On being a leader

Decorative photograph of a sunrise in CornwallLast week I was a part of a team delivering an intensive one-day course on leadership and ethics to a small group of technologists from industry as part of our CPD programme [see ‘Technology Leadership‘ on January 18th, 2017].  It was the first time that I had interacted face-to-face with a group of students for more than eighteen months.  We are being cautious on campus and so all of the delegates wore face masks and I wore a visor.  It can be hard to hear what people are saying in a group when they are wearing masks but we managed to have some useful discussions about ethical dilemmas [see ‘Engineers, moral compasses and society‘ on October 21st, 2015], leadership styles [see ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2016] and the meaning and development of self.  Wilfred Drath tells us that as individuals we are engaged in a life-long activity of constructing meaning with respect to our self and others.  I described some of my reflections on being and leadership in an effort to encourage the delegates to reflect on their own sense of being.  Being is a process and human being is the process of organising meaning or making sense of oneself, the world and one’s place in the world.  Robert Kegan has described the process of making sense of the world in terms of self and others using six states through which we progress from birth and childhood to adulthood. These states are: State 1 – Incorporative in which an infant sees the world as an extension of itself; State 2 – Impulsive in which an infant recognises objects as separate to itself but believes objects change with its perception of them; State 3 – Imperial in which a child recognises that others have perceptions and needs but sees its own needs as paramount.  In adulthood, there are three further states: State 4 – Interpersonal in which you recognise that you are one amongst many with whom you have relationships leading to a strong desire to conform; State 5 – Institutional where we have a sense of personal identity which leads to autonomy; and State 6 – Inter-individual, one who is capable of holding many identities and embracing paradoxes.  We never quite lose old meanings and the differences between states are subtle but important.  Research suggests that about 60% of adults are predominately in State 4, about 35% in State 5 and 1% in State 6.

Drath suggests that most management structures have been designed by and for people in State 5 who are self-possessed, self-regulating and autonomous managers that see with and not through their identity.  This leads to two major weaknesses: they find it difficult to handle interpersonal relationships objectively which leads to difficulties in being empathetic and resolving conflicts; and they are blind to the demands of their internal system of self-regulation which drives them towards workaholism and impedes their ability to be reflective [see ‘Wading in reflections‘ on October 31st, 2018].  These weaknesses hinder their progression towards becoming leaders who can maintain and enhance the processes of a collaborative community, using for example the ‘fair process’ of procedural justice described by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne [see ‘Advice to abbots and other leaders‘ on November 13th, 2019].  A primary reason for resisting progression from state 5 to 6 is the fear of losing effectiveness by tampering with a winning formula.  This is something I realised that I suffered from when I first started teaching leadership and was unwilling to define my successful approach [see ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2016].  I found that Goleman’s model of leadership styles allowed me to identify retrospectively the different approaches I have used in various roles.  The transition from state 5 to 6 requires relinquishing a deep personal meaning and a fundamental way of understanding self and its relationship to the world. Ultimately, these are replaced by a deeper understanding of life, a celebration of diversity, a willingness to accept that things will go wrong, and an ability to enhance the processes and share the fruits of collaborations.  These are rewarding at a personal level but also lead to your teams being happier and more successful [see ‘Leadership is like shepherding‘ on May 10th, 2017].


Drath WH, Managerial strengths and weaknesses as functions of the development of personal meaning, J. Applied Behaviorial Science, 26(4): 483-499, 1990.

Goleman D, Boyatzis R & McKee, The new leaders: transforming the art of leadership into the science of results, London: Sphere, 2002.

Goleman D, Leadership that get results, Harvard Business Review, 78(2):4-17, 2000.

Kegan R, The evolving self: problem and process in human development, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Kegan R, In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Kim, W.C., Mauborgne, R., Fair process: managing in the knowledge economy, HBR, 3-11, January 2003.

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