Some initiatives seem to run without saying, take little energy and the results are superior. Other efforts drain all energy and, in the end, the results are still disappointing. These ‘energy-draining’ efforts also impose additional pressure on mutual cooperation amongst people involved. Often, the initiator is then forced to lower his ambitions and thus makes the effort less rewarding for others than it initially promised to be. Eventually original enthusiastic people drop out and the initiative is at the risk of running down.
What makes the difference between a generative and an ‘energy draining’ process?
Of course, there are many causes, but the most important one is the inner attitude from which the initiative is headed. The inner place from which we operate is the major blind spot in leadership development. More and more it shows in practice that (social) intelligence and spiritual principles have less influence on the course of a process than an open attitude of the leaders and initiators of the initiative. (Otto Scharmer MIT)
An open attitude contains:
Creative leaders and initiators give their trust to the way others realize their mysterious adventure. They switch off their ‘Voices of Judgment and Fear’ and open up to other ideas and other ways of reasoning (open mind). They also empathize with the perspectives of those who they want to serve (open heart). They are able to generate progress out of the potential energy that is included in dualism (masculine/feminine; process/content, reactive/creative) and diversity of interests and value systems. They have learned that an inner attitude transcending these opposites gives new meaning to their efforts in the big picture and thus more creative power. They sense the “current of the river” (open will) and nurture a void for what is emerging out of this current and they boldly let go of what isn’t. It is in particular this attitude, driven by the will to learn from the future that inspires others to get involved and to support the goals of their initiative.
The reverse influence of coercive persuasion
This flow could come to a standstill when the process gets entangled in rigid complication with the mental models of new people involved. The attention to openness to what is emerging from the future turns into avoiding errors from the past. Edgar Schein, the mentor of O. Scharmer, has done groundbreaking research to the implicit coercive persuasion behind a hierarchical attitude of leaders and initiators. A well-known example is the school system. Teachers like to talk about a free learning process, but students do not have the option to change schools or teachers when the quality of the teaching is poor. They are required to graduate within 4 years. The same applies to employees who are dependent on their jobs because of their mortgage. There is no question of an open mind, heart and will amongst employees in a hierarchical organization. This is the reason why small business start-ups and innovative civilian efforts run-down in cooperation with large banks, government and internationals like Philips.
Creativity and vitality means breaking with coercive persuasion
It is essential that leaders and initiators who want openness and creativity choose out of inner motivation to be open for (self)reflection. They must have a great willingness to examine their own values and beliefs. It is unsafe for employees when leaders react inconsistent or respond ambiguously to frank behavior. At its core, leadership is about shifting how individuals and groups attend to and subsequently respond to a situation. The trouble is that most leaders in hierarchical cultures are unable to recognize, let alone change, the behavior in their organizations.
Learning to recognize certain blind spots requires a particular kind of listening and observing. As with golf an open attitude is essential to make the right swing and stroke. A creative leader understands that his perception is a limitation and blind spots can make the difference between a ‘ top ‘ and a ‘ flop ‘ decision. He knows that his perception follows what he thinks he observes and what he perceives as his inner emotional reaction to that observation. These two lead to a judgment and finally an impuls or solid intervention. The slightest distortion in either one of these items can make the whole thing go south.
Figure 5: the ORJI-model of prof E. Schein.
Prof. E. Schein therefore stimulates his employees to become aware of their own mindset, blind spots and habits. As head of his faculty within MIT he once received an alarming signal that the phone bills of his academic staff were completely out of control. He sent the prints of the phone records to his academic staff without any comment. They were shocked to see the results of their habits. After some research they discovered that their students regularly used their phones. So, they decided to consult with each other, examined their own habits and attitudes and designed a shared creative intervention to alter these ‘phone habits’ in the faculty. The academic staff kept on redesigning an intervention until everyone said: “Wow, this is really inspiring”.
Creative interventions always are inspiring. The essence of creative interventions is that they set the right conditions for a breakthrough into a state of ‘oneness’ instead of the usual consciousness of division and separateness between people and their institutions. These moments of oneness are perceived as a miraculous turnaround setting free the mindsets of all involved.
The opposite of creative is reactive. Both words are composed of the same letters only the order differs. The same reality and two completely different angles. A reactive process is aimed at avoiding loss, fear, grief and pain, so it always brings limitations and bias. A reactive intervention follows a past experience and a creative intervention contains free space for a future breakthrough or unification of what is divided. Such as reactivity is based on fear, so is creativity based on trust. Dualism (indoor/outdoor, beautiful/ugly; right/wrong, etc.) is caused by a lack of trust and compassion.
Leadership and the big picture
As a leader is more and more confronted with the bias and limitations of his mind and as he’s frequently astonished by what is possible after creating free space, he is in the process of understanding that ‘coincidence’ is an essential building block in each process. He or she then will deliberately start to make room for serendipity (the unsought find) and synchronicity (more than just a coincidence) amongst his/hers participants in the process. The leader will then just set a frame or postpone defining end results as long as possible. Implicitely this means that his need for control will have less impact on the process of ‘learning from the future’.
The fastest way to become a leader is first to become a master in listening, observing and sensing the highest possible of what is evolving. Deep states of presence and awareness are well known by top athletes in sport. A good example is the story of a certain professional golf player of how he prepares for a stroke. He, unlike most golfers, does not focus on his drive. He prepares at first by observing, sensing and connecting to the bigger picture. He senses the heat of the sun and observes the clouds. He senses the smell and the gradient of the grass. He listens to the wind and the trees.
He seems to know how to align his heart to the “big picture” and he trusts deep within that it will support him to swing and drive the ball the right way forward. Finally he, regardless of right or wrong, performs the only correct action appropriate to the circumstances. Confidence in the big picture, including his mind heart and will, is the source of his success.
There are four levels of sensing and listening:
- downloading – listening by unconsciously reconfirming the usual emotional reactions and judgments;
- factual – listening by paying attention to facts (disconfirming data included) as the only source for trustworthy observations and judgments;
- empathic listening and sensing often drives a change in perception;
- creative/generative listening and sensing sets of the highest possible future.
Downloading is impulsive and stands for a direct jump from observation to intervention (see figure 5). Judgement without thinking is a kind of reconfirming opinions that already existed beforehand. A good example is the golfer who assumes he knows the golf course. He only pays attention to what he knows best and is mainly focused on his stroke.
Factual listening is the basic mode of good science. A leader switches off his inner voice of judgment until the facts are on the table. He is focused on what differs from what he already knows. Like the MT academic staff. They requested more details of the phone calls. At first glance, it appears the problem is larger than they thought. More than 40% of the list consists of international calls and they occur at moments that class is provided by MT staff”
Empathic listening means that one attempts to imagine oneself in the position of another. To really feel how another feels we have to have an open heart. It is a profound shift from staring at an objective world of things and facts to connecting directly with another person from within. We forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world appears through someone else’s eyes.
Creative/generative listening is listening to your inner deeper knowing. It means to align your will to something greater than yourself. To live in grace with the big picture. Sensing the ‘current of the river’ that flows through the emerging field of future possibility. Your alignment with something greater than yourself changes you from a separate individual with “his- story” into a drop of water in the ocean. There’s no story left and goals are meaningless. Yet, everything unfolds exactly as hoped for. All initiatives run without saying, take little energy and the results are superior. Your ‘trustful being’ inspires others to get involved and to support your efforts.
Metaphor for 21st-century leadership: a fortress or a river.
Current challenges can’t be adressed with a 20th century mindset of downloading and factual problem solving. It is increasing frustration, fear, distrust and anger. New leaders need to learn to cope with these challenges from an inner generative source. Twentieth century leaders used to build ‘fortresses’. A 20th century fortress is about control and worldly power. It contains large multinationals, a solid financial system with international banks, a strong health system, insurances and a reliable pension system. Everybody is aware of the latest developments showing that these fortresses are at the point of collapse.
New leaders need a systemic mindset that can cope with more complexity, chaos, fast and fundamental change. First, new leaders should build their inner fortress of trust. Second: show extreme openness to every emerging challenge in the future. Third: be aligned with the bigger picture and stay connected to the highest possible. The new metaphor for these leaders is to observe, sense and follow the ‘current of the river’. (inspired by Marja de Vries ‘Samenlevingen in balans’ Zutphen 2015)