Scharmer on leadership

September 27, 2010 § 3 Comments

Here’s a taster from a really interesting paper by Otto Scharmer:

Leadership is the capacity of a community to co-sense and co-create its emerging future. This shifts our framing of leadership development from the single-person-centric concept to a concept of leadership that is more about “igniting fields of inspired connection and action.” (Otto Scharmer).

The full paper is here.
I don’t think this means that there shouldn’t be leaders – the position of those who see leaders inevitably as tyrants. It is a question of the kind of leadership. If the leader’s role is seen as facilitating the co-sensing and co-creating Scharmer speaks of, his / her strength will be welcome in holding the boundaries and making it possible for everyone to be involved in that process.


§ 3 Responses to Scharmer on leadership

  • Terry Boardman says:

    “Leadership is the capacity of a community to co-sense and co-create its emerging future.”

    Tom, I note here that Scharmer says: “the capacity of a *community* to co-sense and co-create…” (my emphasis) NOT the capacity of an individual. One must surely ask: how then can one even talk about ‘leadership’ if the community is doing it? What even is the point of focusing on “leadership”, which after all, necessarily implies “followership” just as “buyer” implies “seller” and “teacher” implies “student”?

    What Scharmer seems to be pointing to in the extract quoted is not so much “leadership” as “fellowship”, but I can appreciate that this word “fellowship” might not go down so well in the corporate business world in which Otto Scharmer moves, as it has all kinds of implications for the economic life and business practice, implications that relate ‘dangerously’ to the communal lifestyle of the early Christians.

    However, Scharmer does say: “This shifts our framing of leadership development from the single-person-centric concept to a concept of leadership that is more about “igniting fields of inspired connection and action.” (Otto Scharmer).”

    Note what he has done here. In the first sentence he says: “Leadership is the capacity of a community to co-sense and co-create its emerging future.” Leadership is the capacity OF A COMMUNITY

    but then he says :

    “…a concept of leadership that is more about “igniting fields…”

    which surely implies the individual DOES something to the group. It implies that the individual ignites (fires/stimulates/inspires) the group (=field), which was formerly unfired, unignited, unstimulated, in fact, passive, rather than the group/community ITSELF co-sensing and co-creating i.e. igniting/stimulating/inspiring each other. ‘Field’ is of course one of those trendy but vague buzzwords today, used also in particle physics, that can be stretched to mean almost anything, even though the very concept of a field implies a boundary of some sort.

    I have just this morning been reading the Gospel of St John Ch. 13. Verses 12-17 and 34-35 seem especially significant in this context.

    Above all, I think it worth asking: where actually does all this recent focus on ‘leadership’ in the Anglo-American business world originate? One thinks also of organisations such as Commonpurpose here in the UK, which also bangs the drum for ‘leadership’. Is it arising because there are those in the Anglo-American world who sense that they may be in danger of *losing* their (Anglo-American) leadership of world events? is it an attempt to regain and reclaim a fading sense of global leadership by encouraging their (English-speaking) citizens to focus on leadership? If someone points out that MIT has an international profile and that Otto Scharmer teaches students from all over the world, she can be directed to ‘the Wimbledon model’i.e. “we may not win the games but we make the rules and thus determine the culture”. I recognise that in his “Theory U”, “Capitalism 3.0” etc Scharmer is presenting soemthing that is not conventional Anglo-American thinking in nature, but neither of those two things ( “Theory U”, “Capitalism 3.0”) actually requires a renewed focus on “leadership”.

    It’s interesting that one sees in so many western movies the hero or leader making some big (‘igniferous’) speech to the assembled mass before they move into action of any kind. Our politics is moving ever more in this direction, replete with Hollywood style razzmatazz i.e. the content alone is not enough, the packaging of ‘leadership’ (the semi-conscious etheric and astral elements) has to be included. Is this the way we want to go? By contrast, one hardly ever sees such speeches made in Asian movies (by which I mean east of India). They would be regarded as so much personal bombast and embarrassing. These ‘igniferous’ ‘combustianising’ speeches and this ‘from the front’ model of personal leadership seem to speak to something deep in the western psyche, and, I would suggest, they go back to *pre*-Christian times. There is much that is still very pre-Christian in American business and cultural life. Do we really want to encourage that by a focus on more ‘leadership’ (no matter how delicately dressed) as distinct from ‘fellowship’?

    In activity groups in the 60s (e.g. the Diggers in San Francisco), a new kind of organisational mode spontaneously emerged – the ‘leaderless group’ – which the authorities found very hard to deal with, because they could not bribe, discredit, kill a particular conspicuous, clearly responsible individual or leadership group or cadre – as had been done with Malcom X, Martin Luther King and the two Kennedys, or with IRA leadership cadres in the 30 Years’ War in N. Ireland, who were assassinated by the British State.

    This leaderless mode re-emerged in the campaign groups of the 80s against nuclear power and for women’s rights and in the 90s against global capitalist exploitation. Could this mode not be an indication of communal co-sensing and co-creating that is more in tune with the times than the top-down focus on ‘friendly’leadership that seems to be emerging from western elite circles such as MIT and Commonpurpose?

    This is not to say that what MIT and Scharmer are doing is not to be commended *for the business world* as a way to wean business and corporate executives off their habitual and culturally deep-rooted injections of testosterone, but I would seriously question whether what may be appropriate for the business world is so for the rest of us. Over the decades there have been too many crossovers already from the American business world to the rest of ‘the democratic West’that have had dire social consequences.


  • Sebastian says:

    What’s the problem with leadership?

  • tomravetz says:

    I’ve observed that there’s a problem with leadership when we unconsciously equate leadership to tyranny, or dictatorship. Two elements make this feel wrong: the role is fixed, and there’s no accountability.
    Leadership meaning taking a role consciously bestowed and in which one is held accountable is so commonplace that we hardly notice it. One person drives the car and another do the map-reading; one person directs the whole play and another is charged with immersing herself in one character.
    So for me the best discourse on leadership is about lifting what is a functional reality of any work in groups into consciousness and getting it to work better by understanding its phenomenology. I brought the reference to Coleman in the paper in a previous post: it felt very interesting to me that he identifies different leadership gestures, and suggests that people who successfully take up leadership roles are able to move between them. That suggests to me that leadership appropriate for our time is not about fixing on a different gesture than the tyrant, or Pharaoh; rather it’s about self-awareness and freedom in choosing what is appropriate for this group at this time.

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