Book review: Presence - Peter Senge

Aug 26

“Presence” emerged from the fear that our world is going to hell in a handbasket. If we are not careful, its authors tell us, we are headed for a “requiem scenario” that spells doom over our planetary society. We all in affluent industrialised societies have a responsibility to stop this slide towards a final armageddon, to renew ourselves and our institutions, particularly those engaged in making money. “Presence” proposes a 7-step plan to help us doing just that. It starts with a downward movement along a U-diagram, leading us (as individuals) away from our trusted mental maps towards a higher sense of purpose. The bottom of the U-diagram is a state of “presence” (hence the book’s title) from which we can perceive our highest future possibility as a particular human being. This awareness leads us up on the other side of the U, into a co-creative field of building new partnerships and institutions.

I think this book is a brave attempt to bring spirituality to the heart of doing business. It’s true there have been quite a few others who have gone this path before. But given the resistance of our institutions to these kinds of ideas, it’s definitely worthwhile to keep on trying. Furthermore, the concept of “presence” is really powerful. Again, it’s something that many authors writing from a spiritual tradition have highlighted. But I find that Senge and Co offer a nuanced and persuasive argument about what it means - for our sense of purpose and our level of commitment to realise it - if we can develop the capability to visualise our own, full “opportunity space”.

That being said, the book shows a few manifest weaknesses. Its conversational tone sounds contrived and I have difficulties in seeing real-world people behind the four voices. Also, the argument is developed in a fairly rambling, undisciplined way - veering off too often into distracting storytelling and showering the reader with a sprawling, new agey jargon.

On the more substantive side, I have a real issue with the naiveté, particularly related to institutional matters, that is reflected by this book. First, although it criticises many aspects of the business world, structurally limiting governance issues such as the stranglehold of anonymous shareholders and their quest for the highest return are hardly mentioned.

Second, I think it is willfully naïve to assume that a personal transformation process will “effortlessly, almost automatically” lead to more “integrative solutions” at an institutional level. (This reminded me of a cartoon showing two scientists debating a long and complicated equation on either side of a blackboard, linked in the middle by an amorphous blob mentioning simply “... and here happens a miracle”.) Even when we are completely aware and fully committed, the business of building new institutions remains a very long, messy affair.

Finally, despite all the nice words of these authors about their higher purpose in life, we shouldn’t forget that behind this “presencing” sits a handsome business model. The “Global Leadership Initiative” that emerged from the story told in this book is actually about codifying, packaging and selling the U-process to mixed consortia of global corporations, NGOs and foundations. To my mind, putting a U-process in a commercial, project-driven straightjacket is tantamount to trivialising it. It makes me wonder whether a world governed by this kind of “presence” will be so different after all.

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