Tag Archives: leadership

Reflecting on self

In a recent interview, the artist William Kentridge described becoming another person when standing back from a work in progress and becoming a critical director of the other person’s work.  He talked about ‘constructing myself from yesterday’s dream and tomorrow’s expectation’.  I have had similar experiences when I am speaking to an audience, lecturing to students or making a presentation at a conference.  I mentally stand back from the speaking self and the other self reviews what is happening and sometimes starts mind-wandering triggered by something said by the speaking self or a reaction from the audience.  I talk about ‘self’ when I am lecturing on leadership as part of our Continuous Professional Development programme [see ‘On being a leader’ on October 13th, 2021].  I am often asked what is meant by ‘self’ and ‘identity’, particularly in the context of Kegan’s scheme of cognitive development [see ‘Illusion of self’ on February 2nd, 2017].  I sense that students are often dissatisfied with my answers.  So, let me attempt a written answer here.  A dictionary definition of ‘self’ is ‘the entire being of an individual that constitutes the individuality and identity of a person’.  In psychology, it might be defined as ‘the totality of the individual, consisting of all characteristic attributes, conscious and unconscious, mental and physical.’  A dictionary definition of ‘identity’ is ‘the distinguishing character or personality of an individual’ and in sociology it is ‘the qualities, beliefs, personality traits, appearance and, or experiences that characterise a person’.  Hence, combining these definitions, identity is the attributes that characterise your ‘self’ and distinguishes you from others.  Kegan’s schema implies that our sense of self develops through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood to the extent that some people (about 35%) can separate their relationships and identity from their self and hence are capable of more nuanced decision-making – this is known as the Institutional stage.  About one percent of the population develop to a further stage, known as the Interindividual stage, where they are capable holding many identities and handling the resultant paradoxes that arise, which can help them to exercise both emotion and rationality as leaders.  I think that self is closely related to our consciousness and consequently is constructed from yesterday’s experiences and tomorrow’s dreams to misquote Kentridge.  So, perhaps it is reasonable to think that we construct, or at least evolve, a self each day as we engage in different roles, for example in my case as a teacher, researcher, university leader or family member.  I suspect that it is my researcher self that sits on the shoulder of my teacher self and mind-wanders while my teacher self talks about something else.  My experiences and dreams in each role are different, divergent even, and means that I have at least two selves that exist towards opposite ends of the ‘Change Style Indicator and have different qualities as well as experiences.


Peter Aspden, ‘The self is a construction we make every day: Lunch with the FT – William Kentridge’, 22 October / 23 October 2022.

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

Longman Dictionary of the English Language, Harlow, UK: Longman Group Limited, 1984.

Change in focus

Decorative image of a painting by Sarah Evans The new academic year is well and truly underway.  It was 2019 when we last welcomed students to campus in person for the start of the academic year.  In my role as Dean, I have been touring lecture theatres trying to speak to and welcome students in all of our taught programmes in the School of Engineering.  It is exciting to see packed lecture theatres full of students eager to listen and learn.  For the first time in a decade, I am not teaching this year so that I can focus on other activities.  I have mixed feelings about giving up teaching.  I taught my first class thirty-six years ago in Mechanics of Solids.  For the last eleven years I have been teaching Thermodynamics to first year students [see, for example ‘From nozzles and diffusers to stars and stripes‘ on March 30th, 2022].  So, teaching has been a substantial part of my working life and its absence will leave a large hole.  I will miss the excitement of standing in front of a class of hundreds of students as well as the rewards of interacting with undergraduate students who are encountering and engaging with a new subject.  One consequence of my change in focus is likely to be a decline in the frequency of blog posts featuring thermodynamics [you can read them all under ‘Thermodynamics’ in Categories], but perhaps that will be a relief to many readers.

Image: Painting by Sarah Evans owned by the author.

Unrecognised brilliance of shy and fearless leaders

Red tulips in a window boxAre you a quiet person? Perhaps shy would be an appropriate description. Do you have a clear vision of where you would like to lead your organisation but perhaps you are hesitant about stepping forward into a leadership position because you think that successful leaders are bold, self-confident, large-than-life and enjoy the limelight. You should think again. Research by Jim Collins and his team, published in the Harvard Business Review, has shown that the most powerfully transformative leaders have a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional resolve. They found that companies were transformed from a merely good performance to a sustained great performance in terms of their stock value only when led by a CEO who was both self-effacing and fearless. They called these class of people, level 5 leaders. They are ambitious for their organisation not themselves, assign credit for successes to others while accepting the blame for failures and have an unwavering resolve to do whatever is necessary to achieve the best long-term results despite the obstacles. So, if you worry that you lack the charisma to inspire your team then pause and consider whether you might be a level 5 leader with the rare combination of modesty and willfulness that, Jim Collins has suggested, are required to transform the performance of your organisation. Unfortunately, if you think you possess these characteristics then you almost certainly are not a level 5 leader because your humility would never allow you to entertain the thought!


Jim Collins, Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, Harvard Business Review, January 2001.

Intelligent openness

Photo credit: Tom

As an engineer and an academic, my opinion as an expert is sought often informally but less frequently formally, perhaps because I am reluctant to offer the certainty and precision that is so often expected of experts and instead I tend to highlight the options and uncertainties [see ‘Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts’ on September 2nd 2020].  These options and uncertainties will likely change as more information and knowledge becomes available.  An expert, who changes their mind and cannot offer certainty and precision, tends not to be welcomed by society, and in particular the media, who want simple statements and explanations.  One problem with offering certainty and precision as an expert is that it might appear you are part of a technocratic subset seeking to impose their values on the rest of society, as Mary O’Brien has argued.  The philosopher Douglas Walton has suggested that it is improper for experts to proffer their opinion when there is a naked assertion that the expert’s identity warrants acceptance of their opinion or argument.  Both O’Brien and Walton have argued that expert authority is legitimate only when it can be challenged, which is akin to Popper’s approach to the falsification of scientific theories – if it is not refutable then it is not science.  An expert’s authority should be acceptable only when it can be challenged and Onora O’Neill has argued that trustworthiness requires intelligent openness.  Intelligent openness means that the information being used by the expert is accessible and useable; the expert’s decision or argument is understandable (clearly explained in plain language) and assessable by someone with the time, expertise and access to the detail so that they can attempt to refute the expert’s statements.  In other words, experts need to be  transparent and science needs to be an open enterprise.


Burgman MA, Trusting judgements: how to get the best out of experts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Harford T, How to make the world add up: 10 rules for thinking differently about numbers, London: Bridge Street Press, 2020.

O’Brien M, Making better environmental decisions: an alternative to risk assessment, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Walton D, Appeal to expert opinion: arguments from authority, University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Royal Society, Science as an open enterprise, 2012: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/science-public-enterprise/report/