The Writer and the Written: Adult Development in Leadership

Dr. Robert Kegan postulates that there are five stages of adult development. The first two, Impulsive Mind and Imperial Mind, are mostly seen in children (or those who act like children!).

Stage 3 is the Socialized form of Mind, where we look for external validation and allow the opinions, beliefs, norms and behavior of others to determine who we are.

Stage 4 is the Self-Authored form of Mind. This is where Oprah and all the self-help books want to get us to… a place where we see ourselves creating our own reality and responsible for our own lives.

In Stage 5, the Self-Transforming form of Mind, you are less held prisoner by your own identity. How you show up in the world is created and influenced by your interactions with others. Kegan estimated that less than 1% of the population were Stage 5 adults.

In Stage 5, yes, you are prioritizing, making choices and responsible for your part of the results you are getting. But the world and the people and events around you are also shaping you and the choices you make. The people who agree with you, the people who challenge you, the successes, the difficulties… all these are changing you moment to moment, asking you to look at who you are and how you are showing up, and affording you the opportunity to continuously realign yourself.

In short, you are the writer, making choices, and at the same time, being written by everything around you.

There are echos of this perspective from diverse schools of thought. In Moby Dick, Melville writes:

Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.

Here is another view, from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.

And here’s yet another take from the late physicist and card-carrying empiricist, Carl Sagan:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

What did Sagan mean by this? Look at all the forces acting on a wave on the ocean: underwater structures, changing ocean temperatures, atmospheric conditions, wind, tides, gravitational pulls, lunar forces, planetary motion, and on and on. A single wave literally comes into and goes out of existence because of all those forces. If asked, “when did that wave begin and when will it end?” I think Sagan would say, “It began when the universe began, and it will cease when the universe ceases.”

The complex, fast-moving times we live in demand new leaders who know they are the writer and the written. A leader in a meeting might have a sense of what s/he wants to do. S/he doesn’t think, these opposing viewpoints are distracting and annoying, how do I impose my will? Instead, s/he thinks, these other stakeholders are not only not against me, they are me! And I need to let them shape what I do and how I do it.

The new leaders, then, are radically inclusive. They are willing to release the tiller because they are at a stage of adult development where they recognize that leadership is a role in a field of complexity, not a fixed position. They follow the flow and let the voices and perspectives of emergent leadership take over. They know there is a win-for-all somewhere in the mix, and they work towards it.

And when the time is right, they ensure decisions get made and are willing to take responsibility for the results of the team’s choices and actions. The new leaders abhor the victim stance and never assign blame. They espouse the motto, “Why cry? I made the bed in which I lie.”

Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Here’s a good one to start with: just as light is both a particle and a wave, you are the writer and the written.

You don’t need an extended retreat or a cosmic epiphany to see this. The first step is just to stop acting as if it’s not true.

Dennis is an executive coach and consultant based in the San Francisco bay area. More by and about him on his website.

Photo by Hunter Leonard on Unsplash

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