“A good leader should always … “
How you finish that sentence could reveal a lot about your leadership style.
That’s the idea behind a management survey tool called the Leadership Development Profile. Created by psychologist Susanne Cook-Greuter and professor Bill Torbert, the survey relies on a set of 36 open-ended sentence completion tasks to help researchers better understand how leaders develop and grow.
Participants are asked to finish open-ended phrases like “Good leaders always … ” with whatever sounds most natural to them. After that, a team of trained evaluators examine the results and determine where the survey taker’s current leadership style fits into one of the predetermined categories called “action logics.” In a Harvard Business Review article, action logics are defined as “how [leaders] interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged.”
The framework has been popularized and expanded upon by U.K.-based consulting group Harthill, and was the subject of Personal and Organizational Transformations — a book by Harthill partner David Rooke, professor Dal Fisher, and Torbert.
Through Harthill’s leadership development work, Torbert and Rooke have surveyed thousands of American and European managers to determine their current leadership styles and explore their capacities for improvement. The researchers’ work has revealed invaluable information about the distinct developmental stages of leaders, and what qualities and skills truly make a leader successful.
Although the only way to know your current Leadership Development Profile is to have your results analyzed by a professional evaluator, it can’t hurt to get acquainted with a few of the action logic profiles, and do some light self-analysis. “Relatively few leaders try to understand their own action logic, and fewer still have explored the possibility of changing it,” Tolbert and Rooke wrote in Harvard Business Review.
Below, we’ve broken down three action logics that correspond to leaders with the capacity to bring effective, transformative change to their organization, and three that are correlated with less effective leaders. Keep in mind that these action logics are considered developmental stages, not fixed attributes — most leaders will progress through multiple stages throughout their careers.
3 Action Logics of Well-Developed Leaders
The individualist, according to Rooke and Tolbert, is self-aware, creative, and primarily focused on their own actions and development as opposed to overall organizational performance. This action logic is exceptionally driven by the desire to exceed personal goals and constantly improve their skills.
Leaders who align with this action logic have a tendency to trust their own intuition over established organizational processes, which can get them into trouble at times. However, in addition to enjoying exceptional self-awareness, the individualist is adept at relating to people with different perspectives and clearly communicating complex ideas.
These adaptive rhetoricians also possess a drive for constant improvement. An individualist is more comfortable with progress than sustained success, making them ideal leaders for heralding in organizational change.
Strategists are acutely aware of the environments in which they operate. They have a deep understanding of the structures and processes that make their businesses tick, but they’re also able to consider these frameworks critically and evaluate what could be improved.
This action logic is uncommonly adept at building consensus in divided groups. Like the individualist, they’re able to perceive differences in perspective and adapt their message to appeal to multiple viewpoints. Unlike the individualist, the strategist is concerned with much more than their own personal development: They value the development of their organization as a whole, as well as the growth and individual achievements of those they manage.
“Strategists are highly effective change agents,” Rooke and Tolbert explain. This action logic understands that conflict is inevitable — especially in the face of change — and they’re well equipped to handle friction and lead the team towards a common vision. They are able to use their knowledge of personal relationships and professional structures to propel their ideas into action.
Rooke and Tolbert describe this charismatic action logic as the most highly-evolved and effective at managing transformative organizational change. What distinguishes alchemists from other action logics is their unique ability to balance short-term needs and long-term goals; while they see the big picture in everything, they also fully understand the need to take details seriously. Under an alchemist leader, no department or employee is overlooked.
Alchemists are concerned with creating deep, foundational change that resonates not only across their individual organization, but also across the greater context in which they operate. In other words, alchemists want to make a profound and positive impact on whatever they do, and they possess the necessary empathy and moral awareness to get there.
Leaders who correlate with this action logic are concerned with helping their employees reach their highest potential, and are extremely aware of the ripple effects of their decisions.
3 Action Logics of Less Developed Leaders
The action logic worst suited to leadership is by far the opportunist. These individuals tend to let their mistrust of others and egocentrism guide their actions, relying on a facade of control and intimidation tactics to keep their employees in line. “Opportunists tend to regard their bad behavior as legitimate in the cut and thrust of an eye-for-an-eye world,” Rooke and Tolbert write.
Opportunists aren’t concerned with personal development or the development of those they manage. Instead, they view others as competition to be bested, rejecting anyone who questions or criticizes their ideas.
With their behavior at odds with the organization’s progress, opportunists don’t tend to thrive in leadership roles. Their drive for constant competition can only get them so far. If they don’t commit themselves to changing their ways, they tend to get replaced by more developed leaders.
Unlike the opportunist, the diplomat isn’t concerned with competition or assuming control over situations. Instead, this action logic seeks to cause minimal impact on their organization by conforming to existing norms and completing their daily tasks with as little friction as possible.
These qualities make the diplomat a ideal fit for more team-oriented or supporting roles, but ill-suited to senior leadership positions.
“Diplomats are much more problematic in top leadership roles because they try to ignore conflict,” explain Rooke and Tolbert. “They tend to be overly polite and friendly and find it virtually impossible to give challenging feedback to others.”
Diplomats thrust into leadership roles will resist change at any cost, which can lead to problems for an organization looking to evolve. This type is most successful when they can provide the “social glue” in team situations, safely away from conflict.
The expert is a pro in their given field, constantly striving to perfect their knowledge of a subject and perform to meet their own high expectations. Rooke and Tolbert describe the expert as a talented individual contributor and a source of knowledge for the team. But this action logic does lack something central to great leaders: emotional intelligence.
Experts are so focused on their own pursuit of knowledge that they aren’t always tuned into the needs of the organization or those around them. And as leaders, they suffer from always assuming that their opinion is correct. “When subordinates talk about a my-way-or-the-highway type of boss, they are probably talking about someone operating from an Expert action logic,” write Rooke and Tolbert.
What action logics do you think are best suited to leadership at your agency?