Geologists have identified five mass extinctions in Earth’s history. Yet as the vast majority of life has been wiped out, our planet has continued to adapt and generate conditions for life to flourish once again. Unfortunately, many experts consider us to be living in a sixth mass extinction right now. And although we can situate this in a historic pattern, our current predicament is also a novel situation. Never before has a single species been almost entirely responsible for a mass extinction. Yet this is precisely the reality we are faced with today.
In the past, species loss often unfolded over one hundred thousand years or more. Even the extinction of the dinosaurs that began with a meteor impact unfolded over hundreds of thousands of years. But in this regard too, we humans are more efficient. In this largely human-driven extinction event, we appear to be accelerating global challenges and generating multiple crisis contexts at an incredible speed.
As Thomas Friedman suggests, we are in the Age of Accelerations. Specifically, the convergence of three major accelerations: Moore’s law in technology, data and automation (which predicted the doubling of transistor capacity roughly every two years), Globalization (of trade, information & communication, and mobility), and of course climate change and population growth.
Taken on its own, any one of these forces is difficult for the human mind to grapple with. Taken together, the exponential complexity and compounding interactions exceed the limits of our computational thinking—and furthermore, exceed the ability of most leaders and systems—to adapt and respond.
As a thought experiment, imagine a young woman who, just this spring, will be standing in front of family and friends, shaking hands with faculty and administrators, and proudly receiving her college diploma. Imagine the scale of change that she’s witnessed in just her twenty-some years, compared to the hundreds of thousands of years of human history that stretch behind us.
Imagine her grandparent, or even her great-grandparent, and the changes they witnessed in their lifetime. Compare that to the changes she’s seen, and the acceleration is breathtaking.
Consider, too, that 90% of all the data generated in human history was created in just the last two years of this young woman’s college education. In just 2.5 years from now, experts predict that 40 zettabytes of data will exist. (For comparison, when our graduate started her sophomore year, the entire world wide web was estimated to contain only 0.5 zettabytes.) This is exponential acceleration. This is what it means to live in unprecedented volatility, and complexity.
As rigorous and well-intentioned as it may have been, the college education system that our graduate dutifully completed was not designed to provide her with the tools to cope with this exponential rate of change. And while it is true that change brings opportunity, it also brings suffering. We already know that some of these accelerations are not in her favor—nor are they in favor of her children, or her children’s children.
How to prepare for what you can’t imagine
The next three to five decades are likely to be an especially pivotal period in human history. And while there are many worthy places to put our attention and energy, there is one frontier humanity has only begun to understand and has yet to leverage at scale. This frontier is human development. It, too, can have compounding and even exponentially generative effects.
In our view, adult development is one of the greatest unharvested resources available right now. Pervasively across cultures and continents we underestimate what we are capable of becoming. Largely, we don’t perceive our individual or collective potentials. And we have much to learn about how to effectively scaffold and scale human development.
Even though this reservoir of possibilities has yet to be effectively leveraged, we do have many decades of exquisite research that reveals how our abilities develop throughout the life-span. Powerful developmental theories reveal that we are an evolving species and suggest how we can better cultivate more powerful, ethical and beautiful aptitudes. Leading applications of these theories have produced important advances in how we participate with our capabilities at home, and within our organizations and communities.
For example, research reveals that individual development is strongly influenced by the cultural surround. Or in other words, the culture you’re immersed in day-to-day at work dramatically impacts the range of your individual capacity and the collective capacity of everyone in your organization.
An example could be seen in the divergence of North and South Korea. These people once considered themselves to be the same people and part of a unified country until 1945. Over half a century later, we might consider the developmental differences of the leadership found in each country. The North has an isolated imperial dictatorship threatening nuclear war, and the South has a self-correcting democracy that just elected to weed out corruption at the top of both its political (president) and corporate (Samsung’s CEO) power structures through the rule of law. These people are literally from the same families in many cases, but the contexts and cultures have massively impacted how leadership shows up and what developmental capacities are displayed.
When it comes to applying developmental theories and seeing results in action, two key areas stand out: Developmental Coaching and Developmental Consulting. Although we all can’t pursue advanced study in developmental psychology, we can, thankfully, engage the expertise of those who have in real-life, applied and outcome-driven applications.
In Developmental Coaching, the insights of developmental theory are married with the skill and art of individual coaching to intentionally foster the emergence of new individual abilities. Developmental Consulting applies developmental insights to support greater collective growth and increased capacity to address broad human challenges alongside current market demands and opportunities. The two work hand-in-hand to support individuals and groups to navigate unpredictable terrain with targeted responsiveness and invaluable creativity.
Developmental Coaching allows skilled coaches to up-level their impact and broaden their influence in the world. By listening to, acting on and participating with the developmental contours of their clients’ lives they can both better serve their clients more effectively and help shape our collective future in critical ways. Developmental coaches are an essential part of helping today’s leaders—in all areas of their lives and in institutions of all sizes—to become more capable human beings.
Developmental Consulting applies expertise for shaping institutions so that they may better cultivate and develop human talent. The pervasive paradigm today is one that views an employee as more-or-less fixed people who fill roles, execute core functions, and deliver goods valuable to the ecosystem of the institution. All too frequently, people are employed for their current skill sets and not effectively leveraged as a resource of evolving talent. While accurate in one respect, this functional-transactional perspective doesn’t see employees as evolving, developmental investments with exponential long-tail value that far exceeds that of short-term task and role fulfillment. Generative creativity and innovation in the people and culture themselves are often missed entirely. When leadership fails to use work—all work throughout an institution—to continuously grow talent, people, and culture, the result is that the productions of work serve to reinforce a less capable humanity.
If there were ever a time for leadership to exercise more creative and mature aptitudes (as opposed to repeating the habits of the past), the time is now. Now is the time when organizations of all sizes must become hungry for expertise that will enable them to optimally facilitate the ongoing maturation of talent and growth of people.
And just in case the urgency is lost on you, remember: billions of human lives rest in our very next actions. Our best science tells us the well-being of our species and the ecosystem as we know it are at high risk. The global nature of the challenges in this age of acceleration require the commensurate accelerated development of leaders, along with cultures and practices that accelerate higher individual and collective developmental range, capacity, and action.
In other words, the race between disaster and development is on.
Although it is clear that the people and organizations we are today, for the most part, are not prepared to work elegantly with this responsibility and complexity, there is a free and infinite resource available to us right now. Our larger potential is available in this very breath. It lives inside the place where this very sentence makes contact with our open curiosity and courageous intelligence.
We can repeat yesterday or we can re-envision tomorrow. We can fearfully pump the brakes with yesterday’s solutions or we can get a feel for the wheel and learn to turn into the skids of tomorrow. It’s all in our hands. And one of the most powerful tools that equips us for skillful action is a developmental perspective. The pivot point, the place where we take new action and direction, is always available right here and right now.
Rob McNamara is a faculty member of the Integral Facilitator Certificate program, a Leadership Coach and author of The Elegant Self. A leading expert on adult development and human performance, his coaching services help individuals increase their scope of influence where it matters most personally and professionally.
A Certified Integral Facilitator, Entrepreneur, and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Pete Strom is a core member of the Ten Directions training and consulting team specializing in elevating existing teams and events for higher impact.