Leadership Development Stages

leader speaking at event

Having strong leaders at the forefront of your organization is an essential component of success. From guiding teams through everyday tasks to influencing long-term decision making, your company’s choices of who holds positions of authority can make or break your growth trajectory.

Each business is likely to have its own perspectives on what makes a strong and effective leader. Nevertheless, one thing most thriving companies will agree on is that great leaders don’t just arrive fully-formed. They must be developed and nurtured. Your organization’s approach and commitment to this tends to greatly impact the quality of leaders that emerge from the other side.

It’s worth taking a moment, then, to dive a little deeper into the key leadership development stages. What happens at each point in the process and what should your organization do to support leaders’ growth                                                 

Stage 1: Self-Driven and Informal

In some ways, this first leadership development stage can set the tone for the entire journey. This is because it is largely a self-driven process. Initially, an employee will get to the point at which they start to take on leadership tasks without having an official title or a mandate from higher members of management. It is a period that is ripe for exploration about what kind of leader the employee wants to be and how they can respond to challenging situations.

In the most positive circumstances, this stage may not be directed by upper management, but it is still supported by them. Employees should be encouraged by their direct supervisors or managers to take on minor yet impactful responsibilities within the team. This may include buddying with new hires to show them the ropes and answer questions. It could involve spearheading cultural improvement efforts. The employee will organically cultivate respect from their colleagues and gain a better understanding of the requirements of leadership. However, managers and supervisors must be available to provide casual guidance and even shadowing opportunities.

That said, this stage can also begin in less ideal circumstances. Sometimes, employees may be put into a position in which they’re forced to engage in self-directed leadership responsibilities. This may be because their supervisor or manager is literally or figuratively absent from day-to-day operations. Alternatively, the company itself may not have formal protocols in place to nurture rising employees toward leadership. In either case, the employee may be left to essentially improvise their approach to leadership without support. This can affect both their attitude to leadership and also their engagement with the company.

Stage 2: Supervisory Roles

The second stage of the leadership development progress will usually be the first time an employee is formally recognized in a leadership role. Usually supervisory or line-management in nature, the employee will have an official title and responsibilities related to leadership. As such, this is a key point at which they will get truly hands-on experiences.

Importantly, this is also a relatively safe time for the employee to explore and test their individual approach to leadership. While the new supervisor has a certain amount of responsibility, big decisions still usually require sign-off from higher members of management. As such, few mistakes are made here without the benefit of a solid safety net. This is a great opportunity for inexperienced supervisors to take their first steps into company-mandated independent decision making and gaining the confidence to put forth their ideas and opinions.

When a company has an effective leadership development program, there will be regular check-ins with managers to discuss any concerns or issues supervisors have with their position. This can be particularly helpful in dealing with the transition from being another colleague on the team to having authority over former team-mates. There will be stumbling blocks here, but this is the ideal time to make and learn from errors with the guidance of a more experienced direct manager as a mentor.

Stage 3: Management Expertise

Graduation to a formal management position is a point in the development process in which employees are recognized as experts in their field. They will have gained practical experience in supervising people and processes in the previous stage. This next point helps to establish their ability to lead teams or departments to achieve the goals they determine as knowledgeable and experienced professionals. This may be a technical position like information technology (IT) or human resources (HR), or a more general management role that reflects their expertise gained through their growth from an entry level position in their department. 

Often it is best to start this stage of the journey with project management roles. Unless there is dysfunctional turnover that has led to the unexpected loss of key management figures, immediate promotion to a department management position may not be in the employee’s or the business’ best interests. Management of projects, on the other hand, provide experience of being confronted with challenges over which the trainee leader has ultimate responsibility. Yet, because these are time-limited in nature, they don’t feel thrown in at the deep-end and the potential for damaging errors is relatively truncated.

However, it’s also vital to make sure that this stage is spent broadening the employee’s people management abilities. When managers are promoted purely on the basis of their technical expertise, there is a danger that other vital leadership components such as communication, crisis management, and organization aren’t as strong. As such, the company leadership development program must include continued training during this stage.

Stage 4: Organizational Influencer

The last of the formal leadership development stages is the transition from manager to true organizational influencer. This tends to occur over several years of practical experience and continued education. Often, the trust that puts a leader into the position of influence is the result of consistent and repeated examples of their high standards of management performance.

In some ways, this is based on the successful decisions they make as a leader. But what is equally important during this leadership development stage is their reaction to any missteps they make. Influential leaders must be seen to act authentically and to the highest ethical standards. As such, it is vital for them to learn how to be transparent about issues through open communication and to commit to making tangible and visible improvements.

The organizational influencers leadership development stage should also involve honing skills to recognize, nurture, and empower talent within the organization. One of the most important ways a leader influences an organization is their approach to offering paths to development and progression to a diverse employee base. As such, they must continue to forge strong bonds with workers throughout all levels of the organization. They must learn to implement listening strategies to ensure their decisions aren’t just influenced by their own opinions but by the perspectives and interests of the wider company.

Wrapping Up

Going through the full stages of leadership development is likely to take the course of years, and rightly so. Your organization should prioritize making certain that talented employees have the time, resources, and guidance they need at each point in their growth to become positive and effective leaders. Understanding these developmental stages can help you better plan your development program to ensure your company is being the kind of positive influence on rising leaders as you would like them to be in return.