Here Are the Overlooked Characteristics of Responsible Adults

I was on a zoom call when I got the surprising news that I qualify as a responsible adult. The conversation went something like that:

Person A (addressing me): “Over to you!”

Me: “Wait, what? Why me?”

Person A: “We need a responsible adult to keep this group from descending into chaos.”

Me: “And you thought of me?!”

As a Peer-Reviewed Responsible Adult™, I feel it is my duty to share with you what I have learned about adulthood so far.

Before revealing the overlooked characteristics of responsible adults (seriously, they don’t teach this in university, unless you were lucky enough to have studied under Professor Kegan at Harvard), let’s first explore what are not signs of adulthood.

Here’s what doesn’t indicate that you’re a card-bearing member of the Responsible Adult Club:

  • Having a house,
  • Having a job,
  • Having children,
  • Having a spouse,
  • Having a position of authority,
  • Being of legal age.

Don’t believe me? Well, two words: “Silvio Berlusconi.” (I could have used two other words but I trust your intelligence of reading between the lines.)

While the former Italian Prime Minister doesn’t hold an office position anymore, he owns a football club—and one of the largest companies in Italian. So, he probably checks all the boxes above… but isn’t exactly what most parents would love for their children to become as they grow up.

Alright, what then, is real adulthood? 

My understanding of real adulthood is heavily influenced by Dr. Robert Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development and its reception in Ken Wilber's Integral Theory. 

When we talk about development, we often only talk about the development from child to adult—and then assume that everyone is magically a responsible adult the second they become of age.

Needless to say, that’s not the case.

There’s a huge difference between a successful neurosurgeon who spends her free time volunteering with doctors without borders… and the person who can’t hold down a steady job or provide a stable home environment for her kids.

That’s where the idea of different stages of development comes in.

It turns out that adults are not all at the same stage of development. For instance, the two fictional examples I gave above aren’t equally developed. 

Levels of development

Even the same person isn’t at the same stage of development across different metrics (such as cognitive development, emotional development, spiritual development, kinesthetic development, artistic ethical development, etc.).

Let’s look at some fictional examples, such as the CEO of a mega-corporation who has little ethical qualms about what his company is doing to the world. This person will likely be highly developed on the intellectual (cognitive) level… but not very developed ethically.

On the other hand, a soccer star who is impressing the world with her abilities on the field but is unable to get her temper under control is highly developed on the kinesthetic level… but not so when it comes to emotions.

Examples of uneven adult development

These differences in development also explain the startling paradox of how someone can be a spiritual superstar and yet hate gay people with a passion. That person might be developed spiritually… but not in terms of their values.

I could go on with other examples but you probably get the point, right?

What adult development can tell us about the characteristics of responsible adults:

Of course, not all of the metrics I mentioned are important for adulthood.

For instance, while you need to have a high level of kinesthetic development to become an athlete, you can still be a responsible adult even if you tend to trip over your feet.

To be a mature person, the following metrics are the most important:

Metrics for 

  • Cognitive development,
  • Emotional development,
  • Ethical development, and
  • Value development.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we need to max out on all dimensions to be considered a grown-up.

It just means that we need to reach a certain base level on all these metrics. 

Metrics relevant for responsible adulthood

(Someone who had a high level of development in all these dimensions is Dr. Martin Luther King... which might be part of the reason why he continues to inspire us to this day.)

Here’s what being a responsible adult could look like in practice:

1. Being able to apologize when you have messed up… not necessarily all the time (I’m listing the characteristics of responsible adults, not of saints) but often enough that you’re not damaging your relationships,

2. Being able to admit when someone is right… even if that person is a parent (or a politician you detest),

3. Being able to self-regulate most of the time which means that you can consider long-term consequences of your behavior… and that you’re able to realize that it’s probably not a good idea to tell your aggravating coworker to *bleep*,

4. Being able to put yourselves into the shoes of another person… on good days, even in the shoes of someone who has a very different perspective than you,

5. Being able to use reason to question your behavior, thoughts, and actions… and adjust accordingly,

6. Being able to act in alignment with what is generally considered to be ethical behavior… even when nobody’s watching,

7. Being able to admit that people have a right to voice their opinion (within the limits of the law)… no matter how misguided you think they are,

8. Being generally on board with the basic ideas expressed in international human rights agreements (especially with regard to inherent human dignity and equal rights).

Here’s a quote that I believe perfectly summarizes the point I was trying to make in this article:

People evolve and it's important to not stop evolving just because you've reached adulthood.—J. K. Simmons

By continuing to evolve, we can become better and kinder, and more reasonable adults year by year.

And that matters because the world—just like the group that nominated me to be the grownup in charge—could really use some reasonable adults.

And, hey, we might not be the worst choice for that role, right?

Want more support in being a responsible adult (or pretending to be one during challenging times)?

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Louise is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Louise loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at
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