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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Bridging the Gap Between Personal and Cultural Evolution


Different streams of evolution flow at their own pace. For example, the responsive movements of culture are more dynamic and exciting. By contrast, genetics develop at a rate that no human lifespan sees, with changes unfolding over the course of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. While we may see advances in editing and augmenting genes for more healthy and adaptive human beings, until now this remains only a possibility.



Meanwhile, the rate of individual development straddles the middle ground between culture and genetics. Here we see a series of personal transformations spanning throughout our childhoods, turbulent adolescences and the many diverse forms of adulthood we traverse through our lives.
The social and political currents in the United States are a perfect example of this cultural flux. For some, President Trump’s rise to power is precisely the advancement they have been hoping for. For others, the past 18 months represent a regressive backward turning of the clock.
Whatever your political orientation, it’s hard to deny the restless, even chaotic, nature of cultural change. What appears solid and stable suddenly feels fleeting. What seemed absent, or at least hidden from view, suddenly takes center stage. For some, these are the first strokes of relief that they have experienced in their lifetimes. For others, an entire life’s work, an individual’s freedom, or a family’s ability to be together can all be erased with the stroke of a presidential executive order. And while this new energy can provide hope, excitement and relief for some, these fluid movements also can invoke anxiety, panic, dread, dismay, and a vivid sense of betrayal for others.
In times of great change—for better and for worse, depending on our dispositions—it’s important to stay focused and attuned to your ongoing personal development. The integrative and adaptive structure of your adult brain and nervous system is more durable than your social contexts. Your meaning-making and what deeply matters to your heart endure more than the shifting cultural landscape around you.
Whether things are going “your way” or not in the cultural surround, you have the opportunity to craft yourself into a more effective instrument of service to what matters most to you. Making a greater impact in yourself and our world is possible for all of us right here and now. And while we tend to only root for those similar to us and our cherished orientations, it’s also important to advocate for and support the ongoing growth and development of everyone–especially for those markedly different from us.
If we believe our own culture(s) to be ‘better than’ others, our participation in these social norms can stand in as a substitute for your personal development. Identifying with some form of cultural elitism might lead us to believe we are more developed as individuals. However we define “better than” in ourselves and our like-minded tribe, and whatever failings we see in those different from us, it’s important to distinguish between individual and cultural development. These are two separate forms of evolution. When we rest on cultural development as a substitute for personal growth, we limit and fixate ourselves in ways that can keep us being capable of less.
Take, for example, the rise of postmodernity over the past 40 to 50 years. This ignited the pluralistic postmodern movement which enjoyed a ferocious march that has taken over much of mainstream media, education, business, government, and even religion.
Postmodernity advocates for “world-centric” orientations: Truth claims are always context-dependent. Respect and inclusion of diversity are important. Opportunities should be shared equally. Regardless of race, class, religion, gender and orientation, we deserve equal footing in society.
Now postmodernity and its movements are often seen as advances over modernism. This leads to a misguided assumption that identifying with postmodern worldviews automatically implies we are more personally developed than those identified with premodern or modern lifestyles and sensibilities.
While carefully crafted criteria help us track how culture evolves (and devolves), assessing personal development requires different measures. My area of expertise studies identity development which, according to developmental psychologist Dr. Robert Kegan, is defined not by the content, but the structure, of our meaning-making. In other words, the content of the culture we relate to does not signify our level of development. Person A could identify with premodern culture, Person B with postmodernity, and Person C with modernity. All three could be at the same stage of identity development. Or they could be at different stages. In fact, the person relating to postmodern culture could be the least developed. Keep this in mind because we often conflate cultural development and identity development.
I share this in light of the cultural divisions highlighted not only here in the US but around the world. Postmodern culture continues to be critical of its cultural predecessors. Some criticisms may be warranted, while others may be misguided.
Regardless of the cultures we identify with, we need to become more skilled at welcoming differences amongst–and within–ourselves. Now I’m not simply echoing some of the postmodern sensibilities around welcoming diversity. Paradoxically, many postmodern advocates are highly critical of, and condescending towards, those who don’t advance their cultural sensibilities. I’m proposing a welcoming embrace that goes beyond postmodern cultural norms.
One defining feature of identity development shows up around our relationship to cultural diversity. Adults operating in or around what Kegan calls the ‘Socialized Mind’ stage are often threatened by interpersonal differences, which the divisions thriving in the US so painfully show us. And, while many postmodern people presume they’re more developed than those at earlier stages, they still experience fear, anger, and distress when confronted by those earlier worldviews.
Our world needs leaders who have the ability to extend curiosity, compassion and unbiased interpersonal warmth into anxiety-producing differences. These qualities rest upon the more integrated brains and nervous systems found in our larger adult maturities. Regardless of our cultural orientations, greater personal development is needed.
For most of us, we require modeling from masterful exemplars who exude these more adaptive and effective skill sets. We need rigorous training to dislodge our current identities from our familiar limitations. Perhaps we all need to be immersed in ongoing challenging, yet supportive, contexts to exercise our larger aptitudes.
Only then can we become more valuable instruments for the people, systems, cultures and environments around us. If we are resolute in our noble vows and committed to our more mature and heartfelt intentions, we can become a relevant answer to the divisions threatening our world and jeopardizing our children’s futures

Regardless of our cultural orientations, liberal, conservative, postmodern, modern, or otherwise, let's come together to train rigorously. We need each other. Let's engage our differences with a more adaptive mutuality, and use our diversity to develop ourselves into more worthy instruments able to serve what we most value.

Regardless of our cultural orientations, liberal, conservative, postmodern, modern, or otherwise, let’s come together to train rigorously. We need each other. Let’s engage our differences with a more adaptive mutuality, and use our diversity to develop ourselves into more worthy instruments able to serve what we most value.

Rob McNamara
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.


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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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