Unintended Consequences: Minimizing the ‘Oops Factor’ in Decision Making

Best selling author, Rodger Dean Duncan, just published his new book LeaderSHOP: Workplace, Career, and Life Advice From Today’s Top Thought Leaders  

Early in his career Rodger served as advisor to cabinet officers in two White House administrations and headed global communications at Campbell Soup Company. He has coached senior leaders in dozens of Fortune 500 companies. 

I’m excited to have him stop by the blog to share his thoughts on leadership.

“Unintended consequences” is the term for outcomes that are not the ones foreseen by a purposeful act.

When a manager consistently gives tough assignments to a worker who’s proven himself to be reliable, the go-to employee may begin to feel “penalized” by the additional load while the less reliable workers get a free ride. What was intended as a compliment and vote of confidence turns out to be an unwelcome burden.

In medicine, unintended consequences are called “side effects.” Have you listened carefully to television commercials for drugs? The list of side effects is often longer than the narrative promoting the medicine. Why would we be warned that a product purported to relieve a simple ailment may also produce paralysis, high blood pressure, thinning hair, skin rash, weight gain, blurred vision or even thoughts of suicide? Because the lawyers said so.

The old caution of “don’t operate heavy equipment while taking this medicine” seems to have morphed into “this pill will help your headache, but it also might kill you.” Caveat emptor indeed.

The fine print on an over-the-counter pain remedy I bought said it caused “irritability” in one in 10,000 users. It turns out that the first day I took one of those pills I was “irritable.” (I’m relying here on the assessment of an independent observer: my wife.) Irritable or not, I felt special. At that ratio there are fewer than 32,000 of us in the entire United States. We could rent Madison Square Garden and throw a party. The capacity of Madison Square Garden is only 18,200. But I’m confident a lot of us (at least those still taking the pain remedy) would be too grouchy to attend anyway.

I should be embarrassed to admit it, but sometimes I don’t bother reading the list of possible side effects. This behavior is risky, much the same as failing to read the terms and conditions on a contract before checking the box claiming to have read the terms and conditions.

As Isaac Newton observed, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In business, as in the rest of life, most every action we take has the potential for consequences we didn’t anticipate. Some of those consequences may be serendipitous, like the “accidental” invention of the Post-It® Note by the guy at 3M Company who brewed up a batch of sticky-but-not-too-sticky adhesive. And some consequences are unpleasant, like a profit-based bonus system that inadvertently motivates people to trim spending on maintenance and safety issues.

Is there an absolutely foolproof way to make decisions? No. But there are some common sense guidelines that can help:

  1. Decide what to decide.Many decisions can and should be delegated to others. Not only does that give them the practice, but it enables you to devote attention to those decisions that legitimately require your laser focus.
  2. Be collaboratively independent.Confer with subject-matter experts, but avoid getting mired in decision-by-committee. Solicit the views of credible sources, but be prepared to own your own decision.
  3. Avoid information bloat.Tom Hanks’ character in “You’ve Got Mail” said it well: “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc.” Information overload can lead to analysis paralysis, which can lead to fuzzy thinking, which can lead to faulty decisions. Keep it simple.
  4. Define your desired outcome.As we learned in Alice in Wonderland, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll get you there.” To the extent possible, clarify what your desired result would “look like.” Establish a handful of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound).
  5. Beware getting stuck in the thick of thin things. Most of the hundreds of decisions and choices we make each day are relatively inconsequential—which dental floss to buy, or which salad dressing to order. Save your decision-making energy for the issues that really matter.
  6. Don’t expect perfection.Gather the best information available. Weigh the pros and cons of your options. Then decide. You’re unlikely to have all the answers, or even all the questions. And you can’t anticipate every possible consequence. Just be ready to build your wings on the way down.

Again, most decisions come with no guarantees. But remember this uncomfortable reality: failing to make a decision is, in itself, a decision. With consequences.


Learning to be a Positive Leader

What is positive leadership?  How do people change when they are trained in positive leadership?

One of our programs in positive leadership lasts one week.  A year later, the participants return for a week of follow-up.  In opening the second week, we do an in-depth exercise in which they review and share what they learned, what they tried, and what happened.  When they report out, they typically offer compelling accounts and the temptation is to focus on the most dramatic achievements.  Recently, as they shared, I avoided the temptation and instead recorded their key summary statements.  The next morning, I organized their statements into four rough categories:

  • Integrity and Authenticity: I clarified my personal purpose; I am so much more self-aware; I learned that we are who we are; I am more authentic; I have embraced vulnerability; I said I was going to try a new practice and someone asked if it was a new management trick I learned, I paused, then I said, Yes, I will try anything in order to have better relationship with and in this team.
  • Courage and Action: I feel more empowered; In my sphere of influence, I am taking more initiative, I am taking positive actions; In my conversations I am more courageous; For my people, I stood up to the boss no one dares to challenge and he responded by changing; I am doing more sharing over and I am doing more sharing up.
  • Positivity and Concern: I have gained a more positive focus; I am more focused on others; I am paying it forward; I have become an advocate for others; I have discovered that people want to be positive.
  • Learning and Development: I am into asking questions; I have changed how I respond to the statements of others by saying, ‘I wonder…,’ the practice has begun to spread. I am talking less, and listening more; I make it a point to demonstrate positive actions; I practice catching people doing good; I am more into killing the weeds by growing the grass.


  • From their summary statements, how would you describe or define positive leadership?
  • How is it different from conventional management?
  • Of all the above statements, which one has the most value for you?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Knuckleheaded Cop, the Wisdom of Rebirth, and an Insight of Significance

With an extraordinary group of executives, I experienced a week of meaningful teaching and learning.  As the week passed, people became more authentic and vulnerable.  As trust climbed, we watched the emergence of collective intelligence and experienced accelerated learning.  It was a weeklong conversation of excellence in which we together co-created wisdom.

There was one man who was particularly quick to move to trust, authenticity, vulnerability, and sharing.  At one point he said of his peers, “I spent my life as a knuckle-headed cop.  I am in awe of the depth education and capacity I see in this room.”  It was a statement of the heart, and everyone felt it.

As time passed, I noted that he was also quick to share insights about transformational influence.  I made a mental note that he was different and began to look for an explanation.  The answer came as he told a personal story.

He had moved from local to federal law enforcement.  He attended a leadership program that had a heavy emphasis on ethics and moral power.  He was moved by what he learned and he determined he was going to live a more moral life.

A short time later there was a scandal and he was called upon to testify.  He knew that there were far bigger issues than the ones that had been uncovered.  It was made clear to him by people in power that he needed to have a “bad” memory.  He faced a huge identity crisis.  Was he going to take the risk necessary to live his recent commitment to principle or was he going to cave under the enormous external pressures?

He chose integrity and determined to live with the consequences.  Because of his testimony, there were big revelations and the government had to change.  He personally had to face the punishing dynamics that surround a whistle blower.  This was not pleasant.  Yet he returned to his job and focused.  He did not tell the truth to gain attention.  He did it because he believed he need to live an ethical life.

Later in the course, another topic emerged.  We were speaking of positive peer pressure.  When an organization transforms, one element is the transformation of peer pressure.  When mutual expectations suddenly align with the highest purpose, members of the group begin to expect each other to do the right thing.  This radically changes the dynamics and the larger transformation accelerates.  The leader’s job becomes much easier because everyone is now leading.

My friend raised his hand and declared there is also an internal version of the process.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  He again spoke of his challenging experience but this time he made a new point.

Because of his choice to face his challenge with integrity, he had a new kind of life experience.  Now he not only saw himself as one who believes in moral principles, he also saw himself as one who lives moral principles.  This led to a new identity.  Instead of accepting the path of least resistance as natural, he began to expect himself to pursue higher purposes and live by his values no matter what.  Doing so has dramatically changed the path of his life and he has learned things that were inaccessible when he was living a more conventional life.

I was struck with his insight.  When a group finally embraces a higher purpose and makes the unusual shift from fearful, negative peer pressure, to courageous, positive peer pressure, it creates dynamics that lift everyone in the group to a higher level of performance and learning.  When an individual finally embraces higher purpose and makes the unusual shift from fear and ego to courage and community, she creates an internal dynamic that lifts herself to a higher level of performance and learning.  The internal shift is an outcome of rebirth and it gives rise to learning and to transformational influence.  What happens on the inside and on the outside are reflections of one another.  Transformation is both an individual and a collective dynamic.



  • How is collective decay linked to individual fear and the lack of morality?
  • What is personal rebirth, and what does it have to do with leadership and with organizational success?
  • Why do leaders enter a learning trajectory and access resources not available to conventional managers? What are the resources?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Traveling Together in the Uncertain Now

The young man I was speaking with was clearly very bright.  He had his own consulting firm and he was having much success.  He told me in detail of the expertise and methods of the firm and of the sophisticated processes for problem identification and data generation which they use to attract client firms.

He told me his people listen to the symptoms that concern the client organization and then they do a root-cause analysis.  The real issue is almost always embedded in the culture and leadership of the organization.  This is often a message the executives are unwilling to hear.  They insist on dealing with the symptom.  When this is the case, he and his colleagues terminate the relationship.  They see it as a matter of integrity.

I was deeply impressed with the last fact.  I only know of a very few consulting firms that have operated with this level.  Most are transactional and are willing to do what is necessary to make money.  When I question their assumptions, they often take offense.  Virtue and morality makes no sense.  They see me as naive.

My friend asked me about my intellectual tools for organizational change.  I replied, “My content is only an excuse to be in the organization, to form a relationship.  The objective is not only for them to see the root-cause but to also acquire the courage to address the root cause.  Courage is one of many virtues.  The problem is an issue of insufficient moral strength.  Leadership is a moral action initiated from a virtuous stance.  Real change requires a learning journey that most people are afraid to engage.  My job is to lead them, to simultaneously build trust and offer challenge.  My job is to do what they cannot do: lead the change process.”

My friend fully understood.  He was delighted with the words and responded with enthusiasm: “Yes, life is an emergent process.  We all live in the uncertain now.  It is natural to be fearful and we are socially expected to deny the fear, to appear as experts when it is impossible to be an expert.  This produces endless posturing in executives.  Our expertise and credentials are an excuse to be with them, to form a relationship, to have grounded conversations.”

I told him I loved his statement about living “in the uncertain now.”  I said, “A grounded conversation is a conversation of excellence.  It is far from the norm.  It is a conversation that itself is emergent and virtuous.  It is a conversation in which purpose, authenticity, trust, and vulnerability give rise to increased collective intelligence.  The change journey must be a process of emergent understanding and collaboration.”

Our conversation was unusual.  It was an exchange between two people seeking to transcend conventional, transactional assumptions.  It was a conversation of excellence, one worth writing about.  We ended with the hope that we could speak again in the future.



  • Why is culture and leadership the root cause of most organizational problems?
  • Why do people not want to deal with the root cause?
  • What is relational excellence and what role does it play in learning and change?

Becoming Who You Really Are

We created a digital leadership course with one hundred short videos called Becoming Who You Really Are: How to Grow Yourself and Your Organization.  (https://michiganross.umich.edu/programs/executive-education/becoming-who-you-really-are-how-grow-yourself-and-your-organization?event=4078)

Participants watch one short video each day and then answer three simple questions designed to promote action, reflection, and growth.

  • What principle of leadership do I derive from this video?
  • What can I do today to better live this principle?
  • What did I learn from trying to live the principle I identified yesterday?

A participant wrote and shared his answers for the previous day.  He began with what he learned the day before.  “Learning is improving beliefs.”  He shared this notion with his wife and she said, “A breakthrough for me as a mom was when I recognized all of the kids’ competencies and realized I didn’t need to be afraid for them.  When I’m not afraid for them, I can believe in them.”

This led to an extended discussion about one of their children in college.  They explored their orientation to the child and what they believe about nurturing growth and independence.  They reexamined their financial strategy in regards to support and her freedom to make choices.

The participant returned to the notion, “Learning is improving beliefs.”  He again reflected on his wife’s insight about fear and belief.  He then formulated a strategy:

The first thing I’m going to do differently is not focus on my daughter’s negatives, but rather on her incredible positives. The second thing I’m going to do differently is suspend my belief system for a moment, referring to my belief that I know what is best, that I need to be in control, and that I need to save my daughter from potentially making a poor decision about staying in school. The third thing I’m going to do differently is talk with my wife about giving our daughter the equivalent of the tuition money and let her decide how best to spend it.  One of my beliefs is that I’m hoping to change is the need to control others.  In the list of behavioral changes above, the second one will definitely be most difficult for me, but it may be the most powerful – to change my beliefs.  I have decided to do that for the moment and give it a try.  Initially, it feels liberating!

He then went on to answer the remaining questions.


I want to grow.  I can grow.  I choose to grow.

Maybe I am even accountable to grow.

No matter where I am now–awkward, ineffective, or inept–I can become better.

If I “believe and choose,” I can even become a master.


I am realizing that master leaders are master story-tellers.  In order to influence others as a leaders better, I want to become a master story-teller.


1) read something about being a master story-teller

2) talk with someone about being a master story-teller

3) write a story

This person is doing exactly what the course is designed to stimulate: he is identifying principles of moral action that matter to him, committing to better live the principle, taking action, reflecting on his actions, and specifying what he learned.  At the end of 100 days, he will be fundamentally different, and he will be masterful in finding and enacting his best self.  He will be a leader who can bring the best self out of others.



  • What does it mean to become who we really are and what does it have to do with leadership?
  • How does this kind of learning differ from convention?
  • Over 100 days, what would happen if everyone in your unit was engaged in such a process and shared their observations?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


From Dread to Purpose

A man who works in the federal government shared a remarkable story.  He handles the press and he was assigned to be part of an open hearing on a volatile subject.  It was his first such event and he naturally carried some fear.  In a conversation with a colleague, he learned she had run such a session.  He was surprised when she shared her experiences with enthusiasm.
She told me her purpose in those meetings was to listen to people, to let them be heard, and that she saw her role as helping to “lower the temperature in the room.”  For example, one protestor wrapped himself in a flag and walked to the front of the hall and blocked the stage where she was sitting.  Her colleagues said, “Aren’t you going to ask him to move?”  She replied, “Why?  The meeting hasn’t started yet.  He’s not disturbing anyone.”  As the meeting began, the protestor moved away from the stage and the meeting began in an orderly fashion.

She also told me how their plane was grounded in Chicago en route to a public meeting.  She and her team decided to rent cars and they drove 11 hours, slept four hours, then got up and worked all day to prepare for the meeting.  That night the meeting was supposed to end around 8:00 PM; instead, she allowed it to go until past 11:00 PM to ensure everyone who had come got a chance to speak their mind.  The she proudly said, “You should see the photo from the end of that night.  Our team was exhausted, but we were all smiling.”

Nearing the end of our interview, I said, “It seems like you came out unscathed.  How did you do that?”  She said, “Leading those meetings was one of the highlights of my career.”  She again spoke of the team she worked with and how they were united and how the meetings were an expression of democracy.

This conversation had great impact on my friend.  He began to focus on the higher purpose and it turned his emotions positive.  When he arrived at the appointed place, his colleagues were deeply concerned about what might happen.

We expected there would be protesters and some of individuals might arrive intoxicated and fights might break out.  As our security colleagues briefed us on countermeasures, I listened and tried to learn everyone’s names.  A question came up about what we should say to the media and someone asked me to stand and speak to that point.  I encouraged the group to send journalists my way as I was prepared to offer on-the-record statements, if need be. 

After I finished answering my colleagues’ questions, I felt I should say one more thing.  I related the previous conversation with my colleague.  I told the group that she had seen those meetings as a highlight of her career and she had spoken of the dignity of democratic processes like this one.  After I shared that, I sat down.  Later, I was surprised as several individuals approached me privately and told me how much they appreciated what I had shared.

The meeting went smoothly and about 175 people attended and voiced their opinions in spirited but civil conversations for and against the subject in question.  I engaged several visitors and I felt it was an honor to hear their stories.  I am grateful for our public meeting.

On a daily basis, each of us deals with expectations to do something that creates a sense of dread.  The task becomes a problem to solve.  We approach the problem in anxiety.  When we clarify our highest purpose, we put ourselves into a contributive state.  We become servants of the purpose.  Anxiety declines and performance tends to climb.  How we frame what we are obliged to do changes the quality of the experience and the quality of our lives.


  • What is the next activity you will engage with a sense of duty and dread?
  • What is the highest purpose to be served in the activity?
  • What might happen if you go to the activity carrying vision, commitment, and hope?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Expectations of a Leader

Months ago I was invited to have lunch with a man named R. D. Thulasiraj.  I was told he is an amazing person who played a role in successfully bringing high quality eye care to masses of poor people in India.  He is now trying to bring the same quality care to the multitudes in developing countries.  One plank in the strategy is a mentoring program for professionals in those countries.  Prior to his arrival, he sent a list of things that concerned him while pursuing his purpose in the developing world.  After reading his list of challenges, I reconstructed his underlying theory of leadership by turning the challenges into expectation statements and laying them out on the four quadrants of the competing values framework.  As you read the list, ask yourself what they tell you about the man.


Strategic Growth: Vision and Change

  • Instead of struggling to address operational challenges, leaders focus on institution building.
  • Leaders have a drive for growth or a fast track growth curve.
  • Leaders regularly articulate the organization’s mission or values.
  • Leaders step out of the realm of what is possible and push the organization to do what is necessary.  They take risks to create what is needed.
  • Leaders have a sense of urgency to make course correction that improves results.
  • When facing a challenge leaders try new ideas and they review and improvise.
  • While leaders focus on day-to-day operations, they also focus on developmental work, be it operational or strategic.

Achievement Focus: Accountability and Impact

  • Leaders do not tolerate poor outcomes or poor documentation: they establish high standards.
  • Leaders are disciplined in following up in the implementation of the new process.
  • Leaders do not externalize problems such as under performance; instead they propose or experiment with newer approaches.
  • Leaders do not micro manage or over delegate, they hold their staffs accountable.

Operational Discipline: Analysis and Quality

  • Leaders have a mindset for quality, constantly pushing for perfection.
  • Leaders do not react to superficial analysis but go for in-depth analysis of detail to understand the root cause of the problem.
  • Leader do not rely on intuition when they can generate evidence and analysis to make decisions to improve operations.

Relational Engagement: Support and Collaboration

  • When faced with challenges, leaders seek out help or support.
  • The staff is aligned and fully engaged.


As I completed the analysis, I concluded the man I was about to meet truly was a transformational leader.  He understood what it means to build an organization of excellence.

The lunch meeting finally arrived.  I was introduced to a man from India who appeared both gentle and wise.  In less than sixty seconds, I also concluded that this man of great accomplishment had little ego; instead, he was wedded to the common good.  He spoke to me as if he had always known me.  I felt immediate trust.  Yet as he spoke, I sensed a laser like focus on purpose and discipline.  The drive to excellence that permeated his list of challenges also permeated his comments.  He was interested in accomplishing his purpose and he was hungry for any idea that would allow him to do so.  When our lunch ended, I felt I had spent an hour in the presence of greatness, in the presence of a human being who had programed himself to make a difference in every conversation and every other moment of potential influence.



  • What do you learn about the man from reading the list of expectations?
  • Which of the expectations do you hold for your own people?
  • Why do people who have nurtured great transformations have such expectations?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?





The Mastery of Leadership: A Reminder from Baseball

Recently the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in baseball.  As the drama was unfolding Alex Cora, the manager of the Red Sox, received much praise for the quality of his decision making.   Alex Speier of the Boston Globe wrote an article (October 26, 2018) about it.

His source was the professional agent, Scott Boras.  Boras has known Cora for a long time.  He believes Cora has created an entirely new discipline and he calls it Coralytics.

Baseball has transformed and it is now heavily influenced by statistical analysis.  The Red Sox are among the leaders in this trend.  They make great amounts of data available to Cora who appreciates and uses the data.

Yet Boras points out that Cora also has another side, a deep appreciation for the culture of baseball and the personalities and needs of his players.  He reads real cues that others do not notice.  He combines analytics with intuitive feel and the demonstration of concern.  Boras suggests that Cora thus maintains a synergy between the use of analytic numbers and the psychology of his players.

Boras argues that Cora sees the numbers, sees the situation, and sees the player and makes unique decisions in real time.  Sometimes he even sees a human factor that leads him to go against the numbers.  A prime example was the decision to stick with Jackie Bradley Jr, despite the fact that through the whole first half of the season, Bradley produced horrendous numbers.  Cora was sure the Bradley would recover.  Bradley did recover and he made a big difference.

Cora’s success is tied to his capacity to differentiate and integrate.  He can work from numbers, he can work from deep intuition, and he can work from both simultaneously.  Knowing how to integrate them is a form of mastery and Boras calls it Coralytics.

I love the description, but the insight is not new.  For a long time science has indicated that the very best leaders operate from both sides of their brains.  Managers do not become leaders until they evolve.  Effective leaders are high on task analysis and pursuit and they are also high on human sensitivity and support.  They see the realities of measurement and they see the realities of human possibility.  They make decisions and hold conversations that lead to the realization of possibility.

In similar article on Cora, Tim Keown of ESPN writes the following.  “And yet there are no numbers to ascertain the importance of a manager’s spirit, and the way his humanity can embolden and inspire his players. Asked whether he ever gets angry with his players — in other words: Is your calm exterior an elaborate lie? — he said, ‘No, I don’t. I talk to them. If I have something to tell them, I just sit with them. Casual, very casual. I try to have good conversations.’”



  • In your leading how much emphasis in on numbers (task) and how much on people?
  • Why are the best leaders high on task and high on people?
  • What could you do today, to create better conversations?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Abundance of Wise Leadership

The Academy of Management meets annually. This year I was particularly struck by a panel in which I participated. It was called, Where have the Wise Leaders Gone? It was designed so scholars representing the great religious traditions could explore basic notions regarding the development of wise leadership across traditions and see the connection to modern science.

One man examined Taoism. He said that our unique self originates in the immortal. By cultivating the mind, we return to the immortal. Virtue is excellence. We develop virtue through contemplative practices. When we cultivate virtue, we return to the source and we are enlightened and we become one with source or the expression of Tao in the world.

The next man reviewed Buddhism and said similar things about contemplative practices, enlightenment and the state of oneness. We come to know ourselves through self-actualization. We become virtuous and give ourselves away through self-transcendence. Leadership happens in a community of practice. Leadership is a selfless focus on the well-being of others and influencing by becoming an example of excellence.

When I eventually stood, I felt a need to answer the question: where have all the wise leaders gone? I said I was taken by the notions of leadership as cultivation of the mind, self-understanding followed by self-transcendence, and the exemplification of virtue or excellence through selfless love. I had just come from a session in which I had declared “leadership is understood by shifting from the conventional assumption that culture triumphs over conscience to the unconventional assumption of culture being driven by conscience.”

I told them I would like to make a stark shift and move from the realm of conceptualization to the realm of action. I gave the audience an exercise: each person was to tell a story about the one person who left the most positive legacy in their life. After their discussions, I asked each pair to identify a characteristic shared by the two mentors they described. I integrated their answers with the science of transformational leadership which suggests leaders model excellence, show love, inspire possibility, and stimulate developmental thoughts. I then connected these principles back to the principles of selflessness and example.

I pointed out there is a natural defensiveness with which we block both the ancient traditions and the modern theories of excellence. They hold too much accountability. They call for us to become who we really are and we fear the process of becoming our best self.

I then pointed out that the world is full of wise leaders: everyone in the room had a mother, a teacher, a coach, or a boss that exemplified the principles of wise leadership. Wise leadership is rare because it is exemplified by 1 in 100, but it is abundant because there are millions of 100s.

I then asked a personal question. “Given what you now know about the fruits of wise leadership in your own life, how would you like to change yourself right now?” This was a meaningful moment.

Afterwards I had a sacred experience. I was surrounded by a diverse group of people representing many countries. Each was authentically interested in making the world a better place by making themselves better. I felt a union with them. I was surrounded by wise leaders.


  • What is social excellence?
  • What is self-transcendence?
  • What can we learn by observing the most positive contributors to our own lives?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


Becoming a Dynamic Whole

Development means growing and increasing in wisdom and capacity. I spend a lot of time developing senior leaders and I continually hear myself saying, “You need to see the dynamic whole, and you will see the dynamic whole when you become a dynamic whole.”

Often they greet this statement with a look of confusion. In conventional thought, we spend much time analyzing fixed parts linked in linear relationships. We also tend to see ourselves as a thing, a fixed entity. As we evolve into leaders, we become a dynamic whole and we begin to see the dynamic whole of which we are a part. Another way to say this is we can come to see ourselves as an eco-system that sees the eco-systems of which we are a part.

The term “eco-system” comes from the work of Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer. They see the eco perspective as an orientation that people take when they try to move themselves and others from an entrenched way of seeing to the embrace and enactment of the emerging future. It is a shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. They write:

This inner shift, from fighting the old to sensing and presencing an emerging future possibility, is at the core of all deep leadership work today. It’s a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart. It is a shift from an ego-system awareness that cares about the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well-being of all, including one’s self. When operating with an eco-system awareness, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of our emerging or essential self – that is by a concern that is informed by the well-being of the whole. The prefix eco- goes back to the Greek oikos and concerns the “whole house.” The word economy can be traced back to this same root. Transforming our current ego-system economy into an emerging eco-system economy means reconnecting economic thinking with its real root, which is the well-being of the whole house rather than the money-making or the well-being of just a few of its inhabitants….

The authors go on to indicate that in responding to the emerging future, judgments must be suspended and attention refocused. One must let go of the past and embrace the future that is trying to emerge through us. This is what they mean by “presencing” the future. We must become a manifestation of the future that is trying to unfold. They argue that it is perhaps the most important leadership capacity.


  • What is the implication of seeing self and others as fixed?
  • What does it mean to lead by presencing the future?
  • In your unit, is there a need for presencing the future?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?