Otto Scharmer, from MIT's U-Lab movement, says "the future of leadership will be more feminine"
Its founder and deviser, MIT’s Otto Scharmer, leads thought around the implications of U-Lab methods for how power is distributed and used in society. And in this blog from the Garrison Institute, Scharmer has led straight into one of the most challenging questions: is there a difference between “masculine” and “feminine” styles of leadership (qualities not locked into biological gender)?
Whatever it might be, says Scharmer, it would be “the opposite of the current style of leadership — you could also say the Trump style of leader — where the leadership is organized around the ego”.
U Lab’s “Theory U” intends to cultivate this style. What is it?
Theory U and awareness-based systems change can be summarized in three sentences. You cannot understand a system unless you change it (the Kurt Lewin quote). Secondly, you cannot change a system unless you transform consciousness. And you cannot transform consciousness unless you make the system sense and see itself.
So, for example, when you bring a stakeholder group together around a specific issue, you put them on a journey and then through the journey they learn to see the reality through each other’s eyes. The goal is to not only know, but to also feel how someone else is looking at that issue, and to feel the pain of those that are the most excluded from the process, and so on.
So that’s what you do throughout the journey — making the system, which is the stakeholders, sense and see itself. [You do this by] creating a body of shared experience that then allows you with that group to unlock a process of thinking together, developing new ideas and then exploring these ideas through prototyping activities. So that’s Theory U in a nutshell. You need to move from the thinking to the feeling—which is thinking with your heart—and from there to the doing.
Scharmer goes on to identify Theory U with “feminine” leaders:
They remove themselves from the center. They create space for others. They are good at listening. They are good at holding the space. They are good at attending to the whole. They are good at helping people to connect to the edges of the system. They are good at connecting with an emerging future potential and holding the space for that conversation.
You asked me, so what is Theory U? And it’s all of these things — relating and listening and holding the space and bringing something new into reality that’s coming through you. But I could have also mentioned another title for all these aspects and qualities, which is feminine leadership. You could say Theory U is really an articulation of the more feminine side of leadership, which is largely missing in our institutions and culture today. In China we would say the yin and yang, and it’s the yin side that’s missing.
Of course it’s not that we only need one or the other. It’s really about rebalancing, because right now we have too much of one and too little of the other. Rebalancing means paying a lot more attention to the cultivation of these feminine aspects of leadership, particularly as it relates to collective leadership capacity.
Because in people coming out of business schools and out of leadership training, out of most of our educational system, the subtle side of leadership is not cultivated. It’s not supported. And when you talk about consciousness-based leadership or consciousness-based systems change, you cannot do it without it.
Theresa Riley: What are some of the hallmarks of “feminine” leadership related to this shift from ego to eco awareness?
Otto Scharmer: To use a different word, it’s going from a silo view to a systems view. And the process of doing that is stepping into the shoes of others and having the right tools for reflection and listening. Because often there’s a great deal of difficulty when you are exposed to people with very different views than you hold yourself.
There is actually a missing capacity to connect to that. You have to suspend your habits of judgment (open mind) and also have the capacity to access your empathy and compassion (open heart). You need to showcase examples. You need to give frameworks and offer practices that engage people every day and you need a support system with whom you review these things. If you put the support structure into place, it’s amazing how much can happen in just a short time and it’s most amazing to the participants themselves.
So I would say in this ego to eco shift, the two main ingredients are the deepening of listening, and being exposed to very different viewpoints within your own system. It’s very doable. But only if you build an infrastructure in support of it.