Monday, April 24th, 2017

Leadership Agility and Stages of Development

Russian DollsPeople who begin to delve into Leadership Agility are often curious about its relationship to stages of personal development (what some are now calling “vertical” development), especially the earlier work that Bill Torbert did on the links between developmental stages and leadership. Prior to the research I did for Leadership Agility (back in the 1980s and 1990s, when Torbert did most of this work on this topic), he was virtually the lone pioneer in exploring these connections.

One of the key influences on Torbert’s work is a framework for stages of “ego development” created by the late Jane Loevinger and her associates.  Her work is one of the primary contributions to a field called “stage development psychology” (Jean Piaget and Bob Kegan and a number of others have also been important contributors).  Early work on stages of childhood stages later blossomed into increasingly robust research on stages of adult development. (These are not age-related phases, but stages of increased cognitive complexity and emotional maturity).

The research conducted in this field has steadily gained wider interest, especially for the way it illuminates adult development, partly because of its incorporation into the Integral perspective of Ken Wilber. It shows that human beings develop through a set of developmental stages that can also be assessed. Loevinger, above all, was a pioneer in assessing developmental stages. Over the years, starting in the 1950s, she created and honed the “Washington University Sentence Completion Test” (WUSCT) and scoring manual, which assessed a person’s stage of ego development. This is a labor-intensive process that requires specially trainer scorers. Though I don’t like using the term “test” for this assessment, it is one of the best stage development assessments out there. This methodology has been picked up and further developed by Susanne Cook-Greuter.

The research Torbert conducted and supervised while a professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College used the WUSCT and found that, statistically, there was a correlation between a manager’s stage of ego development and their effectiveness in carrying out certain leadership tasks. He has used the term “action logic” to refer to the frame of mind underlying each stage, suggesting that, when a manager assessed at a particular stage takes action, the frame of mind underlying that stage governs the way they take action.

The 5 years of research that went into writing Leadership Agility looked closely at Torbert’s research and that of a number of others, but it also included an extensive amount of original research. In this post, I won’t attempt to go through all the points where I was able to confirm Torbert’s conception of stages and corresponding leadership behaviors, or all the points where I came to differing or more nuanced conclusions.  However, I can say that this in-depth research allowed me to describe in a much more detailed and systematic way both the mental and emotional capacities that emerge at each stage and the leadership behaviors that can be observed when these capacities are put into action.

Another key finding was that stage of development is a necessary but not always sufficient condition for the leadership behavior that corresponds to that stage. So, rather than use a single term like “action logic” to refer to a manager’s stage and how they take action (which would imply that behavior always matches stage), I have stressed the need to look at stage (underlying capacities) and leadership behavior as separate (though related) factors. For example, while some leaders “act their stage,” others need more practice and skill development to put their stage-related capacities fully into action.

The methodology for assessing agility level is the Leadership Agility 360, a tool that I developed in collaboration with Cambria Consulting, a firm that has deep experience and expertise in assessment methodologies. This instrument also has the advantage that it is much more contextual than traditional 360s.  That is, it can identify how a manager’s agility level may vary in different “action arenas,” specifically leading organizational change, leading teams, and pivotal conversations.

Image41Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility.  He is President and a Principal Consultant at ChangeWise, a long-established firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting.

Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @leaderagility

One Response to “Leadership Agility and Stages of Development”

  1. Dan Kaufman says:

    Great explanation Bill. I especially appreciate the disentangling of mental and emotional capacity. Even with the development of solid stage development I’ve seen leaders in toxic systems so impacted by the context in which they work that one or both of those capacities may not be available to them. It’s also helpful to use the two fold frame when assessing leaders whether formally or informally. My experience recently in working with a leadership team has been that without a strong foundation of emotional “agility” the relationships between team members can lead to destabilization and a need to begin work by developing a safe container and the skills necessary to have pivotal conversations before moving on to systems issues.

Leave a Reply