, and makes
significant points about learning.

The original of the column can be found on the web at

I'm taking the liberty of redistributing her column to the LO list because
of it's points about learning.

   -=- Rick

----- Forwarded Message -----
Date: 09 Nov 2000 14:40:04 EST
Subject: column 11/9/00-don michael

The Global Citizen
November 9, 2000

Donella H. Meadows
Sustainability Institute
P.O. Box 174
Hartland Four Corners VT 05049


During the weekend before Election Day, as midgets battled furiously on
warped playing fields, two giants fell, both yielding their lives
peacefully, knowingly, with dignity, to cancer.

The better-known one was David Brower, the great outdoorsman and thunderer
for the environment. Even in his seventies and eighties he was still
shaking up the Sierra Club, inspiring Friends of the Earth, galvanizing
college students with his passionate message about the inconceivably
ancient, living, evolving earth and the blind arrogance of the upstart
Industrial Man. I always thought of David as a reincarnation of the fiery
founder of our national parks, John Muir. I can only hope that soul will
cycle back to us yet again, continuing to thunder, until we absorb its

Don Michael was a quieter giant. Much of his career was spent as a
professor of planning and public policy at the University of Michigan. He
was a revered advisor to corporate, government, and nonprofit managers,
with a gentle way of stating difficult truths. One of his books,
published in 1973, set the course for the "futures" movement and for
leaders everywhere. It was called "On Learning to Plan -- and Planning to

The key word there is "learn." Along with David Brower's reverence for
the natural world, the one thing I would most wish to pass on to the newly
elected leaders of this split, confused nation -- whoever those leaders
turn out to be -- is Don Michael's commitment to learning.

Real learning, he said, requires three things: admission of uncertainty,
error-embracing, and deep self-understanding. None of them easy for a
leader in these times. We have set up almost the opposite standards. A
leader must pretend to absolute certainty, never make mistakes, or at
least never admit them, and never reveal personal vulnerability. All of
which is a perfect recipe for not learning.

"To learn requires recognizing what one wants to learn, and that means
recognizing what one doesn't know," said Michael. He meant that
profoundly, not at the level of not knowing what the surplus will be next
year, but of not really knowing how the modern globalizing economy works.
Not knowing what a voucher system would do to our schools. Or what global
warming will be like. Or how to control the spread of weapons of mass
destruction. "You know that you do not know; you know that there is no
honest way to put a number on something; you do not understand your
situation well enough to be in control of it."

Many of us urgently want to believe that someone, somewhere, preferably
someone in charge, does know. Hence we run our campaigns the way we do
and politicians act the way they do. We sense deep down that they are
bluffing. If we could only admit that, thereby giving our leaders the
space to admit that, we could start to learn.

Said Don Michael: "What if uncertainty were accepted, and shared as our
common condition, and acknowledged by leaders rather than being denied?
Surely we can tolerate much more uncertainty when we have others to share
it with. [That] would reduce the need to act over-cautiously out of fear
of being caught in a mistake. It would reduce the need for those
defensive, self-protecting, posturings that make it so hard to act
responsibly and compassionately."

"If you do not understand your situation well enough to be in control of
it, all you can do is live in it and learn from it and try to create
possibilities and see what happens as one goes along."

That's learning. Admitting uncertainty. Trying things. Making mistakes,
ideally the small ones that come from failed experiments, rather than the
huge ones that come from pretending you know what you're doing. Learning
means staying open to experiments that might not work -- which Michael
called error embracing. "It means seeking and using -- and sharing --
information about what went wrong with what you hoped would go right."

Learning leadership takes a solid, self-knowing human being. "Both error
embracing and living with high levels of uncertainty emphasize our
personal as well as societal vulnerability. Typically we hide our
vulnerabilities from ourselves as well as from others. But those who will
have the tasks of planning and leading must have a far deeper
understanding themselves as selves and as a part of other persons than
they usually do today. Without such understanding, and the strength that
comes with it, they will too easily succumb to pressures to engineer
people rather than to encourage self-discovery -- and they will themselves
be engineered in the process."

In 1996, preparing to re-issue his great planning book, Don Michael wrote
a paragraph that seems as if it were written for his nation's confusion in
the week of his death. "The depth of learning to be done grows ever more
daunting. Whether that learning can be accomplished remains to be seen.

But, since we don't understand the dynamics of complex social change under
turbulent conditions, there is no reason not to hope -- hence to try.
First and foremost, we must accept our ignorance -- accept that we must
learn, and plan in order to do so."

(Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and director
of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont. See

Copyright 2000 Sustainability Institute


Richard Karash ("Rick") | <> Speaker, Facilitator, Trainer | "Towards learning organizations" | Host for Learning-Org Discussion (617)227-0106, fax (617)523-3839 | <>

Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <>

"Learning-org" and the format of our message identifiers (LO1234, etc.) are trademarks of Richard Karash.