Disruption is not just a buzzword for Otto Scharmer, professor at MIT and co-author of the book Leading from the Emerging Future (Lead from the emerging future). We live in an era of profound changes in habits of thought, action, and relationship with others; an era in which the future will no longer be like the past, he says.
The effects of this disruptive dynamics on leadership led him to develop his “Theory U”, an approach to managing change that uses introspection and self-knowledge as means to develop and adopt new ideas and methods for organizational change.
“If you lead in times of disruption, you have to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable; You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror of your organization or your society, even when what you see is not what you want to see. Leaders’ job is to perceive and shape the future, and they will only be able to do it if they are in contact with reality, “he said in the exclusive interview with the Economic, prior to his participation in the 56th IDEA Colloquium, in the panel “Leading for sustainability”.
How do you lead in the age of disruption?
An era of disruption means that a lot of things happen outside of our control, which poses a challenge. In reality, the future is a function of how you respond to this challenge, how you respond to disruption. Why the essence of leadership is perceiving and understanding the future. The etymological root of the word leadership is to move forward, to take a step forward in the new territory. That is why you need courage, but it also requires the ability to perceive, to feel the future possibilities that are emerging and to take practical steps to make them happen.
In relation to this type of leadership you developed the “Theory U”, is it a theory or a method? What does it consist of?
It is both. Mainly, it is an approach to change, based on awareness (awareness). Approaches to working with change use the iceberg model: the roots of symptoms are below the surface. What you do as a leader: You don’t react to the symptoms, you understand the underlying issues and address them. Theory U adds a deeper level to these roots or underlying issues: it is not only about structures and paradigms of thought, but we use a third dimension that has to do with sources: the sources of creativity, of our productive energy, the sources of who we are as leaders, of our identity.
Theory U makes visible this deeper dimension of change, which leaders always deal with, but rarely pay attention to. For example, after the merger of two companies, at the structural level, legally, a single company arises and people find themselves within a single framework. But at deeper levels a kind of competition still operates, such that the old networks of the two entities remain the same. To move beyond that, as a community, you need to go through a process of “letting go” and “letting come.” Let go of the old identities (“I was company A, you were company B”), so that a new identity appears which is “together now we are company C”. This process of letting go of the old and letting the new come it is the deepest level of the U process, which we try to navigate. From leadership, it is necessary to work on two personal dimensions: how I show myself and the attention, the quality of presence, the quality of listening that I bring to a situation.
In a recent article, you argued that the coronavirus puts a mirror in front of us. Why?
At first, in the United States and Europe, people thought that the coronavirus was a great equalizer: everyone, rich and poor, can become infected. Today we know that this is not true. The coronavirus has not been a great equalizer, but an amplifier and a mirror. The mirror is making visible something that was already there. And the amplifier means that the world that was uneven before, is now more so. For example, here in the United States, poor people are much more victims of the coronavirus than rich people. In reality, we have seen that countries with high levels of inequality, on average, have been less successful in tackling the pandemic. When you look at the countries that have been most successful in driving the coronavirus crisis, they have less inequality in their societies and better public health systems. And that allows them to be more effective in their responses, and, consequently, suffer less. We see this in East Asian countries and also in Europe, particularly in countries like Germany and Northern Europe.
Does this crisis have any consequences in terms of leadership?
What we should learn from the coronavirus crisis is that, as a leader, you need to look into that mirror. If this crisis is the mirror, it is showing some of the problems that we knew before, but in which we persisted. And now is maybe time to do something about them. That first. As a leader, it is necessary to look at that mirror, even when we see it we do not like it.
If we look closely at leadership failures in business the root of the problem is almost always the same: leaders disconnected from reality they are facing. And that translates to leaders who are not listening and not addressing the issues that make them feel uncomfortable. So lesson number one is: if you are a leader, you will lead in times of disruption and You have to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror of your organization or your society. The job of leaders is to perceive and shape the future. And it is only possible to do so if you are in contact with reality.
The second lesson is that you have to connect not only with current reality, but also with emerging future possibilities. Not being attached to the past, which would make you irrelevant, in a way. And this translates to leaders need to go to the limits of the system. If they stay at their headquarters, in their offices or in their executive suites, basically people tell them what they want to hear. To see what’s new, you need to push the boundaries, get out of your own place, see how other industries are tackling the problem, connect not only with current customers but with new emerging waves of customers for a product, and you need to talk to people. that is close to developments. They can be technological developments or social developments, which are relevant to the business because they can break into it or it is already doing so. You have to get closer to the frontiers of the system, where the future that could happen tomorrow is already visible in some form early today.
Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for intersectoral innovation and introduced the concept of “presencing”, a combination of the terms “presence” and “sensing” that refers to the possibility of “learning from the emerging future”.
He is the author of Theory U and co-author of Presence and of Leading from the Emerging Future, in which “eight acupuncture points to transform capitalism” are outlined. His most recent book, The Essentials of Theory U, summarizes the basic principles and applications of this awareness-based approach to change management.
Scharmer has a PhD in Economics from the University of Witten / Herdecke, Germany. He received the Jamieson Award for Excellence in Teaching at MIT and the European Leonardo Award for Corporate Learning.
On October 14, he will give the lecture “Leading for sustainability” at the 56th IDEA Colloquium.