By Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner TPCL Italy

In our introduction to Vertical Leadership (link to post 1), we talked about how developing as a leader isn’t just about adding more tools to our toolkit. It’s about increasing the capacity of that toolkit. In other words, increasing our own capacity for leadership by going on a journey to transform our mindset, attitude and understanding of the world

We also looked at how there are many parallels between the way leaders – and indeed all adults – develop and how children develop. The work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in the 1930s describes how from birth a child not only learns to walk, talk and carry out physical activities but to think, understand, perceive, rationalise and make sense of the world around them.

Vertical adult development, which informs vertical leadership practice, has been studied by a number of experts over the years, who have created similar models to try and explain the patterns they have identified.

Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan identified specific stages in moral development, for example, while Clare W. Graves and Don Beck focus on the development of culture and values. Bill Torbert looked at the way leaders make meaning of themselves, integrate diverse perspectives and process ambiguity and complexity. 

The Leadership Development Framework

Taking adult development into the leadership arena, we come to the Leadership Development Framework, created by David Rooke. This helps leaders to map and make sense of the implicit ‘logics’ and assumptions that might underpin their actions and decision-making in increasingly complex business scenarios.

For example, at the earlier stages of development we may operate as leaders from our Opportunist action logic. This is characterised by a focus on our own interests and needs, and on enforcing personal power and authority. It includes asking for loyalty, sometimes instilling fear and manipulating relationships, and seizing new opportunities as they arise.

While this way of operating may provide some strong centralised leadership in chaotic and unpredictable scenarios, it is often too present – and leader-focussed – to create an environment where people feel really acknowledged and safe. Most adults outgrow this stage of development after adolescence, but we all have experienced it in our youth, for example in our early efforts to climb the ‘dominance hierarchy’ in our high school peer groups.

As we develop as people and leaders, in our way of relating to ourselves and others, we may experience new action logics emerging in our way of thinking, feeling and behaving. 

The journey to achieving

At a Diplomat stage we might have experienced an increasing need to fit in, to belong, to please the ones in positions of power or authority in our organization and to loyally serve the aims of our group. We may remember these feelings as young professionals or supervisors, when we entered a new organization and had to learn to fit in and comply with the written and unwritten rules of that system in order to belong and succeed.

Diplomat leaders, unlike Opportunists, provide teams with a sense of personal connection and harmony, mutual support and attention, which fosters a real team spirit. 

While at this stage dealing with conflicts may be a challenge, later stage leaders show an increased capacity to focus on craft logic and technical expertise to foster rational efficiency and process improvement (Expert). Then comes a growing capability to focus on goals and key performance indicators to prioritize initiatives and decisions in dynamic scenarios while energising their teams to achieve challenging and motivating results (Achiever)

Many organisations aim to develop and employ Achiever leaders in key positions given their capacity to generate results while focusing on forecasting, measuring and controlling. This way of operating is widely (meaning: conventionally) considered the pinnacle of adult development. Most business schools and management training focus on supporting leaders to fully integrate the dynamism, flexibility, direction and relational skills that come with consolidating our Achiever action logic. 

Post conventional leadership for complex environments

But in the modern business environment, predicting, controlling and focussing on yearly and quarterly targets might not be enough to cope with the increasing complexities of the network economy or the unpredictable directions opened up by digital disruption and exponential business models. 

We experience everywhere, in fact, an increasing demand for leaders capable of thinking out-of-the-box, transforming business models and cultures, engaging wide networks of stakeholders, experimenting in cooperative partnerships and focusing on shared value for shareholders, people and society. 

It is exactly in these environments that leaders operating with post-conventional action logics seem to find their best fit. In fact, as leaders grow wisdom and mastery in operating within conventional business structures, they may start to develop an increasing need to critically think about the core assumptions that drive business, strategy and culture. 

Post conventional leaders demonstrate a unique capacity to identify the social constructs and beliefs which limit business innovation and organisational creativity and to actively question them in order to generate innovative solutions.  

Individualist leaders, for example, demonstrate great skill in adapting their communication style to engage people operating at different action logics. At the same time, they are acutely aware of the potential conflicts between a company (and leaders!) values and practices. They address the tension caused by these gaps to create innovative solutions to translate strategy into actual behaviours and performance. 

Leaders operating primarily at a Strategist action logic add to this a new level of mastery in managing change, and in envisioning and implementing wider business transformation programmes. Their capacity to courageously exercise power, foster mutual inquiry, show vulnerability, and hold the tension between the short and the long term make them a rare and valuable resource in organizations where innovation, creativity, complexity processing and purpose-and-value focus are key to success.

Leadership development for the future

Frederic Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations’ (2014) provides a fascinating tapestry of how organisations inspired by Strategist-like leaders are daring to move beyond conventional business structures. He cites examples like AES, BSO/Origin, Buurtzorg, FAVI and Morning Star.

These businesses can outperform traditional corporations by leveraging on self-management and decentralised decision-making. On breaking the boundaries between personal and professional selves in their cultures. And on focussing the leaders’ role on coaching self-managed teams and supporting inquiry-based practices. Through this, the company’s purpose can emerge and be articulated as core criteria for business decisions.

It is important that as leaders we look back to see where we have come from and to integrate what we have learned at each stage of our development. But we must also look forward to seeing where we have the capacity to grow in our understanding of ourselves, the way we relate to others and the way we operate and make decisions in increasingly complex scenarios. The frameworks discussed in this article are a starting point for that exploration that is required on the journey towards transformation.

This is the second in a series of five articles on Vertical Leadership. 

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