Where are we now?

Part 3 — Scharmer

… the unspoken ideas and emotions moving through the crawlspaces of our collective life.

John Michael Greer is a great storyteller and a brilliant wordsmith. This past weekend I was reading his book ‘Collapse now and avoid the rush’ as a detour from writer’s discipline. The quote above perfectly describes the uncomfortable spaces I have been crawling through as I try to make sense of what I am trying to make sense of in this series! It made me laugh out loud and so now I’m back on track and I’m sure Scharmer would appreciate a JMG quote heading this, his Part in the series.

When you spend any time with Otto Scharmer you find yourself exploring the depths of multiple illuminated vortices in the midnight sky. His books, Theory U (2009) and Leading from the emerging future (2013) preceded collaborative MOOCs he and the team at MITx have been running over the past few years, three of which I have participated in. My propensity to chase rabbits around the paddocks is well known by my friends. I usually end up where I started eventually, but you may have to go a little off the beaten track if you want to come along with me. The night sky image above is a deliberate attempt on my part to keep me focused on the question — Where are we now? Consequently I will try to keep on point as we peer through the Theory U telescope. It’s important to consider that, like the unpredictable behaviours demonstrated in the cosmos, human nature will often throw a spanner in the works and upset our perfect order of things. Nothing is as simple as a pretty picture, nothing is well behaved and nothing runs on a linear track. That’s why it is so important that we are aware of our intentions and where we are operating from in life.

Theory U illustrates our levels of listening or levels of engagement with ideas held by ourselves and others. I’ll try not to muddy the simplicity of this description.

Scharmer posits that there are 3 enemies lurking in the shadows of our relationships determined to keep us focused on and protective of Self — the Voice of Judgement (VoJ), the Voice of Cynicism (VoC), and the Voice of Fear (VoF). For those of us who choose to remain entrenched in our own litany, each of the 3 voices may be identified by another name–VoJ may be otherwise known as Discernment, VoC as Bold Action or Courage, and VoF as Wisdom. And so that illogical belief that gives us permission to conduct the naming, blaming and shaming debacle that we call political discourse in our 21st century democracies, sounds really quite honourable to our own superior ears. Let’s take a look at Sharmer’s model before my own VoC spoils Scharmer’s simplicity. First, the Theory U basic levels of engagement image:

Ever noticed how the loudest voice in the team meeting often drags the rest of us along with barely a challenge? In the 1970s we used to parrot “T.E.A.M. Together Everyone Achieves More”. That didn’t work either. Scharmer focuses his telescope on the top left of the diagram above. Here is a snapshot of the realms of Theory U starting from downloading patterns from the past:

1. OPEN MIND — suspend judgement — Rather than business as usual, critical thinking asks the question, May we need another way to do things?

2. OPEN HEART — suspend cynicism — Rather than becoming entrenched in a ‘them and us’ mentality, open hearted listening asks, May we need another way to see things?

3. OPEN WILL — suspend fear — wisdom suggests, May we need another way to be?

At this point wisdom allows us to let go and let come in the present — this is called Presencing. Presencing allows us to initiate practical action in the present for the common good. Now I’ll unpack those realms a little more.

Downloading patterns from the past. “We have had success doing this before”, “This is what we are going to do!” And the result is? … business as usual. That urgent and essential intervention moment passes and we have a BAU result. One team member tries to table an alternative but it is shut down immediately. The brains in the room have never considered that alternative so it must not be good and “here are all the reasons why it won’t work”.

1.Suspending judgement — seeing with fresh eyes. This realm is where divergent views are voiced and “I am my point of view”. The big burly Keeper of the Portal to Open Mind is standing akimbo blocking our advance. His name is Voice of Judgement. Only those who choose to suspend judgement are given the golden key to enter the next realm.

I remember giving a young man who was straight out of juvenile detention a labouring job on one of my building teams. On his first day on the job he had a motor bike accident and broke his leg. Nevertheless he was at the team meeting the next morning at 6:30 am. We had a logistics problem that we were struggling with in the meeting. The lad, who had never worked a day in his life, asked if he could say something. The tradesmen looked at me expecting a rebuff but I had a gut feeling: this boy wanted to throw everything he had into this opportunity that I had given him. I owed him this moment to contribute. What he said next was the perfect solution to our very complex problem.

You never know where that hidden treasure will come from — you just need to explore with an open mind. In the example above we moved immediately into action. But sometimes the Open Mind realm is a bit like conversations in a Greens Party meeting — they may go around and around in circles but those big wheels aren’t going anywhere soon! That’s why, when neither consensus nor agreement have been reached, or when we haven’t found the ‘magic’ yet, we need to go deeper.

2. Redirecting cynicism — sensing from the field. Moving down the U, we see that another big burly Keeper of the Portal is messing with our progress. He is the Voice of Cynicism. The Portal he guards is to the realm of Open Heart. He whispers in our ear “As if! I just can’t see that working”. “What could you possibly have to write about that anybody would want to read about!”. What may be true in your culture may be very different in another. To cross the second threshold into sensing from the whole requires facing down VoC. The step of redirection required is exemplified in a quote from Harper Lee’s fictional lawyer Atticus Finch to his daughter, Scout, (Lee, 1974):

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Holding an open mind and an open heart to other views and personalities enables a more compassionate platform for discourse from which sound ideas may arise. The strongest will in the group may still have his or her ideas prototyped, enacted, embedded and finally embodied but this may not represent the whole collective will.

3. Letting go — leading from the future as it emerges. Scharmer takes our attention to intention, where a higher purpose may be achieved, where maybe even our initial question has become obsolete, where we, standing as one, get a glimpse of the ‘latent’ that Gebser saw in that plunge down through the vortex into our “pristine state of origin” — back to Eden. Letting go of egocentric behaviour and moving into an ecocentric intention is only possible if we each plunge deeply into our Source and let the future come. Presencing is a gift of grace — not for one but for all-of-us as One. It’s a moment of stillness followed by fast actions — crystalizing, prototyping, enacting, embedding, embodying. Scharmer’s work always results in action — it’s not just another prance among the tulips in Spring. If your team is not acting, it’s simply not going deep enough. This whole process doesn’t have to take t.i.m.e. but it does demand that you put your ego on the shelf and let this thing happen. How long that takes is up to you and your ego.

The Shadow Space of Social Pathology

The greatest leaders are those who have confidence/faith in their Source rather than their ego. Nevertheless there are those Fundamentalists among us who consider that their Ego is their Source. Scharmer demonstrates this in the shadow space of social pathology. It’s a space that we all flip into if we are not paying attention to what we say, who we listen to, what we do or who we follow. It is also the inevitable space of those who live by the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the law. (More about this thought when we look at Wilber’s AQAL). Where the ultimate act of will in Theory U is Presencing, the ultimate act of will in the Shadow Space is Absencing and Hubris.

The typical progression from the social pathology position in Scharmer’s Theory U begins where we began before — downloading patterns from the past in the lower left of the diagram above. That loud voice in the team meeting holds fast to his/her perception of how things should be done.

Stuck in one truth, one view. Perception is blinded to other views and a ‘perception’ becomes ‘the one truth’, silencing other views — it reflects a closed mind.

Stuck in one world / us versus them. Fundamentalist entrenchment begins here where other views are seen to arise from the enemy camp; blaming others — or the devil — for all ‘error’ is not uncommon — it reflects a hardened heart.

Stuck in one self / one will. This is the pinnacle of the shadow space of social pathology where a willful decision is made to hold on to the fundamentalist position, separating one’s Self from Other. Here we see Absencing and Hubris embrace. A win-at-all-costs, whatever-it-takes Self-will reigns. But unfortunately this Self does not take to the catacombs to live out life as a hermit, it goes on a path of destruction.

Manipulating. The fundamentalist action strategy begins with intrigue and disinformation (fake news!) in an attempt to protect the ‘one truth’.

Abusing. Harassing and bullying in an attempt to destroy the holders of other views.

Annihilating. This is where the shadow space of social pathology plays out in collective collapse. Think of fundamentalist Heads of State and the ultimate end of their nations. Think of fundamentalist Sect leaders. Think of that toxic workplace environment — I’m remembering Exxon Mobil USA.

Overview of Theory U

I think the shadow space is alive and well in most, if not all of our personal relationships and while it is sobering to identify with this process it is also helpful to remain mindful of our attitudes and subsequent and consequential actions. Scharmer uses a golden arrow to direct our focus but I don’t think his intention was that it be shot at others. But then again, the way Sharmer’s arrow is shaped it will only return to stab us in the heart — just like the boomerang that missed its mark! Drawing from my years as a teacher, and youth worker, I think two questions sum up the pilgrim’s quest: Who is my Self? What is my Work? This will never be resolved no matter how long we live if we neglect to connect with our Source, that which lies latent within.

Gebser and Scharmer ‘parallels’

There is a certain correlation between Gebser’s structures and Scharmer’s levels. Both of their works are extensive and I have played with them for the past 8 years. The following chart was originally developed for inclusion in my Masters Thesis which is also published on Medium: A Foresight perspective of leadership and the social field in K-12 education in Australia. Of interest here is how well these theories work together to focus our attention on humanity and Big History.

Gebser said of Integral consciousness that it is “encompassing all time and embracing both man’s distant past and his approaching future as a living present”. The correlation of his and Scharmer’s ideas demonstrates the vastness of the dimension of the emergent future that he sees as the integral plunge into our pristine state of origin — back to Eden and that Scharmer senses in “the future that wants to emerge”. Vast — yet everpresent. Beyond Time yet in Time.


Part 4 in this series will look at Wilber’s AQAL 4 quadrants — which brings both Gebser’s and Scharmer’s telescopes into sharper focus for us on this beautiful orb called Earth that is right now pulsating with troubled humanity.