The 7 Key Transformations in Leadership Capacity

There are seven key transformations in executive leadership capacity in the world today. They form the progressive stages in adult maturity or Vertical Learning, in contrast to horizontal learning that takes place within a stage. The seven transformations are:

  1. Opportunist
  2. Conformist
  3. Specialist
  4. Achiever
  5. Catalyst
  6. Strategist
  7. Alchemist

As we progress through these stages of development we take the positive attributes of each with us and gradually release our shadow or personal reactive patterns based on the ego’s sense of insecurity and feeling “not good enough”. The stages of development form a holarchy where each stage is included in the following stage. As we develop our leadership capacity, we grow in consciousness and gradually embrace all of who we are with awareness, understanding, kindness and compassion.

Let’s look at each stage in turn.

The Opportunist

The Opportunist is concerned with survival and security, Maslow’s first two needs. They are self-interested, relatively isolated and will get away with whatever they can. They operate on a day-by-day or minute-by-minute basis without a care for consequences. Their view of the world is that it is unsafe and everyone else is assumed to be an enemy. They play only to their own advantage.

The Opportunist is also deceptive and manipulative. They are the executives who steal your ideas without recognizing their source, who always blame others when things go wrong, and seem to be unavailable when immediate help is needed. They will also attack first in order to defend themselves when feeling threatened. They are completely averse to feedback.

The Opportunist lives in fear, trusts no one and largely operates in fight, flight or freeze mode. Some 4% of the Executive population are anchored at Opportunist. This view of the world is their Autopilot. Whenever our safety and security is threatened in the succeeding stages, it is relatively easy to regress back to the level of the Opportunist and resolve our situation based on self-interest alone.

The Conformist

The Conformist decides to play it safe. While they still view the world as a very challenging place to be, they believe that if they abide by all the rules and do what people in higher authority ask or tell them to do, they will be safe. They conform. They are risk averse and will only take action if instructed to do so. Most will also need a step-by-step approach mapped out for them. Their level of voluntary participation is relatively low.

In complying, Conformists give away their personal authentic power to positional authority. This leads to a sense of personal ineptitude that moves them to complain. In other words, when we give our personal power away to comply with others, we address this imbalance by complaining about others. If you know anyone in your workplace who complains a lot, they will be operating from aConformist mindset. Some 9% of the Executive population are anchored atConformist and it is a common fallback position for succeeding levels in times of stress.

Conformists use reactive emotional strategies to get what they want. The three key strategies are appeasing others by being nice and bending over backwards to fit in – usually towards more senior people; controlling others by criticizing, berating and offending others – usually towards more junior people; or otherwise withdrawing from people by avoiding all communication and even eye contact.

All are unconscious emotionally manipulative techniques that produce workplace drama in the form of passive-aggressive behaviour manifesting in bullies and victims. We subconsciously base our boss-subordinate and peer-based interpersonal strategies on those we employed to get what we want as a child within the comparable context of parent-child and sibling dynamics.

The Specialist

The Specialist devotes themselves to their work. They wish to develop their skills, perfect their craft and focus on the details to get everything absolutely right. They switch their primary focus from being compliant and fitting in, to standing out through the course of their work. They are experts in their field and strong contributors dotting i’s and crossing t’s for as long as it takes to get something perfect. They make up some 38% of the Executive population.

Specialists largely work individually and are focused on the quality of their work and mastery of their craft. They will drill down to the detail and ensure complete accuracy taking a comprehensive rather than pragmatic approach. A micro-manager is typically operating at the Specialist mindset. Their personal identity merges with their work so they take feedback very personally. They tend to be emotionally reactive on the receiving end of constructive feedback and emotionally responsive to recognition and praise.

While the reactive behaviours are still present, they are now more associated with their work than trapped within the power struggle of the endemic parent-child and sibling dynamics. They are driven by the need to perfect their work, which is a quantum step up the spiral from Conformist. Focusing on increasing the quality of our own work based on our own albeit critical view of self and others, leads to continuous improvement.

The Achiever

The Achiever is a pragmatist rather than a perfectionist. Their goal is “fit for purpose” rather than perfect. The Achiever begins to consider how their work meets the needs of colleagues, customers and clients. Their focus extends to the impact of their work rather than just the work itself. They are open to feedback on their work, can manage change, drive projects, meet deadlines, produce results and heed the customer. They make up some 33% of the Executive population.

Achievers also shift from working individually to working effectively with others as team players. They enjoy being in the driving seat and driving initiatives forward. They are competitive, strong performers, will do what it takes to win and enjoy the glow of success. Achievers can also be very black and white. This enables them to be decisive and proactive albeit somewhat shortsighted compared to more advanced stages of development when life becomes shades of grey.

Customer-centric organizations try to adopt an Achiever mindset to create feedback loops and generate accountability for customer interactions and the customer experience. The introduction of scorecards to drive results and address the gap supports the Achiever’s competitive worldview.

The world is made up of winners and losers and theAchiever’s primary focus is to strive for more. This keeps them on the treadmill of doing more, wanting more and getting more. What they have is never enough. This vicious circle is extremely stressful!


The Conventional World

Opportunists, Conformists, Specialists and Achievers are all mindsets in the conventional world. They operate within conventional organizational norms. Altogether they make up 84% of the Executive population. Specialists andAchievers who account for 71% work extremely well in the world. These percentages are based on the work of Bill Torbert, co-developer of the Global Leadership Profile.

However at these stages of leadership development or conscious awareness, we are not able to work on the world. We are not able to introduce and sustain transformational change that will create a better world. To do this we must make the shift to post-conventional leadership. While this “new” world is uncertain and ambiguous, by developing our conscious capacity to navigate it, we are able to redeem peace of mind and restore personal wellbeing.

The following three transformations in leadership development operate within post-conventional norms. The Achiever tends to be very hesitant before they make the leap into what appears to them to be the great unknown. They must make the shift from the external world to their inner world. It is often at this point that the guidance and encouragement of a later stage Coach is invaluable to them.

The Catalyst

The Catalyst is the first post-conventional stage. It represents a step into a new growth zone and an unfamiliar world. At the individuation phase of the Specialistwe were focused on perfecting our work. At the individuation phase of theCatalyst we are focused on understanding ourselves: our thoughts and feelings, motives and fears, reactions and responses, and our deepest desires and aspirations. We ask the questions: “Why?” “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of life?”

At this stage, we move into our personal growth zone where growing and evolving becomes 
our natural way of being. Even though the challenges we encounter along the way may be unfamiliar and disconcerting, for the participant, life is forever enriched. We shift from being satisfied with a life based on cause and effect to feeling our way forward in the world despite uncertainty to lead a purposeful and fulfilling life based on conscious intention and committed action.

Executives anchored at Catalyst number just 9% of the Executive population.Catalysts are focused on engaging others, igniting change and working across boundaries. Their focus turns from the impact of their work on customers and clients to the input into the design and nature of the work itself through active early genuine engagement with all stakeholders. They are attuned to leveraging strengths, fuelling personal growth and collaborating with others in order to exercise mutual power to co-create the best possible outcomes for the whole community.

The capacity to genuinely innovate and collaborate is initiated at Catalyst. At this mindset the inner world of the individual becomes more important than the external world within which they operate. In other words they heed their intuition and feelings to make decisions and generate new insights and ideas. They also listen from a much deeper place of inquiry and can therefore create a deeper connection with others and develop the ability to build real trust with others.

Many words beginning with “in” are associated with the Catalyst worldview: insight, innovation, intrinsic, innate, inquiry, introspection, intricate, inclusive, inquisitive, interest, intimacy, intuition and inspiration.

The Strategist

Executives anchored at Strategists number just 6%. At this point in their leadership development they have become self-aware and other-aware and have the ability to be discerning and self-validating. They do not seek approval or permission from others. They have developed strength of character.

Strategists have the vision, courage and presence to generate and sustain transformational change. They have adopted the mantle of personal authentic power in the interests of serving their whole community and not just selected interest groups. This represents a shift from ‘not good enough’ atConformist, looking good at Specialist, doing well atAchiever, doing good at Catalyst and onto focusing on the greater good for all concerned at theStrategist stage.

When led by a Strategist, the organization shifts from being customer-centric to community-centric. It succeeds in achieving medium-to-long term sustainable outcomes that make a real, significant and beneficial impact on the people they serve and affect now and in the future. They generate a new world through their convictions and intentions, living by their principles and in tune with their life purpose while embracing others with compassion and enthusiasm.

The mature Strategist is an authentic, inspiring and strategic leader. They lead confidently from the ‘inside-out’. They are able to consistently stand and hold their ground while holding and nurturing the space for the emergence of a transformed world. They are extremely mindful, highly considered and passionately articulate in their advocacy for a better world and are able to take purposeful action in the moment to keep everyone on course.

The Alchemist

The final stage that can be observed and calibrated in the post-conventional world is the Alchemist. They number 1%. The Alchemist can have a far-reaching impact on their world. They are the iconic leaders who ignite and generate social evolution as well as transform global industries. Illustrious figures such as Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Anita Roddick and Bill Gates would appear to have realized their potential as Alchemists. However there are alsoAlchemists who are amazingly effective behind the scenes in niche markets and uniquely tailored roles.

The Alchemist embodies their own intuitive guidance and employs mutually collaborative power to generate transformational shifts in the world that respect common humanity and all of life. They are able to hold and embrace wonderful future possibilities while standing firmly in the present and being cognizant of all that has preceded and led to the current situation. They look at events symbolically and value both the shadow and the light in the psychodynamics of common human interactions.

The Alchemist has released the shadow of the ego through grief and forgiveness, and surrendered their personal will to be an instrument in the divine orchestra on earth. They live to evolve in tune with the cosmos listening into the dark and the deep recesses of their soul’s voyage in life. They feel free to be uniquely themselves, liberated from any social or cultural conventions, and can feel both delighted and tormented as they perceive, attend to and process the vast cacophony of thought and emotion that swirls around them. They are able to be fully vulnerable yet vitally alive and vigorous as they give their conscious, compassionate attention to the dynamic interplay in each and every moment to exercise wisdom in action.

The Post-Conventional World

In order to shape a better world, we need more Executives to shift to the post-conventional stages of Catalyst and Strategist and indeed, Alchemist.

In my recent PhD Research Study 100% of the participants surprisingly all shifted a full stage in leadership development in a single year, most from Achiever toCatalyst. One shifted two full stages to Strategist with another knocking on its door. This is in direct contrast to the commonly held view that it takes several years to make a vertical shift in Stage Leadership Development.

The participants were all engaged in an Executive Coaching Program with me focused on strategic and holistic leadership development. In future posts I will explain how the blend of “outside-in” and“inside-out” coaching transcended conventional organizational operating norms and cultivated their latent, emergent potential as inspiring strategic leaders.

My single most significant finding is the extent to which conventional operating norms are stunting our leadership development. To my mind there is not a dearth of leadership in most organizations today, there is simply a very tight lid on the container for growth. Instead of providing the opportunity for executives to become more aware of their role in the interplay of life and the freedom to express themselves more fully and make decisions that will create a more sustainable world, organizations have become pressure cookers.

Thus the value of later stage executive coaching for senior executives and aspiring future leaders to transform their perspective on life and become fluent co-creators in shaping their organization and the communities they serve is enormous. Post-conventional leadership development enables us to realize our potential to generate transformational results, redeem peace of mind and restore personal wellbeing.

The higher our self-expression and the deeper our self-awareness, the richer our life experience and the greater our soul evolution. ~ Antoinette Braks

To find out more about Proven 121 Executive Coaching in Strategic and Holistic Leadership for Senior Executives and Aspiring Leaders, Click here

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All the very best,


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Published by Antoinette Braks

Antoinette Braks leads the design and delivery of SHIFT Leadership Development Individual and Group Coaching Programs for Senior Executives and High Potential Leaders to enable them to join the shift from being high performing achievers to becoming inspiring strategic leaders at divisional, regional and C-suite levels.

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