Organizational Psychology, Performance Psychology, Psychology

Theory U : Listening to the Leader within You

There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.


Leaders are change makers. They bring into reality the future they envision for themselves and society and transform the world. However, to change the world, they first must shift the inner place from where they operate. Bill O’Brien, who’d served as CEO of Hanover Insurance, once said:

“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor”

Bill O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance

There is a blind spot in leadership theory, in the social sciences as well as in our everyday social experience. This blind spot concerns the inner place from which an action—what we do—originates. In the process of conducting our daily business and social lives, we are usually well aware of what we do and what others do; we also have some understanding of the process: how we do things, the processes we and others use when we act. And yet there is a blind spot. If we were to ask the question, “Where does our action come from?” most of us would be unable to provide an answer. The blind spot concerns the (inner) source from which we operate when we do what we do—the quality of attention that we use to relate to and bring forth the world.

In the book Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges, Otto Scharmer explains how we can become better leaders by tapping into our deep sources of curiosity, compassion, and courage. This deeper state of leadership potential is achieved when we can suspend the voice of judgment, cynicism, and fear, opening up to the future that emerges in front of us. Otto calls this state “Presencing” which is a blended word combining “sensing” (feeling the future possibility) and “presence” (the state of being in the present moment).

Often, we see the world through the lenses of our past experiences, that is, we just hear and see facts that reinforce our existing beliefs (Voice of Judgement). Even when we look at external circumstances, we often act as if those things don’t apply to our current situation or we are unable to see how something that initially seems wrong to us might be right in someone else’s reality (Voice of Cynicism). Lastly, even if we can see the need for change, we feel afraid to let go of familiar behaviour and move forward (Voice of Fear).
The figure below shows the four levels of attention to reality and how we can get more in-depth on such levels moving from within the borders of our ego to the whole (eco).

Becoming a Great leader
Adapted from Scharmer, C. O. (2009)

The journey through the U develops Seven Essential Leadership Capacities

  1. Holding the space of listening – Listening to others. Listening to oneself. And listening to what emerges from the collective. 
  2. Observing – The capacity to suspend the “voice of judgment”
  3. Sensing – While an open heart allows us to see a situation from the current whole, the open will enables us to begin to sense from the whole that is wanting to emerge.
  4. Presencing – The capacity to connect to the deepest sources of self
  5. Crystallising – When a small group of change makers commit to a shared purpose, the power of their intention creates an energy field 
  6. Prototyping – integration of thinking, feeling, and will in the context of practical applications and learning by doing
  7. Co-evolving – Organizations need to convene the right sets of players in order to help them to co-sensing and co-create at the scale of the whole.

Achieving such deep state of attention to the world that emerges around us might be difficult. However here are a few simple questions that you can ask yourself before difficult or challenging moments that will help you get to the state of Presencing:

1) What results do I want to create? Am I acting within my comfort zone?
2) Am I aware of other possibilities beyond my initial thoughts? Have I let go of control?
3) How other people in this situation feel and think? Am I considering the common good?
4) What would I do in this case if I had more courage than I have now? Am I moving forward regardless of the consequences?

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