How Leaders Evolve (Unconscious => Conscious => Transcendent)

I define (Transcendent) Leadership as the process by which a person (the leader) elicits the internal commitment of others (the followers) to accomplish a mission in alignment with the group’s values.

Leadership is about getting what can’t be taken, and deserving what is freely given. The followers’ internal commitment cannot be extracted by rewards or punishments. It can be inspired only through a belief that giving their best to the enterprise will enhance their lives.

Fred Kofman, The Meaning Revolution

Most leaders I know use tools like sticks and carrots to drive the right behavior in their organizations, and lament the fact that they can never *quite* get the balance right. Incentivize accountability, and teammates prioritize their individual goals over the company goals. Incentivize cooperation, and the sense of urgency evaporates as people pass the buck back and forth.

Some companies, though, seem to have a secret sauce, that galvanizes their employees to do their best work. They collaborate, and they’re accountable, and they bring their very soul to the enterprise. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, analyzed 1,435 Fortune 500 companies looking for that secret sauce. He found that the highest performing companies (3x stock price gains versus the average of the sample) were driven by a certain type of leader, what he called a Level 5 Leader and I refer to as a Transcendent Leader.

Collins also found (and you know if you’ve been around great leaders before), that these leaders are not effective because of what they know, but because of who they are. In other words, you can’t learn how to become a great leader, you have to develop into one.

How does that happen?

Turns out there’s a budding scientific consensus: Leadership capacity progresses along a spectrum, from Unconscious Leadership to Conscious Leadership to Transcendent Leadership (Level 5), in parallel to the progression of an individual’s consciousness.

From Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory:

Tenured Professor of Adult Learning & Professional Development at Harvard Grad School of Education, Bob Kegan’s Developmental Constructivism framework offers a different map of the same terrain. Spiral Dynamics, Dr. Clare Graves’ foundational contribution to developmental psychology, offers yet another look. There are many more.

Whichever framework you fancy, each of these frameworks describe how a person’s consciousness — their awareness, distinct from and the space within which their personality occurs — evolves in predictable ways over time. A person becomes more conscious, moving from the left to the right of the graph above, by moving progressively more of their reality from the space of Subject, to the space of Object. Subject being the place from which one comes (and therefore not subject to scrutiny without a threat to the person’s identity), and Object being a thing existing separate from the person which is therefore available to critique and analysis.

This development is the driving force behind an individual’s growth in leadership capacity, from unconscious leadership, to conscious leadership, to transcendent leadership.

Unconscious Leadership => Conscious Leadership

About 80-85% of leaders are in the realm of Unconscious leadership (levels 1-4 above), which is the world of managing and directing. The English verb “manage” literally comes from the Italian “maneggiare” (to handle, especially tools or a horse). So, these are your managers, who treat their employees as resources (literally, horses) to be directed and optimized. Not too inspiring, but we’ve all worked for one or more of these folks. Don’t blame them, from the perspective of an unconscious leader, this is simply leadership. They’re not yet aware that there’s another option.

15%-20% of leaders go through the work (sometimes of their own volition, often due to trauma) of becoming conscious to their own inner workings — the reasons behind their personality, if you will — in such a way that they can then change them. This is the process of becoming a Conscious Leader (levels 4/5 – 5/6 above).

As you might imagine, a leader’s efficacy is profoundly impacted by her unconscious behaviors in all circumstances. Conscious leaders understand this and try to optimize for it, while unconscious leaders are blind to it and therefore have less tools with which to lead.

As an example:

  • Conscious leadership: my tendency to argue a point to the death comes from my ego’s need to feel like the smartest guy in the room, and is something that, when I catch it in time, I can simply choose to not endulge (and therefore to not suffer the interpersonal consequences of an argument).
  • Unconscious leadership: it’s just my personality, and my employees need to adapt.

Conscious Leadership => Transcendent Leadership

However, even at the advanced levels of conscious leadership, there is a distinction between subject doing the leading, and a company that she is leading. Transcendent Leadership (level 6 above, “Level 5 Leaders” according to Collins; less than 1%), removes that separation by moving the Self entirely to the world of Object, so that the leader, and the organization she leads, are of a piece.

We as human beings hold onto our sense of self pretty tightly. It takes something enormously important to entice us to give up that sense of self in its service. Transcendent leaders have, invariably, found that mission, that larger purpose for their life that has catalyzed their ability and willingness to completely give up themselves in its pursuit.

Back to Jim Collins:

“Can you move from a level 4 to level 5? Perhaps, if you have the level 5 “seed” within you. Leaders without the seed tend to have monumental egos they can’t subjugate to something larger and more sustaining than themselves, i.e., their companies. But for leaders with the seed, the right conditions–such as self-reflection or a profoundly transformative event, such as a life-threatening illness–can stimulate the seed to sprout.”

So, in essence, transcendent leadership refers to a leader with BOTH a highly developed consciousness, AND a strength of purpose so profound as to warrant them dedicating their life to its pursuit. Having found that purpose, a conscious leader can then invite others, with the moral authority of having gone first, to join him in its pursuit. Not as employees dedicating their time in exchange for a paycheck and benefits, but as fellow travelers also dedicating their souls to the pursuit of something bigger than each of them.

And THAT, combined with consciousness enough to know how to get himself thoroughly and completely out of the way, is how a leader gets the most out of his employees.

“A lot of leaders are rowing a boat. They’re bringing everyone along with them, and saying, ‘Come follow me.’ But the way I’ve seen great leaders do it, they’ll go and get on a surfboard. They don’t say, ‘Follow me.’ They say, ‘Come join us on this huge wave.’ ” In the former vision, everyone’s literally in the same boat, doing only what their leader allows them to do. In the latter, everyone’s on the same wave and moving in the same direction, but they have much more freedom to improvise, to act boldly and creatively and set their own course of action. Note, too, that it’s a “huge wave.”

Fred Kofman, The Meaning Revolution

Less than 1% of all leaders are Transcendent. Only 11 out of the 1,435 Fortune 500 companies that Jim Collins studied had a Level 5 leader at the helm (and those garnered stock returns at least 3x the market).

But these are the leaders best equipped to change the world.

If you liked this article, please subscribe below to Friday Sabbatical, my popular weekly newsletter about the art of startup leadership.

Copy link
Powered by Social Snap