Leadership development – how to evolve from Achieving to Transforming (Vertical Leadership, 4/5)

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By Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner TPCL Italy

Broadly speaking, there are two types of leadership development: horizontal and vertical – article nr. 01 of this series. While many organisations invest resources in the former, which adds skills and knowledge to a leader’s toolkit, the latter, which increases the size and transforms the shape of the toolkit itself, is often missed or misunderstood.

Key to this distinction is the understanding that transforming is different from improving. It is possible to get better at what you do simply by doing it, or otherwise through courses, performance reviews or some form of mentorship. But transformation is not about improving our skills and knowledge, it is about addressing the paradigm that underpins everything we do. 

There’s still much we can achieve without ever considering our transformation. We can hit or exceed targets, drive measurable success and advance our own careers. But if we are to evolve beyond achievement, we need to pay our paradigms close attention.

Action Logics and how they affect us

Before we can look at transformation, we need to become aware of where we currently stand. 

To this end, it is useful to consider the implications for leaders of the research-based findings of scholars like Robert Kegan, Jane Lovinger or Susanne Cook-Greueter. 

These pioneers in the field of human development have demonstrated that an adults’ capacity to make meaning evolves and expands across regular stages of development, each one increasingly more capable of integrating:

  • A more holistic experience of self
  • A greater capacity to understand and deal with differences and perspectives 
  • An enhanced capacity to process and master complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty while dealing with interconnected systems. 

The Leadership Development Framework, originally developed by Bill Torbert and David Rooke, is one of the most practical applications of adult development theory to leaders and leadership cultures. 

The Leadership Development Framework is based upon the research of scholars like Jean Piage and Jane Loevinger. It identifies seven Action Logics, which leaders can draw on in different situations, depending upon the level of maturity they have developed in their meaning-making capacities. 

The seven Action Logics are not necessarily stages in the sense of progression, neither are they types in the sense of personality profiling. Each Action Logic is fluid and interplays with earlier Action Logics, sometimes only rising to the occasion when a situation would benefit from it. This said, everyone, under normal circumstances, demonstrates a tendency to gravitate around a primary paradigm – which shapes our dominant way of thinking, feeling and behaving.

Pre-conventional and conventional stages of development

  1. Opportunist – often activated in hostile and unpredictable environments. This Action Logic focuses on what serves, protects or betters the self, even when this may involve leading through manipulation and threat, or by demanding loyalty and submission. It focuses on the here and now to the extent where only the surface and short term effects matter.

 2. Diplomat – leaders operating by this primary Action Logic focus on creating stability and emotional safety for self and others. They value belonging and in keeping everyone together. Their diplomacy creates environments in which people may feel listened to or welcome, though sometimes at the expense of addressing areas of conflict or challenging the status quo.

 3. Expert – leaders making meaning primarily through this Action Logic value the efficient exercise of technical ability and rationality. A mature expert might be a master of proven methods, problem-solving and the incremental enhancing of processes, relentlessly looking for the right answers to improve processes and efficiency.

 4. Achiever – a highly valued Action Logic for managers and senior leaders in dynamic corporate environments where continuous innovation and predict-and-control are central to the success of the business strategy. It requires a high level of personal energy and adaptability, as well as the capacity to lead while focusing on the what but empowering others to find their own way regarding the how.

Because the Achiever Action Logic is effective at energising the desire to achieve challenging objectives or visions, it is often most esteemed by a conventional business. However, it may create results without challenging the values that underpin the vision or with little concern for the impact on personal energies and quality relationships. 

The post-conventionalist stages of development

Torbert and Rooke studies highlight that to be most effective in a senior leadership position, a person will have effectively integrated these first four Action Logics. In fact, data shows that about 13% of senior managers operate with an Expert primary Action Logic, while 56% with an Achiever. 

But there is more. Adult development does not need to stop with the conventional stages, but, if stimulated by the environment and supported by appropriate reflective practices, it can progress even further.

The post-conventionalist Action Logics appear to be particularly effective when it comes to uncharted territory: leading organisations with high levels of diversity, operating in complex and unpredictable markets, dealing with visionary and innovative business models, or going through large scale processes of business transformation.  

 5. Individualist – Leaders operating primarily from this Action Logic increasingly question, deconstruct and experiment, sometimes in a sweeping revolution or under-the-surface rearrangement of meaning-making. Individualist leaders value free-thinking, challenging the status quo and being innovative and inclusive with diversity. They also demonstrate a refined sense for picking up the inconsistency between stated values and acted behaviours. 

Individualist leaders often prefer to operate in positions where they can have an external outlook on organisational dynamics, and they often operate as internal or external consultants and coaches. According to the latest data, about 26% of senior managers operate primarily with an Individualist Action Logic.   

 6. Strategist – this Action Logic is birthed somewhat messily from the Individualist’s process of continuous deconstruction of conventional beliefs and assumptions. Strategist leaders still experience high degrees of uncertainty, but they demonstrate a refined ability to turn their attention outward to collaborate with others and engage the complexity of the world around them to bring about long term effects. 

Strategists exercise a courageous use of power and are able to quickly move from the big picture to the important details. They may show a rare mix of vulnerability, decisiveness and openness to work with emergent and subtle dynamics. 

A mature strategist may be able to effectively lead cultural transformation on a deep level or sustain a movement for decades. But only 5% of senior leaders operate from this primary Action Logic.  

 7. Alchemist – This is a rare Action Logic, this should not be mistaken for the pinnacle of leadership. Trying to become an alchemist for the sake of achievement is oxymoronic since they find meaning in everything and nothing. Present to the pain of human tragedy and the beauty of diversity and human potential, this Action Logic enables individuals to bring great and timely change, while aware they are only a small part of the answer. 

Alchemists often embody deep wisdom coupled with humility, ordinariness and lightness and are often committed to transforming themselves and others as well as changing the society and institutions in which they participate. Only 0.3% of senior leaders score at Alchemist as their primary Action Logic. 

So should leaders work towards post-conventional capabilities?

This would appear to be the foregone conclusion. After all, doesn’t evolution always equal better decisions? Not necessarily. It comes back again to what the situation requires. To function effectively, organisations may need well-developed individuals operating with diverse Action Logics in different roles.

There is little time to think like a Strategist if you need to be absorbed in technical detail every day. Nor will you have much opportunity to develop such a paradigm. It might even be a waste of time, since it requires you to engage with the self-doubt, questioning and crisis of meaning which the Individualist experiences for years before they can transition to Strategist Action Logic.

However, it’s fair to say that Strategist competencies are highly beneficial to senior leaders. If you need to consider important details on one hand, and business strategy, models and culture on the other, and hold them all in tension, then Strategist Action Logic helps you to dance between polarities and shift between the short and long term view. Likewise, when dealing with uncertainty, Strategists find it easier to make action inquiries, experimenting to find the way forward.

Still, not every senior leader needs to be a Strategist. Leaders shouldn’t necessarily aim to develop an Action Logic in the same way you might aim for results (which in any case is the logic of an Achiever or Expert). Mature individuals often need to move across the spectrum in different contexts to engage with different people or roles. 

How to develop 

That said, it is possible to intentionally focus on the development of the later Action Logics and their capabilities. And development starts with awareness.

Becoming aware of our paradigm can be a painful process and it can rarely be done in isolation. By definition no one can see their own blind spots. We might need to rub shoulders with those who think differently from us. Or we could invite feedback, not simply to improve but to get an honest assessment of ourselves. Sometimes it takes a crisis to get us to see clearly, other times we can instigate it ourselves through coaching. 

As the first step on this journey, TPC Leadership offers bespoke assessments of your meaning-making. These use the Harthill Leadership Development Profile, which can help identify your developmental sweet spot. 

We can then follow this with 1-2-1 bespoke developmental coaching to help you to further consolidate current Action Logics, transition to later stage Action Logics or simply to look more closely at the ways you make meaning in work and life. 

Individual awareness is essential. Once we understand the limitations of our paradigm, we begin to assimilate other perspectives and hold them in balance. We can also start to see where team dynamics or systems are influencing our Action Logic one way or another.

But it is at the system level that we can have the most dynamic impact. TPC Leadership can consult your organisation to examine which Action Logics are at play in different parts of your organisational culture, assessing the dynamics and tensions this creates, and how this support or don’t support your business strategy. 

It takes an organisation-wide commitment to develop vertical leadership at the systems level. It is both a matter of supporting senior leadership to identify their meaning-making paradigms, and of identifying interventions (management restructures, team coaching, or the creation of a community of practice, to name a few). We will explore these from an HR perspective in our next article, nr. 5. 

Transforming your business is a matter of both individual awareness and organisational evolution. In case you missed it, get an overview of the evolution of culture from wolf pack to living organism in article nr. 3

This is article nr. 4 in a series of 5 covering Vertical Leadership. 

@copyright TPCL (2021)

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