Conceptions of leadership—how they develop

Since 2002, my colleagues and I have been documenting the development of people’s conceptions of leadership. We’ve learned a lot about how thinking about leadership develops over time. This article provides a small sampling of what we’ve learned.

I’ll be describing what conceptions of leadership and leadership skills look like in four developmental “zones.” A zone is 1/2 of a Lectical Level (a level on Lectica’s well-validated lifespan developmental scale). Four zones are regularly observed in adulthood. These are illustrated in the figure below:


You can think of what my colleagues and I call Lectical Development as growth in the complexity and integration of people’s neural networks. As illustrated in the above figure, one way this increasing complexity shows up is in people’s ability to work effectively with increasingly broad and layered perspectives. It also appears in people’s reasoning about specific concepts, including conceptions of leadership. The table below provides brief general descriptions of what reasoning about leadership looks like in the four adult zones.

Reasoning about leadership in the four adult zones

phasegood leadership is…
advanced linear thinkinga collection of traits, dispositions, habits, or skills
early systems thinkinga complex set of interrelated traits, dispositions, learned qualities, and skills that are applied in particular contexts
advanced systems thinkinga complex and flexible set of interrelated and constantly developing skills, dispositions, learned qualities, and behaviors
early integrative thinkingthe actualization of context-independent, consciously cultivated qualities, disposition, and skills that have evolved through purposeful and committed engagement and reflective interaction with others

The next table provides examples of some of the ways people think about sharing power, courage, working with emotion, and social skills — in each of the four adult zones. Note how the conceptions at successive levels build upon one another and increase in scope. It’s easy to see why individuals performing at higher levels tend to rise to the top of organizations and institutions—they can see more of the picture.

The development of reasoning about leaderhip skills
Zonesharing powercourageworking with emotionsocial skills
advanced linear thinkingsharing the work load with others or letting other people make some of the decisionsthe ability to face, conquer, or conceal fear, admit when you are wrong, stand up for others, believe in yourself, or stand up for what you believe is rightbeing able to keep staff satisfied and productive, calm down overly emotional staff, or support staff during difficult timesbeing able to listen or communicate well, control your emotions, or put yourself in the other person’s shoes
early systems thinkingempowering others by giving them opportunities to share responsibility, knowledge, and/or benefitsthe ability to function well in the face of fear or other obstacles, or being willing to take reasonable risks or make mistakes in the interest of a “higher” goalbeing able to manage your own emotions and to maintain employee morale, motivation, happiness, or sense of well-beinghaving the skills required to foster compassionate, open, accepting, or tolerant relationships or interactions
advanced systems thinkingsharing responsibility and accountability as a way to leverage the wisdom, expertise, or skills of stakeholdersthe ability to maintain and model integrity, purpose, and openness or to continue striving to fulfill one’s vision or purpose—even in the face of obstacles or adversityhaving enough insight into human emotion to foster an emotionally healthy culture in which emotional awareness and maturity are valued and rewardedbeing able to foster a culture that supports optimal social relations and the ongoing development of social skills
early integrative thinkingstrategically distributing power by developing systems and structures that foster continuous learning, collaboration, and collective engagementthe ability to serve a larger principle or vision by strategically embracing risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity—even in the face of internal and external obstacles or resistancehaving the ability to work with others to establish systems and structures that support the emergence of, and help sustain, an emotionally healthy culturebeing able to develop adaptive systems that respond to the emergent social dynamics of internal and external relationships

The Lectical Level at which leaders understand leadership affects how they choose to lead, and is a strong predictor of the level of complexity they can work with effectively. Lectical Assessments are designed to measure and foster growth on the Lectical Scale. If you’d like to learn more or have questions, we’d love to hear from you.

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