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?

All leaders need to answer this most obvious question because it has such a deep connection to trust and credibility. 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 a model of how the human mind develops over time. 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.
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.

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. We call this higher stage ‘self-examining mind’. 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 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.

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.