The shift from Socialised to Self-Authored: Letting go of our demons and walking out into the light (2022)

Graham Ward

The shift from Socialised to Self-Authored: Letting go of our demons and walking out into the light

If we are to break out of our self-limiting beliefs we need to move on a path towards what Bob Kegan calls the self-authored state; literally to become the author of our own lives. To do this without a fracture requires us to be intentional about our choices, and mindful of our inner voice, explains KDVI Associate, Graham Ward.


The biggest questions we can ask ourselves as individuals are also the scariest. Why do we exist? What are we here for? They can be so daunting that we steer away from them, not wanting to find an answer that leaves us emptier than before we’d posed the question.


But viewed through a developmental theory lens, the answers are straightforward. Firstly, we’re here to ‘not die’. Not dying is one of life’s great endeavours. But in addition, we’re here to honour and experience the full possibility of being alive; to grow to our fullest potential.


In this context, we’re talking about not dying psychologically, so how do we protect ourselves from that? How do we still move forward?


Think of the life cycle of a butterfly. It’s transcendent. The caterpillar is not meant to die as a more resourceful or intelligent caterpillar, it is meant to transcend. After that point, the butterfly has entirely different endeavours, and a new purpose. 


And the same is possible for us.


We were not meant to die as we were psychologically when we had just finished school. We are meant to develop. But it’s not about just passively developing, it’s that we need to. 


Constructive developmental theory


Within child development, the stages are obvious and apparent - they’re largely visible, so you can see it happening right in front of you. But back in the 1970s, it was becoming apparent to psychologists that adults developed too. It was, however, much more subtle. 


The emerging theory was that reality doesn’t just happen to adults – we construct it. So not only do we biologically age, we also continue to develop and become more complex with age and experience. And it’s this that helps us reach our potential.


The Kegan model of developmental theory has five stages, with the bulk of the adult population sitting at stage 3, socialised. This stage is really about our relationships. We’ve learned we need to interact with, and be supported by others in order for our needs to be met. We’re part of society, and it’s part of us. As a result of that shift away from our needs and into that socialised phase, we tend to give too much weight to what other people think or want, which means we’re very often not standing in our own ground.


The stage compels us to reduce inner emotional conflict. In other words, we’re playing not to lose, so we get what we avoid. And if we remain here, oriented towards safety, our bigger vision is at stake.


Risking it all means everything


At level 4, self-authored, you’re actually able to hold your relationships as object. We can separate ourselves from them. Our centre of gravity has shifted from adhering to societal or external values to following our own internal compass.


At this stage we begin a shift from outside-in to inside-out. We’re not defined by what others have told us to be. In other words, we can stop ourselves before we go to comply with something we know instinctively is not right. We trust in our compass, so we’re both able and willing to do the right thing. This means we risk disapproval; we risk controversy, we risk showing up, and we risk seeing who we really are – and that means everything.


Now, the move to stage 4 is not about expanding the logic that you already have and making it better. It’s actually about moving through that logic into an area which is hitherto unknown. When you do that, the way that you operate in the world changes. You visibly and noticeably become somebody different, because the way you conceptualise the world has changed. To put it another way, the way you scaffold your meaning has changed.


Finding your own voice


So how do we get there? If only it were straightforward - a lightning bolt illuminating a clear path. While it’s not as simple as that, there are certainly methods and practices you can start to deploy. 


Firstly, silence other people’s voices and listen to your own voice more actively. That means making time for more critical reflection, meditation, and maintaining curiosity and openness.


Second is we need to start questioning. What is it that I believe? What are my values? Where are my red lines? The answers are crucial if we are to stride towards our purpose.


So, it’s time to be courageous. To take some risks. To say out loud what it is you want to be, think, feel, believe. Sometimes that’s going to run you up against the system, but remember that it’s not courageous if there’s not some fear attached


And the potential upside is huge. Self-authored leaders exhibit characteristics such as being collaborative, authentic, purposeful, and visionary. Imagine the impact if we were able to deploy these people into our organisations, and into our society.  


Ready? Ask yourself this: which voice is speaking to you louder – the voice of purpose or the voice of fear? 


For more information, please consider:

Kegan, R (1995). In Over Our Heads: Mental Demands of Modern Life

Kegan, R & Lahey, Lisa Laskow. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Harvard Business Review Press.

Kegan, R. (2013). The Future Reaches of Adult Development.


Our Learning Lab Conversations are a space for reflection, shared experience and discovery about leadership in the face of extreme uncertainty and disruption, in order to unlock the energy and imagination required to navigate these waters effectively. To find out about our next series, contact [email protected]


KDVI, 2022

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