Nick Ross’s belief is that the ‘the ability to reconcile the tension between a leader’s external and inner worlds is fundamental to 21st Century leadership.  That the world is in a place of deep crisis is not new.  The complexity of the challenges which now assail leaders is deep and difficult. More than ever, we need to harness all the intellectual resources at our disposal to analyse strategic responses to technical problems.  We hear much about the need for leaders to be more emotionally intelligent, which is a truism, but much less about the inner journey of self awareness and development which provides mental calmness in a storm of uncertainties. The willingness to engage in inner growth which will be essential to combatting the narcissism of leadership certainty.  The business environment is a radically uncertain; the solutions are not self evident; nor at they likely to be universal.

 Coach Works has adopted a new tag line:  “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, is entirely misconceived … If you are not part of the problem, you cannot be part of the solution” (quoting Bill Torbert).  On the big issues, total solutions are not out there waiting to be conjured up in the mysterious chemistry of the coaching conversation.  A best fit is often the only action option.  That best fit is not going to be without tensions.  Leaders cannot assume they have made the ‘right’ decision.  They will need be confident that their decisions are values based; that is, they have integrity.  They will need to be constantly adapting their inner worlds to their external exigencies. In this respect, leaders are always part of the problem.  The less self aware a leader is, the bigger this problem is likely to be.  As Kegan and Lahey explain (2009) say ‘When we experience the world as ‘too complex’’ we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world.  We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment.”  

 One of the difficulties herein, is that we don’t know what we don’t know.  If we are not aware of a mismatch, how can we compensate for it?   It is widely accepted now, that there is an evolutionary trajectory in the development of each individual.  There are number of theories about the development of adults through their life span, but for pragmatic reasons, the work of Robert Kegan has gained traction in educational, management and psychological circles.  It is hard to disagree with the evidence that we continue to grow mentally throughout our life span.  Over the years, at different rates, we may grow in what Kegan refers to as ‘mental complexity’.  This is concordant with the well known Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  As our needs are met, our values change, and we turn to deeper forms of personal development.  Unlike the (largely) static nature of IQ, levels of mental complexity evolve in relation to challenges across one’s lifespan. As this occurs, so does perspective change. 

 Perspective taking is, in Kegan’s terms, the ability to see how own behaviour or stage of development is self limiting.  By changing perspective to a different level of meaning, we are able to reflect on our own thinking – a metacognition, if you like. Your own meaning making values become the object of reflection.  In making one’s thoughts, values and orientation to the world object, an individual is no longer subject to the constraints of their own level of maturity.  Kegan refers to this process as ‘subject-object’ relations.  As mental complexity evolves, a former selves can be seen more clearly, and a new level of meaning making is adopted.  This is a representation of cognitive stages of development.  There are other ways to track adult development – ego development, spiritual development, for example.








2nd Order:

Impulsive Mind

(2-6 years)

One’s reflexes

One’s impulses, one’s emotions

Master of, and inseparable from, the universe

2nd Order:

Imperial Mind

(6 yrs through to adolescence and beyond 50% adults?)

One’s impulses, one’s emotions

One’s needs, interests, and desires

Separateness, and using people and things to satisfy own needs

3rd Order

Socialized Mind

(post adolescence – about 11% of adults)

One’s needs, interests and desires

Interpersonal relationships, mutuality, teamwork

Team Player, faithful follower, alignment, seeks direction, reliant

The Journeyman

4th Order:

Self-Authoring Mind (about 34% of adults)

Interpersonal relationships, mutuality, teamwork

Self-authorship, identity, ideology

Agenda driving, leader learns to lead, own compass, own frame, problem solver, independent


5th Order:  Self-Transforming Mind

(probably fewer than 5% of adults.

Self-authorship, identity, ideology

The dialectic between ideologies

Meta-leader, leader leads to learn, multiframe, holds contradictions, problem finding, interdependent

The Elder

(Might there be more?)

The dialectic between ideologies




The sample sizes upon which Kegan draws are skewed towards middle-class, college-educated professionals.  Among their findings is the claim that in a majority of respondents, mental complexity is not as far along as the self-authoring mind – exactly 58% are not at this level.

This blog entry is making the case for leadership development that develops self awareness, and from that awareness, the ability to take responsibility for one’s own actions.