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Leading from the Emerging Future

Authors: Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer

Reviewed by: David Towell

Writing this review at the start of the New Year, I am seeing adverts for a film biography of Stephen Hawking, A Theory of Everything – where ‘everything’ refers to the physical world. This book is almost as ambitious in the social sphere: it seeks to offer a detailed account of contemporary global challenges and articulate an approach, ‘Theory U' (on which there is more below), through which we might address these challenges so as to achieve the transformation to a sustainable and socially just future. A bold and pressing agenda indeed!

It’s not an easy read. First, the authors draw on scholarship from a diverse range of fields. They write from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and build on the ‘systems thinking’ of their colleague, Peter Senge. (Indeed Senge’s 2008 book The Necessary Revolution: How individuals and organisations are working together to create a sustainable world anticipates key parts of their argument.) They also make considerable use of ideas in oriental philosophies (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism): Theory U owes a lot to Confucius’s Great Learning essay. And their large scale change strategy is informed by an understanding of social movements, especially in the tradition of Gandhi i.e. which start from the self. Partly as a consequence of these oriental influences, they sometimes use language which is both theoretical and metaphysical, as in the repeated idea that there is a better future that wants to emerge.

Second the text is densely analytical. The longest chapter, on transforming thought, runs to 73 pages and develops a matrix of economic evolution distinguishing five major phases (expressed as 0.0 through to the emerging 4.0) across eight dimensions of activity, and at the 4.0 level in each dimension offers four propositions for achieving radical change. A subsequent matrix introduces four levels of aggregation (from the individual to the global) at which to develop new kinds of social awareness. All the boxes in these complex matrices are given at least some attention.

For both these reasons, this short review is necessarily selective and mostly I have tried to avoid the new jargon, doubtless losing some of the metaphysical connotations.

Scharmer and Kaufer begin with a radical diagnosis which identifies three major ‘disconnections’ as fundamental to our current ills: an ecological disconnect in which our economies seek to use more resources than we have; a social disconnect in which a small elite (the 1%) dominate the rest of us and leave much of the world in poverty; and a spiritual disconnect in which many of us experience loss of meaning in our lives and work. These disconnections underpin many other symptoms of global decline represented, for example in the pursuit of GDP growth without attention to either ecological limits or personal well-being, technological development without reference to people’s needs and governance arrangements which protect the powerful at the expense of the rest.

The long analytical chapter looks at eight aspects of these challenges (relating to nature, labour, capital, technology etc.) in the context of the evolution of economic thought. It seeks to describe and illustrate a next stage in this thinking (4.0) in which we move from ‘ego system’ (essentially fragmented and selfish) awareness to ‘eco system’ awareness i.e. in which we reconnect the economy with nature, re-link our work to our sense of purpose and seek to serve the real needs of our communities, so as to create well-being for all. (Of course, there are other pressing issues – armed conflict, religious intolerance, racism etc. – not addressed here.)

How can this fundamental transformation be achieved? The book has a second sub-title Applying Theory U to transforming business, society and self. ‘Theory U’, also developed by Scharmer, is an original approach to understanding how as individuals and networks we can achieve personal and societal change. In essence the ‘U’ refers to the shape of a process for unlearning past assumptions and inventing the new. It requires us to go on a journey together where we look inside ourselves to find our best values, our noblest intentions and look outside ourselves to see that something better is possible. We need to create the opportunities together to observe what is currently happening and listen deeply to other people’s experiences, take time to share and make sense of these observations, support each other in considering what might be better and try out some new ideas and visions on which to build. Thus the ‘U’ process starts at the top of one side of the U and encourages us to put aside past prejudices and approach things with an open mind, open our hearts to other people’s experiences and look to the ‘emerging future’ to find new possibilities. (Scharmer calls this last process ‘presencing’.) Coming up the other side of the U, the process encourages us to take some action which tries out our fresh thinking and continue the process of learning together as we make bigger changes.

The second half of the book explores and illustrates how these Theory U practices can assist transformation at the level of individuals and relationships, institutions and more globally. At the individual level, mindfulness practices are increasingly recognized as a route to compassion in care and indeed self-compassion (sensibly looking after ourselves). In networks with some shared intent (like the New Paths to Inclusion Network), large group events offer a vehicle for leaders to come together to renew their understanding, innovate and share in creating a different future. At the institutional level in different sectors (government, business, education, civil society associations), similar processes provide a means for bringing relevant stakeholders together to build new ways of working which demonstrate eco-system awareness - as we see in examples as different as the participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Triodos Bank, and the World Wildlife Fund. There are seeds here for growing a better future.

In summary, I think we can draw at least seven main lessons from this important book:

  1. We all need to find opportunities to open our eyes to the extent of the disjunction between our values and everyday experience.
  2. We also need opportunities to create together new ways of thinking and acting in the world which replace dysfunctional and disjointed economic and social processes with a new eco-system awareness, understanding the whole as inter-related elements in everyone’s well-being.
  3. We can express the goals in this new vision in terms of three harmonies: living in harmony with our best selves, other people and our environment.
  4. Real change towards this vision must start from each of us and the inner selves from which we engage with others.
  5. Theory U and its associated practices, which foster this self-reflection and an orientation to future opportunities, offer valuable new tools for co-producing a better future.
  6. Change on a large scale through these methods requires us to create spaces for engaging all relevant stakeholders in an eco-system and working across organisational and other boundaries to bring new possibilities into being.
  7. All this points to the need to invest in a new kind of widely dispersed leadership, in which people learn to listen deeply and act from their highest purposes, so as to encourage and facilitate this co-production.

Scharmer and Kaufer write with optimism about what is already being achieved down this path. However we would be wise to expect that ‘the 1%’ will not give up their damaging ways easily. Perhaps the next iteration of this work will give more emphasis to the conflicts inherent in radical change and the nature of the struggles to come if the authors’ utopian 4.0 universe is to be further realised.


The publisher is Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Leading From The Emerging Future: From ego-system to eco-system economies © Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer 2013.

Review: Leading from the Emerging Future © David Towell 2015.

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