Action Confidence: Laying Down the Path in Walking

“Let’s have the courage to create”

— GAIA Journey participant

We live in a world of disruption, drama, and despair. All of these are real. But at the same time, we also live in a world of unparalleled opportunity — the opportunity to step into new spaces and to sense and actualize the future that many feel is wanting to emerge — even though it is unclear how.

Yet, in public perception it is the first story — disruption, drama and despair — that keeps being amplified, while the second story — the space of unparalleled opportunity to reshape the world anew — tends to remain unnoticed and unattended to. But why is it that the case? What is the missing ingredient that would make manifest the possibility so many of us feel today?

In this blog, we investigate the deeper territory of what it might take to activate this dormant space of possibility. We look at data from participants in two awareness-based systems change processes — u.lab and GAIA journey. When the participants talk about the impact of these journeys on their lives, they often talk about ‘bravery’, ‘courage’, and ‘confidence’ in relation to taking action. This led Eva and colleague Keira Oliver to coin the term action confidence in a recent study of u.lab outcomes for participants in Scotland.

On first read, ‘action confidence’ may sound like knowing you can do something well and then doing it. It isn’t that. That’s performance confidence.

Action confidence is the courage and capacity to step into something new and bring it into being, or, in the words of the late cognitive scientist Francisco Varela, “to lay down a path in walking”, creating reality as we step into it.

Image: Workshop moment in a u.lab Hub

The key leadership challenge of our times is to cultivate transformative eco-system learning, which means nurturing connection, creativity, and innovation at all levels of the system. So how do we do this? What is it that gives people the confidence to step into new, uncharted territories?

One thing we do know is that action confidence doesn’t come purely from the outside. Setting targets for other people to reach does not foster confidence. Neither do rewards and punishments. While incentives may motivate action, they do not motivate action confidence. Nor does it originate entirely from within. Action confidence is not just a subjective state of mind, disconnected from what happens around me. It’s related to a quality of relationship between system and self, between the objective and the subjective realm. In other words, it’s an intersubjective quality of resonance that is at issue here.

When what organizations, institutions and communities need most is for people to step into uncharted territories of future possibility, they need to turn to holding spaces that are designed for deepening and strengthening the quality of that resonance and agency.

For example, in our first GAIA process in 2020 we had 13,000 participants join in total, about 7000 of whom joined on a regular basis over three months. What we provided for that group was nothing other than a holding space. We weren’t running a program. Its was not designed as a multi-step, multi-month capacity building journey. All we provided was a space to listen and connect. Connect to others. But also connect to yourself. In the exit survey over half of the respondents described the sense of a global interconnectness to be life-changing. They were then invited to share what they considered to be life-changing for them: the experience of a generative social field, of a community operating on open-minded and open-hearted dialogue at a global scale. In other words: it was the holding space that was most transformative to them.

Image: GAIA Journey March-June 2020

Awareness-based systems change is about creating such holding spaces. It’s about creating spaces that allow people to wake up to a level of aspiration and agency that they have not been aware of before but, once activated, shifts their sense of self and their sense of connection to the world and therefore their sense of agency going forward. Basically, it’s like putting people on a new playing field. You wake up and develop agency on a plane previously unimagined.

Image by Jayce Pei Yu Lee

So, what does this process look like? In the u.lab Scotland research, this was articulated as a shift in mental model about the nature and purpose of action, especially as a result of 0.8 prototyping. Moving into new action in order to learn and iterate rather than ‘get it right’ was seen as freeing people from the constraints that so often block new action before it starts — performance anxiety, fear of reprisal, analysis paralysis.

Read the full article here on the Presencing Institute‘s blog.

About the Lead Author

Otto Scharmer
Otto Scharmer
Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation and introduced the concept of “presencing”—learning from the emerging future—in his bestselling books Theory U and Presence (the latter co-authored with Peter Senge and others). He is co-author of Leading from the Emerging Future, which outlines eight acupuncture points for transforming capitalism. His most recent book, The Essentials of Theory U (2018), summarizes the core principles and applications of awareness-based systems change. In 2015 he co-founded the MITx u.lab and in 2020 the GAIA journey (Global Activation of Intention and Action), which have activated a vibrant worldwide ecosystem of transformational change involving more than 200,000 users from 185 countries. Most recently, with his colleagues he co-created a global Action Learning Lab for hundreds of change makers across UN agencies, as well as a suite of SDG Leadership Labs that help UN Country Teams to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. Otto earned his diploma and PhD in economics from Witten/Herdecke University in Germany. He is a member of the UN Learning Advisory Council for the 2030 Agenda, the World Future Council, and the Club of Rome’s High-Level 21st Century Transformational Economics Commission. He has won the Jamieson Prize for Teaching Excellence at MIT and the European Leonardo Corporate Learning Award. In 2021 he received the Elevating Humanity Award from the Organizational Development Network. For more information visit and

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