The stages of adult learning and their links to leadership

Paul Slezak

Over the last month I have worked in 11 different time zones. 

In some places, the time difference didn’t affect me at all, and I slept perfectly. But I have to admit there were a few nights when the jet lag hit hard, and I wasn’t sure how I would possibly function the following day in front of a group of eager learners. But I pushed on and I’m pretty sure I made it through all my workshops without falling asleep with my eyes open! 

There was one night (I honestly can’t remember where I was!) when I had gone to bed exhausted at around 10pm and by midnight I was already wide awake again. At 2am, it was pretty clear that the mindfulness breathing exercises that had worked in the past weren’t delivering results, so I decided to listen to a podcast that a colleague had recommended on ‘what makes someone coachable’. I figured it would either put me to sleep, or I would learn something. A win either way! 

Whilst I had read about Robert Kegan’s framework of adult development in the past, it was interesting to hear the podcast host and his guest do more of a deep dive into the five development stages or “orders of mind”:  

  • the impulsive mind (early childhood);
  • the instrumental or imperial mind (primarily adolescence and 6% of the adult population);
  • the socialised mind (supposedly 58% of the adult population);  
  • the self-authoring mind (35% of the adult population); and
  • the self-transforming mind (1% of the adult population).

The discussion reinforced that Dr Robert Kegan (a former Harvard psychologist) believed that about 65% of the general population never become high functioning ‘adults’ – i.e. we never actually make it past stage 3 (out of 5 stages). His research showed that we still lack an independent sense of self because so much of what we think, believe, and feel is dependent on how we think others experience us.

I certainly appreciated why this framework could help to understand ‘what makes someone coachable’. But even in my highly jet lagged state, I started to make a connection between Kegan’s stages of adult development and leadership and how particularly the socialised mind and self-authoring mind can provide valuable insights into the qualities and approaches that effective leaders embody. 

The socialised mind represents the stage of adult development where individuals rely heavily on external sources of authority and conform to societal norms and expectations.  

They are good at working within existing systems and creating a positive work environment, however individuals with a socialised mind may exhibit certain characteristics that impact their effectiveness as leaders. 

Leaders in the socialised mind stage are typically skilled at following established rules and procedures and maintaining stability within their team or organisation. They excel and leading teams within an existing framework but will often prioritise harmonious relationships and be resistant to change, as they perceive deviations from established norms as a threat to stability.  

The socialised mindset can hinder innovation and limit a leader’s ability to adapt to dynamic environments. 

On the other hand, the self-authoring mind represents the stage of adult development where individuals take ownership of their decisions and actions, develop a greater sense of autonomy and self-awareness and strive to create a psychologically safe environment for their team members.  

Leaders in this stage are more independent and authentic in their approach. They have the ability to set and pursue their own vision and inspire others to do the same. They encourage critical thinking, challenge the status quo, and explore new possibilities. Above all, they promote a growth mindset, and create an environment that supports experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from failure. They are comfortable with uncertainty and adapt quickly to change which is an important trait for those aspiring to become adaptive leaders in today’s VUCA climate. 

While leaders with a self-authoring mind possess numerous qualities that contribute to effective leadership, they may face challenges in collaborating with individuals who are still in earlier stages of development.  

Therefore, they may need to adjust their leadership style and provide more support and guidance to their team members progress along their own development journey. 

It's important to note that these stages are not fixed categories or labels for leaders. After all, a leader can move or transition through these stages depending on the context and their own personal and professional growth. However, understanding these stages can help us appreciate the different strengths and qualities that leaders can bring to the table while at the same time highlighting the significance of leading at the learning edge

While having a self-authoring mind can bring valuable qualities to leadership, it doesn’t mean that individuals at any of the earlier stages in Kegan’s framework can’t be good leaders.  

What about the most ‘advanced’ stage of Kegan’s framework? The self-transforming mind – supposedly achieved by only 1% of the adult population?  

Leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama are said to have had a self-transforming mind. However, researchers in the field of organisational psychology typically refer to only a handful of leaders in the business world who operate(d) at this advanced stage of adult development. It is said that Sir Richard Branson, Anita Roddick – the late founder of The Body Shop, and Paul Polman – the former CEO of Unilever demonstrated a self-transforming mind by exhibiting a high level of complexity of thinking. 

With all these points in mind, it’s clear that effective leadership can in fact be demonstrated at any stage of adult development. 

Understanding the connection between Robert Kegan’s stages of adult development and leadership can provide valuable insights into the qualities and approaches that effective leaders embody.  

If you are a leader reading this piece, what stage of adult development are you in, and more importantly, where do you aspire to be? 

Remember, Hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, helping leaders move from having a socialised mind to a self-authoring mind … and perhaps even a self-transforming mind.