3 Stages You Can’t Avoid When Developing Leaders

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I’ve often times wondered about how certain successful business leaders came to the helm of running their business and being the great leaders that they are today. All too often, professionals with aspirations to run their own business or to become great leaders skip some very important steps in learning how to lead.

Some believe the path to becoming a great leader is linear and in an up-hill fashion. The path most people take is in fashion to steps on a stair-case – each one leading you to the prize platform of “great leader”.

Yet, that is not always the case. In some cases, the path is more applicable to a map with the only tool necessary in finding your desired destination is a compass, not a ladder.

This article will discuss 3 fundamental areas of development that leaders need to understand are crucial in their formation.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, favors the idea of a career “jungle gym” where you can move up, down or across. Adds eBay CEO John Donahoe, “Leadership is a journey, not a destination. It is a marathon, not a sprint.” On your winding journey, you need a compass to stay focused on your True North, not a ladder whose rungs you climb.

“Leadership is character, not style. It is who we are as human beings. The process of becoming a leader is much the same as becoming an integrated human being.” – Warren Bennis

Bill George, a Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School and author of Discover Your True North, writes an article in the Huffington Post describing his leadership journey.

Bill describes an “eye-opening” experience while working with Honeywell. Bill was one of two candidates for becoming CEO. He was currently an executive vice president responsible for nine divisions and over 18,000 people. 

To his thinking, he was well on his way to reaching his final goal of becoming a great leader. 

Yet, driving home one day, Bill realized that on the surface he appeared confident in his pursuit but internally he was deeply unhappy.

In that instant I realized I was more focused on climbing the corporate ladder than being a values-centered leader who makes a difference in the world. I faced the reality that Honeywell was changing me more than I was changing it–and didn’t like the changes I saw.”

Bill took some time to think about the priorities in his life and made a shift to join a company that he had turned down three times prior.

In his book, he interviewed over 170 authentic leaders such as Oprah and Howard Schultz and realized all of them had similarities in the things they had to experience to achieve success.

From these experiences, he learned that the journey to success as a leader had three distinct phases.


“In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.” – Dante, The Divine Comedy

3 Phases to Developing Leaders 

Phase 1: Preparing for Leadership 

In this phase, a leader develops through education, experiences outside of education, and early professional work. 

These are character forming years where people lead for the first time. At this stage, people are self-absorbed naturally, as these individuals are measured by their own accomplishments rather than those of their team.

Phase 2: Leading

In this stage, leaders begin to understand the meaning of being responsible for others and the “I” to “We” transition occurs. 

During these years, greater responsibilities are taken on and as a result, more setbacks occur testing their sense of self, their values, and their presumptions of their own career. 

In time, leaders begin to learn more about themselves in preparation for even greater challenges ahead.


Phase 3: Generativity

Finally, this era is the time of giving. The era that a leader can give back by sharing their knowledge with the many people either in their organizations or in their community.

You might have noticed that these days, many leaders are extending their retirement by sharing their leadership experiences with others serving on boards, mentoring young professionals, teaching, and writing. 

Psychologist Erik Erikson describes the choice in this phase: generativity versus stagnation.

Being a leader is not an easy task. Cultivate your experiences and let your compass find it’s true north with experience more than accolades or positional status in an organization. Learn from other leaders of experience and take on mentorship to cultivate the vast knowledge of others and to learn from their trial and errors. Furthermore, enjoy your journey.


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