The dark side of leadership development – Overcoming our resistance to change

By Nicholas Oddy – Nicholas Oddy Consulting

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. Carl Gustav Jung

In the leadership development work that I facilitate with both individuals and organizations I am most often focused on the positive side of development. The aspects of development that might characterize the ‘positive’ include defining aspirations and goals, building new capability, understanding and managing complexity, and taking small actionable steps to achieve individual or group objectives.

While positive development can yield tangible results and help organizations to foster more effective leaders it has become apparent to me that this approach is only partial. A more complete developmental picture also requires a focus on the negative side. More appropriate language might describe the work as helping people to overcome their personal barriers to change. As the earlier quotation by Jung suggests, full development only occurs when we are able to release that which has a hold on us and limits our potential to grow.

BrokenwallOne of the most powerful tools that I have been introduced to in order to overcome personal barriers to change is Robert Kegan’s ‘Immunity to Change’ process. Keegan is the Professor of Adult Development at Harvard University and based upon his research exploring people’s capacity to change he developed a process he calls ‘the immunity map’. As well as encountering inspiring stories of personal resilience and rejuvenation that illustrated a willingness and capacity to change he was exposed to numerous examples of the inability many of us have to change.

An example of our sometimes-chronic inability to change is his research into individuals who have a compelling (even life and death) reason to change but still fail to do so. Kegan looked at people with major health concerns who were told by their doctors confronting truths such as ‘if you don’t make dramatic changes to your lifestyle in the next twelve months you will most likely die.’ To his astonishment only one in seven patients who were delivered such an ultimatum were able to make the significant lifestyle changes required. So what limits our capacity to change?

It is Kegan’s contention that what often creates our immunity to change is a core belief that we have about ourselves that most often resides in our unconscious (or subconscious if that is your preference). He calls these limiting beliefs our ‘Big Assumptions’. While we may not all have big assumptions that stop us overcoming something like a major health crisis; to a greater or lesser extent we are all challenged by big assumptions that stop us from developing as completely as we might.

Although we are typically unaware of our big assumptions they can and do influence our beliefs and behaviours in profound ways. An example of a big assumption that lies in the unconscious of individual is: ‘I’m not worthy of success, I’m a fraud and one day people are going to discover this’. It’s amazing how many CEO’s and highly successful business people have an assumption like this eroding their confidence and self-belief. Keegan’s work suggests that the big assumption is often incorrect, inaccurate, or no longer relevant however they become so engrained and powerful that they can author our behaviours and sense of well-being. Other examples of big assumptions that I have heard are listed below:

• I need to be unique and different in order to be loved
• It’s not safe to be honest and authentic in the world
• If I’m not successful people will abandon me
• I need to take control in order to be safe and happy
• It’s not OK for me to speak up and voice my opinion

The immunity map that Keegan developed seeks to provide people a pathway to uncover their personal big assumption/s. By bringing our big assumptions into awareness we can work to overcome them and increase our ability to change and to grow as human beings. The process to identify our big assumptions can take anywhere between two hours and two days but typically follows the (highly-abbreviated) four-step process outlined below:

1. Identify a personal (or leadership) commitment that is highly important and has been challenging to realize.
2. Document the barriers to this commitment. What are you doing or not doing that is stopping you from achieving your goal?
3. Recognise why these barriers have been getting in the way and confront the truth about what is really worrying you.
4. Identify what you are subconsciously committed to based upon your worries and fear and define what you believe your ‘big assumption’ to be.

The process should ideally be facilitated by psychologists or practitioners familiar with Keegan’s work however the book referenced at the bottom of this article can provide powerful insights for people looking to undertake this type of work.

The big assumptions that people uncover are often primal in nature (the unconscious tends to work this way) and many have developed during the formative stages of our lives. The important thing to recognize is that they are just stories that we have been (unconsciously) telling ourselves and they can be overcome using the tests and processes Keegan illustrates.

The ‘immunity to change’ model may not be suitable to everyone and most healthy adults can live full and meaningful lives without having to confront the shadows that lie within the recesses of their minds. For those of us willing to take the journey however the immunity map can help us to overcome some of the self-limiting beliefs that stop us from becoming who we truly want to be. It is hard enough fighting the battles of the outside world, it is harder still when the toughest enemy is our very self.

Nick recently joined Mindshop and specializes in leadership development and innovation work. He delivers two corporate postgraduate leadership subjects for Swinburne University and works as a member of the Banjar team with Mike Boyle.

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