Executive Education

7 Practices to Lead Your Business into a Better Future

In any industry, tech or traditional, there’s one essential leadership challenge that keeps CEOs awake at night. It’s how to develop the capacity to meet the next disruption. Leaders need to be able to co-sense and co-shape the next disruption and build an eco-system of partners to actualize that opportunity.

To achieve this requires leaders take a journey both personal and systemic — departing from the well-trod path of the usual solutions to a place with the most potential. There are seven key practices leaders can use to take that journey:

1. Deepen your quality of listening.

There are four levels of listening: habitual, which reconfirms what you already know; factual, in which you open your mind to discover new, disconfirming data; empathic, which involves opening your heart to see through the eyes of another; and finally, generative, in which you open your will to sense the emerging future. To co-sense and co-shape the future in your own context, cultivate the deeper levels of listening — listening to others, yourself, and what the universe wants you to do.

2. Deepen the conversation among your core team.

There’s no point in assembling high-IQ individuals if the team suffers from low collective IQ — or “WeQ.” To raise the team’s WeQ, raise the level of the conversation — leaving behind both the conforming politeness of “what people want to hear” and the kind of confrontational debate that just gives voice to individual’s thoughts. Instead, elevate to a connecting dialogue that factors in the whole picture. Speak with a collective creativity that tunes into the emerging future, not the past. It’s the leader’s job to enable a team to operate at the right level — by reshaping the internal and external conditions – space, time focus, diverse voices, and a sense of shared purpose.

3. Take your teams on sensing journeys.

Too much time is wasted and few new ideas are generated in meetings, conferences, or calls. New ideas happen through engaging with the edges of the system and immersing in places of most potential, when people listen with their mind and heart wide open. Then use generative conversations to mine the gold created during these immersion experiences.

4. Go to a place of stillness and allow a deeper knowing to emerge.

The harder it is to unplug, the more mission-critical it becomes. All great leadership is based on addressing the two root questions of creativity: Who is my Self — what is my highest future possibility? And: What is my Work—what is my purpose, what is the story of the future that I try to be in service of? To find out, we need to balance the external demands of our modern work environments with inner practices of intentional stillness.

5. Crystallize vision and intention.

he power of aligning attention and intention, both individually and collectively, is the force that propels economies and human creativity forward. Energy follows attention. Wherever you put your attention, that’s where the energy goes — the energy of the people around you, as well as your own. If you crystallize your real vision and intention and align it with the work of a team, that intention will attract helping hands, collaborators, and opportunities for next steps.

6. Prototype to explore the future by doing.

“Fail early to learn quickly” is the mantra of prototyping. It’s the leader’s job to create spaces for radical new thinking — and to protect the heretics and pioneers who challenge the status quo. Then, choose the right prototyping idea using the seven R’s:

Rapid — can you do it quickly?

Rough — can you do it cheaply at a low resolution?

Right — does the microcosm reflect the most important aspects of the whole?

Relevant — is it relevant personally and organizationally?

Revolutionary — does it change the system?

Relational — does it leverage all relevant networks and relationships?

Replicable — is it designed to be reproduced on a larger scale?

7. Invert your organization by turning the core attention from inside to outside.

Across all industries, sectors, and systems transformations happen in similar patterns: closed structures open up; top-down silos flatten and become more agile and fluid. To lead this process effectively, the team at the top has to embody an opened mind (curiosity), heart (compassion), and will (courage). The focus and the mindset shift from managing to cultivating; from silo to eco-system of innovation; from limited awareness to an awareness of the whole system.

Since we live in an age of major societal disruption, addressing the challenges of change can’t be explored without attending to the larger context, which is defined by three major divides: the ecological divide, the social divide, and the spiritual divide. These are the result of our growing disconnect from nature, others, and ourselves. The leader’s new work calls for attending to these divides and finding practical ways to bridge them. These seven practices provide practical first steps.

Written by: Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT and cofounder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation, which helps leaders from business, government, civil society innovate at the whole-system level. He is author of Theory U, second edition (translated into 20 languages) and coauthor of Leading from the Emerging Future. In 2015 he co-founded the MITx u.lab, a massive open online course for leading profound change that has grown to more than 100,000 users from 185 countries. His new book is The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications (Berrett-Koehler, 2018).

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