Exploring the three stages of leadership development and creating your own path for professional success.
by Karen Armon, July 2011
In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the melancholy Jaques begins the play with the famous quote “all the world’s a stage,” and compares the world to a stage and life to a play. In his monologue, Jaques catalogues the seven stages of a man’s life: as infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and second childhood — “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” It is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently-quoted passages.
Leadership is a many-faceted topic that includes what leadership is, the various types of leaders, characteristics of good and bad leaders, how to lead effectively, and on and on. Because leadership deals with people rather than managing things, it will continue to be discussed and written about. Yet, executives must develop their own path, first understanding where they are in their development, before they can plan and design a path or plan to get to where they want to go.
In this article, I explore three stages, or levels, of leadership development based upon my almost twenty years of executive leadership and coaching. First and foremost, becoming a leader is a very personal journey. Leadership skills and motivations develop and change over time, progressing through three key stages. Each stage includes rites of leadership passage, different motivators and drivers, and sign posts. These rites shift, and when they do, it indicates that one is ready to move forward into the next stage.
Stage 1: The Learning Leader
The first stage is what I call the “learning leader.” This stage begins when a leader has been promoted from a manager role. The leader is no longer tasked with primarily managing resources by doing things well, but is asked to focus on leading direct and indirect reports.
My client Jeremy is a perfect example of a learning leader. Jeremy is a senior director and his daily focus is to become an effective and efficient leader, personally achieving the goals laid out for his department. In his mind, whether or not the team achieves these goals is a personal reflection upon him. Therefore, Jeremy’s interactions with his team are primarily transactional.
Power to Jeremy is located in his role and is positional, directed towards his direct and indirect reports. Jeremy is unaware of higher forms of communications including collaborative decision-making, using his influence power with peers, and how to develop others. Therefore, Jeremy is underdeveloped for increased leadership scope and authority.
The value he provides to his organization is his ability to execute tactically within his department.
Stage 2: The Leverage Leader
The second stage is what I call the “leverage leader.” This stage is the next phase of leadership developed and occurs after learning leaders have become highly proficient at leading their department or division. The leverage leader is focused on the business, rather than his or her department, and has developed skills that are cross-functional in nature.
Sarah exemplifies the leverage leader. She’s a vice president, sees the organization as a whole, and is aware of her role and how her division’s results impact — or fail to impact — the rest of the company. Her goals are developed through the opportunities that currently are available to the organization, and her interactions are collaboratively focused with other departments and partners.
Power to Sarah is both positional, when she must use her authority to make things happen, and influential, when she wants to work with others outside of her sphere to impact the organization. She is highly affected by her relationships within her peer group and is aware of the political issues within the company, knowing that the vast majority of decisions are made through her use of influence and relationships. Sarah also makes an effort to be connected with the power brokers within her company, knowing that her relationship within the chain of command is essential. Therefore, Sarah is highly promotable and will be considered a high-potential candidate for the c-suite.
Sarah’s value to the organization is her ability to growth the company, increase revenues, and build wealth for the employees and investors.
Stage 3: The Legacy Leader
The third and final stage is what I call the “legacy leader.” This stage is achieved only after the leverage leader has met most of the challenges in his or her industry or career. The legacy leader is focused on the long-term health of the company and making sure that others see the continuum of historical successes, cultural values, and operational ethics.
Bill is a great example of a legacy leader. He has been the CEO/president of his company for over 10 years, growing the company significantly. His reputation in the community and industry is well established and he is proud of his accomplishments. He is active in his community, serving on various volunteer boards, and is instrumental in the economic development of his city. Bill is focused on social issues and is an active contributor to his local political party. Internally, Bill is somewhat bored with his operational role, although he has never told anyone that fact.
Power to Bill is all about helping others achieve goals and become successful. He is extremely confident in his ability to use his authority, and rarely does so. Bill often interacts with others — both internally and externally — by carefully dropping hints, and everyone who deals with Bill knows that when he drops a hint, one should pay attention to them. Most of Bill’s interactions would be classified as advisory or mentoring; he doesn’t need praise or recognition for his leadership skills or style. Bill is not promotable; he is not willing to subordinate his wisdom or his opinions to gain promotion.
Bill’s value to the organization is in his reputation and his insights; yet there will be a time where these may be disregarded as he stays in his current role and/or acts behind the times.
Each stage will result in different outcomes, different motivators and drivers to successfully utilize, guide, and hopefully build new opportunities that allow the talents within each stage to add value to the organization.
Identifying the Signpost Indicators for the Next Stage
There may signposts, based upon the stage that you find yourself in, that let you know when you are ready to move forward in your career.
For the learning leader, the major signpost that identifies the desire to move to the next level is the development of points of view that may be contrary to conventional thought — either in your company or your industry. You’ll tend to dig deeper when your team achieves goals, and want to understand the threads that string together your department’s core drivers and link them to organizational performance.
The personal path to move from learning leader to leverage leader, then, must include developing skills that build your influence power, lateral relationships with peers, decision-making that includes risks and returns to the organization, and a focus on the company as a whole.
For the leverage leader, the major signpost is the desire to move into more significant roles that are not operational. Many times, I hear the leverage leader who wants to work for non-profit organizations, move into socially responsible roles, or even into the political arena. There is a draw to higher and lofty work which gives back to society rather than building the organization itself.
The personal path to move from leverage leader to a legacy leader, then, needs to include connecting with power brokers both inside and outside your industry, volunteering for social or cultural organizations, or giving back to society, in the form of either consulting work or building your own business. The desire to share your wisdom and knowledge with others should not be squelched because there isn’t a role today for you. Acknowledge the motivators and desires and find a satisfying outlet for them.
Creating Your Own Personal Path
In today’s business world, more leaders are asked to build their own path and design their own development plans. Companies tend not to invest in leadership development and are asking for executives to be job-ready rather than spending the dollars up front to get the leadership skills they need.
As well, no development path is linear. It is often driven by the opportunities, or lack thereof, that are before you. Yet, identifying and knowing where you are in your leadership development can make the process forward much easier when you know what you need to do to get to where you want to go.
Moving forward from one stage to the next is more about a long-term path and the time that it takes to develop your skills than a short-term role and professional gain that one is experiencing today. Once you see what stage you are currently in and know what to do about it now, make your life, and career, as rich as possible.
As Jaques so eloquently says, “…all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts....”