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MIT Presencing Institute’s “Societal Transformation”, Spring 2019

Our issue

“Societal Learning: An Exploration in Community Transformation in St Petersburg, Florida.”

What surfaced within our group was the need to listen to voices not heard in our city. We agreed that we needed greater self-awareness and collaborative processes to foster a City of Compassion and Peace.


Social learning is unique in that it engages the whole community in meaningful conversations. Education is the foundation. The second tenet is that the city is a whole, complex, living system – alive, conscious, and greater than the sum of its parts.


In these historic moments, We, the People, are called to serve - with a deepening awareness and appreciation that compassion and inclusion are at the heart of connection. We want to be part of this global study because we want to learn what others are finding, and to share our discoveries about inclusive societal transformation in the 21st Century.

The MIT Presencing Institute was founded in 2006 by MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer Otto Scharmer and colleagues in order to create an action research platform at the intersection of science, consciousness, and profound social and organizational change. Over the past two decades, the MIT Presencing Institute has developed Theory U as a change framework, led cross-sector leadership, change and innovation initiatives worldwide, and created an innovation platform called u.lab.

The Societal Transformation Lab convened 300 global teams who are working to bridge the environmental, social

and spiritual divides of our time. The Spring 2019 course was designed to offer guidance rather than specific direction for group outcomes. They offered regular Zoom sessons and resources, as well as a platform to dialogue with peers about their learnings. The overall goal was to:

  • Understand the deeper forces at play in social systems that can either be obstacles or leverage points for change

  • Identify emerging future possibilities in your work

  • Prototype new ways of working

​​In brief, we are coming to believe that leaders are those people who “walk ahead,” people who are genuinely committed to deep change in themselves and in their organizations. They lead through developing new skills, capabilities, and understandings. And they come from many places within an organization. 


In particular, we have come to think of three essential types of leaders in building learning organizations, roughly corresponding to three different organizational positions: 1. Local line leaders, who can undertake meaningful organizational experiments to test whether new learning capabilities lead to improved business results 2. Executive leaders, who provide support for line leaders, develop learning infrastructures, and lead by example in the gradual process of evolving the norms and behaviors of a learning culture 3. Internal networkers, or community builders, the “seed carriers” of the new culture, who can move freely about the organization to find those who are predisposed to bringing about change, help out in organizational experiments, and aid in the diffusion of new learnings.


The leadership challenges in building learning organizations represent a microcosm of the leadership issue of our times: how human communities, be they multinational corporations or societies, productively confront complex, systemic issues where hierarchical authority is inadequate for change. None of today’s most pressing societal issues—deterioration of our natural environment, the international arms race, erosion of the public education system, or the breakdown of the family and increasing social anomie and fragmentation—will be resolved through hierarchical authority. In all these issues, there are no simple causes, no simple “fixes.” There is no one villain to blame. There will be no magic pill. Significant change will require imagination, perseverance, dialogue, deep caring, and a willingness to change on the part of millions of people. I believe it is also the challenge posed in building learning organizations...The challenges of systemic change where hierarchy is inadequate will, I believe, push us to new views of leadership based on new principles. These challenges cannot be met by isolated heroic leaders. They will require a unique mix of different people, in different positions, who lead in different ways. Although the picture sketched above is tentative and will undoubtedly evolve, I doubt that it understates the changes that will be required in our traditional leadership models.



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