The Intelligence that Leaders need to Grow

By Maryanne Mooney

Published on 23-04-2013

The Intelligence that Leaders need to Grow

Maryanne Mooney of Lindentree Leadership Consulting discusses the developmental path to become an intelligent leader.

The night before my first Year 12 exam was a long one, as in that era the bottom third of exam candidates automatically failed. Enter an older, kind friend to quell my fright with some stellar advice - "When you go into that exam room - sit down and before you pick up your pen, look around at your classmates. As you look at each one, ask yourself - Am I smarter than them?"  I remember looking at each one and growing calmer as my calculations revealed that I was not in the bottom level in cognitive ability. For the first time I had learned to place myself in a developmental bell curve to better understand and back my capacities. Explaining a developmental curve also provides valuable insights for leaders wanting to improve, as most do not have a clear picture of how they are developing.

Executive coaches rightly encourage leaders to become self-aware and to understand more accurately the impact they have on others. For several decades there has also been a strong encouragement on goal setting to acquire skills and competencies. There is far less focus on how adults mature and develop in leadership roles. Most coaching methodologies are built around these approaches but are they overlooking the notion of overall growth? We don't often assess people and help them see where they are on the adult developmental curve. More importantly we may be at a loss as to how to help leaders shift to the next level and realise their potential.

What might this developmental curve look like? The work that has been done in recent years by developmental psychologists such as Robert Kegan has identified four adult development stages - Self Sovereign, Socialised, Self - Authored and Self Transforming.

Kegan describes the maturation process as the growing ability to hold an increasingly complex worldview. For example at the Self Sovereign stage adults are only focused on themselves and find it hard to broaden their view to understand the needs of others. Fortunately only a small percentage of adults (10- 15%) remain in this stage, as it is problematic when they are promoted to less technical and more complex leadership roles. For example, I recently worked with a highly intelligent, senior manager of a large, rapidly changing area who was totally focussed on her own need to achieve results. She was not able to grasp how her approach was alienating people and was counterproductive. Whilst she was a polite, sincere person with the added strength of certainty she simply could not notice or appreciate the concerns and reactions of others. Her development plan required a shift into the Socialised stage where the needs of the group, organisation and important others influence us strongly. Many adults (45%) remain at this stage but approximately 35% move into becoming Self Authored. This stage involves a more complex perspective as leaders learn to lead in a much more confident way. Not only do they consider the needs and views of others but they integrate them to form their own independent, balanced outlook. The trap is to become overly confident and certain and so stop looking for development challenges. In a coaching environment, these are often the clients with least developmental 'juice'.

In the final stage of Self Transforming leadership, the capacity to hold multiple views is greatly expanded through the questioning of one's own assumptions and seeking of the unknown. It is a letting go of certainty. Leaders who reach this stage (approximately 5%) see connections that are not obvious to others. They are exceptional thinkers who are the best equipped to solve complex issues. Wise leadership involves far more than just cognitive capacities but having the ability to see and hold complexity, aids wholistic development.

As I looked around at my classmates, I did not feel competitive with others. It was not about beating others but beating my own self-doubt. It helped me see an aspect of myself more accurately. Helping leaders see where they are as a whole person on their maturation journey can be both a reality check and the opening up of an exciting, new development journey. It is not about where we should be but where we could be, in our development journey. Each stage has its benefits and provides people with the rungs to help them grow further. Using adult development models provides new information when setting coaching goals, as leaders not only consider their capabilities but also focus on their overall development. It takes a lifetime to grow up, so illuminating a pathway is brilliant intelligence.

Maryanne Mooney. Partner at Lindentree Leadership Consulting -fostering the development of wisdom in leaders, teams and organisations.

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