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Better Maps

Leadership development – it’s a topic that seems to be on the minds of many these days. But ask a leader how developed they are, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Those who dare might search for answers in a leadership 360 assessment, which can hold valuable clues, but often tells you more about your coworkers than you as a leader. Had Hitler or Stalin subjected themselves to such an exercise, they probably would have been pleased with their results. Jesus, on the other hand, may have received mixed reviews based on how perplexing he was to those around him.


There’s a relatively new assessment tool that claims to tell us something meaningful about development, not only for leadership but for all sorts of complex and demanding roles required in today’s marketplace. It’s called the Subject-Object Interview assessment, authored by Harvard researcher, Bob Kegan, whose theory of adult cognitive development is widely considered to be the gold standard in the field. It’s not a typical test of IQ, EQ, or any other kind of Q (apparently there are others); rather, it locates a person on a scale composed of five developmental phases. In the third and fourth phases, where most of us will spend our adult lives, a person begins to gain independence from the paradigms that once governed their mindset, inherited from family background, culture, conventional wisdom, and various other forms of groupthink, and develops the ability to apply their own unique analysis. No longer dependent on the lenses and frames of “experts”, they customize their eyewear to see in new and interesting ways. They build better maps of their world to navigate more productively within it. Kegan’s term for this is “mental complexity.” Others might call it wisdom.


Whatever you call it, this ability is like a superpower and is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness (much more so than the “Qs”). While theoretically, almost anyone can make progress through the phases, not everyone moves at the same speed. People get stuck, lacking the right opportunities, attitudes, or incentives. Environmental factors and life experiences play important roles. The developmental journey can be hard-fought and painful, and can sometimes seem like a thankless endeavor. Many organizations fail to recognize or reward development, preferring instead leaders who can captivate an audience, corporate “yes men”, or those who amass letters behind their names. Employees who might be further along developmentally can feel frustrated and underutilized, which can lead to brain-drain for the organization. A number of notable organizations are now taking developmental theory seriously to give themselves an edge, using the Subject-Object Interview in leadership assessments and adopting policies designed to better help people reach their potential.  


On a personal note – what I find most interesting about Kegan’s theory is what happens in the last phase, when you finally reach the pinnacle of his developmental framework. Basically, you mellow out. You become less dogmatic and more humble, realizing that the maps you’ve worked so hard to create and that have served you well aren’t the last word. You see how other maps have important details and useful filters that yours may be missing and you can hold each map in tension. As a result, you become a better learner, in some ways reverting to a child-like state. It reminds me of Jesus’ paradoxical teaching that “whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:4) 


Those interested in this subject should check out the book, Immunity to Change to learn more.


Reflection Questions

How is wisdom factored into assessing, training, and promoting leaders for your organization?

How is independent thinking valued/treated in your organization?

How tolerant are you of the mistakes that come with development?

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