Bio-Transformation Theory & Practice® Gem 5: The Five Key Stages Of Adult Leadership Development
Understand the Way of Transformation: the archetypal blueprint and pathway for achieving lasting, positive change in yourself and the systems you participate in
I have spent a couple of decades building on the incredible shoulders of developmental giants to fit these powerful theories to how we actually witness leaders entering, and stabilizing themselves within, expanding developmental stages. The basis of the BTT approach to developmental stage theory is the work of Harvard educational psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. Over a couple of decades, they have traced out their very influential five-stage adult development model: Constructive Development Theory. It is premised, in part, upon what each person’s ego-driven personality is constructed around; and so, the source of our sense of
The stages in their model progress in increasing levels of cognitive-behavioral complexity, but also include many elements of deepening embodied wisdom. In my understanding, each adult development stage they proposed is reached by transforming how we construct our selfhood; what we feel we need to deliver to succeed in life; and how we relate to people and objects in the world around us. Each stage appears to alternate between a focus on solving for the values and needs of C&P Mode (like separation from others, analyzing problems and solutions, clear boundaries, and individual autonomy), and the values and need of C&C Mode (like trusted relationships, generativity, belonging, and connection).
In the five developmental stages of BTT, I draw heavily on their evidence-based work yet seek to include within it fresh insights from our own experiences working with tens of thousands of adults on empowerment and leadership; and bring in some of the breakthrough thinking from Erikson, Gilligan, Maslow, Commons, and those working in affective-interoceptive studies.
The five stages I use skip the childhood stages that most developmental theories postulate as our interest is how the early adult can become truly transformational as they play their full part in their own evolution and maturity. I also posit an additional stage to Kegan and Lahey: an ‘end of life’ stage where we become a regenerative elder in our community. In essence, I seek to nuance and build upon the work of the masters of this field; and apply their rigorous thinking to our aims of leading and landing tangible transformation in the material world through conscious
Remember this: as philosopher Ken Wilbur states, the key to most adult development theories is that each stage includesthe stage before — we bring with us the skills, qualities, and mindsets we mastered at the earlier stage — and then transcends it with new thinking and feeling, so dissolving away the challenges and crises of the previous stage. Things we used to find challenging no longer are. We have built new strengths within our embodied consciousness that allow us to seek more challenging and complex problems to solve. We keep raising our consciousness to match the challenges we face as they become more tricky; and so demand more
We cannot move effectively into a later stage until we have fully embodied, stabilized, and integrated the one before. To attempt to move into the higher stages of transformational power without nailing the core capabilities of the stage before leads to many of the issues we see today: narcissists running powerful nations and enormous companies; the application of Industrial-Age solutions to systemic Networked Age problems; over-confidence in existing market rules and best practices; systemic leaders unable to show up on time and land projects; powerful people abusing their underlings; unsustainable business models and supply chains devastating our planet; a failure to understand the systemic impacts of every enterprise; lack of genuine purpose in organizations; poor emotional intelligence; and high levels of emotional reactivity at the top.
Stage 1: Contributors
Our first stage occurs in early adulthood, as we become an individuated person, separated from our parents. We can help make things happen in our groups, teams, and communities by following the rules: parents’ rules, school rules, societal rules, and, most importantly, the rules of our peers. We are Contributors.
We understand how to follow best practice to generate desired outcomes; and so we can contribute to the aims of the group. This means we can be trained in the essentials of a profession or craft; on the production line; and in customer service. We can also achieve our own goals; and learn new skills that contribute to society. Extrinsic motivations like pocket money, pay bumps, and educational awards/badges are often effective to drive us forward.
Relationships tend to be transactional in this stage, as we are focused on getting our own needs met. Yet, paradoxically, we are dependent on those same relationships for our safety and nourishment. This can breed resentment, as we want to be fully independent but actually need a lot of hand-holding (both physical and emotional) until we develop the self-discipline, loving boundaries, and self-love we need to fully individuate. When we don’t have our needs met, we cam quickly become victims. This is the shadow of the Contributor. We can turn those we support, like parents, bosses, and teachers, into persecutors that we get to blame for all our ills.
To become a Contributor, it means we have been able to form a stable sense of identity based on our perceived needs, wants, and desires. As Kegan makes clear, this is a great developmental success. We have been able to move beyond the early childhood stages of development when individual needs are much less clear. Remember, we must all fully inhabit and embody this stage before we can move to ‘higher’ stages: otherwise we will always be confused about our needs, identity, and boundaries.
We have to develop a strong and loved psychological self in this stage otherwise if/when we transcend it, there is nothing at the core of ourselves. Then our boundaries will be too porous and leaky. Most people reach this stage around adolescence. Some never leave it. It has been estimated by studies of Kegan’s comparable stage of the ‘imperial mind’ that at least 6% of adults stay in the Contributor mindset for good. I believe that all of us can regress here when we are interoceptively-stressed (e.g., exhausted, hungry, horny) and/or emotionally-destabilized (freaked out, fearful, furious).
The Contributor has an affinity for — and could even be considered a product of — Tribal O.S.: the Contributor stage necessitates both chiefs; and people under them that have to follow their rules.
Stage 2: Achievers
The vast majority of adults progress through the Contributor stage to inhabit the next stage. Here we no longer merely follow the manager’s rules to get by, but actually take on those rules as our own and deliver on them so that we can be a respected and rewarded member of the group. Hence, I call this stage the Achiever. We have what Kegan and Lahey call a ‘socialized’ mind. Studies show around 58% of people remain here for life, which means the overwhelming majority of people in the workplace are Achievers.
To become an Achiever, we have to have worked out how to fit in, and belong to, the (in)crowd. To stay validated and so safe, we want to keep up with the Smiths or Singhs in terms of lifestyle, income, fashion, and job. To do this, we become great at playing various recognizable social roles — smart, funny, nice, inspiring, sexy, demure, etc., etc. — so the crowd gives us its approval. This is the source of many of the twelve archetypal patterns of leadership. Because we often rely on the approval of others for our own sense of self-worth, we often take things very personally. Therefore, we can be challenging to empower or coach.
As Achievers, we organize our work and personal lives to fit the dominant social values and codes in the system. We have learned how to compromise and also co-operate in order to move forward the needs of the group (above our own needs). This is a great developmental success as now we can play ‘nice’ with others. In fact, to succeed in our career, as Achievers we have had to internalize the ideologies of a system — whether dogmatic religion, glossy magazine ideals, laissez-faire capitalism, ‘break things fast’ Silicon Valley culture, or what the Board says is right — and then construct an identity around this doctrine or ideology.
Therefore, as Achievers, we have to suppress our own authentic nature, moral intuitions, and ideals of the future in order to fit in with the group-think of the family, enterprise, or society. Instead, we become technical experts in our field, and can be relied upon to solve technical problems with best-practice solutions that deliver great results. The shadow of the Achiever is micro-management and control freakery. We enjoy the power that our (technical) accomplishments have brought and use it inappropriately to feel safe and in control.
The Achiever has an affinity for — and could even be considered a product of — Institution O.S.: the Achiever stage necessitates institutional ideologies that are encoded in laws (like best practice) and overseen by the authorities at the top.
Stage 3: Innovators
To step beyond Stage 2, we need to give up craving the respect and recognition of our peers to follow our own ideas and ideals and forge (a little of) the future. Around 35% of the general population makes it here, presumably meaning many senior managers and leaders. This stage sees us become fully independent, challenging, and often rejecting the ideologies that gripped us in the past. We have the cognitive and emotional freedom to strike out and determine our own path as innovators of our own lives, and possibly innovators in our industry. Extrinsic motivators, like reputation, reward, and peer approval, fade from significance and inner motivations, like cracking a challenging problem or starting up our own project, become driving forces.
We develop and hone truly critical thinking capacities and can author our own ideas and ideals about all work and play. We can hold competing frameworks and viewpoints without needing to decide immediately what is right. As freethinkers who are not attached to the views of others for our sense of self-worth, we own our own errors in projects, relationships, and conversations with alacrity rather than reluctance.
As Innovators, we develop our own meaning-making and sense-making frameworks, which is key for landing changes that disrupt the status quo. We move beyond excelling at best practice and actually envision and innovate next practice: inventing and implementing genuine value-creating innovations in products, services, processes, and even business models. We no longer fixate on getting kudos through solving technical problems; instead, we seek out transformational challenges that can only be solved by giving up conventional expertise. We have mastered the existing rules and can now challenge them maturely and break them wisely. We are able confidently to conceive of, manage, drive forward, and complete projects of our own creation without relying on the approval of others to make it feel good.
We can contain multiple emotional states (like fear and excitement about change) at the same time. We don’t feel the need to resolve the complexity and chaos of the VUCA world and have for both emotional and cognitive empathy: we can sense the moods and fears of others as well as understand what might be causing them (that is not necessarily to do with us). The shadow side of the Innovator is becoming a dominator of people and planet as seen in the hubris of science that tries to predict all of nature; the ‘break everything quick’ mindset of Silicon Valley; and the algorithmic domination of the market in hedge fund management.
The Innovator has an affinity for — and could even be considered a product of — Enterprise O.S.: the Innovator stage requires individual critical and creative thinking to challenge aristocratic/institutional ideologies; and be rewarded for it.
Stage 4: Transformers
In this stage, we fully perceive the complex driving forces and interactive human dynamics of the industries, systems, and societies we are part of and lead. We have understood our own patterns and the pain locking them in. We have realized that transformation in any human system is fractal: it starts with self-transformation, moves to relationship and team transformation, drives change at the enterprise level that guides systemic transformation. We have reached what Kegan and Lahey call the ‘self-transforming mind,’ which studies show only a handful, between 1% and 8%, of people reach. However, this mindset is critical to reach for truly transformational leadership. I will expand on this stage of development in the next chapter.
The Transformer has an affinity for — and could even be considered a product of — Network O.S.: the Transformer stage requires collaborations of co-creative equals focused on a common purpose (and empowered by digital technologies).
Stage 5: Elders
This stage is conjectural in ways that the other stages are not because, first, they are based on the research of Kegan and others and, second, I have not lived through this stage personally. However, I believe that this is a final stage of leadership development where we become an ‘elder’: with wisdom to share and a baton to pass on. This is the Elder: grateful to exchange youthful energy and entrepreneurial power for deep wisdom, a playful joie de vivre, and the capacity to recharge, renew, and rejuvenate systems just by being part of them. They don’t need to try to regenerate people and places: they just do with a wise smile, a compelling anecdote, or a healing hug. The final act of regeneration is to give back the nutrients of their cells to the soil, as they die.
As Elders, I speculate that we move past Kegan’s seminal work and embrace not just a self-transforming mind but actually a “self-transcending mind.” We move past the need to self-actualize and fulfill our own potential and embrace genuine transcendence of the self without a grand ambition and transformational agenda. This is not about giving up on our needs or compromising our authentic self but about sacrificing our ambition to find higher-order regenerative solutions that take care of ourselves and those we care about: grandkids, citizens, flora and fauna, planet, and the cosmos. The final act of regeneration is to give back the nutrients of their cells to the soil, as we die. Perhaps Elders belong to an Operating System that is yet to emerge; if it ever does.