We’re All Adults, Right?

When exactly do we become an adult?

Is it at 18 years old when we can legally vote and fight and marry? Or in our early 20’s when we move into a career and relationships? Or is it later, perhaps when we begin a family (but what if you never do)?

And once you reach adulthood, is that who and what you are for the remainder of your life?

Well, no. Not necessarily.

In fact from a psychological perspective there are now thoroughly researched stages of adult development.

Of the various models, I prefer Beck and Cowans version called Spiral Dynamics. But for simplicity, Kegan and Laheys model (diagram below) gives a clear indication of the maturation continuum which exists and is potential in every one of us.

  • By early adulthood we are at Socialised Mind, where we are largely moved by and oriented toward external forces. We are reactive and dependent, we perceive problems and threats, we seek safety and to fit in with the group. Some 70% of adults are associated with this stage of development.
  • For some, the next stage of development, the Self-authoring Mind emerges, whether through attraction, disonance or crisis. Here we are more independent, creative, oriented toward living from our own values and goals. Perhaps 30% of adults mature to this stage.
  • Beyond the masses arises the Self-transforming or Integral Mind. Here risk, ambiguity, holistic vision, scale, volatility, tension etc are appreciated and embraced as interdependent elements of life. Less than 1% progress to this breadth.
  • Posited to exist even further along the development continuum is Unitive Mind … but I’ll leave you to research that for yourself 😉

So yes we are all adults; but we are not all adults at the same stage of psychological development.

Given that, it strikes me that the lifetime challenge we each face is to keep on ‘growing up’.

That is, we are never fully and finally ‘adult’ … isn’t that a refreshing idea!

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World Class Leadership

Toward the end of Leadership Formation, each participant selects a world class leader for immersion study.

Criteria are intentionally vague and as a result we’ve explored the lives and leadership of people such as Steve Biddulph, Kelly Slater, Sir Winston Churchill, Marie Forleo, Pastor Brian Huston, Steve Jobs and John Quincy Adams.

The unusual diversity creates a rich base for leadership insights to emerge.

At the most recent Leadership Formation Retreat, we heard the stories of four inspiring people.

  • Elizabeth Broderick AO, who recently completed 8 years as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner and is a committed advocate for improving gender equality.
  • Louise Voigt, former long-serving CEO of Barnardos Australia whose advocacy on behalf of foster children helped introduce Open Adoptions to Australia.
  • Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. An Iowa farm boy, his later research into wheat produced high yielding, disease resistant varieties introduced to Mexico, India and Pakistan in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was credited with saving many millions of lives worldwide.
  • David Griswold, founder of Sustainable Harvest, a company bringing transparency into the coffee supply chain, helping farmers move from subsistence to sustainability.

It is very confirming to see how closely their stories align with the ‘follow your bliss’ road map:

  • Notice what you care about whether it’s gender equality, or that every child deserves a safe home, or helping people feed their families and rise from poverty, each leader has commitment to something they care deeply for, over a long period of time.
  • Get started anywhere, it’s all connectedtracing back through the lives of those who eventually make significant contributions, their origins are generally humble and modest, but easy to connect to their future impact. A young female lawyer, a social worker, a farm boy or a social entrepreneur, in many ways each continued the same ‘work’ as when they started, only on a widening platform.
  • Learn as you go of course, no world class leader arrives fully formed. Whether it’s from early experience, a failed business, listening tours, or a South American farmer, every leader continues to learn and grow and to demonstrate a life-long curiosity.
  • Perseverance being courageous; willing to be unpopular in pursuit of what you believe is right; persistence in the face of institutional (Indian bureaucracy) and cultural (foster child rights) obstacles; bending rules and breaking new ground; grit, determination and even stubbornness.

The stand out insight is that leaders generate power by connecting to a deep sense of purpose or calling.

The work of Leadership Formation challenges us toward this clarity.


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You-Can-Have-It-AllAh the seductive illusion of having-it-all!

In everyday reality we are constantly making choices and faced with conflicting options. In contrast to having-it-all, we need to select one course of action while relinquishing alternatives.

Failing to do so, we advance divided and weaker, glancing sideways, wondering and second guessing. Renunciation is the skill of making a conscious inner decision to let go …

It is natural for us to face conflicting options; to be forced to choose between desires that lead in divergent directions. How then do we best recognise these contradictory issues and decide upon a course of action?

Karen Horney nominates four preconditions:

  • we must be aware of what our wishes are, or even more importantly, what our feelings are. Most of us find it difficult to answer simple questions about our real feelings and desires;  i.e. we do not know what we really want or feel.
  • we need to develop our own set of values, beliefs, guiding principles and convictions. If not merely adopted from others, these beliefs will connect us with our Real Self. Failure to do so and we will drift along the path of least resistance instead of facing a conflict and making a decision one way or the other.
  • once we recognise a conflict, we must be willing and able to renounce one of at least two contradicting options. The capacity for clear and conscious renunciation is rare because our feelings and beliefs are muddled – and perhaps in the end we are not secure and happy enough to renounce anything.
  •  to make a decision presupposes the willingness and capacity to assume responsibility for it. This includes the risk of making a wrong decision and the willingness to bear the consequences without blaming others i.e. being able to feel that “this is my choice, this is my doing.” Taking self-responsibility like this requires levels of inner strength and independence not commonly found.

Karen Horney concludes writing “To experience conflicts knowingly, though it may be distressing, can be a valuable asset. The more we face our own conflicts and seek our own solutions, the more inner freedom and strength we will gain.”

Are you up for a challenge? Where are you feeling conflicted, frustrated, upset, doubtful, guilty or stressed? Can you articulate the conflicts involved in making you feel like this? Can you apply the preconditions above to better understand your situation and options? Are you able to wholeheartedly commit to a course of action – while calmly renouncing the alternatives? Give it a try …

Reference: Karen Horney ‘Our Inner Conflicts’ page 25 – 27.

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Q: How do I differentiate between healthy development aligned with my real self and compulsive moves driven by efforts to live up to an idealised image?

Yes, high ambition and standards of excellence may be the product of genuine ability and interests. But more often and less helpfully they are tangled up in and muddied by a compulsive ‘search for glory’.

These trends and criteria help identify compulsive drives

  • an utter disregard for yourself or for your best interests. What sacrifices are made in the pursuit of an ambition? Your physical and mental health, your relations with family, your happiness and sense of integrity? Neurotic ambition is to pursue something no matter what it costs.
  • indiscriminateness. The interest in a particular pursuit does not matter, rather it’s the drive to be the most successful, the most attractive, the most intelligent, the most caring that matters. Regardless of circumstances or ones given attributes.
  • insatiability. Any sense of satisfaction from an achievement or recognition is short lived, if experienced at all. Our idealised image quickly creates relentless demands for more, for better, for faster. The escalation continues with hardly any respite.
  • severe reactions to its frustration. Failure to live up to the standards we set ourselves may produce reactions well out of proportion to the actual importance of the occurrence. Whether panic, despair, humiliation or rage at self or others. The stronger the compulsive drive, the more intense the reaction to its frustration.

Healthy strivings arise from a propensity in each of us to develop our given potentialities. In contrast, compulsive drives, the search for glory, result from the need to live into an imagined and idealised image of ourself.

In practice we each fit somewhere along the continuum between healthy and compulsive. By looking within ourselves, we attempt to understand where the balance settles. To far toward the extremes noted above and we’re likely to be off course …

Reference: “Neurosis and Human Growth” by Karen Horney. Ch. 1 ‘The Search For Glory’

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Real Self

We meet every six weeks in a quiet Balmain pub lounge. Over the years we’ve mentored each other along our work and life paths. These are valuable friendships and conversations, our shared interest in encouraging each other toward full and happy lives. Soft conversations they are not.

Last meeting we added the spice of Chapter 6 from Karen Horneys ‘Neurosis & Human Growth’, material we each worked with through LF.

Ch 6. ‘Alienation From Self’ explores the process and costs of losing touch with our real self and invention of an idealised image. KH describes our real self as the “alive, unique, personal center of ourselves; the only part that can and wants to grow.” [p.155]

Five effects of alienation from real self are

  • dimished capacity for and awareness of feelings (i.e. pride governs feelings)
  • squandered energy (investing in idealised self rather than real self)
  • reduced sense of direction of own life (driven by shoulds, compliance, compulsions)
  • avoidance of self responsibility (vs recognition of self as is, willing to bear consequences of actions, realising it’s up to oneself to solve difficulties)
  • undermining our integrative powers (reduced feeling of inner unity)

As we talked, we examined each of our stories and experiences in relation to these effects. Asking questions about our spontaneous feelings and thoughts, energy levels, motives and intentions. Conversations of rare quality.

Inevitably though, it is tricky separating the real from the imagined. Having peers reflect back their impression helps orientate your view. And yet in the end, each of us takes responsibility for what filters through and into our life.

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