Wise and thoughtful leadership is the product of advanced human development. People who hold a level of psychological maturity are best placed to make calm, rational decisions, and put the needs of others before themselves without becoming a martyr to self-sacrifice for its own sake. But what is psychological maturity? How do we define it and begin to cultivate it for ourselves?
Developmental psychology is a branch of psychological research that examines human development from childhood all the way through to the later stages of adult life. Psychologists such as Maslow, Kegan, Erikson and Kohlberg have articulated a process of development that begins with an increasing independence of thought on the part of the individual. The ability to think, act and judge according to inner values – rather than primal impulses or a need for external approval – marks a transition toward one’s existence as a rational, independent individual, away from the intellectual dependency of childhood. Following this, there comes an increasing desire to leave a beneficial legacy for the flourishing of others, turning our newfound rational powers to altruistic ends. Finally, there is a continually decreasing attachment to the ego itself, with all its attendant cravings for things like wealth, status, or power.
Looking around, both within our local context and at the world on a wider scale, we see people entrusted with positions of power for whom it is fulfilling some kind of therapeutic role. Rather than function as mature, capable, rational and independent custodians of the power they wield, using it for the benefit of their organisations or society at large, they cleave to their own sense of fragile ego and use their organisational or institutional position as a means to satisfy that irrational inner child. Fearful of change or criticism, they shut down debate in order to keep a firm grip on their sense of control.
It seems self-evident that we want our leaders to function at an emotional level commensurate with the power and responsibility they hold. Yet our system does not always reward psychological maturity in the short term, and the dog-eat-dog world of business and government is a testament to that. In the long term however, strong organisations and societies are those that promote compassionate, thoughtful, and altruistic leaders.
If we want to leave a legacy of positive change, it is necessary to tune out the noise of venality and status competition that threatens to draw us in. Instead, we should focus on cultivating our own inner strength and independence. Free of the attachments and fears that underlie a jostling for money, status and recognition, we empower ourselves and those around us to fulfil a greater purpose.