How to Make Decisions in the Face of Adversity: Part II

Providing Context for Decision-Making; Understanding Mental Complexity

In Part I of this series, I introduced the Cynefin Framework as a model for helping leaders determine their decision-making process. If you haven’t read Part I yet, I encourage you to do so now before reading Part II so you have some context for what I will be addressing here. The Cynefin Framework is included within this article for reference.  

In Part II I am going to address the mismatch between the world’s complexity and our mental capacity to deal with that complexity.

The complexity of the leadership environment described in Complex and Chaotic quadrants of the Cynefin Framework alters the demands placed not only on leaders but also their followers. Workers at all levels of the organization are being asked to operate at higher levels of mental complexity. The question becomes: “Has our level of mental complexity evolved at the same rate as the complexity of the world in which we live?”


In my coaching practice I have found that adult development theory (based primarily on the work of developmental psychologist and author Robert Kegan and his colleagues) provides a framework for understanding our level of mental complexity and therefore our ability to deal with complexity in our leadership environment. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, documented the development of children through adolescence, but it was long thought that human development stopped once we reached adulthood. However, modern adult development theory posits that our development can continue through four additional stages. I’ll briefly examine each:

The Self-Sovereign mind was thought to describe the stage reached in late adolescence. The focus is inward, the world is seen in terms of black and white with little or no nuance, and there is difficulty seeing others’ perspectives. Today, we know that some continue with this mindset into adulthood. In my work I have only experienced one executive who I would describe as Self-Sovereign. Although successful in the short term, his Fortune 500 company eventually struggled and was downsized, and his family was destroyed. The corporate office which bore his name now sits empty.

As most individuals transition from adolescence into the adult world, they find that they need others. Their environment requires that they understand others’ perspectives and begin to see there are subtle differences in the way the world is interpreted. At this stage they move into what we call a Socialized mind. Their understanding of the world is much more nuanced, and they look to group norms and values for making sense of the world. From an evolutionary perspective, this mindset was important for human development as we moved from what’s good for me as an individual to what is good for the group. I have coached many leaders who fall into the Socialized mindset. They are often popular but tend to make decisions they think will please their followers rather than make the hard decisions that are best for the organization. It is estimated that about 45% of adults fall in this stage of development.

As we continue to develop, we may realize that we don’t always agree with the group perspective. We encounter many different groups with multiple perspectives.  At this stage we begin to write our own story with an internal set of values and norms. This is called the Self Authoring mind. We can see and understand others’ perspectives and realize there are many shades of gray in this complex world. At this stage we determine for ourselves what is important. The Self Authored mind sets its own direction and its own truth. It is estimated that another 45% of the population fall in this stage of development. The majority of successful leaders I have coached have been at this stage of development. However, at some point the Self-Authored mind may become rigid and unable to adapt to ever changing complexity.

The final stage of development is the Self-Transforming mind. Probably less than 2% of the population have reached the Self-Transforming stage of development. They increase their understanding by delving into the unknown, questioning their assumptions and learning from both their positive and negative experiences. They excel at understanding emerging challenges and provide adaptive solutions to the complex problems they encounter.

As we progress through these stages of adult development our minds are able to handle higher levels of complexity. However, as you can see from the above discussion, fewer than 50% of the population has developed beyond the socialized mind and struggle to successfully navigate the Complex and Chaotic quadrants of the Cynefin Framework. This poses the danger of applying the technical tools that are useful in Simple and Complicated of the Cynefin Framework, where those at the early stages of adult development are most comfortable, to the problems found in the Complex and Chaotic quadrants. As Kegan succinctly puts it – “If you over-simplify in the face of complexity you do enormous damage. It’s like using a sledgehammer when you really need a scalpel.”

I have found that developmental growth as an adult can be difficult and sometimes painful. It is hard to see what beliefs, behaviors, and habits are interfering with our journey forward. However, with a positive attitude towards change and personal development and with the guidance of a skilled coach, that journey can be both exciting and rewarding. 

 I hope this brief discussion can provide a starting point for meeting this challenge. 

We want to hear from YOU! What do you think of the Cynefin Framework and four additional stages of modern adult development? Share your comments with us below!



James W. Davis is the founder and President of The Davis Group Ltd., an international consulting firm specializing in leadership development and executive coaching.

Mr. Davis has nearly 40 years of experience in the public and private sectors. He also serves as a speaker and consultant to organizations on a variety of leadership related issues.

He is the founder of Sacred Leadership and the co-founder of the Institute for Educational Advancement.