Stages of leadership development

(Article[1] published in Handbook of Top Management Teams Edited by Frank Bournois et al, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)


Current global trends and crises call for executive leaders who demonstrate a high level of maturity in dealing creatively with increasing complexity, uncertainty, diversity, and paradoxes, and who engage in generative collaboration with leaders from other sectors (public, private, and civil society), thus enhancing organizational and societal learning. These leaders accelerate their own development through personal and interpersonal practices, as well as by being open to learning and showing vulnerability in their leadership role. 

Why is leadership development important?

The most challenging problems that organizations and societies face now – economic instability, environmental degradation, increasing gap between rich and poor, lack of meaning – have been largely created by “conventional” leaders who are at earlier stages of development: they have been maximizing their own interest (ego-centric stage) or that of their organization (socio-centric stage), with little consideration of the larger and longer-term consequences on the environment and society. Globalization, increasing reliance on market forces, unethical corporate practices, and externalization of social and environmental costs have provoked responses – such as mobilization and protest of civil society organizations, development of international reporting standards, pressure for increased transparency, and corporate social responsibility – which in turn bring another level of complexity for executive governance. A post-conventional or world-centric stage of development is now required for leaders to solve rather than aggravate this new set of global and local challenges.

What do we mean by development?

In the context of human development, it is useful to distinguish between lateral and vertical development1. Lateral growth and expansion happen in many ways, such as education, training, self-directed learning as well as simply through experience. Vertical development in adults occurs more rarely. It refers to how we change our interpretations of experience and how we transform our views of reality. It corresponds to an increase in awareness of what we pay attention to and therefore influence. In general, changes in perspective are more powerful than any amount of horizontal growth and learning.

Susanne Cook-Greuter uses the metaphor of climbing a mountain as an illustration of what it means to gain an increasingly high vantage point. “At each turn of the path up the mountain, I can see more of the territory I have already traversed. I can see the multiple turns and reversals in the path. I can see further into and across the valley. Once at the summit, I can also see behind to the shadow side and uncover formerly hidden aspects of the territory. Finally, I can see beyond my particular mountain to other ranges and further horizons. The more I can see, the wiser, more timely, more systematic and informed my actions and decisions are likely to be because more of the relevant information, connections and interrelationships become visible”.

Development in the vertical sense refers to transformations of consciousness. It requires sustained practices, self-reflection, action inquiry, dialogue and being with others who are further along on the developmental path. Learning about developmental theories is not sufficient to help people transform: looking at the mountain trail map or at pictures of the scenery is just acquiring knowledge – an aspect of horizontal growth; it cannot replace the experience of climbing the mountain.

Vertical development includes the following aspects:

  • The unfolding of the human potential towards deeper understanding, wisdom and effectiveness in the world occurs in a sequence of stages or expanding worldviews from birth to adulthood, like moving up on a widening spiral. These worldviews evolve from simple to complex, from static to dynamic, and from ego-centric to socio-centric to world-centric.
  • Later stages are reached only by traveling through the earlier stages. Once a stage has been fully explored, it remains a part of the individual’s current experience and knowledge, even when more complex, later stages are adopted. In that sense, each later stage includes and transcends the previous ones. It is more differentiated, integrated, flexible and capable of optimally functioning in a rapidly changing and complex world.
  • People’s stage of development influences what they can become aware of, and therefore, what they can describe, articulate, influence, and change. As development unfolds, autonomy, freedom, tolerance for difference and ambiguity, as well as flexibility, reflection, and skill in interacting with the environment increase.
  • A person who has reached a later stage can understand earlier worldviews, but a person at an earlier stage cannot understand the later ones. This is the source of many misunderstandings among people at earlier and later stages.
  • Development occurs through the interplay between person and environment, not just by one or the other. It is a potential that can be encouraged and facilitated by appropriate support and challenge.

The depth, complexity, and scope of what people notice can evolve throughout life, but our knowledge and insight is always partial and incomplete.

Most developmental theories divide the full-spectrum trajectory of human consciousness into four main tiers: pre-conventional, conventional, post-conventional, and trans-personal. Despite the vast space open for development, most people in modern society function at the conven­tional stages. Only about 10% to 20% of adults have post-conventional action logics. Trans-personal ways of meaning making are even rarer. This is not inappropriate because any society must rely for its smooth everyday running on people who work within its existing institutional structures and values. However, it is preferable that more executive leaders evolve toward later stages of development to be able to guide organizations in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.

In general, post-conventional individuals are middle-aged, more educated and/or experienced, and they have reached higher levels of professional accomplishment. These people have achieved success for themselves and their organizations because of their capacity for more integrated and complex thinking. Research with leaders who are at these post-conventional stages shows that their companies do better over time than those run by conventional managers. Post-conventional leaders:

  • Have a broader, more flexible and more imaginative perspective on the whole organization and its context.
  • See promising connections and opportunities in novel places, and deal with complex problems in creative ways.
  • Recognize multiple ways of framing reality and understand that personal and organizational change require mutual, voluntary initiatives, not just top-down hierarchical guidance.
  • Realize that power exercised in such a way as to make oneself vulnerable to transformation can generate voluntary transformation in others, rather than compliance or resistance.
  • Intentionally focus the company’s attention on the discrepancy between intention to change and performance, and help team members recognize and correct incongruities among their visions, strategies, behaviors and outcomes.
  • Practice systems thinking, have a longer time horizon (up to several generations), involve a wide variety of stakeholders in dialogues, and seek reconciliation among their conflicting claims.
  • Acknowledge their part in co-creating current reality, sense in the present moment the new reality that is emergent, and attract others’ energies to bring it out and give it form.

The Leadership Development Framework

The Leadership Development Framework (LDF) is a full-range model of growth in adulthood that describes the stages of development from egocentric opportunism to wise, timely and world-centric action. Developed by Susanne Cook-Greuter and Bill Torbert, the LDF applies a belief in human potential for life-long transformation to the professional and business world. As stated by Susanne Cook-Greuter, “when used with managers and leaders, the LDF provides a way of understanding how they tend to interpret events and, thus, how they are likely to act in a given situation or conflict. Although people may have access to several action logics as part of their repertoire, they tend to respond spontaneously with the most complex action logic they have available. Under pressure and rapid change conditions, people often resort to behavior patterns from earlier stages. In contrast, moments of perceiving life in ways associated with stages much later than one’s center of gravity are rare. These can be glimpsed during peak moments or temporarily manifested under ideal support conditions”.

Practices to support vertical development

The shift from conventional to post-conventional leadership can be accelerated by engaging in both personal and interpersonal practices. Personal practices lead to conscious engagement in individual action inquiry, for example: keeping a journal about one’s personal observations, reflections and learning, especially in times of stress and change; clarifying one’s intentions and being aware of the discrepancies between one’s outcomes, behavior, strategies and intentions; surfacing and challenging one’s deepest assumptions and competing commitments; developing one’s intuition through consciousness-raising practices such as meditation or martial arts; and deepening one’s sense of connection with nature through silent observation and contemplation.

Interpersonal practices enable a leader and his/her team or network to engage in collective action inquiry, for example: using the ladder of inference to uncover the source of our assumptions and attributions about each other; practicing reflective listening as well as high-quality advocacy and inquiry in daily interactions; developing dialogue skills with groups of diverse people; addressing conflicts as opportunities to learn; applying systems thinking archetypes to complex issues; working creatively with dilemmas and paradoxes by exploring the pros and cons of each poles in a polarity map; building a shared vision by seeking the active involvement of a wide diversity of stakeholders; immersing oneself and one’s team in unfamiliar contexts through learning journeys; and collaborating actively with leaders from other sectors who usually have very different educational background, beliefs, and experiences.

Benefits of a developmental perspective

A developmental perspective is useful in many ways. It facilitates the work in organizations on multiple levels and often provides a more powerful explanation for misunderstandings and conflict among people than leadership type and style alone. Daniel Goleman offers an interesting hybrid between leadership style and developmental stage by using different levels of emotional intelligence to describe six leadership styles. His research shows that leaders with the greatest emotional intelligence (most self-awareness, self-management and social skills) – that is those who would test high on a developmental test – had the most positive effect on working climate.

Post-conventional leaders will be particularly effective when a longer-term perspective is needed and the diverse claims of many stakeholders need to be reconciled through collaborative inquiry. Research done by Avastone Consulting in ten prominent global companies show that leaders’ later stage mindsets are essential for the realization of complex sustainability goals. Generally, post-conventional executives will be in a better position to guide their organization through strategies and development stages that will enable them to adapt to and thrive in a more turbulent and complex environment.

Executive teams represent one of the best practice fields for leadership development, as well as the cornerstone of a learning organization. Their effectiveness in triggering organizational transformation depends largely on the stage of development of key executives, particularly the CEO. Their level of awareness, personal maturity, and commitment to the vertical development of others will also benefit the internal and external networks that they are part of.

Finally, while lateral development and skill building has been the traditional domain of leadership training and development, developmental frameworks and interventions deliberately aim at both lateral enrichment and vertical transformation.  These two components are equally necessary for life-long learning and adaptation to the rapidly changing demands of a global society.


  • Argyris, Chris. & Schön, Donald: Theory in Practice: Increasing professional effectiveness, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1977.
  • Avastone Consulting: Leadership and the Corporate Sustainability Challenge – Mindsets in Action, 2007 (
  • Goleman, Daniel: Leadership that Gets Results, Harvard Business Review, March/April 2000.
  • Senge, Peter: The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Currency Doubleday, New York, 2006
  • Senge, Peter et al: The Necessary Revolution – How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, Doubleday, New York, 2008
  • Senge, Peter, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers: Presence – Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, Society for Organizational Learning, Boston, 2004.
  • Torbert, Bill & Associates: Action inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership, Berrett-Koehler, 2004.

[1] This article builds on parts of an article by Susanne Cook-Greuter: Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective, Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 36 No 7, 2004. Further information about developmental theory and the Leadership Development Framework are available on Susanne’s website (

About Alain

Alain Gauthier’s current focus as an author, consultant, facilitator, educator, and coach is on evolutionary co-leadership development and collective learning as prerequisites for cultivating deep and lasting change in and across organizations. A graduate from H.E.C. (Paris) and an M.B.A. from Stanford University, he has served over the past 45 years a large variety of client organizations in Europe, Japan and North America. He first worked as a senior associate of McKinsey & Company in Europe, then as a partner of a Paris-based consulting firm, and is currently Executive Director of Core Leadership Development and Founder of the Global Transforming Ensemble, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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