Crossing the Jabbok

Have you ever wrestled through the night over an impending encounter? Using the ancient story of Jacob as memory and mystery, this article offers wisdom for modern leaders. Discover how your organization’s transformation might well hinge on your own self-transformation.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ -The Book of Genesis

AngelMuch like our own lives, this ancient story about the grandson of Abraham is wrapped in mystery. Jacob knows he must return to his homeland to be reconciled with his brother Esau. He has just sent his family across the Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan River. He is now left alone as darkness falls. Who is this ‘man’ that Jacob wrestles? Is this an inner demon or a divine angel? Why did Jacob ask his opponent to bless him? Why did Jacob eventually remember the crossing of the Jabbok as a generational milestone? How can our greatest defeats become a source for our greatest strengths?

If you could receive one blessing to enhance your organization, what would that be? Would it be a technology upgrade in integrated systems, expanding your web services? Would it be a new infusion of financing? Or would it be something else, perhaps a brand or business identity makeover?

While these add-ons would no doubt be significant, none of them would guarantee that you would cross the Jabbok. As this ancient story of Jacob reveals, the greatest blessing to guarantee the future of your organization could be your self-transformation. Why? Because research is finding that self-transformation of leadership is the root of all organizational transformation.

When I speak of self-transformation I am not just referring to a change in your temperament, character or intelligence. While these may be important traits contributing to leadership, research shows they are not central. When I speak of a leader’s self-transformation as the root of organizational transformation, I am speaking of your deep structured self-identity and its meaning-making capacity.

Normally our internal operating system is hidden from our waking consciousness. Yet over the past twenty-five years developmental psychologists such as Lawrence Kolberg, Jane Loevinger and Robert Kegan have been exploring the terrain of adult development and later life structural transformations. You may have heard echoes of their work when people talk about moral or ego stages of 1) pre-conventional, 2) conventional, and 3) post-conventional. What these developmental stages represent, with their meaning-making modes, is profoundly shaping the study of leadership. And, perhaps in some mysterious way for us today, they also might explain what it means to cross the Jabbok, as Jacob once did.

What Governs Your Thinking?

Building on the work of Piaget, in his book, In Over Our Heads, Kegan outlines five orders of consciousness. When we enter this world at birth, Kegan claims we operate with a first order of consciousness. We haven’t developed the ability to differentiate between who we are and what we see. Our self-perception is ruled by impulses and fantasies. When I was age five I can remember wondering if the world outside me was real, or were all those that loved me just an extension of my mind. At that point I was developing the capacity for the second order of consciousness, or concrete thinking. This order grants existence to others and considers their point of view as valid. This stage lasts through our teenage years.

We cross over from a pre-conventional to a conventional stage as we cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood. This usually happens during our teenage years. We become socialized into society. We make the journey from shy and antisocial to having the courage to talk to adults. Recently, my wife and I were surprised at how conversant our son’s friends had become, when three years earlier while they were still in high school, they wouldn’t even look us in the face. They had moved from a pre-conventional to a conventional stage, from concrete to abstract thinking, with the ability to generalize and interact in a mutual manner.

Kegan considers the conventional stage governed by traditionalism. Young adults learn the conventions or traditions that govern their world, whether their careers or their marriages. In religion, adults at this third order of consciousness are concerned about external authority. They are other-directed, rather than inner-directed. This order of consciousness works well in stable societies. And many people live their whole lives in this unified matrix of traditionalism. But as sociologist Anthony Giddens notes, with the increase in travel, in being uprooted from home to home, or from job to job, the ‘self’ becomes a problem. Life demands we be reflexive. Which authorities do we heed? How do we navigate the completing claims made upon us from work, from home or from our heritages? Kegan claims that, in adults from their 30’s to 50’s, this crisis of modernism prompts a structural transition in our development. We resolve this crisis by shifting from other-directed to inner-directed. We move from giving external authority rule over us to self-authorship. According to Kegan, those who grow into this fourth order of consciousness move from traditionalism to modernism.

I can remember moving into self-authorship at the beginning of the 1990s. By that time I had worked in the non-profit sector for almost 15 years. After helping launch a multi-national church growth project with senior leaders from 1988 to 1990, I failed to commercially roll out a trend letter business to that audience. I went back to the drawing board and began to read everything I could on the subject. I wanted to know how the world worked and how both church and society could chart their way into the third millennium. I began to think outside the box, and not just accept the conventional answers. I determined I would be an original, whether successful or obscure, not just an echo of others. At that time I told myself I was outgrowing my previous way of meaning-making. Previously, I was excited by “I can now see” experiences or even “I can now do” competences. I determined to move on and approach life with an “I can now be” attitude. In Kegan’s terms I was moving into self-authorship, the fourth order of consciousness. As significant as self-authorship can be personally, research is now showing us that it is merely the prelude to effective leadership.

Post-Conventional Leadership

Kegan described the fifth order of consciousness as ‘postformal’ and ‘interindividual.’ This is a person that has moved beyond self-authorship to mutual-authorship. This type of leader realizes their self-system is not and will never be complete. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, this ability to see ourselves as still in formation, this ‘super-vision,’ enables the post-conventional leader to exercise mutuality with those they supervise. Their vulnerability and present-time awareness becomes a mutually transforming power that improves organizational performance.

The Harthill Group undertook a decade-long study of ten executive teams in the United Kingdom and the United States. They wanted to understand why so many organizational change projects failed, even when they followed best practices. Half of the CEOs in their study measured ego development levels equal to Kegan’s conventional stage, the other five CEOs measured at post-conventional levels. Over the decade the five organizations with conventional CEOs lost personnel, industry standing and money. Those organizations with post-conventional CEOs experienced significant growth and became industry leaders. The study concluded, “We have found that the level of personal development of the CEO and his or her senior advisors can have a critical impact on the success of organizational change efforts and, in turn, on a company’s ability to thrive in an ever-more complex business environment” (Rooke & Torbert, 1999).

Reflecting on this study, I am constantly aspiring to operate at the level of mutual-authorship or with ‘super-vision’ in my consulting work. Compared to my modus operandi of a decade ago, I now have a more powerful impact on the organizations I serve. Whereas once I was less open to mutually working with others, lest my work lose its momentum, now I am less inclined to manipulate things unilaterally.

Is it Time for You to Cross-Over?

Are there any distribution norms as to where people fall in terms of Kegan’s five orders of consciousness? Yes. The United States wing of the study mentioned above found 55% of managers operated at the social-authority level, 35% of managers operated at the self-authorship and 7% of managers operated at a post-conventional level of mutual-authorship. If Rooke and Torbert are right in their assumption that organizational transformation requires post-conventional leadership that means a vast majority of managers today lack the internal capacity to conceive and carry out transformational change. But it is never too late to grow.

Where are you in your leadership journey? How do you define the ‘vulnerable power’ that is at work within you? Is it something self-contained, or is it mutually shared? Have you made the journey from Traditionalism to Modernism? Have you arrived at self-authorship only to realize there is so much more to serving others? Have you crossed your own Jabbok?

In his book Action Inquiry (2004), Torbert shares that experiencing a deep structured self-transformation is not a quick process. He claims it can take a minimum of two-years, often longer. And even when we begin operating at a higher level of framing reality, we can often fall back to previous modes when we are threatened or in conflict. Yet the journey across the Jabbok is real.

If you are looking to learn how to lead from a higher place in your life, here are some practices that Rooke (2001) suggests:

1) Find a mentor who is post-conventional or emulate role models at a distance.

2) Read widely and variously about post-conventional heroes and anti-heroes.

3) Practice self-reflective processes such as journaling to enable you to learn from your actions.

4) Receive training in a tangential development process, whether that’s a physical activity like Aikido or a verbal activity like learning a foreign language. Bring these new metaphors and lessons into your life.

5) Receive personal therapy.

6) Begin an open and action-learning group of your peers that challenges you from outside your box.

7) Attend a frame shaking management or personal development course.

8) Be open to transformation following a traumatic life change, whether personal illness, the death of a loved one or a divorce.

9) Activate your membership in a progressive spiritual group or community.


The story of Jacob is a memory and mystery. Following this encounter the patriarch always walked with a limp. Through the centuries people have read this account only to ponder their own dark night of the soul. Our lives and organizations are not constructed through one change, but through many different transformations. Frederick Buechner calls this Jacob narrative ‘the magnificent defeat.’ The story illustrates how the former things pass away, the ‘old gods’ die, so that new things can come to life. Jacob experienced a long and exhausting night before crossing the Jabbok. Maybe you too have experienced this defeat. If that is so, don’t let the new day come without asking for a blessing.

Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.


Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rooke, D. (1997/2001). Organisational transformation requires the presence of leaders who are strategists and magicians. In Harthill. Organisations and People, 4(3). Retrieved from

Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (1999). The CEO’s role in organizational transformation. The Systems Thinker, 10(7). Retrieved February 10, 2005 from /ceo.html

Torbert, W. R., & Cook-Greuter, S. (2004). Action inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

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