Leadership, Cognitive Complexity, and Gender

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Leadership, Cognitive Complexity, and Gender Rebecca A. Proehl and Kathleen Taylor Reprinted by permission of A Leadership Journal: Women in Leadership – Sharing the Vision, Volume 1, Number 2, Spring 1997. Dr. Proehl is Associate Professor and Chair of the Management Program and Dr. Taylor is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Portfolio Development, School of Extended Education, Saint Mary’s College of California, Morago.

This paper uses two theories of adult development to frame an exploration of gender and leadership. In the last decade, the definition of an effective leader has shifted from charismatic decision maker to steward, designer, and builder of learning organizations. During the same period, some researchers have suggested that women are inherently more suited to these new leadership approaches. Drawing on Kegan’s (1982, 1994) theory of development, we propose that the qualities that make for effective new-style leadership are a function not of gender, but of complexity of mind. However, we also draw on the model of Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986) to suggest that, assuming the requisite cognitive complexity, women’s greater capacity for relational-based approach to knowing and learning may make them more effective in the new leadership roles. The debates over what is a successful leader and how leaders are developed are as old as the written word. A new wrinkle in this old polemic, however, centers around the role of women in leadership positions. Just a short decade ago, in their ground breaking book Women’s Ways of Knowing, Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) wrote, “It is likely that the commonly accepted stereotypes of women’s thinking as emotional, intuitive and personalized has contributed to the devaluation of women’s minds and contributions, particularly in Western technologicallyoriented cultures, which value rationalism and objectivity” (p. 6). Given that successful leaders have historically been characterized as decisive, analytical, individualistic, powerful, and willing to make the hard decisions, it has also been a

given that women’s ways of leading have been devalued. However, in the past decade, influential thinkers have pointed to the need for a new style of leadership to meet the complex demands of the workforce and the organizations of the future—a style that defies the old stereotypes of leadership (Bennis & Goldsmith, 1994; Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Block, 1993; DePree, 1989; Senge, 1990; Wheatley, 1992). Instead of being devalued, it has been suggested that women are ideally suited to the new style of leadership and, in fact, are better leaders than men are in today’s workplace (Applebaum & Shapiro, 1993; Smith & Smits, 1994). What is this new and increasingly prevalent leadership paradigm? What factors contribute to successful leadership? And how do women leaders fare in today’s vertiginous times? These questions will serve as the focus for this article. Leaders for the Future In separate works, Senge and Block have described facets of leadership needs for the future. According to Peter Senge (1990), the era of the leader as charismatic decision maker is over; future leaders will have to build learning organizations wherein people can expand their “capabilities to shape their future” (p. 8). Such leaders will be designers and teachers, helping organizational members identify and deal with underlying causes of problems. They will empower their employees to look at the world in new ways rather than simply adapting to external forces and events. Peter Block (1993) also describes a new approach to leadership. He suggests that leaders adopt the principles of stewardship, which he defines as “holding something in trust for another (p. xx). Rather than acting from self-interest, leaders as stewards would act out of service and would choose responsibility over entitlement. Instead of attempting to control, they would create partnerships and would hold themselves accountable to those over whom they hold power. Furthermore, stewards would act out their spiritual and ethical values while still contributing to the financial viability of their organizations.

Other well-known authors suggest that old forms of leadership styles must be transformed. Stephen Covey outlines a model known as principle-centered leadership; Caela Farren and Beverly Kay suggest that leaders must be facilitators, appraisers, and forecasters; Marshall Goldsmith proposes that leaders are most effective when they communicate, learn, follow up, and grow; and Charles Handy discusses the need for distributed leadership (Hesselbein, Goldsmith, & Beckard, 1996). Some organizations have successfully undertaken these new challenges and are often touted in the literature. Senge (1990) finds, however, that in most organizations, the old leadership still prevails with its focus on controlling and directing employees. This is underscored by our discussions over the last 15 years with hundreds of adult students who represent scores of private, public, governmental, non-profit, “mom-and-pop,” midsized, and multinational organizations. For the most part, a substantive shift in how leaders think and behave has not yet occurred. Some would-be leaders may articulate the concepts of steward, coach, and teacher, but many do not seem to act in accordance with them. Are Women Really Better Leaders? A controversy in the literature of leadership (as well as in the classroom) focuses on whether women may be better able to meet these new definitions of leadership than are men. Judy Rosenar (1990) was one of the first researchers to suggest that resolving conflict, building networks, listening to customers and employees, and sharing power and information—skills identified as contributing to effectiveness in the modern workplace—are relationship-building skills into which women have historically been socialized. From a historical perspective, women have been relegated to positions in organizations where these skills—which were not always associated with leadership qualities—were useful and further developed. In Ways Women Lead, Rosenar (1990) observed that a growing number of women succeed in leadership positions precisely because they have learned to use these

supposedly feminine skills and approaches. Rosenar’s controversial claim was that women leaders are generally more willing than men to share information and power, to encourage employee participation in problem solving and decision making, and to be comfortable in sharing credit and recognition. This claim was in part substantiated by an extensive meta-analysis review conducted by Eagly and Johnson (1990). After reviewing 162 studies comparing male and female styles of leadership, they found that women were more likely to adopt a participative or democratic style of leadership, while men assumed autocratic or directive styles. Using data from her study on women-run organizations, Belenky (1996) continues this discussion by identifying ways in which female leaders perform their leadership role differently than men. She suggests that women as leaders are centered on promoting human development, and they have “developed themselves as public leaders by extending and elaborating women’s traditional roles and women’s ways to an extraordinary degree” (p. 412). Those who disagree with the contention that women are more effective leaders in today’s workplace suggest that this line of thinking is contributing to false stereotypes about men and women, the same stereotypes that formerly kept women out of leadership positions, and, furthermore, that neither the practice nor the theory of leadership is served by focusing on gender-based dichotomies. Schein as early as 1984 persuasively argued this point: At first glance, the new priority given to femininity and a feminine leadership style would seem to be a boon for women [in] leadership positions. In my opinion, however, this entire line of reasoning is both a foolhardy and dangerous one to pursue. It will not add to our understanding of leadership effectiveness, for it takes a narrow and simplistic approach to what is a broad and complex set of issues and activities. (p. 155) Nearly a decade later (1991), in an article where readers responded to Rosenar’s article, others echoed similar sentiments:

I believe it is time to reconsider the excessive and inappropriate sex typing that takes place, whether offered in the service of improving women’s situations or restricting them. Women ought to be in management because they are intelligent, adaptable, practical and efficient—and because they are capable of compassion, as are other human beings. The category is “people,” not “men and women.” (Debate, p. 151) Not Gender, but Cognitive Complexity We hope to transcend this debate by suggesting that trying to identify as inherently more masculine or more feminine the capacities, attributes, or skills that make a good leader is beside the point. Rather, we propose that effective leadership—the kind which leads to stewardship and the creation of learning environments—is a function not of gender but of epistemology and the level of cognitive complexity, by which we mean the sophistication and depth of one’s perceptions as well as how one understands, evaluates, and makes meaning of what is perceived. Specifically, we will describe a theory that relates the development of “higher orders of consciousness”—that is, more evolved meaning making—to the capacities, attributes, and skills associated with the new leadership (Kegan, 1994). That said, however, we will also suggest that some ways of knowing (epistemological preferences or “styles”) in which women predominate (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986) may, in fact, make them more effective leaders of the kind described by Senge, Block, and others. We do not intend to imply, however, that women make the best leaders because they are women. The abilities, traits, and accomplishments associated with women’s ways of leading are not gender specific. Rather, we suggest that they derive from a way of knowing that is observed more frequently in women than in men, but which can be learned by people of both genders.

Orders of Consciousness According to Kegan’s model (1982, 1994), our order of consciousness (or stage of development) determines our relationship to the world we live and work in. What we perceive as reality—”how things are” or “how I am”—is largely our own construction based on our interpretation of perception. However, as we grow from childhood to adulthood, and continuing through the life span, our rules of interpretation change. We perceive and understand in increasingly complex ways; we also become more tolerant of ambiguity and more willing to recognize that we participate in the construction of our beliefs. Kegan identifies five orders of consciousness throughout the life span. Each is associated with its own organizing principle: a set of rules that governs the way meaning is made. And each order of consciousness expands on and is more complex than the one that preceded it. But we only become aware of the rules that govern and limit our understanding when we have transcended them; that is, only when we have available the next, more complex perspective as a tool of analysis. First-order consciousness is transcended in childhood and will not be examined here. Second-order consciousness is usually transcended by late adolescence; we will examine it only insofar as it illuminates the construction of the third order. Empirical evidence suggests most adults in Western society are engaged in the transition from third- to fourth-order consciousness; therefore, this will be our focus (1994). Though in Kegan’s model age has not been shown to determine order of consciousness in adults, development of third-order consciousness is generally associated with the movement from adolescence to young adulthood. Since fewer than 5% of adults achieve the fifth order of consciousness, it also will not be discussed here. Second and Third Stages Many of the most frustrating characteristics of teenagers, such as their endless self-

absorption, are manifestations of Kegan’s second stage of development. Though adolescents may accede to the demands of the adults around them, especially if there are consequences for not doing so, their own needs and desires are usually paramount. Eventually, however, most young people develop a new way of perceiving that we recognize (thankfully) as more adult. This is the more complex perspective that characterizes the third stage. This expanded consciousness allows them simultaneously to identify with both their own perspective and desires and someone else’s. Their concept of who they are vis-á-vis another transforms. Table 1 outlines some major shifts from the second to the third stages of this model. ___________________________________________________________ TABLE 1. Characteristics of Second-Order and Third-Order Consciousness Second-Order Consciousness Has relationship to others who are seen and valued in terms of what they can provide. Social contract based on self-interest; maintains own point of view; unempathetic. Moral/ethical code: “My needs are primary. If I concern myself with your needs, it is only to the extent that they don’t conflict with mine; I have no guilt about meeting my needs at your expense.” Descriptive identity, e.g., name, gender, perhaps family association; the adult concept of identity is meaningless. Third-Order Consciousness Is in relationship with others who are seen and valued in terms of the connection they represent.

Social contract based on mutuality; internalizes others’ points of view; empathetic. Moral/ethical code includes guilt and hyper-awareness of others’ needs, even those unstated or imagined: “I am responsible for your feelings; you are responsible for mine.” Identifies (not necessarily consciously) as member of group, family, culture, race, religion; also identified by job, relationships, affiliations. (Adapted from Kegan, 1994). ___________________________________________________________ Such major transformation takes place over several years, as the parents of any teenager will attest. Finally, however, the young adults who make this transition no longer think only instrumentally—that is, primarily in terms of how to accomplish their own desires. Instead, they negotiate among the internalized voices of others that have become their own. Self-interest gives way to a new capacity for mutuality. In place of a somewhat begrudging acknowledgment of others’ feelings (especially if these conflicted with the adolescent’s desires), there is now distinct discomfort at the thought that others might disapprove. Instead of being fundamentally selfabsorbed, the person at the third stage has absorbed others in the self. In other words, the person internalizes the voices of others and looks to others to define the self. While this more complex construction is, in a late adolescent, an important achievement—and results in more societally-approved behaviors—it will eventually prove a significant limitation to the maturing adult. For example, consider how third-order consciousness is likely to play out in the workplace. These workers and managers would probably avoid taking actions that others disapprove of. They would also find it difficult to examine with any objectivity their organization’s existing assumptions, norms, and practices, even when specifically invited to do so. Though this may describe many workers and managers, particularly in traditional,

hierarchical organizations, these are not potentially leaders as defined by Senge and Block. They are unlikely to contribute effectively to such increasingly commonplace change efforts as “total quality management,” and even less likely to changes that might lead to “learning organizations” or “stewardship.” Third and Fourth Stages Just as the shift from the second- to the third-order of consciousness requires a transformation in one’s way of knowing, so too does the shift from the third to the fourth. As in all transformations in this model, developmental growth depends on, grows out of, and requires the capacity to take perspective on the former way of viewing the world. Those at the third stage of development have internalized the voices, opinions, and beliefs of others, but have no awareness of having done so. These become their “shoulds” and unexamined imperatives of their lives. But when one has achieved the next (fourth) level of consciousness, one can look objectively at the sources of one’s ideas. Certainty — about self, others, management, corporation, government, and so on — gives way to the realization that one’s own perspective is but one of many and deserves to be explored, evaluated, and expanded: one’s beliefs are a reality, not the reality. Persons at this fourth stage still hear and respond to others’ voices; however, by choice rather than through anxiety or guilt. They also have moral and ethical choices unavailable to the person at the third stage who cannot question the norms, values, and assumptions he or she has internalized — or even recognize them as such. Fourth-stage persons recognize that value systems — including their own — are created and can be evaluated as appropriate or inappropriate within a particular context. They can also engage in critical self-reflection, which surfaces the thirdstage assumptions that were previously invisible. Table 2 outlines major shifts from the third to the fourth stages of Kegan’s model (1994).

__________________________________________________________ TABLE 2. Characteristics of Third-Order and Fourth-Order Consciousness Third-Order Consciousness In relationship with others; the level of mutuality and empathy approaches fusion; differences are perceived as threatening. Values, morals, and ethics based on group, family, and cultural imperatives; these norms and assumptions are invisible and therefore cannot be questioned. Sources of ideas: [Early] “I know what I’ve heard” (knowledge comes from others—Received Knowing*). [Late] “I know what I know” (knowledge comes from the self—Subjective Knowing*). Identity constructed by and through others; others are responsible for own feelings; self is responsible for others’ feelings and states of mind. Looks out (perceives self) through others’ eyes**. __________ *These epistemological positions are further described by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) in their model of Women’s Ways of Knowing. **As described by Koller (1983) in An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self Discovery. Fourth-Order Consciousness In relationship to relationships: can set limits and boundaries; differences are

respected and can be enjoyed and valued. Has values about values: they are perceived as contextual, situational, and constructed; former assumptions can be surfaced, examined, accepted, or rejected. Has ideas about ideas: explores where knowledge comes from, who is responsible for it, how and by whom it is constructed; “authorizes” knowledge, establishes criteria for judgment, critically evaluates own and others’ ideas. Identity self-constructed; aware of and sensitive to others, but not responsible for others’ states of mind or feelings; others are not responsible for own. Sees self through own eyes; dialogic relationship to the self***. __________ ***As described by Basseches (1984) in Dialectical Thinking and Adult Development.

Leadership and Cognitive Complexity Many organizations still operate successfully with a large complement of employees — workers and executives — who are comfortable within the perceived consistency of third-stage limitations. However, the descriptions of the new leadership, as articulated by Senge, Block, and others, underscore Kegan’s assertion that the modern workplace increasingly demands fourth-stage thinking. In the following excerpt, we have italicized the perceptual limitations of the third stage. To be leaders of the future (Kegan, 1994), we will need to: Be the inventor or owner of our work (rather than see it as owned and created by the employer) . . . Be self-initiating, self-correcting, self-evaluating (rather than dependent on others to frame the problems, initiate adjustments, or determine whether things are going

acceptably well) Be guided by our own visions at work (rather than be without a vision or a captive of the authority’s agenda) Take responsibility for what happens to us at work externally and internally (rather than see our . . . circumstances . . . as caused by someone else) . . . Conceive of the organization from the “outside in,” as a whole; see our relation to the whole . . . (rather than see . . . the organization and its parts only from the perspective of our own part, from the “inside out”) (p. 302). These distinctions — which are about complexity of mind, and not about gender — clearly describe the leadership needs of organizations, which are becoming increasingly less hierarchical, where employees are being asked to assume more control over their work, and where, as Charles Hampden-Turner (1992) notes, The whole notion of leaders and followers is increasingly out of date . . . . Followers “lead” in a variety of ways, using judgment, knowledge, skills, and selfmanagement. Leaders may have to spend large amounts of their time “following” what skilled subordinates are trying to tell them (p. 8). Yet in this environment, women leaders may, in fact, have an edge. We draw on a second model of adult development to explain why this may be so. Women’s Ways of Knowing Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) describe how women perceive and construct truth, knowledge, and authority. Women in the first two stages, “silence” and “received knowing,” would be unlikely to display leadership qualities as we have discussed leadership. Silent women have no voice, and are passive and dependent. They have not cultivated a mind of their own, or if they have, they are afraid to

express that mind. A silent woman fears retaliation by others around her who believe and act on the belief that she is dumb (without voice as well as without mind) and should do what she is told. They are often socially, economically, and educationally disadvantaged. A received knower constructs knowledge as something obtained from experts, family, and friends — almost everyone is perceived as more “in the know” than herself. They tend to see knowledge in terms of right/wrong, black/white, good/bad and to subordinate their own perceptions to those of others. In this they are similar to those newly arrived at Kegan’s third order of consciousness. As this perspective transforms, however, “subjective knowers” come to see themselves as the source of knowledge. Truth is experienced rather than thought out and felt rather than constructed. This stage is most closely associated with stereotypical images of women and women leaders as emotional, irrational, willful, and unpredictable. Women at this third stage may be extremely critical of experts and authorities (as if, having transcended their earlier dependence, they now deeply mistrust those in whom they formerly believed). They also distrust logic and analysis, which are tools of the fourth stage of development but which to these subjectivists seem inappropriately cool and objective. On the other hand, women leaders who know in this way are likely to be both highly committed to causes that touch their hearts and intuitive and creative in their problem-solving processes. Though they have developed in their way of knowing compared with received knowers, they are still operating primarily from Kegan’s third order of consciousness. In the fourth stage, “procedural knowing,” the knower discovers that her intuition is not infallible and that acting on her gut feelings can be irresponsible. She has learned to value and respect expertise, careful observation, and systematic analysis. Procedural knowers can comfortably acknowledge their capacity to think critically; they also experience an increased sense of control and mastery. The person who experiences knowing in this way is also capable, at least minimally, of operating

from Kegan’s fourth order of consciousness. Belenky and her colleagues further identified two kinds of procedural knowing, however, “separate” and “connected,” and it is here we find support for the reports that women seem to have superior new-leadership skills. Separate and connected are not, themselves, stages but rather styles (Kegan, 1994). They are two different ways of expressing the same capacity of mind. Neither is better, more advanced, or more gender-appropriate than the other, though women tend more frequently toward connected knowing and men toward separate knowing. Separate knowers gravitate toward the devil’s-advocate position, they value seeing things objectively, and they engage in what Peter Elbow calls the “doubting game” (in Clinchy, 1996). Connected knowers, by contrast, gravitate toward identifying with another’s position or ideas; they value seeing from another’s perspective and engage in the “believing game.” Whether they prefer a separate or connected style of knowing, however, women who develop as procedural knowers value and can use their capacities to think objectively, analytically, and logically. This latter point is emphasized because the concept of connected knowing has often been misinterpreted as an extension of the subjectivist stage of knowing rather than the procedural stage it is. Clinchy (1996) further clarifies that these two styles are ideal types, and it is possible to have a “polygamous epistemology,” where the two styles stabilize and complement each other. Constructed knowers, the fifth and final stage of the model, have “integrated the voices” as well as developed their own. They combine intuitive knowledge with knowledge learned from objective procedures. With the merger of the rational and emotional comes a strong sense of personal authority — a hallmark of full engagement with Kegan’s fourth-order consciousness. Women at this stage of cognitive complexity are most in tune with the new-leadership demands because they are challenged, rather than constrained, by ambiguity, uncertainty, and conflict. In addition, effective leaders are passionately committed to a cause and are driven to channel their commitment into action (Bennis & Goldsmith, 1994; Block,

1993) — a hallmark of the constructivist women. More than any other group, they are seriously preoccupied with the moral and spiritual dimension of their lives. Further, they strive to translate their moral commitments into action, both out of a conviction that one must act out of a feeling of responsibility to the larger community in which they live. (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986, p. 150). But where older models of leadership may have drawn primarily on separate styles of knowing, the modern workplace requires integration of objective and subjective perspectives, of analytical and intuitive approaches, and of decisive and collaborative style. Research has shown (Gilligan, 1982) that more than half of the women studied favored connected styles, and nearly all the men favored separate styles. More significantly, however, women have demonstrated a superior ability to “be polygamous;” they can synthesize and move between connected and separate approaches. Conclusion and Recommendation We have interpreted two models of adult development to suggest that as women and men transform the way they create reality and develop their capacities as knowers they are also developing the capacities of the “new leadership.” To return to the debate about whether men or women best exemplify these new definitions, we suggest that both can be successful leaders in today’s workplace. (Clearly, both are.) Echoing Kegan (1994), we propose that a primary basis for effective leadership may be the fourth order of consciousness — the level of cognitive complexity at which one constructs one’s own value system, moves into relationship with (rather than being defined by) one’s relationships, and recognizes one’s capacity to authorize knowledge and ideas. Even after reaching that order of consciousness, however, separate knowers (men more often than women) may need to work on those perspectives which Belenky and her colleagues identified as connected knowing (1986). It seems likely that this combination — fourth-order

consciousness and connection — will enable both men and women to shift from a controlling orientation to an empowering orientation, and to be persuasive, cooperative, and supportive — in other words, to create the workplace environments that will be critical factors in the success of the workforce and organizations of the future. What we have not yet examined, however, is how one accomplishes such transformation. Many workplace environments attempt to teach leadership through training in the associated skills such as communication, delegation, decision making, problem solving, and, more recently, managing diversity. But if cognitive complexity is, in fact, the critical issue in leadership, is training the most effective way to develop new leaders? Kegan suggests that an emphasis on skill building is in all likelihood misdirected. Fourth-order consciousness is not a constellation of behaviors but a transformation of awareness. It is ineffective to try to teach (or train) the fourth-order behaviors in the absence of the capacities of mind that it entails, such as the ability to recognize that we author our own values, that we own our jobs, that we, ultimately, determine what should be our relationship to our work and our fellow workers. Without this capacity to view oneself and one’s multiple relationships with the work environment objectively, skills and behaviors are not likely to transfer from the training session to the workplace. Though a discussion of education for development is beyond the scope of this paper, we do suggest that preparing effective leaders may require a different approach than skills training — one which will enable people to change how they know, how they think, and how they construct reality (Daloz, 1987; Taylor, 1994; Taylor & Marienau, 1995). References Applebaum, S., & Shapiro, B. (1993). Why can’t men lead like women? Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 14(7), 28.

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