Interview with Otto Scharmer by Jonathan Løw
The following is one out of many interviews and articles from the GURUBOOK. In this interview, serial entrepreneur Jonathan Løw interviews Otto Scharmer.
Otto Scharmer (Germany) is a Senior Lecturer at MIT, a Thousand Talents Program Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute.
Scharmer chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation that helps leaders to innovative at the level of the whole system. He is the author of ‘Theory-U’, translated into 20 languages, and co-author of ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’.
Jonathan Løw: First and foremost, thank you for taking the time to talk to The GuruBook. As editor of the book, I’m naturally grateful. I would like to start by looking at one of The GuruBook’s main themes – authentic leadership. I have read that you believe leaders can train their ability to come closer to their authentic self. Can you explain that a little more closely?
Otto Scharmer: I believe that we, as human beings, are not one person, but two. We are the person, our present self, that we’ve become because of our journey through life – our past. In addition is our future self, which is the highest future potential that one can achieve as a human being.
The essence of authentic leadership in my view is to get these two parts of the self to listen to each other.
All of the great innovators and entrepreneurs that I’ve met are in a constant dialogue with the world and the universe. They are curious and seeking – that means they’re listening to both their present and their future selves.
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One good example of this is “Route 128” – a tech start-up mecca. If you go down Route 128, you will, of course, meet a striving after money, but money isn’t the aim of these companies – it’s just a result of what they do. The people on Route 128 are instead driven by something more profound. Their enthusiasm comes from a curiosity regarding the world and a desire to create another and better future. In many ways, they are authentic leaders.
Does this apply only to the Route 128 environment, or do you see it as a broader trend in the USA today?
Otto Scharmer: It’s quite clearly a broader trend. My experience tells me that what I said before doesn’t just apply to tech entrepreneurs but many young people. I see it in part in the larger mainstream companies and partly in the next generation of leaders in the USA. I’ve met hundreds of promising leaders, some of them just a few years away from top jobs in the American business community. These people have chosen a quite conventional career, but most of them are not satisfied by their choice – they want more out of life.
That longing I’ve seen time and again. These young leaders have a deeper desire to recreate and rethink the world around them. They want to create a history they can be proud of.
the higher they’ve climbed up the internal power ladder, the less meaningful they experience things and the further away they feel from the life they dream about
I teach a subject at MIT that’s called “U-Lab”. There I meet a great many leaders from all over the world who are half-way through their careers, so to speak. When I ask them what they want out of life as a whole, and what has, therefore, brought them to MIT, I always get the same answer from them: “The higher up I get in my organization’s internal hierarchy, the less inspired I feel by what my organization expects of me and wants me to do.”
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What they’re saying, in other words, is that the higher they’ve climbed up the internal power ladder, the less meaningful they experience things and the further away they feel from the life they dream about. They experience a marked separation between their present and future selves – what they’re doing today and who they might be tomorrow.
Why is this a problem?
Otto Scharmer: Just take a look at the statistics. We’re seeing in the USA an explosion in the number of depressions and leaders who burn out or, even worse, commit suicide.
When that’s said, the statistics aren’t just depressing reading. I also see counter-trends and counter-evidence in the form of young entrepreneurs who’ve got rich very quickly and who are now working on new and innovative ways of giving something back. Where the rich in the past typically gave something back in a very conventional way, these newly rich people are more innovative and entrepreneurial in their attempts to make the world a better place.
So if you see this as a strong trend, what does it mean for management tomorrow? In my view, the same books about leadership are written again and again. To be quite honest, there’s not much that’s new in them. Do the points you’re making imply anything substantially new for management tomorrow?
Otto Scharmer: In my view, they imply two vital new things.
The first has to do with what I call “broadening”. Our focus in management is often on the organizations, and I’ve said earlier that organizations today are either too big for the small problems or too small for the big problems. Let me explain that more closely:
The big problems could be climate change or the great inequality in the world. These problems are so massive that no organization will be in a position to solve them alone. This means that we have to establish new platforms for collaboration, which implies we must be able to coordinate very complex systems about human intentions.
the cleverest leaders manage to expand their consciousness from an ego-focus to an eco-system
What are human intentions? They are the common consciousness of society as a whole. When we think in that way, we experience a connection between all of the various sectors of society and all of the various types of companies and organizations. This is a new perspective that tomorrow’s leaders must be aware of and take part in.
This also implies two other things, which I’ve chosen to call “turning inside out and outside in”.
We’ve seen this demonstrated for instance in the tech world, where companies have partly managed to “turn inside out” through crowd-sourcing and co-creation methods with regard to developing new ideas, and partly been able to “turn outside in” when they invite people and partners from the world outside into their organizations.
We also see this in the health industry and in many other places, and the cleverest leaders manage to expand their consciousness from an ego-focus to an eco-system. They are aware of this gigantic network of relationships and potentials. In my view what I’ve just said implies one new aspect of management.
I have chosen to call the other new aspect “deeping”, and that word is used to describe the spread of mindfulness and awareness in management.
where you choose to focus is also where you put your energy
The philosophy behind this new trend is: where you choose to focus is also where you put your energy. Mindfulness is today used in thousands of organizations, and the research in this area has exploded. Even the most traditional companies have started to use mindfulness in their leadership training.
This way of coming into contact with your present self is probably more important than ever before for authentic leaders.
Lastly, can you suggest three things that the readers of The GuruBook should do after this interview? That is: If they’ve been inspired by your thoughts and opinions, how do they carry some of them out in their lives?
Otto Scharmer: It’s a matter of realizing, fundamentally, that Theory-U isn’t a question of stabilizing the existing system, it’s about disrupting it. The vision is to create a new world and develop new structures and ways of being, listening and acting.
Therefore, I’d like to call on the readers to do three things:
1. If they haven’t already done so, find a moment every day with mindfulness and peace. Listen to your present self. This may be a way for you to become aware that there are different levels of responsiveness.
2. Choose one or more people from your network, but no more than seven.
Establish what I call a “deep listening circle” together with these people. The purpose of this circle is to support the participants’ journey as leaders, their change-maker journey.
It’s important that the group isn’t too big and there are a large number of processes that can be used to create value and meaning in the group. You can get free inspiration from the U-Lab website.
The idea is that the group should meet quite often, and at every session, the participants should give their full attention to one of the group’s members and receive that person with an open heart and an open mind. You listen to them with the aim that they should develop as people and as leaders.
3. Be a part of U-Lab – a global eco-system and group of change-makers from all sectors and types of organizations in the world. U-Lab is about refinding leadership and systems in politics, the business community, the financial sector, the health industry and so on.
Participation in U-Lab is free, and in 2017 we’re launching a global innovation eco-system. The vision behind this is that many different systems should speak with each other and together make up a global movement for meaningful change.
Jonathan Løw’s latest books Listen Louder and The Disruption Book (Danish books), both made it to the top of the bestseller-lists in 2015 in the category “Business and Entrepreneurship”.
Additionally, Jonathan Løw is the editor of The GuruBook – published in March 2018 by Taylor & Francis from which the above interview originates.