by Jenny Devine, Masters in Consciousness Studies, Play Collaborator.
Most of us assume the egocentric years are what we all go through in adolescence and that by the time we “clear that fence” and emerge into “adulthood” our egos have settled down and are no longer ruling the show. This belief is actually a dangerous myth. What is becoming clearer in the work that I do is that as we “ascend” or develop as adults our entrenched egos become more dominant.
The concept of ego is generally understood to be negative and one that plays out in certain “challenging” individuals. Most people have no idea that their belief system about who they are can be attributed to their ego and arises from previous experiences and the meaning that was given to them at that time. So ego is an illusory part of us from which we make meaning about ourselves, others, the world around us and what is important to us or not. Opinions on the human ego range from “fragile” through to dysfunctional and even, pathological. Some believe the unevolved human ego has actually outlived its usefulness.
Adult development theory has emerged to try and help us understand how we progress through various stages of adulthood and what each stage looks like. Best known for this work is former Harvard professor Robert Kegan. His six stage model begins at the impulsive childhood years and continues into adolescent years when one is completely immersed in one’s own point of view. By level three the adult has emerged but is a highly conditioned or socialised being whose view on the world is based on what others think- ranging from authority figures to work colleagues. It is estimated that around 70% of the adult population are at this level or below and only 20% will make the challenging transition though to level four where the adult is no longer defined by what others think of them. Sometimes known as the “self-authored” phase the level four adult is now consumed by their own identity- the “who am I” and “what makes me tick?”questions. This is fundamentally egoic.
Thus, level four can be considered a potential danger zone for leadership -and those who are led- if the person has not learned to disidentify from the voice of their ego. (People within countries where certain members of the population have been marginalised and persecuted will understand this well.) Consider that a number of leaders at level four are caught in the trap of ego-identification and are functioning in the absence of any form of moral compass. Consider, also, how many leaders who on one hand are considered “self-made and self -governing” individuals and yet on the other hand behave in a brutally egoic fashion – highly defensive, reactive, triggered, aggressive, righteous, arrogant, blaming, resentful….? Indeed, one in particular, springs to mind. And admire him or detest him, he was voted in as leader of, arguably, the most influential country in the world.
Kegan believes It is not until people are transitioning to the self- transformational level five – and only around 5% of adults get there – that they start to free themselves from the prison of their own identity.
It is only at this level that leaders can begin to enjoy the nuances of life, see and make peace with the opposites that exist within and around them while beginning to reinvent themselves according to a consciously chosen value system.
Hence, if we really want to realize our own leadership potential, we must get over ourselves- via the not so easy task of getting over our egos.
Jenny Devine is a leadership coach and collaborator at Play Colab.
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