The 5 Stages Of The Leadership Journey

Leadership is a journey, not a destination.

Heard this one before? What does it mean exactly?

It might be true that some people are more natural leaders than others, but to truly become impactful, every leader must take the journey to grow their skills and knowledge. Some of the necessary skills include being an effective communicator, delegating well, able and willing to learn and adapt, emotional and social intelligence.  

When it comes to growing skills and knowledge in any human endeavor, there is a natural cycle of learning. You learn, you apply what you’ve learned, adapt based on the results you achieve, and try again.  And this 'plan, do, learn' loop, takes some cycles, some time to get right - but you cannot reach a level of mastery, without having journeyed through the previous learning loops.  And there is always more to learn, more to grow, another loop to experience, and a continuation of the journey.

There are many possible pathways you can travel on your leadership journey, there is not just one specific path or prescribed process that you need to follow. If you think about the Leaders you know and the paths that took them to their current positions, you will know there is a myriad of ways to journey through the leadership experience.

Having said that, there are five fundamental stages that all leaders will travel through.

Here are the 5 stages of the leadership journey:
  1. 1
    Leading without a title
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5

Let's delve into each a little more.

1. Leading without a title

Can you remember when you were first aware of your natural leadership instinct? For me, it was at an early age, perhaps it was because I was the eldest in my family, or because I always had some new idea for everyone to explore, but as a kid, I was often the one ‘in charge’ of our escapades.  

Combine that instinct with a natural sense of responsibility, and an innate desire to improve the status quo, and it is not surprising that early in my career I was leading all sorts of efforts in an informal capacity. It is often the actions you take and the behaviors you demonstrate before becoming a formal leader that will lead you to your first formal leadership assignment. What do you remember as your early signals of a future leadership journey?

Characteristics of this stage include:

  • Delivering your assigned tasks with great responsibility and high quality
  • Stepping up to take on more responsibility than is asked of you
  • Taking the lead in providing direction to others in your team when they need support
  • Finding that your peers naturally follow your lead
  • Understanding the needs of both individuals and the group as a whole

2. Supervising

The first-line formal leadership role is typically described as supervising. You will likely be selected for a first line role if you’ve excelled in the delivery of your functional work, and shown leadership traits in an informal capacity.

As the leader of a small team of people, you will be distributing tasks to members of your team, teaching and mentoring your team in the work, and have responsibility for the delivery of the work output from your whole team. You are likely still spending a fair amount of your time doing the work yourself.

In most organizations, you will also start to be more involved in the administrative work of personnel management. This will include conducting performance reviews, recommending raises, and being the go-to person at your company in the eyes of your team members. 

I remember finding my first supervisor role full of surprising challenges.  No matter how much of a high achiever, and a ‘people-person’ you are, you will be stretched as you start to practice the elements of this stage of leadership.

Examples include learning how to effectively delegate, motivate others, manage a spectrum of capability and performance from your team members, and learning to take control of your schedule, instead of letting it control you!

Characteristics of this stage include:

  • Having day to day responsibility for a small group of people and the quality delivery of their work
  • Participating yourself in the delivery of the work – including modeling how the work is done by teaching and training others
  • Acting as point contact between the people in your team and other groups you collaborate with to get things done in your organization
  • Driving the pace and quality of your team’s work product
  • Beginning to establish your leadership style reputation with the people in your organization

3. Managing

Moving into the managing phase of the leadership journey, generally means you are now responsible for more than one team. You’ll be taking a more 'big-picture' look at the part of the business you and your teams support, looking for overall effectiveness and efficiency, and starting to be more strategic in solving problems.

As a managing leader, your responsibilities in personnel administration will increase significantly. Your first line leaders, and their direct reports too, will look to you for support beyond ‘getting the job done’. 

I distinctly remember in my first second-line role as a manager how enjoyable it was to give my supervisors recognition and ownership that I hadn’t always felt from some of my earlier bosses. I also found myself becoming a trusted confidant for all sorts of professional and personal matters that my direct reports were going through.

In addition, the new expectations of working across an increasingly broader slice of the organization to solve complex problems meant that I had to continue on my journey of growth to learn new skills. At this stage, I remember needing to be able to approach business priorities more strategically, as well as learning new ways to interact with peers at my level in order to be effective in our collaboration.

Characteristics of this stage include:

  • Having day to day responsibility for a small number of teams (each with its own leader)
  • You are no longer involved in the detailed work delivery yourself but have a more whole system approach in how you measure quality, effectiveness, and efficiency
  • You are now acting as the pivot point between the teams in your charge and a broader part of the organization you work in
  • Your strategic influence is broader and you need to be thinking more about the business as a whole versus the one area you’ve grown up in and have the most expertise in

4. Empowering

The empowering leadership phase is all about learning to let go, and trust that your people ‘have it’.

Do you know the zen proverb, ‘hold on tight with an open palm’?  

During this stage, your role is to support your people by letting them know that they have your confidence, and at the same time boosting their confidence in themselves. You will find that you are not as directly involved in the work, but you must recognize the indirect impact you are having on the team you lead.  

You will be providing critical thinking and a strategic approach to the organization’s performance. You will ask a lot of questions, and do a lot of listening, as you develop and test your vision. Setting and communicating the vision for the organization you lead is one of your most important roles. You’ll need to make a compelling case for your vision, calling your team to action and inspiring them towards the credible yet aspirational future you imagine.  

You will create an environment of trust, inclusion, and psychological safety. These are the ingredients for empowerment and indeed, for innovation and a culture of learning to thrive. Both are necessary for superior business performance.

Some of my most rewarding leadership experiences were during this empowerment phase of my leadership journey. There will be moments when you let go and allow things to unfold, and you won’t feel 100% certain that everything will end up as you hope. Yet, it is this courage and risk-taking that will mean you are successfully navigating this phase of your journey.  

Witnessing your team members thrive and feel pride in their own success will make it all worthwhile!

Characteristics at this level include:

  • You are now leading the leaders (and not the work)
  • Visionary thinking to paint a brighter future for your team and inspiring them to be excited and motivated towards achieving that vision
  • Almost no direct involvement in the day to day work except perhaps in crisis management
  • Developing your leaders – creating the environment for them to shine and perform their management leadership tasks
  • Systems monitoring (KPIs, etc.) to shape business performance

5. Influencing

Influential Leadership is the last of the five phases of the leadership journey.  
At this stage, your actions, and inactions, set the tone for the organizational culture. Your behaviors, the language you use, the matters you choose to confront, and the ones you stay silent on, all convey who you are to your organization.
You’ll need to be open to being vulnerable, open to sharing your heart, and showing people you really care if you are going to gain the trust of the people in your organization and be able to successfully influence.
Leaders in senior management have this opportunity for the betterment of both their company and our society as a whole. The truly influential leader conveys optimism for a future that is even better than now and inspires people to move toward that future state. And can do so without causing people to feel discouraged about how things are ‘now’. 

Characteristics at this level include:

  • Modeling high standards of personal conduct
  • Being authentic, vulnerable, and demonstrating that you care
  • Inspiring and motivating your organization with optimism and transparency
  • Being socially aware and pro-active in support of your people and organization as a part of society as a whole
  • Monitoring business performance and adjusting strategic levers to either assure your vision or adapt as needed

Final Thoughts

There are five distinct stages in any leadership journey.  

As your career progresses and the roles you take on have increasing levels of responsibility, you will find yourself moving through each of these stages. Having said that, you will experience aspects of all stages throughout your journey. In fact, if you choose to look ahead at some of the characteristics of later stages and start practicing those now, you can certainly fast-track your progression. 

With this foundation now in mind, there are three final thoughts I'd like to leave you with:

  • You cannot skip the learning process! You will need to progress through all of the phases of the leadership journey over time. But, you can short-circuit the learning process by having a deliberate focus on all 5 stages every step of the way. For example, as a Supervising Leader, or even as an Informal Leader, consciously choosing what kind of impact you want to have as if you were in a senior role, will mean that you will start to practice exhibiting the behaviors of an Empowering or Influencing Leader much earlier in your journey. Your growing impact and maturity will likely get you noticed, and could mean your career starts progressing even faster! Just don’t forget to take care of the essentials for the role you are currently in too!
  • There are also a number of qualities that an impactful leader must have at every stage of the journey. Traits such as integrity, humility, the ability to delegate effectively, empathy, emotional intelligence, and learning agility.  More on these in upcoming posts soon.
  • And finally, "leadership is a journey, and not a destination". I'd ask you to consider that perhaps the journey itself, is the destination. Don’t forget why you became a leader in the first place, and what it is that you want to give back to the world as part of the adventure. Learning and adapting to new challenges, having a positive impact on the people in your charge, and finding enjoyment in these pursuits on a daily basis, really is the destination.

Supporting you on your leadership journey, 

PS. Please share if you found this helpful.


Leadership, Leadership Journey

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