Drawing Attention to Intention
Otto Sharmer, one of the founders and life force behind Theory U, often references a pivotal moment in his development that came through a conversation early in his career with Bill O’Brien. In reflecting on his years of experience leading transformational change as the CEO of Hanover Insurance, O’Brien summed up his greatest insight as this:
“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”
This insight inspired Sharmer to study and build his work around one of the most overlooked leadership and social change blind spots of our time: the interior condition of the leader. Said another way: the inner source from which a leader operates. In his work and research, Sharmer defines the “source” as the origin of our actions and perceptions. He came to understand that what counts is not only what leaders do and how they do it (what’s visible), but also the source from which they act (what’s invisible). Awareness of this source where our actions, communications, and perceptions arise allows us to connect with ourselves, each other, and emerging future possibilities in a new and generative way.
In The Essentials of Theory U, Sharmer contrasts the phrase form follows consciousness with the French philosopher Rene Descarte’s famous statement, “I think therefore I am.” If we consider Descarte’s statement through the lens of Theory U, it would suggest, “I attend (this way); therefore it emerges (that way).” For example: a facilitator goes into a meeting with a plan to guide a group through an agenda toward a desired outcome. While this sounds simple, a desired outcome isn’t often produced through a linear, pre-planned agenda. Skillful facilitation requires paying attention to the social field, the energy one brings as facilitator, and carefully tending to how one’s own energy interacts with what’s alive in the social field. This all impacts how participants engage, as well as how the agenda unfolds and what emerges from it in response to that engagement.
For me, this understanding holds immense promise and invites a whole new dimension of possibility into the field of social justice and social change work. It also underscores why I believe it’s so important we tend to the practice of embodying whatever kind of change we are trying to create in the world...because what we practice, we become (a favorite reminder of mine from modern-day sage, Krista Tippett from NPR’s OnBeing).
To illustrate this, consider the scenario of a nonprofit team whose mission is to help build a more democratic society. This group has the opportunity every day to live their shared intention by asking themselves: how democratic is our own organization and how are we embodying the democratic principles we stand for? While this seems like a given, embodying the change we want to create as leaders is easier said than done, in part due to the leadership blind spot of disconnection from source. Most of us have experienced this kind of dissonance between the stated intentions of organizations and leaders, and how they actually operate. But changing what we practice is ultimately how we change what is, and all change starts at home...with ourselves.
If the quality of results in a social system are a function of the consciousness from which the people in the system operate, what are the practices that help us deepen our collective consciousness that, in turn, impacts the quality of our shared intention?
This is a core inquiry our AoH DC organizing team has been holding for the past 9 months as we've been preparing to co-host a 3-day AoH training in March 2020. To delve deeper into this inquiry, we’ve been engaging with different practices, including circle practice, meditation and other presencing practices, working with emergence, action learning, and deep listening. Through these practices (individually and collectively), we’re strengthening our relational field, sensing into what’s alive in the broader social field we’re connected to, and creating space for us to grow as individuals within - and in service of - our collective work. It’s been a patient and slow-moving start, thanks in large part to the guidance of stewards. At the center, we are holding shared intention. Intention to be present. Intention to center relationships. Intention to practice together. Intention to cultivate this expanding space of consciousness and emergence…..together.