I recall an email from an HR leader in Virginia who had just completed a year-long leadership development process.  She likened her experience of the “holistic” leadership training opportunities she received as passing through a series of doorways.

Sometimes the doors were easy to open (i.e. swing doors), sometimes we could not see through the weathered panes of these doors and did not know if we wanted to enter (sharing of our personal lives) and sometimes we needed to ask for help for those doors that we just couldn’t budge with our own strength (my final lesson).  But each door proved to be invaluable and somehow connected to the passageway of stronger leadership.  – Kim B.

The image of passing through a series of doors or gateways as it relates to leadership development is a powerful one.


In his book, Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, Otto Scharmer identifies three gates that leaders pass through to access deeper levels of leadership.  If we consider that the most important leadership tool is first and foremost the leader’s self, then these gates can be seen as thresholds for leaders to access deeper levels of being, knowing, and doing.  Each gate opens a further means to illuminate our “blind spots” and to move beyond the tendency to continue to download patterns from the past that are no longer effective:

“We must face the sobering fact that we, as leaders and managers, do not have a methodology for approaching the key challenges that surface in emerging complexity.  We just do not know what it takes to lead effectively from ‘in front of the blank canvas’ when the ground under our feet erodes and pulls away.”       – Otto Scharmer.

There is a voice of resistance that guards each gate that Scharmer identifies.  Both individuals and groups must face and deal with these negative voices in order to cross a threshold that leads to new ways of seeing, of sensing and relating, of being present, and expanding capacity for new action and results. Let’s explore these Gates further now.


The Gate to the Open Mind

The first movement toward deeper leadership awareness is to learn to suspend our habitual patterns of thought, judgment, and routine, and learn to see with new eyes.  An open mind allows us to see with fresh eyes, deal with objective information, figures and facts.  It involves the capacity to inquire and to access our sources of IQ (intellectual intelligence).   The Voice of Judgment guards the gate to the open mind.  The VOJ can be an inner voice or an outer voice directed toward oneself or others.  Both in individuals and in groups, the VOJ can be what prohibits new thinking and seeing. Unless leaders succeed shutting down the Voice of Judgment, they (and we) will be unable to “see” and access our own potential and to think about what is possible.

Scharmer goes on to suggest principles that assist people and groups to move from “downloading” from the past to actually seeing a present “reality” before us with an expended, open mind:

  • Taking time to clarify questions and intent
  • Providing people the opportunity to share the context(s) they are coming from and what matters most to them.
  • Suspending judgment and connecting to wonder
  • Dialogue: entering the space of seeing together


The Gate to the Open Heart

The second gate to the open heart is guarded by the Voice of Cynicism.  Cynicism is a tool we use individually and collectively to keep us from being vulnerable.  Cynicism creates emotional distance and keeps us from exploring places within ourselves and relationships (on a personal, organizational, social, or global level) that are difficult or require deep trust, hope and love.  It is far easier sometimes to be distrustful, pessimistic, or disparaging than to remain in an open, vulnerable, compassionate place.

The capacity of the open heart relates to our ability to access our emotional intelligence or EQ.  This is our capacity to empathize with others, to tune in to different contexts, and to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes.  There is a shift of the place from which perception happens from the self to the other or the larger field/whole.  Opening the heart means accessing and activating the deeper levels of our emotional perception; it means using the heart and our capacity for appreciation, love and compassion as an organ of perception. The heart in any contemplative tradition is not sentimentality or emotionality,  but a deep yogic, still center point.

Scharmer suggests four principles are relevant when entering the gate of the open heart and creating a collective field of sensing.

  • Giving attention to various kinds of “space:  1) physical space and time space (creating an energetic timeline and flow);  2) relational space (relationships and clear roles); and 3) intentional space  (clarity and quality of purpose)
  • Deep Diving—moving from abstract thought to first-hand experiences and immersion in order to activate the senses.  Not studying about something, but becoming one with the phenomenon you study.
  • Redirecting Attention—collapsing the boundary between observer and observed so that the system is no longer something out there (what they are doing to us), but also something in here (what we are doing to us).
  • Opening the Heart—deeper levels of emotional perception (seeing from the heart) happens naturally as a result of successfully re-directing attention and enlarging our capacity for appreciation.


The Gate to the Open Will

Finally, the open will is the capacity to let-go of old identities and attachments that may stand in the way of the future that is wanting to emerge. At the gate to the open will, we are invited to let-go of our ego self and to “let-come” our emerging authentic Self.  But there guarding the gate of the open will is the Voice of Fear. The voice of fear chatters about what we have to let go of if we would continue to change and be changed. The voice of fear can take many different forms. As we face the unknown, we may fear what we will risk financially; what we might lose regarding reputation or security; what others will think; about losing privilege or status; letting go of what feels familiar or safe; or what we think we ‘know’ (to include a sense of our own identity and familiar habits).

What these fears have in common is they keep us from letting go of what we now have in order to move toward an unknown emergent possibility. The purpose of letting go is to create space for something new to emerge through us (individually and collectively) that will better serve the whole in the future. The open will allows leaders to “let come” what is wanting to manifest itself through us, and relates to our ability to access our authentic purpose and self. This type of intelligence is also referred to as intention or SQ (spiritual intelligence).

The process of “letting go” and “letting come” is referred to as “Presencing”.  We’ve come to believe that the core capacity needed for accessing the field of the future is presence.  We first thought of presence as being fully conscious and aware in the present moment.  Then we began to appreciate presence as deep listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense. We came to see the importance of letting go of old identities and the need for control…Ultimately, we came to see all aspects of presence as leading to a state of “letting come”, of consciously participating in a larger field of change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can shift from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.[5]

The principles of the open will are:  (These happen in groups, teams, and organizations, as well as with individuals)

  • Letting Go and Surrendering—concerns the opening process, the removal of barriers and “junk” in one’s way, and moving into the resulting opening.
  • Inversion—Going through the “eye of the needle” or the threshold at which everything that isn’t essential must go and begin to move toward the future
  • The Coming Into Being of a Higher (authentic) Presence and Self—the arrival, the beginning birth, the coming into being of a new self, the essential or authentic self that connects with who we really are.
  • The Power of Place—Creating a Holding Space for Deep Listening

Three conditions describe this space: unconditional witnessing or no judgment, impersonal love, and seeing the essential self.

Summary:  Three Words

Aspects of contemplative spirituality can be used to explore each of the three gates leading to deeper levels of leadership:

The Gate to the Open Mind is further opened by deepening our capacity for Awareness.  We “wake up” to what is going on around us; we become more aware of our state of mind as well as being centered.  We enlarge our capacity for non-anxious presence and stillness (even amidst chaos).

The Gate to the Open Heart opens wide as we reflect on our Relatedness.  By breaking through the illusion that we are separate, we can more fully perceive the essential interdependence of self with others, with Spirit, with natural and created world and its resources.

The Gate to the Open WillAs we “let go” of what no longer serves, we increase our capacity for serving the future with Responsibility.   Responsibility involves asking fundamental questions about meaning, about the role our beliefs/values play in our decisions, actions, and worldview; about vision and creating a picture of what is possible, what is just; what is compassionate, what is wanting to manifest itself through us, and what will serve future generations in more sustainable ways.

Spirituality has both an inner dimension that is accessed by reflection, meditation, contemplation, study, and dialogue; as well as outer dimensions that are intentionally lived in the everyday-ness of life, work, and relationships.  What is seen, heard, experienced, received, and acted upon is brought back to reflection in an on-going cycle.  Both groups as well as individuals can exhibit these inner and outer dimensions of awareness, relatedness, and responsibility, and create new possibilities for the future.



[1] C. Otto Scharmer. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges.  Cambridge, MA:  SoL (Society for Organizational Learning.

[2] Ibid. p. 79.

3] Ibid. p. 42-43.

[4] Senge, Peter, et al.  Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. SoL.

[5] Kahane, Adam.  Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Categories: Awareness