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Transformation and the Development Journey

by Ken Ideus

Searching for Transformation

Have you ever noticed how many people seem to be or are looking for a transformational experience?  What is that thing they are looking for?

When I meet up with a client for the first time, in my executive coaching practice, I'll always ask at some point what they are looking for. Often their response is something like "Well I've heard this is a transformational process, and I think I'm looking for something like that". I've met very few people over the past several years in my work with managers and leaders who aren't already successful, at least by most external standards. So why are they looking for more, for something transformational? If someone is successful by external criteria, it seems to imply that what they are searching for is more internal. Some might say it is because they are unhappy or dissatisfied with where they are now, who they are being.  While that may be true, I believe it's a little more complex than that, and I also believe that it is both natural and constructive.  In essence, it is quite possible that we are all on a continuous search for transformation, and most of us may be going about it quite unawares.

Transformation: A normal part of the human development journey

The human experience is a journey.  A journey comprised of several intertwined paths leading to expanded capabilities, awareness and fulfilment in our lives.  Below are a few examples of those pathways:

We are all on a continuous search for transformation, and most of us may be going about it quite unawares.
  • The cognitive development path. The development of our thinking abilities, our discipline and functional knowledge, the tools and models we use to interpret the world
  • The moral development path. The degree to which we consider others in our actions, shape rules and formulate values according to context. The degree to which we take responsibility for ourselves and our decisions
  • The social development path. Our ability to relate to and engage with ever widening sets of others in our lives, in more diverse and complex environments
  • The psychological development path. Developing ourselves as individuals, our personalities, identities, our sense of confidence, security and our ability to experience the world as an individual in an effective way
  • The spiritual development path. Developing our sense of who we are, our purpose and deep intentions, our place in the world and our connection to it

A development journey keeps extending.


Once committed to our development journey, it just keeps on extending.  For some, that continuing extension is just too arduous, and they simply stop.  John Cleese in "A Fish Called Wanda" told the character portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis that his social friends were all in their 30's and already dead, meaning they had stopped learning, growing and exploring life. Others are continuously drawn, tantalized and excited by the new and unknown territory that life brings their way.

While transformation can be a single, holistic event, most of us experience it quite differently. As we grow and develop along any of the paths, moving from one stage to the other, a part of us, some aspect, is transformed. We "see" the world differently from that lens, or perspective.

Here is a wonderful example from the world of cognitive studies.  Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss developmental psychologist and one of the founders of the field of cognitive psychology, ran numerous tests with children to understand how they interpreted and dealt with the world differently as they aged. In one famous test, he set two glasses of juice in front of young children.  One glass was tall, and the other a squat tumbler, both containing the same amount. Up to a certain age, children would consistently choose the taller glass, thinking it was "bigger". At a later stage in their cognitive development, the children would look at the glasses and using the more complex cognitive concept of "volume", make the determination that they both had similar amounts of juice. Figuring "volume" was a concept their brains couldn't get a handle on just a few years before.  In this small but significant way, these children were "seeing" the world, at least glasses of juice, differently, and acting accordingly.

What is Transformation and how does it relate to leadership?

For those who by choice or by accident have ventured into leadership, it too is part of that continuing journey and carries its own unique challenges, twists, turns and rewards.

Leadership, is part of a continuing journey and carries its own unique challenges, twists, turns and rewards.

The leadership journey, as part of the human journey can also be seen as a series of stages.  Each stage has its own unique requirements and tasks…and…gives us access to a taste of what's available at the next stage.

To put some practical language to these stages, let's look at this from the point of view of someone in a business organisation. I'll use some often-used generic labels.

The first stage is usually labelled as "individual contributor", should we desire we can then move to "team leader" then "supervisor", followed by "unit manager" then on to "divisional manager", "executive board" and even "CEO".

People transcend to the next stage and enfold the best of what they learned in the previous one.

Each of these stages or steps requires capabilities, understandings, values and states of mind inclusive of, yet different from the previous one.

In developmental terms, we would say people transcend to the next stage and enfold the best of what they learned in the previous one.  Transformation from that perspective can be seen as a continuous process of transcending and enfolding. 

Transformation as "State" Changes


Transformation also triggers changes in states.  No, we're not talking about moving from Texas to Kentucky but about changing mental and emotional states of mind.

Those who embrace the journey are continuously drawn toward the next stage, toward the learning they will discover and the "state changes" they will experience there. Bandler and Grinder, the founders of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, refer to these "state" changes as "trans-formations", i.e., moving from one state or trance to another.

When we experience a transformation we "feel" different.  That "feel" comes as part of a whole and powerful package. We have new and exciting insights about ourselves and those around us and, fresh capabilities for applying those new insights to our world. 

Transformation…subtle or not-so-subtle?

Generally, we don't notice that we are experiencing a continuous series of transformations.  Some shifts, however, are more difficult and challenging, i.e. more transformational, than others and thus more noticeable.

In organizational life, for example, shifting from individual contributor to team leader can be quite significant, or, making the leap from senior management to the executive board, and then from the exec board to CEO.

Transformational challenges come in other forms as well. Consider, for example, of a small group of foot travellers approaching a mountain. One person sees the mountain with its jagged peaks and vertical inclines and is terrified, frozen with fear. Another, an experienced trekker, sees an exciting route toward those vertical aspects and yet wonders how they will handle a first real climb, the third, a seasoned mountaineer, simply looks to the mountain, hoping for new challenges it might provide. The fourth, a new guide and leader of this travelling group, might wonder how she will keep them all together, safe and successful through the whole of the experience.

Steps to guiding my own transformation as a leader

Let me make a distinction first between "ambition" and "aspiration".

Aspiration is the depth and scope of impact we would like to move toward in any given context.

When addressing leadership, I like to use the word aspiration as it automatically triggers a wider conversation and generates a wider context. 

Ambition, while not a bad thing, seems to imply the sheer drive to move ahead, particularly ahead and upward.

Aspiration tends to signal a future view, something hopeful. In leadership terms, I define aspiration as the depth and scope of impact we would like to move toward in any given context.  Aspiration grows, even when it starts with the individual contributor, aspiring to be a team leader. I've used the individual to team leaders transition to help shape a few questions in some key areas:

  • Functional/Technical.  What functional, discipline, process skills and knowledge would be required of a team leader that aren't required of me?
  • Behavioural. What behaviours and attributes will be important for a team leader role vs. an individual contributor role?
  • Values. What additional things and people (including other functions and teams) will I now need to consider important when I'm making decisions, taking actions?
  • Development. How will I develop those capabilities and attributes I've discovered in asking and exploring these questions.?

These questions, in their essence, are valid through all levels of aspiration and transition.  When the answers to these questions are addressed and acted upon, especially as a whole, they become transformational. 

While earlier we talked about enfolding past learnings, this comes with a health warning.  There is another crucial question that those moving into higher levels of leadership and management should ask themselves:

  • "What are the capabilities, attributes and ways of doing things that have served me well up to now, but may not serve me so well, as I move into the future?"

I find this question, and those willing to address it, particularly appropriate for managers moving from focused operational, technical, direct results delivery, into leadership and influence roles. Not only is it appropriate, but when fully embraced, can lead to a powerful, transformational experience.

Suggested steps for development and transformation.

Some suggested steps for individuals aspiring to develop and thus transform along the way:

  • Identify your next level of aspiration; not just the job or role, but the scope and level of impact you aspire to, in the context you've defined.
  • Explore the three areas - Functional, Behavioural and Values – to understand what this new level will require of you  (as you've not been there yet, this is a good time to engage with others - colleagues, mentors, someone already in or previously in that or a similar role)
  • Explore ways of developing these areas (coaching, a mentor, a development programme or process, your own exploration and research or all of the above!)
  • Arrange for feedback on how you are doing on the journey
  • Keep your mind open for the next step that will start unfolding as you reach your current aspirations

In Summary

We've covered a fair bit of territory so lets try to summarize a few points:

  • Transformation is part and parcel of development and growth and it tends to stop when we stop growing and especially when we stop being open to growth. 
  • Anyone who continues on a development journey will be experiencing some form of transformation and will likely notice some draw toward a transformational experience. 
  • The journey of development is travelled via many pathways including the cognitive, moral, psychological, social and spiritual
  • As we develop and move from one stage to another, we "transcend and enfold" moving beyond where we were yet taking the best of what we've learned with us
  • Transformation can be subtle – simply occurring in the background and we grow – or quite noticeable when facing challenging growth experiences.
  • Transformation occurs in both stages and states.  Stages, being every expanding capabilities and insights and states being the feelings and states of mind that go with each stage, and the transitions from one to another.
  • Conscious growth, especially for leaders, is triggered by aspiration.  Each level of aspiration calls for expansion and deepening in the areas of behaviour, function and values.
  • And lastly, let's not forget that what has made us successful in previous stages, may not be the most helpful to us as we move along.

Ken Ideus

This series on authentic leadership is written by Ken Ideus who is well known globally for his work on "The Leaders Voice". Ken has worked for the last 30 years with multi-national corporates in over 30 countries, doing both consulting and senior leadership development in the USA, Europe and Africa. You can read more about his articles and tools, and about The Leaders Voice.

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