Leadership Development for the Bold

Thinking Differently About Our Development Can Facilitate Better Outcomes

For those of us interested in adult development, too often we tend to focus on stages.  In particular, we zoom in on those higher, more complex and seductive forms of maturity that presumably are waiting for us to discover their beauty, added power and desired relief. They reside “up there” in the heights of our preferred hierarchies.


Once we begin to understand development, it is easy to idealize its higher reaches. These idealizations piggyback on long histories and torrid love affairs with our deep-seated assumptions.

Our unexamined assumptions can lead us to believe that less developed equals less capable. Being less developed means we are more challenged by life’s demands;  more developed must be ‘better’.

While many of us shy away from value judgements on personal worth, our developmental assumptions—grounded in science or otherwise—find their way back into our everyday decisions. These assumptions and judgements thrive in the decisions we make about who we love, who we hire or work with, and who we surround ourselves with socially.

Implicit inside these assumptions about development is that we can be located at a specific stage of development. Thinking this way can fix us into less flexible versions of ourselves. Our ideas of who we are and where we are going can quickly lose dynamism as we idealize our gifts and focus on who we should become.

From there, an obsession with “being better” can easily consume our attention and energy. Some of us focus on deficiencies instead of strengths and talents, further fixating our self-concepts as being inadequate.

These narrow perspectives on ourselves (and each other) create an unfortunate consequence of understanding adult development. Valorizing the stages “above” where we pin ourselves and others can produce a tendency to declare ourselves to be more developed than we actually are. . We quietly ignore an inadequacy beneath the facades of confidence, instead structuring our narratives around our brightness, intelligence and assumed complexity.

On the flip side, we may be overly harsh with ourselves. No matter where we are and what we are able to accomplish, we are never good enough. We ‘need’ more development. Regardless of the emotional tone and focus of our narratives, the source of both types of distortion is our assumptions, which narrow what we are willing to experience.

The antidote to this ‘vertical pursu-itis’ is to look instead at what we call developmental range. This is different from our “center of gravity”, an abstracted normative range in which you (or others) tend to show up developmentally, but which moves us away from the specificity of our aliveness in any given moment.

Developmental range instead steers us towards specific contexts, particular behaviors and distinct skills. Instead of generalized abstractions, developmental range focuses on the immediacy of our developmental complexity in response to environmental and contextual surrounds from moment to moment. The concept of developmental range focuses us on the dynamic, relational quality of our skills and behaviors.

For those of us seeking to support more advanced competencies within  ourselves, our clients, or others that have developmental nuance and rigor, I advocate for the intimate study of reality as it is discovered in the here and now. As Freud proposed, let us abandon the fantasies of who we are for ever more intimate confrontations with reality.

If you are thinking of yourself, your clients, partner, colleagues, or family as individuals who abide in a particular stage of development, I encourage you to instead consider the realities illuminating diverse developmental ranges. Developmental complexities—and the rest of the gestalt of our identities—are always being formed and co-constructed with the dynamism of our surroundings. Once we stop enacting a dimension of ourselves, this complexity dissolves in service of enacting what is now present and center in ever-changing experiences.

This view into our micro-developmental processes invites us into more attuned understandings of how to work developmentally with ourselves as well as our clients, teams, organizations and others. While developmental range can help us hug the more intimate contours of our moment-to- moment experiences, it also helps us include the more conceptual developmental insights, which of course also hold their own partial truths.

Amidst our explorations into developmental diversity in action as immediacy, we may find a freedom from the developmental aspiration to grow up. Then we can participate with the full range of development that is available to us in any given moment.  In this way, we may become more elegant in growing “down” into refining our developmental foundations as well as “up” into our higher possibilities.

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

Join Rob McNamara for a 12-week advanced Developmental Coaching Mastermind, starting October 2017. This is a rare opportunity for 15 coaches to be part of advanced professional coach training with Rob, where you will grow and refine your mastery as a coach, as well as focus on how you can provide rigorous, grounded and accurate developmental coaching with your clients. Click here for information and to register for the program.

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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

Join Rob McNamara for a 12-week advanced Developmental Coaching Mastermind, starting October 2017. This is a rare opportunity for 15 coaches to be part of advanced professional coach training with Rob, where you will grow and refine your mastery as a coach, as well as focus on how you can provide rigorous, grounded and accurate developmental coaching with your clients. Click here for information and to register for the program.
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