When you watch, listen to, and talk to leaders in organizations day after day for over two decades as an executive coach and organizational/leadership development consultant, you can’t help but notice the themes that come up over and over again.

Since 1995, I have kept a record of the development themes that have appeared with the individuals and groups I have worked with in different organizations and industries. (With totals of leaders well into the thousands over this span of time.)

Not surprisingly, the over-arching development themes repeat themselves.

Below are the top three developmental themes that have surfaced:

1. Transitioning from expert or individual achiever to leader (From “me” to “we”)

At the beginning of our careers there is much focus on honing our areas of expertise, accumulating knowledge and experience, and becoming competent in the area we are working in. We achieve both external validation and success by being good at what we are doing, collecting certifications and degrees, and applying our expertise.

When we are called to transition to leadership, the focus moves from “my” individual competence to “our” collective creation. This developmental transition is not accomplished by merely holding an executive title or by receiving business and leadership training —it requires a drastic change and development in one’s personal orientation, identity, and behavioral operating system.

2. Moving from reacting to one’s circumstance to co-creating future circumstances

When we are still operating in the individual achievement identity, we influence our environment by reacting to what is there and around us. Over and over again, I am witness to our desperate attempts to structure and control our environments and to protect against perceived threats. The more out of control and overwhelmed we feel, the more we pump up the control.

Teaching leaders how to “be more in control” is often our response—when in fact letting go of control and learning to co-create the future with others is the real developmental challenge.

3.  Learning to stay grounded and comfortable regardless of the changing environment and circumstance

When we operate outside our comfort zones, feel out of control, and are insecure about our identity, not only are we more reactive, we are uncomfortable and lack internal grounding. This can show up as what organizations often label as lack of “leadership presence”, lack of confidence, or even over-confident behavior in some.

The ability to stay grounded and comfortable internally despite the constant shifts in external circumstances, changes in the environment, and lack of validation from others is developed from much self-introspection and shedding of prior behaviors.


These three developmental themes I have witnessed and outlined above can’t be quantified on a chart and checked off a leadership training agenda as having been accomplished.

While we work diligently in organizations to identify the specific “competencies” needed by our leaders,  the development we are looking for transcends building the individual or singular leadership skills we tend to focus on.

Something much deeper is called for.

When I was enrolled in a doctoral program in adult learning and human development in the late 90’s, the director of the program introduced me to the concept of “consciousness studies”.  She presented the adult development process as having two separate pathways—one horizontal and one vertical.  When we are developing horizontally– we add new skills and learn new things, but the “operating system” we are using to process these things and the logic we use in our minds to arrive at conclusions and actions is primarily unchanged.

When we develop vertically, the entire operating system we use in our head changes, expands, and the previous assumptions and logic we used to form opinions and make decisions fundamentally shifts.

Think of a caterpillar for a moment.  In order for a caterpillar to learn how to fly, it has to transform completely into a butterfly and use a whole different operating system from which to take action–its’ new wings.  In its’ new form– the assumptions it made as a caterpillar about mobility have to be completely abandoned , changed, replaced, and expanded.

Although we obviously are not caterpillars– this concept of transformation is akin to the complex changes in consciousness we must make as we develop as leaders.  The themes I outlined above point to not mere horizontal skill building, but much deeper, internal transformation of our internal operating systems.  This development journey is individual, complex, and life-long.  


(Note:  If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend reading Robert Kegan’s, “In Over Our Heads”,  Bill Torbert’s “Action Inquiry”, and Jennifer Garvey Berger’s, “Changing Minds”.)

Don’t forget to check out my program– Soul Search Sessions–for people who want to make a big change in their lives