Adult Development Theory: How Can Leaders Grow As Adults? Part 2

Adult Development Theory: How Can Leaders Grow As Adults? Part 2

Written By: Cahide Akkuzu

Reading time: 6 minutes

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at Robert Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development. Unfortunately, we saw that many adults have not developed beyond the socialized mind stage which includes adolescence characteristics. Becoming an ‘adult’ means that a person is developing an independent sense of self and is gaining more wisdom and social maturity. Growing as an adult, regardless of age and IQ, is about how much a person can develop a complex and multidimensional thinking and analysis capacity, which Robert Kegan calls ‘Mental Complexity’. Please click to read Part 1 of this article:

I believe that there is a large population of university graduate adults who are at the adolescence and socialized mind stages of the adult development continuum. Having more knowledge, getting more degrees, making more money does not enable us to ‘grow’ as adults. If we ourselves cannot progress on the adult development continuum and reach the higher stages, chances are high that our children will remain stuck as well. As leaders, if we do not take the responsibility to move forward in the development stages, we will be pushed out of the system after a while because we will not be able to sustain our company’s competitive power.

In this article, we will look at what we can do to transition to the higher stages on the adult development continuum. This is where the concepts of ‘Transformation’ and ‘Subject – Object Relationship’ , which I explained in detail in part 1 of this article, come into play. In a nutshell, ‘Transformation’ means upgrading our way of knowing and understanding the world, and ‘Subject – Object Relationship’ is about making the shift from being a subject (I am … ) to looking at ourselves as an object (I have … ), and thus to liberate, distance and detach ourselves from a certain personality trait, opinion, feeling or believe that we have. To develop as an adult, we first need to make a realistic diagnosis about ourselves by using these two concepts. We need to understand and take a closer look at how we currently know and make sense of the world.

Going beyond the socialized mind stage as an adult is to move into what Kegan calls the “Self-Authoring Mind” stage. For this, let us first look at the concept of ‘Self-Authorship’. Marcia Baxter Magolda, a professor from the University of Miami, has many books and publications based on her research about adult development. I highly recommend her latest book “Authoring Your Life: Developing an Internal Voice to Navigate Life’s Challenges”. Marcia Baxter Magolda defines the three main components of the concept of ‘Self-Authorship’ as follows:

  1. The state of self-knowledge, beliefs and values about oneself, and the internal reference that is formed without being affected by the opinions and thoughts of others.
  2. The relationship of the person with their self, the alignment of their behavior with their values, how they define themselves in relation to the question: ‘’Who am I?’’
  3. The reference to the social relationships of the person, the definitions of how they want to be in relation with others.

Self-Authorship is how a person knows and make sense of themselves within the framework of these three basic concepts, and thus defines the state they want to be at, regardless of external references. That is, to be the author or creator of what they want to be as a person. To achieve this, a person must have the internal authority to upgrade their own operating system to a higher version and increase their capacity to think and analyze in a complex and multidimensional way. This is not an easy process. Kegan’s “Subject – Object Relationship” concept, that I mentioned above and explained in detail in part 1 of this article, comes into play right here. A person can achieve this profound transformation only when they examine their own personality traits, emotions, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs as an external object.

An important process in this development is to distinguish our own thoughts and opinions from those of others. We need to change our focus. We need to focus on creating clarity about our own thoughts and opinions and stop thinking of other people’s views about us and other events. The only way to do this is to analyze our own thoughts with curiosity and to reflect on our findings with neutrality. To get clarity about ourselves, we need to look at ourselves as an external object by asking ourselves questions, only then do we begin to know a little more about ourselves and how we make sense of the world. Let’s now look at how we can move beyond the ‘Socialized Mind’ stage.  Let’s look at what we can do to create our own frame of reference that helps us to move towards the ‘Self-Authoring Mind’ stage.

Step 1: Clarifying our own views and thoughts

First, we need to be clear about our opinions, and our thoughts and beliefs on which these opinions are based. Let us look at an example related to leadership. What do you think of Stephen Covey’s famous quote: “Leadership is a choice, not a position”? Do you think this statement is true or do you think differently? Why? When explaining your reason, explain your beliefs and values about leadership, and give examples from yourself and your environment. Make your own definition of leadership. Explain on what basis you are making this specific definition. How would you know that your leadership behaviors are in alignment with your values? You can add many more questions that you could ask yourself about this topic of leadership. The important thing is that you observe and analyze your own frame of reference about this topic from the outside. It is important that you understand the thoughts, beliefs and values that are forming the basis of your opinions and analyze them with curiosity. Where are these thoughts and beliefs coming from? Are these a learned pattern? Did you adopt these from a specific person or group of people? What assumptions are these thoughts and beliefs based on? Analyze them as if you are looking at an object in a neutral way.

Remember the concept of Self-Authorship by Marcia Baxter Magolda. This step is all about the component of self-knowledge.

Using a similar approach to knowing ourselves in every aspect of our lives, we can question our views, opinions, beliefs and thoughts, and gain clarity by looking at them as objects. To practice, you can try to get clarity about the following topics with a similar approach:

  • What are the characteristics of a good management team? Why?
  • How do I know that I am following a fair process about a team member who is unsuccessful? Why?
  • What do I think about the sentence “High profitability requires taking high risks”? Why?
  • What is my criteria for honesty? Why?
  • Is talent genetic or can it be developed? What is my opinion on this topic? Why?
  • What is the definition of a good family relationship for me? What are the indicators? Why?
  • What do I think about the sentence “Love requires sacrifice”? Why?

It is possible to add many more topics and questions to this list. To reach the higher stages of the adult development continuum, we need to have clarity about the frame of reference that our opinions, beliefs and thoughts are based on.

Step 2: Determining what we want

This step covers the other two components of the concept of ‘Self-Authorship’ by Marcia Baxter Magolda, that is, the relationship of the person with their self and how they want to be in relation with others. At this step we determine what we want and convey this to those around us with very clear expressions.

When determining what we want, it is important to distinguish whether we really want that for ourselves or we unconsciously perceive what others want from us as our own want. Without realizing it, we may be fulfilling the wishes of our child, boss, co-workers, or family elders. We may be doing these actions not because they overlap with our own desires and values, but out of guilt. At this step, we take our actions off the autopilot of “what others want from me” and take a conscious decision and take responsibility for “what I want”.

Let’ s take one of the examples above. What are the characteristics of a good management team? Why? You may have analyzed your own frame of thinking about this topic, clarified your own opinions and thoughts, and reached the following conclusion as an example: “One of the characteristics of a good management team is that the team gives effective feedback to each other”. You may list a lot of reasons about why you come to that conclusion. Maybe, you yourself made your own improvement with the feedback you received before, or you were in a team that did not give feedback and therefore had a concrete negative experience, or giving and receiving feedback aligns with your value of taking responsibility for improving yourself and others, etc.

In this example, determining what you want for yourself, may look like:

  • “I want to get feedback on my positive and developmental aspects and their impact on the team. I want to evaluate this feedback and improve myself”.
  • “I want the team to give feedback to each other about their positive and developmental aspects and thus contribute to each other’s development”.

Continuing with the same example, determining what you want from others, may look like:

  • Instead of ‘I want you to give me more feedback’, be more specific in your demand, like ‘I want you to give me feedback on the same day when you see that my behavior is having a negative impact on the team’. Or ‘I want you to give feedback about my positive and developmental aspects that you observed in the first 10 minutes of our monthly meetings’.
  • As the leader of the management team, instead of “I want you to give each other more feedback”, you might say “I want each of you to give face-to-face feedback to all your other teammates at least once a month. This feedback should include both positive qualities that contribute to the team, and at least one developmental area that will support the person to contribute more to the team.”

These phrases are a bit long, but what I want to particularly emphasize here is the clarity. The person is very clear about their own request and the person who hears this request understands what is expected of them, there is no room for interpretation. Being in the Self-Authoring Mind stage, means being very clear about our own wishes, about how we want to shape our relationships within the scope of our requests and taking the responsibility to express this clearly to the people that we care about.

Step 3: Understanding the reasons for our wants

To understand what we really want, we need to understand the reason, the ‘why’ behind it. Our reason may be to reach our dream and to become the person we want to be. Our reason may be to avoid experiencing an emotion that we do not desire, such as guilt, uncertainty, or contempt. In the example above, both of these reasons might be valid for the member of the management team who is requesting feedback. The person might want to improve their leadership qualities to fulfill their dream of becoming an impactful leader that inspires others. Or, the person might want to avoid the feeling of guilt in case of possible leadership mistakes that impacts people they feel responsible towards.

What are the reasons for your wants? Are these reasons mostly related to realizing your dream about yourself or are your reasons based on fear of experiencing a negative feeling? Most importantly, what reasons do you wish your wants to be based on? Why? Use Kegan’ s “Subject – Object Relationship” to curiously look at the reasons behind your ‘wants’ as if you are looking at an object. Find the answers for yourself.

So far, we have looked at ‘Self-Authorship’, which is essentially about authoring our own story. The steps are basically to understand what we think and then to determine what we want and why. But, how do we implement this? How does it look like in our day to day life to transition towards the higher stages of the adult development continuum? How can we, step by step, move forward to become a real adult?

At every moment in our life, we make a choice. The moment I say yes to something and choose it, I am saying no to something else. We sometimes make these choices consciously, but most of the time we make these choices out of habit as if we are on autopilot. In order to grow towards becoming and adult and reach the ‘Self-Authoring Mind’ stage, we need to make choices that are aligned with our ‘wants’ and our values. Every choice we make in this direction will take us a little bit away from adolescence and will open the space for our true authentic adult personality to emerge and find expression.

There is often a gap between our wants and our choices. We want relationships based on trust within the team. But, do we make the choice to give candid feedback to team members? We want our child to grow up as a responsible individual. But, how often do we choose to intervene in their decisions? It is not always easy to make choices that are aligned with our wants and values. As soon as we gain clarity in knowing ourselves, knowing our wants and their reasons, we come to a crossroad. We start to see the other side of the road that we want to reach. Making the journey to the other side might be very appealing and rewarding. At the same time, the journey may also be very scary as it requires us to adopt a whole new set of behaviors. We can cross the road slowly, step by step. By practicing with small examples, we can make choices that align with our wants and values. Step by step, as we succeed, we can add new examples. Advancing to the higher stages on the adult development continuum requires patience and practice. It requires increasing the number of examples in which we patiently make conscious choices. At one point we will see that we actually did cross the road. We can do it!



Marcia Baxter Magolda: ‘Authoring Your Life: Developing an Internal Voice to Navigate Life’s Challenges’

I recommend all of Robert Kegan’s books, in particular:

Immunity to Change

Everyone Culture

In Over Our Heads


Context Professionals Corporate Coaching and Consulting


social position

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