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.
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.
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?