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Lessons from Cather on thriving in 21st century organizations

Red Cloud sits in an expansive, tree-filled valley in south-central Nebraska. It’s a smattering of a town; about a thousand people; most of whom, post-millennium, are over age fifty.

Willa Cather (1873 - 1947), the Pulitzer-prize winning author, moved to Red Cloud as a girl in 1882, fifteen years after Nebraska became a state. It was here that Cather experienced life on the American frontier – a way of life that became the focal point of her novels.

The community of Red Cloud, named after the famed Oglala Sioux Indian Chief, was populated during Cather’s time with westward-leaning Americans-by-birth, European immigrants, and Native American, namely, Pawnee, families. Their stories came to be known to generations of Americans in Cather’s prairie trilogy: O Pioneers! (1913), Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918).

As a girl who attended elementary school in Nebraska in the 1960s, I was enchanted with Cather. No matter how many times I picked up a worn copy of My Antonia in my childhood, I found myself held steadfast by her descriptions of early life on the Plains.

Cather’s culturally diverse communities are historical. People in her stories lived in doggedly harsh, dramatically changing and vastly challenging, but naturally interwoven communities; communities that were often in conflict.

Today, we are faced with organizational communities that are often in conflict in the modern American workplace – a place that is far from the western frontier of Cather’s novels.

Yet, Cather’s protagonists faced similar challenges to that which we face now at work; challenges such as conflict around purpose, cultural conflict between community members, not to mention, ‘plain ole’ I don’t like you’ conflict.

Conflict is. It’s embedded in the human relationship (to self and others). We can avoid or suppress it. We can use domination and compromise to manage it. We can also turn conflict into opportunity and learn to thrive.

Albeit, we might survive by managing conflict alone, we will thrive only by managing conflict in community – an embrace of emergent wisdom, not static intellect or uniform physical might.

What did I learn about managing conflict in the American workplace in the 21st century from reading Cather? Specifically, two ‘pearls of wisdom’ about people living and working together that are germane to today’s organizational communities – ‘pearls of wisdom’ that haven’t changed since Cather’s time, a hundred years ago.

1) We need to cultivate emergent organizational leaders (formal and informal leaders) who are wise about living and working in organizational community; communities in which each of us contributes to an anticipatory cause greater than ourselves.

2) We need to cultivate engaged employees who know how to manage conflict as a means to thrive in community.

Learning to create thriving organizational communities in the 21st century American workplace is a knowledge capability that matters as much as creating thriving frontier communities mattered in our nation's past.

Reading Cather, her works a wellspring of wisdom, is but one way to tap into a reservoir rich in anchors for our thought and practice.

Thank you, Willa, for leaving us your stories.

In memoriam: Jud Gurney, M.D., 1954 to 2010, longtime Professor of Radiology, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Cather fan, childhood friend, a Nebraskan always and forever.

Organizational communication maven by day. Food, wine and beer buff by night. World traveler. Entrepreneurial spirit. Contact Eroca Gabriel, a former Fortune 100 ‘people and culture’ consultant, at

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