2/15 – Illuminating New Territory at the Bottom of the U

Leading Others / January-February 2015

Olen Gunnlaugson [i]

Olen Gunnlaugson

Engaging conversation directly from essence and source activates essential conditions for leaders to embody a creative perception and transformed way of being.  This article[ii] is written to inspire new possibilities for how existing approaches to collective presencing and conversational leadership are experienced by introducing a process-method of conversation that is activated through source directed realization, embodiment and inquiry.


At some point for presencing practitioners, whether in solitude with nature or during an immersive weekend leadership retreat, presencing gives way to a subtle yet significant shift in the nature of our experience.  Various metaphors have clarified what is involved perceptually with this inner shift.  The visual metaphor of going through “the eye of the needle” (Scharmer, 2007, p.41), “a spherical expansion and enhancement of one’s own experience” (Scharmer, 2000, p. 37), “a state of profound openness” (Hassan, 2006, p.4), “the distributed self” (Varela 2000, p. 11), “virtual subject” (Senge et al., 2004), “a deep connection with source” (Jaworski, 2012) among others.  Though each description sheds important insight into the nature of the presencing process from the perspective of our individual perception, the deeper inner terrain of the collective presencing process, particularly how this arises in the context of conversation, has not been adequately addressed to date.  Scharmer himself has remarked, “The development of new collective presencing practices is one of the most urgent and important undertakings in the years to come. (Scharmer, 2007, p.189).

In my current research and practice, this particular omission has become a catalyst for the development of an emerging presencing process-method of conversational leadership, which involves traversing a series of liminal thresholds of being that implicate the self and others existentially in conversation, drawing upon both a) a gradient of more advanced capacities of intrapersonal and shared consciousness and b) emergent qualities of awareness and being that are not contingent upon being at a certain developmental altitude, range or center of gravity. By bringing phenomenological clarity to the process and territory of collective presencing, this practice works with co-embodying and co-enacting collective creativity through a process of acclimating, reconnecting and orienting from source directly.

When certain key interior and conversational conditions that give rise to the self realizing its fundamental nature as essence and source become sufficiently realized, a new shared ground state for embodying and enacting creative seeing becomes accessible to leaders in the conversation (Gunnlaugson, 2015).  This way of engaging tends to be overlooked however, particularly to the extent that presencing tends to be interpreted individually as a tool and process for accessing and influencing the emerging future without adequate clarity or know-how knowledge concerning how to work directly with the deeper essence and source of the leader’s self as essence in relation to what is emerging through the conversation.  This work sheds new light into this territory through a collective process of “primary knowing” (Rosch and Scharmer, 1999) and “primary being” (Gunnlaugson, 2015), which explore a fundamentally new sense, meaning and basis for what it means to lead in our current VUCA[iii] world.

The Leader’s Nature and Grounding in Essence and Source

A multi-dimensional living field of presence draws from the inner place of our individual and collective experience.  As our innermost yet paradoxically shared site of experience, the essence and source of the leader’s nature has its own direct experiential basis and terms of being with what is as well as its own distinct subtle process of coming-to-know what is and engaging with what is arising.  Connecting to this inner-shared place and sensitizing ourselves to its subtle, emergent and creative dimensions is essential inside the conversation.  This becomes possible insofar as a more fundamental process of creative seeing arises from the embodiment of creative being (Reams, 2007).  Put in another way, the deeper intelligence of embodying our essence and source awakens creative seeing.

As Scharmer (2007) has pointed out, generally we are not aware of the inner place or background from which our seeing or perception arises in the presencing process. This work introduces an experiential means and process for accessing and leading from the very subtle orders of creativity that we are constituted by—a new emergent, collectively accessible site of knowledge creation and conversational process of creativity.  The work engages from a mode of perception that is capable of engaging the conversation in the moment from a subtle inner place or lifeworld of essence and source knowing and abiding directly.

Authenticating & Empowering our Essential Experience

By inviting practitioners into direct contact with essence and source through their own lived experience with others in the conversation, this way of being with the inner dimensions of our experience in conversation returns the leader’s self to an embodied, moment-to-moment contact with its roots and nature, and the deeper connective grounds of our organizations, communities and greater sense of place in the world and universe as a whole.

Engaging the conversation from essence and source brings about conditions for leaders to access, embody, relate and inquire from the unconditioned dimension of our experience with others. Cultivating distinct attentional capacities, leaders work with discerning and apprehending the fullness of what is arising in and through the conversational field.

Returning to the earlier image of passing through the proverbial eye of the needle, this cannot happen with the mind’s eye or through cognition alone.  Rather, it is an inner wisdom eye and the nature of this gateway is at its root, ontological.  In other words, seeing or coming-to-know (i.e. primary knowing) is intimately predicated upon a way of being and direct embodied access to the root essence and source of our experience (i.e. primary being).  There’s no creatively substantive way of knowing without the activation of a more radically embodied way of being that is in creative real-time contact with the dynamism and animism of the source of what is and what is emerging in our field of experience together.

The self as separate, efforting in time, conditioned by past experience and reified through complex processes of identification is limited in its creative capacity and basic structuring.  In contrast, the essence and source of the leader’s self is not bound by these constraining factors either in its perception or constitution.  This is by virtue of it being intimately a part of the arising dynamic ground and process of the enfolding nature of what is.  Reconnecting us existentially to an underlying shared ground and intersubjectively enacted process of being, this becomes one’s dynamic point of abiding orientation, root identification and context for engaging leadership and organizational culture.  Rather than being by-passed, through this re-connection and re-embodiment the self is invited into first-hand discovery of the deeper ground that tacitly informs, supports and makes up its very constitution.  Lived into in this context, the particularities and unique aspects of who we are serve to inform and shape our perception in ways that honor the creative process as a movement of our very nature, essence and constitution.

Learning to connect from the innermost place of our experience and our essential and source nature collectively in conversation requires subtle and ongoing orienting adjustments. In the conversation, with practice there is a growing quality of speaking and listening from being more closely attuned to what is, what is arising and our dynamic felt sense of this process. The self-structure of practitioners orienting from essence and source (in contrast to leading from his or her self) learns to attune to a way of being that is in more immediate unconditioned relation with what is arising in the group field of experience.  This gradually develops an ability to stay in contact with and discern the inner nature or fabric of our experience, which is essential for engaging key primary knowing and primary being processes conversationally.

Engaging our experience as essence and source requires a deeper letting go of our resistance to meeting what is taking place in the present moment and more fully implicating us in this emergence.  This involves a re-education in letting go of the habits and cultural tendencies to marginalize, obscure or veil essence and source. By learning to re-connect with essence and source in this way, key ground conditions for supporting an emergent creative conversational leadership process are enacted.  This occurs through a gradual path of reclaiming, re-embodying and exploring from our primary unbound and unconditioned nature in conversation and our lives as a whole.

As such, this practice involves discerning, realizing, embodying, and inquiring from within the innermost place of our individual and shared experience in the conversation.  Inviting presencing practitioners to explore this deeper implicit dimension of the U serves not only as a new collective basis for leading knowledge creation processes, but also ontologically as a site for being and organizational culture creation.

Essence-Sourced, yet Subtle Action-Oriented Conversational Leadership

The practice provides an intersubjective basis for a shared creative presencing perception by coming to know and embody creativity directly in the conversation.  Creativity is then awakened and sourced through the conversation as a central and dynamic aspect and expression of our essential natures.  This stands in contrast with individual presencing practice, where the creative process is awakened by the leader discovering new knowledge or engaging the emerging future on retreat or in solitude.

By awakening collective conditions for a liberated, less self-identified mode of inner seeing, the practice primes our awareness with key whole paradoxical qualities of consciousness that tend to otherwise lie dormant or inactive (e.g. causal stillness co-arising amidst subtle creative movements of mind and emotion, open trusting receptivity and interest in what is different or generally viewed as foreign or “other”, an easeful curiosity for finding synergy or common ground between otherwise contrary or divisive perspectives, among other variations).

Inviting presencing practitioners into a conversation that honors our inner-most and essential-most, this work invites embodied shared contact with the rich range and depth of wisdom that wants to emerge through our lives. The practice then helps us orient with increasing discernment from our essential nature in the conversation. This way of being in direct contact with the deeper intersubjective field and ground of being helps co-create a rich emergent space for consciousness to influence our self-constitution and inquiry.

By giving permission for this experience to unfold more on its terms of truth-knowing and disclosure, the practice builds a distinct generative field and ethos.  One where conversations are led from the inside out through a subtle shared process of essence and source-based realization, embodiment and co-authentication of a culture that’s attuned to an emerging wisdom way of knowing and being together.

Closing Remarks

When either individual or collective forms of presencing are practiced from the assumptions, mental models and agendas of the separate self, regardless of how sophisticated and convincing, our leadership cannot be life serving in any truly wholesome or enduring sense.  With the long modern educational tradition of the separate dualistic self, there’s a fundamental built-in distrust and lack of awareness and sensitivity to a way of abiding in our essence at the source within the field of action.  Instead, the essential dimensions of the leader’s self have been traditionally relegated to serving more contemplative activities and practices, most of which have been pursued separately from our professions and life in the world.  However, this particular fragmented legacy of modernity is fundamentally at odds with one of the central leadership challenges of our time, which Jaworski (2012) described as learning to lead from our inner source of creativity and deepest wisdom.  Building from Jaworski’s point, presencing[iv] invites an emerging form of conversational leadership that is committed to essence- and source- embodied ways of knowing and being at the leading edges of generative conversation and organizational culture.


Gunnlaugson, O. & Walker, W. (2013). Deep Presencing Leadership Coaching: Building Capacity for Sensing, Enacting and Embodying Emerging Selves and Futures in the Face of Organizational Crisis, In Gunnlaugson, O., Baron, C., Cayer, M. (2013). Perspectives on Theory U: Insights from the Field.  IGI Global Press.

Gunnlaugson, O. (2015).  From course notes of MBA 506 Conversational Leadership, Meridian University, San Francisco

Guttenstein, S., Lindsay, J., Baron, C. (2013) Aligning with the Emergent Future in Gunnlaugson, O., Baron, C., Cayer, M. (2013).  Perspectives on Theory U: Insights from the Field.  IGI Global Press.

Hassan, Z. (2006). Connecting to the Source: The U-Process. In The Systems Thinker. Pegasus Communications.

Jaworski, J. (2012). Source: The Inner Path of Knowledge Creation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Reams, J., Gunnlaugson, O., Reams, J. (2014). Cultivating Leadership Development through Deep Presencing and Awareness Based Practices.  Invited chapter in Building Leadership Bridges: Leading with Spirit, Presence and Authenticity. International Leadership Association. Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

Reams, J. (2007). An experiment in education for states. AQAL: Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 2, 50-71.

Rosch, E., Scharmer, C. O. (1999). Primary knowing: When perception happens from the whole field (Interview with Eleanor Rosch). Retrieved January 23, 2015, from https://ai.wu.ac.at/~kaiser/birgit/Rosch-1999.pdf

Scharmer, C. O. (2007). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning.

Scharmer, C. O. (2000). Presencing: Learning from the future as it emerges. The Conference On Knowledge and Innovation. Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Senge, P., Scharmer, O., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. (2004). Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future. Society for Organizational Learning. Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning.

Varela, F. (2000). The three gestures of becoming aware (interview with Claus Otto Scharmer) Dialogue on Leadership. Retrieved January 24, 2015, from http://www.iwp.jku.at/born/mpwfst/02/www.dialogonleadership.org/Varela.html


[i] Two terms in the article have been updated to reflect recent changes and updates in my research into presencing: re: the use of the term soul has been replaced by “essence” and the initial work of deep presencing has evolved and been subsumed into a body of work I’m now calling “dynamic presencing.”

[ii] I would like to personally thank Will Walker, Rod Punnett, George Por, Ria Beck, Tolulope Ilesanmi, Solomon Krueger and Marilyn Hamilton for their helpful feedback on this article at different stages of its development.

[iii] VUCA is an acronym originally coined by the American Military in the 90s but has been since taken up more globally within the field of leadership studies as a lens to help generate new insight and foresight into the prevailing life and business conditions of our time.  VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

[iv] I am currently offering an online course, MBA 506 Conversational Leadership with Meridian University in San Francisco. If you wish to learn more about this emerging work or my research, don’t hesitate to contact me at olen.gunnlaugson@fsa.ulaval.ca

About the Author

Olen Gunnlaugson is an Associate Professor in Leadership & Organizational Development within the Department of Management in the Business School at Université Laval, in Quebec City, Canada. He brings an increasingly trans-disciplinary approach to his current research in dynamic presencing, conversational leadership, we-space practice and facilitation, as well as contemplative management skills and coaching. His research has been published in several books as well as numerous international academic journals and presentations at leading conferences. Project-wise, he is currently collaborating with colleagues on a number of books and articles. More recently, he was the chief co-editor of the management book,Perspectives on Theory U: Insights from the Field, a recently published anthology featuring applied research on Theory U by 30 faculty members and associates from North America and Europe.


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