“Institutions should serve people, but unfortunately, it’s often the other way around. People give their allegiance to an institution, and they become prisoners of habits, practices, and rules that make them ultimately ineffectual” (Krim, as cited in Bennis, 2009, p. 31). This allegiance to institutions, though, not only relegates individuals to prisoners of the system, but forgets that the individuals make up the system. The relationship between the individual and the system is a paradox. The system is the individual and the individual is the system; Senge (2006) refers to this phenomenon as systems citizens. The system is in place to benefit the individual and the individual is there to benefit the system.
Oftentimes this symbiotic relationship becomes mired in the place in which the sustainability of the system takes precedence and individuals are relegated to the status of “interchangeable liabilities” (Bennis, 2009, 174). The imbalance is described by Scharmer (2018) as the moment the system does not sense and see itself. The system fails to sense and see the individuals as Senge (1990) describes, “the organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization” (p.4).
Similarly, individuals see the system as external or something “out there” by engaging in blame tactics that distance themselves from the system which in some cases they helped to create. Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009) commented on this with the concept of the illusion of the broken system; the illusion is that no system is dysfunctional, each system was created to produce the current results. While the current system elegantly addressed adaptive challenges, it has since become the status quo (Heifetz et. al., 2009). Due to “the elegance and tenacity of the status quo” (Heifetz et. al., 2009, p. ), an attempt at change will be met with resistance.
In some sense, the system is always in a state of change. However, it is the large changes that cause a high degree of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that stand out. In the historical context from the last century, the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the Women’s Rights Movement were two such instances; in recent times, particularly the period since the pandemic, has been marked with tumult as we deal with social justice issues, freedoms of women, variations in social identity, and our collective wrestling with the definition of work and place. During turbulent times people look for a leader, they seek the “great man” to help during these times. Ladkin (2020) argues that individual focus on the leader is a distraction from the underlying system dynamics which lead to and exacerbate the crisis. It is our romance with leadership that prevents us from seeing and sensing the system.
While previously individuals would look for a hero to help lead the system through great change, it appears as though the uncertainty and complexity of Covid created a shift in how people view their role within the system. The complexity and chaos that we are sensing is a result of the individual experiencing a ‘presencing cycle’, while the system is experiencing an ‘absencing cycle’ brought on by the events of Covid (Scharmer, 2018). The current dearth of individuals in the labor market is a reflection of a ‘presencing cycle’ in which individuals are unearthing and prioritizing the values that are most important to them. Presencing consists of seeing, sensing, crystallizing, and co-creating (Scharmer, 2018).
The seeing phase of presencing helped people to realize that the system has taken precedence over family, health, both mental and physical, and personal wellbeing (Scharmer, 2018). And through the sensing phase people have realized that this model is not sustainable (Scharmer, 2018). The response has been a shift from having jobs to building careers. In entering the crystallizing phase, vision and intention allowed individual needs and wants to take priority. No longer are people tied to one organization, instead they have decided to prioritize themselves and move organizations based on their needs.
This shift in mindset has precipitated prioritizing organizations that provide benefits such as increased meaning or the flexibility of working location and scheduling. Senge (2006) refers to a “shift of mind” while Scharmer (2018) describes it as “let go and let come”; Haldeman (2017) refers to it as the moment of impasse which, “is a learning point where we have to let go of our old ways of thinking, doing, and being to approach a current challenge in a fresh new way” (p. 22). As individuals move through a presencing cycle they realize that the nature of their discontent within the system is not a result of something out there, but of something internal. This shift of mind which helped individuals to realize the source of their discontent was internal also awakened them to the fact they did not need a “great man” but could instead be their own hero. As more people engage the presencing process, identifying solutions to the adaptive challenges that the system currently faces will signal the co-creating phase (Scharmer, 2018).
The System is Going to System
Throughout each major upheaval the system has entered a cycle of absencing (Scharmer, 2018). Absencing is the process of having a closed mind, heart, and will (Scharmer, 2018). In this state, the system cannot see or sense itself; instead of understanding that people have changed their mental models of how they fit within the system, the system has relied on denying, de-sensing, blaming, and destroying (Scharmer, 2018; Senge, 2006). Ways in which the system has attempted to distance itself, or blame something out there, is through placing labels such as “quiet quitting” or “the great resignation” (Scharmer, 2018). For the system, the status quo is still producing the desired results at an acceptable level whereas the individual has decided the status quo was no longer producing the desired results (Heifetz et. al., 2009).
Evidence of Senge’s (2006) assertion that, “the harder you push the harder the system pushes back” (p. 84). This phenomenon can be found in the restrictive laws that are being enacted across the country which limit the rights of women to make decisions about their bodies, or the regulations which attempt to limit the discourse of social justice issues in educational institutions, or the pronouncements of “don’t say gay” which challenge the identities of individuals within certain communities. These outward activities are a reflection of the denying (fake news), de-sensing (echo chambers), blaming (walls), and destroying (violence) of the absencing cycle (Scharmer, 2018). At this present time, the system appears to be driven by fear, hate and ignorance which hinders it from seeing and sensing itself.
The System is US
Of course, in some cases, the system is attempting to respond to this shift of mind by moving from downloading to seeing. As an indicator, several organizations including my own are beginning to suspend the previous constructs of work and place and engage in discussions about the future of work. Leaders and employees are establishing a dialogue on questions such as: “what is community”, “what is the future of our organization”, “how do we maintain our effectiveness in a remote, VUCA world”. It is in these conversations, in which we learn to listen to one another that we can experience a collective presencing cycle. Until we realize that the enemy is not someone out there, but the enemy are the voices which Scharmer (2018) highlights of judgment, cynicism, and fear, can we learn to listen to one another and in effect change our world. The only way to emerge from this VUCA world is that we engage in dialogue with one another to see the world through another’s perspective and hold space for a new reality to be born.
Our system is full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Our communication channels are filled with examples of fake news, echo chambers, walls, and even violence. We are seeming collectives with opposing views marching towards an inevitable collapse of the system as we know it. Yet there is hope. Recently I had dinner with my family at a restaurant in a pretty segregated part of the city. As I was sitting there, a young white male approached me and said, “I just want you to know that I have spent the last few minutes watching and I had not experienced a black family before. You all showed me that we are more alike than we are different.” The young man and I then engaged in an hour-long dialogue about our backgrounds and experience. We listened to one another and in that moment, we began to build a new world between us. As more and more people move into presencing, really start to listen to one another, we will change our world and we will co create the future that we could only imagine.
Bennis, W. (2009). On becoming a leader: The leadership classic (4th eds.). Basic Books.
Haldeman, J. (2016). Ready for anything. Cognella Academic Publishing.
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linksy, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.
Ladkin, D. (2020). What Donald Trump’s response to Covid-19 teaches us: It’s time for our romance with leaders to end. Leadership, 16(3), 273-278.
Scharmer, C.O. (2018). The essentials of theory u: core principles and applications.
Senge, P.M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (2nd ed.). Currency.