Feature Article: Initiating Leadership Development in Norway Illustrated Through Theory U

Sine Bjerregård Hanssen

sine hanssenFor some years now it seems to have been a well known truth that Einstein’s saying “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” is quite relevant when talking about how we create and develop organizations and leaders that have the capacity to navigate the weathers of financial crisis and ecological as well as social challenges in the world. Otto Scharmer (2009) addresses this challenge by talking about “leading from the future as it emerges.” He refers to two different sources of learning “learning from the experiences of the past and learning from the future as it emerges,” (p. 7) and creates a new social technology to help see how to connect to these future possibilities. These thoughts caught my interest and through this article I want to look more into how they relate to other areas of the world of leadership development.

To have the chance to participate as an observer in a course on leadership development and organizational transformation was an interesting opportunity for me. I am a master student in the counselling programme at NTNU (The Norwegian University of Science and Technology) and am writing my thesis on the subject “Self-awareness in Leadership.” My starting point is in constructivist-developmental theories and the notion of personal development as a prerequisite for moving to higher levels of leadership. A piece in this development is the development of self-awareness, which evolves and refines as a person moves through higher stages of development. When attending a leadership development course I imagine that leaders will have the chance to become more aware of themselves, their patterns of actions and how they are perceived, and this is the starting point for writing my thesis.

The course I have been observing is a part of a master program in organizational leadership at NTNU and the students are mature professionals, primarily leaders in different organizations. The course is taught by Jonathan Reams, associate professor and Camilla Fikse, doctoral researcher at the counselling program at NTNU. It consisted of 5 days spread over 3 gatherings in the university, over a period of 3 months. In addition the participants had to work on a personal action plan in between the gatherings and ended up writing an exam paper about their personal experience of the course. For my thesis I started out doing short interviews with four of the participants before the course started, I did observations during the course and finally I interviewed the same four people at the end of the course.

Looking Through the Lenses of the U

As I started working with the different parts and pieces of my thesis a pattern emerged for me. In some ways I saw the process of the course following the U as a model and I thought it might be interesting to use Scharmer’s Theory U to describe and interpret what I saw happening in the course. I also wanted to inquire more into how this U process can support personal growth in leaders and as a part of that their development of self-awareness.

To describe what—through my eyes—happened in the course I will invite you to join me on a journey through what Scharmer (2009) calls the U. It might be appropriate to say that the facilitator team did not have Theory U in mind when they planned the course—this is my interpretation of what happened.

u process

In Scharmer’s presentation of the U-process he uses different ways of depicting the model with different focal points. In my presentation of what I experienced in the course I am using the steps depicted above.

Downloading Past Patterns


Downloading is what we do when we reproduce old patterns of thought and action. An example could be that we think we know what people are saying based on earlier experience and therefore we do not really listen, but just make our own interpretation about it. In the course you might say that people came with their own interpretation of how others saw them and how they were as leaders. This reproduction of past patterns is very common and can be hard to overcome, but in the course my experience was that the facilitators worked on creating an atmosphere in which it would be possible.

On the first day of the course we started with having a check-in circle. I saw this as a way of initiating the creation of a container and a safe environment in which people were invited to tell about themselves. The participators also did an exercise where they had to collaborate on a task, and after that talk about why it was hard to complete it. The comments were of the following sort: “If we had only had a leader to make decisions,” “I had an idea, but no one listened to me,” “I was wondering who is pulling in the other direction.” This shows a kind of downloading too. People are under pressure and do not inquire into what really is going on, but instead make fast judgements on how the situation could be changed. That represents quite well how downloading can be present in organizations too.

Suspension – Seeing With Fresh Eyes


To mark the process that the participants were entering, the facilitators also invited people to step up to the front of the classroom, and imagine going up on a balcony and looking down on themselves. This illustrated seeing yourself from the outside, seeing through a different perspective. In between the first and the second gathering the participants went through a 360 degree leadership assessment survey. (—also see an interview with Bob Anderson, creator of TLC here— and on the second gathering they got the results. It seemed that this process of getting feedback from employees, peers and superiors in addition to their own evaluation triggered a lot in most of the participants. The facilitator asked people to just sit with their results for a while and try not to analyze, explore or explain the results, just taking them in. Each of the participants then spent a while with one of the facilitators, who coached them and helped to find out what the results meant to them.

While this went on I was just sitting in the room, watching and listening to some of the reactions that came up in different ways. Some sat in silence, reading, turning papers, looking up and down. Some laughed, talked and asked each other questions. Others left the room. Some looked frustrated, scratching their heads with wrinkles of confusion between their eyes. The tension in the room was almost palpable as people tried to figure out what this meant. All day there had been an atmosphere of anticipation to get the results and it seemed like there was a shift now—like a tension had been released and something new was appearing.

To me this indicated a move to “Suspending” in the U. The participants got a chance to suspend their own views of themselves by getting the evaluation. The feedback offered them an opportunity of seeing new perspectives on themselves, seeing with fresh eyes and opening their minds to see things differently.

In relation to suspension, Scharmer (2009, p. 246) talks about the “Voice of Judgement” (VOJ), which has to be overcome to develop from what we see when we suspend our views. The VOJ represents resistance to change and makes us judge the new that is coming before we get the chance to actually take it in. If we do not manage to overcome this barrier we get stuck and will not be able to really suspend our views and move towards possibilities of new things happening to us.

I experienced this VOJ as very present in the room when people got their feedback, and that it was reflected through the ways I saw people react. The VOJ was present in the way some criticized the assessment tool, it was present in the way some interpreted words others had said about them in a way that probably most of all reflected their own downloading and it was present in the way some instantly saw the results as a defeat.

It was hard to see from the outside what happened inside people in this situation, though it seemed like a crucial point for many. If they were able to take in what the results showed them, be open and SEE what was before them they also had the chance to actually connect to it and move on in the process, to “redirect” as Scharmer puts it. If on the contrary they were denying, judging and not taking in what lay in front of them, the probability of getting stuck in their old patterns of the past would raise considerably. They would keep on downloading and not open up to see things with fresh eyes.

Moving from downloading to suspension will of course be a different process depending on who you are and how you relate to the feedback you get. Some of the participants later said that they had to spend several days digesting the results, others went through a phase of denial and blaming the assessment tool while others were very surprised and some almost sad. I think that the participants took in as much as they were able to at that time. As one of the facilitators said before the results were handed out “You will get out of it what you put into it. So the deeper you dare to reflect, the more you will get out of it.”

Redirection – Sensing From the Field


Following the U-line, the next step in the process is “Redirecting,” which is about taking what you have seen earlier and trying to see yourself as a part of the bigger issue. You realize that you have been downloading and now you can begin to relate to what lies in front of you in new ways.

In the course I saw this appear during the third day, when the participants had had the chance to digest the results from the previous day and the scene was set for beginning to work with their results. The atmosphere still seemed a bit tense after getting the results, but during the day this seemed to release as through the use of different exercises people were given a chance to inquire more into what these results meant to them, how they could relate to them and see their own role. It seemed that this part of the process was a lot about accepting the results as a valid perspective on themselves and taking in that this is actually about them and not someone else. This can be described as starting a dialogue between their own and others perspectives to find some kind of truth in this meeting point of perspectives.

The participants did an exercise that Kegan & Lahey (2001; 2009) call the four columns exercise (See June 2009 issue of Integral Review for a report on this work), which I think helped them redirect. Here they had to inquire about their commitments for improvement and what prevented them from realizing those. Through the exercise, their attention was redirected to focus on competing commitments they might have that prevented them from realizing their first commitment.

In this process I recognized some of what Robert Kegan (1982, 1994) formulates as making something one has been subject to an object of reflection. Suspending and redirecting can help people to take what they are subject to and make it an object of attention. Suspending your view to really see, e.g. the way you communicate, and then redirecting and finding out what actually lies behind your normal view can help deepen awareness. This seemed to open many people’s eyes and helped them move on to the next part of the U, Presencing.

Presencing – Connecting to Source


Presencing is described by Scharmer as “to connect with the source of the highest future possibility and to bring it into the now” (p. 163). The process of presencing is central in Theory U. As we move towards the bottom of the U, presencing represents a turning point before moving up the right side.

I saw this happening as people worked through the four columns exercise and at the 4th column discovered that behind their competing commitments lay big assumptions that they had not earlier been aware of. During this work I think some of the participants managed to connect to what Scharmer calls their inner source, to listen to what they had been discovering. Through working in groups they got the chance to let go of the old—such as their earlier downloading and judgements of themselves—and to connect deeply with the new. It seemed like their eyes were opened to the fact that they were given a chance to grow—the feedback that they had gotten made sense to them and they were in a kind of turning point in between letting go of the old and letting the new come. This was visible to me through conversations where it seemed that people had an experience of the pieces of the puzzle falling in to place. This subtle experience is hard to pinpoint and only the people who were there can say if it actually happened, but it seemed like some had this feeling of presencing. It seemed like doors opened in their minds, like they connected to a deeper understanding of what had been and what might lie ahead and just stayed with that for a while.

This leads us to starting the ascent on the right side of the U, where the attention is turned more towards action.

Crystallizing – Vision and Intention


Crystallizing is described by Scharmer as “clarifying vision and intention from our highest future possibility.” So the focus is on keeping the presencing throughout the right side of the U, but moves forward at the same time. This contrasts to just visioning, because this can be done from any place—even from downloading, which would then keep us in the same old patterns and not create real change.

For the time between the 2nd and the 3rd gathering the participants had to work on making an action plan concerning an area that they would like to work on. Based on their experiences in class—their results and what they discovered through exercises—they had to start envisioning how they would like to actually move on from what they had connected to and experienced as meaningful. In addition they had to test out the experiences and insights from the course through having a conversation with one of the persons involved in their survey.

This was also a step taken by the facilitators that created space for the participants to individually work on their own personal process, and whether they actually stayed in the U-process must have been individual too.

Prototyping the New by Linking Head, Hand and Heart


The process of prototyping also started between the gatherings when the participants had to experiment and learn from experience by actually doing what they had in their action plan. “Prototyping allows fast-cycle feedback learning and adaption” (Scharmer, 2009, p. 203) and to the participants this implied the possibility to enter a metaphorical dialogue with their context and to reflect upon the answers they got through trying it out. By continuing this process they will be able to grow from what they have learned and develop as leaders. This process depends on the participants’ will to keep connecting to what they experienced going through the U and also on how the contexts they are situated seems receptive and supportive of their attempts to do new things.

Performing – By Operating From the Whole


Performing is about bringing things to a macro level and still acting personally. It brings attention to institutional levels. This is what happens after the participants finished the course. Performing is about how the participants bring their new learning and experiences out in a larger system—primarily their own workplaces. Performing is about implementing what they have learned into everyday practices and keep on refining what they do. This is an act of balancing between keeping the connection to what was realized during the U-process (that is the course) and trying not to get stuck in a new pattern—which will then mean returning to downloading. My impression was that some participants made new discoveries about themselves and their organizations and were eager to try and initiate changes on organizational levels too.

After the course there have been reports from some of the participants who had experienced a positive effect of what they have been doing. To some it has had a ripple effect in their surroundings and they were encouraged by that.


Having gone through this process of interpretation through the U other thoughts come up in relation to this.

An important issue is to consider whether the deep learning that Scharmer talks about actually happened to the participants of the course. Jonathan Reams (2007) points to the fact that maybe a prerequisite for doing this deep work is to be at a certain level of consciousness or action-logic, and that this might lead to Theory U “being limited to an elite spectrum of the population, such as the so-called “cultural creatives” (Reams, 2007, p. 255). This question remains open, but as I went through this process of analyzing the course I realized that my experience was that the possibility of going into depth in the process was present to all participants. Whether they actually did it would then be individual, and their level of action logic might influence the degree to which they could actualize the different points of the U process. Another factor is the individual’s openness and willingness to engage in an ongoing process of discoveries.

This opens the possibility of seeing Theory U as accessible in many levels according to who you are and what process you are in, which on the other hand could imply the risk of Theory U being seen as a management / development tool for making fast changes. The balance between these two extreme points seems important to try and find and develop. An option could be to see the movement in the U as a possibility to develop towards higher levels of consciousness with the help of competent facilitators.

What happens in the U-process can also be linked to the way Robert Kegan (1982) focuses on development through making an object of something that you previously were subject to. By suspending your views you might be able to open up and notice what is actually going on. Thomas Jordan (2002) shows an example of how steps to becoming more aware of your ego-processes can be seen, for instance being subject to thought patterns and interpretations.

The process of making this an object of attention is shown as follows:

  1. Noticing: noticing that one has a propensity to think in certain pattern, and that assumptions and interpretations are made from a particular perspective, and therefore possibly biased.
  2. Interpreting/evaluating: evaluating if the typical thought patterns one has and if specific interpretations one makes are adequate and desirable.
  3. Transforming: intentionally acting to transform one’s own undesirable routine thought patterns and ways of making interpretations.

By making something an object of attention we can relate to it, make decisions about it and develop what Jordan (2002) calls self-awareness. This awareness is an important prerequisite for personal development. It is an individual process that can not be forced, but I think by creating a space where new discoveries can be made and assumptions and patterns can be reflected upon the course made it possible for the participants to heighten their levels of awareness. Some of the participants in the course mentioned that they had the experience of being more aware of themselves having gone through the course. The notion of self-awareness is quite complex, but as with Theory U you might say that the course has initiated a possibility of starting a deeper process in people. In my masters thesis I am going to inquire more into how this is experienced by the participants.


Jordan, Thomas. (2002) Self-awareness, meta-awareness and the witness-self.

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self. Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads. The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kegan, R., & Laskow Lahey, L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work. Seven languages for transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kegan, R., & Laskow Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to change. How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
Reams, Jonathan (2007) Illuminating the blind spot. An overview and response to Theory U. Integral Review, 5,
Scharmer, C. Otto (2009) Theory U: leading from the future as it emerges. The social technology of presencing. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publishers.

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Sine Bjerregård Hanssen is a master student in the Counselling Program at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She is finishing her Masters thesis in October 2009 and has an interest in leadership and personal growth. She has 6 years of experience as a kindergarten teacher, through which her interest for the complexity of human relations and personal development started. E-mail: