When Professional Development Gets Personal

September 11, 2015

On September 11, 2001 I was living in a bush cabin near Byron Bay, Australia. It was early morning when I awoke to find my husband uncharacteristically watching television in our lounge room. I couldn’t see the screen but knew from the frantic sound bites and horrified expression on his face that something terrible had happened.The images broadcast around the world were terrifying, even more so for those of us who had family and friends at The World Trade Center; my cousin worked on the 102nd floor of the North Tower at Cantor Fitzgerald.


For me this was the first in a series of tragic events. Within five years of the WTC attacks, my husband died suddenly, his adult son died from a brain tumour and my father lost his twenty-year battle with cancer.


Successive losses under such tragic circumstances had a profound impact on my mindset. I became flooded with contradiction: gratitude AND urgency, pain AND love, stinginess AND generosity, control AND surrender, fear AND trust, horror AND beauty. The internal mechanisms I once used to understand the world around me no longer sufficed. Crisis was transforming my mindset into one that could integrate the complexities and contradictions inherent in great loss.


Changes in mindset are not necessarily crisis driven. According to Jean Piaget’s theory of childhood cognitive development, transforming mindset toward higher levels of complexity is a naturally occurring process. Piaget called it adaptationand defined it as the ways in which children learn about and categorise the world.


Piaget’s theory of adaptation is comprised of two complimentary and simultaneously occurring processes through which awareness of the outside world is internalised. The first is called assimilation and occurs when new information is successfully internalised within the boundaries of one’s current mindset. The second process is called accommodation and occurs when new information challenges the current mindset and restructures it in order to accommodate increasingly complex information.


As an example, consider the analogy of a database: your mind has its database already built, with fields and categories defined. If it comes across new information, which fits into those fields, it can assimilate it without any trouble. However, if it comes across information that does not fit the pre-existent fields and categories, you have to develop new ones to accommodate the information. Assimilation and Accommodation http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/assimacc.htm#ixzz3kGmU5M6Z


Leadership development seeks opportunities to accelerate adaptation. Although crisis can stimulate the process, there are more strategic pathways. One pathway focuses on creating the conditions for leaders to practice paced adaptation.


The Center for Higher Ambition Leadership is an organisation dedicated to this approach. Its aim is to support business leaders to unlock their organisations’ full human and business potential in ways that create sustained economic value, benefit the wider community AND build social capital. The Center has created a wonderful checklist for business leaders to assess where they are and chart the path forward:


1. Find Your Anchor


  • Am I anchored in a philosophy of life, family, and work that enables me to find and serve a higher purpose, check my ego, and know what is right?

  • Am I developing habits for life and work that will enable me to stay centered so I can make wise decisions?


2. Choose Your Teachers Well


  • Do I have leaders from whom I can learn?

  • Am I comfortable accepting and using help from others?


3. Learn from Experience


  • Do I have a career plan that will provide me with the lessons of experience I need to develop my leadership and management capacity?

  • Does this plan include diverse jobs that will stretch my capabilities–jobs where I do not have the answers and where I am required to engage others in problem solving?

  • Am I working for a higher-ambition company with the right types of colleagues and a strong performance culture? If not, how can I find such a company, join it, and learn?

  • Am I finding ways to exercise my capacity to be honest with myself and with others and to take responsibility for my actions?

  • Am I discovering what makes this difficult for me?


4. Engage in Honest Conversations


  • Do I ask for and receive honest feedback?

  • Have I developed the trusted relationships with peers, coaches, and bosses to give me this feedback?


When it comes to leadership, professional development can be a profoundly personal journey. Creating the conditions that will accelerate the process of adaptation requires commitment and courage, two essential qualities that sit at the heart of effective leadership development practice.


In the next edition, I will explore Integral Leadership Practice (ILP) and some of its key tenants for creating the conditions for adaptation to occur.


Until then, this is Susanna Carman inviting you to… lead before you leap.


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