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The Only Way to Truly ‘Walk Your Talk’ As a Leader

by | May 25, 2023

What is the talk you are trying to walk as a leader? In other words, what is most important to you to role model both as a human being and as a leader? What are your values, your code, the principles you want to lead by?

All leaders need to answer this most obvious question because it has such a deep connection to trust and credibility. As leadership experts and co-authors of my first book James Kouzes and Barry Posner put it, ‘Leadership begins with a belief in yourself and continues only if other people believe in you.’ Their exhaustive research concludes that leaders who can communicate their talk clearly are 66 per cent more trusted than those who can’t.

To believe in you, people have to know (1) who you are and what you stand for, and (2) whether or not they can trust you. In other words, leaders must walk their talk, and in order to do that, they must have a talk to walk. Values are your talk, and living in accordance with them through your behaviour — what Jim and Barry call ‘modelling the way’ — is your walk. Fascinatingly, however, I have found it extremely rare for leaders to be able to communicate their ‘talk,’ let alone ‘walk’ it.

There’s a reason for this: it’s extremely difficult to do because of the way the human brain is hard-wired, and relatively few people have even reached a stage of development where it is even possible.

Leadership and the stages of human development

Adult development psychologist Robert Kegan developed what he termed the subject–object theory, which provides a model of how the human mind develops vertically over time. ‘Subject’ represents patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving we are identified with but are not consciously aware of, and therefore cannot reflect on, view objectively or change. ‘Object’ refers to patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving we are able to consciously reflect on, look at, take control of and be responsible for.

What we are ‘subject to’ is that which governs how we make sense of the world. It is an element that determines our experience but that itself cannot be questioned or examined. It is either taken as true or not even considered at all.

The process of personal development is about ‘making object’ the patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that we were previously ‘subject’ to, so we can view them from a more objective perspective and be less driven or controlled by them. Some of this occurs naturally, especially in the earlier stages of development, and some occurs through deliberate practices, especially in the more advanced stages.

The lower our stage of development, the more our unconscious impulses, thoughts, assumptions, fears and desires rule us. The higher our stage of development, the more our unconscious impulses, thoughts, assumptions, fears and desires become object or conscious to us and the more choice and agency we have over them.

Adult development simplified

Babies start at stage zero of development, completely subject to their reflexes. They cry, urinate or kick with no conscious awareness or control over these natural reflexes. The first stage of development, the ‘impulsive mind’, starts around age two, when the child can begin to hold her reflexes as object. She is subject to her impulses — like grabbing from another person’s plate or hitting someone who took her toy. But physiological reflexes/movements can be consciously chosen.

Before too long, the impulsive mind naturally develops into the next vertical stage, the self-centred mind. Now the child has some agency over her impulses. Impulses she was subject to, like urinating, have now become object to her. She notices the impulse and has some choice as to when and where to urinate.

The self-centred mind

The next development milestone we reach is the self-centred mind, or what Robert Kegan refers to as the self-sovereign mind. The self-centred mind is subject to our desires, as we don’t yet have the awareness or discipline to put them aside. At this stage, we have little to no empathy for others. The value system revolves around our ‘getting what we want’. Kegan quips that in this stage a child will sell his mother for 50 cents to buy candy.

The socialised mind

As most people mature, they move naturally into a third stage called the socialised mind. In this stage, we begin to exercise control over our own desires in order to fit into a family, group or organisation. We feel empathy for and connect with others. This is a considerable growth achievement for our species.

Using a marshmallow example, if you give a child at the self-centred mind stage two marshmallows, he will most likely eat them himself. If he does share, it will only be if he sees that it is to his future advantage. But if he has developed a socialised mind, he may be more inclined to share the marshmallows with a friend, because a friend’s concerns and interests have become internalised. The friend’s satisfaction can be experienced as one’s own satisfaction. He curbs his self-centredness in order to belong to a group, which requires that he cooperate and collaborate with others.

However, this shift is not necessarily driven by a sense of care for others. Rather, it is usually about seeking approval and a sense of belonging. In a socialised mind, our self-worth depends more on what other people think about us, and less on our own beliefs about ourselves. It comes from who we are in the eyes of others and our place in a social group.

The self-examining mind

The next stage of development is what Kegan calls the ‘self-authoring mind’. The shift from socialised mind to self-authoring mind begins when we ask the question, What is important to me and what do I stand for aside from what anyone else thinks? We connect with our own heart and determine our own values and moral compass.

The self-authoring mind sees the need for external validation in the socialised mind. Once that need can be seen as object, we can consciously choose our own values. We are no longer subject to our need to be liked or admired or to belong. As one of our clients put it, ‘We can move from a motivation to look good, to a motivation to do good, even if we look bad doing it.’ Our needs and values are communicated to those around us who matter most without the fear of being judged or excluded.

We can stop being swayed by peer pressure and choose our own path in life, rather than simply fitting in. In the more advanced stages of the self-authoring mind we are willing to sacrifice our need to be liked or to belong for the sake of our personal values. In other words, we begin to really walk our talk.

After much discussion with industry experts, including Robert Kegan’s associates, it became clear to us that developmental mindfulness practices and philosophies add a deeper, more deliberate element to ‘self-authoring’ than is typically meant or described by the term. In this more self-aware stage, values are not only clear and self-confirmed, but are also utilised as a means to consciously interrupt fear-based, habitual reactions. Over time fear is reduced in the mind and body, while awareness, inner stability and ease increase.

The awakened mind

Kegan’s highest stage of adult development is what he calls the ‘self-transforming mind’. While rare, it can develop through the conscious inner work that occurs in the self-examining stage. In this stage, our sense of self is not tied to particular identities, values or roles. We develop an understanding that our awareness itself is closer to who we really are than our values.

Just as we differentiate between Kegan’s term self-authoring and self-examining, we also use the term awakened mind rather than the self-transforming mind when describing the highest level of development.

The awakened mind has the ability to see our ego at the subtlest levels, including our attachment to our values. We develop the capacity to make object our most subtle assumptions and perceptions.

The biggest need in organisations

It has been my experience that by far that the biggest need in all organisations is to transition from socialised mind leadership to values-based, self-examining leadership, where leaders consciously choose their values and work to align and transform their behaviours with those values.

As an illustration, when responding to the following three questions, it would be no exaggeration to say that less than 1 per cent of leaders have been able to answer them convincingly:

  1. What is the talk you consciously try to walk each day? If it takes you more than a few seconds to start your answer, it is clearly a question that is not consciously informing your behaviour.
  2. When was the last time you had to overcome socialised mind fears (such as embarrassment, exclusion, upsetting others or being different) in order to walk your talk? If it is not as recent as the past two weeks, you are not consciously walking your talk.
  3. When was the last time you failed to walk your talk, and do you know what drove your behaviour at the time? If it is not as recent as the past two weeks, you are not consciously walking your talk.

Developing as a leader is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, tasks we can undertake. And it starts with getting clear on what we value most, and then doing the inner work necessary to align our behaviours with our most cherished values.

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