To equip leaders to perform at their best in the complex domain of a crisis, we must first create the conditions for them to hone their skills outside of a crisis. For this, we draw heavily on the work of Robert Kegan, the Harvard psychologist.
Kegan contends that as we all move through life, we are transitioning between defined stages of development. These stages reflect our shifting perceptions of the world, and our understanding of our position within it – our 'identity' or 'ego'.
He states that development begins with the ‘Impulsive’ mind of early childhood, transitioning through the ‘Imperial’ mind of adolescence (when we focus on our own agenda) to the ‘Socialised’ mind of adulthood (where we develop empathy and are concerned with the ideas and societal beliefs of the people and systems around us).
Kegan and his fellow researchers have concluded that most functioning adults make it to the Socialised stage of development by the time they reach their late teens or early twenties and spend the rest of their lives in that mindset.
The socialised mind gives us everything we need to function as an effective member of society; however, it is insufficient for the challenge of leading in the complex domain of a crisis. For this, we need to transition to the fourth stage as a minimum.
Keegan calls the fourth stage the Self-Authoring mind, as it defines the stage where our self-worth is no longer intrinsically linked to other's views, or at least to the same degree.
It is the stage where we can create our own narrative within the confines of social norms and the point where we understand that we are independent of the expectations of our environment. At this stage, leaders can handle the complexity of thought and action that a crisis demands.
The fifth and final stage, according to Kegan, is the Self-Transforming mind. Here, we reach a state where we can inhabit multiple perspectives simultaneously and where we accept that our identity is continuously evolving – informed by the entirety of our experiences and the opinions of those around us, but not dependent upon them.
Interestingly, unlike the first three stages of development, both the Self-Authoring and Self-Transforming stages must be actively learnt – they don't happen automatically. As a result, it is predicted that only 30% of the general population will ever transition to the fourth stage in their development, and only five per cent will reach the fifth stage.
Consequently, many leaders still lack a genuinely independent sense of self and continue to seek the approval of others in terms of what they think, believe and feel. This seeking approval becomes an issue for those responsible for complex situations if they are firmly rooted in socialised beliefs and internal assumptions.
For leaders to thrive during even the most complex emergency responses, we must help facilitate the shift in perspective and understanding necessary to occupy the Self-Authoring and Self-Transforming stages of development. When a leader transitions into these stages, they can more reliably access the leadership competencies that will serve them well in a crisis.