Growing Better Leaders: 5 Developmental Stages

The increasingly complex and chaotic marketplace poses an urgent need to grow better leaders. Companies that seek to maintain competitive advantages require strong leadership.

Leaders remain confused, however, about how to strengthen their competencies. Formal training and higher education haven’t sufficiently prepared them for all of the 21st century’s disruptive innovations and global challenges. While some leaders thrive, others barely survive. Many of today’s executives feel as though they’re in over their heads.

In their quest to unlock leadership potential, organizations invest millions in assessments, training programs and executive coaching. These investments seem to pay off, at least for a while. But for long-term growth, organizations must understand leadership’s developmental stages.

How Leaders “Grow Up”

Like all maturing adults, leaders progress through sequential developmental levels. At each stage, adults gain greater awareness and cognitive capacities. Similarly, leadership effectiveness improves as one develops, matures and expands consciousness.

At the higher stages of development, leaders become more successful and their businesses enjoy greater results. With increased leadership effectiveness, there’s a 38% probability of seeing higher business performance, according to one study. A 38% leverage is well beyond most companies’ profit margins, so developing capable leaders should be a priority.

Developmental-stage theory is relatively new and even more cutting-edge when applied to leadership programs. Rather than focusing on training, skills and knowledge, it involves expanding one’s mindset and “forms of mind” (defined by New Zealand leadership coach Jennifer Garvey Berger as our changing capacity to cope with complexity, multiple perspectives and abstraction).

Yet, few leadership-development initiatives address the inner game: how leaders perceive, find meaning, make decisions and handle complexities.

Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams, authors of Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results (Wiley, 2015), applied developmental-stage theory to create the Leadership Circle Profile, a 360° assessment tool that measures leaders’ developmental stages. Founders of The Leadership Circle consultancy, they also developed The Universal Model of Leadership.

Similarly, William B. Joiner and Stephen A. Josephs use developmental-stage theory as the foundation for Leadership Agility 360°, their 360° assessment tool, as explained in Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change (Jossey-Bass 2007).

These assessment tools are based on decades of psychological studies and are designed to accurately measure leadership effectiveness and identify a leader’s developmental stage. More than descriptive, the stages point to leadership behaviors that help target how to coax a leader to the next level.

By identifying stages of progressive development, we can create behavioral action plans and use coaching to expand a leader’s form of mind and modify behavior. Progressive organizations have adopted this strategy to promote leadership agility.

Foundations of Developmental Theory

Developmental theories have been around for decades, based on 50 years of psychological research into how adults mature. Organizational psychologists have since applied the basic tenets to leadership development. Their conclusions are summarized here:

  1. Just as children improve their cognitive capacities with age, so do adults.
  2. Adults, however, develop according to needs and opportunities, not because of age.
  3. Not all adults progress through all stages.
  4. Some adults can function only at lower levels of development. A small percentage attains higher levels of awareness, wisdom and compassion.
  5. As leaders progress through developmental levels, they expand their mental and emotional capacities and become increasingly skilled at handling complexity.
  6. Each stage describes a form of mind: a way of thinking about responsibility, conflicts, perspective and assumptions (about self, others and the world).
  7. Leaders may operate partially at one stage and occasionally at the next, but return to old habits before transitioning.
  8. Transitioning requires changing one’s previous assumptions to expand consciousness.
  9. Leaders who function at higher developmental stages produce significantly improved business results.
  10. Knowing a leader’s developmental level, coupled with behavioral action plans and coaching, provides a measure of competitive advantage or disadvantage.

Levels of Leadership

The following table explains how four leadership experts define levels of leadership behaviors and mindsets. Unfortunately, there is no uniform agreement on vocabulary, which has created a confusing array of names and definitions.

(Please note: The rows of stages aren’t equal; that is, while there may be some similarities, the stages are not defined as equivalent to others across rows.)

Using a broad brush, we can summarize the various stages of leadership development as follows:

  • Level 1: Leaders who operate at the first stage of development are focused on their own need to excel, which explains why it’s referred to as an Egocentric, Opportunist or Expert stage. These leaders are acutely aware of what they need to do to succeed and how they must be perceived by others. Leadership at Level 1 therefore tends to be autocratic and controlling. A leader’s mindset is limited at this stage because there’s no shared reality. Growth requires one to become aware of, and interested in, other people’s needs and to reach out co-relationally. This is a normal developmental stage for young adults, but ineffective for leaders (although 5% appear to operate at this stage).
  • Level 2: Leaders’ abilities to simultaneously respond to their personal needs and those of others is the hallmark of Stage 2, referred to as the Socialized or Reactive mindset by some, and the Diplomat or Achiever stage by others. At this stage, a leader plays by the organization’s rules and expectations and builds alliances, but with a focus on how to best get ahead. One’s emphasis is on the outer game to gain meaning, self-worth and security.

    Leaders hone their strengths, but are nonetheless limited by them. At this stage, identity is defined from the outside-in and requires external validation in one of three ways: relationship strength, intellect, or results. Leaders fall into three categories at Level 2: Complying, Protecting or Controlling (reflecting overdependence on heart, head or will). When self-worth and identity depend on overused strengths, growth is self-limited, as behavioral options are restricted. Most leaders (nearly 75%, as with most adults) operate at this second level of maturity.

  • Level 3: Referred to as the Creative, Self-Authoring, Individualist or Catalyst stage, Level 3 is marked by personal transformation from old assumptions/beliefs and a quest for external validation to a more authentic version of the self. These leaders want to know who they truly are and what they care most about. They’re on a path to becoming visionary leaders, accepting that authenticity carries a risk of disappointing others, potential failures and hazards associated with contradicting accepted norms. Leaders trade their need to be admired for a higher purpose. They don’t feel the need to be the hero and begin to share power. No longer the sole decision-makers, Level 3 leaders encourage groups to become more self-managing and meaningfully involved in organizational success. They focus on high performance through teamwork and a desire to develop others. Their leadership is truly collaborative. About 20% of leaders operate with a Level 3 mindset.
  • Level 4: Called the Integral, Transforming Self, Strategist and Co-Creator stage, Level 4’s hallmark is one’s ability to focus not only on an organizational vision, but the welfare of the larger system in which a company operates. Servant leadership emerges, as one considers more interdependent components and systemic complexities.
  • Level 5: Level 5 is referred to as Unitive, Alchemist and Synergist. At this level, leaders expand perspectives even further, focusing on higher purpose and common good. Beyond this level other stages may be unexplored, as very few leaders grow past the fourth level. To some theorists, Level 5 encompasses a spiritual focus.

Heroic and Post-Heroic Stages

The first two levels are based on leaders’ ability to hold themselves out as heroes, providing answers and solutions. But operating with this mindset means you’re intent on meeting your own needs, including wanting to be the recognized expert, achieving results and being admired.

When you can transition to the third stage (Creative, Self-Authoring, Catalyst), you no longer have an externally based self-worth. At this point, you aim for a higher purpose, are willing to share power, and can let go of previous assumptions and your hero complex.

Great leadership and business performance emerge at the “post-heroic” stages. In the top 10% of the highest-performing businesses (out of a half million surveyed), the average leadership effectiveness score falls into the 80th percentile, research shows. These leaders score better than 80% of their peers.

Surging Past the Norm

Most adults fail to progress beyond what’s normative: the Socialized or Reactive mind. Only 10% of adults progress beyond the Achiever level, according to the Leadership Agility authors:

Viewed from The Leadership Circle research, only 20% progress beyond the Reactive stage, which points to the urgent need for leadership-development programs to address far more than skills and outer competencies.

Why All of This Matters

At higher levels of development, leaders can detect nuances, deal with paradoxes and respond with agility in lieu of being reactive. Today’s volatile business environment demands higher levels of consciousness.

Developmental-stage theories are more than descriptive tools. The stages chart a path that can help leaders develop more complex forms of mind. The framework also helps match a leader’s mindset at any given time with that required by a particular task.

As they progress from one level to the next, leaders expand their strengths and abilities. They can grow into the next developmental stage, recognizing there will be a learning curve and inherent challenges.

“Leaders with different forms of mind will have different capacities to take the perspectives of others, to be self-directed, to generate and modify systems, to manage conflicts, and to deal with paradox.” ~ Jennifer Garvey Berger Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World, Stanford Business Books, 2011

As a leader, your ability to make sense of greater levels of complexity continues throughout the lifespan and has a significant impact on both leadership and development. You acquire special competencies and skills with experience, as well as a mind that sharpens over time. Only when leadership development programs take developmental stages into account will you grow into a better leader.

Disentangle Difficult Conversations

Why do we avoid difficult conversations? At some point, many of us have had to deliver the dreaded line, “We need to talk.”  And this often precedes an argument rather than any conversation.

Why are some conversations so difficult that we’ll do anything to avoid them? Possibly because:

  1. We are stuck between what we feel and knowing what we really shouldn’t say.
  2. We are distracted by our internal thoughts and uncertain about what to share.
  3. There’s so much going on in the relationship with the other person, it’s confusing.

If you didn’t care on some level about your relationship with the other person, you wouldn’t struggle with this in the first place. But avoiding the conversation allows things to build up to the boiling point. When we finally have no choice but to confront the issue, we end up damaging the relationship with the other person.

Holly Weeks, author of an article in Harvard Business Review, "Failure to Communicate," describes a familiar “difficult conversation” scenario:

“Your stomach’s churning; you’re hyperventilating – you’re in a badly deteriorating conversation at work. Such exchanges, which run the gamut from firing subordinates to parrying verbal attacks from colleagues, are so loaded with anger, confusion, and fear that most people handle them poorly: they avoid them, clamp down, or give in. But dodging issues, appeasing difficult people, and mishandling tough encounters all carry a high price for managers and companies – in the form of damaged relationships, ruined careers, and intensified problems.”

Whenever emotions are involved, conversations get tricky. Emotions are generated in the part of the brain called the amygdala – a more primitive part of the brain. When stimulated, it calls the body into fight or flight mode. Humans are genetically hard-wired to react to emotional triggers by either fighting, freezing, or fleeing – actions which, during cavemen times, had huge survival benefits.

Are we much different now than our ancestors? Genetically, no. We still have impulses to blast someone or clam up and avoid them altogether. We are not actually hard-wired to sit down and talk it over with someone when there’s a problem.

Rebecca Knight, in an article in Harvard Business Review, gives us pointers on getting what you need from these challenging conversations while keeping relationships intact.

  1. Change your mindset: If you’re gearing up for a conversation you’ve labeled “difficult,” you’re more likely to feel nervous and upset about it beforehand. Instead, try “framing it in a positive” way. For example, you’re not giving negative performance feedback; you’re having a constructive conversation about development. You’re not telling your boss "no," you’re offering up an alternate solution. A difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about it as a normal conversation.
  1. Breathe: The calmer one is, the better one can handle difficult conversations. Take regular breaks and breathe mindfully to refocus. This technique works well in the heat of the moment. If, for example, a colleague comes to you with an issue that might lead to a hard conversation, excuse yourself — get a cup of coffee or take a brief stroll — and collect your thoughts.
  1. Plan, but don’t script: To plan what you want to say, jot down notes and key points before the conversation. Drafting a script, however, is a waste of time. Your strategy for the conversation should be flexible and contain a repertoire of possible responses. Aim for language that is simple, clear, direct, and neutral.

Three Kinds of Conversations

Fifteen years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project has produced some interesting information about what goes on during conflict. The book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, is written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen and Roger Fisher (Penguin Books, 2000).

There are basically three kinds of conversations, no matter what the subject. In each of these kinds of conversations, we make predictable errors that distort our thoughts and feelings.

  1. The “What Happened?” conversation. There is usually disagreement about what happened or what should happen. Stop arguing about who’s right: explore each other’s stories and try to learn something new. Don’t assume meanings. Disentangle intent from impact. Abandon blaming anyone and think in terms of contributions to the solution.
  1. The “Feelings” conversation. Every difficult conversation also asks and answers questions about feelings, which are formed in response to our thoughts based on negotiable perceptions. Are they valid? Appropriate? Often feelings are not addressed directly and thus they interfere with the conversation even more.
  1. The “Identity” conversation. This is where we examine what’s at stake: what do I stand to lose or gain? What impact might this have on my career, marriage, self-esteem, our relationship? These issues determine the degree to which we feel off-centered and anxious.

Sometimes a third party can help facilitate difficult conversations. Talking it through with your coach can help decipher the underlying components of a difficult conversation. With a coach, you can examine your assumptions, your emotions and your personal identity. You can learn to structure difficult conversations in a way that improves relationships instead of risking them.

Bring Out the Best in People: 5 Steps to Peak Performance

How do you bring out the best in people? Managers want their people to achieve excellence at work. Leaders and management alike know that they can’t achieve expected business results without the participation and engagement of individuals and teams.

Without people motivated for peak performance, companies will go out of business. Peak performance is defined as a combination of excellence, consistency and ongoing improvement.

To achieve peak performance, one must find the right job, tasks and conditions that match his or her strengths. Therefore, facilitating the right fit becomes one of a manager’s most crucial responsibilities. While every employee has the potential to deliver peak performance, it’s up to the manager to bring out the best in people.

Disengaged Or Bored?

Disengaged employees often appear to lack commitment. In reality, many of them crave engagement. No one enjoys working without passion or joy.

While many factors cause disengagement, the most prevalent is feeling overwhelmed — or, conversely, underwhelmed. Disconnection and overload pose obstacles to performance, yet they often go undetected or ignored because neither qualifies as a disciplinary issue.

Meanwhile, managers try to work around such problems, hoping for a miraculous turnaround or a spark that reignites energy and drive. They try incentives, empowerment programs or the management “fad du jour.”

While it’s impossible to create “flow” moments all day long, any manager can greatly improve on the ability to help people achieve peak performance. Traditionally managers try various motivational methods, such as incentives and rewards, but with only temporary success.

Managing Knowledge Workers

You can’t force peak performance with knowledge workers—those employees who need to think to do their jobs. The brain needs careful management and rest. Brain science tells us that knowledge workers must manage their critical thinking skills with care.

In addition to variety and stimulation, all humans require food, rest, engagement, physical exercise and challenge. It is unrealistic to expect a human being to sit at a desk for hours and produce quality work without providing these essential elements, and more.

We often forget that thinking is hard work. When we work too many hours, the brain’s supply of neurotransmitters becomes depleted, and we are unable to sustain top performance. Without proper care, the brain will underperform—and brain fatigue mimics disengagement and lack of commitment.

Peak performance also depends on how we feel: hopeful, in control, optimistic and grateful. We need to know that we’re appreciated.

Use Brain Science to Bring Out the Best

While no management guru has found the golden key to unlocking the full panoply of human potential at work, research sheds new light on the possibilities.

As far back as a 2005 Harris poll, 33 percent of 7,718 employees surveyed believed they had reached a dead end in their jobs, and 21 percent were eager to change careers. Only 20 percent felt passionate about their work.

The situation isn’t improving.  In 2014, 52.3 percent of Americans said they were unhappy at work, according to a report by the Conference Board, the New York-based nonprofit research group.

When so many skilled and motivated people spend decades moving from one job to the next, something is wrong. They clearly have not landed in the right outlets for their talents and strengths. Their brains never light up.

The better the fit, the better the performance. People require clear roles that allow them to succeed, while also providing room to learn, grow and be challenged.

Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, author of Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Harvard Business Press, 2011), synthesizes some of the research into five steps managers can apply to maximize employees’ performance.

Hallowell refers to the five cited essential ingredients as “The Cycle of Excellence,” which works because it exploits the powerful interaction between an individual’s intrinsic capabilities and extrinsic environment. A psychiatrist and ADD expert, he draws on brain science and peak performance research for bringing out the best in people:

  • Select: Put the right people in the right job, and give them responsibilities that “light up” their brains.
  • Connect: Strengthen interpersonal bonds among team members.
  • Play: Help people unleash their imaginations at work.
  • Grapple and Grow: When the pressure’s on, enable employees to achieve mastery of their work.
  • Shine: Use the right rewards to promote loyalty and stoke your people’s desire to excel.

“Neither the individual nor the job holds the magic,” Hallowell writes. “But the right person doing the right job creates the magical interaction that leads to peak performance.”

Step 1: Select

To match the right person to the right job, examine how three key questions intersect:

  • At what tasks or jobs does this person excel?
  • What does he/she like to do?
  • How does he/she add value to the organization?

Set the stage for your employees to do well with responsibilities they enjoy. You can then determine how they will add the greatest possible value to your organization.

Step 2: Connect

Managers and employees require a mutual atmosphere of trust, optimism, openness, transparency, creativity and positive energy. Each group can contribute to reducing toxic fear and worry, insecurity, backbiting, gossip and disconnection.

A positive working environment starts with how the boss handles negativity, failure and problems. The boss sets the tone and models preferred behaviors and reactions. Employees take their cues from those who lead them.

To encourage connection:

  • Look for the spark of brilliance within everyone.
  • Encourage a learning mindset.
  • Model and teach optimism, as well as the belief that teamwork can overcome any problem.
  • Use human moments instead of relying on electronic communication.
  • Learn about each person.
  • Treat everyone with respect, especially those you dislike.
  • Meet people where they are, and know that most will do their best with what they have.
  • Encourage reality.
  • Use humor without sarcasm or at others’ expense.
  • Seek out the quiet ones, and try to bring them in.

This is common sense, but we fail to use it when it is really required. When people are floundering, the last thing they need is to have their flaws and mistakes spotlighted. Instead, make sure you understand where they are at and what the real problems are.

Step 3: Play

Play isn’t limited to break time. Any activity that involves the imagination lights up our brains and produces creative thoughts and ideas. Play boosts morale, reduces fatigue and brings joy to workdays.

Encourage imaginative thinking with these steps:

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Encourage everyone to produce three new ideas each month.
  • Allow for irreverence or goofiness (without disrespect), and model this behavior.
  • Brainstorm.
  • Reward new ideas and innovations.
  • Encourage people to question everything.

Step 4: Grapple and Grow

Help people engage imaginatively with tasks they like and at which they excel. Encourage them to stretch beyond their usual limits.

If tasks are too easy, people fall into boredom and routine without making any progress or learning anything new. Your job, as a manager, is to be a catalyst when people get stuck, offering suggestions but letting them work out solutions.

Step 5: Shine

Every employee should feel recognized and valued for what he or she does. Recognition should not be reserved solely for a group’s stars.

People learn from mistakes, and they grow even more when their successes are noticed and praised. Letting them know that you appreciate victories large and small will motivate them and secure their loyalty.

When a person is underperforming, consider that lack of recognition may be a cause. An employee usually won’t come right out and tell you that he/she feels undervalued, so you must look for the subtle signs. In addition:

  • Be on the lookout for moments when you can catch someone doing something right. It doesn’t have to be unusual or spectacular. Don’t withhold compliments.
  • Be generous with praise. People will pick up on your use of praise and start to perform for themselves and each other.
  • Recognize attitudes, as well as achievements. Optimism and a growth mindset are two attitudes you can single out and encourage. Look for others.

When you’re in sync with your people, you create positive energy and opportunities for peak performance. Working together can be one of life’s greatest joys—and it’s what we’re wired to do.

Maintain Excellence in Uncertain Times

Nothing is as difficult as managing in uncertain times. With the rapidly changing competitive environment and new technologies, it’s hard to keep up.

Managing people well is even more challenging when you’re constantly putting out fires.  You can’t sacrifice performance in the name of speed, cost cutting, efficiency, and what can be mislabeled as necessity. When you ignore connections, deep thought disappears in favor of decisions based on fear.

These five areas of focus can help you avoid fear-based management practices. Use these five steps to identify problem areas and decide on a plan of action. In this way you creatively manage for growth, not just survival.

Lastly, in order to achieve peak performance, one needs to be in top shape, physically and mentally. Psychologist Sherrie Campbell, in an article on Entrepreneur Magazine, lists five habits worth cultivating that managers can suggest to help people achieve peak performance:

  • Get enough sleep: Sleep deprivation can leave one feeling scatterbrained, foggy and unfocused. Good sleep improves our ability to be patient, retain information, think clearly, make good decisions and be present and alert in all our daily interactions.
  • Get daily exercise: Exercise is the best way to reduce the stress that impairs performance stamina. Exercise increases our “happy” mood chemicals through the release of endorphins, which help rid our mind and body of tension.
  • Connect for emotional support: Having healthy, loving relationships increases our happiness, success and longevity by promoting the capacity to function in life as our best self.
  • Be unapologetically optimistic: Look for the best in every situation. Optimism is the commitment to believe, expect and trust that things in life are rigged in our favor. Even when something bad happens, find the silver lining.
  • Create alone time: Time spent alone for reflection refuels our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self. This is time to recharge, focus on values and purpose, and cultivate self love and respect.

“Put simply, the best managers bring out the best from their people. This is true of football coaches, orchestra conductors, big-company executives, and small-business owners. They are like alchemists who turn lead into gold. Put more accurately, they find and mine the gold that resides in everyone.” ~ Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Harvard Business Press, 2011)