A u.lab-S Story: Quantum Leap & A New Definition of Leadership

Sarina Ruiter-Bouwhuis
Field of the Future Blog
13 min readJan 14, 2020
Karolina Iwa during the LSF 2019 at BUFA

As we are starting a new decade, the Presencing Institute and 300 selected teams are preparing for the kick-off of u.lab 2x at the end of February 2020. In the lead-up to this part of PI’s annual cycle in the context of the Societal Transformation Lab, we’ve been sharing many stories of u.lab-S teams from 2019 for inspiration. Last week, we sat down with u.lab-S Alumna and co-founder of the Leadership Festival (LSF), Karolina Iwa, to listen to her team’s story.

Before she joined u.lab-S, Karolina had been a returning student in the u.lab 1x course with many of her LSF colleagues. She recalled: “We joined the first u.lab in 2015 and this is when we started working with emergence. It gives you the freedom to really follow what you sense is needed. Learning what is emerging and how we might best serve it, has been our guiding question from the beginning.”

Context for u.lab-S: LSF Roots

Coming from Poland and having lived in Berlin for 15 years, Karolina shared about the roots of the Leadership Festival and how she came to join u.lab-S (this year renamed as u.lab 2x). The first LSF gathered 120 people across sectors, cultures, and backgrounds and took place in the city center of Warsaw, Poland. Karolina emphasized that this had been a conscious choice, as they wanted to focus on the region of Central/Eastern Europe. After all, they felt that the question of new leadership and what was needed in the world was more urgent there, “whereas in Berlin, it would just be a nice add-on.”

Karolina then describes a moment in the opening circle of this first LSF edition, as the magnitude of what they were trying to create dawned on her. “I remember sitting there and going: ‘What the hell were we thinking? How can this be a valuable event for such a diverse group?’” She and her team have continued to try and tackle this question ever since, exploring the extent of diversity their LSF container can hold.

Participant Circle LSF 2019

After the second LSF edition in Poland, which had taken place in more natural surroundings with a smaller group, the team felt quite depleted. Although this gathering had been focused on deeper engagement, the team realized that this context needed people who know “how to bring what is static into motion.” Therefore, the team decided to organize the 2019 edition in Berlin: “Our strength is supporting those on the move in connecting, focusing, and aligning. We wanted the kids to play with other kids who connected to this.”

Moving the festival to Berlin was a huge shift for the team. “Relocating from a country that has experienced a capitalistic boom in the last 20 years, to a country that has been wealthy for much longer than that was a big change. All of that has an impact on how safe and secure people feel, how willing they are to innovate, and how much they trust in long-term processes.” This was the moment LSF joined the u.lab-S journey:

“It was completely life-changing for the Leadership Festival. I can say that with this perspective of one year on.”

Co-Location Challenges & Courage

After Karolina and her team applied to join u.lab-S, they received an email informing them that the lab was really meant for teams in the same location and that they would need to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to continue with their globally distributed team. At the time, they had planned to join with members located in Germany, Poland, Slovenia, and Belgium. This message triggered a thinking process, and eventually one of the new Berlin-based team members, Sebastian Daniel Mall, suggested to just create a Berlin team.

“This gave us the push and the courage to reach out to our ecosystem in Berlin and ask them ‘Do you want to go on a date with me? Do you want to hang out together and see if we’re a good match?’”

Dialogue at LSF 2019

The team organized a kick-off meeting before the start of u.lab-S to bring everyone on board, and there were as many as 13 people who joined. Two team members from Slovenia continued to be part of the team, joining gatherings remotely with colleagues from Belgium and Warsaw, in addition to traveling by train to attend a few of the core team meetings. Karolina reflects: “The risk of going to Berlin and forming a local team felt like a good decision. We wouldn’t have dared to do that on our own.”

Moments of Seeing and Sensing

In addition to the courage to build a team locally, the second impact Karolina identified was connected to the practices, in particular the sensing journeys. “We really took it super seriously. The six of us — in Oregon, Belgium, Ljubljana and Berlin — all of us went into our communities.” She remembers vividly:

“Yes, it was very rich what we found out. But the more surprising aspect to having these interviews, was the excuse to reach out to our ecosystem, meet with people, and ask them questions. It really gave us the permission and the framework to have these conversations.”

She recalls a conversation during a dialogue interview with someone at Sea-Watch. He asked her: “Why did you want to talk with us, when you’re hosting a leadership festival?” This sparked great insight for her around how to think and communicate about the LSF’s intention. The definition of leadership Karolina gave him was: “Seeing a need in the world and acting upon it.” This made sense to him, and although this had always been the LSF definition of leadership, the conversation helped her realize how important it is to share this more frequently. In fact, this is what the sensing journeys really sparked for her and her team:

“Seeing my work through another’s eyes allowed me to see, through a different perspective, what it is we’re really doing.”

LSF 2019 at BUFA

A Shared Language and Community

Another thing that felt valuable to Karolina’s team was knowing that so many people around the globe were on the same journey during u.lab-S. Feeling that “they’re going to find out things, and then we’re going to meet with each other and exchange” not only brought inspiration, but also a sense of accountability to the process. “That was super motivating, because you want to have good results. You don’t want to say: ‘I didn’t manage’.”

In addition to sharing this global community, the local community was also internally impacted by the process, especially through finding a common language and vision. Karolina explained that, up until the u.lab-S journey, the “team was very eclectic with highly diverse influences. We were allowing all of these influences to really flow into our work, our communication, etc. Had you then asked us what our theory of change was, you would probably have gotten 17 answers.”

Karolina described how through u.lab-S “suddenly there was a major decluttering happening. We had very clean guidelines and a framework, we all spoke the same language, and that was a very interesting experience.” However, she made sure to add some beautiful nuance to this picture:

“I was very proud and pleased, feeling grateful for this sense of simplicity in complexity. And then, after the festival, I talked to someone who has been an LSF visitor from the very beginning. They told me: ‘I don’t know why, but the last festivals left a bigger impact on me than this one. This one was somehow very… cleaned up.’”

After responding that this had actually been the intention of the team, as they had worked so hard to move from multiple influences to one clear framework, Karolina’s conversation partner then replied with: “But maybe this [multiple influences] was the biggest value.” Karolina laughed as she concluded:

“So, this is a story of how sometimes you can aspire to something and believe that this will be the highest quality, and then you never know, because for some people in the community, that which to you seemed like your mess, your lack of competence, or maturity — THIS might be the most vibrant for them.”

Youth & Agriculture

When asked what u.lab-S practices left the biggest impact, Karolina answered: “What I still remember vividly are both the 3D mapping and the 4D modeling.” The 3D mapping was one of the first methods the team applied and the outcomes from that practice, early on in the journey, have remained relevant throughout the entire year. Two main insights the team gathered from the mapping were that they should increase their focus on youth and on agriculture.

The youth aspect was not so surprising, seeing as “many of us come from youth work, so it was obvious to us that we also wanted to work with junior people and not only mature practitioners. But we went super radical after the 3D mapping.” Consequently, the 2019 festival — attended by 90 people— included 20 participants under the age of 20, the youngest of whom was 13 years old. For the next festival, the team is going one step further: “This year, we really want to find young people who will help us in creating the design from the very beginning.”

The second insight was more of a surprise, as farmers emerged as an important group of stakeholders. “This is something we completely didn’t see coming. We had no idea!” says Karolina. She recalls how “we didn’t understand when one of our team members, Anja Henckel, was talking about engaging with soil, and not only social soil, but also actual soil. It took the rest of us city kids quite a learning curve to understand how that relates and how that could be important.”

The team went on to include the countryside in their next iteration of the festival by having part of the event take place in a rural area just outside Berlin, Rothenklempenow. This way, they could engage with leadership questions that are particular to the countryside, such as the influence of non-organic farming and pesticides in the immediate surroundings of organic farms. And how the health of the surrounding air, soil, and animals affect every aspect of operating a farm or organization in rural areas.

“These are all things we city kids had no idea about and this shifted our sense of urgency of what topics we need to tackle.”

LSF 2019 in Rothenklempenow

Courage to Engage in the New

When the practice of 4D modeling was introduced in the u.lab-S, Karolina’s team was a bit hesitant. They considered whether they should have the courage and go ahead with such an unfamiliar practice, or wait until they had someone in their midst who was more familiar with it. The team felt there were so many mistakes they might end up making and, as Karolina puts it, it’s “a methodology that really requires that you know what you’re doing.”

Nonetheless, they decided to give 4D modeling a try and it proved a powerful experience, not only as an practice in itself, but also as an act of stepping into the unknown as a team and learning something entirely new together. In addition, it opened up a space in which they were:

“Learning how to read from our physical body and our social body, and how to be guided by that. And learning how to understand what it is telling us.”

Truly Collective Action

When asked what questions the team is sitting with right now, Karolina shares that they recently kicked off 2020 with a few meetings to start the co-creation process for this summer. They explored the question: “What leadership questions do not let us sleep at night?” In addition, the team understands that they “need others to understand what it is that we are doing.” Therefore, they asked their ecosystem questions such as “What added value are we bringing with the festival?”, “What are the aspects that we should focus on?” and “What wishes do people have for the festival?”

Karolina shared: “Last year we went wide, inviting and integrating lots of diversity, and this year we want to go deep. We want to be a smaller group and very focused.” In particular, the team wants to focus on learning how to create and implement collective action, both during the festival, and beyond the festival as a wider ripple effect that inspires others. Questions that came up were:

“How can we be precise? How can we be bold? How can we organize well?”

Karolina recognizes that last year the team was in the sensing and presencing phase of their collective journey, whereas now they feel they’re moving into crystallizing, prototyping and performing. Therefore, a vibrant question for the team is now:

“How do we get into action, and what does it need so that it is truly collective action and truly informed by the social field?”

Shooting for the Moon

It is clear that preparations for the Leadership Festival 2020 are in full swing, and the vision as it now stands is beyond just a one-off festival, but rather to “invite, find, and co-create ideas and initiatives that would like to embark with us on a year-long journey.” Karolina shares that the team intends to support this journey, after the festival in the summer, through the vehicle of u.lab 1x and u.lab 2x. This would allow participants to “create their prototypes, embedded in this way of thinking and operating, and then present their findings at LSF 2021” — the year after — which would then again be a broader-invitation event. This year, LSF will revolve around co-creating, whereas next year will focus on the co-learning that emerged from that.

This new, year-long LSF format, with u.lab’s annual cycle as its vehicle, allows for Karolina and her team to put into action a new way of relating to their work: “At the beginning of the festival we believed that our work was about supporting people that felt like they were alone in their work. For them to know that they were not the only crazy person in the room. Recently, we’ve understood that the work we do is about friendship, professional friendship. It’s more than just knowing of one another, because it also means being there for one another.” She elaborates on this, adding the element of forgiveness to the mix:

“Because we’re shooting for the moon, some of the things we do are going to be a mistake. Some of the things we do are going to turn out less meaningful than we hoped them to be, so we need a different quality of relationships in our communities. We need our communities to be there to hold us, even when what we do is not shiny or an absolute success. We need our communities to forgive us, to truly learn with us, and to be there with us when we’re learning to forgive ourselves, when we don’t achieve the quality we want. We’re finding out that this is kind of work is about being there for one another in the long run.”

Leading from the Heart

When asked what sparks her in this work, Karolina responded with: “There is something around mystery. And there is something about taboo, the things that are never to be named.” She touches on what she refers to as “leadership of the heart”, feeling like “let’s do it, but let’s not have anybody say it, because that completely changes the reality.” However, she sees this kind of leadership as the core quality that she and her team seem to be evoking and holding space for.

Karolina pointed out that leading from the heart is not about being nice and sweet to each other all the time, because we need to deal with the practicalities of being in projects together. However, in “trying to understand how to collaborate, the best quality seems to arise when we can connect to the space of the heart,” she highlights. “If we follow that, these are the moments of magic. This is where co-creation truly lives.” She and her team are definitely connecting to that magic, as she reflected:

“The journey we’ve been on for the past year feels like a quantum leap for us. We’re traveling fast, and our cheeks are getting all red, because it’s that exciting.”

As they continue their cosmic adventure, Karolina and her team are eager to have others join their odyssey and the wider conversation around leadership and collective action. You can contact Karolina and her team here.

When asked for some words of advice for the teams about to embark on their u.lab 2x journey, Karolina said:

“I would seriously say: Don’t overthink it, just do it. Even if you have the feeling ‘we cannot accomplish it at the level of quality that we would like to.’ It is more important to stay in motion, than to be perfect. Recognize the power of tiny steps. Whatever is going to keep you moving, and whatever is going to keep you connected and the energy circulating — follow that.”

Watch the video recording of the interview: