Immature Leaders - Part I

By Maryanne Mooney

Published on 16-02-2013


Part I: Arrested development - the causes & consequences of this leadership challenge

The growing public lament about the quality of leadership in organisations, institutions, and governments, provokes a warranted discussion around the lack of highly developed leaders in our society. In this article, Maryanne Mooney, a Partner at Lindentree Leadership Consulting, explains why so many leaders get stuck in their development, and identifies the consequences of 'arrested development' in leadership.

Our world is facing many difficult and complex issues, demanding leaders to make tough, courageous, future oriented decisions. However, research findings (e.g. Kegan and Lahey , Torbert and Fisher) suggest that around 80% of managers become "developmentally stuck" and plateau somewhere between a developmental stage known as the 'socialised' phase and the next phase, the 'self-authoring' phase, resulting in an inability to tackle the issues they are facing.

But what exactly does being developmentally stuck mean?

For many leaders, the progression from the developmental stage, (where managers are able to identify strongly with their organisation and their team, to seek approval and status and to plan conscientiously for the future) to the final stage is a challenge. This final stage, known as the self- transforming phase, is characterised by the ability to see the limits of one's own ideology and to be open to contradiction and multiple possibilities. A leader at this evolved stage seeks to learn from every experience and interaction. This kind of leader is not locked into a narrow world view but seeks a multiplicity of viewpoints to discern the best way forward. Leaders who reach this stage are clearly better equipped to navigate our world of wicked problems and multiple interest groups.

What is keeping our leaders from making this transition?

We have noticed that leaders who get stuck have often developed ingrained behavioural patterns that they rely on to survive and to navigate their workloads and relationships. They remain focused on the task at hand and are less able to think or act in alternative ways. Developmentally, their growth is arrested. Given that a number of studies have proven a positive correlation between leaders' mental complexity - the ability to challenge existing processes, inspire a shared vision, manage conflict, solve problems, delegate, empower and build relationships (Kegan and Lahey) - and performance, this is concerning.

How do developmentally stuck leaders behave?

Consider a few behavioural patterns which reinforce arrested development. Some suggested underlying needs and motivators are described in brackets:

  • I am always so busy (important)
  • I thrive in a crisis (love being the centre of attention)
  • I pay attention to the detail (obsessive)
  • I am very thorough (risk averse)
  • I am very task focused (don't like getting close to people)
  • I find it hard to delegate (fear failure)
  • I am very flexible (need to be liked)
  • I need to be kept informed (controlling)

These behaviour patterns are pretty common and need not be self or career limiting. However, they can cause a leader to get stuck when they become a dominant, default position.

Undoubtedly, we need our leaders to be thinking and acting differently to break through and come up with new, lasting and positive solutions. We need our leaders to shift up a gear, to evolve into self-transforming, wiser leaders. In Part II Maryanne Mooney highlights what the evolution of leadership looks like, and how it can be achieved.


1. Kegan R. and Lahey L.L Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organisation. 2009. Harvard Business Press. Boston Ma.
2. Fisher, D, Merron, K and Torbert, W.R. ' Human Development and Managerial Effectiveness' in Group & Organisational Studies (1986-1998. Sep 1987: 12,3: ABI/INFORM Global
3. Kegan R. and Lahey L.L Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organisation. 2009. Harvard Business Press. Boston Ma.