The maturity of a leader can be instructive in their ability to guide their organization and adapt to a constantly changing business environment. Developmental psychologists are in agreement that the best leaders are not necessarily the ones with the most formal training, but rather the ones who have the ability to make meaning from the events and people surrounding them.
A person’s stage of adult development has a major impact on how they interact with other people, how they deal with adversity, conflict and other complex matters. I've found that an individual’s stage of meaning-making in this context is more powerful in explaining differences in their behavior than personality traits and intelligence combined.
There are dozens of assessment instruments being used today to assess the behavior and personality of an individual, but the most insightful of them are the survey tools that assess the mental growth of an individual in the logical sequence of “stages” or “action logic."
Testing for an individual’s stage of adult development is complicated. These surveys are generally expensive and hard to administer because they involve a sentence completion survey tool where participants are given the beginning of a phrase and are then asked to complete the sentence using their own words and thoughts. The process of scoring the survey is time-consuming and not automated. It involves highly trained evaluators using an extremely thick manual to decode how the participant interprets their actions and world around them.
Before describing the stages, there are some basic concepts that you must understand. First is that the next stage can only be achieved by mastering the current stage. Growth happens in a logical and vertical sequence. An individual can only progress to the next stage (referred to as vertical transformation) after they have added the skills and knowledge necessary to master the stage they are currently at (lateral or horizontal growth).
Once a stage has been achieved, it remains part of that person forever, even when they progress to a later stage. A person who has reached a later stage can understand people at an earlier stage but generally cannot fully relate to another person at a later stage.
The seven developmental stages are known by various names, and it is beyond the scope of this article to give you a thorough understanding of adult developmental theory, but a quick examination of each of the stages will give you a good understanding of the framework.
1. Leaders in the earliest stage of adult development are referred to as self-centric, or opportunists. According to one study, fortunately, only 5% or less of leaders surveyed were in this stage, where their focus is on their own needs and where they see the world and people as an opportunity to be exploited. For opportunists, needs rule impulses.
2. When an opportunist vertically transforms, they become group-centric, or a diplomat. At this stage, norms rule needs. A leader seeks to belong, obeys group norms and works to bring people together. Diplomats constitute about 11% of the leadership workforce, usually at junior levels where they can be problematic since they seek to avoid conflict and find it difficult to deliver feedback.
3. The largest cohort of adult stage development is the skill-centric, or experts, who comprise about 37% of the adult workforce. Experts use “craft logic” to rule norms with a focus on their expertise, procedure and efficiency. They attempt to exercise control by perfecting their knowledge but also suffer when their perfectionism gets them stuck in the details.
4. The achievers are also referred to as self-determining and constitute about 30% of the adult population. Generally, these people are managers who challenge and support their teams with an attitude focused on delivery of results rather than efficiency only, including unorthodox approaches. They willingly accept feedback and are self-critical.
5. Moving into the higher, post-conventional stages are the individualists,who are also described as self-questioning. Approximately 11% of the adult leadership population can understand the relatively abstract relationship between themselves and the system they operate in. They question their own assumptions, often ignore rules they regard as irrelevant and have the ability to adjust behavior to context. Individualists also begin to seek out and value feedback.
6. Strategists are also known as self-actualizing in the way they make meaning. Representing only 5% of the adult population, these individuals treat organizational constraints and perceptions as discussable and transformable. They have the uncanny ability to create shared visions across individuals with totally different action logics. Strategists have a focus on linking theory and principals with practice all in the context of dynamic systems interactions.
7. The final and highest level of adult development theory only represents less than 2% of the various studies that have been performed. These individuals are identified by various names, including magician, alchemist or construct-aware. They have an extraordinary capacity to simultaneously handle multiple complex tasks while working with both chaos and order. They focus intently on transforming themselves and others in real time.
The above framework gives us a chance to understand how people interpret events and how they may respond in certain circumstances. Those who are dedicated to lifelong learning can embrace this knowledge to become more self-aware and transform the capabilities of themselves and those around them.
It is very important to note that there is absolutely no evidence that achieving a higher stage makes life happier or easier. People in later stages can deal with more complexity and adapt their behavior to a situation a little easier. But in no circumstance should one believe that they need to evolve to another stage to be more personally fulfilled.
The article originally was published on Forbes.com and has been reposted with the permission of the author.
About the Author
David Galowich s a Leadership Coach, the Founder and CEO of Terra Firma Leadership LLC where he pursues his passion of being a catalyst in the professional and personal development of the people he interacts with. As a Vistage Chair, David facilitates monthly CEO Peer Advisory Group meetings and individually coaches CEO members to become better leaders, make better decisions and achieve better results.
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