Leadership to channel collective intelligence
When I first met Lena Otte, she was leading MIT’s Ulab hub in Neuköln Berlin, one of several hundred offline “hubs” for the online course we were both following. Her facilitation style was so gracious, effortless and quiet that it was hard to label it as “leadership” — much more often used to define the central, dominating figure of the (often male) manager or CEO, leading his followers.
I learned, over the weeks, how powerful a leader she was, creating an incredible safe space for the group and empowering each of us to bring our own energy to the space. I saw how much I had to learn from her, and how much this type of leadership was crucial to channel collective intelligence (or New Power). I also saw how much Lena worked on herself, listened and learned in order to perfect this new form of leadership. She joined the Leadership Academy, run by Berlin-based collective Leadership³, which works to activate collective leadership in order to create better solutions for a rapidly changing world, and she plays an active role in MIT’s Ulab courses. I sat with Lena to learn about her understanding of leadership.
Mike: So, Lena, what is the key to this new form of leadership?
Lena: I would say the key is to create a safe place for the team. It is only when people feel safe to bring their whole selves into play, their full authenticity, that all their different intelligences are available to the group.
As Otto Scharmer speaks of in Theory U, the intelligence of the mind is crucial for us to function as humans, and keeping an open mind is a first step to creating a safe space. I think most of us only dare to show up more fully, as who we really are, when there’s no judgement in the room. However, the intelligence of the heart and of the will are also key — and it is these competencies of open heart and open will which we are much less trained to use, especially in professional contexts. I have found that, when a group manages to maintain an open mind, an open heart and open will, completely new possibilities of addressing old problems or creating future opportunities arise. It allows people to really connect to their individual and collective purpose.
Mike: A lot of people speak of “purpose” these days, in a very vague way. How would you explain purpose?
Lena: Again, without wanting to glorify Otto Scharmer too much, I’d say the questions that we focus on in Ulab, particularly at the bottom of the “U”, are really the key to working from our purpose, in my view. These are “Who am I?” and “What is my work?”. It sounds simple, but when these are considered and shared in such a safe place, they can really bring groups to a much more intuitive kind of work together.
Mike: Is this where we get to the “collective” intelligence aspect of leadership?
Lena: Yes, how I currently understand it, is that one of the next steps to ensure collective leadership is that we are all speaking from “wisdom” instead of from “ego”. This means that we aren’t speaking to gain recognition, but from a space deeper than our daily life selves and ego desires. It’s one of the working principles I learned from Leadership³.
Mike: This sounds like it relates to the idea of “evolutionary purpose” which Frederic Laloux speaks of in Reinventing Organisations, where groups listen to what is needed for the purpose of the organisation to thrive, rather than their own individual purpose. Is that the idea?
Lena: Yes, and it also links to another key aspect of leadership which I also learnt from Leadership ³“Connection before Correction”. So we care first for the connection between members of the group, and take time to develop these, maintain the trust between us, and address anything which comes up between us, rather than focusing on “being right” or forcing our agenda. Being aware of the inner place we operate from is the key to this kind of leadership I’d say.
Mike: So meetings with numerous people are often pretty dead or draining. Will these principles make them come alive and allow us to tap into collective intelligence in the room?
Lena: Well, in part. It of course takes a whole lot of practice. These competencies are like muscles, they take exercise, and nurturing. I would add though two more important aspects, also Leadership³ working principles: “Follow the energy rather than time pressure” and “Go with what is needed right now”.
This first one is about the leader and the group feeling the energy in the room, and acting based on this — not forcing or being stuck to preset conditions (within reason of course). For example, if a discussion is really full of energy and great new ideas or solutions are arising, then keep going. If the whole meeting is dead and drained of energy, then address this head on — “why are we all falling asleep here?” — or finish the meeting early.
The second point is to come to a meeting ready to address what is really important for the group right now, trusting that this is what is needed for the group to move forwards. Doing this can be difficult when there are many “points on the agenda”, but often this also contributes to energy levels being high.
Mike: And what results have you seen from this type of leadership?
Lena: Well, for one thing, it’s way less effortless having meetings run like this. It also allows us to solve complex problems with much more energy and creativity. It’s of course impossible to force this type of leadership and use of collective intelligence on groups, leaders or organisations. This is something which, when it’s ready, and leaders are ready to explore, will grow and expand. Like a plant 😉