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Theory U



Leading From the Future As It Emerges

Building upon two decades of action research at MIT, Theory U shows how individuals, teams, organizations and large systems can build the essential leadership capacities needed to address the root causes of today’s social, environmental, and spiritual challenges. In essence, Theory U shows how to update the operating code in our societal systems through a shift in consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness.

Tapping Our Collective Capacities

We live in a time of massive institutional failure, in which we collectively create results that nobody wants. The list is well known: Climate change. Hunger. Poverty. Terrorism. Violence. Destruction of communities, nature, life—the foundations of our social, economic, ecological, and spiritual well being. These times call for a new consciousness and a new collective leadership capacity to meet these challenges in a more conscious, intentional, and strategic way. The development of such a capacity would allow us to create a future of greater possibilities.

Illuminating the Blind Spot

Why do our attempts to deal with the challenges of our time so often fail? Why are we stuck in so many destructive patterns today? The cause of our collective failure is that we are blind to the deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change. This “blind spot” exists not only in our collective leadership but also in our everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source dimension from which effective leadership and social action come into being. We know a great deal about what leaders do and how they do it. But we know very little about the inner place, the source from which they operate. And it is this source that Theory U attempts to explore.


Presencing Insititute (2018). Theory U. Retrieved 13 August, 2018, from

Click image to enlarge

The U: One Process, Five Movements

As the diagram illustrates, we move down one side of the U (connecting us to the world that is outside of our institutional bubble) to the bottom of the U (connecting us to the world that emerges from within) and up the other side of the U (bringing forth the new into the world).

On that journey, at the bottom of the U, lies an inner gate that requires us to drop everything that isn’t essential. This process of letting-go (of our old ego and self) and letting-come (our highest future possibility: our Self) establishes a subtle connection to a deeper source of knowing. The essence of presencing is that these two selves—our current self and our best future Self—meet at the bottom of the U and begin to listen and resonate with each other.

Once a group crosses this subtle threshold, nothing remains the same. Individual members and the group as a whole begin to operate with a heightened level of energy and sense of future possibility. Often they then begin to function as an intentional vehicle for an emerging future.


Listening is at the source of all great leadership. It is a core skill, not only for leadership, but for all domains of professional mastery.

Listening assessment tool

Case clinic:

Case clinics are used to access the wisdom and experience of peers and to help a member of the group see new ways of responding to a leadership challenge that matters deeply to that person.

Case clinic tool

Dialogue interview:

Dialogue interviews engage the interviewee in a reflective and generative conversation. This tool can be used to prepare for projects, workshops, or capacity building programs.

Dialogue interview guide

Guided journaling:

Guided journaling leads participants through a self-reflective process following the different phases of the U. This practice allows participants to access deeper levels of self-knowledge, and to connect this knowledge to concrete actions.

Guided journaling tool


The purpose of prototyping is to create a microcosm that allows you to explore the future by doing. Prototypes work on the principle of “failing early to learn quickly”.

Prototyping guide

Sensing journeys:

Sensing Journeys pull participants out of their daily routine and allow them to experience the organization, challenge, or system through the lens of different stakeholders.

Sensing journey guide


The purpose of shadowing is to observe and absorb practical and intuitive knowledge from a colleague, customer, or an otherwise interesting person, and by doing so, gain a new perspective on your own work.

Shadowing guide

Stakeholder interview:

The purpose of a stakeholder interview is to see your work from the perspective of your stakeholders. It answers the questions: What do my stakeholders want from me? What do they need me for?

Stakeholder interview guide

4D mapping:

4D mapping makes visible the current reality in a social system, such as a school system, health care system, or government.

4D mapping video and tool

Stuck excercise:

The Stuck Exercise is often used during the sensing phase of the process. We do not know what the movements will be or where they will stop. Surprising insights can arise.

Stuck excercise and social presencing theater

20 minute dance:

The 20-minute Dance is a practice in which we pay attention to the feeling of the body, without thinking about it or judging it.

20 minute dance video and guide

Seven Theory U Leadership Capacities

The journey through the U develops seven essential leadership capacities.

1. Holding the Space of Listening

The foundational capacity of the U is listening. Listening to others. Listening to oneself. And listening to what emerges from the collective. Effective listening requires the creation of open space in which others can contribute to the whole.

2. Observing

The capacity to suspend the “voice of judgment” is key to moving from projection to focused and peripheral observation.

3. Sensing

Seeing the system from the edges. The preparation for the experience at the bottom of the U requires the tuning of three inner instruments: the open mind, the open heart, and the open will. This opening process is an active “sensing” together as a group. While an open heart allows us to see a situation from the current whole, the open will enables us to begin to sense from the whole that is wanting to emerge.

4. Presencing

The capacity to connect to the deepest sources of self—to go to the inner place of stillness where knowing comes to surface.

5. Crystallizing

When a small group of change makers commit to a shared purpose, the power of their intention creates an energy field that attracts people, opportunities, and resources that make things happen. This core group and its container functions as a vehicle for the whole to manifest.

6. Prototyping

Moving down the left side of the U requires the group to open up and deal with the resistance of thought, emotion, and will; moving up the right side requires the integration of thinking, feeling, and will in the context of practical applications and learning by doing.

7. Co-Evolving

A prominent violinist once said that he couldn’t simply play his violin in Chartres cathedral; he had to “play” the entire space, what he called the “macro violin,” in order to do justice to both the space and the music. Likewise, organizations need to perform at this macro level: they need to convene the right sets of players in order to help them to co-sensing and co-create at the scale of the whole.


Presencing Insititute (2018). Theory U. Retrieved 13 August, 2018, from

Other frameworks

Check out our friends collaboratio helvetica’s toolbox for more methods on the topic of collaboration.