Leadership Development for the Bold

Your Instabilities Are a Good Thing, and So Are Other People’s

For many of us, the experience of adulthood involves what I call  “completion projects” in The Elegant Self.  Completion projects are our unexamined drives to become (or appear) more whole and complete. Because they are unexamined, they are the unseen agendas that appear to have most of us.

Adult Development expert Dr. Robert Kegan refers to what has us as that which we are subject to. This is in contrast to what we hold as objects in our experience. Objects are  what we have, or can manage as parts of our experience. On the other hand, what is subject is a pervading quality throughout all our experience.


For most of us, our completion projects are not objects in our attention but are actually part of the subjective fabric of our identities. Completion projects, in their various flavors and forms, are part of who we are that is doing the looking, thinking, deciding and acting. These projects often mediate us.  Our completion project isn’t the kind of explicit undertaking you have at work, which you can work on, then put down to go home or engage another project. For most of us, completion projects are the operative norms behind most of what we do in our waking lives.

Wholeness and completeness are intoxicating ideas.  As experiences, they become even more seductive. When we complete large initiatives in our lives, we tend to relax. Whether it’s  completing a new certificate program, getting a degree, landing a new job, or being chosen  for a key promotion, there’s a sense of finishing what has been challenging us in meaningful ways. With the validation of the completed accomplishment, our nervous systems relax as we release the gas pedal of effort and action. Once achieving a completion, there’s a sense of greater wholeness. These experiences are fleeting, but enjoyable. We expand, we feel bigger, and we hold more in our interiors as we peer upon what’s now both inside of us and behind us.

What completion projects reveal is how we weave narratives that illuminate our biases toward stability. Socially it makes sense to be predictable. We are often rewarded for being consistent. The more stable we appear, the more trust people grant us. When we present a steady and stable self, we  gain social capital. In all of these instances, the  quiet and pervading agenda to present ourselves as more whole and complete is at work.

Although our conceptions of ourselves tend to privilege wholeness, developmental research reveals we operate far from this stable, predictable self. Decades of research conducted by Kurt Fisher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education reveals that who you are, and what you are capable of is always embedded in social, cultural and environmental contexts. These shifting surroundings change the ways you know yourself. And, changes in conditions around you shift what you can and can’t do.

This means that in reality, we are always in constant flux—despite the allure of our bias for stability. This sense of being in constant flux is heightened when we peer into our developing aptitudes. Looking at how we step into new capabilities, we’ll find that our personal and/or professional lives are often demanding that we find a different landscape. When growing new skills, our abilities need to fluctuate. Sometimes these fluctuations are dramatic. With these changes in ability, our sense of self fluctuates, While our ability to perform a given skill set can become more consistent  in varying contexts, the path of development is littered with instabilities as we vacillate between old ways of functioning and new emerging skills we likely need. While stability may be a consequence of practice, and may even be something we value highly, we ought not over-value it against instability. Because our instability is actually a sign that we are growing.

If  we are to more readily develop ourselves, we are all wise to welcome our instabilities. It may even be to our advantage to encourage and actively seek out our instabilities, because these areas may yield important developmental adaptations over time.  So it’s important to put down our completion projects and suspend the drive to consolidate identity around our competence and more fixed skill sets. We can be kinder to our own and to other people’s growing edges, where we risk  feeling inadequate, insecure and uncertain.

If you’re committed to being a more capable, compassionate and influential human being, and if you also want to support  other people to  generate more goodness, truth and beauty, then allow yourself to fall into the unknown contours of what’s next—and what’s just out of reach. Allow yourself to let go into the free fall of not being entirely certain about who you are. The rewards might just be a more elegant life for all of us.

Rob McNamara
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self
Faculty & Coach, Integral Facilitator Certificate Program

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Feeling Good About Yourself?

I remember doing my first graduate lecture on the further reaches of adult development close to fifteen years ago. I stood up in front of a classroom of people, all whom were older than me, and began my lecture. It was an intense ride. I couldn’t feel much of anything that was going on in the students I was presenting to.

Me, I was too busy attending to the conceptual distinctions in my own mind. I was busy sharpening my intellect. Soon after finishing I could dimly see the aftermath. It was as if an intellectual gatling gun had gone off for the better part of three hours. Metaphorically, you could say I pulled the trigger and didn’t let go until the very end of class. Sure, I opened it up for questions, but my ability to be present and make heartfelt contact with the students in front of me was many years off in my own maturity.


Instead of feeling my own anxiety and uncertainty, I chose to attend rigorously to the sharp and nuanced distinctions in my conceptual world. Instead of acknowledging the nervousness in my hands and the fluttering in my gut, I turned my attention to the multilayered relationships between various theories of adult development. I wanted to deliver unparalleled resolution on the subject matter. And attending to my intellectual prowess was a lot easier than accepting and attending to my embodied sensations of inadequacy and uncertainty.

I share this brief flashback for one reason: I was profoundly wrong in one of my orientations. Then, I taught adult development from a purely conceptual vantage point. Now, I approach development entirely differently.

Today, every lecture I give on adult development comes with a caveat. From the beginning, I encourage my audiences to pay careful attention to their intellectual appetite for ever-refining conceptual distinctions. I caution my audiences—being consumed by these conceptual growth narratives can erode both your well-being and your sense of happiness.

That usually gets people’s attention.

After all, it’s not common for an expert on adult development to tell you that their theories may have negative impacts on happiness and overall well being. But in fact, that’s what some of the research tells us.

While development itself does generally lead to richer, more rewarding lives, when it primarily unfolds as  cognitive or intellectual development, things tend to take a turn for the worse.
Sadly, I’ve met far too many people who have loaded up their intellect with a tremendous arsenal of conceptual distinctions. Meanwhile, these ideas and the mental identities that tend to constellate around them remain divorced from their embodiment.

And, related to that, the quality of their relationships remains untouched by these lofty ideas.
They search for people who can commune with them in their disembodied abstractions. “If only I could find more people who are like me.”

It’s not uncommon for individuals caged in their conceptual developmental narratives to wholeheartedly believe they have outgrown the relationships around them. One of the more hilarious narratives I’ve come across is the belief that a person has more or less developmentally outgrown where humanity presently is.

This of course skips an all important point. Rarely if ever does this narrative inquire into another person’s experience to see how they might be able to serve someone else in the moment.
At least in my own mind if I had sincerely outgrown much of humanity, I might at least extend a helping hand, right?

One of the more ironic forms of this I’ve seen is in highly cognitively developed individuals who have crafted personally-tailored embodiment philosophies. Intellectually, some of us realize we can’t be just a mental symbolic self. So, the next best thing is to intellectually narrate a conceptual integration of embodiment philosophies. The next thing we know, there’s some serious high powered intellectual discourse happening about the body. Unfortunately these conceptual narratives about the body often have little impact on embodiment.

The complexity of developmental movement does not change year-in and year-out, even though the stories we rehearse mentally become more complex.

George Vaillant, one of the magnificent researchers in Harvard’s longitudinal Grant Study on life-long adult development, states in his most recent book, “Maturity makes liars us of all.”

Keep that in mind. Our developmental narratives are often imbued with distortions and flat-out lies to give us the sense that we are developing. How many of us put ourselves “above average?” How many of us are intoxicated by narratives proposing that we are either more or less developed that we actually are? Let’s stop fooling ourselves. Our stories are incredibly important—their integrative scope matters—but our lives are bigger than any story that can be told.

When we look critically at how all-consuming our narratives are to us, it’s easy to see how well-being can quickly start to erode because of an over-reliance on conceptual narratives about development:
Our developmental ideas grab hold of identity. Embodiment often suffers, and we tend to craft narratives that we’re outgrowing the very relationships our culture depends on.

That’s not good. Furthermore, we see systemic developmental limitations all around us. While we can dream up extraordinary ideas of what’s possible, we all too often remain impotent at igniting the cultural shifts our overly complex minds can see.

It’s a nasty place to get stuck. It’s a painful place to get stuck.

As I explore development in my leadership coaching, professional trainings and various teaching and speaking engagements, the dimension I focus on is embodied growth narratives.

These developmental distinctions are not rooted in more complex ideas. While I still find conceptual growth themes important, they are secondary to having a rich embodied understanding of the various stages of development. Instead of placing concepts first, this teaching methodology is grounded in the deepening felt sense of your own life.

The researcher who opened my eyes to this all-important distinction is Jack Bauer. (Not to be confused with the action hero Jack Bauer from the TV show 24.)

Bauer the devoted student, author, professor and researcher of adult development maintains, “only experiential growth narratives, not intellectual growth narratives, correlate with well-being.”
If you want greater well-being, then you should be seeking qualitative changes in the felt texture of your own sense of aliveness. Want greater happiness? Bauer explains, “Participants at the highest stage of ego development appeared to be happier and more focused on experiential growth than participants at lower stages.”

A simple way to understand the distinction I’m advocating for is this:
Experiential growth narratives reveal an increasing capacity to feel good about yourself and a broader ability to love the people around you.

In other words, reaching beyond complexity we find elegance.

No complex theories. No super-abstract distinctions. Some of the highest stages of development we know of, which are correlated with your greater well-being and happiness, come with a larger ability to love yourself and the many people around you.

Find a part of you that isn’t liked? That’s your growing edge. Find someone who you don’t love? There’s your developmental limitation.

Pursuing development is a deeply wise investment. There are very few things more valuable to invest in. However, in my experience the intellectual dimensions are the easiest. Don’t forget about the living felt textures of your experience right now in this sentence. Don’t look past the next person you relate to. Your further development and the securing of greater well-being and a broader—perhaps even “unconditioned”— happiness depends on it.

Rob McNamara
Harvard University Teaching Fellow
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self

Rob McNamara’s premiere developmental audio learning program, Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work, is now available. Learn More.

crossposted from TenDirections.com
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The 80/80 Principle




The 80/80 principle is simple. 80 percent of upper level management have higher levels of mental development. And, 80 percent of junior managers have junior levels of mental development. 

While the intersection of development and leadership is a complex topic, if we look at these findings from orbit, we can see a clear pattern. Over time higher levels of mental development outperform, outmaneuver and generate greater influence than less complex minds. More developed minds are promoted again and again. And, this pattern holds up across industries

Why? 

The simplicity beyond this highly complex issue might say something along the lines of, "Developmental complexity always increases choices." As Robert Kegan, my colleague and professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard maintains, what one stage cannot see, presumes to be an given, and is unquestioned becomes a choice at the next stage of development.

The simplest way I teach this is to talk about babies before they are potty trained. Before, their minds cannot see their impulses to pee. Why? Because they are their impulses. When a baby has to pee, he or she pees. It's as simple as that. At the next stage of development, impulses become an object to a now more developed mind. With development comes choices. Greater choice often yields greater efficiencies whether we are talking about potty training or steering a multinational corporation. As my book The Elegant Self maintains, more developed minds are capable of more effective action. 

In light of this evidence, how are you facilitating your own mental development? How are you growing your leadership capacities in an ongoing way? And, for those of you at the top, don't get comfortable. Developmental researchers are finding youth who are accessing quite extraordinary levels of mental complexity. In some cases our up and coming star performers are achieving levels of development that took today's leadership elite 5 decades to achieve in half the time. 

Stay nimble, commit yourself to ongoing practices that yield greater mental development. Adapt or you will find yourself being passed up.  

Rob McNamara, Harvard University Teaching Fellow, author of The Elegant Self, is an expert on adult development and leadership performance. He coaches individuals world-wide to help them broaden their influence where it matters most. 

Learn more about Rob McNamara, his courses, books and coaching at www.RobMcNamara.com.

Sign up for your Free 7 Strategies to Refine your Elegance.

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Being Selfless can Betray Development

A common misconception about development beyond autonomy is that you must lose yourself or have no self.

Each transformation of mind involves a loss of a sense of self. You must after all dis-identify yourself from your autonomy if you are to go beyond autonomy. However, you never entirely lose yourself. At least not in healthy development. What I want you to know is that development always involves a discovery of a more true and sincere you. And, this truer more sincere you is a bigger self, not a smaller or non-existant self.

Peering intimately into the nature of development like I have reveals something quite different from loosing yourself. What I found is that we do not lose our autonomous selves. The opposite occurs. For the first time we can actually have our autonomous selves. No longer does autonomy's inner-sculpted identity, ideology and differentiated sense of self have you!

This is the classic developmental transformation Robert Kegan has explored in depth over the past three decades at Harvard. What was once subject (autonomoy in this case), becomes an object that can be held, managed and operated upon.

The loss of the identification with autonomous perspectives involves the gain of the autonomous self. And, in addition to possessing your autonomous self—much like how autonomy can possess and regulate the more socialized presentations of yourself—you gain a seat of identity that is more complex, more capable and, it feels more like home.

Not a bad deal, eh?

That said, many people have purchased the lie of selflessness. And it is likely betraying your ongoing development and maturation as an adult.

Many adults can be found efforting to shed their old selves. This is often energy well spent. However, without clarity of the path beyond autonomy many often mistakenly presume becoming a no-self is the way to further develop themselves. This is especially the case for individuals reading books on meditation, spiritual practices and the like emphasizing various forms of selflessness or egolessness.

Now, the idea of being selfless is a deep inquiry. We are wise to be nuanced in our distinctions here. At its superficial levels being selfless is an invitation to drop your imperial narcissism. It is an invitation to join into and take care of the people around you and the cultures you are immersed in. Sacrificing your personal needs, preferences and interests for the larger well-being of your relationships and community is a beautiful expression of selflessness. In my opinion there is no lie here. For many people these froms of selflessness qualitatively improve lives.

In deeper contours of human experience selflessness involves realizing states of consciousness where no-self is present for periods of time. Discovering a connectedness to an all pervading unity, the stabilization of a mindful state or the absorption into a variety of transcendent states are powerful and catalytic experiences. Realizing there is a part of you that has no preferences, possesses no agendas, inhabits no form, invests in no personality, and participates in no movement (what I call the self-without-form in my most recent book, The Elegant Self) is profound and liberating beyond words. And, locating this texture of selflessness in your direct experience is a game changer for most people.

However, these meditative or contemplative achievements are nonetheless states of consciousness. Developing your mind and inducing states of consciousness are two different activities exercising two different domains of you. Perhaps the most cogent and lucid voice on this matter is my friend Ken Wilber. To confuse these two is a common mistake even some of the brightest minds in human history have made. States are transient experiences, developmental stages are enduring integrative features of you.

So, while you may cultivate states where the self drops away, these are always temporary. In time the state passes and "you" along with your personality, needs, preferences and ideology return. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. That said we must look closely here. There is a lie of selflessness at play here. It says, if you just keep entering into selfless transcendent states, everything else will take care of itself. Nothing further could be true. State training is an immense gift, it's needed. But, when it gets sold as a way of living, a way of being or an aim worthy of your withdrawal from the rest of your life be cautious. States cannot ultimately sell to us what our hearts truely desire and what our world really needs from us.

While these selfless states often captivate the spiritually inclined, most adults are not spending hours a day sitting on a meditation cushion. As such, many adults find themselves trapped in different versions of this lie. For these individuals having no-self and being selfless means asserting no preferences. It may mean efforting to appear especially mindful and aware. It often takes the form of being overly accommodating. A superficial and unexamined acceptance of relationships and our surroundings parade on display to others as if we have attained some footing in humanity's great liberation. Sadly, exiling preferences, being overly easy going, failing to assert boundaries and enabling the dismemberment of human integrity as a means of avoiding conflicts are not the fruitions of our larger capabilities as a species. Instead, they obscure what I call elegance. They entrench less capable expressions of humanity. These are all lies that betray your own ongoing development.

These substitutions of selflessness are often attempts to imitate the freedom from self-attachment that elegance demonstrates. Development beyond autonomy (not states beyond autonomy!) does bring with it a freedom from autonomy. You can pick up your self-authored, inner guided autonomy and use it. Then you can put these parts of yourself down. You no longer need to defend your autonomy in the same ways as when you were identified with your autonomy. The needs of the self participating with elegance are no longer confined inside what Abraham Maslow called “deficiency needs.” “Being needs” begin to become central to the self. This means you getting your post-autonomous needs met looks very different from just about everyone else. All this is to say, elegance appears to be selfless to less developed vantage points.

And, in some ways, human elegance—our most mature stages of development—is selfless. But make no mistake my friend, the selfhood that moves with and as elegance is big. In fact, these identities are massive. They bring a whole new understanding of what it means to have a “big ego.” Elegance is not afraid of arrogance, nor does it resist deep expressions of humility. Both are free agents to the intelligences of elegance. Your elegance can and will use the full display of you to serve our world with every facet of your being. As such your larger maturity does set and maintain boundaries in powerful ways. Your larger self can accommodate, yet it can also cut through others to modify life in dramatic ways. You can assert preferences and you can let your preferences go. You do not get stuck in either strategy. A pervading acceptance of life as it is enables you to be focused entirely on you and your self-interests.

As such, do not yield to social expectations or intrapersonal manipulations to create greater cultural uniformity. Do not merely encase yourself in training states of consciousness and the excessive withdrawal from the complex demands of modern and postmodern life. And, be suspicious of agendas that attempt to negate your uniqueness, drive and aspirations. All of you, every facet of your being and what you are becoming, can participate with intelligences that transcend your autonomous self; you can and in some ways you likely must participate with elegance. In addition, we are likely to discover that we must devote absolutely all of ourselves to these larger possibilities of humanity.

Rob McNamara, Harvard University Teaching Fellow, author of The Elegant Self, is an expert on adult development and human performance. He coaches individuals world-wide to help resolve the painful and persistent limitations in their lives to become more elegant human beings.

Sign up for your Free 7 Strategies to Refine your Elegance.

Learn more about Rob McNamara, his courses, books and coaching at www.RobMcNamara.com.
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