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How do we take our leadership to the next level? And what is the next level? How do we do that for ourselves and how do we develop leadership in others as a leader and coach of leaders?

These questions are challenges for the whole field of “leadership development,” and at the Institute for Generative Leadership, we address them with the criteria that our answers have to be observable, executable skills and actions, not just concepts, abstractions, models, or interesting stories. Leadership is a performance art, not just a body of concepts or field of scholarship. It must be learned as skills and practices, not just good ideas or frameworks.

What is Leadership?

We have to begin to clarify taking leadership to the next level by noticing that there are missing questions that almost no one asks.  The fundamental question is “What is leadership?”  Our answer to this “what” question will determine our “how” answers. And what do leaders actually do? What do leaders produce as outcomes? These are the fundamental questions we must answer if we are going to produce effective ways to “uplevel” leadership.

We need to practice leadership to perform it and to embody it.

I’m going to give a brief overview of a “generative” interpretation of leadership and of taking leadership to the next level, where “generative” means our interpretations are ones of action, actions that we can see, do, and learn that produce what we then call leadership. This overview provides us with a generative framework for skills and actions, not just a framework for understanding.  We need to practice leadership to perform it and to embody it. We need to practice at our edge of competence, the edge of the next level if we are going to learn and take our leadership to the next level.

Leaders declare a future that others commit to.

Our generative interpretation for leadership is that “leaders declare a future that others commit to and coordinate action to fulfill.” Leaders produce followers.  This is different than other interpretations where leaders make decisions, exercise power, have titles, are experts, dominate others or control resources. None of these qualify as generative leadership since they don’t produce followers. And a “follower” is one that commits to a shared commitment declared by a leader.

How does a leader produce followers?

How does a leader produce followers? This is a skill in listening and speaking, in having particular kinds of conversations and provoking the commitment of others.  These conversational skills are what makes leadership generative:  something we can see, do and take to another level. This also explains why leadership seems a bit mysterious, since our culture does not see conversations as generative, and the power of the conversation is based on listening – what the leader listens is relevant, and the listening they produce in others.

How to Lead – the Performance Art of Leadership

Conversations and the impact of presence and behavior is where the art of leadership happens. We can distinguish a number of aspects of the skills of listening and speaking that constitute leadership. First, commitment is what shapes human action. The coordination of action happens in observable conversational acts such as requests and promises that result in agreements for action. Second, what gives these agreements value and meaning is care. It is what we care about that provokes ownership and energy for commitments. As leaders, we need to listen to what people care about.  We need to also be able to provoke new cares with others.

Leaders create action and excellence through conversations.

Leaders create shared futures with others through conversation, shared futures constituted in shared commitments, interpretations, practices, and stories. And these stories must provoke positive emotional and embodied energies, the energies of commitment, meaning, and ambition.

All of us are already involved in these stories, conversations, commitments, and care. We are already all leaders at some level and at some scale of vision for the future. By discovering how we relate to our future, our relationships with others, our stories, and our commitments we reveal our current leadership capabilities. By focusing on these aspects of “what” constitutes leadership, we can have an effective approach of “how” to do leadership at a new level. We can enter into practices that shift our current capabilities into new skills, new abilities to envision a valuable future and articulate it, to connect to the care and commitment of others, to coordinate action, build trust, and take our leadership to the next level.

Levels of Leadership

For most people, there are levels and phases in this journey of leadership. How we see the future changes at each level, and so must how we relate to it.  Each level changes the context and scale of leadership. In the first level, people are in the world of the individual performer. They seek to elevate their performance and produce more and better results. Top performers often have difficulty when they are promoted to management positions because the skills and conversations of the manager are different than the skills and conversations of being a top performer. Moving from performer to manager is taking leadership to another level.

There are different levels and skills for the performer, manager, and executive.

If people master the world of the manager or team leader, they learn they must make promises based on the action of many people, not just themselves. They are responsible for promises that are bigger than they can fulfill alone. The challenge and opportunity of this level are to elevate the scale and value of the promises they can make and fulfill as a manager and leader.  One pitfall of this phase is that many attempts to do this by “doing more,” rather than doing better. They fall back into their performer habits. They find themselves in an exhausting path of overwhelm and narrowing possibilities.

The next level of leadership up from the manager level is to creating new value and new outcomes, rather than just doing more, or refining current outcomes.  This is often considered the executive function. This is the capacity to articulate new outcomes and is the first level of visionary thinking and value creation. The pitfall of this level is to become a super-manager, but not learn to create new value.

Another transition is to shift from the background of assumptions and past thinking into new frameworks for value creation, to invent new games, innovate, and develop new strategies for the future.  The opportunity here goes beyond new value that is limited by the current frameworks and methods, and to re-imagine the very frameworks in which value can be created. This is a challenging development transition in our culture because we don’t get much practice in these conversations. Most managers are production oriented, not focused on reinventing the future. But these conversations of invention and innovation can be distinguished and practiced – a huge opportunity for leaders and organizations to develop their skills in value creation.

There are levels of leadership based on larger scales of impact.

There are other levels of leadership as well. There is a level of leadership that goes beyond one’s own leadership impact and looks to grow other leaders and develop entire cultures of value creation. There is also a level of leadership where a totally new or radical vision is brought to realization. And there is a level of leadership that is focused on historical innovation, shifting from a prior cultural flow of common sense to opening possibilities from an entirely new worldview.

What is common to all of these levels of leadership is that they are based on how we observe our world, listen and connect with others, see and articulate new possible futures, and engage in conversations that provoke the commitment, care, and shared ownership of this new future by others.  What is common to all of these transitions from one level of leadership to another is the challenge of journeying from the known to the unknown, of new learning, and of entering into new kinds of conversations, practices, and skills. At each leadership transition, the temptation to rely on the skills and comforts of the last level can prevent us growing to another level.

Taking your leadership to the next level is a journey. You need a path for this journey. 

What we need to take our leadership to the next level, and to enable others to do so, is an anatomy of the levels of generative leadership skills and perspectives, the practices to embody them, and a roadmap of the transitions. We must be aware that each new level of leadership requires new awareness and skills, a journey into the unknown and a community willing to go with you, a fascination with a new domain of action, and the courage to take on the responsibility and challenge of a new future. At IGL we invite you to explore joining our community of leadership and learning and have a proven path and experienced guides to help you on your journey.

Read more about taking your leadership to the next level here.