The Social Technology of Leadership

The Social Technology of Leadership

12.1 min read

Ayse Kok

Leaders from around all types of fields are facing a new kind of challenge: coping with the various waves of disruptive, revolutionary change.

One wave has to do with the rise of the Internet-based “new” business and its driving force, the process of digitization (Castells, 1998; Kelly 1998). A second has to do with the rise of new relational patterns and their underlying driving forces: the processes of globalization (of markets, institutions, products), individualization (of products, people, and their careers), and increasingly networked structures and web shaped relationship patterns (Castells, 1996). A third and more subtle dimension of change has to do with the increasing relevance of experience, awareness and consciousness and their underlying driving force, the process of spiritualization (Conlin 1999) or, to use a less distracting term, the process of becoming aware of one’s more subtle experiences (Depraz, Varela and Vermersch, 1999). An example is the recent growth in interest in topics like “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) or personal mastery (Senge, 1990) both inside and outside the world of business.

There are two different sources or processes of leadership: one that is based on reflecting the experiences of the past (Type I) and a second source, one that is grounded in sensing and enacting emerging futures (Type II). Each of these processes is based on a different temporal source of learning and requires individuals to work with fundamentally different learning cycles.

The temporal source of Type I learning is the past, or, to be more precise, the coming into presence of the past—learning revolves around reflecting on experiences of the past. All Kolb-type learning cycles are variations of this type of learning (Kolb 1984). Their basic sequence is action, concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and action again.

The temporal source of Type II learning is the future, or to be more precise, the coming into presence of the future. Type II learning is based on sensing and embodying emerging futures rather than re-enacting the patterns of the past. The sequence of activites in this learning process is seeing, sensing, presencing, and enacting.

Yet, Type I learning is no longer effective as the single source of learning, because the previous experiences embodied in the leadership team are no longer relevant to the challenges at hand. And the experiences that would be of relevance are not yet embodied in the experience base of the leadership team. The issue for leaders is how to learn from experience when the experience that matters most is the not-yet-embodied experience of the future.

Moreover, large-scale change, particularly transformational change, always plays out on multiple levels. The action (at level 0) is “above the waterline” and is embedded in four underlying or contextual levels of reorganization and change. The four underlying levels of reorganizing are restructuring (level 1), redesigning core processes (level 2), reframing mental models (level 3), and regenerating common will (level 4).

When leaders face a challenge, they must choose whether (1) to react directly to the issue (level 0) or (2) to step back, reflect, and reorganize the underlying contextual levels that gave rise to the challenge in the first place. Accordingly, we can distinguish among five different responses to change: reaction (the response on level 0), restructuring (the response on level 1), redesigning (the response on level 2), reframing (the response on level 3), and regenerating (the response on level 4).

The Invisible Territory of Leadership Practice

The invisible territory of a leadership practice (aka. blind spot) concerns the inner place from which an action—what leaders do—originates. Leaders are usually well aware of what they do and what others do; they also have some understanding of the process: how they do things, the processes they and others use when they act. And yet, there is a blind spot: usually they are unable to answer the question “Where does our action come from?” The blind spot concerns the (inner) source from which they operate when they do what they do—the quality of attention that they use to relate to the world (Scharmer, 2001).

I first began thinking about this blind spot when talking with the former a Senior Manager from IBM due to my research study about organisational learning. She told me that her greatest insight after years of conducting organizational learning projects was that “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” That sentence struck a chord. What counts is as Scharmer (2001) stated not only what leaders do and how they do it, but the inner place from which they operate (Scharmer, 2001).

I also realized that not only individuals but also organizations, institutions, and societies as a whole have this blind spot. What might really set successful organizations and societies apart has to do with that dimension that Senior Manager was talking about: the inner place from which a person, an organization, or a system operates.

The issue that most of today’s leaders face is that they haven’t yet learned how to see below the surface, how to decipher the subtle structures and principles of the territory underneath. They haven’t got the proper methods and tools yet that would allow them to dig beneath the surface to learn what otherwise would remain invisible. And yet, it is this invisible territory that is the most important when it comes to creating the conditions for good learning to occur. Maybe, leaders can learn to see what so far has largely remained invisible: the full process of coming-into-being of social action, the creation of a social reality (Scharmer, 2001). This invisible territory beneath the surface (aka. the territory of the blind spot) is what leaders should explore and describe.

Scharmer (2001) claims that the attention of the actor, group, or organization is exactly the blind spot that corresponds to the invisible quality of the field underneath the surface. He believes that the term ‘field structure of attention’ allows researchers to get their arms around a surface layer of social fields that is still somewhat accessible to scientific observation (Scharmer, 2001). In social fields the corresponding area is where the light of consciousness—our attention—meets and is permeated by that which normally is in the background of our awareness—the structure based upon which we pay attention to the world (Scharmer, 2001). Each field structure of attention embodies a particular type of relationship between the self and the world. Scharmer (2001) identifies seven archetypal field structures of attention that map the territory of the blind spot. They are:

1. Downloading: projecting habits of thought (seeing 0)

2. Seeing: precise observation from outside (seeing 1)

3. Sensing: perception from within the field/whole (seeing 2)

4. Presencing: perception from the source/highest future possibility (seeing 3)

5. Crystallizing vision and intent (seeing/acting from the future field)

6. Prototyping living examples and microcosms (in dialogue with emerging environments)

7. Embodying the new in practices, routines, and infrastructures.

These seven field structures of attention describe seven different ways of relating the self to the world. The one probably least familiar is that of presencing, a term that blends the two words “pre-sensing” and “presence.”According to Scharmer (2001), it means to pre-sense and bring into presence one’s highest future potential. Presencing liberating one’s perception from the “prison” of the past and then letting it operate from the field of the future. This means that we literally shift the place from which our perception operates to another vantage point. In practical terms, presencing means that we link ourselves in a very real way with our “highest future possibility” and that we let it come into the present. Presencing is always relevant when past-driven reality no longer brings us forward, and when we have the feeling that we have to begin again on a completely new footing in order to progress.

Presencing is both an individual and a collective phenomenon. For a social system to be transformed and for a profound innovation to come into being, the process must cross a threshold at the bottom of the ‘U’ (Scharmer, 2001). That threshold can be referred to as the eye of the needle. It is the location of the Self—one’s highest future possibility, both individually and collectively. At the moment we face that deep threshold, as economist Brian Arthur once put it, “everything that is not essential has to go away.” Having crossed this threshold, we experience a subtle and yet fundamental shift of the social field. So, instead of operating from a small localized self at the center of our own boundaries, we change our focus to operate from a larger presence that emerges from a sphere around us. The seven field qualities listed above represent archetypal patterns that apply to the evolution of systems at all levels (individuals, groups, institutions, ecosystems, and so forth) (Scharmer, 2001). They capture an evolutionary grammar of emerging systems from the viewpoint of the actors who actually bring about this process.

Every human being has the potential to activate this deeper capacity. Yet, although most people have had small pockets of this experience in their lives, they are quick to assert that this level of operating is not only very difficult to sustain but also seems almost impossible to perform on a collective level. In most institutions, people spend the most time in the mode of downloading, not in the mode of sensing or presencing the best future potential. What is missing, though, is the social leadership technology that would allow them to shift from learning from the past to learning from presencing emerging futures.

Defining the Social Technology of Leadership

The core of the social technology of leadership revolves around illuminating the blind spot by learning to use one’s self as the vehicle for the coming-into-being of one’s future potential (Scharmer, 2001). Scharmer (2001) defines leadership as the capacity to shift the inner place from which a system operates. And the most important tool in this leadership work is the leader him- or herself, and his or her capacity to make that shift first.

The seven field structures of attention and their underlying principles apply to the evolution of all systems (individuals, groups, institutions, ecosystems, and so forth). They provide a method for producing a common capacity to act from full presence in the “now” (Scharmer, 2001). They also introduce a language to articulate a universal social grammar for bringing forth new worlds (Scharmer, 2001). Presencing is both an individual and a collective phenomenon. The point of the presencing theory is that, for a social system to go through a profound process of transformation, the process must cross a subtle threshold, a threshold that Scharmer (2001) refers to as the eye of the needle. The eye of the needle is the Self—our highest future possibility, both individually and collectively.

Changing one’s method of leadership, when defined as shifting the place from which a system operates, involves a deep cultivation and inversion of one’s quality of attention.

• the inversion of thinking: from being bound by judgmental reactions to opening up one’s thoughts as a gateway to perception and apprehension (“access your ignorance”)

• the inversion of feeling: from being bound by emotional reactions to opening up one’s heart as a gateway to sensing—to enhanced perception and apprehension (“access your emotional intelligence”)

• the inversion of will: from being bound by old intentions and identities to letting go of them and opening up to one’s higher self as gateway to presencing the new that wants to emerge (“access your Self”).

The blind spot can be described in terms of experience (the self), leadership (source of action), organizational learning (learning from the future rather than the past), systems theory (deep field conditions from which social systems arise), as well as capitalism and democracy. For each aspect the same point could be made: that there is a blind spot in the current theory and practice of leading, learning, and change—and that the blind spot concerns the deeper source, the inner place from which an individual or a system operates. The following five practices appear paramount:

– observing: seeing reality with fresh eyes

– sensing: tuning in to emerging patterns that inform future possibilities

– presencing: accessing one’s inner sources of creativity and will

– envisioning: crystallizing vision and intent

– executing: acting in an instant to capitalize on new opportunities

These five practices embody a single movement of co-sensing, co-presencing, and cocreating the reality that wants to emerge.


The cultivation of this leadership capacity involves an inversion of one’s field quality of attention. Crossing the thresholds requires one to transform old patterns of thought, emotion, and intention by (Scharmer, 2001):

• opening the mind: through appreciative inquiry rather than judgmental reaction;

• opening the heart: by providing a gateway to sensing rather than reacting emotionally;

• opening the will: by opening up to one’s higher self and letting go of old intentions and identities.

Performing this new art of leadership effectively requires developing and refining a new leadership technology—a social technology of leadership. In contrast to a social technology of manipulation or control, a social leadership technology focuses on methods and tools that help diverse groups of stakeholders to see, sense, and create together in a way that transforms past patterns and actualizes future possibilities. The most important tool of this technology is the leader’s self, his or her capacity to shift the inner place from which he or she operates.


Arthur, W. B. (2000), Sense Making in the New Economy. Conversation with W. Brian Arthur,

Xerox Parc, Palo Alto, April 16, 1999, in: Scharmer, C.O. et al (eds.), Accessing Experience, Awareness and Will. 25 Dialogue-Interviews on the foundation of knowledge, awareness and leadership. Unpublished project report, Cambridge, MA, August 2000, Vol. IV: 541-576.

Castells, M. (1996-98), The information age: economy, society, and structure. vol.s 1-3. London: Blackwell.

Conlin, M. (1999) Religion in the Workplace, The growing presence of spirituality in Corporate America, in: Business Week, New York, November 1, 1999. Issue: 3653

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990), Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, N.Y.: Harper Perennial.

Depraz, N., F. Varela and P Vermersch (1999), The Gesture of Awareness. An account of its structural dynamics, in: M.Velmans (Ed.), Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness, Benjamin Publishers, Amsterdam.

Kelly, K. (1998), New Rules for the New Economy. 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World. New York, NY: Viking.

About the author:

Ayse is a graduate student in the field of organizational learning and now an adjunct lecturer and consultant in this field. You can find more info about Ayse at

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