The 5 Developmental Stages of Leadership

In my previous posts, I presented different theories of leadership development based on the fact that leaders, like all adults, progress through stages as they grow and mature.

Because different development stage theorists use different descriptive words for the stages, it can be confusing. However, they do all have characteristics in common.

Using a broad brush, one 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 to reach out co-relationally. This is a normal developmental stage for young adults, but it is ineffective for leaders (although 5% do appear to operate at this stage).

Level 2: The hallmark of Stage 2 is a leaders’ abilities to simultaneously respond to their personal needs and to those of others. This is 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. They do builds alliances, but only with a focus on how to best get ahead. This leader’s emphasis is on the outer game to gain meaning, self-worth, and security.

Leaders will 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 (This reflecting an overdependence on heart, head, or will). When self-worth and identity depend on overused strengths, growth is self-limited, as behavioral options are restricted. Nearly 75% of leaders, 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 a 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. These leaders trade their need to be admired for a higher purpose. They don’t feel the need to be the hero and so, 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 on the welfare of the larger system in which a company operates. This is where 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 their perspectives even further, focusing on a higher purpose and the common good. To some theorists, Level 5 encompasses a spiritual focus. As very few leaders grow past the fourth level, stages beyond this level are yet unexplored.
What do you think about these ideas? Do they resonate for you and what you’ve observed as the leaders in your organization have matured? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.