How Can Leaders Take A Critical Look At Themselves? – Part 1

How Can Leaders Take A Critical Look At Themselves? – Part 1

Written By: Cahide Akkuzu

Reading time: approximately 6 minutes

I am receiving positive reaction to the articles that I have recently published in English. My first article is about the impact of implicit bias on the quality of decisions that we take as leaders. To read the article: ‘Implicit Bias: To What Degree Are Your Decisions As a Leader Impacted By Your Blind Spot?’ please click this link: LİNK

My second article is about the impact of leaders to foster diversity and inclusion in the workplace. To read the article: ‘What Is Inclusive Leadership Good For?’ please click this link: LİNK

Today we will take a closer look into the inner world of leaders. One of the strong muscles of leaders is to question and analyze all the things that are going on in their external world. This helps them to make sure they have good strategies in place that will help them and their organization to reach their goals. But, how often do leaders critically question themselves? How often do leaders objectively analyze their impact on others and consciously chose to change themselves to course correct? We are all impacted by decisions that leaders take and want to confidently support and follow their leadership. On the other side, regardless of our age, experience, title or anything else, each one of us, we are all in a leadership position at every moment in our life by taking full responsibility about the ‘world’ that we are creating through the impact of our behaviors and attitude.  I will address this topic both from a leadership perspective in the sense that each one of is a leader in every moment of our lives and also from a more scientific adult development perspective.

Back in 1970, in his book ‘Future Shock’, Alvin Toffler said:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

What Alvin Toffler said 50 years ago is interestingly even more valid for today. The demands of the modern world that we live in today require that we constantly learn new behaviors in order to stay relevant. We need to change and adapt to survive! Organizations constantly face new challenges that turn a competent leader into an ‘illiterate’ leader overnight! Businesses are spending huge amounts of money to develop their leaders, and yet, the picture does not change much. It becomes more and more difficult for leaders to learn new behaviors and to manage a shift in their mindset that enables them to stay relevant no matter what challenges they face. In my own personal development journey, I have learned that being able to take a critical look at myself was the only way for me to change and grow. This is what inspired me to learn more about how we can actually change, learn and grow as adults.

Until the 1980’s, scientists believed that the human mind will only develop until a certain age, like physical growing. Research done over the past 40 years in different disciplines has shown that our mind can seriously develop in adulthood too. Today, I will introduce you to two Harvard professors, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, who spent over 30 years on research about how adults develop. Kegan and Lahey came up with an insightful adult development theory that is in many ways eye opening. Their research was focused on how the mind of the adult develops in its capacity of complex and multidimensional thinking. They deepened their research by studying countless leaders and organizations, and they created a proven methodology that allows adults to question and change themselves, i.e. to grow and develop their thinking capacity as adults! I personally experienced the methodology by attending a 7-week-course by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in which I both learned about the methodology and applied it to myself!

Kegan and Lahey use the term ‘Mental Complexity’ to describe the capacity of an adult to make an analysis using a complex and multidimensional way of thinking. Developing as an adult is about transforming the way we are seeing the world through advancing our ‘Mental Complexity’, i.e. making meaning through a more complex and multidimensional way of thinking. This kind of mental development is the key to looking at ourselves in a critical way. Kegan and Lahey have identified three different mental development levels of adults. You can think of these mental development levels as an operating system, or a lens through which an adult would look through while walking through life. A leaders’ mental development level has nothing to do with IQ, a person or a leader with a high IQ can be at the bottom levels of mental development. So, let’ s take a closer look at the mental development levels that we are speaking about:

Socialized Mind – The behaviors of adults or leaders that are in the ‘Socialized Mind’ level of mental development are shaped with values and expectations of the environment that they identify themselves with. To agree with the thoughts of the majority, to fulfill the expectations of authority figures, and to blend in are very important to them. A person that has a socialized mind gives messages that other people want to hear from them, they also tend to form assumptions from other people’s messages by reading between the lines. These people are very good at teamwork and they work hard to please others. To sum up, their perspective on life is: “How will I be successful? How have others succeeded? Okay, then I will follow that road!” We all spend some of our adult years at this mental development level. In fact, more than half of the adult population is estimated to be at this level. When we look at organizations, we can also see that majority of employees, and even some of the leaders’ mental development is at the level of a ‘Socialized Mind’.  How can a leader with a ‘Socialized Mind’ critically question him/herself? What is the impact of that leader on the organization and the people that he/she is leading? What kind of ‘world’ is a leader with a socialized mind creating?

Self-Authoring Mind – Adults or leaders, that are at the ‘Self-Authoring Mind’ level of mental development, objectively evaluate the environment, conditions, situations, opinions and values of the social environment that they are in. They determine their attitude and approach by developing their own opinions and values. Their capacity of thinking in a complex and multidimensional way is far more advanced than people who are at the previously described level of the ‘Socialized Mind’. Adults or leaders at this level of mental development have developed their own frame of reference through which they interpret and make meaning of the world. Their frame of reference is build by their beliefs, values, priorities, attitudes, mission and strategies that they have consciously determined. A person with a self-authoring mind questions anything that is not in line with his/her frame of reference, and would consciously chose an approach or behavior that is in alignment with his/her own values and priorities. Their goal is not to please others, rather it is to live in alignment with their frame of reference. Their perspective on life is: “How can I be successful? First, I will define my own criteria for success. To achieve this, I will find a way that is right for me! When moving forward, I will stay loyal to my values and my mission!” Adults and leaders at the mental development level of ‘Self-Authoring Mind’ are very focused. Their muscle of questioning their outside world, by using their own frame of reference, is highly developed. But, what if their filter does not let other perspectives come in? What if their frame of references is inflexible to respond to today’s dynamic and complicated world? The key questions then is, what if their frame of reference does not allow them to question themselves? What if their frame of reference does not allow them to critically look at their own operating system? A leader with a Self-Authoring Mind is relying on his/her own frame of reference as the only truth, and this is in fact limiting the leader to revisit his own filters.

Self-Transforming Mind – Adults and leaders that are at the mental development level of having a ‘Self-Transforming Mind’, also have their filters and frame of reference, but these adults are at a level of mental complexity that makes them question and re-evaluate their own filters and frame of reference! These adults and leaders highly value their own way of interpreting and making meaning of the world, yet they avoid being a slave of their own filter. They embrace paradox and are comfortable to hold multiple thoughts and ideologies at once, because they do not believe that an opinion, approach, or attitude can exclusively contain all the right answers in a world that is rapidly changing. A leader that has a self-transforming mind closely examines and questions the status quo while at the same time tries to understand what his/her impact is on the current situation. The attitude of this leader encourages people around them to voice unconventional information and views. A leader with a self-transforming mind will seriously analyze views that are different than their own views in order to understand if they need to update their own filter and frame of reference. This evaluation helps the leader to initiate change and transformation, starting from themselves! Their perspective on life is: “Is my definition of success still valid? Do I have the right mission considering the current conditions? In which situations do my values limit me? Which of my beliefs and priorities do not serve me any longer? What do I need to change in myself? What should I transform into?

According to Kegan and Lahey, reaching the mental development level of the ‘Self-Transforming Mind’ requires an adult to honor their own values and filters while at the same time to critically question their own belief system, ideas and thoughts. This is the only way that equips adults to successfully navigate the demands of life, which calls for comfortably dealing with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and paradoxes. This is what breaks a leader free from being stuck in their identity and allows them to thrive and help those around them to thrive as well!

As a leader, where do you see yourself when you look at these three mental development levels? At what level do you see the leaders around you? When you evaluate the people in your workplace, at what level are they? What does the distribution of the three levels of development look like in your workplace?

Keith Eigel, a famous leadership development specialist and author of the book ‘The Map’, made a research on the mental development levels of mid-level and upper-level managers in various organizations. His research results showed that most of the mid-level managers were at the “Socialized Mind” level of mental development, most of the upper-level managers were at the “Self-Authoring Mind” level, but only few of the upper-level managers had reached the “Self-Transforming Mind” level of mental development. This is the picture that we are facing! Kegan and Lahey point to the need of a quantum shift required in the mental complexity of leaders so that they can meet the demands of complex modern life:

‘’Thus, we are asking more and more workers who could once perform their work successfully with socialized minds –good soldiers– to shift to self-authoring minds. And we are asking more and more leaders who could once lead successfully with self-authoring minds –sure and certain captains– to develop self-transforming minds. In short, we are asking for a quantum shift in individual mental complexity across the board.’’

But how do we do this? How can leaders take a critical look at themselves, question their way of thinking and advance their level of mental development? How can leaders manage to successfully go through this transition? Today, I will give you an introduction about the ‘how’, much more will follow soon!

Everything starts by getting to know ourselves better, by understanding our way of thinking, our assumptions and our beliefs. Robert Kegan describes the way of knowing as a ‘subject-object relationship’ in the following way:

‘’Any way of knowing can be described with respect to that which it can look at (object) and that which it looks through (the ‘filter’ or ‘lens’ to which it is subject).’’

Transitioning to higher levels of mental complexity requires a shift in that which we are looking through. It requires that we look at our own filters and frame of reference as an object. We are no longer identifying with a view as our ‘I’, rather, we are looking at our ‘I’ as an object. Example: When we say: ‘I am an intolerant person’, we are the subject, i.e. we identify ourselves with intolerance and look at the world through this lens. When we say: ‘I have intolerance to certain behaviors and I have tolerance to certain other behaviors’, then we are looking at ‘intolerance’ as an object, and we can then further look at the impact that this ‘intolerance’ has on me and others, and can then evaluate whether this is serving us or not. When we can look at something as an ‘object’, we can critically analyze, question and understand it, which gives us the option of choice, namely to chose to change! So, leaders who critically question their ‘I’ and look at their own operating system as an object, make a great start for change and transformation!

In my next article I will continue to write about how to transition to higher levels of mental development.


Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Harvard Business Press

An Everyone Culture by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Harvard Business Press



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