Leading from the Emerging Future

"The blind spot in the twentieth-century toolkit of economics and management can be summarized in a single word: consciousness."

- Leading from the Emerging Future, page 67

This is a book that tackles the profound disruptions that we are facing in the early part of the 21st century as a result of the collusion of forces that are calling our very survival on the planet into question. Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer suggest that the ways we think about economy, finance, labor and organizations need to shift at the core.

This is not an easy book—though it is readable. The size and scope of the ideas can leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed at times. However, Scharmer and Kaufer’s work is enormously important. And, because it begins with the personal, it is also practical. The shifts that will drive the kinds of changes the world needs begin with shifts that we make in ourselves.

Leading from the Emerging Future is grounded in a theory that Scharmer and his colleagues articulated some years ago—Theory U. In this book the authors tell stories that show Theory U in action and demonstrate how Scharmer’s ideas are already being applied to create a more hopeful future in collectives, companies, NGOs and even governments.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Embracing 4.0

"If we want to upgrade our global economic operating system, we need to start by updating the thinking that underlies it; we need to update the essence of economic logic and thought."
- Leading from the Emerging Future, page 11

At the core of this book is the Matrix of Economic Evolution—a way of thinking about how society and economy have evolved and must continue to evolve. The authors cite four stages of evolution—each of which is a response to a particular challenge at a particular time. The first three are familiar to us—and they are responses to challenges we have faced in the past. The fourth stage is posited as both possible and necessary for addressing the challenges we now face—and challenge our thinking about economic and societal truths.

Stage 1.0 evolved in repose to the need for stability. Economies were state-driven, hierarchical and coercive. Stage 1.0 is rooted in a “traditional” awareness.

Stage 2.0 evolved in response to the challenge of growth. It saw the emergence of free market economies based on competition, and economic reward. This is what the authors identify as “ego-system” awareness. It is still very much alive today.

Stage 3.0 is a response to some of the negative dimensions of 2.0—especially around how Stage 2.0 treats people and the environment. 3.0 is evident in labor rights and social security, for example. Civil society, NGOs, and government regulation of free markets are 3.0 phenomena. At the core of a 3.0 economies are shared values.

Stage 4.0 which is the “emerging future” of the title, is a response to the global disruption that none of the prior stages can address. Climate change, resource scarcity, demographic shifts and the gap between rich and poor are all examples of the disruptions that require a new kind of thinking, acting and operating.

Individuals, groups and organization need to work across boundaries to co-create new ways of operating based on an awareness of the whole, and the responsibility that we have to that whole. This shift is the move from what the authors call “ego-system” to “eco-system.” At the core of the shift is a shift from “me” thinking—focused on the wellbeing of the self to “we” thinking—the wellbeing of the whole.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Letting Go, Letting Come

"The inner shift, from fighting the old to sensing and presencing an emerging future possibility, is at the core of all deep leadership work today. It’s a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart."
- Leading from the Emerging Future, page 1

Theory U is, in its essence, a visioning process that begins with seeing clearly and with “new eyes,” sensing what is happening in the larger system, and determining what can be let go. The U is the shape drawn to depict the process, with the left side of the U being about observation, the bottom about reflection and emergence and the right side of the U about prototyping and action—connected to a deep sense of purpose.

While this sounds very big (and it is!) it is, you can begin to think about what it would take to shift from knowing to not knowing, from controlling to letting emerge—to using our hearts and minds, not only minds. It is this shift that will allow us to go through the “U” and can lead us to the 4.0 economy and society that the authors view as essential to our very survival.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Listen Like You’ve Never Listened Before

"The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener."
- Leading from the Emerging Future, page 18

The most powerful and most actionable dimension of Scharmer and Kaufer’s work is the emphasis on the possibility created when an individual or small group shift their way of being. The best single way to do that is to develop the capacity to listen deeply. The listening model presented that proposes four levels of listening (that line up nicely with Stages 1.0 to 4.0 and are used throughout the U process) can be a reference point as we think about how we listen.

Level 1 listening is “downloading”—it’s the listening in which we hear what we expect to hear, without the possibility of really learning something new from the conversation. We project old judgments. Level 2 listening is factual—we look at the world around us and our primary tool is our rational minds. In level 2 we bring an open mind. Then, moving in to Level 3, we open our hearts. We adopt another person’s perspective, we begin to see things differently. We empathize. Level 4, however is when we bring an open will—we listen at the deepest levels to see what might emerge—we step beyond our preconceived notions. Developing the capacity to listen at the third and then the fourth level is one thing we can do to be better prepared to hear and observe the complexity we’re surrounded with.

This is a big book in its scope. If you agree that we face challenges that are enormous and are looking for a new and inspiring lens from which to view those challenges, this is a book that I urge you to read. Theory U and the Matrix of Economic Evolution are big ideas. You can also explore Otto Scharmer’s website which is rich with resources, tools, articles and even a link to a free MOOC through MIT.

Once you’ve explored, come back and tell me what you thought.

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Ronni Hendel-Giller

ABOUT Ronni Hendel-Giller

Ronni Hendel-Giller has been passionate about leadership since she was a teenager. She's worked in non-profit and for-profit leadership positions—always with an eye to guiding others to realize their leadership potential...
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