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Debunking Vertical Development Myths: Later stages are 'better'
The shadow of the late stages and the archetype of the brilliant jerk
The main reason why adult (vertical) development has, in recent years, been turning from a fringe branch of developmental psychology into a hot conversation topic in organisations is the mounting evidence that ‘late-stage’ leaders are more able to effectively operate in complexity. With more developmental maturity comes more capacity to entertain competing perspectives, collaborate and share power effectively, reflect, integrate feedback non-defensively and sustain mental clarity in an environment that is increasingly fraught with disruption. The evidence that later-stage leaders are generally more effective in their roles, especially in contexts of change, is compelling - and if you’re curious to see a summary of existing research, check out this article:
While the benefits of vertical development are quite exciting and hope-giving for all of us who believe our world badly needs more mature and conscious humans, it’s quite easy to get starry-eyed and start imagining vertical development as a silver bullet for great performance, or some straight-line to wisdom and mistakenly think of late-stage leaders as some superheroes who are going to sort out the mess we’ve collectively gotten ourselves into. If only things were so simple!
I’m often seeing organisations looking for programs that might ‘fast-track’ the vertical development of their leaders - preferably directly into the very late stages - such as ‘Transforming’ - without the mess and pain of going through the previous, transitional stages - such as ‘Redefining’ (learn more about each stage here and here). And for every client request, there will be a supplier promising they can ‘transform’ leaders. Three big assumptions are implied in this dynamic - all of which I believe to be demonstrably false (and if perpetuated, damaging to the whole adult development field and limiting its real potential to support growth and change).
The first is the assumption that the late stages are automatically ‘better’ and that people operating from those mature planes of development are automatically wiser than the average person.
The second assumption is that some sort of recipe exists for fostering vertical development. Following that, it is assumed that experts who hold that ‘recipe’ can just come into an organisation, apply the ‘magic formula’ and ‘transform’ people.
The third assumption is that vertical development happens in isolation - that it’s solely a function of the individual who can keep on growing regardless of the context/system they are embedded in.
Perhaps it is these unfortunate assumptions floating around in the business/consulting space that motivated quite vocal criticism of adult development theories of late. Unfortunately, in rightfully calling out the falsity of these assumptions, said critics ignore the fact that all serious developmental researchers had been already dismissing these same assumptions for a long time. It seems somehow that all words of caution from academics who study adult development end up being drowned by the commercial hype. Lots of oversimplified and exaggerated statements are thrown around, often obscuring the science, which is always more reserved in the promises it makes. In their outrage and rush to crush the hype, critics often end up dismissing the whole field of adult development (with all its genuine value) and thus end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I think neither idealistic hype nor blanket criticism are useful - neither teach us anything, nor help us investigate and test genuine new pathways for fostering wiser human beings.
I believe we learn much more from staying curious about nuances rather than sticking to the broadest brushstrokes, so here’s my best attempt to unpack each of these false assumptions - every one in a separate article. I’ll try to take out the heavy academic language, but preserve the rigour. I aim to explore both the potential and the limitations of vertical development and and perhaps show you that, even without being a silver bullet, this lens on consciousness evolution remains a fascinating field to study (and turn into practice) and does hold immense potential for helping us reinvent the way we learn and grow as human beings.
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Myth 1: Later stages of adult development are ‘better’
Elaine Herdman Barker, a foremost developmental researcher and practitioner, reminds us of the dangers of idealising the late stages.
(…) it is this urgency we feel toward the many endeavors we face including climate change, the global economy, and widespread violence (Knefel, 2015) that propels some of the fervor alive in developmental consulting today: transform to later action logics to “save the planet”, “save the organization”, “save the market”! Some consulting firms are explicitly devoted to ‘creating’ more leaders at this Transforming action logic. Yet in our monetization of development and the drive for Transformational leadership we’d be well advised to remember the balance of yin yang. For, ironically, we may find ourselves caught in the dogma of eras gone by, that of believing that there is a prescriptive way out of the problems we have wrought; holding to a simplistic hierarchical notion of leadership capability, belittling the worth of one end of the development “scale,” deifying the other and so obscuring the complexities of the developmental process.
Extract from: Elaine Herdman Barker “Imperfect beauty: Hierarchy and Fluidity in Leadership Development”
When I started my own research I fell for a short while in thrall with the late stages. I did allow myself to imagine a world full of post-conventional leaders who seek not just profit, but purpose; not just performance, but the wellbeing of their teams and who care not just about making money, but about helping the planet and making the world a better place. I vividly remember a conversation with Elaine, who tempered my enthusiasm with just a few wise words:
“Alis, just because someone is a very complex thinker, it doesn’t automatically mean they will put their complexity in the service of doing good in the world.”
Think of that intelligent leader, able to connect the dots faster than anybody else around them, but who seems to have little self-regulation, is prone to bouts of anger and toxic behaviours in the workplace.
Consider the charismatic, inspirational leader, able to light up rooms of hundreds of people, create compelling visions of change and who then fails at implementing that same change because of their inability to collaborate and their addiction to hero-leadership and doing it all alone.
Consider the expert, who is recognised as an innovator in their field and praised for their valuable contribution, who gets so attached to the product/framework/theory they created that they cannot tolerate any alternative views, criticism or contrary opinions and rigidly sticks to the ‘one truth’ - their own.
Consider the incredibly knowledgeable individual who takes up the whole space in every conversation, never pausing to listen, ask a question or show any trace of interest in the other people in the room.
Consider the beloved leader who might have started a movement, followed and revered by thousands, who is then proven to have abused their power and acted unethically.
Any of those people, if tested with a developmental assessment tool, would be assessed at the very late stages of development. They are likely very complex thinkers, articulate, able to conceptualise and discuss competing ideas and perspectives. They are sophisticated in their interpersonal capacity - deftly reading the room and skilfully communicating in compelling ways. And yet none of these aspects of late-stage development guarantees that these individuals are also humble, generous, moral or able to act with integrity when their personal interests dictate otherwise.
So how come do late-stage people become ‘brilliant jerks’?
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A developmental lens on that question invites to look deeper than the stages themselves. Underneath each stage run a multitude of lines of development - themes, threads or vectors - that develop asynchronously - some faster, some slower - and collectively contribute to the developmental capacity of the individual.
Ken Wilber has done more than most to illuminate what these lines of development are and inform our understanding of how they inter-twine to make us who we are. He distinguishes over a dozen lines, including cognitive, emotional, self-identity, moral/ethical, interpersonal, intrapersonal. Other researchers, such as Bill Torbert, zoom in on lines particularly relevant to leadership and organisational life - such as time and power.
I’ve written about lines before and plan to devote a whole series of articles exploring each one in turn, as I believe there is no way we can ever gain a more nuanced understanding of human development if we don’t look at these threads making up the intricate tapestry of who we are as humans.
Lines and Stages in Vertical Development: Why Assessments and Coaching Models Are Valuable Maps, But NOT The Territory
For the purposes of debunking the myth - ‘late stages are better’ - suffice to say that not all late-stage people are the same. Imagine two leaders both assessed at the ‘Transforming’ stage of development (in Bill Torbert’s version of the stages). Both have a highly developed cognitive line - able to grasp complex concepts, connect seemingly disparate ideas in novel ways, perceive and work with paradox and polarities. One of them also has a highly developed (so called ‘post-conventional’) moral line, is motivated by universal values and embraces a world-centric worldview, which pushes them to act with integrity and uphold the highest ethical standards in their work. The other one’s moral line is less developed, functioning at the conventional level - they are more motivated by performing in the context of their own team/organisation - with less concern for the systemic impact of their actions.
Now imagine the first leader is also highly self-aware and has a highly developed emotional line - so they are able to inquire into their own thoughts/feelings with ease, but also able to sit with the emotions of others and lean into emotionally charged conversations. The second leader on the other hand is less in touch with their emotions and prefers to inhabit a highly cognitive space, where they feel most comfortable. So they are less likely to be aware of their emotional impact on others and tends to avoid difficult conversations that might bring out any kind of intense emotions.
Finally, imagine the first leader’s ‘self-regulation’ line is as developed as their self-awareness line - they are able to observe themselves in action and regulate their emotions and reactions in real time. The second leader, meanwhile, is not as good at self-regulation. They might have trouble reacting constructively when triggered, which leads to snappy behaviours and at times impulsive decisions under pressure.
While both these leaders might be highly effective in their roles, their capacity to respond with wisdom - which, in most definitions, assumes an orientation towards the common good - might be very different. The first ‘transforming-stage’ leader might just be wiser than the second.
We could explore many more combinations of lines and ways in which the asynchronicity of various lines plays out in the unique context of each individual. Add to this the messiness of gravitational pulls from organisational culture or social context - which in itself skews how individuals show up - and you realise that ‘late-stage’ does help people see more and be more, but does not not automatically guarantee more humanity. That is something we each have to really work for every single day, all while recognising how much of what we are is dictated by context/system, versus our own individual choice/will.
Even the most developmentally evolved people have their shadow.
I believe that by acknowledging this simple truth we might just clear the path towards more sustainable growth and take off the pressure and the expectation for ‘late-stage’ people to somehow be ‘better than’. It might also take off some of the pressure to ‘grow’ everyone into the later stages and orient our efforts in the learning and development space towards supporting people to honour, integrate and skilfully embody the full extent of their present developmental repertoire, without feeling like they need to rush towards some glorious end-goal.
In my own work with leaders, I notice how often the biggest lessons are found when a person turns towards the ‘darker corners’, disowned and neglected parts of self. The parts they might be ashamed of, reject or project onto others instead of acknowledging in self. Highly intelligent and mature leaders often put extraordinary pressure on themselves to be ‘at their best’ all the time. There is a certain fear of vulnerability, of the bad days and immature versions of ourself. But it is precisely in those bad days and those immature selves that further growth is often hiding. It is in the moments of fallback that the seeds of a bigger self can be found.
I am also reflecting how crucial it is to look at individuals in the context of the systems (family/work/society) they are embedded in. No-one grows and evolves in isolation and honouring both individual AND system (versus just one or the other) is, I believe, crucial in finding more sustainable and scalable ways to foster development. But that leads us into another myth - of development as function of the individual alone - and is a topic which deserves its own separate article.
So what are you noticing about your own lines of development? What are your ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ lines? What enables you to show up as the most mature version of yourself? When do you notice the ‘smaller’ selves pop up? What is your shadow - which corner of yourself are you most afraid to look into? Do you know ‘brilliant jerks’ or perhaps even catch yourself becoming one from time to time? If yes, when and how does that archetype appear in your life and what might it teach you in service of a wiser you?