Otto Scharmer: Facing Disruption With Presencing

Helio Borges
8 min readApr 29, 2021

How to Turn Disruption Into Opportunity With Presencing

Presencing. Image Olaf Baldini, Presencing Institute

Read the article in Spanish here

Presencing is a word not known by the general public, except for relatively few people who are practitioners of complexity theory, systems thinking, systems change, neurosciences, and Theory U. Nevertheless,

for the purpose of transforming today’s disruptions into opportunities, Presencing is probably the most important leadership capacity that the world needs to master in every aspect of human endeavor in the decade ahead of us, which according to the Presencing Institute, is “The Decade of Transformation”.

Turning Ordinary Citizens Into World-Class Changemakers

Otto Scharmer, and his amazing team of collaborators at the Presencing Institute, are marching into The Decade of Transformation in the company of a 200K strong force of very active Theory U Global Community of changemakers. I am one of them.

I am a Theory U practitioner since 2015, when I stumbled upon the MITx course, u.lab: Leading from the Emerging Future. Since then, I have been on a sustained journey of discovery, mostly within my own Self. That journey has led me to discover the capacities of my true Self, giving me the opportunity to develop them fully, personally, and professionally.

Before my encounter with Theory U, I was a well-intentioned 65 years old man who witnessed helplessly how “business as usual” was driving the world on a collision course to hit the wall in every aspect of society. Now, at 71, and regardless of my very particular harsh circumstances, I am a young at heart disruptive entrepreneur who is ready to step on “The Decade of Transformation” in the company of the Slow Agile team of changemakers, with whom I am developing The New Normal for Business Agility. If I turned my life around at 65, anyone can do it too.

What was the catalyzer that produced such a change in a retired introverted old man?

The catalyzer was Presensing, a groundbreaking competence of Theory U, through which I not only discovered my highest future possibility but also was able to bring it into the now.

Illuminating the Blind Spot

Why do our attempts to deal with the challenges of our time so often fail? Why are we stuck in so many quagmires today? The cause of our collective failure is that we are blind to the deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change. This “blind spot” exists not only in our collective leadership but also in our everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source dimension from which effective leadership and social action come into being. We know a great deal about what leaders do and how they do it. But we know very little about the inner place, the source from which they operate. And it is this source that “Theory U” attempts to explain.

When leaders develop the capacity to come near to that source, they experience the future as if it were “wanting to be born” — an experience called “Presencing.” That experience often carries with it ideas for meeting challenges and for bringing into being an otherwise impossible future. Theory U shows how that capacity for Presencing can be developed.

The U: One Process, Five Movements

Theory Executive Overview.

Theory U, One Process, Five Movements. Image: Presenting Institute

Presencing is a journey with five movements:

Connect to the Source of Inspiration, and Will — go to the place of silence and allow the inner knowing to emerge

As the diagram illustrates, we move down one side of the U (connecting us to the world that is outside of our institutional bubble) to the bottom of the U (connecting us to the world that emerges from within) and up the other side of the U (bringing forth the new into the world).

On that journey, at the bottom of the U, lies an inner gate that requires us to drop everything that isn’t essential. This process of letting-go (of our old ego and self) and letting-come (our highest future possibility: our Self) establishes a subtle connection to a deeper source of knowing. The essence of presencing is that these two selves — our current self and our best future Self — meet at the bottom of the U and begin to listen and resonate with each other.

Once a group crosses this threshold, nothing remains the same. Individual members and the group as a whole begin to operate with a heightened level of energy and sense of future possibility. Often they then begin to function as an intentional vehicle for an emerging future.

Facing Disruption with Presencing

Otto Scharmer

Otto Scharmer spoke at the Presencing session of u.lab 2X, the Accelerator for Systems Transformation of the Presencing Institute. The Slow Agile team was there, in the company of 400 more changemakers.

“When we live in a moment of disruption, like we are in this century, Presencing is already there, you don’t need to bring it. There is an awareness that something else is wanting to emerge. Presencing is the process of connecting with that. In that regard, disruption is not an enemy, it is our friend because it is inviting us to let go and let come, which is at the heart of the process.”

When you hold the space for others, connecting with your own emerging self is one of the main vehicles that you have, but there is something else.

In one image, in terms of Process Architecture, you don’t go into a continuous process. You stop! You discontinue! It is not like problem-solving. By stopping you open up a deeper space here. (He signals the gap at the button of the U)

Otto Scharmer

It has to do with:

First. Stopping your habitual way of operating and allowing you to connect with a new possibility. Connecting to stillness might be a way, but the other piece is connecting with your Feeling-Knowing. A lot of going down the U Process has to do with connecting with Resonances. If you connect with resonance, is neither totally subjective, not entirely objective. It is not up there in the wall. It is emerging from your relationship — how you connect with what's happening around you.

Second. When you go down the U, you are deepening your experience with resonance. How does that work? What are the main mechanisms of going into resonance?

  • One is stillness. if you keep doing what you are doing, you are always in over-drive — problem-solving. So, you are not going to experience any resonance. Stillness is MA, as Arawana says. This is one enabling condition.
  • The other one is attending to your Feeling-Knowing, attending to what is emerging from within — Attending to what is emerging from your experience. You stop and you attend, that is the basic gesture that you want to hold for your team.

When you go down the U from Sensing to Presencing, what really is that distinction? We offer two ways of how to think about that.

One way of differentiating Sensing from Presencing is:

  • Sensing is really tuning into the resonance of what is happening around us — the reality that has already emerged.
  • Presencing is resonating with what is wanting to emerge. It is a deeper layer of emergence, what is wanting to emerge through us, and the “us” is individual and collective. Here is a sacred space, (he signals the gap) something that you use as an individual as a gate to lean into the collective.

The other way is:

  • Sensing is leaning into the reality out there.
  • When you move into Presencing you are no longer leaning in. It is a reversal. You enter into a deeper space of attending to the situation that is no longer looking for, on the contrary, it is allowing something to emerge that is wanting to speak to you. The essence of deeper resonance is actually when something wants to speak to you. It could be emerging out of a conversation. It could be the group situation that you attend to in a deeper, different way. It could be a landscape, a tree. So, when something begins to speak to you, then you are beginning to enter to that deeper space of emergence. That is the space that you are trying to hold and try to be in service of.

Seven Theory U Leadership Capacities

The journey through the U develops seven essential leadership capacities.

Theory U, 7 Leadership Capacities. Image: Presencing Institute


The foundational capacity of the U is listening. Listening to others. Listening to oneself. And listening to what emerges from the collective. Effective listening requires the creation of open space in which others can contribute to the whole.


The capacity to suspend the “voice of judgment” is key to moving from projection to true observation.


The preparation for the experience at the bottom of the U — presencing — requires the tuning of three instruments: the open mind, the open heart, and the open will. This opening process is not passive but an active “sensing” together as a group. While an open heart allows us to see a situation from the whole, the open will enables us to begin to act from the emerging whole.


The capacity to connect to the deepest source of self and will allows the future to emerge from the whole rather than from a smaller part or special interest group.


When a small group of key persons commits itself to the purpose and outcomes of a project, the power of their intention creates an energy field that attracts people, opportunities, and resources that make things happen. This core group functions as a vehicle for the whole to manifest.


Moving down the left side of the U requires the group to open up and deal with the resistance of thought, emotion, and will; moving up the right side requires the integration of thinking, feeling, and will in the context of practical applications and learning by doing.


A prominent violinist once said that he couldn’t simply play his violin in Chartres cathedral; he had to “play” the entire space, what he called the “macro violin,” in order to do justice to both the space and the music. Likewise, organizations need to perform at this macro level: they need to convene the right sets of players (frontline people who are connected through the same value chain) and to engage a social technology that allows a multi-stakeholder gathering to shift from debating to co-creating the new.

If you are a leader interested in turning around your organization through a “Business Agility” transformation process, contact us at to have a generative conversation.

Read the article in Spanish here

Sources: u.lab2X, Theory U Executive Overview.



Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges