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Book Review: ‘Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications,’ by Otto Scharmer

If you’re looking for a book that combines a humanist perspective with leading-edge strategic thinking, here it is: Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications (Berrett-Koehler, March 2018) by MIT professor and leadership sage Otto Scharmer. Theory U is a sophisticated way of looking at leadership and its power to solve thorny issues that goes well beyond issues of profit or even the usual focus on human capital.

According to Scharmer, no matter the innovations happening in the world, it’s not enough — and mostly likely he’ll get little argument in this regard. The underlying problems are not only still plaguing us, they’re getting worse. Given the news of late, such as Cambridge Analytica’s brazen strategies or Facebook’s complicity (to say the least), he’ll probably get little argument on this point, either.

On a systemic, collective, and individual level, according to Schamer, we’re not paying attention. We’re still operating from harmful blind spots. Our perspective is stuck on backwards-looking — still referencing the same mindset that caused the problems in the first place. That’s not exactly a new idea: there’s a famous Albert Einstein quote splashed about the Internet like a futurist’s bandaid: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” But Scharmer has developed this concept into something altogether different, highly meaningful, and well worth the time and energy it takes to learn it.

One compelling strategy in the Theory U approach is called Presencing. It is just what it sounds like: a combination of sharpened consciousness, strategic thinking, and intentionally being mindful of the moment. It shifts us from self-centered to a global way of truly managing change. How this can actually come about is detailed beautifully in Essentials, but the nutshell version is that once we know our own blind spots and start paying attention, we experience a far stronger and broader awareness — and can leverage that awareness to look into the future, see the results we want to bring about, and all work together to make sure they do.

While change can happen in increments, Scharmer calls for a far more collective effort, where leaders actually co-create and co-shape better solutions. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to overcome the rampant lack of empathy now afflicting our society, which Scharmer calls de-sensing, citing Trump as the living embodiment. There are some interesting terms in this book, but they don’t feel like jargon for jargon’s sake. In Scharmer’s case, the ideas actually merit new and novel terminology — in fact they necessitate it. We need a new language and a new way of considering what it is we do in order to really forge a new direction ahead.

And this praise for the book’s elegant concepts is not meant to put potential readers off — quite the opposite. Scharmer is a natural teacher, an inspiring writer, and one of the leading lights of this new style of leadership and organizational change — his research and presentations have a global and loyal following. His MITx u.lab, an enormous open online course, draws well over a hundred thousand users from 185 countries. It’s the stuff the best TED talks are made of — and has far more substance than most.

Undoubtedly, another reason Theory U has such a wide following is that is that Scharmer and his colleagues truly focus on society, people, and the planet — not just markets. They see the need for everyone to intentionally reshape their priorities now. Scharmer challenges readers to look to the future for lessons in how to better lead and manage change — which is just what we’re seeing happen with companies innovating AI into products and services, for one.

There are apt lessons about innovations in the market and beyond to illustrate this idea. But again, this isn’t just for business: it’s about society, government, and seeing not just companies, but the global economy as an eco-system we need to tend. It’s about food, health, education, and the next generations. You might call it a global wellness movement in action — not a moment too soon.

For those of you who want to dive further into Theory U, the original full-length version runs over 400 pages. Essentials delivers the approach in a well-consolidated form for less than half that size. This is a highly readable, fascinating, practical pocket guide for how to actually create a better future, and useful for everyone from fledgling entrepreneurs to CEOs. Reading this, you’ll not only feel smarter. You’ll feel better equipped to make a difference, and possibly more optimistic about the world.

For more about Otto Scharmer, visit his website

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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