I was given the book “Changing on the Job” by a friend and a very esteemed colleague of mine. He is very excited about the ideas in this book.
Usually I read books about psychology – and lately many excellent books have been coming out: The WillPower Instinct, The Power of Habit,… I enjoyed each one of them immensely.
Given my friend’s passion about “Changing on the Job”, I decided to veer off my path and read this book about leadership (the subtitle is: “Developing Leaders for a Complex World”). I usually stay away from leadership books. So much leadership development apparently going on, so little leadership seen around.
I found some good, some bad, a lot of gray.
Let’s start with the bad:
– the whole book is built around Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development. The theory identifies 4 kinds of “minds”: the Self-Sovereign Mind, the Socialized Mind, the Self-Authored Mind and the Self-Transforming Mind. Unfortunately, these constructs have not been derived by research and have not been validated empirically, at least not yet. There are dozens of systems out there which categorize individuals as belonging to “types”, either set or on a development continuum. They all make some intuitive sense. But none is supported by a substantial body of research and they are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. Contrast this approach to what science does, e.g. the decades of research that led to our fragile current understanding of personality (NEO-PI-R).
– the idea of set stages of development. It is telling that the author makes specific references to Piaget’s work. Unfortunately, Piaget’s schema has been seriously challenged by a three-pronged assault from evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and a careful analysis of Piaget’s experimental methods – which were found to be lacking, at best.
– the idea that each stage of development bundles together a set of cognitive, affective, perceptual and motivational characteristics. However, how could such different processes be organized by one function? This idea is a relic of the psychoanalytic concept of “ego development”, and it flies in the face of what we know about how the brain works. Which is by activating highly goal-specific, context-dependent modules. Translated in plain-speak: people think and behave differently in different situations.
– One example: the book discusses how the different kinds of minds see “authority”. However, the whole construct of authority as an over-arching concept is problematic. As Walter Mischel found out way back when researching the issue, “attitude toward one’s father correlated 0.3 with attitude toward one’s boss”. And similarly low levels of correlation are seen when comparing attitudes to other “authority figures”.
OK, and here is the good:
– the emphasis on sense-making. It is a critical challenge for leaders in these uncertain and fast-moving times. It is a precious skill which needs to be cultivated. It is a key ingredient to successful leadership. Recent research in the area of decision-making supports this claim (for a good summary, see this great book by Gary Klein –> Streetlights and Shadows).
– the fact that Jennifer G. Berger urges coaches to pay attention to the structure of the stories told by clients, not only to their content. Listening for who has responsibility in the story; which kind of conflicts permeate the story; from which perspective the story is told; which assumptions about the world are embedded in the story. However, the author suggests to pay attention to those things as diagnostic criteria to figure out which kind of “mind” the client has. I would recommend to pay attention to those things simply as further areas of exploration. Just be curious about it and ask clients about it. Who knows, clients might discover something useful!
– the idea of stretching people’s cognitive capacity by introducing more complexity and reflection via skillful questions; and there are quite a few good coaching questions in this book.
As for the shades of grey:
the book is a great source of reflections; the case studies are instructive, and it is always good to hear a coach share her experiences – even if viewed through the lenses of a model I am not quite sold on.
I can see different ways to make sense of “cognitive depth” or to work with clients on “self-complexity” (whatever that is) in a way that would not require me to label them as being in a set stage of development.
For example, the “boundary-pushing questions” mentioned in the book are good questions – but they look like and sound like a good repackaging of questions used in other established models which have been around for a long time, like Cognitive – Behavioral approaches or System Thinking.
There are plenty of tools out there to expand the “cognitive capacity” of clients – from the “ladder of inference” (System Thinking / Senge) to “Logical Levels” (NLP / Dilts) to ways of thinking about complexity (e.g. the Cynefin Model).
If I were to go from grey to dark grey, I would even say that the framework put forth in the book is a good example of the widely used, yet unproven, theories which make up the field of “Leadership Development”. For more on that, check out the excellent book by Barbara Kellerman “The End of Leadership“.
I might write more about it at some point…