All of the key messages I got throughout my upbringing have been centred around what a successful person should learn/do/achieve in order to lead a happy, prosperous and fulfilling life. For years I strived to learn, develop, acquire more and more knowledge, get better at what I did. I was always deeply passionate about the way people learn and develop. I was also convinced, as I had been taught, that there is a time in one’s life when they are done growing up, when they are officially adults and the best one can do from then on is to continuously expand one’s knowledge and experience – improve on something that was already there. Then my life path led me into a profession where I had the great fortune to teach others how to become more effective in their work, communicate better, organise themselves better. Self-improvement became my profession. Yet, something was amiss.

As the years went by and I spent countless hours in training rooms, hundreds of days talking to leaders in various industries, sharing best practices, techniques for giving feedback, delegating, facilitating meetings, mentoring team members, appeasing angry customers or selling in a consultative manner – I kept getting the nagging feeling that this type of knowledge transfer was fulfilling but one of the learning needs of a human being – the need for broader knowledge or the so called “horizontal development”. I noticed that many of the leaders who came to these soft skills workshops had trouble translating into practice the behaviours they were learning about. They had a hard time using constructive feedback when a co-worker had made a mistake and they got angry about it. It was hard for them to be good coaches when they felt compelled to give advice and control the conversation. Many of these leaders were also parents (as I later became myself) and were complaining that all the parenting courses they had taken weren’t helping them stay wise in front of the tantrums of a three year old or the ups and downs of a teenager.

Knowing what to do seemed to not be enough – neither at home, not at work. What was missing was a certain quality of being. Being calm, centred, wise, mature seemed like precious abilities which could not be learned in a workshop. The rare leaders who embodied these abilities seemed to instinctively know what to do in difficult situations, they were naturally more inclined to inspire people, take better decisions under pressure, listen more, co-create innovative solutions to problems together with their teams and proved to be more agile and adaptable than their peers, even without the soft-skills training. Wise people seemed to find ways to build more fulfilling relationships at home – happier marriages, more harmonious families.

I started wondering whether wisdom could be learnt. And so I stumbled upon a relatively obscure branch of psychology called “adult development”. I had heard about “child development” – the stages a human goes through form birth into adulthood – about the changing needs and psychological processes that were unfolding as they body and brain matured. What I had been completely unaware of was that these changes continue throughout the life-span and people carry on growing up on the inside long after they stop growing up on the outside. In other words, people undertake not only horizontal, but also “vertical development” throughout their lives. When we reach what many consider adulthood – in our early 20s – we are but in the early stages of a fascinating developmental journey that will accompany us throughout or lifetime. This is a journey of growth that has less to do with what we know and everything to do with who we areand how we see the world. 

Adult development is actually a journey of the evolution of human consciousness. So, what is consciousness? It is one of the most elusive concepts in the world. For our purposes, we can think of it as the lens through which we see the world, the filters that shape our perception of reality, our mindset, reflected by our deepest values and assumptions. Consciousness is not WHAT we know, but HOW we use what we know. 

When we are two years old, we believe the universe revolves around us and our needs. It’s hard for us to realise other people might have different needs, to acknowledge that mom might be tired or dad might be stressed. When you’re two you want what you want and you want it now! This is what the consciousness of a two year old is capable of. In our early years we are, as developmental psychologists (one of the most resounding names in this field is Bill Torbert) would call it – Opportunists. Interestingly enough, some people (about 5% of the population) never outgrow this stage. It’s easy to look around into world politics today and find quite a few examples of leaders who never outgrew that stage.

As we grow and our ability to take in a broader picture of reality expands, we become capable of understanding that other people might have different needs or feelings and we educate ourselves to respect that and take it into account when we make decisions. We start realising that if we break the rules mom might get upset or if we hit our little brother dad might be angry or the brother might suffer. We start wanting to fit in, to be accepted, to please others. We step into the Diplomat stage. If we stick to this stage into adulthood, we can become people pleasers, conflict avoidant and have trouble making decisions that might displease others (around 12% of leaders fall into this category).

As we grow and become more confident into what we know and what we are capable of, we step into a new developmental stage – the Expert. 38% of professionals operate at this level. Experts’ way of dealing with the world is to perfect themselves, grow their expertise, get ever better at what they do. They try to convince others of their point of view by showing them the data, making a rational case for change. Experts are in a continuous pursuit of excellence, progress and perfection. Sounds familiar? It sure does to me. This is many of the leaders that I work with on a day to day basis. This level of consciousness makes for a great individual contributor. But is it really the most effective for a leader?

Actually, most Experts tend to get into a deep personal and professional crisis right at the time when, as recognition for their expertise, they get promoted to a leadership position. Suddenly, they can no longer influence outcomes by simply showing the data or doing the work themselves. They find they need to learn to engage people, become mentors for others, make decisions taking into account multiple, often contradictory points of view. And, for some of them, that reality becomes stressful and depressing. For others, it provides impetus for personal transformation into the next developmental level – the Achiever (30% of managers are at this level). This is a level of consciousness where one becomes capable of creating a positive work atmosphere, of letting go of some need for control, involving others in decisions, balancing short and long term objectives. Measurements of managerial effectiveness show that Achievers produce business results that are twice as good as those of Experts. As the very word says it – Achievers are preoccupied with success. And well equipped for achieving it.

Up to now, each of these developmental levels causes people to believe that their truth is the only truth. They strive to convince others of their point of view and can get evangelical about their own outlook on life. That’s why all of the levels I’ve described so far are considered “conventional” – in the sense that they allow the person to have a very linear look at life, a one-sided perception of what is possible, a black or white approach on the dilemmas of work, family and, generally speaking, existence. Self-awareness is only beginning to develop and introspection hasn’t yet become a central life skill.

Many of today’s adults stay within the conventionalrealm of consciousness development throughout their lives. However, today’s world is making it imperative for us to explore whether there is something beyond that, some other ways of looking at the world and some further steps on the path of consciousness. As it turns out, there is.

Studies have shown that about 15% of adults continue to grow into the next developmental stages, so called “post-conventional“. These stages are the Individualist, the Strategist and the Alchemist. Such individuals become more and more aware of their reality being but one of a multitude of equally valid realities. They turn inside to discover and define their values and personal missions and choose to align their outer lives with their inner principles. They become preoccupied with the long-term effects of their actions. Most leaders at Strategist and Alchemist levels have a genuine and constant preoccupation for environmental and sustainability issues and, when in positions of authority, they tend to make ethics and corporate responsibility central pillars of their organisations strategies, while profit becomes a result, no longer a purpose in itself. Such people realise that they are but a small part of a bigger whole. They become keenly aware of the interdependence of all things on the planet and of their role in it. They become more tolerant of others’ points of view, capable to communicate with different people, meeting them at the level of consciousness where they currently are. They tend to be much more agile and adaptable as they are much more comfortable with uncertainty, with not knowing. Such leaders cease to be “bosses” and instead become space holders for other’s ideas, catalysts of change, facilitators, mentors, coaches instead of objective setters and feedback givers.

There are more and more voices speaking of the acute need for more such leaders in the world. As our species has come to a moment in its history when it is capable of changing the very course of life on earth (only think of our environmental impact, global repercussions of any one economic crisis, global migration, geo-political implications of any one country’s political and economic decisions), we need conscious leaders more than ever. Researchers are exploring how adult development can be facilitated. They are testing the different kinds of learning experiences that facilitate a shift in consciousness, not just a rise in knowledge. Throughout the world, leaders are increasingly embracing tools such as mindfulness, the use of Bohm dialogue (meetings where people are invited to explore each other’s assumptions instead of fight eachother for the best solution), Appreciative Inquiry or compassion training.

In a world that is continuously changing in ever faster, more disruptive ways, understanding that you, as an adult, still have a long way to go before really “growing up” might become paramount. Consciously taking time for introspection, looking for opportunities of personal, vertical development might soon become a necessity, as Artificial Intelligence is changing the landscape of work and our common humanity is subjected to challenges our species has likely never encountered before. This article is meant to bring the concept of “adult development” to the forefront of your mind, to invite you to be curious, to challenge your own assumptions and to ask yourselves, how can you become ever more conscious and aware as a leader, parent, partner, friend and, ultimately, human being?