Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges

I once asked one of the most successful leaders of the telecom industry what she considered to be the essence of her leadership work. She responded, “I am facilitating the opening process so my team can sense and seize emerging opportunities as they arise from the fast paced business environment we are operating in.

Isn’t there a way to break the patterns of the past and tune into our highest future possibility—and to begin to operate from that place?

I still remember a meeting in the early 1980s with a small group of younger high-level leaders of the East German system. They talked and drank the whole evening. And the longer they talked, the more evident it became how rotten the whole system was. At the end I confronted them with what they had said and asked why none of them was doing anything serious to address the real issues. At that moment the entire group fell silent. After a while one of them said what everybody else was thinking: ‘We are not going to sacrifice ourselves for this. It’s not worth it. We just want to get on with our lives. We aren’t martyrs.’” Heidemarie paused and then continued, “It was at that moment that I realized that the whole East German system was on autopilot heading toward collapse.

Leadership in its essence is the capacity to shift the inner place from which we operate. Once they understand how, leaders can build the capacity of their systems to operate differently and to release themselves from the exterior determination of the outer circle. As long as we are mired in the viewpoint of the outer two circles, we are trapped in a victim mind-set (“the system is doing something to me”). As soon as we shift to the viewpoint of the inner two circles, we see how we can make a difference and how we can shape the future differently. Facilitating the movement from one (victim) mind-set to another (we can shape our future) is what leaders get paid for.

Leadership is about being better able to listen to the whole than anyone else can.

Most cross-institutional change processes fail because they miss the starting point: co-sensing across boundaries. We need infrastructures to facilitate this process on a sustained level across systems. And because they don’t yet exist, organized interest groups go out and maximize their special interests against the whole, instead of engaging practitioners in the larger system in a process of sensing and innovating together. As

Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Our blind spot, from a person or people point of view, keeps us from seeing that we do indeed have greatly enhanced direct access to the deeper sources of creativity and commitment, both as individuals and as communities. It is one of our most hopeful sources of confidence because we can access a deeper presence, power, and purpose from within. From a structural point of view, the societal blind spot deals with the lack of these cross-sector action groups that intentionally operate from a future that wants to emerge. Instead, we see only special interest groups and three types of fundamentalism, each trying to solve our current mess in a single-minded way.

Particularly in situations of massive direct, structural, and cultural violence that has been inflicted on certain communities over several centuries (and there are plenty of these places across the continents), going down the U involves a kind of healing of massive wounds that have been inflicted on the collective body. (A good example is the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.) That healing of the collective social body will be one of the central activities of such a process. It’s not just a sidelight of project work. It’s the real thing. And everything else is the context for the healing to take place.

Rudolf Steiner, whose synthesis of science, consciousness, and social innovation continues to inspire my work and whose methodological grounding in

The crisis of our time isn’t just a crisis of a single leader, organization, country, or conflict. The crisis of our time reveals the dying of an old social structure and way of thinking, an old way of institutionalizing and enacting collective social forms.

The crisis of our time isn’t just a crisis of a single leader, organization, country, or conflict. The crisis of our time reveals the dying of an old social structure and way of thinking, an old way of institutionalizing and enacting collective social forms. Frontline

Time and again we try to cope with situations using collective instruments that are out of tune. Rather than stopping to tune them, we increase the pace, hire consultants who want to increase productivity by further reducing the time devoted to tuning and practicing, hire new conductors who promise to conduct even faster, and so forth. But the obvious thing to do—to stop and tune the instruments collectively—doesn’t come easily because it requires a shift of the mind to a deeper level of operating.

Two predominant strategies characterize reactions to the unfolding environmental and social breakdowns evident in climate change, political paralysis and corruption, spreading poverty, and the failures of mainstream institutions of education, health care, government, and business: “muddling through” and “fighting back.” Muddling through is the strategy that characterizes most of us in the rich northern countries. It embraces a combination of working to preserve the status quo combined with an almost hypnotic fascination with wondrous new technologies that, so the belief goes, will solve our problems. Fighting back, as is evident in the vocal protests of millions of people around the world opposed to the “Washington consensus” view of globalization, combines a longing for an earlier social and moral order with anger at having lost control over our future.

We saw that four different voices respond to this crisis by suggesting differing pathways forward: the first three are the retro-voices, which suggest returning to the global field structure of Field 1 (autocratic and state-driven: regulation, law and order), Field 2 (market-driven: deregulation), or Field 3 (stakeholder negotiation-driven: dialogue), respectively. The fourth voice, however, suggests that there is no way back. Retreat is impossible because circumstances have changed. This is why we need to go forward to the next evolutionary stage of the global economy (ecosystem-driven: seeing and acting from the emerging whole).

You cannot understand a system unless you change it.