Leaders in over their heads

In this post, our CEO Louise Kovacs talks about adult developmental theory and its application to leadership development.

Many of you may be familiar with Piaget’s theory of mental development that mapped out the hierarchical stages of cognitive development of children until they reach adulthood; what Piaget called abstract or formal operations. Now a number of developmental theorists have identified that our mental development does not stop when it reaches the stage of abstract reasoning, but in fact continues throughout adulthood.  Each stage represents an increasingly complex and coherent stage of reasoning and meaning-making, enabling adults to be more strategic, deal with more complexity and become more adaptable.

The contribution of adult development theory to leadership theory

I became interested in this approach to adult development when reviewing the literature for my doctorate study to understand what capabilities are required for leaders to navigate complexity effectively.  Adult development theories provide one way of thinking about developing leaders to be more effective in today’s complex business environment.

There are a number of adult developmental theorists including Robert Kegan, Bill Torbert, and Susanne Cook-Greuter and their theories are largely similar.  I am most familiar with the work of Dr Cook-Greuter, having studied with her last year. Since then I have found her approaches to leadership development to be of great use and I believe to be the missing element of many development programmes.

Leaders in over their heads

Why is this important for today’s leaders?  In order to be able to lead an organisation effectively, the leader needs to be able to match the complexity of their role.  Torbert and Cook-Greuter have identified seven levels of leadership associated with the seven stages of adult development.  Bill Torbert’s research found that most leaders’ stage of adult development did not equip them to handle the level of complexity of their roles.  In fact, only 15 per cent of the leaders scored in the three later stages of adult development; the level at which they are able to successful lead organisational changes, integrate diverse perspectives and bridge the gaps between performance and their strategic objectives.

Current executive education and many leadership programmes are good at developing leaders up to level four, the Achiever stage.  You will find many Achievers in senior leadership roles as their stage of development is ideal for setting and achieving goals, juggling managerial tasks and understanding marketdemands.   Where these leaders run into trouble is when an organisation requires organisational change or transformation.

Leadership development needs the adult developmental perspective

Many organisations need leaders who are capable of leading multiple change and expansion programmes and it is concerning that according to this perspective we are lacking in leaders at the required level of adult development. The good news is that leadership development professionals can modify their development programmes to incorporate the necessary activities to stimulate development to later stages.  This requires a focus not on skills and knowledge, but on greater levels of self-awareness, of awareness of the systems and beliefs that have made the leader whom they are today and exposure to people at a later stage to them.

This has implications for many coaches and leadership consultants. In order to be truly effective in developing leaders they also need to be aware of their own level of development and the contribution they can make to the leaders with whom they are engaging.