• Stephen Duns

Adaptive Leadership is great, and what’s next?

I’m a huge fan of Marty Linsky, and Ed O’Malley from Kansas Leadership Centre, and love their work on Adaptive Leadership. I love that Adaptive Leadership is borne out of a systems perspective. I believe the distinction between technical and adaptive challenges is a major contribution to leadership thinking. The book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading[1] is a seminal leadership text. That book was published in 2002. A lot has happened since then.

Vertical Development

Adaptive Leadership doesn’t take stages of adult development into account – part of the idea of vertical development. Most leadership development is focused on adding new tools and competencies, what might be called ‘horizontal development.’ However, ‘vertical development’ — developing, updating or changing a leader’s mindset and mental models — is equally important. Vertical leadership development is contingent on three conditions: ‘heat experiences’, ‘colliding perspectives’, ‘elevated sensemaking’. It seems to me that Adaptive Leadership works well enough for the first two but misses on the third. For leaders to begin to deal with the increasing complexity of the current times they need to develop ‘elevated sensemaking’.

I have come across three interesting approaches to leadership that include vertical leadership development, and also some new thinking about what might be beyond vertical leadership development.

Harthill Leadership Development Framework

The first is the Harthill Leadership Development Framework. For a description of the model you can read Seven Transformations of Leadership Rooke & Torbert[2]. In super-quick summary there are seven levels of meaning-making in the context of leadership – Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Individualist, Strategist and Alchemist. The final three are part of “post-conventional” tier with a different way of looking at the world. The difference is based on increased cognitive complexity, the ability to consider shades of grey and a constructivist view of truth. Nearly two-thirds of people in leadership roles who have taken the test profile at Expert and Achiever and fewer than 10 percent are at Strategist and Alchemist. (If you would like to know where you profile I’d be happy to arrange it and offer a debrief session).

Piaget identified that children pass through stages of development as they grow to adulthood. As part of this evolution they develop abilities that fundamentally expand their understanding of, and relationship to, the world. Further work on adult development that I admire includes Spiral Dynamics[3], based on the work of Clare Graves and Bob Kegan’s[4] work on stages of adult development. The work of neuropsychology and understanding of neuroplasticity has also helped us understand that adults continue to experience a series of identifiable stages of development. These stages, as in childhood, significantly affect the abilities of people to problem solve, interpret and interact with their environment. Stages of adult development are relatively independent of personality traits as they specifically address the processes of meaning making which inform and lead a person to action. These stages are described as "Action Logics". The Harthill Leadership Development Framework applies these principles of human development to leadership.

A consistent theme in the work is that there are two tiers. There is strong evidence that in our increasingly complex world there is an even greater need for advanced post-conventional thinking: Individualists, Strategists and Alchemists. Yet the vast majority of people in management and leadership roles primarily access Expert/Achiever action logics.

A profound belief in human potential for continued growth and learning is the motivating force behind the Leadership Development Framework. It offers the opportunity for personal growth to all - no one is fixed at their current Action Logic. If motivated and supported to do so, everyone can develop new ways of meaning making.

The Harthill Leadership Development Framework describes seven action logic stages that determine how a person interprets events or makes meaning. Descriptions of each Action Logic are found in the article.

The Leadership Development Framework provides a way of understanding how a person is likely to interpret situations and thus how they might act. Although people draw their understanding from multiple Action Logics, one is usually described as their primary action logic. The Leadership Development Framework offers a chance to reach deep personal understanding and the option to identify unique developmental challenges.

Within the context of Adaptive Leadership people at different stages of development will diagnose the situation in very different ways and with different levels of cognitive complexity. What people consider when they are on the balcony could be entirely different according to their action logic. (Being “on the balcony” is a term in Adaptive Leadership that means to step up above the day-to-day work to take a broader, more strategic perspective.)

Any leadership development program that does not take account of the stages of adult development is in danger of being either too complex for some or too simplistic for others.

Four Leadership Discourses

Simon Western[5] has developed an heuristic of four leadership discourses since the beginning of the twentieth century. We tend to view leadership according to these core leadership discourses. There are strengths and weaknesses of each discourse. (See table 1 below.)

At the beginning of the twentieth century the view of leadership was focused on command and control. This is the era of the leader as Controller. The focus is on efficiency and results. Despite its militaristic overtones the Controller is not all bad.

Emerging from the middle of the century comes the second leadership discourse with a focus on people. The Therapist Leaders focuses on Understanding motivation, teamwork, emotional labour and personal growth.

Later in the twentieth century the idea of Transformational leadership emerged, and is still prevalent. This discourse describes the leader as Messiah. The focus here is vision and purpose and inspiring people to be part of a community or even family.

Finally early in the twenty-first century the discourse of the Eco-Leader emerged. The Eco-Leader has a focus on systems and networks and has the ability to access the other leadership approaches as the system requires.

Again the Eco-Leader, as a meta-discourse, works at a different level, similar to the second tiers described in the adult development work. While this is not explicit in Western’s work it seems to me to be another example. Western does argue that Eco-leadership is the type of leadership that is required as the situation/system experiences more complexity. It also seems to lend itself to vertical leadership development.

Table 1: Strengths and Weakness of the Four Leadership Discourses

Development Inquiry

This is a new idea for me and I’m excited to deepen my knowledge and skills in it and work towards mastery. Fundamentally it involves working with people at any “level” to develop advanced post-contemporary practices, a collection of capabilities found in Individualists, Strategists and Alchemists. These capabilities are available to anyone who takes on certain practices. Development Inquiry involves inquiring into and experimenting with particular capabilities, capacities and lenses making it possible to encourage radical development – extending the strengths of any Action Logic profile. Leaders who undertake a voyage of inquiry and personal development can transform their own capabilities and those of their organisations. Organisations that help their people with a process of development inquiry can reap rich rewards.

The focus shifts beyond the level at which a person is, to how they can expand their meaning-making more generally, especially using post-conventional thinking and practices. The process moves beyond a simplistic notion of moving to the next level to developing cognitive complexity, self-experience and relational capacity.

If you, or your organisation, are ready to embark on a process of Development Inquiry please contact me.

Stephen Duns December 2019

0448 892 553


[1] Heifetz, Ronald and Linsky, Marty (2002) Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business School Press

[2] Rooke, David and Torbet, Bill (2005) Harvard Business Review, April

[3] Beck, Don and Cowan Chris (2005) Spiral Dynamics : Mastering Values, Leadership and Change, John Wiley and Sons

[4] Robert Kegan, (2011) The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development, Harvard University Press

[5] Western, Simon (2019) Leadership: A Critical Text 3rd Ed, Sage Publications, London, pp 322-325

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