The Seven Transformations of Leadership

Developing Your Leadership Style

The Seven Transformations of Leadership - Developing Your Leadership Style

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Transform yourself as a leader.

Successful leaders know that they need to develop their leadership skills on an ongoing basis – this helps them handle increasingly challenging situations. However, many leaders stop learning at a particular skill level, meaning that their career progression falters.

How can you avoid this, and, so, realize your full potential?

Researchers David Rooke and William Torbert argue that there are seven stages that the most successful leaders go through, and that, by learning new skills, you can move from one stage to the next.

In this article, we'll look at these seven leadership transformations, and we'll discuss how you can move through each stage.

The Seven Transformations

Rooke and Torbert published their Seven Transformations of Leadership in the April 2005 Harvard Business Review, following 25 years of survey-based consultancy.

In their surveys, Rooke and Torbert asked executives to complete 36 sentences related to leadership.

They then evaluated the responses from the survey, and, based on the results, they created seven categories that describe how leaders approach the world around them. Essentially, they defined a series of categories, or "action logics," that describe the ways that leaders think.

Rooke and Torbert argued that each action logic has its benefits, but that some are more effective than others. Certain action logics are successful in a greater number of leadership situations, and this leads to higher overall performance.

Leaders who can understand their current action logic can make changes to move toward one that's more effective. By transforming to a more effective action logic, they can improve their leadership abilities.

The list below ranks Rooke and Torbert's seven types of action logic. The further you get down the list, the more sophisticated and effective your approach to leadership is likely to be.

  1. Opportunist.
  2. Diplomat.
  3. Expert.
  4. Achiever.
  5. "Individualist."
  6. Strategist.
  7. Alchemist.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review. From "Seven Transformations of Leadership" by David Rooke and William R. Torbert, April 2005. Copyright © 2005 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

Let's look at the categories in detail, and discover how you can evolve through them to develop your leadership capabilities.

1. Opportunist

Opportunists focus on personal success rather than on the success of their team or organization. They take advantage of others, engineer situations for their own benefit, and manipulate their colleagues to get what they want.

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Being an opportunist leader is likely to damage your reputation and working relationships, although opportunism can sometimes be useful, for example, in sales situations.

Opportunist leaders will need to transform to the next action logic quickly, otherwise they're likely to find that their success is limited.

Moving on From Opportunism

If you've adopted the opportunist action logic, then take steps to focus on other people's success, as well as your own.

Do something daily to help another person on your team. Even a small act of kindness can begin to turn around your reputation, and show that you care.

Also, start developing your emotional intelligence – this is a quality valued in leaders. Build good working relationships by appreciating your team's hard work, and remember that a sincere "thank you" can go a long way!

2. Diplomat

Diplomats avoid conflict whenever possible. They want to belong to the group and please others, especially higher-ranking colleagues. They also seek to avoid upsetting other team members with feedback that could be seen as negative.

As you might imagine, diplomats aren't good at implementing change, because of the inevitable conflicts this causes.

The diplomat's strengths are in resolving conflicts and holding a team together, especially at lower levels of management. However, diplomats tend to be poor long-term leaders as they may be passive, or avoid making difficult or controversial decisions.

Moving on From Being a Diplomat

Conflict can be healthy and productive, as long as everyone involved is respectful and honest. You can use conflict positively by developing your conflict resolution skills, so that you can become more comfortable in situations where people hold differing views.

Diplomats often have trouble standing up for themselves, because they're afraid of the conflict this might cause.

If this describes you, work on developing your assertiveness. Your wants and needs are just as important as everyone else's, and taking a back seat just to achieve consensus can damage your self-worth and reputation.

Communicate openly to let others know your thoughts and feelings, and learn to say "no" more often.

Diplomats often find it difficult to give feedback. Try using role-playing to prepare for these difficult conversations. Remember, the best feedback is usually constructive, even when critical. Feedback helps people learn and grow, so don't keep your thoughts to yourself.

3. Expert

The majority of leaders are categorized as experts, and their expert power means that people tend to follow them willingly. Experts depend on their knowledge and skills to lead, and they often focus on logic and fact when making decisions. They're very efficient, and they work consistently to improve products, processes and skills in the workplace.

Experts can add a lot of value to an organization because they value precision and quality. However, they sometimes don't make good leaders, because they can adopt a "my way or the highway" approach, and they resist collaboration. They can also tend to dismiss the opinions of others who aren't as knowledgeable.

Moving on From Being an Expert

If you're an expert, then you have plenty to offer, but you may need to work on your "soft skills."

Seek out others' opinions before you make a decision. Even if you don't agree with an opinion, ask questions to find out what led to this way of thinking. This helps you develop empathy and emotional intelligence.

Experts are often micromanagers. If you suspect that you micromanage others, learn how to delegate instead. This will free up some of your time to focus on strategic thinking, and it will raise your team's morale.

4. Achiever

Achievers are goal-oriented. They set effective goals for their team and themselves. More importantly, they have a higher emotional intelligence than people with the three previous action logics.

They have a greater understanding of people and conflict, and they have the sensitivity and intelligence to respond appropriately to different situations. This means that they can make great leaders, because they care about creating a positive team environment.

The weakness of achievers is that they often find it hard to think innovatively. Many leaders plateau at this stage.

Moving on From Being an Achiever

It's easy to see the achiever action logic as the end-all of management. After all, you're successful, people respect your drive and commitment, and you have a productive team. However, think deeply about the goals that you're setting and why they're meaningful. This will help you improve future goals.

Because you're so goal-focused, it's easy to get wrapped up in the details of achieving those goals, instead of stepping back to focus on strategic thinking and the big picture. You'll be a better leader if you can learn to solve problems creatively.

The next time you work through a problem, use a creative problem-solving technique such as Hurson's Productive Thinking Model or The Simplex Process to generate some unique solutions. Use creative brainstorming techniques to get more out of these sessions.

5. "Individualist"

"Individualists" understand that each individual has his or her own different world view, and that these influence the way that he behaves. As such, these leaders seek to understand how each individual views the world, and they adapt their approach according to this.

Individualists reflect upon the differences between the goals that they are trying to achieve and the current ways that they, or their organization, are behaving. Where there's a difference, they seek to bring these into alignment. As such, they do their best to ensure that they themselves, and their organization, stay true to the values and mission that they say they stand for.

Because of the individualist's insight into other people's world views, they are able to communicate well with others and build great working relationships.

Despite being excellent performers, individualists can often disregard established processes – to the annoyance of their colleagues – if they don't see the reason for them.

Moving on From Being an Individualist

At this point, you've mastered the personal skills of working with others within your team or organizational unit. It's now time to look at the larger picture.

This is where you need to learn how to work collaboratively with people inside and outside your organization to achieve your goals.

A core part of this is developing an awareness of what other people want to achieve. Individualists are usually known for wanting to do their work their own way, no matter what rules are in place!

To make this transition, find a mentor who will challenge your working style and assumptions. A good mentor can help you to continue accomplishing your goals in your own way, but step on fewer toes in the process. She can also be a useful guide on ethical matters.

6. Strategist

Strategists have the gift of seeing organizational roadblocks as potential opportunities. They're good at managing conflict. They're also often highly ethical, and they seek to promote those ethics beyond the organization, in order to do good on a wider scale.

This action logic is similar to that of the individualist, in that both are adept at communicating with people using other action logics. However, they differ in that strategists have the ability to build a shared vision with other leaders. This brings people together to achieve important goals, and, ultimately, leads to personal and organizational transformation. As a result, strategists are usually excellent at implementing change.

Moving on From Strategist

It takes a subtle shift to move from strategist to Rooke and Torbert's next stage – "the alchemist."

As a strategist, you've mastered the communication skills needed for excellent leadership, and you excel at creating a shared vision across different groups. A great mentor can still help you learn and grow, perhaps by further developing your ethical and spiritual principles.

You might also want to consider mutual or peer-to-peer mentoring – mentoring with a colleague or board member – to develop further.

The most important area to work on is your ability to collaborate with others, especially with people who might think in a different way from you. The best leaders create teams and networks based on collaborative inquiry.

To move on, you need to develop a network or group of allies who will challenge your way of thinking, and not just agree with you all of the time. Not only does this help you push boundaries, but it also means that you'll avoid groupthink.

7. Alchemist

Alchemists are different from strategists because they have the strength and ability to reinvent themselves when they need to. Alchemists also excel at dealing with short-term projects and tasks, while keeping long-term goals in mind.

They also have great rapport with people in their organization, whether this is the executive team or the ground-floor crew. This is because they always tell the truth, even when it might be hard to hear. They also use business storytelling to capture the imagination and emotions of the people they work with, and this creates a positive and engaged corporate culture.

Alchemists tend to be extremely busy, yet they find the time to take care of all their responsibilities. This includes finding time to speak to people personally, and at all levels of the organization.

Growing as an Alchemist

By the time you get to this last stage, you've likely mastered both the art of getting things done and the art of managing your team.

No matter how busy you get, make sure that you devote enough time to building good relationships. This is especially important with people lower in your organization's hierarchy. If you take the time to talk to these people and address their concerns, it shows that you care, and this develops loyalty.


For more on leadership development, see also our article on Level 5 Leadership. This has more tips and strategies that can help you expand your skills and become an effective leader.

Key Points

David Rooke and William Torbert published their Seven Transformations of Leadership model in the April 2005 "Harvard Business Review."

According to Rooke and Torbert, the following seven "action logics" represent stages which leaders need to evolve through in order to develop their leadership skills:

  1. Opportunist.
  2. Diplomat.
  3. Expert.
  4. Achiever.
  5. "Individualist."
  6. Strategist.
  7. Alchemist.

Many leaders progress to the expert or achiever stage, and then stop. However, the most effective leaders continue to push themselves until they reach the final two stages: strategist, and alchemist.