Gradualism [is] more a disposition than a method…and is equally applicable to any ideological framework I know about…
My first perspective on gradualism came from what I learned from the Quakers… I was particularly intrigued by the business meeting in which there was no voting, they moved only by consensus… The Quakers are humans like the rest of us, I discovered, and I have been in a few meetings where people got mad and called each other names but they never voted… I have watched particularly the art of clerking, by myself and others. And I have been careful to observe what tactic and behavior by the clerk seemed to facilitate consensus and what seemed to hinder. And there seems to be, first a critical quality of faith, firm belief by the clerk that consensus is achievable, no matter how deep the divisions seem to be.
Any manifestation of anxiety by the clerk, either by manner or facial expression, no matter how subtle, practically assures that the meeting will get hung up. Then there is the art of stating and restating a possible basis for consensus, inventing and reinventing both ideas and language (and the two are really inseparable). Proceeding toward consensus on a controversial matter is slow, sometimes taking several adjourning sessions. It is true gradualism and it can take a lot of time and patience, especially by the clerk.
My most extensive, and interesting, experience with the process, however, has been in my business life. In any meeting on a contentious issue, whether I was in the chair or not, I often emerged as the consensus finder by manifesting faith in the process and searching for the unifying ideas and language…
I am grateful to the Quakers for giving me the opportunity to gain confidence and skill in the process before I took it into the sometimes highly charged business environment. I was not self-conscious about my tactic at AT&T. I had learned it gradually through my work with the Quakers and it just became a part of my normal way of working, wherever I was.
[Greenleaf relates a story about his encounter with the ‘Chief’ at AT&T – the ‘Chief’ was the top person at AT&T and at the time AT&T had more than one million employees. For more than thirty minutes the ‘Chief’ explained his dilemma. Greenleaf then writes:
So when he finished in about half an hour I said to him gently, ‘As I see your dilemma, your problem is that you don’t understand the problem. And the only course I see available to you is to set in motion a process of inquiry so that you will get a better understanding of the problem. Then you will see clearly what to do about it.’
As I was making my little speech I could see the color rising in his neck and I knew that when I finished I would catch it. And I did. He gave the desk a resounding crack with his fist as he literally shouted: ‘G… it. I don’t want to understand anything. I just want to know what to do about it – NOW!’ [To be continued…]