Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Cognitive Flexibility - The Stages of Ego Development and Leadership

Cognitive Flexibility - Stages of Ego Development - Adult Development

By Peter Holliday - Integral Executive Coach at The Coaching Room

“What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
“No, Neo. I'm trying to tell you that when you're ready, you won't have to”

Neo and Morpheus, The Matrix


As a coach I am consistently blessed with the opportunity to work with individuals from varying backgrounds, assisting deep transformation on both personal and professional levels. I firmly believe through this work that separation of these two domains is impossible; your Way of Being in the world is with you both at work and at home. Your Way of Being knows no context except to help you function as best you can inside the world of what can sometimes be your own limiting beliefs and structures. But this functioning can be expanded by developing your cognitive flexibility. In this paper I will be outlining the stages of flexibility, how they are measured and how they can be used in within certain settings and applications.

For the purposes of this article I will be looking at how cognitive flexibility affects the ability of leaders and executives to transform both themselves and their company, and maybe even the world around them. In order to do this I will be framing this concept within the stages and levels of ego development as proposed by Dr Susanne Cook-Greuter (Cook-Greuter, 1985). I have found that the Nine stages of Ego development as measured by her SCT-i (Sentence Completion Test – Integral ) nearly perfectly reflect ad embody the progressive stages of cognitive flexibility as they emerge in human beings. While some people have issues with their whole self being reduced to a certain set of distinctions, (which I can wholeheartedly agree with in some instances); it is remarkable how often the Ego Development framework and client are in complete agreement.

Flexibility by definition

Flexibility is the ability to expand and contract according to a certain set of arising conditions or circumstances, and then resume original shape or form. It is also thought of as being not locked in or rigid, but in some ways malleable, and so it is the same for cognition or functioning in the cognitive domain . In terms of thinking, it is the ability to do a large number of things at one time, and to act in a very situational manner. By this I mean the ability to respond appropriately to the conditions as they arise as opposed to reacting. In another words, other than trying to make the situation fit your map, it’s adjusting yourself to fit the conditional requirements arising around you.

Several studies (Cook-Greuter, 1985) (Torbert & Rooke , 2005) (Rooke, 2001) indicate that cognitive flexibility (also known as ego development) is a major, if not the major, determinate in developing successful leaders that can actually sustainably transform companies. Jim Collins now famous book Good to Great (Collins, 2001) is a fine example of just how much difference a leader with a high degree of mental flexibitly can really make to an organisation . It is of interest to note that ALL of the CEO’s that led their companies to greatness in this book over the length of the study reflected the capacities of the later and more developed stages of ego development, and extremely high levels of cognitive positioning.

Levels of flexibility

To a large degree, an individual’s ability to position themselves into situations in different ways or perspective is limited by their world-view. A person’s world-view is literally their map for navigating the outside world, and often incongruity between this internal navigation system and the outside world is the source of constant tension, as the map is not the territory, and an inability to understand or embody this understanding is what leads leaders and executives into constant trouble. The ability to adapt to situations and be flexible in your interaction with the outside world and the other humans inhabiting it is not a simple you either have it or you don’t affair, it progresses in stages.

Level of flexibility- increasing | Characteristics | Strengths | % of Research Sample

1. Opportunist
- Pre-Conventional
- Egocentric
- Wins any way possible. Self-oriented; manipulative; “might makes right.”
Good in emergencies and in sales opportunities.
- 5 %of research sample

2. Diplomat
- Conventional
- Ethnocentric
- Avoids overt conflict. Wants to belong; obeys group norms; rarely rocks the boat
- Good as supportive glue within an office; helps bring people together.
- 12% of research sample

3. Expert
- Conventional
- Ethno-Centric
- Rules by logic and expertise. Seeks rational efficiency.
Good as an individual contributor
- 38% of research sample

4. Achiever
- Conventional
- Ethno-Centric
- Meets strategic goals. Effectively achieves goals through teams; juggles managerial duties and market demands.Well suited to managerial roles; action and goal oriented.
- 30% of research sample

5. Individualist
- Post-Conventional
- World-Centric
- Interweaves competing personal and company action logics. Creates unique structures to resolve gaps between strategy and performance. Effective in venture and consulting roles.
- 10% of research sample

6. Strategist
- Post-Conventional
- World/Cosmo-Centric Generates organizational and personal transformations.
- Exercises the power of mutual inquiry, vigilance, and vulnerability for both the short and long term. Effective as a transformational leader.
- 4% of research sample

7. Alchemist
- Post-Post Conventional
- Cosmo-Centric
- Generates social transformations. Inte-grates material, spiritual, and societal transformation. Good at leading society-wide transformations.
1% of research sample


Each of the stages above represents stages of development that correspond to increasing levels of mental cognition and flexibility. You can see from the chart above, levels of flexibility range greatly, but in general the greater depth, span and degree of flexibility, the better. The greater the altitude of your world-view, the larger your ability to navigate certain situations or problems. The ability to be flexible in various leadership or executive situations is something that does and can be developed over time with the right injunction and or practice.

Although there are seven rough stages listed above correlating to executive positions in which they are most readily found, there are four main or general levels or switch-points that mark a substantial increase in flexibility and world-view. These switch-points mark increases in being able to register or see both inter-connectivity and the ability to hold perspectives of other people as if they are your own, before making a choice or decision. You can see how profoundly this capacity would affect people in leadership positions. The four main switch-points relate directly to the amount of people that an individual’s perspective can hold or relate to in the following ways:

Stage 1 – Ego-Centric – it’s all about me and what I want – A 1st person perspective

Stage 2 – Ethno-Centric – It’s about me and my group and people that I can relate to - Family, Religion, Race – a 2nd person perspective

Stage 3 – World-Centric – What’s good for all of us as a global population - a 3rd person perspective

Stage 4 – Cosmo-Centric – What’s good for all people as a global family and the universe in general - a 4th to 9th person perspective

Each of the stages above builds on the one below it, and some sense provides the foundation for the new, higher reality to emerge, given the right challenges or conditions. Some people grow through all 5 stages during their life, others remain at one stage for their entire life. It seems that a certain amount of the reasons for growth and change are as much nature as they are nurture.

Applications – Theory to Practice

Now that we have explored the stages of flexibility in reference to worldview it seems only reasonable to now explore the application of this in the real world.

Functional Fit – an Integral approach to Human Resourcing

Functional Fit is simply placing a person in a role that fits that person’s level of flexibility or degree of cognitive development. For example I would not employ some one at the Expert level (Stage-3) of consciousness in a leadership role. As leadership is about going outside the boundaries and Experts (Stage-3) rely on the systems and liner thinking as their cognitive map boundaries and they need rules to function. So in this sense there is a certain amount of ethics implied in Functional Fit, as it takes into consideration two or three immediate allowances, such as:

• An Expert placed in this situation would suffer undue anxiety at constantly being in a position requiring work in a sphere outside their developmental capacities

• What they create in this sphere would be bounded by restraint of the conformity, and their deep desire to fit and hold the status quo in the pre-existing frameworks; as opposed to going beyond them

• Experts by nature operate from a craft or linear style logic, and tend not to respond to situations but rather to react. So you could see how having a CEO or leader in this position that reacts to a market without considering the outcome could have undesired results for many companies

Further matching examples for instance would be for a role in sales. Someone at the Achiever (Stage 4) level makes perfect sense, as they thrive on competition and the ability to obtain financial success, and so the job role equals the developmental match, brining about performance in that given role…it is a Functional Fit...

Again Leaders and CEO’s that change the game nearly always test at the higher levels of flexibility,(at least Stage-5 and above-usually Stage-6), and the ones that don’t, do not bring about sustainable transformation; just short term rearrangement for personal gain. Thinking about how their choices impact the world is just not on their radar.

So from these very basic examples we can see how much more efficient it is to employ people to roles that are developmentally specific to the employee’s level of cognitive flexibility . For an extended and far more detailed description of this matching process and the dilemma of incorrect matching please consult: Organisational Transformation requires the presence of leaders that are Strategists and Alchemists (Rooke, 2001).

Applying Levels of Flexibility to Type – Using personality profiling correctly

One of the most common things we hear from HR specialists and employment agencies is “but we do personality testing!”. Personality testing and developmental assessment however are not the same thing.

A useful way to think about this is Vertical vs Horizontal. Personality profiling tools like Myers Briggs or the Enneagram are a horizontal approach to profiling. Developmental stage level is vertical. As an example, you can have an entire room of INFJ’s (Myers Briggs) or any other Myers Briggs type for that matter but all a different stages of development. So even though they are all the same type, depending on their development, they will all behave very differently. A person at the lower stages of the spectrum will be behaving in a way that self serves them in to a position of getting what they want out of the situation. While another person of the same type but at the higher end of the spectrum will be focused on how he can create world peace. Both people are exactly the same type but behave extremely differently.

So with just one simple example you can see the relevance of developmental profiling as an addition to horizontal personality profiling. In my opinion they should always be used in conjunction.

In my work as an Executive Coach I have found the one profiling tool that successfully integrates both horizontal and vertical stages into a more comprehensive overall profile is The Enneagram - specifically the particular type of the Enneagram modelled by Riso and Hudson at the Enneagram Institute (Riso & Hudson , 2010). This specific profile integrates the levels of development into levels of health, which closely correspond or mirror the levels of cognitive flexibility.

This almost seamless integration of both the vertical and horizontal axis of personality typing is why we at The Coaching Room we use the Enneagram in all of our coaching sessions. We find it the easiest and most accurate integrated profile for allowing us access to a client’s world in the shortest amount of time. While the Enneagram doesn’t cover all the bases, it does give you a fantastic starting point without having to combine multiple profiles.


At The Coaching Room one of the most consistent things we are continually asked to facilitate in executives or leaders is a shift in their degree of cognitive flexibility or level of development, “I want to go to the next level”. For a shift in a way of being or level of development we often recommend Integral style Coaching.

Integral Coaching combines the use of a rigorous subject/object theory methodology with ongoing developmental practices; specifically designed and tailored to each client based on their unique AQAL constellation and way of being in the world. Through the ongoing adherence to these practices the client is nurtured and supported into first tasting, then embodying, their New Way of Being in the World, at the next level. Coaching Room Coaches are well-educated tour guides, helping guide clients through the cartography of their new mental landscape.


Wilber, K. (Performer). (2011). Integral Spirituality - A Deeper Cut. S. True.
Wilber, K. (2000). One Taste - daily relfections on integral spirituality . shambhala.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. Harper Business.
Cook-Greuter, S. (1985). Ego Development - The nine levels of increasing embrace . paper , integral Institute , psychology .
Riso, D., & Hudson , R. (2010). The Enneagram Institute. Retrieved from The Enneagram Institute: www.TheEnneagramInstitute.com
Rooke, D. (2001, October ). Organisational Transformation requires the presence of leaders who are alchemists and strategists . Oraganisations and people , 4.3 .
Torbert, W., & Rooke , D. (2005, April ). The seven transformations of leadership. The harvard business review.


1. The SCT-I is a 36 item unfinished sentence questionnaire, adapted from, what was the pioneering work of Jane Loevinger’s original Washington University Sentence Completion Test.

2. Cognitive is a term that is widely used and for the sake of all involved could use with a firm definition, as it seems to mean different things to different people. In integral theory it is used not in reference to thinking per see but in context to the ability to take perspective of both self and other. A clear distinction between this definition and that of linear deductive thinking could alleviate a lot of the confusion encountered when different people use this term.

3. It is worthy to note that Skills are important as well, and just having a highly flexible mind is not purely enough to make great leaders. I am simply suggesting that at the leadership level of large companies business skills are at about the same general capacity.

4. It is the belief of many of the theorist referenced in this paper that one stage of development or flexibility stage takes about 5 years to pass through. The only thing that has been quantifiably proved to accelerate this process has been mediation, or any form of Subject/Object injunction. Recently Integral Coaching and it’s continual use of metaphors as a way of employing the Subject/Object method during coaching sessions, while focusing on holistic development. This new technique offers a new and as yet un-qualified potential to shorten this developmental time frame.

5. It is worthy of mention that several theorist’s such as Ken Wilber include a possible 6th stage that is referred to as Kosmo-Centric. The K in Kosmo-Centric alludes to the fact that other realities may in fact exist, and takes these into account, the allowance of other energetic realms associated with altered states, such as – Subtle, Causal and Non Dual. A more in depth focus of these possible states of being can be found in (Wilber, 2000) (Wilber, Integral spirituality - A Deeper Cut, 2011)(Wilber, Intergal Spirituality - A Deeper Cut, 2011).

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