Seven Transformations of Leadership: HBR Must Reads on Leadership Review #8


Rooke and Torbert, in their article “Seven Transformations of Leadership” lay out a 7-tiered model of leadership development.  These go from “Opportunist” as the first and lowest-level performer to “Alchemist” as the top-level a leader can hope to achieve.  Further, through their assessment, the Leadership Development Profile, they can determine which of these seven types a given leader is, and thereby claim to be able to given them action steps on how to progress to the next level until they reach the rarified air of “Alchemist”, which a mere 1% of leaders allegedly can claim.

The critical aspect of the model is what Rooke and Torbert call “action logic.”  Action Logic is defined as how leaders “interpret their own and others behaviors and how they maintain power or protect against threats.” Each of the levels progresses through a more mature and productive action logic for organizational leaders. The key concept is that leaders can evolve through these seven action logics as one explores new interpersonal behaviors, forges new relationships, and expands work experiences.

As a model to define varying levels of leadership ability, there is a lot of validity here.  Reading through the levels we can clearly identify individuals we have worked with who readily classify into one category or another.  Thus, as a definition model, this is quite effective.  However, as a leadership development model, it leaves a great deal to be desired.  Moreover, when viewed through a critical lens towards the corporate mindset and analyzed against strengths-based approaches, the flaws in this development model become ever more apparent.

Transformation?  Really?

Let us begin with the idea that this is a model of “transformation” as indicated by the title.  This would imply that the model in some way will show us how to transform and climb the rungs until we achieve “Alchemist”-level leadership ability.  Put simply, it doesn’t do that.  Even the authors admit to an honest lack of insight as to how to progress through the highest two stages.  But, even at the lower levels, few developmental opportunities, or even suggestions, are presented.  All one can really take from the entirety of the article is that coaching and mentoring help, and if we surround ourselves with individuals from more mature levels of leadership, we will, in time, perhaps through osmosis, become better leaders ourselves.  This, to say the least, is uninspired and uninspiring.  If you didn’t know that you should surround yourself with good people and learn from them, well… I’m not sure Rooke and Torbert, or much anyone else for that matter, will be able to help you a great deal.  That’s just common sense.

Further, any person even reasonably trained in psychology would see through this model as a poor man’s Cognitive-Behavioral model.  But, as it was created by non-psychologists, it fails here as well, missing on both the cognitive and behavioral requirements put forward by that field of psychology.

Moving beyond the fact that this model fails to provide development opportunities, when we look at it through the lens of the corporate mindset, we can clearly see old-school hierarchical thinking, belief in the false meritocratic corporate ladder climbing model, and most damning, a complete buy-in to the linear illusion of success.  For the sake of time and sanity, we won’t address each of these points, but simply consider that the authors demonstrate a strong belief that, on the whole, the higher up a corporate ladder one has climbed, the higher up this model they are and/or should be.  In other words, the reason you are at the bottom of the ladder is that you deserve to be, you’re likely just an opportunist.  Moreover, the higher you climb this ladder, the better you and your whole organization will be.  Really?  Haven’t we learned better from the lack of success correlations with SAT scores and educational degrees?  If those were true, every 1600 SAT Harvard grad would be a CEO.  So, why is this one true again? How is it better than the SAT?

The Strengths-Based Alchemist

If that’s not enough, the idea that one has to step through each and every one of these layers before becoming an “Alchemist” just sounds exhausting.  Amusingly, even in their own anecdote on Jenny, the woman who leaped up three action steps in a mere two years, the authors claim surprise stating that “this was a highly unusual movement.”  That would only be true if we really believed that progress only happens in single steps.  That’s almost never true.  The world can turn on a dime, and certainly, so can people, especially when it comes to how they lead.  Put in the right space, at the right time, and acting through their authentic strengths, people can become incredible leaders overnight.  Even the very greatest leaders did not develop over time, leadership and greatness were often thrust upon them.  The authors’ very choice of an example for an “Alchemist”, Nelson Mandela, is a perfect example of a person who was an “Alchemist” because of his incredible strengths and the context around him being ripe for his version of leadership and not because he made his way through a developmental model of leadership as he climbed some corporate ladder.

What this all boils down to is this:  these seven levels are fine as descriptors, but not as much else.  It is a worthwhile exercise to consider where along this spectrum you might be as a leader, and what is keeping you from being an “Alchemist”, or at least a “Strategist.”  However, when it comes to how to develop as a leader, this model holds almost no water at all.  It focuses solely on action logic, which is horribly incomplete and misses a great number of other incredibly important aspects of leadership.  Instead, consider your strengths and your context and see if the reason(s) you aren’t performing at an “Alchemist” level is due to a disconnect between your strengths and context, or because you aren’t fully living into your strengths, or both.  From there, like Nelson Mandela, work to find the right context and expression of your strengths and achieve as a great leader.  Maybe you already are an “Alchemist”, you’re just not in quite the right spot to know it yet.

Want to follow along?

Purchase the HBR's 10 Must Reads On Leadership to follow along our reviews.

Click Here