Characteristics of the transition we are in 

By Otto Scharmer

(Taken from the introduction of his book Theory U. Leading from the future as it emerges)

‘We live in an era of intense conflict and massive institutional failures, a time of painful endings and of hopeful beginnings.

It is a time that feels as if something profound is shifting and dying while something else, as the playwright and Czech president Václav Havel, put it, wants to be born:

‘I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself – while something else, stil indistinct, were rising from the rubble'.

Facing the crisis and call of our time

Because our thin crust of order and stability could blow up at any time, now is the moment to pauze and become aware of what's rising from the rubble. The crisis of our time isn't just a crisis of a single leader, organisation, country of conflict. The crisis of our time reveals the dying of an old social structure and way of thinking, an old way of institutionalizing and enacting collective social forms.

The social structures that we see decaying and crumbling – locally, regionally and globally – are built on two different sources: premodern traditional and modern industrial structures or forms of thinking and operating. Both of them have been successful in the past. But in our current age, each disintegrates and crumbles.

The rise of fundamentalist movements in both Western and non-Western countries is a symptom of this disintegration and deeper transformation process. Fundamentalists say: ‘Look, this modern western materialism doesn't work. It takes away our dignity, our livelihood, and our soul. So let's go back to the older order'.

This reaction is understandable as it relates to two key defining characteristics of today's social decay that the peace researcher Johan Galtung calls anomie, the loss of norms and values and atomie, the breakdown of social structures. The resulting loss of culture and structure leads to eruptions of violence, hate, terrorism, and civil war, along with partly self-inflicted natural catastrophes in both the southern and northern hemisphere. It is, as Václav Havel put it, as if something is decaying and exhausting itself.

What then, is arising from the rubble? How can we cope with these shifts? What I see rising is a new form of presence and power that starts to grow spontaneously from and through small groups and networks of people. It is a different quality of connection, a different way of being present with one another and with what wants to emerge.

When groups begin to operate from a real future possibility, they start to tap into a different social field from one they normally experience. It manifests through a shift in the quality of thinking, conversing and collective action.

When that shift happens, people can connect with a deeper source of creativity and knowing and move beyond the patterns of the past. They step into their real power, the power of their authentic self.

I call this change a shift in the social field because that term designates the totality and type of connections through which the participants of a given system relate, converse, think and act'. The shift of a social field is more than a memorable moment. When it happens, it tends to result in outcomes that include a heightened level of individual energy and awareness, a sustained deepening of one's authenticity and personal presence, and a clarified sense of direction, as well as significant professional accomplishments.

As the debate on the crisis and call of our time begins to unfold, proponents of three distinct positions can be heard:

  1. Retromovement activists: “Let's return to the order of the past'. Some retromovements have fundamentalist bent, but not all of them. Often this position comes with the revival of an old form of religion and faithbased spirituality.
  2. Defenders of the status quo: ‘Just keep going. Focus on doing more of the same by muddling through. Same old same old.' This position is grounded in the mainstream of contemporary scientific materialism.
  3. Advocates of individual and collective transformational change: ‘Isn't there a way to break the patterns of the past and tune into our highest future possibility – and to begin to operate from that place?'

I personally believe that the current global situation yearns for a shift of the third kind, which in many ways is already in the making. We need to let go of the old body of institutionalized collective behaviour in order to meet and connect with the presence of our highest future possibility.

And, finally:

‘The real battle in the world today is not among civilizations or cultures but among the different evolutionary futures that are possible for us and our species right now. What is at stake is nothing less than the choice of who we are, who we want to be, and where we want to take the world we live in. The real question then is ”What are we here for?”

Old leadership is crumbling similar to the Berlin Wall. What is necessary today is not only a new approach to leadership. We need to go beyond the concept of leadership. We must discover a more profound and practical integration of the head, heart and hand – of the intelligences of the open mind, open heart, open will – at both an individual and a collective level'.

The concepts of Otto Scharmer integrate seamlessly into the concepts of the development of humanity through the seven phases as shown on this website and in my book Transforming People and Organizations. One strengthens the other.

Read more about Scharmer's views and concepts concerning the future of humanity: Theory U. Leading from the Future as it Emerges and the Essentials of Theory U and on his website:


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