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Peter Vaill: Learning in a World of Permanent White Water

  About Peter Vaill

One of the world’s leading organization development specialists, Peter Vaill, Ph.D., is known for his innovative approaches to managerial leadership and organizational behavior. His teaching, writing and consulting has focused on a number of themes, including excellence and high performance, change and chaos in the workplace and leadership as learning. He was a member of CCL’s board of governors from 1990 to 1997 and from 1999 to 2002.

In the late 1980s, Peter Vaill began to see the emerging business environment as one of chaos and rapid change. He termed the new challenge “leading in a world of permanent white water” – a reference to turbulent river rapids.

  “Lots of men and women are making money and succeeding, but they are fear-ridden. I see a lot of stress reactions: poor sleep, substance abuse and compulsive behaviors.”    

Over the years, Vaill has continued his study of permanent white water and how leaders develop the ability to negotiate the turbulence. Below, some of Vaill’s thoughts on leading and learning.

Permanent White Water
In his book, Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water (Jossey-Bass, 1996), Vaill describes the challenges brought about by white water:

  • Many surprises. “Permanent white water conditions are full of surprises … the continual occurrence of problems that are not ‘supposed’ to happen.”
  • Never-before-seen problems. “Complex systems tend to produce novel problems … [conditions] never even imagined” by those involved.
  • Lack of shape or structure. “Permanent white water conditions feature events that are ‘messy’ and ill-structured,” and have ramifications far and wide.
  • Expensive. “White water events are often extremely costly,” both in terms of dollars and effort to “cope with the problem and deal with the damage.”
  • Unending. “Permanent white water conditions raise the problem of recurrence,” along with the realization that “no number of anticipatory mechanisms can forestall the next surprising novel wave in the permanent white water.”

Vaill writes “Permanent white water puts organizations and their members in the position of continually doing things they have little experience with or have never done before at all. The feeling of 'playing a whole new ball game' thoroughly pervades organizational life."

Leadership and Learning
The presence of permanent white water means that “beyond all of the other new skills and attitudes that permanent white water requires, people have to be (or become) extremely effective learners,” suggests Vaill.

So how do we, as leaders and learners, prepare for the kind of learning needed in permanent white water? According to Vaill, the answer is to approach learning as a way of being – not a separate activity or a task for becoming a leader.

“My mantra about learning has become 'leadership is learning,'" says Vaill. “Acts of leadership are learning.”

What’s Next for Leadership Development
Interestingly, after more than 40 years studying leadership, how it is developed, and the implications for learning, Vaill is quick to point out how much is unknown. It is useful, asserts Vaill, to understand leaders the way you understand artists. “Much of leadership, it seems, happens by more artistic than scientific processes.”

Vaill is also concerned about leaders who are outwardly successful, but disconnected and dispirited. “Lots of men and women are making money and succeeding, but they are fear-ridden. I see a lot of stress reactions: poor sleep, substance abuse and compulsive behaviors.”

The Center for Creative Leadership
Vaill says an early experience at CCL was an important professional milestone for him. In 1974, he gave a presentation on organizational excellence and high-performing systems to a group of about 100 leaders, researchers and students at a CCL forum. That presentation was Vaill’s first formal, public expression of the ideas that became the foundation for much of his life’s work.

“I’ve always felt that CCL and I played in the same ballpark,” Vaill notes. “I don’t think of myself as a leadership expert, per se, but I’m interested in individuals who have unusual ability to lead change and help others deal with change. I connect with CCL because leadership is implicit in dealing with change, organizational development and permanent white water.”

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