The Profound Gap in Leadership Development: Growing for a Complex & Polarised World


Why do we keep collectively creating results that most of society does not want?



These are immensely challenging times to be a leader. The environment has changed dramatically over the last 25 years, becoming more complex, polarised and violent. We find ourselves caught in a gridlocked web of intertwining issues that make it nearly impossible to solve the most problematic threats to our future. We are struggling to sufficiently future proof our organisations, society, markets and ecosystems from great disruptions.

Politics, business and society is stuck in a bog of fragmented perspectives, silo solutions, relentless advocacy, divisive debate, polarising ideologies and an excessive ‘me’ culture. However, we live in an era that demands a high appreciation of whole-systems awareness, social-ecological intelligence and extensive cooperation across society at all scales.  How do we move forward?

Not everyone sees the world in the same way.  Obvious, perhaps.  But over the last 30 years, developmental psychologists like Professors Robert Kegan (Harvard) and Bill Torbert (Boston College) have realised there is much more to it than most of us realise.  In fact, adults appreciate the world through at least eight or nine distinct levels on the ladder of complexity.

The further along this ladder we grow, the more creative and effective we become at working in multi-stakeholder systems with high complexity, ambiguity, paradox, uncertainty, difference and polarisation.

However, from large population studies in the workforce, we understand that most adults are only operating somewhere on the first half of the ladder. For these adults, a lot of the complexity remains hidden and feels overwhelming.  So, it is not surprising that most adults resort to less-than-helpful ways of managing, leading, change making and politicking.

Stuck in a world of never ending advocacy, they believe their view is right and that their action is necessary and justified. It is hard to convince them otherwise and it drives an enormous addiction to advocacy - talking at each other in all its forms - in organisations, politics and society.  At these stages on the ladder of our development we cannot fully perceive the biggest threats affecting humanity this century and we do not have the capacity to cooperate creatively at scale and speed.

This is where most of humanity is right now.  And it gets a little more complicated.  Most adults don’t know they have hit an invisible glass ceiling in their appreciation of complexity (and… ambiguity, paradox, uncertainty, difference and polarisation). It is a blind spot in our awareness.  All we see, hear and feel is the overwhelm from clashing perspectives and values that pervade our lives.

It is tricky dilemma for organisations, because this also means that most people involved in management, executive and leadership development are operating at these earlier stages of development.  Therefore, they are creating billions of dollars of professional development solutions that perpetuate the workforce operating at earlier (lower) stages on the ladder of development.

It is a deeply hidden flaw that is affecting the whole world of professional development (and the wider education industry).  It has profound implications for how we hire and develop managers in key roles, HR practitioners, leadership and organisation development practitioners.  It also has enormous implications for future development of management consultants - I believe this represents not just a business opportunity, but also an ethical responsibility that consulting firms are failing to comprehend and address.

Only about 4 percent of adults tested in the workforce are operating at latest (highest) stages of adult development.  These adults (leaders) have capacities required by highly effective change makers, building transformative dialogue across deep divides and bringing exceptional creativity to highly complex issues across society.

This points to the vital importance of Kegan and Torbert’s maps of adult development.  Although we can’t easily understand or imagine what it is like to operate at much later stages on the ladder of development (as it is literally beyond our cognitive comprehension), we can appreciate that there is room for our growth.  We can study what it might look like to think and act in the world from the next stage on the ladder.

I often explain this concept in more familiar terms of child development.  It is hard for a 10 year old to see, think and act like a 20yo; it is beyond their comprehension.  But the 10yo knows the 20yo is different and more capable.  This leap in meaning making and capability is approximate to the magnitude in each leap up the ladder of adult development.  There are at least eight stages of adult development that are equivalent to growing-up from a 10yo to a 20yo.

As adults these leaps are not guaranteed and usually slow down across the decades.  It seems most of us stop growing up the ladder of development in our twenties and only accidentally may we progress to a later stage of development through a difficult or life changing experience.  We need to turn this process of 'accidental' development into a process of 'deliberate' vertical development.

The idea of vertical development is mostly absent in the fields of professional development – including leadership development – through there is much we can do.  Nick Petrie at the Centre of Creative Leadership (CCL) provides a series of excellent whitepapers on The Future of Leadership Development.  Petrie's proposals propel us forward.

I believe it is vital that the field of leadership development evolves rapidly to include the theory and practice of vertical adult development.  Nearly every organisation I visit around the world is still lacking awareness and practice in vertical development.  It is a huge gap, nearly everywhere. 

Only a few organisations have invested in really bold experiments to jump forward in the maturity of their approach to leadership development. Some of these have happened in organisations like Unilever, where I once worked.  But even then, these experiments have only addressed some of the gaps in leadership development.  Very few organisations have put all the pieces of the puzzle together in a coherent and mature way.

In its fullness, vertical leadership development represents an enormous opportunity for governments, businesses and civil society organisations who invest in it and stick with it to build the necessary maturity. 

Sometimes I wonder if this is the singular most important thing that organisations need to be doing to eventually break through the gridlocks which are preventing humanity from addressing the biggest threats to our future.  Sometimes I even wonder whether profound global change is in the hands of HR; there seems to be a big opportunity and responsibility ahead for practitioners involved in developing others.

We all need to be developing leaders who can handle much higher levels of complexity, ambiguity, paradox, uncertainty, difference and polarisation.

Michael Hann