Most leader’s introduction to the field of adult development comes through an assessment or model aiming to enhance their leadership behaviors to become more effective. In this article, Jonathan lays out two important traditions in the field of adult development and describes a key distinction between them.

Adult Development – A Growing Interest

Currently, there is a welcomed explosion of interest in the concept of adult development. From events like the ongoing MindShift series to public discussions in Sweden, Jonathan Reams’ academic anthology on how adult development impacts leadership, and several companies visible focus on taking developmental approaches to leadership, the concept is being explored and applied more today than ever before.

At the same time, due to the newness of adult development for many, there is a tendency to treat it as a unified field of study. Yet the truth is there are many different threads and histories involved, so making some basic distinctions can be useful as a way of enabling a more nuanced and educated response to the many offerings available in the market. Here, I will focus on distinguishing between ego development and dynamic skill theory.

There have been many researchers as well as practitioners exploring this territory to varying degrees for 125 years. In the last 40 years we have seen a more concerted effort to bring these ideas into practice, especially around leadership development. As with any emerging field, there are parallel efforts going on, often unknown to each other. Some of these tend to overlap and converge, while others offer critical differences that can have a significant impact on practice.


Ego Development and the Holistic Self

Within adult development, we can identify one thread that is focused on the self and how it matures, develops or grows in adulthood. Ego development models, assessments and related leadership development practices are the main thread here. The central premise is that our self evolves in clearly identified (even if sliced and labeled differently) stages and that movement to higher or later stages brings benefits to leaders in many ways. We organize our meaning-making processes around a central focus, while recognizing that moment to moment we might excel or regress in our performance.

There is something easily recognizable as true in this picture. Where it can encounter limitations is in operationalizing theory, such as in the measurement process, how the results of measurement are interpreted and the implications this has for practice. Recent research has reviewed this and found that the construct of ego has expanded from its original conception (which had multiple components to start with) to include more components that provide a more holistic conception of ego.

While this might align with our own growing awareness of what constitutes the self and feel more inclusive to us, it has also introduced more noise into the measurement process (in addition to noise generated by more technical issues related to how these theories define their stages and the scoring systems that are used). As a result, we find that it is all too easy to stretch the claims and implications of such models and their measures beyond their empirical grounding, resulting in practices that depend as much on the skill of the coach or facilitator as they do on the assessment itself.


Dynamic Skill Theory and Hierarchical Models of Complexity 

While there are a number of other possible threads to explore, a key distinction can be made between these ego development models, measures and related practices and the line of work related to dynamic skill theory. Here, the ego is not in focus, rather the reasoning or thinking skills in a specific domain. In today’s knowledge economy, core skills are related to the complexity of thinking tools, or our ability to use complex abstractions in more systemic ways. Research along this line has identified very precise models of hierarchical complexity related to both tasks and skill performance. As well, skills develop, influenced by both individual capabilities and context, in a structure of levels that are clearly measurable and distinct from each other with a granularity and precision well beyond what is possible within ego development measures. This is one area where Lectical assessments offer key advantages.

There is something easily recognizable as true here as well. While there are limitations in terms of measures in this area not as holistically trying to encompass all aspects of our experience in one simple label, (which is convenient and helpful in meeting our need for a simple story), there are distinct advantages to be gained. These come primarily in the specificity of the construct being measured, hierarchical complexity of thinking skills, applied in relation to specific contexts, enabling a clearer identification of actions to be taken for a leader to develop. Further, the granularity available enables these actions to be precisely targeting a person’s ideal growth edge. (Recent research using Rasch analysis has shown Lectica’s measurement tool reliably awards scores of developmental complexity with a high level of precision). This translates directly into leaders being able to pinpoint new behaviors that will develop key skills.


The current increase in companies applying adult development to support developing their people is warmly welcomed. As our collective experience from this grows, we will better understand what tools best serve different client needs. We all want to support the holistic growth of people. We can accomplish this by using measurement that supports developing the complexity of cognitive skills, applied to role demands as well as how we relate to self and others.

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