Wednesday, July 28th, 2021

Leadership Agility and “Vertical Development”

People who begin to delve into the book, Leadership Agility, are often curious about its relationship to stages of personal development (what some are now calling “vertical” development). Especially the earlier work that Bill Torbert did on the links between developmental stages and leadership. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when Torbert did most of this work on this topic, he was virtually the lone pioneer in exploring these connections.

One of the key influences on Torbert’s work is a framework of stages of “ego development” created by the late Jane Loevinger and her associates. Her work is one of the primary contributions to a field called “stage development psychology” (Bob Kegan and a number of others have also made important contributions). Early work by Jean Piaget on stages of childhood stages later blossomed into increasingly robust research on stages of adult development. (These are not age-related phases, but stages of increasing cognitive complexity and emotional intelligence).

The research conducted in this field has steadily gained wider interest, especially for the way it illuminates adult development, partly because of its incorporation into the Integral perspective of Ken Wilber. This field of research shows that human beings develop through a set of well-defined developmental stages. Loevinger, above all, was a pioneer in assessing developmental stages. Over the years, starting in the 1950s, she created and honed the “Washington University Sentence Completion Test” (WUSCT, or simply SCT) and developed an extensive, highly detailed scoring manual. Together, the SCT and Loevinger’s scoring manual made it possible, using a labor-intensive process that requires specially trained scorers, to assess a person’s stage of ego development with a fair degree of accuracy. Though I dislike using the term “test” for this assessment, it is one of the best stage development assessments out there. This methodology has been picked up and further developed by Susanne Cook-Greuter.

The research Torbert conducted and supervised while a professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College used the SCT and found that, statistically, there is a correlation between a leader’s stage of ego development and their effectiveness in carrying out certain leadership tasks. Torbert has used the term “action logic” to refer to the frame of mind underlying each stage, suggesting that, when a leader assessed at a particular stage takes action, the frame of mind underlying that stage governs their behavior.

The 5 years of research that went into writing Leadership Agility looked closely at Torbert’s research and that of a number of others, but it also included an extensive amount of original qualitative research. In this post, I won’t attempt to go through all the points where I was able to confirm Torbert’s conception of stages and corresponding leadership behaviors, or the points where I came to differing or more nuanced conclusions. However, I can say that this in-depth research allowed me to describe in a much more detailed and systematic way both the mental and emotional capacities that emerge at each stage and the leadership behaviors that can be observed when these capacities are translated into action.

Another key finding of the Leadership Agility research is that stage of development is a necessary but not always sufficient condition for leadership behavior that is consistent with that stage. Therefore, rather than use a single term like “action logic” to refer to a leader’s stage and how they take action (which would imply that behavior always matches stage), I’ve stressed the need to look at stage (underlying capacities) and leadership behavior as distinct (though related) factors. For example, while many leaders “act their stage,” a significant number need more practice and skill development to put their stage-related capacities fully into action. When a leader congruently enacts their stage-based cognitive and emotional capacities, I say that they are operating at the “level of leadership agility” that corresponds to that stage.

The methodology for assessing agility level is the Leadership Agility 360, a tool I developed in collaboration with Cambria Consulting, a firm with deep experience and expertise in assessment methodologies. This instrument is also much more contextual than traditional 360s. That is, it can identify how a leader’s agility level may vary in different “action arenas,” specifically leading organizational change, leading teams, and pivotal conversations.

Image41Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility.  He is CEO and a Principal Consultant at ChangeWise, a long-established firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting.

Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @leaderagility

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *