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!

Mindsets, Part 1

I practice yoga regularly and seriously. I’m a fairly advanced practitioner–and some of the poses I can do are impressive! When I first learned about Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, I thought a lot about yoga. As the shortest kid in a class of rather tall children, from a bookish home where sports and athletics were not central, gym class was a nightmare for me. I saw myself as anything but strong and anything but an athlete. I was the small, weak kid who got chosen last. Today, I have a very different sense of myself and of my strength and athleticism.

Carol Dweck, whose writings and interviews are available through the internet or in her book Mindset, describes two basic mindsets that people hold about their talent, intelligence and skills. In a fixed mindset, people believe that their intelligence or talent are what they are. You have a certain amount—and can’t do much to change it. A growth mindset sees our brains and raw talent as just the starting point. Growth and change are always possible. A person with a fixed mindset sees intelligence as set—a growth mindset focuses more on how intelligence can be developed through learning and effort.

Dweck shows that when people adopt a fixed mindset, it often limits their success. They become focused on proving their talents and abilities—they react defensively to mistakes or setbacks. Deficiencies and mistakes mean there’s a lack of talent or ability. People in this mindset will often avoid risks—if they might show result in showing “weakness.” And, once you see yourself as “not smart” or “not athletic” you’re stuck with that label and it’s not going to change. With a growth mindset, you believe that talents and abilities can be developed through passion, education and persistence. It’s not about looking smart or about image. It’s about learning—taking smart risks and learning from the results, being challenged, looking honestly at what’s challenging and taking it on.

One of Dweck’s studies followed pre-med students taking one of those killer chemistry courses. Students were tested to determine whether they had a fixed or growth mindset and then were tracked through the course. Students with fixed mindsets, after an early poor grade, did not recover. The initial score “proved” they were not smart enough and, at that point, their fate was determined. Students with growth mindsets poured themselves into the course after an early poor grade and succeeded based on hard work in the course. Effort produced results, not raw smarts.

The last couple of decades of brain research have shown us that our brains are more plastic than we ever realized—that they do grow and change throughout our lives. We can confidently say that a growth mindset is more biologically “true” than a fixed mindset. While a growth mindset doesn’t mean that everyone has the same talent or that everyone can be Michael Jordan, it does mean that Michael Jordan wouldn’t be Michael Jordan without years of passionate and dedicated practice. In a growth mindset, talent is something you build on and develop, not something you simply have.

When I think about my yoga practice, I think about how much work it took to transform my fixed mindset about my physical abilities and see myself as someone who was strong and capable of doing really hard things–if I made the consistent effort. And, even now, it’s a an ongoing process. When I do a handstand (yes, a handstand!!) I hear my brain saying “you can’t do that!” while my body is in the pose! That’s how deeply our mindsets are ingrained in us!

So, think about something you’ve done–despite what you might have thought you could do–and about what it took for you to do that. And, think about something that you’re not doing that might just require a shift in mindset. And begin the shift!

More on mindsets and why they are so central to leadership development next week!