Wednesday, 17 February 2016


In their extraordinary book, Presence, Peter Senge and his four colleagues discuss newer dimensions of learning as they freely waft from the mundane world of management to the philosophy of the Bhagawadgeeta, the religion of the bible and theosophy of Buddhism. They provide a new perspective to leadership with their concept of deep learning. Senge had earlier discussed about reflective learning and generative learning in his Fifth Discipline. In Presence, Senge et al take us through the third dimension of learning, learning through the inner self. Reading Presence is not only a journey in the realm of concepts but also into the deeper world of philosophy and even spirituality to create a new idea of leadership.

Leadership Needs Deeper Learning

How important is learning for leadership when technology takes quantum jumps almost every day? Learning is more important today than ever to organizations. 
Peter Senge et al[1] say, "All learning integrates thinking and doing . All learning is about how we interact in the world and the types of capacities that develop from our interactions. What differs is the depth of the awareness and the consequent source of action".

Traditionally learning is a reactive process governed by established mental models and action is dictated by established habits. Edmund Burke thought that past was the basis of future innovation. No more. Today's leadership wonder's, like P.G.Wodehouse, how to be prepared for the unexpected. Senge et al say, "From John Dewey on, theorists have argued that we learn from the past through cycles of action and reflection that leads to new actions....Learning based on the past suffices when the past is a good guide to the future. But it leaves us blind to profound shifts  when whole new forces shaping changes arise." When paradigm shifts take place the past is no more a guide to the future. Traditional reactive learning fails to shed light on what the future would be like.

Hence, what Senge et al prescribe is deeper learning which enables leadership to see the future  by looking back from the future to the present. In place of fragmented view of the world based on our mental model, we have to create the "increasing awareness" of the larger whole, the entire system, not only as it is now but also as it evolves. Deeper learning, thus, enables us to create the future rather than merely plan for the future. The key to creating the future is the "capacity to suspend", that is the ability to stop our habitual ways of thinking and perceiving. We suspend our usual ways of thinking; we reserve decisions on what we perceive: we step back and allow ourselves to "see our own seeing". Looking at ourselves as a third person in our mind's eye and seeing ourselves as that third person provides a new and different perspective to our perception. It enables us to look at us more objectively. For leadership this means the need to look at itself from a distance.  

The second part of deep learning is seeing the organization from within. Senge et al concede that "Seeing from the 'whole' in an organization may seem difficult, but learning to be more attentive and genuinely curious about the cultures we live in and enact is the first step". From this ecological worldview, we have to move inward. They call this Theory U. The future is far removed from the conventional mass  manufacturing system of today. For today's leadership making decisions based on past experience will be more and more difficult in this uncertain 'casino of technology' of future. Knee jerk responses like "oh, they have an inventory problem" will have to yield room to deeper kind of responses like "what really is the problem here?" The former operates from our conscious mind; but the latter is more fundamental and is at the 'deeper level of knowing'.
Theory U operates in three steps:

Leadership Learning
Step one: Observe, observe and observe. Moving down the right arm of U, we become one with the world, or identify ourselves with the world. This is called SENSING. As against the popular theory of leadership through 'vision', Theory U emphasizes an inner knowing where the decision becomes obvious without having to 'make a decision'. One's inner knowing is connected to one's ideals and nurture. As the inner knowing clears, what we are presented are not alternatives, but the clear road ahead.

Step two: Retreat and reflect: At the base of the U, in this step we allow the knowing to emerge. We become aware of knowing. PRESENCING. We see beyond the external reality. Presencing is seeing from the vantage point of the source from within. Like the vision, we see the future whole emerging as if we are peering back at the present from the future. We can picture it like taking to H.G.Wells' time machine, take a trip to the future and from there look back at the present!                           

Step three: Action. One acts swiftly with the natural flow. REALISING. Moving up on the right side arm of U. Unlike conventional model of learning, action in this case comes from a source deeper than the rational mind. It comes from the understanding in the inner self.
Senge et al put it succinctly thus, " At its essence, the theory U poses a question - What does it mean to act in the world and not on the world?" Conventionally the leadership  is separate from what it seeks to change. Look at leaders who want to change their organizations. Action in theory U emanates from the unity of our self with nature, the higher self.

As conceded by the authors, theory U is not easy to practice. But leaders are exceptional men and women. Exceptional men and women, indeed, will find theory U at least as guide post for action in their organizations..

Leadership Learning
To conclude, it may be worthwhile to reproduce three quotes from the book which will throw some light on the essence of theory U.
The Bhagavad Geeta: "All actions are wrought by the qualities of nature only. The self, deluded by egoism, thinketh: I am the doer."
Jesus: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man (or a lofty leader!) to enter the kingdom of God".(Italics mine.)  
Buddhist theory of unity of mind and world is alien to Western World. "If you follow your nature enough, if you follow your nature as it moves, if you follow so far that you really let go, then you find that you are actually the original being, the original way of being...the original being knows things and acts, does things in its own way. It actually has a great intention to be itself, and it will do so if you just let it".

By V.K.Talithaya    

[1] PRESENCE by Peter Senge, C.Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty C. Flowers
On 2/17/2016


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