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December 2012


“Seven Transformations of Leadership”


by David Rooke and William Torbert (Harvard Business Review, 2005)


What are the big take-aways?


Scholars and researchers Rooke and Torbert present convincing evidence from the field of adult developmental psychology that leaders can transform their leadership ability to become more effective over time.  And the same holds true for entire organizations.  Basically, it’s not what leaders can “do,” but how they make meaning of their surroundings, that makes the difference.   The authors assert:


Most developmental psychologists agree that what differentiates leaders is not so much their philosophy of leadership, their personality, or their style of leadership.  Rather, it’s their internal “action logic” – how they interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged.  Relatively few leaders, however, try to understand their own action logic, and fewer still have explored the possibility of changing it.


In the article, Rooke and Torbert present seven “action logics,” with a focus on how leaders can understand their current stage of development and evolve across the three most common transformational thresholds.


Why did I like it?


There are many excellent resources that explain this type of adult development, and “Seven Transformations” is the best overview I’ve found.  It lays out the theory and its leadership implications efficiently with clear charts, statistics, narrative descriptions and brief case studies, yet the whole article is only 10 pages long.  Despite its brevity, if you’re curious about your own action logic, the article’s information is still comprehensive enough that you may be able to form a solid working hypothesis about your stage of development as a leader.  Another huge advantage of this piece is that it includes a practical discussion of how teams and organizations have action logics just like individuals do, and why this matters.



In cases of both individuals and organizations, the authors emphasize, action logics are not fixed; there are some proven pathways to further developmental transformation, resulting in increasing leadership sustainability and effectiveness.  (Examples include experimenting with new behaviors and communication styles, seeking out professional growth opportunities, and spending time with peers or others who challenge you developmentally.)  As Rooke and Torbert explain, one’s stage of development can be reliably measured by an assessment tool called the Leadership Development Profile.


In what situations would this be useful?


 Every leader or team of any size, and in any environment, can find useful concepts in “Seven Transformations.”  I include the article in most of my “recommended resources” handouts at workshops and trainings; the article informs how I design and deliver my leadership development programs, both in terms of content and the likely action logic(s) of the audience; and I regularly incorporate it into my individual leadership coaching work.  In fact, I’m explicitly using “Seven Transformations” with three of my current clients.  One is operating in an atmosphere of organizational chaos and we are referring to the “Seven Transformations” framework as a tool to help my client make sense of people’s behavioral responses to it; the other two clients are using the framework to identify specific leadership transformations they are undergoing and how to make the most of their deepening leadership capacities.


In a highly unusual situation, another client – after I introduced the article and the idea of a whole team having its own action logic – brought “Seven Transformations” to work and asked each team member to hypothesize their stage of development.  The result: several stage-related staffing changes, initiated by the staff themselves.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


Another brief and superb discussion of the same theory and why it’s important for leadership development, “Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective,” can be found on the website of the psychologist Dr. Suzanne Cook-Greuter.


I also highly recommend the white paper published last year by Nick Petrie at the Center for Creative Leadership, “Future Trends in Leadership Development” which I reviewed here in the Leadership Library a couple of months ago.


For more in-depth explorations of leadership and adult development theory, check out books by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (such as Immunity to Change, previously reviewed in the Leadership Library), Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs (such as Leadership Agility, also previously reviewed in the Leadership Library), in addition to other works by Cook-Greuter, Rooke and Torbert.


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