9 Stages of Leadership

Parents, police, politicians, project managers, they all position themselves as leaders. Any attempt to provide direction to others assumes leadership, whether invited, assigned, or self-appointed to the role. (While an alternate definition of leadership is effective guidance, let’s set that aside for now.) Formal leaders are easy to spot, yet each of us incessantly dons and sheds an impromptu leader hat. When we advise, rant, delegate, teach, or make decisions on behalf of others, at least momentary and not necessarily effectively, we lead. In these moments, the manner in which you, your boss, authority figures, and elected officials wield power matters.

Photo by Frantisek Duris

Expressions of command are far from straight forward. There is never an objectively right call or universally best leadership style. Context makes all the difference. Context consists of the people we oversee, the scope and urgency of the problem being navigated, and the resources available. The best approach for dealing with a rabid bear in your home is fundamentally different from the best approach for reducing smog in your town. Likewise, the manner in which Melinda Gates seeks to improve global education is necessarily different from how a working PTA mom steps up to improve education at her child’s underfunded school.

First and foremost, the 9 Stages of Leadership are a tool for better understanding ourselves as leaders and those who lead us. Such insight is the basis for negotiation, reform, connecting with an audience, effective communication, and ultimately empathy. The process boils down to grasping motivations, the often fluctuating and subconscious priorities that can only be inferred through self-reflection or thoughtful observation. Fortunately, humans operate according to consistent patterns. Our motivations boil down to a progression of nine distinct, predictable stages.

Stage Model Basics

A stage is a state of mind or perspective, defined by what is being prioritized at a given moment. Casually walking down the street listening to podcasts, I may be in a “learning” state of mind implying Stage 5: Improvement. If a car swerves onto the sidewalk in front of me, my state of mind will shift to Stage 1: Survival. Stages are useful tools when applied in the right context. They provide laser focus when things are urgent, and broad consideration when time permits.

While we constantly jump between stages, we have default stages for dealing with different types of situations. I approach interactions with my mom from one state of mind, interactions with rabid bears from another state of mind, and the speculation of extraterrestrials from a third state of mind. Certainly my mood can and will shift within each context, but I always come to the table with a baseline perspective. Likewise as leaders, we have our exceptional and regrettable moments that are deviations of a baseline paradigm.

Template Glossary

Stage: Corresponds to a particular set of motivations or values subconsciously prioritized in a given moment by the leader. It is determined by the perceived level of urgency as well as the scope of awareness they are capable of.
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Describes the shorter term emotional states that arise from tending to the values of the given stage. It defines how the leader sees and experiences the world in that moment, hence “perspective”.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): When a fleeting perspective becomes held for long enough, it becomes the default lens through which to see the world. The pursuit of a particular set of values becomes habitual, giving rise to stage-specific processes, infrastructure, and identity.
Phrases: Certain phrases and attitudes can suggest which stage a leader occupies. Observable behaviors are clues for evaluating internally held values and perspectives.
Contexts where most effective: Late stage leadership is not necessarily more effective than early stage. Stages are tools, best suited for particular situations or environments. While you can certainly hammer a nail with a wrecking ball, or with a Stradivarius, doing so will be accompanied by undue damage. Find the leadership paradigm that befits the job.
Requirement: Certain factors that need to be in place for this leadership paradigm to work.

9 Stages of Leadership

Stage 1: Survival
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Panic. Fight/flight/freeze.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): None. An ongoing state of panic makes establishing leadership nigh impossible.
Phrases: “Every man for himself.”
Contexts where most effective: Imminent demise.
Requirement: Ongoing existential threat.

Stage 2: Stability
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Nervous. Uncertain. Self-soothing.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): The Old Guard. They have been around the longest and possess the most institutional knowledge, which is the only way through precarious times.
Phrases: “This is how we’ve always done it.” “Don’t rock the boat.”
Contexts where most effective: Volatile environments. Cooperation is critical for human survival. Unreliable supply of vital resources. No buffer for experimentation.
Requirement: The strongest link to predecessors who established a seemingly viable path forward.

Stage 3: Autonomy
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Assertive as a reaction to discomfort. Combative. Feelings of superiority. Fantasized or actual retaliation. Fixation on being right.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): The Intimidator. They must establish and maintain dominance which equates to status and control.
Phrases: “Because I said so.” “You will show me respect.” “I’ll make them wish they hadn’t.” “If there is something you want, take it.” “Doing anything is better than doing nothing.”
Contexts where most effective: Quickly establishing authority. Urgent decision making. Providing ongoing protection in a dangerous environment.
Requirement: Compared to earlier stages, extra time and skill are needed to establish and maintain dominance and loyalty.

Stage 4: Order
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Impassioned for the universally superior path. Fear of alternative paths. Polarized thinking.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): The Stickler. They see their system of operation as infallible, and all must conform. If it’s not working, it’s due to user error and requires even stronger adherence to the system.
Phrases: “Rules exist for a reason.” “Us vs. them, good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, there is no grey area.”
Contexts where most effective: Establishing a stable environment for ourselves. Ensuring uniformity.
Requirement: Compared to earlier stages, extra time and skill are needed to promote, oversee, and uphold the ideology or standard operating procedure. People must have some level of willingness to play by the rules.

Stage 5: Improvement
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Excited to improve processes, and thus results. Frustrated with limitations on productivity and progress. Overworking to get ahead.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): The Strategist. They prioritize reason and data to build better systems, striving to make their mark. They appreciate “outside the box” thinking. They are open to job related criticism. Relationships and interactions are transactional, each party must deliver value or be relegated.
Phrases: “Work smarter, not and harder.” “Think outside the box.” “Maximize profit.” “The worst thing I can be is average.”
Contexts where most effective: R&D. Forging new paths. Optimizing for a particular metric.
Requirement: Compared to earlier stages, extra time and skill are needed to analyze, experiment, and correct course. Prioritization of value optimization.

Stage 6: Equality
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Empowering others. Being upfront about difficulty and mistakes. Frustration with power and privilege undermining the vulnerable.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): The Champion. They advance a social mission. They are concerned for the well-being of those they lead, understanding that physical, emotional, and social health improves the team’s effectiveness and sustainability. They are open to meta-criticism such as communication style, emotional intelligence, and unconscious bias.
Phrases: “What is our environmental & social impact?” “Hold me accountable to do the right thing.” “Quality over quantity.”
Contexts where most effective: Restoring balance, reducing disparity. Emotionally supportive teams. Wellness and preventive care. Grassroots initiatives.
Requirement: Compared to earlier stages, extra time and skill are needed to identify and carry out a more socially conscious path. Acknowledgement that unrestrained advancement can have destructive side effects. Willingness to seek transparency and accountability. The emotional intelligence for self-reflection and emotional labor.

Stage 7: Empathy
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Valuing “the opponent’s” perspective. Desire for mutual trust and growth.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): The Bridge Builder. They understand and integrate multiple perspectives, especially dissenting ones. They recognize humanity above status, beliefs, or faction. They seek productive dialogue between all parties and can moderate discussion across stages. They hold space for individual experiences while focusing efforts on systemic improvements.
Phrases: “Let’s hear all sides of the story.” “All stakeholders have a seat at the table.” “Treat everyone with dignity and respect, especially those you dislike.”
Contexts where most effective: Restorative Justice. Social collaboration. Finding a robust, mutually acceptable path forward.
Requirement: Compared to earlier stages, extra time and skill are needed for empathy and diplomacy among people across all stages. A certain level of participation from stakeholders. Ability to value and integrate dissenting voices.

Stage 8: Harmony
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Inner calm and gratitude in the face of extreme difficulty. Seeing the interconnectedness of all things.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): The Guru. Success is found internally, in impeccable thought and action rather than in unpredictable external circumstances. They treat all interactions with reverence and a spirit of memnoon. They can fluently shift between stages as needed while not losing sight of the big picture.
Phrases: “Hardship is my teacher, so I will embrace it with gratitude.” “Every action has untold reverberating effects.” “Namaste: the sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.”
Contexts where most effective: Centers for inner spiritual cultivation. Ecovillages.
Requirement: Compared to earlier stages, extra time and skill are needed to savor existence and connection at an unhurried pace. Freedom from most societal norms. A universal perspective.

Stage 9: Oneness
Fleeting Perspective (Mood): Peak mystical, ecstatic, or psychedelic experiences of complete unity.
Ingrained Perspective (Leadership Paradigm): The Enlightened. They nudge the world toward the meandering recognition of its inherent sacredness. They treat thought, ego, and time as specialized tools, best reserved for very specific situations. This 9 stage model is transcended as perspective becomes fluid and not anchored in ego.
Phrases: “Life/death, light/dark, psyche/universe, they are opposite sides of the same coin.” “Nothing exists in isolation of its environment; there is no subject and object; everything is one.” “There is but a singular universal unfolding.”
Contexts where most effective: Environments free from societal pressures and a fondness for exploring the infinite expanse of being.
Requirement: Transcending time and thought. “Awakening” and nondual consciousness.

An understanding of stages offers a basis for examining leadership and a glimpse into the values that compel them. They are the trajectories along which a leader’s talents and actions align and the footholds out of which strategies and culture emerge. Taking steps towards understanding ourselves and our leaders, and further acknowledging the basic human needs we share that lie beneath our conflicting approaches, this is empathy. This is how authentic discussion starts, and lasting change takes place.

For Your Consideration

  • In what formal and informal situations do you find yourself at the helm? What is your default stage among friends, among family, at work, when you feel slighted, elsewhere?
  • What individuals, demographics (race, class, political orientation, etc.), and subject matters do you tend to engage with from a more primal (earlier) stage than usual? Is this narrowed, more urgent response helping the situation?
  • Which stage of leadership does your parent, boss, mayor, president predominantly use?
  • Do you know anyone who can shift between leadership stages effectively as circumstances change?
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How the Capitol Hill Organized Protest Taught Me To Be an Ally

Disclaimer
I am a person of color. However, as one of the exceptions who has thrived in an ecosystem focused on safeguarding power among the elite and chosen, I hesitate to offer analysis on the organized response to police brutality. This is a Black movement. It is not my place as a non-Black supporter to critique or suggest a way forward. That will be left to Black leaders. Further, historically muted voices, and not mine, are the ones to which you should pay the closest attention. For these reasons, I direct my opinions towards allyship. While I always invite feedback, I am most interested in thoughts from Black readers.

Photo by Kyle Kotajarvi 


What Is CHOP?
Despite their casual and brackishly corporate/hippie/grunge facade, Seattlites are feisty. We strive to keep things relaxed, but we are poised to champion affronts to equality: WTO, Occupy, #MeToo, mass shootings, ICE, and of course race targeted violence. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, and set against Seattle Police Department’s (SPD)  notorious use of force, the people of Seattle were quick to respond.

Starting May 29, 2020, daily protests were organized downtown by various activist groups. A few of these set their sights on SPD’s East Precinct as a march destination, in the historically gay and gritty Capitol Hill. The East Precinct is a longstanding venue for citizens speaking out against police misconduct. On June 7 when barriers were erected outside the station, Pine & 11th transformed into the epicenter of the showdown and a symbol of the People vs the Establishment.

Peaceful nightly protests at the barricade were repeatedly countered with chemical weapons, flash grenades, and rubber bullets by riot-geared police, with the National Guard indifferently standing in the wings. SPD would have been wise to consider the optics of responding to accusations of police brutality, with police brutality.

Then out of nowhere, East Precinct was boarded up and abandoned without even locking the front door. It remains speculation who ordered the retreat and why.

What emerged was a social and cultural exhale, dubbed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. What the president calls “domestic terrorism” in reality looks like well stocked booths with free food and supplies, volunteer medic stations, people cooking quesadillas for passers by, watching documentaries to educate and discuss, gardening in the park, dancing, painting murals, picking up trash, and an impressive lineup of Black speakers, poets, and musicians. A conscious effort has been made to keep the collective decentralized and to hold each other accountable to maintain a positive and productive vibe. As for the unlocked precinct, aside from the exterior graffiti, it remains completely intact and untouched.

Recently, the gathering was renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP). “This is not an autonomous zone, and we’re not trying to secede from the United States,” explained a community leader.

There are many takes on CHOP. Some consider it prefigurative politics, a proof of concept for what society could look like. Others see it as a fleeting phenomenon akin the Occupy Wall Street encampments, or a distraction from the cause, or an attention grabbing device that is simply good marketing for the cause. All of these claims offer noteworthy perspective. However, let’s not get caught up in formulating an overly simplified take on what CHOP is or means. Here is what we can agree on: The occupation was born out of the latest iteration of the long standing Civil Rights movement, and today, Seattle remains engaged in that movement.

Advocacy aside, tourism is also prominent. Tourists treat CHOP as an attraction, a social curiosity, a selfie opportunity, an outlet for restless festival kids to glow in the absence of Coachella and Burning Man. Admittedly, it is such indulgence that initially attracted me and that I now attempt to move past. Certainly it is possible to simultaneously stroke ego, explore curiosity, and seek justice, however it is worth being aware of how our attention and efforts are distributed. 

Every few days I return to CHOP. I circle the grounds, note the latest developments in infrastructure, amenities, and vibe, then settle in to listen to the speakers. Young, old, male, female, trans, queer, lawyers, artists, all Black, and all delivering an inspired message. For a week my body has buzzed from the deluge of insight and vision. It is from this open air schoolroom, beneath flashing red traffic lights, in front of an abandoned police station that I am learning to honor the dignity and brilliance of those our society cast aside. I am learning to be an ally.

Photo by Nick Vu

Assembling My Plan for Support
I would like to consider allyship through the lens of expanding awareness. This expansion is measured in stages, and can be used to build out a robust, responsive system for offering support. I will briefly describe key principles of the underlying model of awareness, and allow you to explore it further if you wish. 

Each stage represents a perspective that is defined by a certain level of awareness and a corresponding set of values. Each stage builds upon the stage prior. Stages can be fleeting experiences, and habituated into ingrained paradigms. Primal (early) stages are urgent, laser focused, and grow gradually to accommodate more nuance and system complexity. There are healthy and unhealthy expressions of each stage, and appropriate and inappropriate times to inhabit each.

What follows is a synthesis of lessons from my time at CHOP, and organized by the level of awareness required for various states of urgency. Each stage identifies personal engagement strategies and potential blindspots that I may encounter. 

Progression of Ally Strategies and Blindspots
Stage 1 Survival – Just get through the moment.
Strategies: Stand between a Black person and an attacker. Self de-escalation techniques in case I panic or get triggered.
Blindspots: Having a personal breakdown that unnecessarily diverts resources.

Stage 2 Stability – Stabilize and ground.
Strategies: Provide support and reassurance. Contribute lacking resources such as money and supplies. Self-soothe. Seek direction from movement leaders.
Blindspots: Avoiding hard conversations. Discomfort confronting my own problematic behavior.

Stage 3 Autonomy – Take charge.
Strategies: Offer to take a role of protector. Compete with friends to raise money.
Blindspots: Unknowingly “throwing my weight around” in Black spaces because I’ve never needed to practice restraint. Taunting police. Vandalism. (These are not objectively wrong, but shortsighted and counterproductive ally strategies. These actions likely put Black bystanders in exponentially more risk than the non-Black person performing them. In Seattle, we’ve seen several examples of the media assigning white anarchist violence to peaceful Black gatherings.)

Stage 4 Order – Establish a sense of order.
Strategies: Learn and adhere to the collective’s social expectations, which for allies may be a higher standard than for movement members fighting for their survival.
Blindspots: Assuming that the current establishment, the system that provides me stability, can accommodate equality. Thinking that there is a cut and dry, right and wrong way to do things.

Stage 5 Intellect – Improvement.
Strategies: Offer expertise to help Black leaders improve infrastructure, viability, deployment, safety, etc. Self-educate by reading The New Jim Crow to better understand the situation we’re in, and White Fragility to understand how progressive allies unknowingly undermine racial progress.
Blindspots: Assuming I know better than Black people how to make Black lives better.

Stage 6 Equality – Serve the underserved.
Strategies: Amplify ignored voices. Empower the restrained. Be an instrument for both Black visibility and safety.
Blindspots: Burnout due to lack of self-care. Not having appropriate personal boundaries. Not having the social or emotional intelligence to navigate hardship.

There are more stages, but these are the most relevant. The art of stage navigation is not to occupy only the most sophisticated state of awareness, but to readily access the most suitable response given the urgency and demands of the situation. There is rarely an obviously correct course of action, and that should not be reason to shy away from participation. If things are smooth and comfortable, if I’m not a little nervous, if I’m not making the occasional blunder, and learning important lessons, then perhaps I am not as engaged as I could be. And if I am burning out, breaking down, or not gracefully course correcting, then perhaps I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

There is a lot of hope in the air, tempered by an understanding that things will likely get worse before they get better. I will continue to learn, and strive to be a thoughtful ally for racial equality, for the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest, and it’s mission to move money away from police and toward community health programs. I encourage you to join the movement in your city and consider how to engage responsibly.

Photo by Zane Lindsay

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Unbrace for Impact

My driver accelerates faster, brakes later, and turns sharper. Not recklessly so, just ever so slightly more than I am used to. My instinct? To tense my body, which is prone to devolve into stomping an imaginary brake peddle.

This reaction, I realize, is an attempt to control the car. While I’m not yet sold on telekinesis, on countless occasions and without a hint of irony, I have set out to remotely take the wheel. Often this is expressed unconsciously and viscerally.

Leaning into a jump on Super Mario to hurdle farther. Writhing at the dialogue on Portlandia to steer the conversation. Deep down each of us is a witch performing perpetual invocations. We have a primal instinct to plead with our environment, and attempt to exert our will with bodily contortions. When people ask, “Where do you hold stress?” they are curious where I tend to tense up. Stomach, shoulders, back? This is an important question. From where am I trying to control people and events? At what point in my body do I expect to alter the present reality?

As an exercise, I’ve begun noticing as often as I think of it, if my stomach is clenched, and then allow it to relax. A month in and several times a day, I have observed tension 100% of the time, even when having checked-in only seconds before. Apparently it is my default state, one of subtle discomfort and nonacceptance, even in the midst of overt satisfaction.

Imagine decades of holding a clenched fist, non-stop. The process of unclenching would not be straight forward. “Alright, I pried my pinkie from my palm. This must be what it’s like to be relaxed!” The act of letting go would not only be foreign and unconformable, but disorienting and even painful.

Yes, there are times to brace one’s self. It’s when there is a literal, physical impact moments away. A snowball hurling towards me, a deer appearing in the road, chopping wood. Tension is an appropriate and useful response, just not for metaphorical impacts.

Stage Application
As usual, let’s bring it back to Stage growth. If we were dealing with a full on panic-inducing scenario, it would be a Stage 1: Survival response. However, this clenching phenomenon is associated with Stage 2: Stability, as it consists of making wishful attempts to manage threats against the stability of my personal environment. Almost exclusively I am bracing against metaphorical impacts, aka my insecurities, aka those not-so-urgent threats to various sophisticated Needs that I confuse for life-threatening. It is worth surveying across Stages for the origins of even subtle unrest.

Releasing Stage 2 tension
1. Identify where in your body you habitually hold tension.
2. Take a second to notice the sensation of tension.
3. Breath slowly, release, notice the sensation of letting go.

Bonus step: Evaluate the insecurity
What realities am I retreating from in this moment? The hope is to distinguish abstract fear from actual immediate threat, so that you can respond appropriately with clarity and maturity. Below are some examples of how the Needs at each Stage could be compromised, which I might exaggerate into an undue Survival/Stability responses.

Stage 1 – Survival: Bodily harm or death
Stage 2 – Stability: Loss of relationships and critical resources
Stage 3 – Autonomy: Compromised identity or status
Stage 4 – Order: Neglected rules or social expectations
Stage 5 – Intellect: Unattainable aspirations
Stage 6 – Equality: Demoralized by unhealthy power structures

The body can serve as a compass for exploring the mind. Make no mistake, self-examination can be scary and humbling. Yet I will make a practice of regularly wading ever so slightly beyond my comfort zone.

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The Coping Mind

My levels of “I got this” shift from one moment to the next, but I’m getting it under control. My strategy? As often as I think of it, I take note of my current state of mind. Then I find a way to improve my outlook just a bit. No matter how many hurdles arise, these habitual baby steps have a huge impact.

The way I see and experience the universe is defined entirely by my mental state. A better perspective means more inner peace, more gratitude and beauty, and a healthier impact on the world. So I owe it to myself, and to everyone else, to improve the outlook I take. Even when I’m solid, why not become more so?

Mental states are signals of the needs I should be addressing. Admittedly the accompanying emotions are not always pleasant, but how wonderful is it that our bodies speak to us? The states are a progression, each one blossoming into the next, that mark how secure, integrated, and adapted we are in a particular situation. From here on out, I will refer to mental states as Stages to emphasis the idea that they are being mapped along a spectrum rather than being disjointed experiences.

  • Stage 1 – Just get through the moment. Example strategies: 4-7-8 Breathing technique. Call a trusted person for support. Get out of your head, cut off the inner dialogue, and focus on the bodily sensations without judgement or interpretation.
  • Stage 2 – Stabilize and ground. Example strategies: Establish and stick to routines and rituals. Go on a walk and notice the beauty around you. Carry a stone or charm that feels calming. Clean your space. Take a bath. Get cozy.
  • Stage 3 – Regain a sense of autonomy. Example strategies: Choose to do something out of the ordinary. Maintain powerful postures: stand or sit tall with shoulders back, superhero pose. Rearrange furniture. Even if you’re not going out, get dressed. Exercise.
  • Stage 4 – Establish a sense of order. Example strategies: Connect with people who share your values. Reconsider expectations, your old standards may not fit this new situation. Align yourself with a higher power (ex: deity, destiny, the cosmos) to whom you can relinquish fear, and trust that in some bizarre way, things are as they should be. 
  • Stage 5 – You’re good, now level up. Example strategies: Optimize your workspace. Tweak routines for better performance. Identify and act on the new opportunities arising. Learn a new skill.
  • Stage 6 – Share your abundance. Example strategies: In the area that your thriving (Ex: financial, emotional bandwidth, spare time) find ways to support those at earlier stages. Leave a service worker an absurd tip. Organize mutual friends to leave a barrage of loving texts for your lonely roommate. Play online Settlers of Catan with the bored neighbor kid.

The ambitious among us will want to skip right from Stage 1 to Stage 6, but that’s not how this works. The Stages are stepping stones along the path of empowerment. If I am just in a mood, I can progress quickly back to baseline with as little as a mindful pep talk. The more entrenched I am in a Stage, or the more I’ve accepted a given perspective as reality, the more work it will take to muster one step forward. Indeed, human minds are weird, but predictably so =)

If you’ve made it to Stage 6 across all aspects of your life, you are solidly thriving. There are further states, but 6 is enough for now.

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