By Revel Gordon
“I used to be so certain about my capabilities and my career, and I’ve been incredibly successful to date. But I now seem to question everything, including myself. What was once black and white now appears grey. What’s happening to me? Am I OK?”
I’ve had versions of this conversation countless times with senior executives over the years. Far from being a problem, it marks a key developmental transition that less than a third of adults ever fully complete. It is also perhaps the most important differentiator between those who are overwhelmed by the complexity and ambiguity that comes with senior roles, and those who genuinely thrive with the increased responsibility. It is Harvard Professor Robert Kegan’s Stage Three/Stage Four shift.
This is a rich and complex topic that is difficult to articulate in a brief article, so I’ve provided an executive summary (immediately below) that focuses on the key transition from Stage Three to Stage Four that is so crucial to operating effectively in senior executive roles. I then share a more detailed explanation that covers all the stages in the model and provide more context. So, either read the exec summary, or go grab a coffee, settle in, and absorb the whole thing!
Until his retirement last year, Robert Kegan was the Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His model of adult development explains the sequence of five stages people can go through in terms of how we make meaning of the world around us and our place within it.
To be clear, his model focuses purely on how we make sense of our world. It does not speak to issues such as intellect, cognitive development, drive, subject matter expertise or morality. While all of these are important, they tend to be ‘table stakes’, in that it is difficult to attain senior roles without them. But in most cases, these do not differentiate performance once in those roles … our level of meaning making does.
We pass through Stage One in early childhood, and most (but not all!) of us pass through Stage Two by the time we leave our teens. Most people enter Stage Three in their twenties. (These transitions are covered in the full article below). However, it is the transition from Stage Three to Stage Four that is so crucial for senior leaders to take, and that is highly correlated with our capacity to cope – and indeed flourish – amidst the complexity and ambiguity that comes with senior roles.
At Stage Three, people subconsciously make sense of their world – and value themselves – based on how others see them. As a result, their self-worth is predicated on meeting the needs of the important people in their lives: spouses, family, bosses, peers, direct reports and so on. This other-authored perspective makes it very difficult to navigate the challenges of senior roles, where it is impossible to keep everyone happy all the time. At Stage Three, a leader’s complexity of meaning-making typically does not match the complexity they encounter as executives, and as a result, they feel ‘in over their heads.’
By contrast, people at Stage Four are self-authored. They are driven by their own inner set of values and beliefs. While they can still see the needs and drivers of those around them (as per Stage Three) and take these into account as they make decisions; they are ultimately guided by an inner compass, and value themselves in terms of staying true to its course. This broader perspective taking capacity is more nuanced and flexible, and is far better suited to meeting the demands of executive roles.
The journey from Stage Three to Stage Four is often challenging and painful. We lose the certainty we once had, as we start to recognise the true complexity and unpredictability of the world around us. Yet in making this transition, we ultimately learn to embrace this ‘messiness’ and become far better equiped to thrive as we step up into executive positions. Organisations that can help their leaders make this transition – and that can attract those who already have – tap into a source of sustainable competitive advantage that rivals will struggle to match.
For an explanation of the full model and greater detail, read on…
Changing how we make sense of our world
Kegan’s model of adult development consists of a sequence of five stages we can go through over the course of our lives that explain how we make sense of the world around us and our place within it. His work provides a powerful lens through which to understand what it takes to be an exceptional leader in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.
Do we have it, or does it have us?
The central concept in Kegan’s model is the subject/object shift. When we are subject to something, we are not fully conscious of it and as a result, it holds power over us. For example, we’ve all experienced situations where our emotions have gotten the better of us, and where we’ve said or done something we later regret. In the moment, we weren’t having the emotion…the emotion was having us!
By contrast, when something becomes object to us, we become conscious of it, and so are able to start making choices around it and take back control. Kegan’s model is a series of subject/object shifts around how humans make sense of our own world.
Stage One: The Impulsive Mind
We pass through Stage One in early childhood, when we suddenly realise that we are a seperate entity to the world around us. There is a famous experiment where young children are instructed not to touch a bowl of chocolates in front of them. The supervisor then leaves room, saying that she’ll be away for a few minutes. Kids who have not yet made the Stage One shift tend follow the instructions, because they do not realise that other people cannot see what they see. More developed kids recognise that the supervisor has no idea what he/she is doing while out of the room, and so start tucking in!
Stage Two: The Self-Sovereign Mind
At Stage Two, we are subject to our own ego and needs. This is typical – and entirely normal – amongst teenagers. Consider the sixteen-year-old who stays out late at a party, even though she promised her parents that she’d be home at 10pm. She is subject to her own ego – in this case, her desire to have a good time – and is not able to step back in the moment and realise that her parents are going crazy with worry as they wait for her to return.
Fortunately, most of us move past this stage as we enter early adulthood. However, up to 20% of the population never fully transitions past Stage Two in their lifetimes. While it is possible to succeed in mid-level roles – particularly those that rely heavily on subject matter expertise or transactional skills – few leaders operating at the level of the Self-Sovereign Mind make it to very senior levels, and those that do tend not to thrive once they get there. Unconsciously driven by their own egos, they lack the perspective taking capacity to understand others’ motivations and needs, and see those around them as nothing more than a means to an end. This mindset is not well suited to the complex and nuanced nature of senior executive roles, where relationships matter, and little is a zero-sum game. At some point, these leaders usually trip over their own egos and flame out, and are often surprised when there is no one prepared to stand by them as they fall.
Stage Three: The Socialised Mind
Fortunately, leaders stuck in Stage Two are the exception. By our early twenties, most of us have reached Stage Three in Kegan’s model: The Socialised Mind. At this point, our own needs and desires have become object to us, and we become subject to the needs and expectations of those who are important to us. Think of this as becoming a ‘good citizen’. We want to fit in at work, at home, socially, amongst our congregation (if we are religious) and in all the other areas of our lives that matter. We work hard to please our manager and meet the goals we’ve been set. We try to meet the needs of our partner and make him or her happy at home. We stay back late to make sure we’re ready for the big presentation in the morning, because we want to ‘nail it’ for the company and the team – and in so-doing, further our careers.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Stage Three, and in fact, two thirds of adults never fully transition beyond this stage in their lives. The issue is whether the person’s complexity of meaning making is equal to the complexity they face in their role.
People operating at the level of the Socialised Mind typically struggle to cope in more senior and complex roles. This is because they are ‘other-authored’: they value themselves based on how others value them. As a result, they are driven by a need to please everyone around them that they see as important: family, friends, bosses, peers, clients and other stakeholders. There are many ways this can be expressed, from the ‘nice guy’ who doesn’t want to upset anyone, to the hard-driving achiever who will ‘do whatever it takes’, to the judgemental individual who is always the first to poke holes in others’ ideas (in order to protect the organisation overall). At Stage Three, the underlying motivation behind all of these behaviours is to meet a set of standards and expectations that are defined by others.
This is OK in more junior roles, and sometimes even in middle management. However, people at Stage Three find dealing with the highly complex and conflicting demands that come with most senior roles to be profoundly challenging and stressful. They want to keep everyone happy … but can’t … which leads them to question their own self-worth.
Consider a ‘typical’ Australian CEO of a multinational corporation. His formal boss sits in Singapore, and he also has a ‘career manager’ based in the US head office. He will be in Australia for only two to three years, and has to maintain relationships with a range of global stakeholders who will determine his next role (ideally as CEO of a larger market, such as the UK). While the heads of the three Australian business divisions report into him, they also have strong dotted lines into the regional heads of their divisions. The CEO frequently has to manage conflict between the divisions at both a regional and local level, as well as between the demands of his regional boss and the needs of the Australian business he leads. He is also the final escalation point for major local customers. His family has come to Australia with him, but his wife is having difficulty making friends and isn’t really fitting in. She’s also frustrated at the constant out-of-hours conference calls he needs to take as he stays connected to the business outside Australia.
If this CEO’s level of meaning making is still at Stage Three – the Socialised Mind – he will find it almost impossible to effectively navigate the tensions and paradoxes he faces on a day to day basis. There are simply too many competing demands to allow him to keep his key stakeholders – at work and at home – happy. It can be intolerable. A Stage Three way of reacting to this inner tension might be to simply not engage with the local workforce and stay aloof from them, taking the role of a global representative who is ‘just passing through’. Another Stage Three approach I have seen is to aggressively ‘drive’ the local team, imposing global standards and processes without listening to local concerns. And some CEO’s in this situation simply hide in their offices and try to avoid conflict altogether! None of these approaches are productive, and have a negative impact on the culture and performance of the business. The CEO’s meaning-making capacity is not sufficiently evolved to cope with the level of complexity he faces in his role. To paraphrase the title of Kegan’s landmark book, he is in over his head.
Stage Four: The Self-Authoring Mind
The major shift that allows leaders to fluidly handle the ambiguity and complexity that comes with senior roles is the shift to Stage Four, which Kegan calls the Self-Authoring Mind. At this level of development, the needs and motivations of others become object to us, and we become subject to our own inner voice. It is this internal compass that guides our actions and which determines our own sense of self.
This is a powerful shift. We are still aware of the needs and expectations of those around us, but our self-worth is no longer dependent on meeting their needs. This liberating transition is highly correlated with both effectiveness at senior executive levels and overall business performance.
If the CEO above was operating at Stage Four, he would be far more comfortable navigating the ambiguities and tensions inherent in his role. He would actively seek input from key stakeholders and gain a genuine understanding of their agendas and needs, and look for ways to meet those needs where possible, while still serving the overall business. He would then be comfortable – or at least be comfortable with being uncomfortable – in making decisions that negatively impacted some stakeholders if those decisions were in the best interests of the organisation. He would be able to communicate those decisions in a way that demonstrated compassion, while at the same time holding firm on the path forward. He would be able to defend his territory without losing his cool. If he occasionally let his anger or disappointment show, he would generally (none of us is perfect!) do so intentionally, and not because he was being controlled by his emotions. His complexity of meaning-making would be equal to the complexity he faced in his role.
A Painful Transition
This fundamental shift in meaning-making from the Socialised Mind to the Self-Authoring Mind is often painful. While we are gaining a far more powerful perspective-taking capacity, we are losing something at the same time: certainty. At Stage Three, the world seems black and white. We believe that if we simply work hard, deliver results, keep the boss happy, be a good partner, and so on, then everything should end up OK.
As we start to shift to Stage Four, that certainty falls away. We start to become more aware of paradox and complexity. Things seem murkier and less clear…because we realise that they are murkier and less clear! Many of the situations we face are quite literally impossible to predict a priori, and the only sensible way forward is to embrace that ambiguity, test the system, and then quickly course correct as needed. Concepts like ‘failing fast’, ‘being agile’ and ‘carrying out safe-to-fail experiments’ all stem from this central notion. But while people can grasp this at an intellectual level, it can feel very uncomfortable to experience, particularly during the transition from Stage Three to Stage Four. Yet the rewards are enormous at a personal, professional (and organisational) level. For many people, this is one of the defining journeys of their lives.
Encouraging the Three/Four Shift
The first step in any change process is awareness. For many leaders, simply understanding the possibility of a self-authored perspective on the world is sufficient to start – or accelerate – the transition. Small experiments, such as where the executive consciously places themselves in useful yet challenging situations, can start to normalise the idea that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. This might include speaking up with a clearly articulated view at a board or exec meeting, or proactively building a strategy to improve relationships with key stakeholders.
A common coaching brief is to help a talented leader develop greater ‘executive presence’, so that they start to ‘own’ their seat at the exec table, or become ready to step up when one becomes available. Executive presence is hard to define, and it is often thought of in behavioural terms (for example, this Forbes article shares six traits that define exec presence). However, these are outward manifestations of a deeper shift within the individual: the emerging belief that they can be self-authored. That their own views have merit. That they do belong at the top table. That self-worth is not determined by the views of others.
As an aside, The Leadership Circle’s suite of instruments are built around Kegan’s model, and they provide a rich, practical framework through which individuals, teams and organisations can start to shift the level of meaning making to the Self-Authoring stage and beyond.
The key is that the leader (or team) starts to shift their perceived locus of control from the external world to inside themselves. That they start to embrace the notion that they have the power to make decisions around how they engage with and react to their environment, based on their own inner voice, rather than being unconsciously driven by the demands of those around them. This shift dramatically increases the individual (and team’s) capacity to gracefully and effectively navigate the challenges that come with seniority.
Stage Five: The Self-Transforming Mind
Less than one percent of the population ever fully transitions to Stage Five. At this level of development, our sense of self becomes object to us, and we start to look for truths that transcend our own and others’ worldviews. Nelson Mandela’s actions upon release from South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison demonstrate this level of meaning making. Mandela and most of the people close to him – his family, friends and fellow members of the ANC, not to mention the broader black and coloured communities – had suffered terribly at the hands of the apartheid regime.
When the ANC swept to power in 1994 and apartheid ended, Mandela suddenly found himself President. He was placed under enormous pressure – including by members of his own party – to seek retribution against the white population of South Africa and mete out justice for the crimes committed by the former regime. There must surely have been some part of Mandela himself who wanted to take revenge against those who had robbed him of his freedom, and killed and tortured so many of those close to him.
And yet Mandela was able to stand firm against these pressures, including any desire within himself for vengeance. He recognised that if the country he loved was to head down the path of retribution, it would never come together. Instead, under his leadership the Truth and Reconciliation process was born, where people of every colour told their stories in public and on the record. Many members of the former regime apologised for their actions, and some were pardoned. Thanks to Mandela’s perspective taking capacity, South Africa was set upon a path that at least opened up the possibility of healing.
Einstein famously said that no problem can be solved by the same level of thinking that created it. It may well be that for humankind to address the seemingly intractable challenges we face – from the impact of climate change, to the uncertain future of a world filled with intelligent machines – we need leaders with perspective taking capacity like Mandela’s: women and men with Self-Transforming Minds.
Kegan’s stages of adult development – and particularly the shift from Stage Three to Stage Four – marks a crucial transition. Leaders with a Self-Authoring level of meaning making are far better equipped to deal with the vagaries of a VUCA world than those whose sense of self is still determined by the views of those around them. They are comfortable with being uncomfortable. They see uncertainty as a source of opportunity rather than one of fear. They are able to hold a space within which people with differing needs and opinions are able to engage in genuine dialogue, and come up with creative solutions together that typically transcend what any single individual could have come up with alone. Organisations that are able to support and encourage their leaders to make this transition – and attract and retain others who already have – will be tapping into a formidable source of competitive advantage that their less-evolved competitors will struggle to match.