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?