Skip to main content

Leading From the Emerging Future: A transformational journey through u.lab

By February 17, 2021December 14th, 2021Learnings

The course, u.lab: Leading From the Emerging Future, is an introduction to a transformational leadership journey through the application of Theory U, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and instructed by Otto Scharmer, the author of the bestselling book Theory U and Presence and the co-founder of the Presencing Institute.

We are currently living through a time of unprecedented change and disruption, in a world still caught in the grip of a global pandemic (COVID-19). What better moment than now is there for us to question the underlying systems of our society, for us to actively transform ourselves and the systems we are a part of?

‘Our moment of disruption deals with death and rebirth. What’s dying is an old civilization and…decision-making that has led us into a state of collectively creating results that nobody wants.’

– Scharmer, O., 2013. u.Lab: Leading From The Emerging Future.

What then is being born and how do we collectively create results that society does want? These questions are of prime focus for those going through the stages of Theory U, which serves as a practical guide through a personal refinement and transformation process.

Figure 1. Theory U: Destruction and Creation, Scharmer, O, 2013. u.Lab: Leading From The Emerging Future.


Within the u.lab course the practice of deep listening is fundamental in strengthening our co-creative ability. It is through this practice that we are able to ask ourselves and others, “What wants to emerge here?”, “How does that relate to the journey forward?” and “How can we become part of the story of the future rather than holding on to the story of the past?”

The intended outcomes of deep listening are the opportunity to take part in meaningful connections, to practice empathy and to engage in productive dialogues.

‘…We are taken through a ‘deep-dive’ journey of walking in the shoes of others in order to gain a new perspective that transforms that of our own. Essentially, this journey prompts us to follow our inherent curiosity but suspend our judgments in order to unlock something new – a shared understanding.’

– Scharmer, O., 2013. u.Lab: Leading From The Emerging Future.

Letting go and Letting come: Seeing Our World’s Disconnects

The second stage of the u.lab journey is a critical point, a fork in the road, where participants are introduced to presencing. What is presencing? U.Lab coins the word ‘Presencing’ – as a blend of presence and sensing – meaning ‘to connect with the source of your highest future possibility and to bring it into the now’. To not do this would be to default to a place of personal and collective disconnect, to past ways of doing things. Learning to recognize when we are operating from a presencing or, conversely, an ‘absencing’ state of being is thus critically important when we are trying to shift toward a more conscious and engaged level of awareness.

‘In order to employ real change, we must operate from a different space–from ego-system to eco-system awareness to see our part in the creation of problems’.

– Scharmer, O, 2013. u.Lab: Leading From The Emerging Future.

The u.lab course categorizes a series of systemic disconnects or ‘acupuncture points for societal transformation,’ to help us make sense of the problems we are faced with.

  • ‘the disconnect between the finite resources that we have on Earth and the infinite growth paradigm;
  • the disconnect between haves and have-nots;
  • the disconnect between the financial and the real economy;
  • the disconnect between the systemic leadership that we have today and the real challenges that we face;’

Figure 2 & 3 illustrates the Iceberg model which depicts the symptoms of the problem at the surface level, and underneath the deeper root issues that give rise to them. The real question to ask at this point is, ‘What really is underneath?’

Figure 2. Listening from the Source, Scharmer, O, 2013. u.Lab: Leading From The Emerging Future.

Moving from Thinking to Doing

The final stage of the u.lab process invites us to take meaningful action toward our emerging goals, in other words by leaning into the emerging future. As we start getting comfortable with shifting our awareness, with honing our true intentions for the world by identifying its disconnects, the u.lab course invites us to practice prototyping.

“A prototype is something you do that generates feedback from others that then helps you to evolve your idea.”

– Scharmer, O, 2013. u.Lab: Leading From The Emerging Future.

Prototyping incorporates the concept of ‘0.8’—wherein a plan does not have to be 100% complete in order to test how it works. Iteration is also key: through repeated attempts, we can take advantage of finding out what works and what does not. By experimenting with a prototype, new observable data can help to inform the gradual development of subsequent prototypes. In essence, we learn and develop by doing and getting feedback. Through this process, our deep intentions and goals that have begun crystalizing in the mind can start manifesting in the physical world.

Figure 3. Leaning into the Emerging Future, Scharmer, O, 2013. u.Lab: Leading From The Emerging Future.

Can we collectively achieve results that Everyone wants?

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the global agenda over the past year and it has highlighted serious cracks in our society, making the demand for new leadership approaches visible. Now is when we as a society can collectively look below the surface at the various systematic disconnects and tackle our common problems in new ways. Change makers who embark on a journey like MIT’s u.lab course can unearth possibilities for collaborating on truly meaningful ideas and actions together.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Now ask yourself and others, in a time of unprecedented disruption and change, “What wants to emerge here?”


by Layane Al Madani, Pāvils Hawkins and Adrian Jackson