What Makes a Great Leader?

It’s very difficult question to answer. How do you judge a leader? Is it financial success? The loyalty they engender? Their ability to inspire? There are war-time leaders and peace-time leaders. Leaders may be understated or zealous. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to say definitively what constitutes a great leader. Regardless, we all want to improve our ability to lead, whether it’s a small team or a Fortune 500. But how?

One way of looking at leadership development is through Adult Development Theory, an idea pioneered by Dr. Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist at Harvard that borrows from others in the field.

Adult development theory has five stages. The first two we develop in childhood: impulsive mind and imperial mind. The next three we learn in adulthood. I’ve put together a quick summary below. For greater depth, there’s a good overview here.

Socialized Mind (most adults): we have built relationships with our team and those social connections influence our ideas the most. We see ourselves the way others see us and look for external validation from others about how we’re doing as leaders.

Self-Authoring Mind (some adults): we shift from validating ourselves in the eyes of others to establishing an internal sense of self, and begin to direct ourselves independently. We have limits, values, goals and drive that comes from within, and those govern our leadership.

Self-Transforming Mind (very few adults): we’re able to balance both the perspectives of others with our our sense of self-direction. Tricky business!

If I think about the style of management epitomized by Steve Jobs (or at the least the public perception of his management style), he would be in the self-authoring mind, caring very little for others’ perspectives. Reading some books including Creative Selection, I’m sure Jobs’ style was more nuanced.

Jennifer Garvey Berger applies this framework to leadership. In her view, great leaders make those around them feel bigger, bolder and able to do great things. A charismatic leader, on the other hand, awes you and so you feel better about the leader, not you.

Simon Sinek likens leadership to falling in love with someone. Every day we perform simple habits of true compassion and living by our values. That’s how we become leaders in others’ eyes.

Both believe the core of leadership starts with listening and then being able to balance the external points of view with a strong sense of self (values, direction, belief).

Maybe that’s why leadership is so hard to evaluate. It all comes down to judging many opinions including our own and managing relationships well after the decisions are made.

This framework got me thinking about where I am in the Adult Development Theory. Kegan said that we all see ourselves one step ahead in development of where we actually are. Where are you? Where do you want to get to?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash