Successful Leadership in Changing Times

How do you cultivate curiosity, compassion and courage in the face of prejudice, anger and fear? Otto Scharmer has some interesting answers.

von TwentyThirty, March 27, 2018

This article originally appeared on TwentyThirty.

In times of disruptive change, successful leadership depends on the quality of attention and intention. It is essential to understand the inner space one is operating from. This is the core thesis of Otto Scharmer, who famously introduced the world to Theory U. How do you cultivate curiosity, compassion and courage in the face of prejudice, anger and fear? Otto Scharmer has some interesting answers.

Many people are unsettled by the rapid changes in today's world. Are there any good news about the age of disruption?

Otto Scharmer: Unfortunately, it is not true that good things necessarily come out of these disruptive times. Sometimes, people just try to do more of the same old stuff. Sometimes, they even want to move backwards. The fitting claim is: Make XYZ great again! But sometimes we have the courage, compassion and open mind that let us lean into the emerging future. I try to be in the service of this third option.


Can you explain why?

OS: I believe many people would like to lean into the emerging future. But it is not easy. You need to build the capacity, on an individual level and on a collective level. This capacity allows you to deal with disruption; to lean in so you can sense and actualize the emerging future possibilities. What reliable methods allow us to do just that? This has been my guiding question.

Otto Scharmer

Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a Thousand Talents Program Professor at Tsinghua University, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute.

Otto introduced the concept of “presencing” — learning from the emerging future — in his bestselling books Theory U and Presence. His new book The Essentials of Theory U, a pocket guide for practitioners that distills all of the research and materials found in Otto Scharmer's seminal texts Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future, is now available for purchase.

The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt recently started a cooperation with the Presencing Institute and applies Theory U into their leadership programs.

This is where Theory U comes into play?

OS: Exactly! It is a framework that looks at reality from a systems perspective. I am talking about awareness-based systems change. Theory U shows how to update the operating code in our societal systems through a shift in consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness.

What does this mean?

OS: You not only try to fix a broken system, you address the deeper questions of the mindset. You reflect about the individual and collective sources of creativity. Basically, you address these issues by reconnecting with the deeper sources of our own humanity.

This is a connection a lot of people seem to have lost, partly because they are too busy with their phones or distracted by other digital devices.

OS: This is true. When you are constantly stuck in virtual environments, you lose this source. It gets frozen. This is a dilemma, because in order to create change outside, you first have to create change within yourself. The way we use social media today is an amplification of the noise machine that is already in full swing. The circle of destruction is amplified by social media.

 [tweet:The way we use social media today is an amplification of the noise machine that is already in full swing.]

What do you mean by circle of destruction?

OS: The negative results we collectively create: climate change, poverty, violence, terrorism. The deconstruction of communities, nature, life in general. I am talking about the foundations of our social, economic, ecological and spiritual well-being. What we need now is a collective conversation that moves from just downloading what we already seem to know to a true dialogue - a conversation that makes the system see itself. I want to put up a mirror that lets people see the bigger picture.

This is not always easy to see.

OS: We need to create intentional spaces where this reflection can happen. Which is exactly what we do at the U Lab. Putting the spotlight from the problem to the solution. If you go around and talk to innovators, what do you notice? The future is already here! All the solutions we need are already there, just in smaller scale. They are almost invisible. Our political systems and most institutions need an update. They are out of sync with the challenges that we face.

What is your experience with introducing leaders around the world to Theory U? Do people see it as too esoteric?

OS: I was genuinely surprised by the lack of pushback to this method, especially in very conservative environments. Theory U works very well with people who can only be successful if they make other people behave differently without relying on hierarchy. You have to make them aware of their leadership challenges and the leverage points they have. This implies their relations with all stakeholders. In order to be relevant for those leaders, you have to start with their exact leadership challenge at this very moment. You cannot start with your saving-the-world agenda.

Theory U

Theory U is based on the concept of presencing. A blend of the words “presence” and “sensing,” it signifies a heightened state of attention that allows individuals and groups to shift the inner place from which they function. When that shift happens, people begin to operate from a future space of possibilities.

Being able to facilitate that shift is, according to Otto Scharmer, the essence of leadership today. He has used presencing to facilitate innovation and change processes both within companies and across societal systems.

More information about Theory U can be found via this edX online course.

This sounds quite time-consuming, however. How do leaders fit this method into their busy schedule?

OS: You have to start with your specific challenge, not the method. Theory U is an operating system. You use it, you don't get lectured. You start with listening to others, you start observing. This is at the core of Theory U, and it is quite a moving process for most people. There is an inner space of aspiration that is barely attended to by today's institutions. And this is the space we operate in.

How does the method work in different cultures?

OS: I see a universality of the deeper leadership issues of today. I am not saying they are all the same. But the dynamics are. When you deal with disruption you need to go through an opening process: open heart, open mind, open will. You need to deepen the conversation and reflect on questions like: How do you shift the geometry of power within an organization? From top-down to co-creation, from hierarchy to shared awareness. These patterns are the same across civilizations. They have to do with today's complexity and they show up in different forms.

[tweet:How do you shift the geometry of power within an organization?]

How does one exactly "lean into the unknown"? This might be a scary place.

OS: Basically, leaning into the unknown is what you learn as a scientist. You let the data talk to you, and whether it is in sync or in variation of your hypothesis, it is equally interesting. You train yourself to pay attention to those pieces of data that are disconfirming what you expected to see. Because this is where it gets interesting. This is the potential source of innovation for tomorrow. So, leaning into the unknown is a bias that you develop that makes you lean into the stuff you don't know while the normal habit gravitates us into the balance of what we know. Ultimately, it helps us to move out of our own bubble.

Can everyone do this?

OS: Of course! Starting with yourself is very important. You create a supporting structure for yourself. You establish spaces of stillness, where deep reflection is possible.


OS: You need to dedicate certain moments of the day to connect with what is most essential to you. This can be a meditation, but you can also engage in deep dialogue with someone else.

What about people who are not so much into talking but prefer a more hands-on approach?

OS: My advice is to make sure you have at least one or two things in your job where you do what you love and you love what you do. Everybody has some control about these things, no matter if you are forced to do other things that might be less interesting. So, if we do this, we can connect with a greater energy within ourselves. And that energy will have more positive impact in other fields.



This article is presented in collaboration with TwentyThirty

TwentyThirty is an online magazine presented by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. It sheds light on the social, political, and environmental challenges we face and features inspiring Responsible Leaders who are working to solve them. Follow their work on Facebook.