Stages of adult development - where are you on the journey to Purposeful Leadership? | Learning & Development | Primeast

I recently interviewed my colleague, Gary Edwards, a Primeast founding director and Client Partner with 30 years experience designing and running development programmes around the world. I wanted to share his thoughts on the stages of adult development as described by many thought leaders, including Robert Kegan and Jennifer Garvey Berger as shown below.

Stages of Adult Development

Stage 1: Impulsive mind - early childhood

Stage 2: Imperial mind - adolescence, 6% of adult population

Stage 3: Socialised mind - 58% of the adult population

Stage 4: Self-Authoring mind - 35% of the adult population

Stage 5: Self-Transforming mind - 1% of the adult population

Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey – Immunity to Change

I want to focus on some of the thoughts triggered by our conversation – especially with regard to the practical implications for Purposeful Leadership. I started by asking Gary to share his own life experiences that may have contributed to profound personal development.

He talked about travel, adventure, being involved in expeditions with Operation Raleigh, his involvement as a scout leader, a rugby coach and working with big corporates around the world as a Primeast facilitator. It is clear these experiences with people from different backgrounds, cultures and sectors gave Gary a broad outlook on the world.

Experiences drive our purpose

Totally unprompted, Gary explained that this context contributed in no small way to his personal purpose of “helping people expand their skills and self-confidence in order to make a bigger difference”. Anyone working closely with Gary, as I have for about twenty years, would witness this playing out in all aspects of his life – at work, at home and in the community.

Higher doesn't always mean better

Gary explained the difference between progressing through the stages in adult development (or mindset) often described as “vertical development” and the accumulation of new skills, “horizontal development” but he also cautions on thinking that in “vertical development” higher is in any way better.

We develop according to our context and the needs of the moment. He also affirms the importance of self-reflection to appraise where we are on our journey and how we are responding to life’s challenges. This is one of the key features of progressing beyond the socialised mind - Stage 3.

As we move to self-authoring, we develop the ability to examine ourselves objectively and change in order to be more effective and more resilient - as opposed to just going with the flow of society. We are also no longer at the mercy of past ‘programming’ and the scripts we inherited from our ancestors.

In self-transforming - Stage 5 - we are also choosing how we see our world and our place, alongside others, in its evolution. Gary’s personal journey has clearly supported his ability to do this.

Who we think we are and how we see our world

My hypothesis for Purposeful Leadership is that our purpose comes from the energetic reaction between who we think we are and how we choose to see the world. And progression through the stages of adult development is a great facilitator of purposeful leadership, giving us choice regarding our contribution as part of humanity – and our ability to take others on the journey with us.

Reactive and Creative leadership

There is a further link to the work of Bob Anderson and Bill Adams as documented in their wonderful book “Scaling Leadership”. In explaining how leaders can develop the capacity to lead “at scale”, Anderson and Adams draw a fundamental distinction between “reactive” and “creative” leadership. As the label suggests, creative leadership is more about considered behaviour and less about being impulsive. See The 5 creative competencies you need to succeed.

I like the way Otto Scharmer describes the sort of listening required for transformational leadership. He uses the term “generative” listening – being open to new ideas, the feelings of others and conscious of a wider system, within which a new future is emerging.

Anderson and Adams have usefully given us a method for measuring a leader’s creative capability and mapping against their reactive tendencies. The method is well researched, taking account of the thought leaders previously mentioned.

Creative leadership is proven to correlate to improved leadership performance and is a key methodology in Primeast’s Prime Leadership development portfolio .

With all the above in mind, I invite you to be inspired by Gary’s narrative which you can watch here. I personally found it helpful to listen a second time and then to pause for personal reflection.

Personal reflection

I found myself asking, and answering, the following questions and invite you to do the same:

  1. What are the personal experiences that provided the greatest growth for you?
  2. To what extent was each one purposefully chosen by you or simply a quirk of fate?

  3. How did these experiences affect your world view?

  4. How did these experiences affect your sense of who you are?

  5. Considering your sense of who you are today and how you now see the world, what personal purpose(s) emerge for you?

  6. What plans do you have to create further opportunities for your personal development?

As a leader, make a list of some of the key people you lead. How can you create, facilitate or encourage opportunities for their growth?

First published by Clive on LinkedIn in Nov 2020.

Further resources

For anyone new to the concept of adult development as expressed by these thought leaders, you may enjoy this podcast from Robert Kegan: The Five Stages of Adult Development and Why You Probably Aren't at Stage 5.

Jennifer Garvey Berger's video Adult Development Map.

For resources to share, read Understanding your Purpose and Why it Matters by Sarah Cave.

You can go straight into our virtual workshop Understanding your Purpose, to start your journey of self-discovery.

Start with a short Leadership Challenge Assessment.

Begin a conversation about your leadership development or development opportunities for your organisation, you can email Clive Wilson here. Or call us on +44 (0) 1423 531083.

About the Author


Clive Wilson

Clive is an enthusiastic writer, keynote speaker, facilitator and Primeast coach, whose main focus is the purposeful alignment and leadership of individuals, teams, organisations and communities.

Experienced in working with leaders and groups of absolutely any size across the world, Clive is committed to organisational sustainability in service of a better world

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