Tag Archives: technology 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.

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.

Inspirational leadership

Leadership is about inspiring people; whereas, management is about organising tasks and resources.  In a organisational context, strategic leadership is about persuading people to move voluntarily, and together, in a direction that benefits the organisation; while, management is about dealing with the complexity of planning and processes.  The boundary between leadership and management is often blurred; though in my experience, people more frequently believe that they are leading when, in reality, they are managing.  Perhaps, this is because they want to make a difference; but, for most of us, leadership is really hard and requires courage.  The courage to be different.  To be selfless.  The courage to do what is right and not just what is easy.

It is easier to get involved in the detail of making things happen, of telling people how to do things; but that’s management and not leadership.  Leadership is about letting go and trusting others to make the right decisions on the details – having the courage to delegate.  There’s something about entropy in there and not over constraining the system, or under constaining it; but, now I ‘ve got to the entropy vector and that’s a whole different story.

Robert D Handscombe & Eann A Patterson, The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business, Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2004.

Illusion of self

A few weeks ago, I wrote that some neuroscientists believe consciousness arises from the synchronous firing of assemblies of neurons [see my post ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  Since these assemblies exist for only a fraction of a second before triggering other ones that replace them, this implies that what you think of as ‘yourself’ is actually a continuously changing collection of connected neurons in your brain, or as VS Ramachandran has described it ‘what drives us is not a self – but a hodgepodge of processes inside the skull’.

According to Kegan’s schema of cognitive development, new born babies perceive the world as an extension of themselves.  However, as our consciousness develops, the idea of a ‘self’ evolves as a construct of the brain that allows us to handle the huge flow of sensory inputs arriving from our five senses and we begin to separate ‘self’ from the objects around us.  This leads to us perceiving the world around us as separate to us but there to serve our needs, which we see as paramount.  Fortunately, the vast majority of us (more than 90%) move beyond this state and our relationships with other people become the dominant driver of our actions and identity.  Some people (about 35%) can separate their relationships and identity from ‘self’ and hence are capable of more nuanced decision-making – this is known as the Institutional stage. About one percent of the population are capable holding many identities and handling the paradoxes that arise from deconstructing the ‘self’ in the Inter-individual stage.

Of course, Kegan’s stages of cognitive development are also a construct to helps us describe and understand the behaviour and levels of cognition observed in those around us.  There is some evidence that deeper more complex thought processes, associated with higher levels of cognition, involve the firing of larger, more widespread assemblies of neurons across the brain; and perhaps these larger neuronal assemblies are self-reinforcing; in other words, the more we think deeply the more capable we are of thinking deeply and, just occasionally, this leads to an original thought.  And, maybe the one percent of individuals who are capable of handling paradoxical thoughts have brains capable of sustaining multiple large neuronal assemblies.  A little bit like lightning triggered from multiple points in the sky during a (brain)storm.

How does this relate to engineering?  Well, we touch on Kegan’s stages of cognitive development in our continuing professional development courses [see my post on ‘Technology Leadership’ on January 18th, 2017] for engineers and scientists aspiring to become leaders in research and development because we want to advance their cognitive development and, also allow them to lead teams consisting of individuals at the institutional and inter-individual stages that will be capable of making major breakthroughs.


V.S. Ramachandran, ‘In the hall of illusions’, in ‘We are all stardust‘ by Stefan Klein, London: Scribe, 2015.

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

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