My parents ran a shop in a small town in the West of Ireland. First it was a gift store and, as business was slow, they converted it into a toy store, then a video store and finally into a DVD store. Luckily when that market no longer existed they were ready to retire.

Today, as you know, markets come and go at an ever increasing rate, much more complex and volatile than my parent’s generation, and business leaders need to be able to see into the future and adapt like never before to changing circumstances. Much has been written about this and the era of massive institutional and societal change we are currently living through.

Research on Leadership 

In fact the research on leadership and adult development shows that current conditions are already exceeding the mental and emotional capacities of most leaders today. An IBM Global CEO Survey found that the great majority of CEOs expect that business complexity is going to increase, and more than half doubt their ability to manage it. Conclusions from several studies conducted with big samples in the US show that approximately 5% of leaders in the West operate with the mental and emotional capacity needed to manage complex, systemic change and reliably generate organisational transformation.

When leaders reach the limits of their worldview, as it is no longer a match for the demands they are facing, it starts to get very uncomfortable for them, for the people around them and for the businesses they run.

That discomfort is prompting them to evolve an ever more complex way of thinking, feeling and relating to meet the conditions that surround them. This impulse is similar to a crawling baby’s inner directive to start walking. The difference is that for children this is an automatic shift in their stage of development whereas many leaders question this discomfort or ignore it refusing to grow, which usually makes things worse.

Many of the leaders I’m invited into organisations to work with today are those that are feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of their roles. Old strategies and ways of working no longer cut it and they find themselves working longer and longer hours simply to keep up. For this type of challenge adding new tools to the toolkit makes little difference. Unprecedented 21st century leadership challenges can not be addressed by a 20th century management toolkit.

What these leaders need is to update their inner operating system, expand the capacities of their mind so that their thinking, feeling and sense making abilities are enhanced so they can capably address the issues they face. An increasing number of tools have now been developed, focusing on slightly different areas, to measure a leader’s level of thinking. To varying degrees they asses a leaders capacity to do the following:

  • Process complex information and how they relate to the systems, contexts and frameworks which surround them
  • Shift perspectives and how they relate to the perspectives of those they know, the wider social environment and the way their actions affect the results that are created
  • Observe themselves, their thoughts, feelings and responses to the world and how they respond back

In the highly-popular Harvard Business Review article called “Seven Transformations of Leadership.” Bill Torbett’s eight stage model of leadership, is profiled. The model is based upon 40 years of research involving tens of thousands of adults, among them thousands of leaders.

The following stages of development are most relevant to leaders:

Expert: Technical contributor – 38% of leaders profiled

  • Rules by logic and expertise
  • Can take perspectives of those that are ‘like me and people I know’
  • Judges own thoughts/feelings as right or wrong

Achiever: Meets strategic goals – 30% of leaders profiled

  • Seeks for ‘best fit’ answers to meet strategic goals
  • Needs to be reminded to take the perspective of those who are very different
  • Can articulate own thoughts and feelings but less able to see assumptions and beliefs behind them

Individualist: Generates unique structures to manage the gap between strategy and performance – 10% of leaders profiled

  • Solutions often less easy to define or defend, as more interested in exploring options and possibilities
  • Curious about new perspectives and begins to see how they might be affecting the relationship by their own way of perceiving
  • Detailed awareness of own inner process and conflicts, becoming increasingly aware of how their unique experience has shaped their responses

Strategist: Generates personal and organisational transformations – 4% of leaders profiled

  • Organises information quickly knowing what needs to be further explored and what can be handled using existing methods, handles paradox and finds way through knotty dilemmas without over-simplifying
  • Plays with roles and styles at will to get the best mutual outcome, aware of how they effect and are effected by specific relationships and social systems
  • Manages own emotional response, conflicts and internal patterns in the moment or puts them aside for reflection later

The environment that my parent’s generation operated in required little more than the achiever level of development. Leaders today who develop themselves into the later stages have access to expanded and highly-attuned mental, emotional, and relational capacities that others don’t. They not only see and feel situations and people differently, but they see and feel more than other leaders. They are aware of more connections, nuances, perspectives, and possibilities. They are able to act with greater wisdom and deeper care than ever before. This enhances their ability to effectively respond to the complex, ambiguous, and ever shifting challenges of 21st Century Leadership.