Vertical or Adult Development is a relatively new term in the management world and in leadership circles across the globe, even though the understanding of it goes back thousands of years.
Most management and leadership training in companies today is horizontal. Horizontal learning is aimed at improving our skills, e.g. time management, technical expertise in an area, or improving our communication skills. Its primary objective is functional.
Grown-Up at 90, or not?
Vertical learning, however, is aimed at how we think, feel and most important, how we make sense of the world. It is about increasing the complexity of our meaning-making. For a long time, it was believed that we stopped developing after our teens. At 20 we were considered “grown-ups”. Now, we know that we continue growing, albeit at varying rates, through different stages of mental development. At each stage, we make sense of the world a bit differently, we become more inclusive, and we can make sense of complexity. We see the forest instead of the trees. Many people mature as they age, but far from everyone, and since there hasn’t been any concerted or directed training to develop vertically, most never reach the potential they have as human beings. Furthermore, from a societal standpoint, we need people to start growing vertically, faster, and in larger numbers, if we want this planet to have a chance of surviving.
First in a Series of Posts on Vertical Development
Starting with the first vertical theorist that I want to mention in this series of posts on vertical and integral development, is a man that is well-known in Sweden’s and Europe’s management circles, Harvard Professor Dr Robert Kegan. Kegan is a Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development and a Psychologist, and has been researching this area for the past 30 years.
Kegan’s Model of Adult Development
Kegan has developed the so called subject-object theory, which is pretty close to the mindfulness concept of being the “witness”. In essence, it means that every level of development that we are currently at, we are subjects to. As soon as we move to the next level, we can start observing the situation we just were in, but now from a distance. We study it at an objective level. We can therefore think of the subject/object relationship as describing what we have in our perceptions, versus what has us. Or another way of describing it is to say whatever we are subjects to is outside of our control; it controls us. Whatever we are objects to we know and can look at without being beholden to it.
Kegan describes five developmental orders of the mind:
- Impulsive Mind – First Order. Mostly young children. Object is one’s reflexes. We are subject to our impulses and perceptions.
- Instrumental Mind – Second Order. Adolescents and some adults. Object is one’s impulses and perceptions. Here we are subject to to our needs, interests and desires.
- Socialized Mind. According to Kegan, 58% of the adult population is here. Object here is one’s needs, interests and desires. We are subject to our interpersonal relationships and mutuality. We operate following what we’ve been taught, how our families expect us to be, and how society wants us to perform. We follow an external authority. It is, for example, difficult for a person operating at a socialized mind level to develop self-esteem or self-love for example, because there is no real inner foundation for the self at this order.
- Self-Authoring Mind. This is where 35% of the population is at. Object here is one’s interpersonal relationships and mutuality. We are subjects to self-authorship, identity and ideology. This means that we can craft our own identity and walk our own path. We follow an internal authority. The entire self-help industry, where coaching has become an instrumental tool, is built on taking people from the Socialized Mind to the Self-Authoring Mind.
- Self-Transforming Mind. This is where less than 1% of the adult population is at. Object here is self-authorship, identity and ideology. We are subjects to the dialectic between ideologies. We start questioning our identity, and we see that there is more than one way to think and resonate. We are no longer beholden to one set of views, but are able to see value in both, without being caught in an either or perspective.
Integration, Moral and Spiritual Development
Looking at Kegan’s (and others) models of vertical development, it is important to point out a few things. Being at a higher meaning-making stage says nothing about our IQ or our EQ. We can be brilliant intellectually at Kegan’s third level, or be wonderful and caring people again at the socialized level. Furthermore, most of us operate at times at different levels. For example. Say that we normally are at the fourth level, the self-authoring mind, yet when we join our family around Christmas or the Holidays, we go back to the socialized mind, and maybe we even have such a tendency with our life-partner. Such a person can be said not to be fully integrated yet on the fourth level. And it might even be that we might have intellectual glimpses of the fifth level related to some aspects of our work, but we aren’t currently able to live from that level.
Finally, the way adult development is being taught by many, is not the same as becoming a wise, compassionate and an enlightened human being. Actually, you can be a major jackass, while still have a cognitive ability to see and handle greater levels of complexity. This can be compared with spiritual leaders that are high up on a spiritual awareness level, a level that might allow them to lead their followers into higher levels of enlightenment, yet who still can’t resist having sex with half of their flock. In order to develop our humanity, we need to dig down into our psychological ego-structure and start letting light shine in the dark crevices of our inner basements. And that is a whole other process than learning how to become more vertically developed. I believe both are desperately needed.
The Importance of Growing Vertically
No matter where we are at, we all need to move up the ladder. All the crises at our doorstep today, ranging from failing political systems to religious extremism, to global warming, to the European immigration and integration crisis, to Putin’s growing aggression, terrorism, increasing income differences, a failing school system etc, are all examples of what Kegan calls “In Over Our Heads“. We are living in such a complex society and yet both leaders and systems are operating at too low level. We need systems created at at least a fourth level of meaning-making in order to handle where we are going, and leaders who are at least at a fourth-level in order to help bring all of this about. This will by far be the greatest challenge of all leaders globally, and something I’m deeply passionate about.