Archive for November, 2013

Global Fall Stories: Fire from Within

Monday, November 25th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

I love living in Boston, MA, on the east coast of the United States. I particularly love being there during the Indian Summer, when nature is turning the leaves a glowing red, making visible an inward turn of evolutionary forces. What more powerful image could nature put on show for us? Mother nature, contemplated from this perspective, seems to be issuing a global call that can be heard everywhere —a call for an inward turn, for profoundly renewing the foundations of our civilization, the ways we work and live.

Where can we find this shift and call for future? In the here and now: The future is already here! We just need to learn to pay attention to it. We need to learn to see the glowing leaves as a sign of the future in the midst of the everyday noise.

Here are four short stories about what I have seen lately—this fall. Read them, and if you feel moved to, please add your own story to the comments on this blog.

(1) U-Lab: The Power of Deep Listening.

I love teaching my U-Lab class at MIT Sloan. Teaching? Well, it’s really more holding the space. Creating a space for listening. Listening to what is emerging. And being vulnerable, willing to open up and to let go, to jump into the unknown—and staying with what is wanting to emerge. Each week the Lab participants engage in several practices (e.g., an empathy walk; presencing-based case clinics) and then reflect on them in their circles and in a weekly one-page paper that the U-Lab staff and I get to read. What have we seen in those reflection papers over the past few years?

One consistent theme has been the power of deep listening. Most students are able to profoundly transform their listening in just six weeks. And they are amazed at the impact this has on their experiences. Because the moment you begin to pay attention differently, what changes is no less than . . . EVERYTHING. That’s because our experience of reality arises in our consciousness through the structure that we use to pay attention. There is no other way.

The first step in the U-Lab class to shifting your listening is to go on an empathy walk. Pick a person who seems very different from you (in class, worldview, life-style, or political views, for example). And then connect with and make yourself a guest in that person’s life. Empathize with that person by putting yourself in her shoes, her feelings, and her thinking—in her “skin.”

After that exercise I ask the students what they notice about their listening. One Lab member responded: “I am noticing that in order to truly listen I have to create a place for the person I am listening to in my heart first.”

That sentence reveals the first golden nugget I wanted to tell you about. It’s a key to unlocking a profound shift in our relationships to others, to the world, and to ourselves.

The next story looks at how this shift can happen collectively.

(2) Climate Change: Five Conditions for Shifting the Collective Field

Another major activity for me this fall has been the launch of a seven-month transformation action learning program with a huge Chinese state-owned enterprise. According to the Forbes Global 2000 list (which for the first is topped by a Chinese company) that enterprise is currently the largest company on the planet. One reason I enjoy working with Chinese leaders is precisely because my experiences with them are so different from how Western media tend to portray them.

The team of the state-owned enterprise that I’m working with is composed of senior executives and high-potential younger leaders from across the company. Their goal is to develop ways to evolve and reinvent the company and the industry given the disruptive changes they face.

In one session we focused on climate change (as we do in all leadership programs of this sort). Here is how it works: Folks split into six teams, each representing one of the following countries or country groups: USA, EU, another developed country, China, India, and one other developing country. Each team is given a short briefing paper outlining their own interests and issues, and then the participants enter the negotiation room. There are six tables (one for teach team), with lots of food on the tables of the developed countries, and little or no food on the tables of the emerging and developing countries. Then the facilitator (Prof. John Sterman) addresses them as if he were the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon. He summarizes the current science and urges them to reach decisions that are appropriate to the global climate challenge that they face. The participants are given some time to discuss the issues in their delegations (at their tables) and with the other groups before each team is asked to present their commitments to climate action to all of the other delegations. The Secretary General asks each team to present their commitments by answering the following questions:

1. When will you stop increasing your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?
2. When will you start reducing your GHG emissions?
3. At what rate will you reduce your emissions?

We then use a peer-reviewed scientific climate-change model to calculate and simulate the impact of their decisions on the climate for the remainder of this century. After seeing these projections and their impacts, the groups are asked to review and revise their decisions. Usually they commit to much more radical cuts then they did in the first round.

Having seen this simulation with several other groups before, I knew what to expect after round two: even after making much more radical commitments to reducing GHG emissions, the outcome of their decisions is still massive climate destabilization, catastrophic sea-level rises, and temperature changes that will destabilize societies on a scale never seen before. The participants tend to have strong emotional reactions after this experience: denial, depression, and cynicism—the usual wicked triad. They are deeply disturbed and confused by the outcome of the exercise.

But this time it was different. Together the six teams almost had a breakthrough after round two. It wasn’t quite a breakthrough, but it was close, and you could sense that the tide had started to turn. We began to see a shift from one mindset (“ego”), in which the delegations engaged in finger-pointing and made decisions that served their own narrow self- interest, to another mindset (“eco”), in which delegations let go of their narrow country ego and devoted their full shared attention to collectively solving the challenge at hand. In short: they shifted their mindset from ego to eco.

On my way home that night I remember thinking that what I had seen was pretty amazing. In one microcosm, I had just witnessed the kind of shift that is deeply necessary now on a much larger scale around the world. So what were the enabling conditions that allowed this collective shift to happen? Here are four that I saw at play:
• A container: All the key players were together in one space.
• Science and data: The best possible data and science were readily available.
• An activation of the senses: People were able to see, sense, and feel the possible impacts of their decisions. Example: They saw what would happen to Shanghai if the sea level rose two meters over time, plus another two-three meters during a typhoon: Shanghai would cease to exist.
• Making the system see itself: The people who made up “the system” saw themselves as if reflected in a mirror—collectively.
• Leadership: time, space, and patience in holding up the mirror for the group.

Watching this process I can tell exactly when the shift started happening: it was when the system started to see itself. That is, when the participants went from thinking “Climate change is what they are doing to us!” to thinking “Look at what we are doing to ourselves!”

How did the shift happen? By letting reality sink into the collective mind. By allowing the (eco-systemic) global reality to penetrate the (ego-systemic) mindset of the institutional decisionmakers. That penetration creates a shift that Goethe once eloquently articulated like this: Every object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ of perception within us. Meaning: the current global crisis, jointly contemplated by the community of decisionmakers that is generating it, opens up a new organ of perception—a new level of common awareness and possibility for collective action—within us and between us.

That’s the second amazing golden nugget I’ve found this fall. If replicated on a large scale, it could help us to bring about the collective (ego to eco) shift necessary today. The climate change simulation model and additional methods and tools are freely available on

(3) Abu Dhabi: The Knowing – Doing Gap

The third story comes from Abu Dhabi, where last week I attended a World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council session with a group of 1,000 amazing thought leaders and change-makers from across all sectors, systems, and cultures.

Here is my takeaway from the manifold conversations at that meeting. Many conventional thought leaders conceive of the current global crisis in terms of closing a knowledge gap: if only we could close the knowledge gap (on how to address the current challenges), we would be able to take appropriate action. But true change making practitioners often express the other view: the real gap today is not a knowledge gap, it’s a gap between knowing and doing. That is, the real problem is a collective capacity gap of sensing and shaping the emerging future at the scale of the whole system. If that is so, how can we create new spaces that allow people to co-sense, lean into, and co-shape the emerging future?

In my view, it would mean reframing the existing structure of public conversation that focuses on decision-makers (institutional leaders) on the one hand and decision-framers (thought leaders) on the other by introducing a third category of change-makers that focus on creating the conditions that allow individuals and systems to go through transformative change (ego to eco). Because this third category of change makers is largely missing, we tend to have the same old conversations time and time again.

(4) Indonesia 2013: YES WE CAN!

Today, as I write this blog entry, I am leaving Jakarta, Indonesia, where I attended the graduation workshop of the fourth IDEAS Indonesia program, a nine-month collective innovation journey with leaders from across all sectors of Indonesian society (business, government, civil society, academia, media). They came up with five fabulous prototype projects that allowed them to explore the future by doing: from sustainable tourism to community-based sustainable mining and reforestation practices.

In all five projects the participants somehow succeeded in shifting a multi-stakeholder situation from working in silos to collaborating more creatively, collectively, and intentionally in order to better serve our commons. That shift from ego to ego came in many different forms. But in reflecting on this process, the IDEAS fellows realized that one important precondition to making these shifts happen had to do with shifting the inner place. Here is how one of them, the CEO of a company, reflected on his personal journey over the past nine months: “It feels as if my life has brought me to a crossroads. Over the past few months, I realized that I had forgotten or not achieved many of my childhood dreams. But then I realized that I still can make a change.  I feel empowered to do what I wanted to do when I was younger. Through you and with you my new friends in this circle, I feel more invincible now. At the same time, I also feel a heightened sense of humility.”

I just love that quote—such a beautiful microcosm of a nine-month journey: waking up, remembering my dream, attending to my power to create change, connecting to a circle of friends that makes me “more invincible now,” and grounding myself in “a heightened sense of humility.”

In listening to the first-person stories of the fellows, I heard time and again the following three themes and awakening capacities: (1) deep listening, (2) discovering new sources of energy by engaging in care- and compassion-based action, and (3) courage to let go of fear and to commit to serve the well-being of all.

One evening we were invited to meet with the new Vice Governor of Jakarta, who together with the new Governor is among the most beloved and admired political leaders in Indonesia today. They have managed to take on corruption and huge vested interests in order to better serve the well-being of all. In short, they do what many had hoped from the Obama White House team: deliver.

So how can they cope with powerful vested interests turning against them? Total transparency! They put the state budget and every single stakeholder meeting they have instantly online. Interestingly, the Vice Governor talked about essentially the same key themes that earlier in the day the IDEAS fellows had talked about when reflecting on their experience: caring for the well-being of others, courage to fearlessly implement, and co-creating new economic models that serve the well-being of all.

Summing up: It feels as if the spirit of our time calls for a global fall, for turning our evolutionary forces inward, for discovering the fire from within that helps us lean into and operate from the emerging future. So where can we find early examples, the first red leaves, for this turn?

We generally find them first in the following places: (1) on the periphery of systems, (2) locally, (3) with young folks (Gen Y), and (4) in situations of systemic breakdown and/or the emergence of new systems. The above four stories represent just some of the first leaves that are beginning to glow. Which ‘leaves’ do you see in your environment glowing?

On February 11–12, 2014 we will bring many more of these ‘leaves’ and change makers together from across systems, sectors and cultures at the Global Forum on Transforming Ego-system to Eco-system Economies at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts. Please join us on that occasion in Boston or virtually through free live-streaming.

Greeetings from (currently) China,


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