GENIUS for all

Prof. i.R. Dr. Walther Dreher

Universität zu Köln

Theory U

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The Dynamic of Presencing and Absencing. Pro and Contra Theory U


‚… there was a light that got out in my spirit … I felt myself again …’

(Konda Mason,

Before I tell you my story I want to thank you all for the new homepage and the beginning of the U.lab 2x. Since you started with the open classroom events and the U.labs I participated in all these courses always with great interest and personal benefit.

This time ‘U.lab 2x’ gives me a new awareness about the need and possibility of change ‘just in this moment’. I feel as if you as the Presencing team are just directly talking to me in my and our situations now it’s like if we are traveling side by side our life’s journey.

It might seem as if there is no significant difference between the former ‘U.lab courses’ because most elements are the same, but nevertheless for me I get aware of something different. One reason might be the three in sequence following topics of economy, climate change and education and of course the pioneering journey creating through the experience of successful projects a new platform ‘to bring together the most interesting examples and to understand them from a deep system thinking framework that looks at that through the viewpoint of an evolving human consciousness that makes available the deeper practices that allow us to shift the way the economy works from ego-system-awareness to eco-system-awareness’


Somehow for me it’s not participating in a ‘class or u.lab.’ but directly diving into the melting pot of our life just now.

Thanks Konda for your moving story. Listening to it I remembered my own childhood twenty year before yours and it’s my story to the question of Otto:

Do we remember when in our life the light or flame of our spirit once got off and do we think about how we can ‘switch’ it on or how the flame could be lightened on again?

This question also touches me deeply. Memories came up from my childhood. Born in 1940 I still remember unconsciously the atmosphere of war and hatred towards ‘non German’ citizens or non-valuable people like handicapped persons. Trying to escape the war danger in a smaller town my mother with my elder brother, me and herself pregnant changed our living place to the countryside. Zwiefalten – once a Cistercians monastery – gave us new protection. Beside some hardship in daily life – which I didn’t feel as such at that time – I felt myself happy, vivid and confident, also when in 1945 the French Army occupied the south of Germany. For us children the French occupation was exciting and we got nearly daily chocolate and other food. When I entered with six my first school class I met new classmates – exciting too.

Just on my seventh birthday we moved to my father’s home village. Fortunately my father returned safely out of the war but – as I understood much more later – he was a member of the National Socialist German Worker Party (NSDAP) and Officer during the war, decorated with an ‘Iron Cross’ (Eiserne Kreuz). Perhaps we changed the place because his grandfather’s house and being grown up there tore him back to that place. I didn’t know that it was a place where formerly social democrats and communist party members prevailed who had to suffer under the Nazi regime though my grand-grand-father was major there at the end of the 19th century, my grand-mother was born there and we had a number of relatives too.

Entering the second grade – meanwhile school begin in spring had changed to autumn – in that village I encountered a hidden and for me not understandable mistrust and aggression. I will never forget the day in autumn 1947 coming back from the fields of my grandparents from harvesting apples, when we reached the edge of the village where a habitant was standing with uplifted fist crying towards us: “No it’s an end to say ‘Heil Hitler’ and you should be in Sibiria not my son!” My father only whispered to us: ‘Don’t look there and hurry up’. He didn’t explain us what happened. Perhaps my classmates heard from their parents something – also not understanding as myself – but behaving in rejection and distance. Some day during playing with others a much younger boy then I was hurt a bit and all friends accused me. Not only verbally but two elderly of them hold my arms tight and the much younger and smaller boy could hit me with arms and legs. After I was running back to our house, weeping and with emotionally choked voices my mother what happened. She tried to console me – but she couldn’t defend me in front of the boys feeling herself too week in that poisoned atmosphere’. In those days it was the first time in my life that I felt that a ‘strong inner light diminished and became weaker’. The shadow which fell on it was something like: ‘There is something or there are people though I don’t know why who have some legitimation to scold and punish me without reason.’ the It must have been in giving me energy and open mindedness to the world around me. It was, as if a big stone block my inner well to flow and nourish me confidently. Later – hearing and reading from all those cruelties between 1933 and 1945 – I understood the loudly shouting person as well as the behaviour of my school mates influenced themselves by parentally attitudes which they didn’t understand deeply. My parents themselves suffering under their blindness and remorse for what happened couldn’t support me enough at that time. Though that light of my childhood became stronger again and fresh well water continued streaming through my life – there is something left, there is still something missing like absolute confidence, like an indestructible ground to stand on. In situations after I experienced again and again how it depends on us as human beings if life is nourished and protected or if it’s through us that people hunger for being accepted and longing to feel a healing hand over themselves. May be here are moments which influenced decisions later in my life for example that I refused doing military service, becoming a primary teacher – perhaps to be a partner for them in keeping a vivid childhood -, researching in my University studies in the interface of medicine, philosophy and education when I met the work of Viktor von Weizsaecker, going to Japan for several years to experience amongst other things the atmosphere of Buddhism, being called back to Germany through my colleague Professor Theodor Hofmann – ten year elder then me and studying also in the 1960th at the Eberhard Karl University in Tuebingen – who credit me to start with him to establish at the University of Cologne teacher training for people which we call mentally retarded. With them I began a long way of trying to understand each other better, of changing scientific views on them and approaching with them what nowadays is called ‘Inclusion’ – a project of the future to come. Just these days I met the work of Klaus Doerner again and became aware which deep changes are acquired from experts in education and professionals in social work to change their positions and to start to go along together with the marginalized in our society.

Though I didn’t feel my life as ‘absurd’ a phrase of Albert Camus accompanied me since my study days: “During all this whole absurd life he led out of the depth of his future he felt a dark breath through all the years haven’t come yet” (Albert Camus, Der Fremde, 1968, 120, rororo 432).


It was around 2000 when I first met Otto Scharmer and his ideas of developing what later was called ‘Theory U’. Following what he worked out I became slowly aware that he helped me to bring the different puzzle pieces of my own life and scientific work into connection with each other shaping them into a vague picture or figure (Gestalt) – and discovering a ‘hidden force’ which accompanied me through all the years. Following Konda ‘I felt myself again’ and the ‘light’ turned up again. Since then my life became somehow ‘watermarked’ through the U‘. The life became – as Jena Gebser says – diaphanous, translucent and transparent for different levels of being and becoming human. It’s a feeling which I imagine is similar to the shepherd in the story ‘The shepherd and his Ox’ when he – for a long time lost in the wilderness – discovers the trace of the Ox. ‘…seeing traces of the ox’ means ‘when we start seeing signs of what we have lost and what we need to recover’ ( ).

Continuing an analogue story like Konda Masons’ in her video messages I first will summarize how I understand Otto’s work. Secondly I will argue against Stefan Kuehl and his critics of Theory U – and how easily the light could be blown out again at least how guttering it might become – and thirdly I want to express what it means for me that ‘I felt myself again’ and what I’m now trying more and more consciously to take respons(e)-ibility for myself, trying to find actively answers on the needs of an existential and social wellbeing for all through ‘u.lab 2x’ and the activities to come – the future wanting to emerge.

  1. Theory U

In an interview with the Carl Auer Verlag (2009) Scharmer articulates quite clear what Theory U intends and what he is trying “to bring into the world” (

Scharmer says: Theory U is a new perspective, a new angle of view how to look on social situations. “The capacity to access the subtler and deeper dimensions of social fields in a more reliable and transparent way requires a new social grammar” (Theory U, 2nd edition, 2016, 229) focusing the development of individuals, small groups or organizations as well as other changes and systems. Theory isn’t a pure Theory of Leading systems but more a Theory of Society written from the perspective of acting people as leaders.

The following statement in addition extends to other aspects:

“Theory U proposes that the quality of the results that we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention, or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from.

Since it emerged around 2006, Theory U has come to be understood in three primary ways: first as a framework; second, as a method for leading profound change; and third, as a way of being – connecting to the more authentic of higher aspects of our self” (

Through this ‘way of being’ I personally feel addressed and concerned. The connection and interaction of science, consciousness and social fields especially out of my professional work researching and teaching for and with marginalized people like those we called multiply and severely mentally retarded or disabled persons signalizes an exciting provocation of the academic fundaments. Just since a few years it becomes crucial for me to change my view completely and to meet people and exchange ideas and experiences who might start with the same pioneering journey. More strongly: The problems of marginalized people are at least in the same manner one of experts and society as well as those affected.

The background is what Otto calls ‘A New Science’ (Theory U, 2nd edition, 2016, 14-16). To illustrate what’s profoundly changing he uses the example of a telescope being directed in opposing positions and quite different ‘objects’. “In 1609 Galileo Galilei devised a telescope that allowed him to observe the moons of Jupiter” (14). Four hundred years later the ‘object’ isn’t outside. Now we have to gather “a much more subtle set of data and experiences from within”, which means to bend “the beam of observation back upon its source: the self that is performing the scientific activity” (15). This focus is provoking! “This transformation of science is no less revolutionary than Galileo Galilei’s. And the resistance from the incumbent knowledge holders will be no less fierce than the one that Galilei met in the Catholic Church” (a.a.o. 15).

  1. Stefan Kuehl: The Blind Spots in Otto Scharmer’s Theory U

Stefan Kühl wrapped his critics not only in a cloak of resistance but worse in a language of Irony beyond any earnest and respect of his ‘opponent’. How does he argue? Sitting in the crow’s nest of the Sociology of Niklas Luhmann let him feel the superiority of his outlook – ‘a sociological perspective, based on the fundamental work of Niklas Luhmann 1975, reveals…’ – and seem to justify the direction of his critic and where the ship has to sail:

  • Theory U has the typical structure of a management fashion.
  • …outfitted with the signals of scientific competence.
  • Screening out conflicts of interests.


And – to come to the point first – ‘in the spirit of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the purpose of this article is … to offer an explanation through clarification’.

Kuehl discovers 4 blind spots in Scharmers Theory U:

  1. The simultaneous transformation of absolutely everything.

If Scharmer raises the claim to change the ‘Self’ of people and at the same time to lift society as a whole to a new level of development – this can only be called a ‘product of fantasies of omnipotence’ (Ausfluss von Allmachtsphantasien). – For Kuehl Scharmer neglects the knowledge of System theory. Online-courses, people who only listen, to get through Theory U a theoretical perspective on social situations, to win through a social grammar new angle of view on single persons, groups, institutions and systems all these for Kuehl ‘has nothing to do with a basic understanding about the differentiation of modern societies’.

  1. The suspension of differences between science, economics, politics, and religion.

Any attempt to put in systems and subsystems elements where they don’t belong like ‘spirituality’ in science, economy and politics amounts to a dedifferentiation which finds its limits in the ‘logic (rationale) of different social fields’. – Kuehl adds: In Scharmers ‘view, the same intellectual model that underpins his management concept, namely, a society that merges business, politics, religion, and science, will save the world. That may be an appealing dream, but it bears little relationship to developments in modern society’.

  1. Resolving conflicts of interests in a community ideology.

‘It is a typical feature of management fashions, that the importance of structural conflicts of interest is negated through a we-are-saving-the-world-posture’. The ‘fieldstructure of collective awareness’ doesn’t deny conflicts of interest. That nevertheless people encounter in qualitative cycles is affiliated with the mentioned ‘community ideology’. Additionally Kuehl imputes supporting ‘organizational hypocrisy’ through Theory U and observes in it ‘the danger of… degenerating into a learning prevention theory’.

  1. A management fantasy that has been enriched with esoteric terminology.

For Kuehl on the one side ‘Theory U is an entirely normal phase model. Like most phase models, it conveys the suggestion of progress’. On the other side Theory U is attractive because ‘it takes the classical phase models circulating in the management field and loads them with esoteric ideas and concepts that are popular in parts of the change management scene’. Lastly ‘Theory U is rich with the poetry of change’ and ‘in the final analysis, the choice of esoteric terminology in Theory U conceals that it amounts nothing other than a linguistically obfuscated management fantasy’.

After this all what could be expected what remains to be expressed finally? A continuation of the firework of blame seems program:

  • ‘Management methods wear down over time…the model loses its shine’.
  • Practical experiences illustrate: ‘As children’s literature has already demonstrated, the more often the Emperor appears in public, the clearer it becomes that he has no clothes’.
  • It doesn’t help to overview the Emperors underwear through ‘using great drama…and an esoteric mode of expression…well received in several areas of the systematically oriented organizational development scene’.
  • And how about the last ‘bang’?

Here something strange happens. Kuehl uses terms like ‘benefit of Theory U’ and speaks from an ‘important assistance’. But looking exactly – at least for me and my fragmentary use of English; but also the German version isn’t clear – the irony and cynic continues. Let me quote the last paragraph completely:

‘The benefit of Theory U is that its rhetoric is particularly oriented and therefore inspires the courage to make transitions. Organizations, it suggests, must to a very significant degree simply ignore the uncertainty that precedes every decision. They must first do something, persuade themselves that their actions were correct, and then continue to pursue them systematically. The art of organizing increasingly entails treating uncertain knowledge as if it were certain and thereby arriving at confident, convincing action. The ability that is becoming more and more crucial to managers is to view things as confirmed that should actually be called into question. This is the very point where Theory U provides important assistance’.

Is this an earnest perspective or a final ironic remark – the last ‘bang without flying sparks’?

Kuehl at one point in his article underlines that ‘…it is well documented in organizational research that if one assumes the players generally act in rational ways as they pursue solutions for previously defined problems, one succumbs to an illusion. All too often, the goals that have been set are unclear or contradictory; frequently, the best suited method of solving a problem is not known; and the composition of decision-making committees is often the result of happenstance…players link solutions and problems only loosely, sometimes even noncommittally. From this perspective, problems solutions are nothing more than a very coincidental alliance consisting of problems, solutions, and players…’ And ‘here’ should Theory U earn any ‘benefit’ by playing an ‘important assistance’ role in problem solving?

(German original text:; the English version can be ordered:

Viewing an interview of the TV Sender 3sat from November 3rd 2015 with Stefan Kuehl ( in the context of the emission and corruption scandal of Volkswagen I feel reminded the situation how ‘noncommittally’ solutions in organizations can be found. Asked about his opinion that Volkswagen manipulated the emission values Kuehl explains that ‘rule violations’ in companies and organizations are ‘normal and necessary’ to react flexible to changes of the market. The behaviour ‘shown and needed’ calls Kuehl a ‘useful illegality’ which guaranties economic success and no company could renounce such vile practice. (Compare the critical statement of Goetz Eisenberg to this interview –! (German only).

Shows Kuehl such an attitude by himself when he quote as his own Motto ‚It is not to change the attitude of people but the conditions‘ (Nicht das Verhalten der Menschen, sondern die Verhältnisse ändern (Wolfgang Schnelle) and (miss)uses he consciously this Motto that not attitudes have to be changed but the circumstances ( Because on Wolfgang Schnelles homepage his Motto reads nearly opposite: ‘The Human Being is the centre point of all development processes’ (Der Mensch ist Mittelpunkt aller Entwicklungsprozesse) (,10404).

Replaceable: ‘Conditions’ versus ‘Human Being’ – auseful illegality’?

Perhaps I can’t hide that I feel frustrated Theory U being discussed from a University Colleague in this way – Goetz Eisenberg uses Sloterdijks term ‘Science-cynicism’ – and that the magazine ‘Wirtschaft+Weiterbildung’ itself connects this one-sided discussion with a quite superficial summery of Martin Pichler who shows by referring to the book of Lawrence L. Lippitt ‘Preferred Futuring’ (1998) that he hasn’t understood anything of the deeper intention of Theory U. Because the ‘message’ doesn’t read: ‘One who has a burning vision (brennende Vision) of the future produces automatically the needed power to reach it’. No! The ‘emerging future’ is something beyond an ‘ego-centred vision’ and to answer on it is far beyond an ‘ego-depending automatism’. There is a ‘source’ coming into play which Martin Buber term ‘as it desires’.

I stop here avoiding the danger that my emotions between the lines come up onto them. It’s more important to ask myself what I can take out of these comments, what they might teach to me and us as a worldwide community. It’s exciting what Stefan Kuehl mentions – and here I agree with him only one time but -, that ‘life is much wilder then the out of the crow’s nest would have us to believe’!

  1. U.lab 2x

Out of U.lab 2x flows for me once again a fresh energy – I feel myself again. How is it working in me and transforming my daily life, my view on my past up to now and the required (notwendig = not-wendend) metamorphosis? Some aspects from my perspective:

  • ‘Theory U’ demonstrates and illustrates a ‘way of being’. This is for me the ‘source of feeling myself again’. Frankly spoken the term ‘Theory’ is at a first glance like a barrier of understanding. It sounds like a ‘brain made’ construct useful for those who want to bring ideas into practice like managers – and easily the ‘Theory’ is seen as a ‘Fashion’. – Of course being confronted with its dynamic and practice there isn’t left any abstract flight of fancy – and somehow nowadays it’s like a ‘Trademark’ and for me became a ‘vivid watermark’.
  • In the depth of the ‘way of being’ originates the wide view onto our life and its tension between ‘absencing and presencing’ connected through a line of disruption and divide. Here are ‘two U-Fields’: One which keeps us absent from ourselves and which is arching over our ‘common life’. Because I like to ‘think with pictures’ this field can be ‘painted’ like in Brother Grimms ferry-tale ‘Mother Hulda’ (Frau Holle). The field of absencing shoes the maiden ‘Marie’ working every day despite quite hard and unjust living circumstances. When it happened that she lost the spindle a second U-Field emerged – but not ‘automatically’. For Marie it was a terrifying decision what to do – and ‘in the despair of her heart she jumped down into the well the same way the spindle had gone’.

The U-Process asks for

  • Decision – no ifs, no buts
  • Human Being who encounters three lights
  • The lumen rationale – what to do – an open mind.
  • The lumen cordiale – ‘in the despair of her heart’ – an open heart
  • The lumen corporale – …’a large door standing open, and as she was passing through it there fell upon her a heavy shower of gold, and the gold hung all about her, so that she was covered with it’ –social presencing theatre an embodied open will: ‘…and the girl found herself back again in the world…’ (Mother Hulda)
  • Journey which has to be done
  • Courage to pass the eye of the needle because it’s a question of life and death
  • Awareness that man isn’t yet at the end of his (hi)story
  • Integrality of Space-Time (Jean Gebser, 1984, The Everpresent Origin) which allows that Presencing emerges in its ‘Time-free-qualiy’ and the U-Process creates a ‘Space-free-quality’ – at any ‘time’ and at any ‘place’ and this means
  • ‘Utopia’ as a “real ‘U’-topia” as realisation of U-topos and U-topoi everywhere and at any time.

This is the call of our time to us!

What’s happening now globally is – for Bernard Lievegoed (The Battle for the Soul: The Working Together of Three Great Leaders of Humanity, Hawthorn Press Ltd, June 1996) – a struggle between different spiritual streams and the nadir hasn’t yet reached. The shift from ‘ego to eco’ reads in Lievegoeds words as a dynamic of a ‘global social movement’ which aims to let people ‘awake’ out of the ‘intellectualized ego’ and to let them ‘create a culture on the fundament of interest for the other human being and his difficulties’. Everywhere where people start in cities to change basically the way of living together – as the videos of Oakland illustrate impressively, but also where Hubs and Coaching Circles are active -, where Schools, Institutions of Heilpaedagogic, biodynamic farms but also Companies (Frédéric Laloux) and management consultancy join in groups, cooperate without jealousy or anxiety of cheating, create networks – where such ‘social impulse’ will inspire many people to participate empathetically and to commit out of the depths of their hearts a new future will emerge.

But Lievegoed also warns not to underestimate the strategy of counterforces (Gegenmaechte) in Ottos term the ‘power of absencing’

Once again: It is true life is much wilder then the view out of the narrow crow’s nest of Sociology shows us and U.lab 2x is just now a powerful invitation to dive into this wild life which is a ‘fertile field as well as a well-stocked grainery for future farmers rooted to the soil and in heaven too’.

May 2017