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Uncovering The Blind Spot of Leadership

--by C. Otto Scharmer,

We live in a time of massive institutional failure, collectively creating results that nobody
wants. Climate change. AIDS. Hunger. Poverty. iolence. !errorism. !he foundations of
our social, economic, ecological, and s"iritual wellbeing are in "eril.
Why do our attem"ts to deal with the challenges of our time so often fail# !he cause of our
collective failure is that we are blind to the dee"er dimension of leadershi" and
transformational change. !his $blind s"ot% e&ists not only in our collective leadershi" but
also in our everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source dimension from which
effective leadershi" and social action come into being.
We 'now a great deal about what leaders do and how they do it. (ut we 'now very little
about the inner "lace, the source from which they o"erate.
Successful leadershi" de"ends on the )uality of attention and intention that the leader
brings to any situation. !wo leaders in the same circumstances doing the same thing can
bring about com"letely different outcomes, de"ending on the inner "lace from which each
o"erates. I learned this from the late (ill *+(rien, who+d served as C,* of Hanover
Insurance. When I as'ed him to sum u" his most im"ortant learning e&"erience in leading
"rofound change, he res"onded, $!he success of an intervention de"ends on the interior
condition of the intervenor.% !he nature of this inner "lace in leaders is something of a
mystery to us. Studies of athletes+ minds and imaginations as they "re"are for a
com"etitive event have led to "ractices designed to enhance athletic "erformance $from the
inside out,% so to s"ea'. Dee" states of attention and awareness are well 'nown by to"
athletes in s"orts. -or e&am"le, (ill .ussell, the 'ey "layer on the most successful
bas'etball team ever /the (oston Celtics, who won 00 cham"ionshi"s in 01 years2,
described his e&"erience of "laying in the 3one as follows4
Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or
even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I
certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened, I could feel my
play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a
whole quarter, or more. . . . t that special level, all sorts of odd things happened! The
game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn"t feel
competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I"d be putting out the ma#imum effort,
straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The
game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet
nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. $uring
those spells, I could almost sense how the ne#t play would develop and where the ne#t
shot would be taken. . . . %y premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt
then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and
that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or
&oyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.
'William (. )ussell, *econd Wind! The %emoirs of an +pinionated %an, ,-.-/.
(ut in the arena of management and
leading transformational change, we 'now
very little about this inner dimension, and
very seldom are s"ecific techni)ues a""lied
to enhance management "erformance from
the inside out. !his lac' of 'nowledge
constitutes a blind s"ot in our a""roach to
leadershi" and management /-igure 02.
Slowing Down to Understand
At its core, leadershi" is about sha"ing and
shifting how individuals and grou"s attend
to and subse)uently res"ond to a situation.
(ut most leaders are unable to recogni3e,
let alone change, the structural habits of attention used in their organi3ations. 5earning to
recogni3e the habits of attention in a business culture re)uires, among other things, a
"articular 'ind of listening. *ver more than a decade of observing "eo"le+s interactions in
organi3ations, I have noted four different ty"es of listening4 downloading, factual listening,
em"athic listening, and generative listening.
Listening 1: Downloading
$6eah, I 'now that already.% I call this ty"e of listening downloading7listening by
reconfirming habitual 8udgments. When everything you hear confirms what you already
'now, you are listening by downloading.
Listening 2: Factual
$*oh, loo' at that9% !his ty"e of listening is factual or ob8ect:focused4 listening by "aying
attention to facts and to novel or disconfirming data. 6ou switch off your inner voice of
8udgment and focus on what differs from what you already 'now. -actual listening is the
basic mode of good science. 6ou let the data tal' to you. 6ou as' )uestions, and you "ay
careful attention to the res"onses you get.
Listening 3: Empathic
$*h, yes, I 'now e&actly how you feel.% !his dee"er level of listening is em"athic listening.
When we are engaged in real dialogue and "aying careful attention, we can become aware
of a "rofound shift in the "lace from which our listening originates. We move from
seeing the ob8ective world of things, figures, and facts /the $it:world%2 to listening to the
story of a living and evolving self /the $you:world%2. Sometimes, when we say $I 'now how
you feel,% our em"hasis is on a 'ind of mental or abstract 'nowing. (ut it re)uires an o"en
heart to really feel how another feels. An o"en heart gives us the em"athic ca"acity to
connect directly with another "erson from within. When that ha""ens, we enter new
territory in the relationshi"; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the
world a""ears through someone else+s eyes.
Listening 4: Generative
$I can+t e&"ress what I e&"erience in words. <y whole being has slowed down. I feel more
)uiet and "resent and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself.%
!his ty"e of listening connects us to an even dee"er realm of emergence. I call this level of
listening $generative listening,% or listening from the emerging field of future "ossibility.
!his level of listening re)uires us to access our o"en will7our ca"acity to connect to the
highest future "ossibility that can emerge. We no longer loo' for something outside. We no
longer em"athi3e with someone in front of us. $Communion% or $grace% is maybe the word
that comes closest to the te&ture of this e&"erience.
When you o"erate from 5istening 0 /downloading2, the conversation reconfirms what you
already 'new. 6ou reconfirm your habits of thought4 $!here he goes again9% When you
o"erate from 5istening = /factual listening2, you disconfirm what you already 'now and
notice what is new out there4 $(oy, this loo's so different today9% When you o"erate from
5istening 1 /em"athic listening2, your "ers"ective is redirected to seeing the situation
through the eyes of another4 $(oy, yes, now I really understand how you feel about it. I can
sense it now too.% And finally, when you o"erate from 5istening > /generative listening2,
you have gone through a subtle but "rofound change that has connected you to a dee"er
source of 'nowing, including the 'nowledge of your best future "ossibility and self.
Deep ttention and wareness
!o be effective leaders, we must first understand the field, or inner s"ace, from which we
are o"erating. In my boo', !heory ?4 5eading from the -uture as It ,merges, I identify
four such $field structures of attention,% which result in four different ways of
o"erating. !hese differing structures affect not only the way we listen but also how grou"
members communicate with one another, and how institutions form their geometries of
!he four columns of -igure = de"ict four fundamental meta:"rocesses of the social field
that "eo"le usually ta'e for granted4
@ !hin'ing /individual2
@ Conversing /grou"2
@ Structuring /institutions2
@ ,cosystem coordination /global systems2
Albert ,instein famously noted that "roblems cannot be resolved by the same level of
consciousness that created them. If we address our =0st:century challenges with reactive
mind:sets that mostly reflect the realities of the 0Ath and =Bth centuries /-ield 0 and -ield
=2, we will increase frustration, cynicism, and anger.
!he way we "ay attention to a situation, individually and collectively, determines the "ath
the system ta'es and how it emerges. *n all four levels7"ersonal, grou", institutional, and
global7shifting from reactive res"onses and )uic' fi&es on a sym"toms level /-ields 0 and
=2 to generative res"onses that address the systemic root issues /-ields 1 and >2 is the
single most im"ortant leadershi" challenge of our time. /In this article, I discuss individual
leadershi". -or a brief introduction to grou" and institutional leadershi" as they relate to
!heory ?, "lease download the e&ecutive summary of !heory ? from
!he U: "ne #rocess$ !hree %ovements
!o move from a reactive -ield 0 or = to a generative -ield 1 or > res"onse, we must embar'
on a 8ourney. Several years ago, during an interview "ro8ect designed to "romote "rofound
innovation and change, I heard many "ractitioners and thought leaders describe the
core elements of this 8ourney. (rian Arthur, the founding head of the economics grou" at
the Santa -e Institute, e&"lained to my colleague Cose"h Cawors'i and me that, for him,
there are two fundamentally different sources of cognition. *ne is the a""lication of
e&isting framewor's /downloading2 and the other is accessing one+s inner 'nowing. All true
innovation in science, business, and society is based on the latter, not on $downloading.%
So we as'ed him, $How do you do that# If I want to learn that as an organi3ation or as an
individual, what do I have to do#% In his res"onse he wal'ed us through
a se)uence of three movements.
!he first movement he called $observe, observe, observe.% It means to sto" downloading
and start listening. It means to abandon our habitual ways of o"erating and immerse
ourselves in the "laces of most "otential for the situation we are dealing with.
Arthur referred to the second movement as $retreat and reflect4 allow the inner 'nowing to
emerge.% !his re)uires going to the inner "lace of stillness where 'nowing comes to the
surface. We listen to everything we learned while $observing,% and we attend to what wants
to emerge. We "ay "articular attention to our own role and 8ourney.
!he third movement, according to (rian Arthur, is about $acting in an instant.% !his means
to "rototy"e the new in order to e&"lore the future by doing, to create a little landing stri"
of the future that allows for hands:on testing and e&"erimentation.
I call that whole "rocess7observe, observe; access your sources of stillness and 'nowing;
and act in an instant :: the? "rocess, because it can be de"icted and understood
as a ?:sha"ed 8ourney.
&ew Social !echnolog': Seven Leadership (apacities
(ut why is the ? the road less traveled in institutions# (ecause it re)uires an inner 8ourney
and hard wor'. !he ability to move through the ? as a team or an organi3ation or a system
re)uires a new social technology. As illustrated in -igure 1, this social technology is
based on seven essential leadershi" ca"acities that a core grou" must cultivate4
@ Holding the s"ace
@ *bserving
@ Sensing
@ Presencing
@ Crystalli3ing
@ Prototy"ing
@ Performing
1) *olding the Space: Listen to +hat Li,e (alls -ou to Do
5eaders must create or $hold% a s"ace that invites others in. !he 'ey to holding a s"ace is
listening4 to yourself /to what life calls you to do2, to others /"articularly others who may be
related to that call2, and to that which emerges from the collective that you convene. (ut it
also re)uires a good deal of intention. 6ou must 'ee" your attention focused on the highest
future "ossibility of the grou".
2) ".serving: ttend with -our %ind +ide "pen
*bserve with an o"en mind by sus"ending your voice of 8udgment /*C2. Sus"ending your
*C means shutting down the habit of 8udging based on "ast e&"erience. Sus"ending your
*C means o"ening u" a new s"ace of in)uiry and wonder. Without sus"ending that *C,
attem"ts to get inside the "laces of most "otential will be futile.
,&am"le4 In 0AD0, an engineering team from -ord <otor Com"any visited !oyota "lants
o"erating on the $lean% !oyota "roduction system. Although the -ord engineers had
firsthand access to the revolutionary new "roduction system, they were unable to $see% or
recogni3e what was in front of them and claimed that they had been ta'en on a staged tour;
because they had seen no inventory, they assumed they had not seen a $real% "lant. !he
reaction of the engineers reminds us how difficult it is to let go of e&isting ideas and beliefs.
3) Sensing: (onnect with -our *eart
Connect to the dee"er forces of change by o"ening your heart. I once as'ed a successful to"
e&ecutive at Eo'ia to share her most im"ortant leadershi" "ractices. !ime and time again,
her team was able to antici"ate changes in technology and conte&t. !ime and again, they
were ahead of the curve. Her answer# $I facilitate the o"ening "rocess.% !his is the essence
of what moving down the left side of the ? is all about7facilitating an o"ening "rocess. !he
"rocess involves the tuning of three instruments4 the o"en mind, the o"en heart, and the
o"en will. While the o"en mind is familiar to most of us, the other two ca"acities draw us
into less familiar territory.
!o understand more about that territory, I interviewed "sychologist ,leanor .osch of the
?niversity of California at (er'eley. She e&"lained the difference by com"aring two ty"es
of cognition. !he first is the analytical 'nowledge u"on which all conventional cognitive
science is based. !he other ty"e of 'nowledge, the one that relates to the o"en heart and
o"en will, is $o"en, rather than determinate; and a sense of unconditional value, rather
than conditional usefulness, is an inherent "art of the act of 'nowing itself.%
Action resulting from that ty"e of awareness, .osch said, $is claimed to be s"ontaneous,
rather than the result of decision ma'ing; it is com"assionate, since it is based on wholes
larger than the self; and it can be shoc'ingly effective.%
4) #resencing: (onnect to the Deepest Source o, -our Sel, and +ill
While an o"en heart allows us to see a situation from the whole, the o"en will enables us to
begin to act from the emerging whole.
Danish scul"tor and management consultant ,ri' 5emc'e described to me his e&"erience
of this "rocess4 $After having wor'ed with a "articular scul"ture for some time, there
comes a certain moment when things are changing. When this moment of change comes, it
is no longer me, alone, who is creating. I feel connected to something far dee"er and my
hands are co:creating with this "ower. At the same time, I feel that I am being filled with
love and care as my "erce"tion is widening. I sense things in another way. It is a love for
the world and for what is coming. I then intuitively 'now what I must do. <y hands 'now
if I must add or remove something. <y hands 'now how the form should manifest. In one
way, it is easy to create with this guidance. In those moments I have a strong feeling of
gratitude and humility.%
/) (r'stalli0ing: ccess the #ower o, 1ntention
!he bac'stories of successful and ins"iring "ro8ects, regardless of si3e, often have a similar
story line :: a very small grou" of 'ey "ersons commits itself to the "ur"ose and outcomes
of the "ro8ect. !hat committed core grou" then goes out into the world with its
intention and creates an energy field that begins to attract "eo"le, o""ortunities,
and resources that ma'e things ha""en. <omentum builds. !he core grou" functions as
a vehicle for the whole to manifest.
In an interview, Eic' Hanauer, the founder of half a do3en highly successful com"anies,
told Cose"h Cawors'i and me4 $*ne of my favorite sayings, attributed to <argaret <ead,
has always been FEever doubt that a small grou" of thoughtful, committed citi3ens can
change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.+. . . With only one "erson, it+s
hard7but when you "ut that one "erson with four or five more, you have a force to contend
with. All of a sudden, you have enough momentum to ma'e almost anything that+s
immanent or within reach actually real.%
2) #rotot'ping: 1ntegrating *ead$ *eart$ and *and
5earn the "rototy"ing s'ill of integrating head, heart, and hand. When hel"ing a golfer
who has lost his swing, the master coach in the novel and film !he 5egend of (agger ance
advises, $See' it with your hands :: don+t thin' about it, feel it. !he wisdom in your
hands is greater than the wisdom of your head will ever be.%
!hat "iece of advice articulates a 'ey "rinci"le about how to o"erate on the right side of the
?. <oving down the left side of the ? is about o"ening u" and dealing with the resistance
of thought, emotion, and will; moving u" the right side is about intentionally
reintegrating the intelligence of the head, the heart, and the hand in the conte&t of "ractical
a""lications. Cust as the inner enemies on the way down the ? re"resent the *C /voice of
8udgment2, the *C /voice of cynicism2, and the *- /voice of fear2, the enemies on the
way u" the ? are the three old methods of o"erating4 e&ecuting without im"rovisation and
mindfulness /reactive action2; endless reflection without a will to act /analysis "aralysis2;
and tal'ing without a connection to source and action /blah:blah:blah2. !hese three
enemies share the same structural feature. Instead of balancing the intelligence of the
head, heart, and hand, one of the three dominates7the hand in mindless action, the head
in endless reflection, the heart in endless networ'ing.
Connecting to one+s best future "ossibility and creating "owerful brea'through ideas
re)uires learning to access the intelligence of the heart and the hand7not 8ust
the intelligence of the head.
3) #er,orming: #la'ing the %acro 4iolin
When I as'ed the violinist <iha Pogacni' to describe 'ey moments from his music
e&"erience, he told me about his first concert in Chartres. $I felt that the cathedral almost
'ic'ed me out. FGet out with you9+ she said. -or I was young and I tried to "erform as I
always did4 by 8ust "laying my violin. (ut then I reali3ed that in Chartres you actually
cannot "lay your small violin, but you have to "lay the Fmacro violin.+ !he small violin is the
instrument that is in your hands. !he macro violin is the whole cathedral that surrounds
you. !he cathedral of Chartres is built entirely according to musical "rinci"les. Playing the
macro violin re)uires you to listen and to "lay from another "lace, from the "eri"hery.
6ou have to move your listening and "laying from within to beyond yourself.%
<ost systems, organi3ations, and societies today lac' the two essentials that enable us to
"lay the macro violin4 /02 leaders who convene the right sets of "layers /frontline "eo"le
who are connected with one another through the same value chain2, and /=2 a social
technology that allows a multi:sta'eholder gathering to shift from debating to co:creating
the new.
In summary, !heory ? illuminates a hidden dimension of leadershi"7the inner "lace from
which leaders o"erate. Profound change today not only re)uires a shift of the mind, it
re)uires a shift of will and a shift of the heart. I have come to refer to this dee"er shift as
$"resencing.% A blend of the words $"resence% and $sensing,% "resencing signifies a
heightened state of attention that allows individuals and grou"s to o"erate from a future
s"ace of "ossibility that they feel wants to emerge. (eing able to facilitate that shift is the
essence of leadershi" today.