We are living in an increasingly complex world. One which is demanding new kinds of leadership and new ways of working in teams. This article explores how using the lens of adult development theory we are better able to thrive in this environment.

In the forming of Treeka Consulting myself and the other two founders asked ourselves:

What learning might come by using the lens of adult development theory in the early stages of forming an organisation?

This is the experiment that myself, Tom Greenwood and Thomas Arta are currently undertaking. This article will help you think about the organisation you’re part of, or the one you’re thinking about forming, with a particular focus on leadership and interpersonal dynamics.

We’ll cover:

We hope our learning will resonate with the new forms of leadership we see emerging amongst the organisations that we’re part of.

If you are intrigued by this exploration and would like to learn more about the application of adult development theory to leadership and organisational change then join our upcoming launch event on the 28th June.

How our meetings change when we hold the support and growth we can offer each other as one of the priorities of the meeting.

Holding development (by this we mean the support and growth that we offer each other and od ourselves) as a priority during our meetings means that we are never far from picking up the ADT lens. In order to do this we often find ourselves stepping back from the details and seeing what can be gained from observing, exploring and talking about the way we are thinking about the work we are doing. This helps us see more possibilities, ask better questions, create more agency and choice and speak, explore and discuss with more agility and fluidity.

The ADT lens helps us think about, critique, and improve upon the thinking that we’re doing. 

Because of this we’ve come together with far less ego than might be expected, we’re willing to be humble and honest, starting from ‘where we are at’ without any need to pretend that ‘we’ve got this’. We’ve been able to share fears, uncertainty and unknowns which, once on the table, has felt liberating, grounding, and as if we’re getting into place solid foundations.

In her book ‘Simple Habits for Complex Times’ Jennifer Garvey Berger (who’s work on ADT inspires and informs all of us) has some great guidance. She suggests that taking multiple perspectives, asking different questions, and stepping back to see the system support effective leadership and productive work. Doing these things also helps improve the quality of our thinking precisely because of the nature of thinking these habits of mind encourage us to do.

And so actively supporting each other to, for example, take steps back from the details and observe the system within which our conversation is happening, might feel like mental yoga to begin with, but with practice these things become easier.

With this shift in priority – towards holding our development high up there – our meetings have started to feel deeply meaningful, effective, and nourishing. Yes, we want to do something awesome and make a great organisation, we also recognise the simple beauty of three people coming together in mutual support, friendship and love. Being allowed in, and in turn allowing in others, to our developmental world is an intimate thing to do – and when done with care and respect we realise what a precious, if not sacred, experience this is. From this perspective the productivity-orientated outcomes from a meeting pail in comparison to the significance of these precious moments of human connection. 

The effect and meaning of ‘making object’ patterns that we notice in our thinking.

To make a pattern object means to move it (in our awareness) from being something that we’re subject to, that ‘has us’, to something that we have some distance from. This enables us to take an objective stance in relationship to the limiting pattern. The pattern then becomes something that we can see about ourselves. In doing so we’re no longer subject to the power of this pattern, but instead we have more choice and freedom to act in new, liberated and appropriate ways.

To make object a pattern is to be able to gain enough distance from it so that you’re able to speak about it. This can feel like ‘putting it on the table’ for examination. Initially it can feel a little like getting your dirty laundry out. But when done in a supportive and held space it’s hugely effective. 

For example, a pattern I have in the forming stages of anything is a hunger to dive right in, to take step 64 and 65 before I’ve properly taken step 1,2 and 3. Sometimes this pattern is useful, most of the time not.

Popping that pattern on the table early in our conversations has meant the three of us have all been able to hold it ‘as object’. In doing so I feel heard and supported. No longer an internal conflict (‘Why are these guys moving so slowly!?’ Or perhaps ‘Yeah yeah, but what are we going to do?’) I’ve felt a psychological spaciousness in our conversations and we’ve together held the questions of what appropriate action looks like, and when it should happen.

Consequently we’ve moved forwards in new and interesting ways, my hunger has felt satiated and we’re all learning about our perspectives and predilections on taking action or being more internally focused. This feels like enhanced congruence, that we’re committed to deeply aligned work that enables impactful and appropriate action.

The benefit in exploring polarities in our thinking

Exploring polarities means engaging in the conversation about our thinking whenever we notice a particular attachment or tendency circulating round one pole. As Thomas Artha puts this: 

“It’s about understanding our commitment to our preferred ways of being while simultaneously exploring complimentary and divergent attitudes and actions.”

In holding this meta (yet also entirely relevant) conversation about the polarities we’re experiencing in our thinking helps us make that polarity object and ‘on the table’ – ready for examination. We then bring our different perspectives, ask questions, and see what else is possible for us when the polarity itself comes under inspection from our unique context and perspectives. 

Let’s take the above example of the polarity of action vs discussion. In noticing my tendency to revolve around the action end of this spectrum the fruitful exploration is to ask things like; What’s so bad about discussion? What fears or assumptions might I be making? (that are having me circulate around the end of the spectrum that feels most comfortable to me). Where would others place themselves on this spectrum? And what perspectives do others have on my leaning towards action?

Polarity work feels intuitive, simple and yet profoundly useful. We’ve explored polarities like form vs formless, transcendent vs embodied, and wellbeing vs profit. As Jennifer says, leadership ‘requires the managing of many polarities’. In conversation we’ve uncovered our preferences and noticed hidden needs, we’re practiced holding each other in exploring ambiguity and unpicking nuance while contextualising our conversations within a larger picture. We’ve discussed the dynamic of holding an overarching and transcendent goal while navigating the present according to embodied resonance and felt experience. 

The benefit has been rich, fruitful and expansive conversation that is helping us make sense of complexity and ambiguity. In our confusing and changing world leaders are being asked, more and more, to hold space in ambiguity while enabling emergence. This is a tough demand, and we’re finding that sharing and examining polarities is a fruitful way to do this.

The challenges, and advantages, of being leaders who are also willing to learn

New forms of emergent leadership are asking for new kinds of skills. One of those skills is to become a leader who is willing to learn. That means asking questions we don’t know the answers to, sharing where the edges of our understanding are, and being OK without knowing what needs to happen next.

Jennifer Garvey Berger shares that 

“new forms of complexity […] require a kind of paradoxical element to add to the leader’s to-do list:

Know where you’re going and how to get there (so people will follow you) and also be open to the ideas of others (so that others add to your thinking and are engaged in a purposeful way). I other words: be a leader and a learner simultaneously.”

We’re finding that this dynamic of embracing ambiguity, leading purposefully, and being open to what is emerging in the moment, is a fruitful and meaningful place to be. It’s not always easy, but if we share the framing of leadership in this new light, and the language and awareness to support each other in holding this new kind of space then emergence is possible.

Letting yourself be present with the unknown, finding grounding within uncertainty, and being able to play in the dynamic between form and formlessness seems like a central skill of the modern leader.

That’s our experience. Though it’s a good question:

What conditions do you feel are optimum to allow emergence to take place?

Conclusion: A new kind of work

Gifts sometimes come in strange wrapping. We believe our current convergence of crisis is propelling us ever more urgently to question the ‘way things are done around here’. Change usually starts with a conversation. Sometimes it might feel like exactly the conversation you don’t want to be having. We prefer control, we think we ‘need to know’. 

Our shared capacity to be in these fruitful and explorative places where we’re having different kinds of meetings, making our patterns object, exploring polarities and becoming leaders who learn is down to our application of adult development theory in the way we work together.

A new kind of leadership is emerging. One in which the questions are more important than the answers, and in which ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty are the conditions that enable the leaders, and their organisations, to thrive. We hope some of what we’ve shared with you helps make sense of the territory so many of us are exploring.

As mentioned above, if you are intrigued by this exploration and would like to learn more about the application of adult development theory to leadership and organisational change then join our upcoming launch event on the 28th June.