Leadership Development — It’s About Capacity, Not Just Competencies

Clear Impact Consulting Group
40 min readNov 4, 2019


Two consultants working with five engaged leaders.
Photo by Authors, Clear Impact Consulting Group

This article is about Vertical Development. What is Vertical Development? It’s the ability to cultivate broader, deeper, and more compassionate understanding, and then to embody that understanding in more wise, principled, effective, and sustainable action.

This posting is longer than our usual ones because we’re trying to bring light to a distinction that’s critical in the leadership development field. Not understanding this distinction severely limits equipping leaders to handle today’s challenges. So please bear with us. This really, really matters. Even most Training & Development professionals are unaware of this crucial distinction.

We’ll be making the distinction between leadership competencies and leadership capacity. We’re giving a brief introduction here, and then we’ll clarify and expand during the rest of the article.

Leadership competencies are generally presented as leadership behaviors and skills that, when developed, can contribute to superior performance. For now, we’ll use the example of “collaboration.” It’s clear that collaborative leaders drive higher engagement and generate greater and more sustainable results.

Leadership capacity is the option to think and then act in ways that are more effective during times of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. Building leadership capacity is known as Vertical Development.

We’ll be describing a map of adult development applied to leadership. This map extends the original research on child development. Just as children keep changing “operating systems” throughout their young lives, as adults we have the option to keep developing later-stage “operating systems” throughout our lives.

Think of leadership competencies as software that’s run on a computer. Those competencies become increasingly more effective using more advanced operating systems. Leadership capacity is about the structure of our thinking, not what we think about but how we think about it.

What’s different at later stages of adult development? As we’ll explore in more detail below, leaders become more reflective. They think more about what they’re doing and how to do it better. They’re better able to take perspectives (compassionately putting themselves in others’ shoes) and to seek perspectives (understanding how others see things). They are better able to integrate multiple factors, and thus make decisions that incorporate the perspectives of different stakeholders (employees, customers, etc.), multiple timelines (short-term, long-term), etc. They are likely to have greater self-awareness, and allow themselves to be more vulnerable, acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers and that they need the perspectives of others to optimize results. This allows them to be better at developing others, and at creating contexts imbued with safety and trust that then generate better solutions to complex problems.

As a simple example, imagine a group of leaders attending a workshop about collaboration. Some of those leaders tend to see things only from their own perspective. They assume they know the “right” way to do things, see the world in terms of “one right answer,” have low self-awareness, and have difficulty admitting to themselves or others when they are not sure of something. Imagine how limited their collaboration will be. They may ask superficial questions of others, mostly to get their buy-in to what they have already decided, perhaps trying to act interested in what they have to say, but others know better than to really question them. Another group of leaders know that complex situations require the integration of multiple perspectives, have no problem exhibiting vulnerability by saying, “I don’t know all the answers” and provide a context that makes it clear that all perspectives are valued and welcomed. There is no fear that ideas will be dismissed, discounted, or ridiculed. Imagine how rich the collaboration will be, how engaging, exciting, and generative.

More than half of all leaders think like the first leaders we described above. And only about 10% think like the second leaders. That is a real problem, and that’s what this article is about.

Leaders who think at earlier stages of development will out of necessity over-simplify complex problems. They’ll look for “one right answer” or “who is to blame.” Their approaches to these complex problems are inherently limited. And likely they won’t know it.

A quick summary of this introduction before we get into more detail.

1. Leadership competencies are leadership behaviors and skills.

2. Leaders function at diverse Levels of Development, and competencies are understood and expressed differently at later-stage levels. At later-stage capacity levels leaders generate more engagement, better and more sustainable results, and in general do more good for those in the world including those in their organizations.

3. Vertical Development focuses on increasing the capacity to use any competencies more effectively, and thus the capacity to lead more effectively during times of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity (VUCA) and rapid change.

4. Some competencies aren’t even viable until a leader reaches a certain stage of development. For example, if a leader can’t take or seek the perspectives of others well, how can that leader be an even minimally effective coach?

5. Therefore, depending on how a competency is defined, there may be a “capacity gap” for a particular leader to be able to embody that competency at a minimally effective level. That is, until that leader can think at a later-stage capacity level, s/he will be unable to demonstrate that competence, no matter how much s/he is rewarded, encouraged, or punished.

6. Whatever the competency, it will always be expressed more effectively by leaders thinking at a later-stage capacity level.

7. We need to add one more crucial factor. Capability. The ability for a leader to actually do something depends on more than competency and capacity. In addition to those factors, it also depends on the context in which that leader is leading. What resources are available? What behaviors are allowed and/or rewarded in that organization? What are the competencies and capacities of his or her team? Imagine two leaders, identical in their competency and capacity. One is in a situation with very limited resources, a hiring and spending freeze, and has legacy employees who were promoted for tenure rather than ability. The other has a large budget and the ability to have the right people in the right roles. Their current capability to take effective action will be different. In this article we’re limiting ourselves to the distinction between competency and capacity (that’s enough!) but it’s important to understand the impact of context as well on capability, when capability is defined as the ability to take effective action.

OK, here we go….

One of us sat in on a performance discussion between a leader and one of our executive coaching clients. The manager had dutifully gone through pages and pages of leadership competencies and given our client ratings on each, based on organizational leadership levels (VP competency level, Director competency level, etc.). Was our client’s performance at a level that implied she was ready for promotion? At her current level? Or below that? Our client was then asked by her manager to take those pages of information and address any gaps between her current performance and what was needed for promotion to the next level of leadership. These dialogues happen a lot.

Identifying leadership competencies has been in vogue for quite some time. Human Resources or Talent Management or Human Capital professionals spend a great deal of time, money and resources researching and then generating lists of leadership competencies for each level in their organization. Why are they doing this? Often to help address what’s been called the “complexity gap,” the difference between current leadership ability and what is needed to lead more effectively during times of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change.

What’s the problem with these competency “report cards”?

Well, for one thing, they’re not contextual. That is, they imply that our client’s performance was totally under her control and that the competencies she was demonstrating, or not, fully reside within her. Higher capacity leaders, those at later stages of development, understand that they, and the organizational culture/context, are co-responsible for their direct report’s performance, rather than assuming their direct reports are solely responsible. Many leaders with the capacity to operate at later stages do not demonstrate this high capacity level in their organizational performance. Why? Because aspects of the organizational culture make such leadership behavior difficult, or even punish it. Please see this Medium article for a model we developed to help understand Contextual Thinkingwe call Pond Thinking.

The second reason is that even within an optimal organizational culture (and there are precious few of these) these leadership competencies are often not actionable because of the individual development of the leader. Let us explain. This is what we’ll focus on for the remainder of this article.

Developmental Studies

Young child trying on a hat
Photo by Travis Grossen on Unsplash

Let’s look at what we mean by whether a competency is actionable or not.

The field of Child Development, represented particularly in the work of Jean Piaget, has been accepted for a long time. Children are not just little adults. Their thinking qualitatively changes in ways that have developmental “steps.” When water from a short and squat glass is poured into a taller and narrower one, a 4 y/o will say there is now more water in the taller glass. A 6 y/o, having moved from the Pre-Operational to the Concrete Operational stage, will say that there is the same amount of water.

At the Pre-Operational stage, the child can’t use logic or transform, combine, or separate ideas. At the Concrete Operational stage, there is more organized and rational thinking. We can look at this in terms of how many different dimensions or factors a child can handle at once. The 6 y/o can handle two dimensions (height and width) and so understands that the volume didn’t change. The 4 y/o doesn’t yet have that capacity because of being able to “hold onto” only one dimension at a time. So the 6 y/o has more actual cognitive capacity than the 4 y/o. S/he didn’t just learn a new competency. This distinction is vital.

The field of leadership development, in general, hasn’t made this distinction between capacity and competency. Competencies exist at diverse Levels of Development, as we’ll explain shortly. If a leader currently functions at a Level of Development earlier than that at which a particular competency resides, then it’s currently out of reach. So identifying the competency and then trying to hold the leader accountable for demonstrating it will be futile because no matter how much support or pressure is given to that leader, the leader will not be successful. We’re supporting an approach that would, for any competency, also ask what Level of Development, or capacity, is needed to embody it.

At one point the assumption was that once that child grew up to be an adult, somewhere between 18 and 25, she now had an “adult brain” and the rest of her life was filling it full of more competencies. But then the field of Adult Development came along and said these “stages” of development continue, or can continue, throughout adulthood, and that these later adult stages are no less dramatic than the one between the Pre-Operational 4 y/o and the Concrete Operational 6 y/o. That is, in the same way that the 6 y/o was able to accomplish mental feats not yet available to the 4 y/o, a leader at the Catalyst level (these stage names will make more sense later) has a vastly greater ability to integrate multiple perspectives than does a leader at the Expert level.

Bill Tolbert and colleagues applied these levels to leadership behavior and called them “action logics” because, at each stage or level, the leaders step back and make sense of the situation in different ways, and therefore act differently as a result. Ken Wilber, Robert Kegan , Bill Joiner, Susanne Cook-Greuter and others are also major contributors to understanding adult development.

These findings were not welcomed initially, particularly in the postmodern atmosphere of many universities, because they asserted that some ways of thinking are better than others. From a post-modern perspective, it was more fashionable to say that some people think differently than others, and that all ways of making sense of the world have equal validity, rather than to make an evaluative judgment. But the reality is that some ways of thinking and then acting are clearly more effective for leading in times of increasing complexity (VUCA). Each subsequent level can integrate more factors and can see the world more accurately. Put another way, each subsequent level has more actual capacity than the one before it.

We are not saying that some people are better than others. We are saying that some ways of thinking, of making meaning of the world, are better than others.

How does this relate to leadership competencies? We could have taken those competencies on which our client was rated and identified which ones cannot be carried out effectively until individuals are at a particular Level of Development. For example, as you’ll see below, Experts will always have difficulty with effective delegation and with coaching, no matter how many training sessions they attend and models they memorize, and no matter how much they’re rewarded or punished. Think of Levels of Development like upgrades in a computer’s operating system. Some programs that couldn’t run on Windows XP can be run on Windows 10. Same with Mac OS Snow Leopard and Catalina.

It is particularly important to understand that the level at which a leader functions is not “fixed.” Leaders can and do make leaps in their overall capacity. What does that take? It helps when they have leaders around them who function at a later-stage level, when they see limitations or gaps in their own leadership thinking and action, and when they’re motivated to stretch themselves and grow. But, even with all of these factors, they also need to be provided the right opportunity, exposure to capacity-building curriculum, a learning context that is based on an understanding of Levels of Development-in-Action, where they are presented tools and models that “stretch their brains.” Our brains change slowly, over time, with many many cycles of action and reflection. They don’t change through attending a single workshop, no matter how well the material is presented. Willing participants need to be coupled with skilled trainers who function at a later-stage level than those leaders, who understand how to build capacity (rather than just teach competencies). And then these leaders need to be given the time and support to grow, where they can be provided a safe environment to try new ways of thinking and acting.

Why is a conscious focus on adult development, and on raising leaders’ level of development, so vital? The “center of gravity” of a culture initially provides a “pull” towards later-stage development, for people to think at more complex levels. But then it has a “dampening” effect, pulling people towards the norm and stifling development past that “center of gravity.” This profoundly impacts the level of collaboration, creativity and innovation in that organization, and its ability to generate sustainable positive results.

Woman consciously reflecting.
Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

What are some of the cultural/contextual factors that limit complexity of thinking? Young children ask an average of almost 300 questions a day. They are naturally curious. Then they enter the school system, where those in power (teachers) are the ones allowed to ask questions, and students are supposed to answer them. Most educational systems support seeking “one right answer,” yet dealing effectively with complexity requires the integration of multiple factors, both/and rather than either/or thinking and being open to there being no one “right way” to approach a complex issue. Most students are graded on their ability to regurgitate facts rather than on their ability to take multiple perspectives on challenging issues. This limits the formation of what neuroscientists refer to as new and more effective neural pathways. This is not to denigrate the acquisition of basic skills. They are important. But they are only part of what’s required to meet today’s challenges.

The easiest things to grade (matching General to the wars in which they served, for example) are often the least useful aspects of learning. It’s harder to grade responses on how to build collaboration among students, or how to work more effectively with conflict, or awareness of one’s own emotional interior (emotional literacy), but these topics are so much more important for the current and future life of that child.

When education stifles curiosity and the excitement of new learning, rather than promoting them, society suffers. This becomes clear in seeing how most people vote based on trite slogans and simplistic ideas, rather than having the capacity to understand the core issues. Politicians, whatever their actual capacity, end up presenting their ideas in black & white ways to match how people think. Because of this many people vote in directions that hurt them and their families.

Those students then enter the workforce, where there continues to be over-privileging of “one right answer” and not questioning those in authority. We have found almost no organizational cultures where people find the safety and trust to share whatever they are thinking, without fear of retribution, ridicule, and judgment. This has a lot to do with organizational and leadership Levels of Development, as we’ll describe soon.

A team working together.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Organizational cultures are determined by what senior leaders pay attention to. When senior leaders are at conventional levels of development they tend to be “heroic leaders” who believe they’re supposed to have the answers. They have difficulty showing vulnerability and take it personally when people question them. They thus create cultures that stifle the expression of multiple differing perspectives. Yet, as we’ve said, the integration of diverse perspectives is required to deal more effectively with complex issues.

Our organizations, as well as society, need those who think at later-stage levels of development, who are self-aware, reflective, and able to integrate multiple factors and perspectives and stakeholders in their decision-making. This requires being given the opportunity to increase their thinking capacity (how to think, not just what to think) through exposure and practice of adult development principles which include the regular practice of perspective-taking, perspective seeking and reflection. Unfortunately, in our experience the field of Training & Development is largely unaware of Levels of Development and does not know how to promote actual capacity-building.

The Levels of Development-in-Action

A chart displaying seven Levels of Development.
Chart by Clear Impact Consulting Group

We’ll provide a brief overview of the most common stages, which we call Levels of Development-in-Action. We’ll focus on the levels of Opportunist, Conformer, Expert, Achiever, Catalyst and Co-Creator. There are levels beyond and before these, but they account for a tiny percentage of all leaders.

First consider this wonderful quote from T.S. Elliot, “Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.”

Unless you have specifically been introduced to levels of adult development, these models will be new to you. If you try to map them onto other ideas or models you’ll lose the point. This is not about IQ. Two people with the same IQ can function at quite different Levels of Development-in-Action, and therefore capacity. This also has nothing to do with personality models or styles of leadership, years of experience, or one’s management level. It has little to do with age-related maturity (people who are in the later stage of their careers often function at quite early stages of development), although the later-stage capacities do show up more commonly, overall, as people mature in age. It has a lot to do with what learning approaches and environments someone has been exposed to, their motivation coupled with having the right opportunities.

It would be ideal, really wonderful, if senior leaders all operated at a later-stage level than their subordinates. It’s just not necessarily true. On average senior leaders function at later-stage capacity than those below them. And this is good, because at later-stage levels leaders can integrate more factors and perspectives (different stakeholders, time frames, etc.). But many leaders are deeply frustrated and constrained because they know they function at a level beyond their managers, even if they don’t have a model to help them better understand this difference.

However, even when senior leaders function at a later-stage level than their subordinates, they still generally function at conventional levels of development (Expert and Achiever, as you’ll see below). They are not in the top 10% of leaders (Catalyst and above) who are more self-aware, more willing to show appropriate vulnerability and to admit that they don’t have all the answers, more able to collaborate effectively, better able to create contexts that bring out the best in themselves and others, and thus able to drive not simply better but also more sustainable results.

As mentioned before, we are not implying that the context in which leaders work is not impacting how they “show up” and perform. Some contexts have inherent limitations. Yet at the same time a leader with later-stage development/capacity can deal more effectively with those limitations (or choose to leave that context, which many higher-functioning leaders often do).

In introducing you to these Levels of Development-in-Action, it’s also important to understand the limitations of language and to learn what each of these terms means in the context of these models. For example, here “Expert” is referring to an integrated worldview that tends to oversimplify complex problems, rather than to someone having high expertise in a particular area. When engaging a surgeon, for example, you don’t necessarily want one who operates at the Expert Level of Development. You’d prefer someone with high expertise who functions developmentally at a later stage or level. This surgeon would listen to you more effectively, address your concerns with more sophistication, and overall create a better context for healing.

It’s also vital to understand that these models do not put people into boxes. Rather, they put what Tolbert calls “action logics” into boxes. Each of us has a “center of gravity” where we function more than half the time, without additional support. We can function at a later stage with support, and we often drop to an earlier level under stress, or when sick or tired. So really, we’re talking about probability curves. When, in the shorthand of adult development, we describe someone as an Expert we really mean that this person predominantly thinks and acts from the Expert mindset and lenses. It’s how they operate, more than half the time, without specific support (scaffolding” in the language of development).

There are also many Lines of Development that have been studied. These include cognitive (associated with Jean Piaget), moral (associated with Lawrence Kohlberg), values (associated with Clare Graves), self-identity (associated with Jane Loevinger and Suzanne Cook-Greuter), and many others. The Levels we use are a summary across those different lines, which inevitably loses some of the subtleties and nuances, but makes the model much more practical and useful in a leadership development context. For the names of our levels, we’ve chosen to use Bill Joiner’s adaptation of the original levels presented by Bill Tolbert. We find his labels more accurate and more appropriate for the leadership context. At the same time there are differences between our conceptualizations and those of other theorists, even if we at times are using the same terms, and we take full responsibility for our rendition.

The percentages below come from research by Bill Torbert and others, assessing thousands of leaders some years ago. To be clear, these numbers are only estimates, and the actual percentages will surely vary by industry, role, country, culture, and other factors. The exact numbers matter less than an understanding of the progression from one stage to the next.

Darth Vader
Photo by CloudyPixel on Unsplash

Opportunist (approximately 2% of leaders). At this stage or level, I’m oriented to My Needs. I operate outside of social norms, and I’m willing to break or bend rules if it serves me, including being dishonest. Self-orientation is everything. What matters is whether something is working for me. I avoid taking responsibility and I’m quick to blame others when things go wrong. I use intimidation and power to get what I want or align myself with others who do.

In our trainings we like to say, “Very few Opportunists get to be heads of companies, but many get to be heads of countries.”

From an external and later-stage perspective, Opportunists ignore the truth, can invent whatever “facts” fit their agendas, and do not seem to take responsibility for anything they do that’s negative, and overly take responsibility for anything positive. But from their own perspective this is not true. This is a particularly important yet counter-intuitive insight about every Level of Development. When we’re embedded within a particular mindset or worldview we are not able to step back and reflect on that mindset or worldview. This is why Ken Wilber describes developmental maps as psychoactive. When we present this model in our leadership trainings, for example, leaders are often able for the first time to understand how their worldview fits into a developmental sequence, and what the next level would be like. This can be highly motivating.

On the other hand, someone may be operating in a particular context, for example the political realm, where for self-advancing reasons they act like Opportunists. We’ve seen this in current issues in the United States, where the same politician will take one position when it serves them, and then reverse that position (and deny that reversal) when it serves their immediate needs or makes them more likely to be re-elected. In this case they are likely aware that they are being deceitful, and choosing to do so, perhaps because of the pressure of their political context, or because their level of development on the Values Line is below their development on other lines. For those who know they are manipulating the truth, and the people they are supposed to serve, we do not understand how their souls can reconcile this, or how they can feel good about who they are as human beings.

Happy-go-lucky man with “OK” on his hat
Photo by Aldo Delara on Unsplash

Opportunists are considered Pre-Conventional because they have not yet conformed to societal and organizational norms. The next four stages are all in the Conventional range because they are working within the expectations of their cultural norms.

Conformer (approximately 8% of leaders). At this stage or level, I’m oriented to Fitting In. We have not yet mentioned that all humans go through developmental stages in sequence. We cannot “jump levels.” This stage is a natural and normal part of human development, as we learn to conform to the norms of our families and peer groups. Parents are delighted when their child first begins to think about how their actions impact others in the family, for example. But leaders who are stuck at this level have severe limitations.

For those at this level, conforming to organizational and societal norms is critical. Negative feedback is scary. I conform to the needs of those to whom I report. I don’t like to challenge the status quo or do anything that might lead to disapproval. When asked, “Why do we do things this way?” I will likely reply, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” My response to suggestions for change? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” I’m nice to those I report to, not necessarily to those who report to me. This is a later-stage developmental level than Opportunist because now I see the value of operating inside the rules of society and organizations, of being part of something bigger than me. But at this stage I’m largely limited to that response, even when it does not serve me, my team, my organization, or our stakeholders.

At this level I see the world in terms of “one right answer,” in very black & white terms. When there’s a problem, I’m looking for who to blame. I over-simplify complex problems, but I don’t know it.

While only 8% of leaders are naturally at the Conformer level, meaning that they really don’t have much choice but to act this way, in many organizations most leaders act this way, at least “up.” They’ve learned through being in their organizational culture to not present any perspectives contrary to those of leaders senior to them, to nod their heads even when they disagree, and to not in any way directly challenge or even question what they’re being told. So often, amid “organizational transformation” (a greatly over-used and over-blown term) we ask organizational leaders what the rationale is for that change initiative, or the desired outcome, and they shrug their shoulders. Not only do they not know, they also didn’t feel safe to ask. This has profound consequences on both buy-in and engagement in the desired change.

Conformers are unlikely to even ask themselves if they are doing the right things, or if the organizational strategy is optimal, or if their team is being asked to do much more than is reasonable.

Worker sitting in front of a computer with graphs and other data on it.
Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

Expert (approximately 45% of leaders). At this stage or level, I’ve moved beyond just Fitting In (Conformer). I’m now oriented to Standing Out. I am most likely to believe that my right to be a leader is a combination of my title and my expertise. Because I was promoted based on my expertise, in general, I think my job is to have my direct reports think and act just like me. Because of this I am likely to micro-manage, not because of any negative intent, but rather because of my belief that this is what good leaders do and why I was promoted.

This is especially important to understand. At each level, leaders are likely to operate from good intentions, based on the level at which they think. They can’t see the negative fall-out that’s apparent to those operating from later-stage Levels of Development. Leaders who operate at later stages can see how disempowering, disengaging, and demotivating the Expert style can be. Until Experts are starting to develop out of that action logic, they have great difficulty seeing the same.

Because of my orientation as an Expert (I’m in this position because of my expertise) I don’t take kindly to direct reports who I perceive as challenging my authority, even if those direct reports were respectfully offering a different perspective. Further, I tend to run my meetings as a series of sequential one-on-one dialogues with me, in a group setting. Everything goes through me. And meetings are heavily oriented to being status updates (and therefore tend to be boring because they don’t have the energy that comes when people are really wrestling together to address complex situations).

As an Expert, I have trouble prioritizing. I’m tactical rather than strategic. A good day is how many tasks did I get done, rather than whether I got the right tasks done, or whether those tasks really made sense. And because I see myself as holding the seat of expertise, I have difficulty delegating. And if I delegate, I expect you to do the task the way I would do it.

As with the Conformer, I tend to see the world in terms of “one right answer.” I have black & white thinking. Life is an equation in one unknown. When there’s a problem, I’m looking for who or what to blame. This is the only way I really know to try to fix things. By oversimplifying complex issues, I’m painfully over my head in being to effectively address them.

I am unaware that for complex problems there is no one “right” answer, and that leaders and their teams must deal with multiple differing (not simply different) perspectives to optimize the possibility of achieving effective outcomes. If I hear this concept, I likely reject it, both because I don’t really understand it, and because I don’t really know how to do it. Or I go through the motions, but it’s just form, not substance. So, rather than creating a context that can deal effectively with complex problems, I stifle it. Again, this is not intentional, it’s developmental.

Hopefully, it’s clear how much trouble Experts have in leading effectively during complex and turbulent times. They over-control, under-collaborate, under-engage, and under-develop others, while having difficulty supporting creativity and innovation. Yet they represent almost half of all leaders. Why? First, organizations continue to promote based on expertise rather than on leadership ability or cognitive capacity. Second, most organizations have nothing in their structure that lets highly competent leaders get promoted unless they take on team-leading responsibilities. That is, there is no upward career track that is based on technical competence. To move up, you must take on a team. Some organizations wisely have a parallel career track that allows people with great expertise to be promoted without having to take on team-leading responsibilities for which they are not suited, either in terms of temperament or capacity, but in our experience, this is still rare. Think of Einstein, one of the most brilliant people to have lived, but someone who had little patience for people. In most organizations, he either would stay at an entry-level, or be forced into a situation (leading teams) that would not be good either for him or for those on his team.

Leader with a whiteboard behind him on which is written “productivity.”
Photo by Andreas Klassen on Unsplash

Achiever (approximately 35% of leaders). At this level, I’m oriented to Results. I think a great leader is someone who drives results through people. And in this statement is both the gift and the blind spot. Most organizations would be ecstatic if all their leaders operated at this level because I’ve moved past many of the limitations of the Expert. As an Achiever, I’m not just task focused. I can run projects, even 3–5 years in duration. I prioritize much more effectively, and I’m genuinely interested in developing and demonstrating leadership skills like coaching and performance management. I delegate well, because I’m open to you doing things differently than me as long as the results that I’m expecting are achieved. I generate much more team interaction and engagement and we problem-solve together, but only to an extent.

Why only to an extent? Expert and Achiever are the home of what Bill Joiner referred to as Heroic Leadership. We think of Heroic Leadership as what was modeled by Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek. I’m sitting firmly on my chair of command. I’m literally captain of my ship and I expect to be in charge, as I have learned an effective leader should be. I avoid showing vulnerability, as well as admitting that I don’t know what to do, because deep down I believe that effective leaders don’t make mistakes. I’m the one who makes the decisions here, at least to the extent that it meets my definition of the right results, most of which I’ve inherited from above.

How does Heroic Leadership become a limiting factor? Because I have trouble having my authority challenged, and need to be perceived as being in charge, I over-value my own opinion and under-value showing appropriate vulnerability by acknowledging that all perspectives are limited, including my own. My team is careful about how much they challenge what I’m putting forth. They pick their moments carefully.

Also, because I think I’m “captain of my ship” I also think that I’m “captain of my personality.” It’s not just that I don’t like to admit my failings and possible blind-spots. I also don’t want to or may not see them. I’m only slightly interested in developing true self-awareness, finding out why I do what I do, exploring what hidden assumptions and beliefs may be driving my thinking and action. So my personality structure becomes a limiting factor. And those around me are unlikely to be comfortable telling me about it. I am still basically a black and white/conventional thinker, without being aware of it.

There’s also the blind-spot inherent in “I drive results through people.” People are still often objects to get to higher productivity. They’re part of the through-put. Because of this I push everyone too hard, including me. I develop others only to the extent that it directly generates better results, so my coaching is limited.

We’ve referred to “complexity” throughout this discussion. We use the Cynefin Complexity Model in our leadership trainings. It describes four problem sets that exist in the world (Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic), each requiring a unique way of thinking and acting. It’s not up to us where a problem is located, although if we place it incorrectly, we won’t approach it optimally.

The Simple domain has clear answers that are easy to teach. How do you open a lock? Fill out an expense report? Shut off a light? Follow a recipe? Make French Fries at a fast-food chain?

The Complicated domain is one in which, with sufficient analysis and expertise we can figure out how to solve a problem, and the same approach will lead to the same outcome when applied multiple times in the same conditions. For both the Simple and Complicated domain, there are laws and rules we can count on (gravity, electricity, etc.). Experts may come to different conclusions about how to build a bridge or fix an airplane, but all of these processes will be replicable.

The Complex domain is one in which there are too many variables, or the variables are ever-changing rather than static. There is no one right answer. Rules continually change as we act. We can’t know definitively what to do, and instead can only “dynamically steer” by figuring out a reasonable next step and then see what emerges. The Complex domain requires much more integration of multiple differing perspectives in a very safe and supportive environment. For this reason, the two Heroic Leadership levels (Expert and Achiever) do much better with primarily Complicated problem sets, where “right” or “best” answers can exist. There are many reasons for this, including that Achievers will generally not step back and question the assumptions behind the goals that are handed to them. They mostly work to drive results within their context, rather than questioning or challenging that context.

But the complexity of organizational problems is rapidly increasing. Volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and rapid change are all increasing. This is why all our leadership development efforts are aimed at the Catalyst level of development and beyond.

Photo by Jim Tegman on Unsplash

Catalyst (approximately 5% of leaders). At this level, I’m oriented to New Perspectives. This includes a deep curiosity about the diverse ways to view current challenges, along with an understanding that the integration of diverse perspectives is required to deal more effectively with complexity. I also have a sincere interest in what’s driving me, and how other people are different from me, what it’s like to be in their shoes. I question assumptions. I understand that all perspectives are limited, including my own. I have newly emerging capacities that weren’t present previously.

I have much more of a reflective disposition, the curiosity and willingness to step back and see situations, as well as myself, from a larger and more complex perspective. I’m fascinated with understanding what makes me tick. When I examine my values, for example, which are genuinely mine and which did I just inherit from my family, my culture, my religion, my teachers, my organization, etc.? What are my and our filters and blind spots? Because I’m more interested in what really makes me tick, why I do what I do, I naturally am more interested in how others are unique and different from me as well. Leaders at this level are almost always drawn to the Enneagram to learn more about themselves and others, and how to bring out the best in both.

I am not likely to have this reflective disposition, or at least to continually deepen it, unless I regularly practice perspective taking, perspective seeking and reflection. I take perspectives within my own mind. This is putting myself in someone else’s shoes. This can be reflecting on the impact of my behavior on others. It also means taking a more curious attitude when others act differently than I expected. “How can that person be so stupid?!” gets replaced by, “I wonder why a reasonable person might do what that person just did?” Perspective seeking is interactive, done through dialogue, where I ask about your perspectives. This can be integrating perspectives around how to address a particular situation, or gathering feedback about my strengths and challenges as a leader. When I understand the limitations of any perspective, including my own, I naturally reach out to others.

This developing ability and interest in perspective-taking and seeking is vital because it ignites further capacity building. In fact, the triad of reflection, perspective-taking, and perspective-seeking is the main driver to further progress along all stages of the developmental continuum, along with tools like Polarity Thinking that actively build both/and capacity.

Catalyst is the first developmental level that begins to have the capacity to meet the demands of our VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous).

As a Catalyst, as I explore self-awareness, and become more curious about other people, I’m less likely to see others as just objects to get the work done. I’m genuinely interested in assisting their development as an end in itself. And because I really get that I don’t have all the answers, and I can readily acknowledge that I don’t know what I don’t know, and that all perspectives including mine are inherently limited, I’m deeply interested in creating contexts richly imbued with trust and safety, where everyone is invited to bring their best ideas with no fear of being shamed or dismissed. I’m a visionary leader who brings out the best in others while delivering superior results.

Don’t think that Catalysts just sit around all day entertaining multiple possibilities or fail to guide others by presenting needed parameters. This can be an assumption that others at earlier-stage Levels of Development have when they first read about Catalysts. Catalysts achieve better and more sustainable results than do Achievers.

We mentioned that Opportunists are considered Pre-Conventional because people at this stage have not yet conformed to societal and organizational norms. Conformers, Experts, and Achievers are all within the Conventional range because they do conform to the expectations of their contexts. Catalysts are the first Post-Conventional stage because it is the first stage where they can step back and reflect on the contexts in which they live, discern how they are impacted by those contexts, and make conscious choices about which norms to align with and which norms to challenge. Achievers will carry out their assigned goals to the best of their ability. Catalysts will also question those goals from a high vantage point, including the extent to which they are aligned with their deeper values.

Statue of Liberty
Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Co-Creator (approximately 4% of all leaders). At this level, I’m oriented to Systems and Principles. At Catalyst, I begin to really get the importance of organizational culture in supporting people and driving results. At Co-Creator this profoundly deepens in importance. I get that the major task for any leader is consciously understanding and shifting culture, which is largely created by leaders and what they pay attention to. Further, while at Catalyst I was fascinated with exploring multiple perspectives, and in questioning my own beliefs and assumptions, at this level I’ve landed on some principles that are authentically mine, ones I can trust and around which I can build my life and leadership.

At Conformer and Expert, I over-simplify complex problems. Life is an equation in one unknown, there’s are right answers, and when there’s a problem I look for who or what to blame. Achievers can integrate more factors but still do better with complicated rather than complex problems. At Co-Creator I can comprehend the enormous complexity of these problems and yet also find ways to identify the core leverage points and communicate simply about them. Part of what allows me to do this is my enhanced ability to take the perspective of others and craft communication in ways that people at multiple levels can understand. This is powerful.

We had dinner with Bill Joiner some years ago, and he shared that when he does leadership training he generally stops at Catalyst. He said that up to that point leaders can often place themselves well on the developmental continuum. But when they hear Co-Creator they often believe they’re already there. We’ve had this experience as well. “Co-creating” has also become one of the new buzzwords in organizations, making it even more likely that people will wrongly identify this as their center of gravity. Remember that we all need to go through developmental stages sequentially, one at a time. If what you have read about Catalyst is not true of you then you cannot be a Co-Creator as defined in this model. We found it easier in our leadership trainings to talk about aiming for Catalyst+, defining Catalyst+ as a combination of the best of Catalyst along with some of the key insights that emerge at Co-Creator.

We hope it’s becoming clearer that each of these levels represents a new capacity. Each shift, from Opportunist to Conformer to Expert to Achiever to Catalyst to Co-Creator and beyond, is just as significant as that shift from the pre-operational 4 y/o to the concrete operational 6 y/o described earlier. Show a ball with two colors to an average 4 y/o. Let’s say the ball is half blue and half white. Show the blue side to the child, then the white side, a few times. Then, with the blue side facing the child, ask the child, “What color am I seeing?” and the child will say “blue.” The child isn’t yet capable of this level of perspective-taking. A couple of years later, the same child will say, “I’m seeing blue, and you’re seeing white.” There’s been a profound shift in cognitive capacity. Each of these shifts in adult development are just as profound. Each level opens a new world of possibility for assisting organizations and their members to deal more effectively with this increasingly complex, volatile, ambiguous, uncertain, and rapidly changing world we’re living in.

We sometimes joke that we have seen some senior leaders who still do not seem to have gotten these basic skills in perspective taking!

It’s About Capacity, Not Just Competencies: Summary and Implications

Let’s return to the original premise of this article. Hopefully, it’s becoming clearer that a competency like “collaboration” means something vastly different at the Expert than at the Catalyst level. With all sincerity, at the Expert level I’ll see collaboration as making sure everyone is doing what I’m expecting them to do, while at the Catalyst level I’ll be inviting people to challenge any assumptions I have about the right way to go.

This may be even clearer around the competency of “coaching.” To an Expert, coaching is helping to align you with what I think is the best approach. It will be much more “telling” than “asking.” I’ll comfortably be in “advice-giving” mode. From a later-stage level that style looks like micromanaging. To a Catalyst, coaching is about helping you to develop while having a rich dialogue that can help us both examine our assumptions and arrive at new possibilities. There will be a fluid interplay between “telling” and “asking,” and much more focus on “who you are” rather than just “what you’re doing.” It can be generative and transformative.

“Coaching” seen from the level of Expert, from that operating system, is radically different from “coaching” seen from the later-stage operating system of Catalyst. And, as Ken Wilber once said to us, no amount of logic or data will help the Expert see things as the Catalyst does, because that capacity is not there yet, although it certainly can develop.

What will an Opportunist do with new skills acquired at a communications workshop? As in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, perhaps get better at selling worthless swampland, or finding better ways to suck people into scams. What will a Catalyst+ do with new skills acquired at the same workshop? Find better ways to communicate a compelling vision and create even more inspiring contexts that bring out the best in people in their organizations.

For this reason, focusing solely on leadership competencies is inherently limited. It’s like adding new software programs without upgrading the overall operating system. Every new Level of Development-in-Action is like an upgrade to the overall operating system.

As we mentioned earlier, Ken Wilber has pointed out that developmental maps are psychoactive. That is, they allow leaders to understand where they are on the developmental journey, and what the next level looks like. Our clients have found this profoundly useful.

Here is an important truth: To assist leaders in moving to later-stage levels of development, whether we’re in the role of leader, consultant, trainer, coach, Human Resources, Talent Management or Human Capital professionals, we have to ourselves first be functioning at later stages or levels of development than those leaders. Are you one of those? One clear sign is whether you’re drawn to what we’ve shared, whether it matches something you’ve instinctively known but perhaps not been able to put clearly into words. If that’s true of you, please take the time to really understand the difference between competencies and capacity. Take time to build your own capacity so you can then assist others to do the same. For more information on specific resources that can assist in this journey, please reach out to us.

Finally, if you are drawn to assist leaders in building more capacity in your organizations or on your teams, to assist others in moving up the ladder of Levels of Development-in-Action, or even just for yourself as a leader, we need to say something about training, and the limitations of much of what goes on within Training & Development, or Talent Development.

We’ve written about how important it is to really get that Awareness ≠ Change, and we direct you to that article for more detail. Integration of any new skill requires practice, ongoing short cycles of action and reflection. No one thinks they will get better at a sport or musical instrument simply because they attend a workshop. They know they need focused practice to integrate those skills. But somehow the usual approach to Training & Development is different from this. People attend courses and get certificates for skills they have not yet integrated. At the end of any short course, nothing has really happened yet. There are not yet new neural pathways. The participants aren’t yet primed to think and then act differently. Yet their organizations generally do not require them to engage in ongoing cycles of action and reflection that will integrate the new learning. Further, the essential elements of those trainings are not built into performance dialogues or in other ways “baked in” to the culture. And senior leaders do not often hold themselves and others accountable to model the new skills and language, or to hold others accountable for the same. Optimal development requires an organizational focus on building capacity, yet most Training & Development efforts are sadly disconnected from the operational part of the organization.

And because organizational culture is determined by what leaders pay attention to, it is vital that senior leaders model their own interest in building capacity, including the vulnerability of being able to say, “I don’t have all the answers, I’m not at the top of my game, I can’t see my own blind spots, we all need to create the kind of safety and trust that allows for a free flow of feedback and different perspectives.” Senior leaders need to not just model this attitude but hold themselves and others accountable for building capacity into the fabric of their organizations, including using a developmental lens for hiring and promotion.

At What Level is Your Team Functioning?

Our very first use of developmental models was with an executive team. The CEO had a large version made of the chart we’d drawn on a piece of flipchart paper and it was put on the wall of their meeting room. We used it as a metaphor for the level of discourse in which they were engaged. This was not about their individual levels of development, but rather the level of their collective team culture. Now and then we’d have them look at the model and reflect on the question: At what level are we functioning?

What were we inviting them to notice?

  • Team Functioning at the Conformer Level: Safe culture. Mostly agreeing even when not really on board. Very controlled dialogue. Avoiding conflict. Trying to save face. Staying with safe and known ways of interacting. Use of a lot of cliches and jargon. Rigidly moralistic.
  • Team Functioning at the Expert Level: Debate culture. Trying to “win.” Assumption that there’s one right way, and if you disagree with me, I’ll either bite my tongue or tell you what’s wrong with your ideas. Adversarial, my ideas vs. your ideas. People jockeying for position for who has the most expertise. Very little curiosity or perspective-seeking. A clear indicator at this level: “No, you’re wrong.”
  • Team Functioning at the Achiever Level: Dialogue culture. The discussion is more focused because we have objective standards, like profit margins. There’s more of a sense of working together toward higher effectiveness. More interest in integrating the perspectives of others. What’s missing, though, is appropriate leadership vulnerability. People are reluctant to say, “I don’t know” or to acknowledge softer emotional reactions (fear, anxiety, sadness). What’s also missing is self-reflection on what filters might be impacting how people are seeing a particular issue.
  • Team Functioning at the Catalyst+ Level: Discourse culture, moving into transformative dialogue culture. This is the first level where people understand that all perspectives are limited, including their own, so much more curiosity about understanding and integrating the perspectives of others, and that complex challenges require this level of discourse. Also a developing awareness that we all have beliefs and filters that color our perceptions, and a willingness to bring this awareness into the dialogue. At the later stages there’s readiness to be transformed by the dialogue, to grow through the rich interaction. A clear indicator at this level: “Wow, I saw it very differently from you. Please say more about your perspective on this,” where this is said out of genuine curiosity and openness, and a desire to learn more, rather than gathering information to shoot down someone else’s perspective.

Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory

To provide a big picture perspective into which this article fits, we’d like to introduce some terms from Ken Wilber, the remarkable and prolific American philosopher. He describes four paths of development for becoming an optimal human being: Waking Up, Growing Up, Cleaning Up and Showing Up.

  • Waking Up. This is about the path of mindfulness and mediation, where we learn to expand our consciousness, and see our lives from a wider and wider vantage point. For example, am I really just a separate individual, or am I part of a larger interconnected? While we’re not qualified meditation teachers, our practices like The Wake I Leave and Co-Responsibility contribute to developing along the path of Waking Up.
  • Growing Up. This is directly about the path of Vertical Development, building cognitive capacity, that we’ve been addressing in this article.
  • Cleaning Up. This is about addressing psychological shadow, parts of ourselves that inadvertently get in our way. Our work with the Enneagram is directly about Cleaning Up.
  • Showing Up. This is about applying the best of ourselves to make a difference in the world. It’s not enough to build capacity. The point of that capacity is to be of service to others, to have a deeper purpose.
  • Lining Up. This is our own term, not Ken’s. Much of the development literature is about inside/out growth, e.g. using individual practices to build cognitive complexity. We also focus our work on consciously building contexts that spur individual and collective developement, or outside/in growth. Our articles that describe growth-promoting contexts including Polarity Thinking and Boarding the Factors. We see Lining Up as crafting contexts that are aligned with higher-level development.
  • Focusing on Waking Up, Growing Up, Cleaning Up, Showing Up and Lining Up is a powerful way to optimize who we are as humans and as leaders.
Poster that says “good news is coming”
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The Good News

We’ve saved the best part for last! People can develop. With the right training and support, they can increase their Level of Development-in-Action, and it doesn’t have to take long. We have data to prove it. In one of our leadership development programs we had participants for about 40 hours of curriculum over nine months. We also assigned individual and small-group assignments between sessions. We used a pre-post measure of the ability to think effectively about complex leadership challenges from Theo Dawson’s Lectica organization called the Lectical Decision-Making Assessment (LDMA). It’s a psychometrically sophisticated assessment that can’t be faked. (We know, because we created four sham participants in the program and tried to “game” the assessment and couldn’t. No matter how hard you try, you can’t think at a higher level than you can think). Over those nine months, with 40 hours of curriculum, the average developmental gain in the ability to think effectively about complex leadership challenges was equivalent to more than two full years of graduate school! Please click here for more information on this exciting research.

In those 40 hours we also focused on competencies, including organizational culture, high performing teams, coaching, communications, and change management, always with an awareness of integrating capacity-building approaches to those leadership areas.

Approaches that foster gradual positive stage shifts are called Vertical Development, which we are defining the ability to cultivate broader, deeper, and more compassionate understanding, and then to embody that understanding in more wise, principled, effective, and sustainable action. Vertical Development approaches include how to think, rather than just what to think about. Our curriculum incorporated many capacity-building tools including Levels of Development-in-Action, Complexity, Polarity Thinking, Leadership Versatility, Mindfulness and Reflection, Perspective Taking & Seeking, Practical Neuroscience, and Contextual Thinking™. Contextual Thinking™ is our term for developing the cognitive habit of looking for the root cause of organizational behavior outside of individuals but within the organizational context (organizational culture, role clarity, goal alignment, access to resources, etc.) before attributing the cause to any internal qualities of those people. We made it clear that ongoing individual and collective reflection on a regular basis is required for building leadership capacity and included various structures to encourage it.

The reason for understanding the difference between competencies and capacity is to be able to focus on building developmental capacity, because it’s very do-able. It requires understanding Levels of Development-in-Action, as well as understanding what training approaches actually foster developmental gains. We had the privilege in that leadership program, working with approximately 30 cohorts of 25–30 leaders, to refine and hone curriculum until we knew what worked.

We hope you’ve stayed with us until the end, and that the distinction between leadership competencies and capacity is now clear. And we hope we’ve made a compelling case for why, for our leaders to deal more effectively with complex problems, it’s imperative to consciously craft opportunities and contexts that support Vertical Development.

There are situations “out there” and then there’s our internal meaning-making system that determines the extent to which we can take effective action. VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) is increasing, and the stakes are getting higher. The world needs higher-capacity, later-stage leaders to address it.

Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC, ABPP and Dr. Sandra Hill. Hopefully, this article has stimulated some new thinking. We open-source our curriculum. Please subscribe to our Medium articles. You can find them all at Clear Impact Consulting Group — Medium. We welcome hearing from you. Our website is www.clear-impact.com. You can email us at partners[at]clear-impact.com.



Clear Impact Consulting Group

Building individual and organizational capacity through executive coaching, organizational/team effectiveness consulting and leadership development.