• Jackie Nagtegaal

Leading with Hope

In 2018, Bill Gates guest-edited an edition of Time Magazine, which focused on optimism. According to Gates, “being an optimist doesn’t mean you ignore tragedy and injustice. It means you’re inspired to look for people making progress on those fronts, and to help spread that progress more widely” (Gates, 2018). In the same year, Steven Pinker published Enlightenment Now and the Roslings published Factfulness; both of which make a clear case that the world is better than we think. These were all attempts to counteract the paranoid pessimism of our time.

They emerged as islands of hope, in a time where most of us subscribed to doom.

But these optimistic islands, as promising as they were, have been flooded by the despair of a global pandemic, polarisation, war and growing inequality gaps on a planet close to collapse. Trying to peddle hope in a time of burnout is mostly met by a Nietzchean response that holds hope to simply prolong the suffering of man.

The 2020s have been a messy decade for our blue planet. We’ve run afoul of massive storms, increased racial violence, war, political turmoil, and continuing climate crises. No matter what country you call home, what industry you make your living in, or what family dynamic you are part of, millions feel powerless and scared.

In a study by Eckersley and Randle (2020) testing public perceptions of the future threat of humanity, most respondents believed our way of life will be ending in the next one hundred years. They list several studies that echo the subjective perception of dread in the current system and our expected, collective future.

The Complexity of Now

Our approach to the world is often too mechanistic. Prone to notions of hyperbolism, packaging our past and present into binary constructs. It’s either good or bad, glorious utopian visions or dystopian dread. We long for a past we romanticise and fear a future we vilify.

“The tale of the future tends to be a literature of extremes ... by tracing the curves of hope and fear to their logical conclusions in visions of social perfection, or in forecasts of terrible wars, or in extravagant fantasies of human power.”

(Clarke cited by Gidley (2020))

The world is both good and bad. We are living through tremendous development and excruciating pain. By adopting a non-binary worldview, we are able to understand the complexity and have a far richer and deeper understanding of how things are and come to be. This worldview starts when we move beyond judgment. The term non-binary, which gained popularity in gender studies and identity politics, seems ironic for a world driven mostly by the binary code of computing.

As leaders, with a non-binary approach, the world opens to systems thinking and richer understanding. This is the first step towards creating a better future. It accommodates complexity, and ignites the first process towards presencing, by dissociating from our habitual way of thinking.

Leaderhip & Hope

In futures studies, there is no shortage of frameworks and tools. But for the time we are in, the Theory-U developed by Otto Scharmer might be one of the most critical frameworks to help leaders, organisations, and communities to transform and regenerate in a post-pandemic landscape. In its essence, it is a framework of hope.

Theory-U lets us learn from the future as it emerges. But to do this, it asks us to look at our blind spots. According to Scharmer, we see the world as a projection of ourselves. These projections drive us and manifest our future.

In the post-pandemic landscape, where so many leaders are prone to fatigue and dread, there has been little time to reflect on our interior condition. The devastation has exacerbated our binary approach, our primal penchant for judgment, hate, and fear. This, for many, has become the source to act from. Inevitably, this will prolong the suffering we are in. If our future is formed by a source of dread, our future will emerge as one, reinforcing a cycle of despair.

We are living through a critical period, challenged by ecology, pandemics, and growing inequality, and as such, the source we act from needs the most reflection and nurturing if we want to make a better world.

The questions to ask:

  • Where are my actions stemming from?

  • Are they based on hope or shaped by despair?

Understanding Theory-U

Theory-U is a framework to actualise our greatest future potential. The U-shape pulls us into possibilities that are sensed through an altered state of hope, actively engaging with visions rather than reacting to past events. The framework helps to reach a state of presencing.

The framework starts on the left of the U, moving through phases towards presencing, which unlocks a new source to act from into the right upward slope of the U.

It starts with seeing. Through this stage, we discard judgment and look at the present with a fresh perspective. This is a state of ambiguity, where nothing happens but the simple act of finding comfort in seeing.

We then move towards sensing, a time to start reflecting on the source that drives our actions. We move beyond things or events and focus on our perceptions. This is a moment of authenticity, where we see ourselves and the system, and the system sees itself inclusively.

This allows us to nestle at the bottom of the U, in a state of presencing. Presencing is a state of being “present” and “sensing”, which means to deeply sense the present moment, to become ‘aware of our highest future potential as it emerges’ (Cowart, 2020).

A time to let go of the past. This is the gateway to the future, seeing the potential that lies in wait. At its core, it is a time of hope, a deeper knowing that better is possible. This allows the future to emerge, a future of purpose. Presencing can only be done if we are willing to let go of the fear and devastation we have clung to, the objects and events we think indispensable. The systems we have built. In this phase, we move beyond our ego, economic systems, company structures and step into our “dormant potential”.

From here we move upwards, and into the future. The future that we envision through the moment of crystallizing emerges from our source. This leads us to co-creation, where we recreate in terms of our source of hope.

The framework also illustrates the inverse. At the top of the figure, we see a path to destruction, a path void of hope. This process follows leaders with closed will, hearts, and minds. Leaders who keep binary perspectives of judgment and subscribe to fear and hate. Instead of interacting with the world, in its complexity, and moving beyond a passive ‘downloading’ of information.

If we were to merely download what has happened to us during the pandemic, we would remain stuck in our worldview, our old habits. There is no renewal. On this path leaders or people start a process of denial, de-sensing, which is fuelled by anger and judgment. On this path, we blame and destroy.

While the U-Theory provides a framework, the Presencing Institute and Scharmer use it predominantly as a method in action “to create systems-level change” (Cowart, 2020). It is flexible in its use, for use in large-scale change, organisational transformation, leadership awakening and to help individuals situate themselves towards the future.

In our post-pandemic world, it is an ideal tool to assist us to recover from the disruption we have faced, assisting us to transform by reaching the future we wish to see.

Leadership through Theory-U

“The start to a better world is to believe that it is possible.” - Lily Tomlin

At the risk of reducing the U-theory as another tool of hype, that is in vogue in management studies (as suggested by Kühl and refuted by Schamer (2020)), the Presencing Institute offers the framework as a pathway to generate leadership qualities.

Leadership has a tall task to play in making our future, and it all starts with the ability to help people shift from a non-binary worldview to see the world, and to see it together. A tool to build the ability for people to become more aware. Scharmer, playing on the architectural concept that form follows function, states: form follows consciousness.

According to Scharmer, “the key leverage point for transformational change starts with attending to how you as a change maker relate to the system that you want to change and to the system that you want to give birth to” ("The Essentials of Theory U | Leading Blog: A Leadership Blog", 2021).

Towards a Future of Hope

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” - Noam Chomsky

An American philosopher and social critic, Chomsky nicely summarizes why optimism is the best strategy for a better future. Meeting the challenges of the next decade requires us to adopt hope to become more optimistic as leaders, and as a people. Being optimistic means that you are driven by hope.

The creations we make are remarkable and powerful, but the only real force that will get us to that better future is who we choose to be as people. By adopting a leadership style, driven by a source of hope, these narratives become powerful visions of a future which people, communities, and organisations want, and can pursue.

As companies become increasingly powerful in the role that they play in shaping our world, and influence our experience and perception of it, the role of leadership becomes paramount in making the world. Traditionally brands “act as parasites riding the coat-tails of other more powerful cultural forms” (Holt, 2006), translating recycled social sentiments into mainstream fact. If companies and leaders were to transform this, by connecting to a source of hope, they would play a remarkable role in transforming the future into one we want to live in post-pandemic.

While COVID is by no means over, or the last of our challenges; it is the challenges that remain our greatest triggers for change. They invite us to become better, to evolve. In the recent past, we have collectively pushed our way forward through enormous conflicts and deadly diseases, sometimes taking the smallest of steps, other times in great leaps towards the future. Not one of us can know what it will look like, what will happen there, or how our lives will be affected. But if we act with curiosity, compassion, and courage, the future that will emerge will be far brighter than the ones that emerge from fear.


Cowart, A. (2020). Presencing: The Theory U Framework as Foresight Method. In R. Slaughter and A. Hines (eds.), The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies 2020 (pp 98 - 108). Association of Professional Futurists and Foresight International. (2020).

Eckersley, R. and Randle, M. (2020). Public Perceptions of Future Threats to Humanity: Why they Matter. In R. Slaughter and A. Hines (eds.), The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies 2020 (pp 423 - 436). Association of Professional Futurists and Foresight International. (2020).

Gates, B., 2018. Bill Gates: Why I Decided To Edit an Issue of TIME. [online] Time. Available at: <https://time.com/5086870/bill-gates-guest-editor-time/> [Accessed 19 November 2021].

Gidley, J. (2020). Yesterday’s Futures over Three Millennia. In R. Slaughter and A. Hines (eds.), The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies 2020 (pp 7 - 23). Association of Professional Futurists and Foresight International. (2020).

Holt, Douglas. (2006) Jack Daniel’s America: Iconic brands as ideological parasites and proselytizers. Journal of Consumer Culture. 2006;6(3):355-377. doi:10.1177/1469540506068683

Khan, I., Shah, D. & Shah, S.S. COVID-19 pandemic and its positive impacts on the environment: an updated review. Int. J. Environ. Sci. Technol. 18, 521–530 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13762-020-03021-3

Scharmer, O. (2020) Social Systems as If People Mattered Response to the Kühl Critique of Theory U, Journal of Change Management, 20:4, 322-332, DOI: 10.1080/14697017.2020.1744884

Theory U. Presencing Institute. (2021). Retrieved 21 November 2021, from https://www.presencing.org/aboutus/theory-u.

The Essentials of Theory U | Leading Blog: A Leadership Blog. (2021). Retrieved 19 November 2021, from https://www.leadershipnow.com/leadingblog/2018/04/the_essentials_of_theory_u.html