By Ron Price
I recently gave a presentation on the stages of leadership where I began by challenging the audience to tell me what they thought the six stages were. They huddled into groups, brainstorming the stages and validating their ideas to one another. Then several of the groups read their answers aloud, hoping to match my list. There was plenty of laughter and some groaning as I told each group that while their list was thoughtful, it didn’t match the six stages I had come to talk about that day.
I give this example to demonstrate how different the leader’s journey can be for each person, as well as how we each perceive the steps on that journey differently, depending on where they fall in our lives. Here are the six stages of leadership I presented that day:
Stage 1: The Invitation
In many ways, leadership started for me at 10 years old when my parents got a divorce. This event devastated my mother, and I would hear her crying in her room every night after she put us to bed. My mother was a preacher’s daughter, and divorce was seemingly the worst thing that could have happened to her. During this time I realized that I had a skill that could be of importance to her; she just needed someone to listen. This was my first invitation to leadership influence.
Becoming a leader doesn’t always mean that you’re invited to take over a group or lead an initiative. It is often simply receiving an invitation to take an action that will have an impact, and can come in many forms. What invitations have you had throughout your life to step up and lead? And have you always taken those opportunities?
Stage 2: Self-awareness
The second stage of leadership is getting to know yourself better. It could be examining how you make decisions or determine direction. It could be understanding how you get things done and become someone who can achieve. Or maybe geting to know yourself through the way you influence or guide other people. During this phase it’s about diving deep into who you are and what’s unique about you. And oftentimes this stage lasts quite a while. It takes a fair amount of self-examination to adequately understand your talents and apply that to your leadership.
Are there some tasks you enjoy more than others? Things that come naturally for you? These activities may not even seem like work because they’re so easy. Sometimes these abilities are discovered when others point them out as a “gift” or a talent.
Stage 3: Development
The third phase is developing your leadership skills and abilities. Typically there is some movement back and forth between Stage 2 and Stage 3, as you reexamine yourself through the development process. You begin to recognize what’s unique about you, and how to develop it to become the best version of yourself. This sometimes motivates a person to go back to school, to get an MBA, to take on a new assignment that is going to give you the opportunity to grow, or to become a part of a professional development opportunity. The development stage is often something that takes place over many years.
In fact, Stage 2 and Stage 3 can take 10, 20, even 30 years. For me it was almost 30 years. I started that journey by being more aware of my weaknesses and what I needed to fix. I examined what could cause me to fail as a leader. And I left that stage realizing that although you can’t ignore your weaknesses, if you spend all your time on your weaknesses, you never become the best version of yourself. At some point you have to begin to embrace your natural talents and your passions, and instead spend time becoming an expert at the things you are naturally good at.
Stage 4: Validation
This stage is when other people acknowledge your growth as a leader, and they affirm that growth by following you in some fashion. It’s very interesting when you have somebody who has gone through the first three stages yet has never visited Stage 4. Have you ever met anybody who you just couldn’t validate? There are plenty of people who feel that they deserve to be validated, but you don’t become a leader when you decide you are. You become a leader when others follow you.
This is a really important stage. It’s what amplifies you; it is what gives you more influence as a leader. To a certain extent, you can’t go any further in the leader’s journey until somebody else endorses you. And you have to be willing to receive the validation. I remember when I was starting to go into this phase of my own journey, that I was embarrassed. There was a part of me that wanted to go hide when people wanted to validate me. I wanted to have an impact without the recognition.
Stage 4 can also be a bit scary because when you accept that validation, you suddenly accepted a huge responsibility. There aren’t that many leaders who know how to finish well. Unfortunately, there are a large number of leaders who get to the validation point and then somehow get detoured. It’s a very significant stage to go through.
Stage 5: Impact
Stage 5 is the phase of impact. This is where you reach the peak of your influence. You reach the point where you have become comfortable in your own skin. You really get relaxed with who you are as a person and as a leader, and not because you think you’ve “made it.” Not even necessarily because you’re convinced that you can see yourself clearly, or recognize your abilities. This is the stage where you begin to realize that it’s bigger than you. The biggest privilege of leadership isn’t the title or the status; it isn’t the recognition or even the validation. The biggest privilege of leadership is that you can contribute, that you can make a difference.
I guess it’s because I’m getting older, but I find myself getting more philosophical. Early on, I thought that leadership was something to get done. It was to create a result, a means to an end. And at some point, probably in the last 5 or 6 years, I began to transition into this phase of thinking about impact and thinking about how the decisions I make are more important than ever because I have limited time, energy and resources. How are you going to maximize your impact?
Stage 6: Reflection
The final phase of leadership is reflection. This is the time when you get to look back on your career, on your leadership experiences, wins, losses and lessons. And in this stage of reflection, you maybe able to see more clearly some of the knowledge you can pass on to others. Unfortunately not everybody gets to experience this phase. Sometimes life gets cut short, and we don’t get to complete the journey. Some people get sidetracked before they ever get to Stage 6.
It’s a really interesting way to think about your own journey. How and where did you get invited? Where are you on that journey of self-discovery and self-awareness? Do you have a clear, intentional plan of development? Or are you just letting it happen to you? Have you put yourself in situations where you can be validated, and have you accepted that and let that amplify and increase your voltage? And have you reached that level of impact, of celebration or reflection?
I would love to hear more about your thoughts on the leader’s journey, and your own personal experiences. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.