By Pratap Nambiar for Business World People

In today’s volatile and uncertain world filled with ambiguity, it becomes necessary to reconcile polarities, which requires a shift from seeing choices as either-or and embracing a third way that reconciles both perspectives creatively. 

“Words matter,” said US President Joe Biden when speaking about his predecessor referring to the Covid virus as the China virus and many such equally immature comments including “the election was stolen from us” etc. Meghan Markle in her interview with Oprah Winfrey expressed her angst when a member of the Royal family talked to her about the possible skin colour of her unborn child.

One of my CEO clients when referring to the negative impact of the Covid virus on his business had this to say to his Board “Nobody could have anticipated this virus and how it would derail our business, and nobody can predict how long this will continue. I am sorry that I cannot estimate our performance for the next year.”

The subject-object mind

In each of the above instances, the speaker is indicating how they are constructing their reality which depends on how developed their minds are (mature) and the degree of complexity they can deal with. What people say is a function of how they are thinking about things, their world view, the lens through which they see things, and the way they make meaning of things around them, which reflects the evolution of their mental state.

Harvard Psychologist and author of adult development theory, Robert Kegan believes, that we create our world through our interaction with and interpretation of it. Over time, we grow and change and enter different development phases that shape the way we make meaning.

According to Kegan growing the mind is not just about putting more stuff into the container but transforming the container itself – make it bigger so it can hold more. This transformative learning happens when we change the way we know and understand the world, figuring out not only what we know but also about the way we know it.

It is only through transformation, usually with the help of a coach that one can transition to higher stages of development by making what he calls a subject-object shift. Moving from a state of mind where we are either the subject when the locus of control is external and being a victim of external circumstances. Or we are the object when the locus of control is internal and we can look at events and issues objectively, reflect on them and engage, control and connect to our goals.

It is like going on a journey in a car where you are the passenger without knowing your destination and are subjected to the decisions of others. Or you are in the car driving it, fully conscious of your challenges, with a clear road map knowing exactly where you wish to go. These differing mindsets can be accessed through a subject-object interview for about an hour where a specialised coach can assess the state of development and the structure of mind through the language that suggests the underlying beliefs of the person.

Kegan refers to the underdeveloped mind as the socialised mind (unfortunately 58% of adults are stuck here) and the more evolved self-authoring mind (35%) as different stages of adult development. Here are some examples of the underlying beliefs of leaders with a socialised mind that I have encountered on my coaching journey.

“If I am your boss you should be at work before I get here, and you should still be at work when I leave. I do not think it is possible to delegate and empower my people and deliver the challenging results I need in the time frame I have committed to. Talent must always be loyal to the boss and the organization even if it means not doing the right thing. We cannot pay last year’s performance bonuses when we know how bad this year’s results are going to be. I am expected to have all the answers because I am the boss.”

As a coach what I have experienced is that most leaders are not favourably disposed to accept the limitations of their beliefs and assumptions. They have for many years worked hard to keep validating their beliefs which keeps establishing their world view and the way they make meaning of things. The challenge for the coach then is to bring about a shift in the underlying beliefs and replace them with new ones that can be sustained with appropriate resources for the long run.

So much of the complexity of today’s business environment requires higher-order thinking that is a result of a developed mind. When an executive is overwhelmed by external developments, meeting adaptive challenges, working harder and longer hours does not help. It requires a shift in perspective, a new way of looking at things, a whole new mind. Transforming the mind as mentioned earlier, with a new internal operating system is what will lead to better performance.

Reconciliation

Reconciliation is the process of aligning perspectives, making one view or belief compatible with another. Quite often the challenge is greatest when one is dealing with polarities of thought or belief. In the last twelve years that I have been coaching leaders, I have found very few instances where leaders have reached a stage of development going beyond the self-authoring mind to a transformative mind that can successfully reconcile polarities.

A polarity is a pair of interdependent opposites — if you focus on one of those to the neglect or exclusion of the other, you invariably end up having to face negative unintended consequences. It is often interpreted as alternatives that are directly opposed and in conflict. Here are some examples- Managing costs and driving growth at the same time. Dealing with the short-term challenges without compromising on the long-term goals. Increasing gross margins and market share at the same time. Being task-oriented or people-oriented etc.

In today’s volatile and uncertain world filled with ambiguity, it becomes necessary to reconcile these polarities, which requires a shift from seeing choices as either-or and embracing a third way that reconciles both perspectives creatively. Can you reconcile being a saint and a sinner at the same time? An Israeli and a Palestinian? It is like Gorbachev telling Reagan that he would deprive him of an enemy and thus ending the cold war? Today, we see the US and China engaged in a war of polarities that needs superior minds to find ways of reconciling the differences and align perspectives through mutual respect and desire for a harmonious world.

This capacity for reconciliation has best been expressed by German poet Rainer Rilke:

I am the rest between two notes, 

which are somehow always in discord 

because death’s note wants to climb over – 

but in the dark interval, reconciled, 

They stay here trembling. 

And the song goes on, beautiful.

Culture

It is the collective development of the Leadership minds that determine the capacity of the organization to perform to its fullest potential. Just having one or two developed minds will not be effective as I have learnt whilst transforming only the CEO without paying equal attention to her direct reports. Sending a transformed CEO back into the same environment creates collisions between the rational and the emotional at different levels of the organization and could eventually result in the emergence of the old default setting once again with the same old beliefs and behaviours.

Culture is what results when these collisions occur moment by moment- what can be called touchpoints in the life of the organization. It results in the way things get done, the values, beliefs, and assumptions based on which people behave and build relationships with each other. It is shaped by the structure of mind of the leaders and the messages they cascade throughout the organization when they make choices and take actions that impact the lives of others.

Recently, I joined a CEO addressing his key leadership team of about 36 people on a virtual call. This was something really important (ironically, he was referring to how their culture was hurting their performance) and he looked forward to an energized interactive session. Everybody signed up on time, but whenever he asked them a question he was met with silence. He then started calling out people by name, and they did not respond either. Sadly, they had signed up for the session and decided to walk away during the call. Many of them were multi-tasking as well as sending emails to each other during the call.

The collective mindset of the leaders demonstrated a lack of development that had not been addressed by the organization which pretty much explained their lack of performance culture. Another recent example was when my healthcare client sponsored a major government initiative and visited the location to rally his troops who were to be present the whole day. He arrived at 11 am and to his horror found that his entire team had left for the day and all the goody bags were left at their specially constructed booth for visitors to take away at their leisure.

Abilities and Attitude

Abilities (skills) only help to line up for the race. It is the Attitude (mindset) that will help get the win. Yet so many senior leaders get fixated on developing technical skills without focusing on the development of the mind. When faced with adaptive challenges, the only response they have is to throw more technical solutions that can never really address the issue. The beginning of the journey of development is self-awareness, particularly the self-limiting blind spots that will derail the abilities.

These blind spots are the gaps between the way we see ourselves and the way the world sees us. Closing these gaps is possible with the help of coaches who can surface the underlying beliefs and assumptions that drive the behaviours that need changing. This will result in a shift of perspectives, the way we know and understand the world and make the development journey to a new and higher version of ourselves.

This happens when leaders explore new horizons through coaching conversations, conversations they have never had before. If you want to take the organization to the next level, it can happen when you change the very language of the people, developing the individual and collective minds and helping them grow, transform, and change. Words matter.

The quality of an organization depends on its ability to have sincere and authentic conversations and this depends on the depth and sensitivity of its language. Reading poetry amid business challenges may seem absurd, but it is precisely this opening of the heart through the choice of words that grows the mind and makes change possible. It is worth remembering the words of James Baldwin “not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Pratap Nambiar, Chartered Business Coach (ChBC), is the founder and chairman of Thought Perfect (Singapore), dedicated to coaching CEOs and senior leaders transform themselves for better performance. 

This article was originally published in Businesss World People  on May 8, 2021.

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Thought Perfect offers leadership transformation coaching  for CEOs and senior business leaders to improve their business performance and maximise their potential. The company has coached senior executives of global multinationals based in Singapore as well as in other parts of the world, including India and the United States. If you are looking for an experienced executive  business coach to help your senior management, contact us now to discuss your business objectives and challenges.

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