Can Leaders Evolve?

Posted: September 3, 2009 in Professional Development
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This is the first of a short series of articles on the subject of leadership development. We’ll examine a developmental model based on the work of management theorist William Torbert and developmental psychologist Suzanne Cook-Greuter. Their research is highly instructive, in that it answers the question in the title and definitely shows that we all can evolve and become more mature and effective leaders – if we know where we are and how to get there. If you’re interested in exploring this model further, you can read Action Inquiry, by William Torbert (Berrett-Koehler, 2006).

This month, we’ll look at the three first levels and next month we’ll look at the following three, as well as some methods and considerations in progressing from stage to stage. In the following month, we will examine the potential applications of this model in the field of management and organizational development, as well as some additional subtleties that should be noted.

Their approach, known as the Leadership Development Framework, is based on decades of research into the topic of adult psychological development. Very briefly, this is the notion that adults can continue developing beyond adolescence to greater levels of maturity if they encounter the right conditions and they are open to growth. Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, has also corroborated much of this research.

The idea that we progress through seasons of life is not new, but the concept of empirically derived developmental “stages” or “levels” is relatively recent. The model provides a framework for assessing a leader’s level of maturity and the best means of progressing beyond this stage. It provides a roadmap for leadership coaching and development that can be applied to individuals, or to managers and executives in any organizational setting. We must progress sequentially through these stages and it is not possible to skip one. However, once a new stage has been attained and integrated, the characteristics of previous stages become part of the behavioural repertoire of the leader.

Torbert and Cook-Greuter identify seven stages of leader development, which they also call “action logics.” I will only focus on the first six of the stages for this discussion, because the seventh, the “Alchemist” is so rare as to be highly speculative. The other six stages are all well represented in all of the population samples that have been studied, with relative frequencies of each suggesting a normal distribution, which is about what we would expect. Here are descriptions of the first three stages.

Opportunist. Opportunist leaders are focused on their own immediate needs, opportunities, and self-protection. They see the world in win-lose terms, and see standing out and “making it” as absolute values. They will manipulate and exploit others for their own aims, often without realizing it, and see authority as an end in itself, rather than a tool to achieve a goal. They can be good in emergencies and in situations requiring aggressiveness and ruthlessness. On the other hand, they are hard to follow and work for and few people wish to follow them for extended periods. Only about 4-5 % of managers are at this stage. This is a very immature stage of development, with behaviours that are usually typical of late childhood and early adolescence. It may apply to very inexperienced managers or to those who are thrust into positions of authority without adequate supervision or training, or who lack the full confidence to exercise their leadership. However, circumstances may dictate that a leader should operate as an Opportunist, for instance during an emergency or crisis, during difficult negotiations, or when seeking new opportunities for business or work. The key is to choose this behaviour rather than being held captive by it.

Diplomat. Diplomat managers are focused on group needs, avoiding conflict, fitting in, acceptance and group norms. Their motto is “don’t rock the boat.” They view teamwork and organizational acculturation as critical, and even means unto themselves. They rarely question rules and regulations and group norms, because they think they could be ostracized for doing so or may get into trouble with higher authorities within the organization. Diplomats are often the supportive glue in an organization or team, and they can help smooth over differences and manage internal and external conflicts. On the other hand, they can refuse to give painful feedback to people who need it, or make hard decisions for the greater good. Only about 10-12 % of managers are at this stage. The behaviours of this stage are typical of late adolescence and are characteristic of leaders who are trying to fit in with a new group or who lack confidence in their means or abilities. We all need to be Diplomats on occasion, but it is not the most effective and efficient stage of leader development.

Expert. Expert leaders are focused on – you guessed it – expertise, and acquiring specialized skills and knowledge. They are often beholden to the logic and ideology of their craft, trade or profession, which can make them intolerant of other approaches to problem-solving and leading that are just as valid, if not more so. They respect technical expertise and competence above all else. These are the “workhorses” of the organizational world, as they are the managers who get most of the day-to-day work done. They are good individual contributors, but can lead specialized teams for specific tasks or in circumscribed situations. They often lack respect for those outside their field of expertise or profession, and can be annoyed by the need to attend to the personal needs of subordinates or collaborators. This is the largest group of leaders, as they represent approximately 35-40 % of all managers. All leaders must be experts in some area, as this conveys credibility to subordinates and collaborators. It is an essential stepping-stone to further progression as a leader, but can be a hindrance if someone can’t see beyond the logic and ideology of their own field.

We will continue this survey next month by describing the next three levels/stages in Torbert’s and Cook-Greuter’s Leadership Development Framework, respectively known as the Achiever, Pluralist (or Individualist), and Strategist. We will also look at some of the steps that can be taken to progress through each stage of development, in order to become more competent leaders. Until then, happy development!

© 2009 Richard Martin

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