Can Leaders Evolve? – Part 2

Posted: September 3, 2009 in Professional Development
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In last month’s newsletter, I started a short series describing the stages of leadership development. In part 1 (Can Leaders Evolve?), I described the origins of the model I’m describing. I also gave short descriptions of the first three stages of leadership development: the Opportunist, the Diplomat, and the Expert. This month, I will briefly describe the final three stages (Achiever, Pluralist, Strategist). The series will continue in our next issue with techniques to accelerate progress through the stages, among other things.

Achiever. The Achiever stage is the goal of most education and development in the modern world. It is in many respects the pinnacle of development, as most organizations and institutions rely on this type of manager. The focus of Achievers is on getting things done, results, personal and systemic effectiveness, all within the strictures of existing institutions. This is why Robert Kegan refers to this stage as the Institutional Self. As a result, Achiever managers are usually highly efficient and devoted to the good of the teams and organizations they lead. They try to improve organizational processes and structures, while staying within existing rules and accepted value structures. They are able managers and can lead multi-disciplinary teams in most circumstances. They are very interested in deepening their managerial knowledge and know how and in achieving professional recognition. Many managers who pursue MBAs and other developmental opportunities are Achievers. This is also the stage when many managers become fascinated with self-knowledge, with what makes them tick as people and as leaders. This also translates to finding out more about others. This is probably a key driver of the personality industry, such as Myers-Briggs and Social Style indicators. About 30-35 % of managers are at the Achiever stage, having attained it at some point in their 30s. However, only a minority progress to the Pluralist and Strategist stages. While they are usually highly effective, they may idealize the current system and institutions and fail to see the need to make radical changes in structure and process. This can be extremely frustrating for those who work for or with them. It can often also lead to personal crisis, as they increasingly question what they are doing and why they are doing it.

If there is one word that characterizes this stage, it is “crisis.” A crisis is a decision point. Pluralists feel constantly confronted by critical decisions, about themselves, the organization, or others. Through experience and reflexion, they have learned that there are a multitude of ways to achieve goals, and also an infinite variety of valid goals and values. A common pattern is that people start to realize the ephemerality of all things. They become aware of the passage of time. They realize that management and market trends are mostly fads, that economies and businesses go through cycles of growth and decay, that nothing lasts forever. They start to wonder what they will do with the rest of their lives. This can be lived as profound existential angst. In many ways, this stage is what happens when the common mid-life crisis extends to a manager’s workplace values and practices. Consequently, managers can become excessively focused on their own needs and objectives. This is why another name for this stage is the Individualist. They can be perceived as quirky or unbearably mercurial, depending on the situation and the people they deal with. Conversely, they can be very appreciative of personal differences and actively seek to create highly diverse teams of creators and radicals. Only about 10-12 % of managers are in this stage. This is probably due to the fact that many managers just drop out: from what they conceive as a “rat race,” from their careers, from pursuing lofty professional goals. They may pursue other goals on a personal level, but work just becomes about doing the job and living life to the fullest the rest of the time. However, if they choose to stick it out, they can become highly effective change agents and masters of leading diverse groups. They can also be extremely attuned to personal quirks of co-workers and subordinates. This can make them very pluralistic and individualistic in their ability to lead.

Strategist. Strategist leaders have successfully negotiated the critical transitions of the Pluralist stage. In many ways, it’s like coming out the other side of a tunnel, but with a new vision of what is possible and what is right, for oneself and for others. This is a very rare stage of leadership. Only about 4-5 % of managers in organizations are Strategists. There may be more in the general population, but it’s hard to tell because many probably don’t wish to work in an organizational setting. Many end up as independent consultants or entrepreneurs. Strategists can be anything from the CEO of a large company to the early retiree with a vision to plant a vineyard where there is none. With that said, those who do choose to continue as organizational leaders can be genuinely transformational. They can see long-term trends and changes and work to achieve them over periods of years, building acceptance and understanding incrementally. Their successful navigation of the Pluralist stage and its crises leads them to reject many conventional notions and distinctions about work, jobs, and responsibilities. Work is about productive use of time, not “putting in time.” Dichotomies such as work and play, personal and professional, superior and subordinate, effectiveness and efficiency, all tend to be seen as artificial and not particularly useful. They link theory with practice. They are true systemic thinkers, seeing both the forest and the trees. They can be collaborative or highly directive, as needed. They are visionary yet pragmatic. They want change – sometimes monumental in scope – but they can also see the value of traditions and accepted practices and structures. They are focused on building institutions and changing ways of seeing and living. This is why they can be viewed as strategic in the widest sense of the term.

This completes the overview of the six main stages of leadership development. As mentioned last month, there may be others beyond the Strategist, but they are probably so rare as to warrant caution in describing them.

I will continue my discussion of leadership development through these six stages in the next issue. We’ll look at some ways of progressing through the various phases, and at some other considerations, such as what drives this development. In the meantime, happy development.

© 2009 Richard Martin

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