June 2011


Uncovering the Blind Spot of Leadership


by C. Otto Scharmer (Leader to Leader, Winter 2008 pp. 52-59)


What are the big take-aways?


You can Google this article by the title to find it online. Scharmer’s central argument is that how leaders listen – and how their organizations pay attention – affects leadership effectiveness. Scharmer writes (p. 52):


Why do our attempts to deal with the challenges of our time so often fail? The cause of our collective failure is that we are blind to the deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change. This “blind spot” exists not only in our collective leadership but also in our everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source dimension from which effective leadership and social action come into being. We know a great deal about what leaders do and how they do it. But we know very little about the inner place, the source from which they operate. [Author’s emphases.]


Scharmer posits four attention fields of progressing complexity, and suggests that to be able to move to the fields best adapted to emerging 21st-century challenges requires a journey or process through four movements toward “operating from the highest future possibility that is wanting to emerge” (p. 55).


The author describes the need for “a new social technology” (p. 56). Seven leadership capacities that Scharmer identifies as essential for a core group to cultivate in order to lead with the new social technology are: (1) Holding the Space: Listen to What Life Calls You to Do; (2) Observing: Attend with Your Mind Wide Open; (3) Sensing: Connect with Your Heart; (4) Presencing: Connect to the Deepest Source of Your Self and Will; (5) Crystallizing: Access the Power of Intention; (6) Prototyping: Integrating Head, Heart and Hand; and (7) Performing: Playing the Macro Violin. He also calls this the “U Theory” because of how he diagrams the seven capacities.


Why did I like it?


I am attracted to leadership theories that call for authentic journeys of personal and professional development, which this is. Any theory that – at its heart – promotes self-observation, deep listening, and suspension of judgment makes sense to me as both a leader and as a coach. I also appreciate the roles of love, of connection to something within – and yet larger and deeper than – self, and of mindful action in this theory. I agree with the author that these are key competencies for successful change leadership as we create and respond to the new needs, innovations and challenges of this century.


Scharmer’s “Theory U” reminds me of two other theories which I respect and enjoy working with: transformative learning (e.g., Jack Mezirow) and adaptive leadership (e.g. Ronald Heifetz, whose modern classic Leadership Without Easy Answers – published by Harvard University Press in 1998 – I will review in the Leadership Library soon). Scharmer seems to unify them and take them to the next level (in synergy, and in future possibility).


In what situations would this be useful?


This theory will engage and validate the experiences of change leaders who are open to being – and willing to be – transformed in the transformations they are leading.


It is probably best suited to leaders who are already “presensing” (Scharmer’s combination of “presence and sensing”) to some degree, and who are looking for a theoretical and practical grounding or vocabulary to further what they and their teams are naturally doing. In my opinion, it would be an extremely frustrating theory for a leader or a team to grapple with if they are not ready to operate – to an extent – at this level, at least not without significant support and guidance.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


If you’re intrigued by the article and want a much fuller discussion, buy the book Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges - The Social Technology of Presencing (Berrett-Koehler, 2009).


For a pragmatic example of a similar kind of “leadership from the inside-out” theory using a fusion of transformative learning theory and adaptive leadership (as I mentioned above), I recommend this article by Shelley Chapman and Linda Randall: “Adaptive Leadership and Transformative Learning: A Case Study of Leading by Part-Time Faculty” in John F. Wergin’s Leadership in Place: How Academic Professionals Can Find Their Leadership Voice (Anker Publishing, 2007, pp. 51-75). gest Scott Eblin’s The Next Level which I reviewed last month.


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