Self-Transforming Mind: Paradoxes and Lots of Gray

adult development

Our final and most complex constructive-developmental stage is the Self-Transforming Mind. As we approach this lofty summit of our developmental mountain it is worth looking back to notice that this path is not a predictable series of evenly ascending stair steps, but rather a winding trail along uneven terrain, only briefly interrupted by the natural plateaus that we call stages or forms of mind.

It is also worth looking forward to recognize that this is no summit at all. It is merely as far as we can see from here. While Robert Kegan did not define stages beyond Self-Transforming Mind, a sense-making structure that only 3-6% of adults reach by age 55, he surmised their existence.

What the Stages Are, and What They Aren't

Reaching any of these developmental plateaus does not mean you will automatically be good at your job. These stages have nothing to do with domain-specific expertise or competence. Increasing your complexity does not mean relationship challenges and frustrations will go away, nor does it mean you will be peaceful or happy. It merely means that you will have access to a more complex way of understanding the world. We believe that the complexity of Self-Authoring Mind is necessary for effective leadership in today’s world, but it is not sufficient.

Growing through these stages simply means you will be able to remove and examine the lenses you previously did not realize you were wearing. What was once your subjective experience will shift to objective understanding, but that does not mean you will have a purely objective view. You will always be subject to a newer, larger structure of knowledge. Is there a destination at the end of this road? Those are the sort of questions Self-Transforming Mind begins asking.

The Limits of Self-Authorship

The bespoke form of understanding we craft for ourselves in Self-Authored Mind is hard won. We arrive there only after much trial and error, building over time a personal philosophy that is uniquely ours. Yet, inevitably, life will present us with conflicts we cannot seem to reconcile (literally “bring back together”). These often come in the form of paradoxes. A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, but may nonetheless be true:

  • Am I steering this ship, or am I merely being swept along in a powerful but unseen current? Can both be true?
  • Why is it that the more I learn, the “dumber” I feel?
  • Does exposing my weaknesses and making myself vulnerable somehow make me stronger and more resilient? Or does it scare people and make them feel insecure?
  • How can I be an individual and also part of a community? Can I be both independent and dependent at the same time?
  • When is it right to simply surrender to the flow of life and when do I need to take action to shape outcomes?
  • Is this situation overwhelmingly complex, or is it actually very simple?
  • Does what I’m doing even matter? Do I matter, or am I completely insignificant?

Elisabeth's Journey Into Self-Transforming Mind

Elisabeth, our hypothetical hero, is wrestling with question just like these.

Elisabeth is a plant manager for a large manufacturing company. At age 45, she has moved up through the ranks from project engineer to project manager, leading several different departments along the way before being promoted to her current role, in charge of over a thousand people. The learning curve was steep, and adapting to the top job was at times frustrating and stressful.

Elisabeth frequently had to resolve dissenting views in her senior team, but over time she developed an approach that felt right for her and seemed to work pretty well. Well enough, in fact, that she has been promoted to a global role as President of the Americas, supervising facilities in the United States, Canada, Central, and South America.

It is daunting, to say the least. Each department in every plant seems to have a slightly different “flavor” as distinct as the personalities of their leaders. Each factory has a culture and management systems all their own. They all attempt to align with the global organization’s stated values, of course, but the diverse facilities all seem to understand those same words a little differently. The various locations are all strongly influenced by their local, regional, and national cultures, too. Her sites in São Paulo, Brazil, and St. Paul, Minnesota are, suffice to say, very different places.

It is difficult to see how she can foster collaboration when the people in each location all seem to navigate life in fundamentally different ways. Although Elisabeth works hard to avoid stereotyping, it is impossible to ignore the reality that the Canadians, on average, are more egalitarian and willing to challenge her, whereas the Colombians seem more deferential to her title and position. How can she navigate this? The approaches to leadership she so carefully crafted as Plant Manager don’t seem to work anymore.

Elisabeth begins to wonder, is it even possible to “lead” an organization of this scale and diversity? Does anything she says or does have any real effect? And where is she in this new role? She is, like all of us, a multi-faceted being. It no longer feels quite right to separate corporate Elisabeth from family Elisabeth. She is not two (or more) people, after all. She wonders how she can integrate her whole self into her job.

The Self-Transforming Shift

Over time, some new clarity begins to emerge. Each of her facilities is a system, and Elisabeth begins to understand how a system of systems moves and changes. Her company is a conglomerate, and much of her region is a collection of acquisitions with deep roots predating their purchase. There is a constant tension between allowing local decision-making and exerting centralized control, and she begins to understand this not as an either/or, but instead as a both/and. Her role is less about deciding than it is about balancing, observing when the system swings too far toward centralization, for example, and then nudging it gently in the other direction. 

Elisabeth finds that she can feel overwhelmed by this ocean of different perspectives and peaceful all at once. She feels deeply connected to a much larger global community, and also a little isolated, noticing that not many other people seem to relate to how she makes sense of things. The identity and philosophy she created for herself as a plant manager are still there, but she finds herself adapting her leadership to situations in real-time more and more often.

She begins to see that this uncomfortable sense of “do I actually know what I’m doing?” is not incompetence, but rather just a clear indicator that she is dealing with complexity, that she is operating at her growth-edge, and that this does not mean she doesn’t understand her job. This is the job.

Elisabeth can now examine her self-authored belief system, values, and standards objectively from the place we call Self-Transforming Mind. She finds herself drawn to and comfortable in paradox. Her leadership becomes even more adaptive and she feels energized by the dynamic tension between polarities. Her world is one of both/and, nonlinear outcomes, and a universe of grays. She sees systems of systems everywhere, and fluidly moves between them. She is in a state of ongoing evolution.

But I'm not running companies on multiple continents...

Most of us are not leading a global corporation like Elisabeth. How then, is Self-Transforming Mind relevant to you?

It is relevant because all of us, like it or not, are citizens of planet Earth, a global economy, digitally interconnected and interdependent. Making sense of this world that we have created, a world simultaneously both bigger and smaller, demands that each of us grow our own complexity or be continually frustrated at our inability to make sense of life's most challenging issues.

What would it look like to transcend Self-Transforming Mind? We don’t really know, but history suggests that one day life will demand that we do exactly that.

Constructive-developmental theory is foundational to Retexo's approach to coaching and training. Click the links or contact us if you'd like to learn more.



These ideas build on several earlier articles. Find them here.

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