Leadership, Transformation

Book Review: Leading from the Emerging Future

In Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer take us on a journey from our current age of disruption to finding individual and collective ways to lead from the future as it emerges. The journey flows along the curve of the “U”—the process of Theory U—a transformational process of observing, reflecting and acting. In this logical and deep exploration, the authors create an emerging framework for transforming institutions, society, relationships, and the self and outline a process we can use individually and collectively to get there.  They address some of the most complex systemic problems facing society and show how individuals and groups operating at a new level of thinking are transforming institutions and themselves, resulting in new and innovative solutions that could define the 21st century. 

At the core is a shift of the interior condition of the leader. That is a shift of perspective—connected to source, sensing the emerging future and letting go of fighting the old system. It’s about shifting the place from where we operate so there is increased awareness, a stronger sense of purpose, and an intuitive notion of what is emerging. Scharmer and Kaufer bring their 18 years of research, having analyzed and understood leaders with a deeper sense of knowing, and having worked with groups and system who successfully built systems, structures and strategies to address critical problems. A key to their success is a deep listening and an ability to help shift attention from downloading information toward presencing—or being truly present and sensing what is emerging, how to engage with it and how to create different results. Another critical component is the way their model includes all stakeholder groups and integrates across multiple sectors—engaging the whole system with an intention to serve the highest good of all. 

Before laying out a roadmap for us as change makers and innovators to co-create a new future, the book looks at the situation in the world today. They ask, what problems and systems are on the surface and what structures, thinking and awareness levels are keeping us where we are?  Positing that we are living in an age of disruption, the book looks where things are falling apart, not working, and producing results that nobody wants. They note ecological, social and spiritual-cultural divides that exist in society and eight symptoms or warning signs that are red flags on the surface that represent structural disconnects—where today’s reality or ways of operating are no longer aligned with the needs of society. These are areas where the current system is disconnected from people and the planet.

The most visible of these systemic disconnects might be the financial bubble—a USD$1.5 quadrillion speculation bubble that decoupled the financial economy from the real economy, tested the limits to speculation and led to a worldwide financial crisis. There are similar disconnects in the areas of ecology, income and wealth, technology, leadership, consumerism, governance, and ownership. Common characteristics of these breaks in the system are that a special interest group has an overabundance of power and can rig the system to their advantage, and that money flows in the wrong direction. There is also a lack of knowledge of impact and the system is not set up to learn from its mistakes.  These disconnects are part of how we live today, organized around interest groups and negotiating solutions that have limited effectiveness. 

Scharmer and Kaufer show us how systems thinking and an increase in consciousness and awareness can shift us from a place of disruptive change that we’re in now toward a new way of operating our economies, organizations and households. Deep systemic shifts are needed in areas from nature to ownership to help us avert disaster and reconnect with the impact we’re having on people and the planet. Changes in the areas of our relationship with nature, work, capital, technology, leadership, consumption, collaboration and ownership can reduce the pressure and foster new systems. It’s through seeing from the whole and creating action-based collaboration that we’ll devise new solutions to the mess we’re in.

They use the metaphor ‘total football’ to show how highly-successful athletic teams teach players to think as a whole team and take small, individual actions that collectively result in the team accomplishing its strategy. When the system can see itself, its actions are much more effective and respond more quickly to what wants to emerge.  They give examples in other areas such as healthcare, where including the patient and the entire operating team in a check-in increases awareness and reduces errors; it allows the whole system to see itself and take collective action. 

Listening from a deeper level, increasing awareness of the whole system, and knowing the intention of a shift are all part of us connecting at the source level of what wants to be created.  This connection at a source level is essential for sensing into the emerging future and leading from that place. It existed in the successful models that Scharmer, Kaufer, Peter Senge and their colleagues from the Presencing Institute studied. It included the ability tolisten at many levels and to let go of expectations of specific outcomes. It is at once holding the knowledge of the current system and all of its messy impacts, and at the same time, being with all of that without judgment. Allowing it to be. Listening and reflecting. Waiting. Being in the silence. Letting go. 

In building the skill of leading from the emerging future, we take everything in and cross the threshold into the first glimpses of the new system. It is a self-reflective shift that allows the whole system to see itself and to act. To break through a crack in the old system and to allow something small to come into being—perhaps a prototype of the new? 

The book gives some solid ideas of ways we as individuals can build our own practice and become agents of the emerging future—how we can be our bigger Selves and do what’s needed to help bring in the emerging future. These twelve principles are derived from the Presencing Institute’s practice and research and are really keys to making it all work. They are about connecting with one’s intention, building and applying one’s deeper practice, creating space for support and deep listening, engaging in presencing at each stage of the process, and being open to change oneself.  

The authors and their colleagues worked from this place of personal openness to engage systems at a new level of relationship and conversation. They shared several experiences with organizations and complex multi-stakeholder systems where they went beyond dialogue and became partners in revolutionary change. It was the shift in relationship from simple dialogue to a more co-creative process of understanding the system together from diverse perspectives—and having the depth and quality of relationship that they could sense the emerging future together and then begin to co-create it in small steps with innovative prototypes. 

These relationships and projects were created from a place of inspiration of what is possible, yet there was also a spark of necessity or frustration in their creation. Their success was based on inspired connections and an ability to relate differently with many stakeholders. Success was also based on a hearty commitment that was unstoppable. They kept going; they learned from successes and failures of prototypes; they adapted and they moved forward. Together, these stakeholders from multiple sectors moved into a place of creative flow and deep relationship where they could collectively sense the emerging future and create new structures that allowed it to be born.

Scharmer and Kaufer share a plethora of examples in many sectors—government, health, education, business, NGOs and banking—where advanced Presencing practitioners have begun to create new forms of organization and seeds of new sectoral structures. These new institutions are led from a decentralized place, benefiting from globalization, information and communication technology, and a linking of collaborative relationships. 

These new institutions are a powerhouse to effectively address complex systemic change and create a revolution across sectors. They are characterized by openness, transparency and shared ownership. Their leadership is broadly based and even goes outside the boundaries of the organization. Their organizing principle is based on an intention and they have successfully developed a process for governance and for working effectively despite myriad challenges.  They have informed the Presencing Institute’s programs and learning environment.

The Presencing Institute continues to support the growth of these innovations, institutions, and individuals through the u.school, which engages in awareness-based action research, collective leadership capacity building, and a global forum of leading innovators and change makers from around the world. It includes the innovation lab, research partners, and capacity-building partners that are shifting the field of global social entrepreneurship across all sectors in a truly transformational way—based in mindfulness and awareness, deeper relationships, and new systems that all lead from the emerging future.

Leading from the Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies by Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013)