Osama bin Laden: A Developmental Perspective

Sinclair J. Samuel, Alice LoCicero


The attacks of September 11, 2001 have produced a new urgency to understand terrorism and its leaders in complex terms. This paper characterizes the evolution in cognitive complexity of Osama bin Laden across different life domains using the developmental paradigms of Robert Kegan (1982, 1994) and Michael Commons (Commons & Richards, 2002). We under- stand bin Laden as simultaneously simple and complex, both constructing and operating within a world that is absolute (reflecting simple, either/or thinking) in some domains and relative (reflecting more complex thinking) in others. He adheres ideologically to one absolute reality, rooted in his interpretation of Islam, although concurrently demonstrates a complex leadership style that encourages members to contribute uniquely to and take ownership of the process. This latter ability reflects greater complexity for both integrating and synthesizing multiple, competing perspectives and systematic thinking. Both internal and external factors facilitated this evolution, fueling movement from embeddedness to executive perspective. 

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