This entry was originally posted on my summer institute blog, a collection of reflections on my summer doctoral coursework.
One hot Sunday afternoon in July, Dr. Tony Frontier introduced my class to the concept of the umwelt (the small subset of the world an animal is able to sense) and the umgebung (the bigger reality), as studied by Jakob von Uexküll.
Had I paid more attention to the umgebung when entering the conference center that morning, I could have made $20! By demonstrating that 104 doctoral students will walk by an unexplained empty box without stopping to peer what’s inside, Dr. Frontier demonstrated that all of us operate within a self-imposed umwelt. He suggests that we can close the gap between these two realities with awareness, openness and presence.
It would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day, and just imagine that all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.
David Eagleman – The Secret Lives of the Brain
The German terms used to illustrate this point made me think of my trip to Germany in late 2011. Munich, like many cities, include a high point from which one can see the entire city. In Munich, this is the olympic tower. From the top of the tower you can see the whole of the city and the surrounding area. One of the photographs I took captures the view of Old Town Munich, where we were staying. It’s amazing to see how large the city of Munich is, and think that we spent the majority of our time in Old Town, an area not larger than two square miles. Often, this is how we approach the world, or a presentation, or a conversation. We stay within the place we’re comfortable and fail to step back and see all that is before us.
My doctoral program is interdisciplinary, and scaffolds learning from year to year to fulfill the mission of the School of Leadership: to prepare and sustain leaders who are catalysts for the positive transformation of individuals, organizations and communities. We seek to free ourselves from the constraints of the umwelt and operate from the umgebung whenever possible. This is not easy! As someone prone to multi-tasking, I must put down my gadgets and focus on the person or situation in front of me. Most often, I need to remain silent, even if that silence is a bit awkward. I attempted to practice this at summer institute, and I must begin to practice it at work, in public and while I conduct my research.
I must strive to a leader that not only is aware of the umbegung, but also reveals the umbegung to others. I can challenge my peers, employees, friends and colleagues to practice awareness, openness and presence whenever possible.
Can you think of a time when you stepped out of the umwelt and became aware of the umbegung?