Adult Development: A Leadership Imperative

The Stages of Life

If you’re a parent–or if you’ve learned about child psychology–you’re probably familiar with descriptions of the stages children move through until they reach adulthood. According to these theories, once we become young adults the development stages end–and for the rest of our lives we’re “adults.”

This picture of development–in addition to being a bit depressing–is also untrue. Just as the last decades have revealed that our brains change throughout our lives–that neuroplasticity is not something that ends after childhood–we’ve also learned that there are stages of adult development, which are just as significant as the stages of child development.

Adult development theory can help us to understand the very nature of the work required to become a leader who can thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Adult development theory describes the evolution of our capacity to see ourselves more clearly, to genuinely appreciate multiple perspectives, to become actors and authors of our lives–while at the same time increasingly understanding the ways in which we are part of larger systems.

In Over Our Heads

Robert Kegan, author of several books that include the aptly titled In Over Our Heads, is pioneer in the field of adult development theory. Much of what I’ll share in this post draws on Kegan’s work. In a later post, I’ll explore some of the other resources that you can explore to learn more.

The stages of adult development, unlike the stages of child development, are not an evolutionary mandate. Whether we continue to evolve beyond the “entry-level” adult stages depends on the experiences we have and the way that we respond to those experiences. What questions do we ask ourselves? Are we willing and able to see different perspectives? Can we start seeing relationships, patterns and systems?

Kegan argues that our thinking must become more complex if we are to address the existential challenges we face ranging from climate change to global terrorism. Our capacities must evolve so that we are not in over our heads. This message is also vital for organizational leaders–people who, day in, day out, face multi-faceted problems that defy easy answers. In the words of Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” To address the challenges we face, we must expand our consciousness.

The Move from Subject to Object

Our capacity to evolve from stage to stage depends on our ability to take that to which we are “Subject” and make it “Object.”  If something is Subject, it is invisible, a part of our self that cannot be seen, probably can’t be named and most certainly can’t be reflected upon. We can’t stand back and observe it–we aren’t responsible for it. That which is Object is visible, can be observed, can be reflected upon and, as a result, can be acted upon. Now we have choice and, as a result, we can change. In Kegan’s words: “We have Object; we are Subject.”

Here’s an example: If you are Subject to feeling anger, then it’s likely that you believe that someone else made you angry–it wasn’t your choice to be angry. It just is and it was inevitable. Your anger “has” you. You’re likely to act out of anger–whether that serves you or not. If, on the other hand, you can see your anger as Object, a shift occurs. You notice it as it arises, you can not only name it, but you can explore its sources, other feelings and thoughts that lie behind the anger, how it is like or different from experiences of anger.  You can see patterns. As a result of it not “having” you, of being able to see your anger as Object, you’re now able choose your response to the situation you’re in, to shift your emotional state, and to act in ways that serves you and others around you.

How We Make Meaning

Our evolution as adults occurs as increasingly complex elements of our lives move from Subject to Object. Emotions, thoughts, patterns and whole systems become visible rather than invisible. Blind spots are revealed. Gradually, and over time, these shifts from Subject to Object are significant enough that they give birth to new stages of consciousness or awareness. Each of the three stage shifts that Kegan describes opens up new possibilities for understanding ourselves and the world around us. Each shift “transcends and includes” what was learned before.

Coming Up Next

In the next post, we’ll look at these stages of consciousness. We’ll explore the stages that Kegan calls socialized mind, then self-authoring mind and finally self-transforming mind. We’ll also look at ways that we can develop the capacity to see more and more as Object and shift our level of awareness–regardless of our starting point on this journey.

In the meantime, take time to reflect on this view of adult development. How does it resonate with you? Think about your own work on becoming a more effective leader. Where can you see that you’ve made the shift from being Subject to seeing something as Object? What might that mean for other areas that you are trying to develop as a leader? What possibilities could emerge?

Resolutions That Stick: The Science of Goal-Setting

Composite image of new years resolutions on january calendar
Tis the season for making resolutions that we all too often don’t keep. As you enter into 2016 and are thinking about New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve summarized some of the science behind setting goals in the attached PDF, What We Know About Goals, drawn in large part from one of my favorite books, Succeed, by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

I created this summary to use with my team as a New Year’s gift– to help them in making their personal resolutions stick. These guidelines carried over into our ongoing performance conversations. And, we used these when we set shared goals for the year for our team.

FYI: My absolute favorite among these guidelines is “if-then” goal-setting–an extraordinarily simple and powerful way to frame your goals so that they become easier to recall at the time that you really need them. So, setting a goal of eating fewer carbs is far less effective than stating an “if-then” intention such as: “When I have a craving for a slice of bread, I will drink a glass of water.” (Yours needs to be unique to you, of course.)

Some other resources that you may want to explore on the topic of goals and habits are:

1. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

You can also find an Actionable Books Summary of Duhigg’s book, here. These are brief and fun-to-read synopses of books that call out a few key ideas. (I like these so much that I recently joined the team of volunteer writers!)

2. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

The Actionable Summary for this book is here and here (there are two and each are helpful.)

I hope you enjoy these resources–and that they help you to start 2015 off powerfully–and maybe even make resolutions fun!

3. Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Rubin’s book gives some practical tools for creating lasting habits. My favorite take-away is that it’s not about self-control–create conditions where you don’t need to make decisions–executing your goal is “built into” your routines and systems. (Click on the link for the full summary.)

Happy Holidays!

Navigating Complexity

Clear strategy and leadership solutionsWhat is the difference between complicated and complex? And why should you care? I recently finished reading Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s new book, Simple Habits for Complex Time. The authors suggest a rich and important distinction between the two–and a powerful case for why it does matter. (You can find the book here or read my latest actionable book summary here.)

Complicated can be solved. Even if that solution has a lot of steps and is difficult to figure out–there is a path from A to Z. And, there’s a high probability that if you follow the path from A to Z, you’ll get there. Complex, on the other hand, has no clear destination–we’re not actually sure what the solution or outcome is, there’s no “ideal future state”–instead, there is probably more than one solution or maybe none at all. So, the things consultants typically do–like define current state and future state and map the path to get there (sound familiar?) can be woefully inadequate. If “there” can’t really be defined–and there are lots of different possible “theres”–then our entire process is flawed. And, our continued lack of success in effecting lasting change–because we are using processes that support the complicated when we are working with the complex–suddenly makes sense.

So, what do you when what you’re facing is a complex challenge–not a complicated one? When you know a culture needs to shift, when an organization is off track, when there’s unrealized potential, when there’s a new opportunity? Here’s where it gets really exciting–and in strange way–quite a bit easier. You experiment. You try things and see what works. You conduct multiple experiments. You fail at some, succeed at others. You make sure that you don’t fail at the stuff you just can’t fail at, but only where it’s “safe to fail.” You build on your successful experiments. You listen, deeply, to feedback. You navigate towards  your direction–but you let the destination emerge. And, you have a sense of direction to guide you, your values to support you.

As I thought more about complexity, I realized that the biggest, longest-lasting and most challenging “project” of my life–raising two children–fits the definition of complex perfectly–and offers up some insight into the work of navigating complexity. We raise children with absolute uncertainty about the destination and a huge amount of possibility. We have a vision and set of values that guide us in setting a direction that we hope will help them to emerge as whole, healthy and happy people. There’s no blueprint, there’s no plan–indeed anyone who has seen a child into adulthood would certainly laugh at that thought!

As I think about what my husband and I did as parents, I realize that the lens of navigation and experimentation is perfectly descriptive. We didn’t know what to do, so we tried different things–or let our children try different things. We were very clear about boundaries–and what was not to be tried (that electric socket was not a toy, but the kitchen pots could be–even if there was a terrible mess to clean up afterwards!) Growing up–and raising children–was a process of safe to fail experiments. And, how I defined safe to fail was specific to me and often needed to be navigated with my husband, and as they grew up, with my children.

As I work with clients now–individually and with groups–and I as build my business–I am experimenting with this idea of safe to fail experiments–grounded in a vision and direction and a set of core values that serve as boundaries and guardrails. I already am experiencing a sense of possibility that my more traditional tools didn’t bring–a playfulness, a lightness and a sense of hope. I am enjoying actively acknowledging and navigating complexity. I look forward to seeing what emerges!