Leadership, Depression and Possibility in These Times

April 2022

If you are not depressed, you are (probably) out of touch….Yes, people are depressed. But a diagnosis of physical or emotional depression does not take into account the agency of the human spirit, the agency of our better (our higher or capital S) Selves, a dormant awareness of the whole that we can activate. Just as Putin was blind to the shared awareness and agency of civil society and collective human action in Ukraine, in Russia, and around the world, in our widely shared sense of depression we are blind to our highest future possibility and agency.

Otto Scharmer (“Putin and the Power of Shared Awareness” Part 2, 3/15/22)

Presencing and Absencing

In a recent pair of stunning essays in his “Field of the Future” blog, Otto Scharmer of MIT’s Presencing Institute brilliantly summarizes what Russia’s war on Ukraine has to teach us, within in its context of other current international humanitarian catastrophes, all embedded in the global climate crisis.  Scharmer identifies the issue at the core of Putin’s aggression as the dynamic of ego-centric, domination-based and destructive “absencing” which happens as a result of natural human blind spots.  (To be clear, both Putin and the West have their blind spots in Scharmer’s Ukraine analysis). Many of us bearing witness to the devastating effects of absencing, he posits, are experiencing a twofold response: (1) depression in the face of cumulative overwhelm, and at the same time (2) a strong feeling of possibility in this disruption, but not necessarily knowing what to do with it. 

The way to navigate through this somewhat contradictory pair of psychological states, according to Scharmer, is to sense into the emerging future by activating our agency and action (i.e. our leadership). As Scharmer says, “[D]epression and a sense of possibility. These are the two conflicting feelings I have as I tune in to our current moment: the déjà vu of repeated disruptions that amplify the noise of absencing, and simultaneously the acute sense of future possibility that many people feel, yet don’t know what to do with. The first feeling is well known — it’s amplified and retold millions of times every day. The second feeling [possibility] is part of a more important and largely untold story of our time. It is usually crowded out by the noise of the first one.” 


Scharmer lays the groundwork for possibility by emphasizing five key areas of progress in human development over the last two centuries: war; decolonization; slavery and civil rights; the status of women and rights of those with non-conforming gender identities; and poverty.  He observes:

These changes were driven by a constellation of civic movements — peace movements, liberation movements, abolition movements, civil rights movements, women’s movements, and human development movements — that inspired others to join the cause. All of these movements were started by small groups of committed citizens who in one way or another created a support structure for themselves and others that allowed them to cultivate an intentional social field (examples: the Highlander Folk School, the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, and the NAACP for the American civil rights movement; or churches for the Eastern European civil rights movements during the cold war). As activists were attracted, trained, and equipped with methods and tools, they gained traction and attracted former bystanders to their movements. Eventually, these movements helped societies to reimagine and reshape themselves for the better….In other words, these movements operated from a felt connection to a different field of real possibility, the field of presencing a future that hasn’t manifested yet.

He says that what makes people want to cross these societal thresholds is connection with others, making the movement experiential and personal, which in turn sparks motivation to action or agency.  In the essay, Scharmer outlines the architectures of separation that lead to absencing, and the architectures of connection that lead to presencing. Whereas absencing is built on three types of disconnection, “[a]rchitectures of connection transform these conditions by building containers that hold the possibility of deeper reconnections on the level of knowing, relating, and agency.  In other words, the transformative and healing architectures of connection are based on the principles that mind and world are not separate, that self and other are not separate, and that self and Self are not separate” [Scharmer’s emphases].


Deepening our consciousness of connection allows us to move from what Scharmer calls “ego-system awareness” to “eco-system awareness,” or awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings and the planet.  As readers of the Leadership Library already know, I agree with Scharmer that this is where (individual and collective) leadership derives both its power and its imperative: amidst cosmic mischief, the place where the art and science of leadership intersect is in the tonal quality of attention a leader brings to this complex web of unfolding. 

Scharmer concludes that humanity is now “looking into the abyss” between the death of one civilizational era and the birth of another.  He doesn’t know any better than anyone else how to handle traversing this gap, but he does argue it must be a “pull from the future” rather than a “push from the past.”  More specifically, he recommends learning from what we can sense is wanting to emerge from the present moment by: starting small; bridging the ecological, social and spiritual divides; weaving the movement; shifting consciousness to “align our attention and intention with what is ours, with what is mine to do” [his emphases]; and mobilizing collective action from shared awareness.  He ends on a not particularly optimistic note, calling for collaborative diplomacy specifically in the Ukraine situation, and – in the bigger picture – calling on the agency of each of us. “Where are you an activist in building containers that foster architectures of connection (rather than those of separation),” he asks.  “[W]here are you creating and co-holding these learning infrastructures for yourself, for your team, and for the initiatives you participate in?”

Recommended Resources

I believe in taking our profound challenges seriously while holding them lightly, if our efforts are going to be psychologically and emotionally sustainable.  Part of how we do this is by opening up space in our minds and hearts, by using healthy humor to give ourselves perspective on the chaos and darkness, and by making time for the playfulness and joy that are the true wellsprings of creativity.  In that spirit, I pass along three of my very recent discoveries:

  • Meditation snacks.  I just listened to a handful of 5-minute meditations newly offered by the Well section of the New York Times.  There are other free guided short meditations I like better (such as these), but this NYT collection is a handy little source of refreshment.
  • “Ted Lasso” (AppleTV+).  OMG, I’m a little bit in love with footballer Roy Kent (“He’s here! He’s there! He’s every-fucking-where! Roy Kent!”), who’s only one of several delicious characters in this insanely bingeable series about a charming American football coach named Ted Lasso who moves to London to coach the AFC Richmond soccer team.  A counter-example to outmoded, toxic, Western, masculine (as distinguished from male) command-and-control ideals, Lasso embodies a positive, whole-hearted, nurturing, team-oriented leader who is no less manly nor effective for expressing his full humanity.  The delight of watching Ted, Roy and the other main characters develop (you find yourself rooting for all of them!) through Season 2 is balm in these times. 
  • A couple of weeks ago, when my husband and I were visiting Rochester, NY for something else, we happened upon the National Museum of Play.  This sprawling institution, which abounds with interactive exhibits and immersive experiences, reflects a fascinating philosophy (see its Elements of Play chart) that mutually informs several disciplines including leadership, engineering, psychology, art and design.  It was lovely to act like a kid together with my husband for several hours, to reminisce, and to somatically access a form of nostalgia that can actually relieve pain: it was a powerful reminder that more leaders must make more time for play.  (Here’s a quick article on how to prioritize play in your life; note that you can microdose on it.) A National Museum of Play highlight for me was stopping by Sesame Street and listening to favorite old songs. “I Love Trash,” anyone?!
At the National Museum of Play on March 18th.
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