Otto Scharmer is one of the few contemporary thinkers who has been able to effectively bring the fruits of Rudolf Steiner’s research into the world of business and non-governmental organizations. This article looks at his “Theory U” in the light of Steiner’s investigations into the nature of the “past” and the “future.”
Throughout the last third of the twentieth century, anthroposophical consultants like Christopher Schaefer and Christopher Budd proposed new economic visions while intrepid pioneers like John Alexandra, Siegfried Finser, and Mark Finser embodied those visions in such organizations as the Rudolf Steiner Foundation and the New Century Bank. Among other things, the capital such institutions generated made possible the rapid expansion of Waldorf schools and other anthroposophical endeavors. Until the very end of the last century, however, such important beginnings remained marginalized in the anthroposophical world.
Times have changed. Although the attitudes of anthroposophists may lag in this regard, alumni of Waldorf schools are evincing a new attitude about business and are entering its ranks in unprecedented numbers. This has less to do with any attitudinal changes in Waldorf graduates than it does with the remarkable changes occurring in the workplace itself. The sudden trendiness of “green” businesses is inherently appealing to Waldorf graduates who cut their teeth on reverential feelings toward nature. Such movements as “Fair Trade” and microloans, which recognize the power of capital to generate social justice and economic opportunity for disadvantaged peoples, also speak to the character of those who have had a Waldorf education.
Otto Scharmer has few peers in his work amidst this rapid transformation of the world economy (Nicanor Perlas would be one of them). He is a professor at MIT (Christopher Schaefer’s alma mater), an accomplished writer and workshop leader, and a consultant who works regularly with Fortune 500 businesses. He is also the son of parents who ran a biodynamic farm, and he is a Waldorf school graduate. Few are so well prepared to bridge the all too polarized worlds of anthroposophy and business, of prophets and profits.
Like most significant ideas, Scharmer’s vision of organizational transformation is deceptively simple. Unlike most contemporary business gurus, however, the inspiration for Scharmer’s approach was arrived at not through years of corporate trial and error or in a burst of entrepreneurial bravado. His vision arose out of an experience that was revelatory in nature. As a youth, he was called home from school one day only to discover that the 350-year-old farmhouse in which he had spent his childhood was on fire:
In another century, the power of such an epiphany might have led the young Otto to pursue the calling of a religious leader or spiritual teacher; even today, the celebrity-cum-seer Eckhard Tolle considers such a transfigurative moment to be the genesis of his path. Indeed, such a “trial by fire” was a significant milestone in the initiation ordeals of the ancient mystery centers. While in Italy, surrounded by works of classical art, Goethe had a dim recollection of such an initiation trial and wove it into the remarkable poem, Trance and Transformation, in which images of lovemaking and the immolation of a moth into a flame converge into the final lines, “And if you don’t know this dying and becoming, you are merely a dreary guest on Earth”—lines Scharmer cites just before his description of his own transformation in the flames (20).
So what is Scharmer thinking when he takes all that he has gained from such a trial and puts it in the service of the corporate world? Didn’t his Waldorf teachers do a thorough enough job of instilling an anti-business attitude in him? Didn’t his links with anthroposophists in Europe and North America engender a sense of superiority toward those who are enslaved to the cult of the bottom line? Where did they fail?
Scharmer’s mysterious path points to Rudolf Steiner’s surprising statement that a disproportionate number of ancient initiates have returned as the business leaders of today. (For anyone who has ever experienced the rigid hierarchy of corporate structures or seen the megalith/temple/cathedral architecture that arises out of corporate culture, the spirit of the ancient mystery schools appears to be alive—if not well.) The ineffable substance of spiritual forces so well understood by the ancient initiates has become the abstract power of capital in our time. The old initiates heeded the inspiration of Hermes Trismegistus and laid down the forms of governance for earlier cultural epochs. Returning to Earth and wearing their new vestments of pinstripe suits and Hermes (!) ties, they now search for organizational forms appropriate for the third millennium.
Even in the ancient world, where travel was strictly limited, the great initiates were often known as “Wanderers” and took it upon themselves to understand the spirit of the age as it manifested throughout the known world. Odysseus, Thales, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great, and others, whether through the intercession of gods or out of self-directed will, sought out teachings and experiences that embodied the myriad garments worn by the Zeitgeist. Scharmer, more than most of his contemporaries in the world of corporate consulting, has similarly chosen to broaden his vistas geographically and philosophically:
whose methodological grounding in Goethe’s phenomenological view of science has left significant imprints on Theory U. (31)
Theory U draws its name from the U-shaped form that appears throughout the book. The form is, of course, familiar to students of Rudolf Steiner as the curve that traces the human soul’s descent into matter and its eventual ascent to the spirit in the course of a single lifetime. In Scharmer’s hands it takes on myriad meanings, all of them emblematic of the transformative experiences that organizations—and the human beings who shape the organizations and are in turn shaped by them—must undergo to become viable entities.
In our age of corporate globalism and economic uncertainty, transformation—or, at least, major change—has become a sine qua non on the organizational level, but Scharmer repeatedly emphasizes the need for personal transformation as an even more vital force. This interplay of the microcosm of the employee/manager/CEO and the macrocosm of the organization/institution/corporation is unusual among contemporary management gurus, who usually approach the issues exclusively from the macrocosmic side, e.g., Tom Peters and Peter Drucker, or the microcosmic side, e.g., Stephen Covey.
How does this transformation occur on the slippery slope of the “U”? Steiner usually delineates the upper left side of the U as representative of those forces leading us into birth and nurturing our childhood: the physical/etheric, the heredity ties, the intentions that we bring with us from the spiritual world. The forces on the upper right are those leading to aging and death: the ego/astral, our individuality, the fruits of our present life that we will bring with us into the spiritual world. The lowest and central point on Steiner’s U represents the forces of mature adulthood: the battle of contraries and the challenge of finding balance by taking firm hold of the present moment.
In Scharmer’s metamorphosis of Steiner’s picture, the upper left represents “downloading,” a process of holding on to and being guided by past experience, be it collective or personal. The upper right is now identified as “performing,” which Scharmer characterizes as “achieving results through practices and infrastructures,” while the all-important middle, the low point of the U, is described as “presencing,” i.e., “connecting to Source.” The more that Scharmer returns to the U, delineating evermore detailed aspects of his path, the more he forges a commonality with Rudolf Steiner’s pictures of macrocosmic/cosmological evolution on the one hand, and microcosmic/human self-development on the other:
But Scharmer’s particular gift lies in his ability to couch esoteric knowledge in terms that any educated modern reader can accept and grasp. (Compared to any bestselling “motivational” or “managerial” text, Scharmer’s work is certainly complex and demanding, but nothing that he brings lies out of the presently accepted lingua franca of university business schools.) His most important contribution may be his understanding of what is meant by “the future.” As he repeatedly notes throughout his case studies and anecdotes taken from his own experiences—and the fact that so much of this book stems from Scharmer’s own experience is what makes it so accessible and appealing—we have a tragic tendency to misperceive the future. To understand what is coming down the pike, on the individual or organizational level, modern people try to fully understand the past. Our most respected “futurists” believe that what is yet to come can be prognosticated by subjecting the past to quantitative analysis and by creating “models” of predictable (and therefore controllable) change.
I can think of at least three areas in which billions of dollars and millions of hours have been expended in creating such futuristic models: the fields of meteorology, the economy, and national security. Yet any adult who has lived through the past seven years and experienced Hurricane Katrina, the mortgage-security bubble, and 9-11, may have an intimation that the past is not a dependable guide to the future. Scharmer is more assertive: he recognizes that the future comes from another direction entirely. The future is everything that the past is not.
We live in a “Michael Age,” a cycle in which Michael, who as an archangel has learned to mold the element of space, is now functioning as an archon, a being that must learn to master time. It is not surprising, then, that one of the most profound revelations that Rudolf Steiner shared out of his initiation knowledge involved the very nature of time. Time, Steiner revealed, moves in two directions: what we experience on the physical and etheric levels moves, as we know, from the past toward the future, but another stream of time is experienced on the astral and ego levels, and this stream moves from the future toward the past. (I have talked to hundreds of people who can recall many moments during their early adolescence—when they were “awakening” to their astral nature—in which they had clear experience of their own future “streaming toward them,” filling them with joyous expectation and a sense of mission in life.)
Although we find intimations of Steiner’s revelation here and there among English poets like Traherne and Blake and Wordsworth—for the eventual “destination” of this second stream of time is the life before birth—Theory U is probably the first exoteric book to present a set of exercises in which a modern person can learn how to perceive this future stream, (which Scharmer characterizes as an “emerging” stream) take hold of it, and use it to make manifest the future in the present. In this respect, Theory U has the quality of a business-oriented version of How to Know Higher Worlds, a book written one century earlier by Rudolf Steiner.
The present-day power that businesses have to change the world is akin to the power held by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages or the royal houses of Europe in the late nineteenth century. In both of those cases, a rigid connection to past forms and the status quo led to the unleashing of destructive forces that all but obliterated the old order. Business people obsessed with next quarter’s bottom line may open Theory U merely because they hope that this book will be the one to show them how their corporation can remain competitive in the new century. If, however, they are sufficiently open-minded to struggle on to the book’s conclusion, they may experience an awakening to the “signature of our time” that will change their minds, their feelings, and their actions.
In the Rosicrucian tradition, Scharmer is a spiritual teacher who is comfortable with the age in which he lives (and, like the Jesuits, is “in the world though not of it”) and has the “street cred” to touch the minds, and perhaps the hearts, of individuals in the upper echelons of business and government. Here is one of his many perspectives on the significance of the U-form:
Scharmer’s “social field” is not so very different from Steiner’s “Representative of Man,” and the “I-in-now” that emerges in the course of Theory U is resonant with the Pauline “Christ in me.” Otto Scharmer’s work is a noteworthy and courageous effort to face the formidable task of turning stones into bread.