An Excerpt from Restoring Sanity

March 14, 2024


Even in difficult times, we can find ways to uplift our spirits and make meaningful contributions, writes Margaret J. Wheatley.

We are currently living in a time of great uncertainty and division. Even previously successful leaders are finding it difficult to maintain balance in such a turbulent world.

What if we could restore some sanity by working together creatively, generously, and without fear? Imagine exploring possibilities instead of withdrawing in conflict, and working well together towards a common goal.

In her new book, Margaret J. Wheatley proposes a path for leaders to awaken the human spirit and create "Islands of Sanity" where people can form healthy communities to do meaningful work.


I have worked with leaders on all continents (except Antarctica) and at all levels since 1973, and I state with full confidence that leadership has never been more difficult. And it’s not our fault. No matter that we’ve been good and caring leaders in the past, no matter that we’ve led people in empowering, engaging ways that resulted in meaningful, productive work, we now face external conditions far beyond our control to change. And these external factors are intensifying their impacts at shocking speed.

The perfect storm is here, created by the coalescence of climate and human-created catastrophes, insatiable greed, fear-based self-protection, escalating aggression and conflict, indifference for the well-being of others, and continuing uncertainty. As leaders dedicated to serving the causes and people we treasure, confronted by this unrelenting tsunami, what are we to do? My answer to this is also stated with full confidence: We need to restore sanity by awakening the human spirit. We can only achieve this if we undertake the most challenging and meaningful work of our leader lives: creating Islands of Sanity.

This book offers practices for creating and sustaining these islands, chosen for their power to restore and awaken the human spirit, to enrich our capacity to work well together, to create more goodness and possibility. At this time when lives and possibilities are destroyed by casual destructive decisions, I aspire for us to be sane leaders devoted to restoring and awakening the finest qualities of being human—our generosity, creativity, and kindness. We will not change the world, but we can create Islands of Sanity where our human spirits come alive and we contribute in ways that make more possible.

What becomes possible when we dedicate ourselves to using everything within our power to awaken the human spirit? We humans, with our wondrous capacities for generosity, creativity, and kindness. We humans, with our wondrous capacities buried by oppression, venality, and indifference. We humans, with our wondrous capacities forgotten or never known, or told we don’t have them. 

What an insane world this is, to be destroying these qualities when they are most needed! For whatever future awaits us, we need human beings being fully human.

What Would It Be Like? 

What would it be like to work together again in creative and generous ways? What would it be like to expect kindness and generosity? What would it be like to want to contribute as fully as possible, to feel welcomed and appreciated for my contribution?

What would it be like to be curious about who you’re with rather than judging or fearing them? What would it be like to engage together exploring possibilities rather than withdrawing in conflict or disagreement? What would it be like to be working well together?

It is still possible to create the conditions for people to engage together for work they care about. But this work requires devotion, discipline, and faith. It requires sane leaders who have unshakable confidence that people can be generous, creative, and kind. It requires setting ourselves apart as an Island of Sanity.

The dynamics of fear and denial have taken hold and cannot be changed at the macro level. If we know our human spirits, if we know what people are capable of, if we remember working well together, we will have the motivation to separate ourselves from this oppressive and destructive culture. We will focus our energy and aspirations to create Islands of Sanity. 

Islands of Sanity 

An Island of Sanity is a gift of possibility and refuge. It is a true island because it sets itself apart from the destructive dynamics, policies, and behaviors that are afflicting people on the mainland. It needs to be an island because there is no other way to preserve and protect our best human qualities. We are not seeking sanctuary, we are seeking contribution. We are magnetized by the island’s offerings—the possibility of working together in harmonious relationships to accomplish meaningful work. 

This current culture, with people locked down in fear and self-protection, is destroying our relationships, our work, and our future. It is easier to withdraw than to step forward. It is safer to protect oneself than to be visible. This is the harsh reality that defines the need for Islands of Sanity. 

We do not withdraw. We are not seeking self-protection. We commit to creating a community where generosity, creativity, and kindness are the norm—what we expect from each other and easily offer in return. We realize that the current culture cannot create the conditions for these behaviors. 

What is this island? It’s rarely a physical form. It’s a commitment born from our deepest motivation to contribute to this time in meaningful and purposeful ways. We realize we personally can no longer participate in the general culture--its dynamics are overpowering us. Even though we want to be generous, creative, and kind, we too often find ourselves caught in aggression and fear. We notice that although we know better and have behaved better, we’re now becoming distrustful, angry, fearful—just like everybody else. 

How do we stop this downward trend of bad behaviors? We need to create a boundary, a protective way of being that reduces the impact of these negative forces. We cannot do this alone. We need others who are motivated by the same sense of call. We develop an island mentality not to exclude but to increase our capacity to serve. An Island of Sanity takes form from our intentions and aspirations. It develops strength and capacity as we work hard, struggle, stay together, figure things out, fail, succeed, learn, forgive, laugh, persevere. 

It is pure gift to dedicate ourselves to creating these sanctuaries of possibility. May joy be our familiar companion. 

Practices to Awaken Generosity, Creativity, and Kindness  

This book is a practice manual of two dozen practices chosen with great care, practices that I’ve used for decades. They create conditions for people to manifest their best qualities, contributing to resolving issues they care about. They only succeed because of diversity, equality, and inclusion—not as policies but as the only sane means to make sense of complexity and build teams focused on what’s possible, not who’s here. 

Practices are organized around these questions: 

  • Is your faith in people strong enough to do this work? 
  • How do we form as an Island of Sanity? 
  • What design principles create practices that awaken generosity, creativity, and kindness? 
  • How do we shift from reaction to response? 
  • What do we do when something goes wrong? 
  • What do we do when the road gets hard? 
My Invitation to You 

Shall we do this work to restore sanity? As President Teddy Roosevelt enjoined us: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” Let’s do what we can. To choose otherwise is truly insane—we’d be contributing to the continuing destruction of the human spirit. What greater crime is there? 

What a bold and beautiful experiment—to explore the reaches of the human spirit in this time when so little feels sacred, not even humans. May we choose to be those who restore sanity, awaken our human spirits, and experience the wonders of who we humans can be, no matter what is happening in the external world.


Adapted from Restoring Sanity: Practices to Awaken Generosity, Creativity, and Kindness in Ourselves and Our Organizations by Margaret J. Wheatley, published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright © 2024 by Margaret J. Wheatley.

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