Today’s leadership post comes from Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World by Jennifer Berger. I love how Berger (2012) utilized her explanation of Robert Kegan’s subject-object theory to emphasize the importance of knowing how we know what we know.

In my own development, I find it difficult to move things from subject to object because it’s nearly impossible to see what is subject to me until I’m made aware of it. The movement of things from “subject” to “object” is one way that leadership transformation can happen. Berger (2012) explains it best in her appendix on Key Concepts in Adult Development.

Subject: Things that are subject are by definition experienced as unquestioned,
simply a part of the self. They can include many different things—a relational issue, a personality trait, an assumption about the way the world works, behaviors, or emotions. Things that are subject to you can’t be seen because they are a part of you. Because they can’t be seen, they are taken for granted, taken for true—or not even taken at all. You generally can’t name things that are “subject,” and you certainly can’t reflect upon them—that would require the ability to stand back and take a look at them. You don’t have something that’s subject; something that’s subject has you. For example, I once thought that all people learn things in basically the same way—the way I learned them. When students came to me with difficulty about an assignment or test, I thought the problem was theirs; I was being so clear and they were still not learning. I struggled and struggled to help them learn, but to no avail. I was subject to my own teaching and learning styles. I didn’t know different styles existed (because I figured everyone taught and learned like me), so I was powerless to change my style to meet the needs of diverse learners.

Object: Object is the opposite of subject. Again, something that is object can be a relational issue, personality trait, or a belief about the world. While things that are subject have you, you have things that are object. While all of us necessarily have many parts of our world to which we are subject (if we gave much conscious thought to our assumptions about gravity, we might not have time to go to sleep at night!), one part of development is about moving more and more things from subject to object. The more in your life you take as object, the more complex your worldview because you can see and act upon more things. In the example above, as I struggled to help my students learn, I found out about teaching and learning styles – especially as they relate to personality type. For the first time I could examine something I hadn’t even known existed before – my own teaching and learning styles and I could take action to help my students be more successful. What was once unknown and unnamed – subject – became within my ability to reflect on – as object. The most profound example of a move from subject to object is when the entire meaning-making system moves from that which unquestioningly runs me to that which I can actively take charge of and control. This shift of entire systems is what gives form to the five forms of mind.

Soak Game Table Talk

My takeaway from Kegan’s subject-object theory and Berger’s example is that it is not about what we know but how we know what we know. Focusing on the what can be really deceiving. If how we know needs to change, we need more than information; we need transformation. This is important to recognize in leadership because it can significantly impact the way one makes decisions, the way a leader utilizes their influence, and an individuals capacity to reach the next form of mind or developmental stage (maybe we’ll touch on this next week).

If you put a cap on your own learning by staying in an expert action-logic developmental stage – the “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know what I was doing” syndrome: you arrest not just your leadership development, but also your human development. Development is not about seeing who can get to the next stage the fastest. I promise you no one pats you on the back or gives you a two-week vacation to the Bahamas or shine in the Guiness Book of World Records for being the most self-transformational human being. Development is a choice. Leadership capacity is inevitable once the choice to develop is made.

Do you recall any moments in your life when things shifted from subject to object?


Berger, J. G. (2012) Appendix A: Key concepts in adult development. In Changing on the job: developing leaders for a complex world. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Creating a Solid Unit of Performance

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