Responsible Leadership in Disruptive Times: The Need for Local Chapters of a School for Transformation

Maria Daniel Brás writes about bringing Theory U to support societal transformation, creating a generative field of trusted and compassionate relationships — with ourselves, others and nature.

Participants in Sintra, Portugal

I first joined the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network at the end of 2019, in a global event organized in South Africa. I left the event inspired and looking forward to seeking out people interested in responsible leadership closer to home; however, the pandemic came and with it, a suspension of my intention.

This year, with the measures around covid slowing down, an invitation from the BMW Foundation came to the network to organize more local events. I went forward and proposed a Theory U Introduction for Responsible Leaders in Iberia (Portugal and Spain). Although I had been wanting to implement Theory U locally since 2015, life has its own rhythm, and it had not been possible yet. Now, at this time, I was sensing the moment was coming closer. Something was calling for action in the constellation that was forming around the event.

In Lisbon (Portugal), we have two facilitators collaborating with the Presencing Institute (PI), plus one PI core team member that organizes events (myself), and also one advisor to PI. Although we all live in the same city, have shared a nourishing friendship for years and have the same passion for Theory U framework, method and tools, we had never before done anything as a group to advance (or evolve) our collective intention of bringing Theory U to support societal transformation in our country. Now was the time: I sensed that something was possible through this constellation, and I felt a calling to act on that energy.

Responsible Leadership

For me, responsible leadership centers around creating a generative field of trusted and compassionate relationships — with ourselves, others and nature. These relationships grow our ability to manifest response action that takes care of the whole (being response-able = responsible).

As such, it was clear that the event would need to include certain components few components:

  • The space needed to be a comfortable place immersed in nature, that would allow us to be outdoors as much as possible;
  • The food would be delicious, local, vegan, organic, plastic-free and made with love;
  • The facilitators would be responsible for creating a safe space and focus on providing experiences rather than transmitting content. Their deep presence would do most of the work;
  • The Theory U framework would hold everything.

There was a lot of love and effort invested in organizing the event. The day before the event arrived and everything was ready. People had arrived in the city, the food had been purchased, the farm paid, but at 10:30pm we got the news that the government was deciding on closing Sintra in the surroundings of Lisbon, where the venue of the event was located, due to the risk of forest fires on the following day (the day of the event).

Disruption is happening everywhere to everyone, at a bigger or smaller scale. Decisions need to be made in the moment for the good of all. How can we make the best decisions in the face of disruption? That’s what the entire event was all about, and what I was being faced with.

The government restrictions were placed but gladly didn’t affect people staying in one unique location for the duration of their time in Sintra; the gathering on the farm could proceed. Still, we did take additional measures and reinforced open-hearted communication to take care of people, ensuring that they would feel safe the whole time. We reassured them about the farm’s preparedness for this kind of situation, and gave everyone total freedom to decide if they still wanted to join in, or to leave the session earlier at any point. We were also candid about the inner conflict it generated within the organizing team and emphasized how we were all doing our best to be at service of a beautiful and responsible day for all. Everyone came.

Experiencing the Day Through the U

The group was composed of people from very different backgrounds, but we shared the desire to care for the planet and a belief that all of us can contribute to a better way of living in society that benefits all. We also focused on holding the event in a way that helped build and strengthen this community.

The day was designed around three moments, reflecting the overall movements of the U:

When we move down the left side of the U, we connect to the world that is outside our bubble: we allow ourselves to be immersed in the place we are in, we truly listen to each other, and we learn to tune both our open mind and open heart to actively see a situation from the current whole — we see and feel the system, including its edges.

So, all participants were invited to “observe” and meditate on their intention to be there, to “observe” and connect with each other through circles and dialogue walks in nature, and to “observe” and share where each one was in their own journey through a 3D Map.

After a morning dedicated to “sensing” (the left side of the U), it was time for a “ma”, a space or pause that allows us to “retreat and reflect.” This prepared us to move into action (the right side of the U) from a deeper place.

At the bottom of the U, we drop everything that isn’t essential: we let go of what we know to give space to the new; we let go of who we are at that moment, and we connect to a more profound source of knowing and being that emerges from within; finally, we “let-come” our highest future possibility (our best future Self). How?

In this case, our initial gateway into this space was Jeff Foster’s poems to open our Hearts, which led to an exercise called Step into the Field of the Future. We followed this with a solo walk in nature.

Finally, it was time to start going up the right side of the U, to open our will and to start crystallizing and prototyping the new that wanted to emerge.

Facilitators offered the possibility for participants to choose between creating a prototype or exploring further current blockages that prevent us from bringing our intention and deepest action into the world (the Stuck exercise). I rejoiced to watch how the group was ready to step out of our comfort zones and embrace embodiment practice, explored through the Stuck Exercise. In a natural way, it simply allowed us to discover new directions and fresh insights that may not be accessible just by thinking.

In the closing circle, seeds were planted to continue the connection through Coaching Circles or in other ways that can still emerge.

“Our gathering was something special and still resonates within me weeks after. I am ever grateful for all that you prepared and shared with us.” Testimonial from a participant

Looking back, it is impressive how significant the impact of holding the space with care, plus the immersion in nature, was on us in just one day.”I felt those around me to be present, light, and in a good mood for the day. That feeling comes from something deep — connecting on the most human level, touching the best of our humanity and “remembering” (in an experiential and physical way) that we are one with nature. This one-day brought as a result hope for ourselves, our society and the world. It gave us confidence and empowerment for creating and supporting the required transformation, even in times of disruption.

Presence combined with beautiful spaces immersed in nature seems like a recipe for the school of the future. This, plus the power of networks.

Coming Together

How did this moment come together? The BMW Foundation provided the power to connect us all; I acted as the convener, putting energy into the practicalities of gathering as well as extending an invitation that provided a clear reason to gather. The facilitators did an amazing job supporting us to reconnect with ourselves, truly connect with each other, and activate within ourselves a sense and seed of what is important in life. So, what’s next? It’s time to embark in new U journeys, maybe starting with some Sensing Journeys exploring more deeply what each one of us do every day, feeling the other’s reality and learning from it, and through that, understanding the bridges between others’ Work with our own Work, and why we are in each other’s path.

I am not sure what is exactly emerging in Lisbon, but I am very sure something will. Big or small, I feel it… It can take time. As said before, Life has its own pace. This gathering was a prototype on how to act with confidence in uncertain times, towards a future that is already waiting for us. Through this event we somehow consolidated, in an experienced way, key ingredients to foster local transformation. We affirmed that our current moment calls for a rethinking of the physical spaces, the inner place where people act from, and the methods and tools that allow us to (re)learn and transform. We felt into the need for a participatory and embodied experience, deeply connected to our own capacity to sense into emerging future possibilities.

We can co-create local chapters of this way of learning and transforming that–when scaled and spread across the planet–can help create a much better future for all.

Our deepest thanks to Katia Dumont, Eva Pomeroy, Susana Carvalho and Vasco Gaspar for their helpful comments, edits and contributions on the draft. Our extended gratitude to the BMW Foundation and Presencing Institute for supporting our efforts and initiative of social transformation.

Maria Daniel Brás serves as Digital strategist at the u-school for Transformation. She is also part of the Pathways for Transformation, Brand and Strategic Leadership Forum Circles of the Presencing Institute. She is a co-host for the Deep U hub in Portugal. She is passionate to explore ideas on how to support and scale profound societal innovation that positively impacts all beings in our planet, at the intersection of nature, people, technology, physical spaces, beauty and kindness.

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