Our society is environmentally, economically and psychologically unsustainable.  We are already living beyond the means of our planet, we have high levels of inequality, and we are increasingly suffering from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.  As our society is created by the collective decisions of leaders this means our current leadership must also be unsustainable.  The leaders who have the most influence on our society are those in politics, corporations and civil service. Yet our society is made up of each of us.  Our actions, ideas, and words can all provide leadership.  We all have the opportunity to develop ourselves, and hence our society, in a way that sustains us and our planet.


According to research carried out by PwC in 2015, the majority of leaders profiled across all industries and sectors, were found to be at the ‘Achiever’ stage in their development (52%).  This is equivalent to Stage 4 in our Seven Stages of Leader Development model.  As leaders develop through the first three stages (7%, PwC Research) they are, in essence, constructing their identity as a leader.  Their ego gradually gets attached to this identity giving them a sense of ‘self-esteem’ and the confidence to lead.  Whilst this confidence is projected out, it is only surface thin.  Most leaders at these early stages experience an underlying lack of self-confidence and many suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’.  This is because their constructed identity is not really who they are at a fundamental ‘soul’ level. It is simply what they have created to survive and be successful in the workplace.  The identity they have created as a leader is a mask behind which their real self can hide.


Unfortunately, the more their ego gets attached to their constructed identity as a leader, the more vulnerable they feel and the more they need to find different ways to keep this identity in place. They must not let their mask slip.  At Stage 4 in a leader’s development, this process is at its height. The leader’s ego and their constructed identity have become one.  Their mask has become their ‘ego identity’ and it is now firmly stuck to their face.  There is a trend in our society currently which researchers are calling ‘threatened egotism’ or ‘fragile high self-esteem’ and classifying it on the narcissism spectrum.  The ego identities of Stage 4 leaders in our society, therefore, now need a lot of protecting.


Whilst this is part of a natural process of psychological growth, leaders at Stage 4 are creating a society which is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Corporate leaders at this stage protect their ego identity by delivering results (achieving), competing and winning, and having power over other people.  Delivering results often means producing and selling more products which consume the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate. Competing and winning tends to create inequality and even greater consumption, as these leaders consume more than they need to demonstrate their social dominance.  Having power over people is often psychologically unhealthy, as followers then need to sacrifice their own will and succumb to the will of their leader.  In doing so, these followers feel empty inside as they lose their own sense of meaning and purpose.  They try to fill the void through consuming all the products other Stage 4 leaders are producing.  Whilst this drives the economy to ever increasing levels of growth, we all become more psychologically unwell.


Throughout this natural psychological growth process to Stage 4, the leader’s ‘soul’ gradually gets relegated to just serving their growing, and increasingly dominant but insecure, ego.  A leader tends to experience their ‘soul’ in terms of their own purpose and values.  It is what gives their life real meaning rather than achieving superficial results.  As the growth process continues past Stage 4, the leader gradually lets go of their ego and this gives psychological space for their soul to re-emerge at the fore.  They drop their mask to reveal their real self anchored in their soul.  Their ego then becomes in service to their soul.  This is usually achieved by Stage 6. According to the PwC research only 8% of the leaders they profiled have reached this stage, which they call the Strategist Stage.


A leader’s growth past Stage 4 to Stage 6 is usually triggered when their constructed identity constrains their ability to lead.  This happens when their work has become so volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) that they need to gain greater flexibility in their behaviour.  The leader then recognises that they are not just their constructed identity. Instead, they are made up of multiple sub-personalities, each performing different roles in their life. This realisation can be very unsettling for a leader and produce a high level of anxiety. The leader can feel out of equilibrium and keep asking the question; who am I?  If they stay with this anxiety, rather than reverting back, they soon find that they can adopt and use any one of the multiple sub-personalities and then see situations from different perspectives.  It is then they realise realise that they no longer have one right answer.  They experience seeing multiple right answers.  These are all characteristics of Stage 5 (33%, PwC Research).


By the time the leader reaches Stage 6 in their development they are no longer fully invested in any one identity and are consequently able to adapt their behaviour to meet the demands of a situation with great agility.  As they have let go of their constructed identity, they have less need to defend themselves and their ego tends to quieten.  With a quiet ego they can use their leadership to serve other people rather than to just deliver results. It frees up more psychological space allowing them to include and collaborate with other people rather then compete.  They are also more likely to share ‘power with’ people.  So rather than gaining followers, a Stage 6 leader cultivates more leaders.  This allows them to co-create solutions to increasingly complex problems.  Above all, the Stage 6 leader is now able to lead according to their ‘soul’ purpose.   The more leaders we have in our society leading with their ‘soul’ rather than leading to protect their ego, the more likely it is we will be able to co-create a more sustainable society.  We are all leaders and, together, we can create a better future.


We are helping people to lead with ‘soul’ at our Discovering New Leadership module at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Snowdonia on 3rd to 5th March 2019.  This is a cost plus 'Pay As You Can' event.


Terry Sexton

Leadership Psychologist

29th August 2018

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