• Kevin Nourse, PhD

Revisiting Stage Theory for Leaders' Development

Half the battle in a value-added coaching engagement is a clear focus on specific goals

and a means for measuring progress. Stage theory that focuses on specific leadership competencies provides this level of specificity. While it cannot explain all the nuances in human behavior, a well-researched stage theory provides a really useful roadmap to support leaders development.

I’m reminded of Joiner and Joseph’s seminal work, Leadership Agility, and a five level stage theory framework. Their model builds on a more generic stage model of adult development and identifies five distinct stages:

  • Expert leaders who are anchored in a problem-solving oriented mindset and either very assertive/directive or overly accommodating,

  • Achievers, with a more strategic view, that still have a strong predominant leadership style but show signs of being able to tap less preferred leadership styles,

  • Post-heroic levels of development including catalysts, co-creators and synergists, all of which have increasingly adaptive leadership styles and strong receptivity to feedback.

These researchers also offer a competency framework to support the developmental stages they have identified. These include agility with self-leadership, context setting, stakeholders, and creativity. When combined with a traditional 360-degree assessment, this model provides a powerful way to pinpoint developmental goals and therefore improve the likelihood of a successful coaching engagement.

James, a scientific leader in a small human service agency, uses a directive approach with most of his direct reports managers. As a result, few of his C-level executives are empowered since they have little autonomy to perform their roles. This has lead to significant turnover further down in his organization and very low morale, since many on the senior leadership team are unhappy. James has very high standards for his people, possibly based on his personality, in terms of their competence that would enable him to trust them with tasks he should delegate. His introversion prevents him from clearly communicating these expectations so that his senior leaders can adapt to meet them.

Using these developmental stages and competency framework, it seems clear that James is functioning at an expert level characterized by an overreliance on formal authority and technical knowledge. Further, feedback I collected from a dozen raters suggests some specific competencies he needs to develop including:

  • Self-leadership based on a lack of awareness about himself (particularly his emotions) and his impact on others,

  • Stakeholder agility given his lack of understanding about what motivates (and demotivates) his direct reports as well his overuse of assertive power,

  • Context setting agility based on rater feedback that he is unskilled in understanding the impact of his decisions on the larger organizational context.

I will engage James to use the Joiner and Josephs model for viewing the assessment data from his raters to focus his developmental goals and a targeted leadership stage. Further, this framework provides a useful way to help James envision his future leader self and the impact he could have.

While stage theories are not perfect, they do provide an important framework for making sense of client feedback data and helping identify specific development goals.

(c) 2014 Kevin Nourse, PhD



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