look differently, see more; listen differently, hear more
Theory U, Leading from the Future as it Emerges – Otto Scharmer (2009)

The text below gives an impression of Theory U. It is not meant to be exhaustive, but to give a first taste of Scharmer’s ideas on leadership, dialogue and listening. Mainly, the first part of Theory U will be discussed.

Otto Scharmer

Otto Scharmer is a leading researcher in the area of change processes in organisations. He is German from origin, but has lived in the United States for years, where he is a senior lecturer at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Together with people such as Peter Senge and Joseph Jaworski, he belongs to the forerunner, in the area of learning organisations and learning societies.
This book succeeds Presencing, which was published some years ago, and provides greater depth. The word presencing is an amalgamation of “presence” and “sensing”. In Theory U, Scharmer introduces the theory and practice of the U-process, based on this Presencing.

It is a book about leadership, but also, albeit less explicitly, about the fruitful and productive results of diversity. About working together and enrichment: at the level of actual points of view (upper flow), at the level of mutual personal understanding, and working together by making contact with the future together (undertow).

Why do many of our attempts to deal with the challenges of today fail? Why do we get often stuck in “more of the same”? Scharmer asks these questions at the start of the book. The reason for us failing collectively is that we are blind to deeper dimensions of leadership and transformative changes.
We understand a lot about what leaders do, but to a lesser extent about how they do it. But we understand even less about the inner self, the source based on which we operate. Within organizations changes often take place at the level of structure and processes, and to a lesser extent at the level of thinking.
his source, based on which the leader operates, is a mystery to us. However, we do understand a little about what is going through the minds of sportsmen (and women), and this understanding has been converted into practice to improve the sports performances from the inner self of the sportsman. Sportsmen are also often aware of this inner source. Often when they have delivered a top performance, they speak about a team effort that reached further than just executing the moves or the tactics of the sport. This is what many sportsmen people refer to as the “zone” or “flow”. The elements that are named are the slowing down of time, greater space, a panoramic perception, everything seems to flow and boundaries between the players appear to dissolve (even with competitors). And everything seems to require less effort (“it all just happened without thinking”). The same knowledge and awareness can be noticed in the arts. Bands or orchestras know the feeling of being at one.
Whereas top athletes work together with researchers to reach the “zone”, business leaders do not have these knowledge and skills, let alone that they are aware of this source.
Theory U addresses this blind spot. However, it is not a model that you can follow step by step, but provides an insight into how development processes may proceed. The U is theory on a living field – not a linear mechanic process. It is a continuing movement, “dancing” between the various elements.
Leadership and Listening
According to Scharmer, the essence of leadership lays in “the capability to initiate change in the inner spot from which we function as a person and as a group. Successful leadership depends on the quality of attention and intention that the leader applies to different situations. But how do you do that: attention and intention?
Scharmer is born and bred in Germany and his father used to be a farmer. In his book, Scharmer often refers to what for him was a formative and educative period. One of the first things to learn from his father was that a field or acre of land is a complex living system.
“The ‘living soil’ of those (social) fields is literally the ground condition which determines what will be visible for the eye at a later stage. And just like every other good farmer focuses his attention on maintaining and improving the quality of the ploughed land, each good social leader – regardless of the sector in society it involves – will focus on maintaining and improving the social field – “the farm” in which each responsible leader works day in day out.” (p.38)
Scharmer argues that his perception of social fields (ploughed land) commences at that point:
“Each ploughed field, he explained to me, has two elements: the visible result (that which we can observe on the surface) and the invisible result (that which is underneath the surface). The quality of the harvest – the visible result – depends on the quality of the soil, on those elements of the land that are normally not visible to the eye.” (Note his analogy: upper flow and undertow)
To book good results, you will first need good soil: a socially fertile field. This field has a visible (upper flow) element, i.e. what we do, say and see. But there is also the source from which it all originates (undertow). This is the inner condition from which we operate. Especially this invisible source is the most determining element of effective leadership “for a future that is fundamentally different from the past”. This blind spot that we know so little about is the field that directs our attention and intention.
As argued above, we understand what managers and leaders want to harvest and how they do it, but the source remains somewhat secretive. To connect with the visible and invisible living soil – as you wish – the organizational structure and culture, you should start listening. In order to analyse the definition of listening even further, Scharmer distinguishes four levels of position (in respect of listening). Especially because an effective leader should be capable to observe and listen to himself/herself, employees and the organisation in various ways.
Listening always comprises a relationship between an observer (listener) and the observed (sender). The subject and object. As an observer you can take different positions or listen to different assumptions. The difference in position, also leads to a difference in the quality of the outcome. And in those four types, each time it is up to you what position you choose.

This is where Theory U starts. Theory U deals with development processes. The reason for a new development is often that a problem or important question arises. These have the potential to kick start new insights. The way in which we pay attention to this, is determined by the quality of our position.

1. Downloading

“Yes, I knew that already”. In this type of listening, you will only hear the elements that fit in your reference framework. It is meant to confirm your personal perception. We are often inclined to answer or to find a solution as quickly as possible. This ‘jumping to conclusions / solutions’ may work on some occasions, but often results in a temporary solution. It confirms the system in which you operate, and perhaps also influences structure and process, but not the thought process. By more of the same, no real change is realized, but has the system been tweaked in order to function again soon. In this respect, it is about reacting, executing and achieving results. In order to instigate a real development, you should look at one layer deeper.

2. Really listening / Open Mind

“Hey, look at this”. This type of listening is object-focused or fact-focused. By postponing your judgment and opening your mind, you focus on what is different from what you already know. You test what you already know against the new information, and consider whether you will adjust your view accordingly. You ask questions and observe the data. It is a starting point for practicing science. There still is a certain distance between subject and object, between listener and sender. The approach takes place at the level of the ratio, the mind. Another name for this type of conversation is debate.

3. Listening empathically / Open Heart

“O yes, I know how you feel”. By opening your heart in addition to opening your mind, you will go again one layer deeper. By starting a real dialogue (1), we will leave the world of the visible field (upper flow). We leave the facts, figures and things, but get involved with a living being. With our capacity for empathy, we try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We try to feel what someone wants to tell us in a direct way without immediately analysing it. Still, there is a certain distance, however, this time the approach is greater at the level of the mind and the emotion, the heart. This form of conversation is the dialogue.

4. Listening generatively / Presencing / Open Will

“I cannot find the words for what I feel. My whole being seems to relax. I feel more present, more my true me – in contact with something that is greater than I am.” At first instance, this sounds a little vague, but this is exactly who sportsmen feel when they are in the “zone”. It is also the source of much creativity. There are only a few artists who will shape their work rationally. Sculptors often say, for example: The sculpture was already captured in the stone. I only had to release it.

Presencing or Listening generatively is the fourth level of listening. At this level, you do not only open up your mind and heart, but also your will. We no longer look for something outside ourselves (debate), and neither do we identify ourselves with someone else.  We should let go ourselves. It is this listening generatively that gives us a different experience from another state of awareness which is not easy to put in words. Here, the most drastic events happen. At the end of such a conversation, you no longer feel the same. The approach is no longer about subject and object, but about the mutual merger of subject and object into the future that has unfolded. Back to the farmer: we had the ploughed land with the visible and invisible elements. In this fourth type of listening, we make contact with the soil as a seed opening and showing its first leaves. There is no ratio, no emotion, but foremost a power that opens up to the world. This type is referred to as presencing.

The four levels of conversation with their characteristics:

1. Downloading: talking nicely, politely, cautiously, not saying what you really think, projecting whilst listening, confirming rules and norms.
2. Debate: talking in a confrontational way, I am my point of view, listening from the outside, the other = counterpart, disputing rule.
3. Dialogue: Research, reflection, you may change opinion/insight, listening from the inside (listening empathically), the other = you, considering yourself as part of the whole.
4. Presencing: Generative ‘flow’, collective creativity, inner calm, listening from emerging future, the other = authentic self, highest future self, rule-generating.
The essence is here that you will hear and see more if you are able to switch between the various levels of conversation. But also that you can enrich yourself by treating yourself, employees and organisation in the same way.
By being aware of the quality of your attention in conversations and observations, you can go deeper into the U, to where the change and creativity originate that you have to deal with in successful leadership: maintaining and improving the social field (the ploughed land) will lead to (sustainable) results.

What stands in the way

Scharmer draws a nice picture of what you should do to hear and see better. By opening yourself up for the reality, you can approach it differently as you will receive other facts, pictures, feelings and experiences. It will enrich your view on reality and with that your repertoire to take action.  But what stands in our way? What keeps us from opening up or listening to reality in a different way?
Scharmer distinguishes three barriers (2) which incite us to judgments, cynicism and fear:
1. Voice of Judgment (VOJ): this offers resistance to the open mind in Theory U. These voices consist of the old and restrictive patterns of judgments and thinking. This is the first barrier which should be overcome if we want to reach the deeper levels of the U.  
2. Voice of Cynicism (VOC): Emotions that hinder connection and commitment, such as cynicism, arrogance and insensitivity which prevent us from diving deeper into the U. Causes resistance to an open heart.
3. Voice of Fear (VOF): Fear of letting go of old trusted self and familiar world, fear of progress and fear of surrendering to the ‘empty space’. Refers to the open will.
It is therefore up to you to jump over these barriers and to enrich yourself with a different view on reality, and to apply this experience subsequently to yourself, the organisation and society as a whole. The result is a completer person that integrates the intelligence not only from the head, but also from the heart and hands. A leader who is aware of and connected with his/her source and that of the organisation, enabling him/her to approach results and processes in a different way.
(1) Slide: door. Logos: reason, word language
(2) Scharmer developed these barriers together with Michael Ray, creativity lecturer at the Stanford Business School.