In a blog about “post-traumatic growth,” I explored how our most painful life events can positively shape us as people and leaders. Healing from trauma requires that we see ourselves as capable of growing – even transforming — during the course of our adult lives.

Some believe that reaching adulthood is the culmination of surviving our adolescence. Others say that the measure of growth throughout our adult years is by how we gain more skills and knowledge. Harvard Psychologist Robert Kegan disagrees on both fronts. Instead, he offers a framework for adult development on which I’ve leaned heavily over the years.

Kegan believes that we all have the potential to change throughout our lives – and that these changes are not about becoming “smarter” (e.g., gaining more knowledge and skill) but rather, about changing the way we understand and relate to the world around us. Growing in adulthood means an evolution of consciousness.

Kegan describes five stages of development, the final three of which are most relevant to us in adulthood.

Stage 3 – Socializing Mind (developed by 58% of the adult population): My self-concept comes from how others see me. The ideas, beliefs, and norms of my family, friends, and the larger culture around me drive my choices and behavior. Personal tag-line: I am my relationships, I follow the rules.

Stage 4 – Self-Authorizing Mind (developed by 35% of the adult population): I define who I am independently of how others or the larger system see or judge me. I know what I stand for, own my emotions, and follow my own course. I see who I am as ever-changing based on the choices I make. Personal tagline: I have an identity, I make choices.

Stage 5 – Self-Transforming Mind (developed by 1% of the adult population): I am not invested in particular identities or roles. My identities and roles are constantly changing and expanding with every new interaction and experience. I can hold contradictory truths and am wary of any single “right” ideology. Personal tagline: I hold many identities, I embrace paradox.

If you lead an organization or team why should you care about a framework for adult development? Because each stage of development presents unique challenges and opens doors for you and your team of adult employees.

Research indicates that leaders who exercise Self-Authorship are better equipped to handle the demands of leadership than those with a Socializing Mind. They are more likely to challenge existing processes, inspire a shared vision, solve problems, and build relationships. However, the research also shows that Self-Authoring leaders may struggle when it comes to welcoming disagreement, separating oneself from one’s work role, tolerating ambiguity, and working in a more self-directed manner.

When it comes to running highly complex organizations or operating in conflict situations, Self-Transforming leaders typically have the capacity to mediate among multiple ideologies, individual identities, and organizational possibilities – think Nelson Mandela.

Here are three ways leaders can pursue the kind of deep growth I’ve described above:

Remember the one law.You are not a finished product! You are capable of reaching higher levels of consciousness in adulthood. Each new stage you enter represents a transformation in the way you think and make meaning in your life. Such a change also transforms the way you see yourself and show up as a leader

Get curious. Be gentle. You can train yourself to examine previously unquestioned beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. It’s helpful to adopt a stance of curiosity and self-compassion as you take more responsibility for the internal work you need to do.

Find a trusted partner. One useful avenue for growth is a trusted partner with whom you can reflect on the ways in which you make meaning of your experience. Don’t simply engage in a conversation that affirms your thoughts and feelings. Rather, find a partner willing to challenge and explore why you think the way you do.

How do you define and pursue personal growth?

Image credit: Suzanne D.Williams on Unsplash

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