Byron's Babbles

Leading Toward Vs. Leading Against

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-4-05-17-pmI believe one of our most important roles as leaders is to help our teams to bounce back from change and challenge. It is really about always leading toward vs. against. In order to do this best we must practice deep listening, true dialogue, and intentionally moving ourselves toward a self transforming mind. At this time I find myself being self-authoring and emerging toward self-transforming. I do however believe that at times we hover between the three. In reality, I believe we all do depending on the circumstances and context (eg. work life, personal life, political life). For example, in some areas I would consider myself very conservative and still driven by beliefs instilled from my upbringing, thus still giving me a Socializing Mind. Conversely, in other areas, such as education, I am very transformational and reform-minded moving me toward the Self-Transforming Mind.

As a constructivist I believe that the world isn’t out there to be discovered, but that we create our world by our discovery of it. We make meaning of their surroundings, and that meaning is the surrounding; two people who see the same picture differently may actually, in their seeing of it, be creating two different pictures. In fact, I have even made the comment at times about others that, “When we look out the window, we see two different worlds.” Using Kegan’s (1994) definition that Constructive-developmentalists believe that the systems by which people make meaning grow and change over time, I really believe this might better describe me.

Kegan (2004) posited there are five Orders of mind, ranging from a two year old to a (mostly theoretical) person well into the second half of life. Each Order is a qualitative shift in the meaning-making and complexity from the Order before it. These orders are:

  1. First Order (mostly young children)
  2. Second Order—the “Sovereign” Mind (older children—seven to ten—and adolescents, but also some adults)
  3. Third Order—the “Socialized” or “Traditional” Mind (older adolescents and the majority of adults)
  4. Fourth Order—the “Self-Authored” or “Modern” Mind (some adults)
  5. Fifth Order—the “Self-Transforming” or “Postmodern” Mind (very few adults)

Here are brief descriptions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Orders: Individuals who operate with a Socialized Mind (3) are identified or fused with the beliefs of the larger group, which means they cannot reflect on them or question them, and are therefore shaped by their surroundings and the beliefs of others which guide their thinking and behavior.Those with the Self-Authoring Mind (4) are able to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal ‘seat of judgment’ or personal authority, which evaluates and makes choices about external expectations. Leaders who operate with the Self-Transforming perspective can see across their own and others’ belief systems or ideologies to identify larger patterns. Their thinking becomes more dialectical, reflecting an increasing awareness of and orientation to paradox, contradiction, and oppositeness.Two values which before seemed to be in conflict are now seen as co-creating a larger, underlying value, and aspects of human existence that had formerly been seen as fundamentally “other” are now located within oneself.

If we were to go back and analyze the Byron Ernest of earlier in my career, I believe we would find me to have a Socializing Mind. There traits such as seeing the authority figure as the person who should shape one’s beliefs and as the person needing to be pleased. We would also see a 3rd Order person who needed to be right and would not be able to understand why others would not be able to see it my way. I believe, however, I have been able to develop toward a Self-Transforming Mind by creating a culture of excellence with an intent-based leadership style where we are moving from our staff being told what to do and moving toward staff informing leadership as to what they have been doing.

The book I recently read by Adam Kahane (2004) titled Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities was very eye-opening and valuable to me. The thing I am most blown away by is the reality Kahane (2004) pointed out, that “Talk by itself, even brilliant speeches by famous people, does not create new realities. Most of the time it reproduces old ones” (Kahane, 2004, p. 69). Kahane (2004) taught us that our toughest of problems can only be solved if we talk candidly and openly. As we know, this takes a lot of courage. It should also be noted that there must also be deep listening. This really hit home for me as a leader in the education arena. We have complex problems in our educational systems and we must all, as leaders, immerse ourselves in and be open to this full complexity.

In the book, Kahane (2004) also spoke of three areas of complexity: Dynamic, Generative, and Social. For me, the idea of dynamic complexity really hit home. Kahane (2004) said that, “Dynamic complexity requires us to talk not just with experts close to us, but also with people on the periphery” (p. 75). This means we must “widen the circle” and “deepen the bench,” which is very uncomfortable for us (Kahane, 2004). In reality, dynamic complexity heightens the subtlety between cause and effect. This heightened subtlety not only provides the key to explaining why some over-hyped tools don’t deliver, but is consistent with how growing knowledge in a field inherently advances and generates complexity. I believe this really describes our reality in education. This is why it is so important to involve all stakeholders in our solving of complex opportunities. Then we must employ open and deep listening, as this is the basis for all creativity. We must be open to truly listening to new ideas.

Kahane (2004) taught us: “[S]ocial complexity requires us to talk not just with people who see things the same way we do, but especially with those who see things differently, even those we don’t like. We must stretch way beyond our comfort zone” (p. 75). Wow, how true this is. Think about this for a minute; how many times when trying to solve complex issues do we really listen to those who think differently, see the world differently, or just flat-out don’t like us? As I reflect I realize that I need to continue to evolve and become completely open to the ideas of other persons. This gave me new insights into myself that I need to widen the circle of dialogue to all and deeply listen to their ideas and beliefs. Here are some things I have learned from Kahane (2004) to help us as leaders:

  • To solve a complex problem, we have to immerse ourselves in and open up to its full complexity.
  • Our core tasks need to be to “widen the circle” and “deepen the bench.”
  • Tough problems can only be solved if people talk openly, and in many situations this takes real courage.
  • Listen openly.

I was moved by Kahane’s (2004) definition of listening: [T]he process of taking in something new and being unsettled and changed by it” (p. 69). This definition forced me to ask myself: Am I a leader who listens?

Speaking of generative complexity, Kahane (2004) said, “Generative complexity requires that we talk not only about options that worked in the past, but also about ones that are emerging now” (p. 75). To me this is all about not getting caught up in thinking about how things have always been done, but about how no one has ever thought about doing them.

We need to remember that there are many interdependent parts of a complex system. Additionally, a complex systems world view highlights that interactions between parts of the system and the behavior of the system as a whole are critical. As leaders, we must learn to do a better job of seeking out, fostering, and sustaining generative relationships that yield new learning relevant for innovation.

When discussing leadership we tend to focus on leaders’ individual characteristics rather than on the dynamics of interactions between leaders, group members, and the context in complex organizational systems over time; and we certainly do not do enough toward our own professional growth as leaders, or those on our teams, to create conditions that allow their organizations to evolve (Surie & Hazy, 2006). We must also find ways to improve our own and organizations’ ability to learn continuously and implement learning in action as projects proceed.


Kahane, A. (2004). Solving tough problems: An open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

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

Surie, G. & Hazy, J.K. (2006). “Generative leadership: Nurturing innovation in complex systems.” E:CO Issue Vol. 8 No. 4 2006 pp. 13-26.


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