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  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

Opening up your leadership to new possibilities

By Hubert Saint-Onge

Our exercise of leadership often unfolds unconsciously amidst the highs and lows of our personal and organizational lives. Yet, we hold the power to uplift and accelerate our leadership growth significantly by cultivating self-awareness of how we exercise leadership. This article outlines a pathway that guides you to become more conscious of your actions and their impact and can empower you to accelerate this growth. It provides a tool to place you firmly in control of your leadership growth, giving you the power to shape your leadership journey.    

The diagram below illustrates the leadership journey across four developmental phases on the vertical axis, from Dominating to Stewarding under Orientation. The horizontal axis describes the Outcomes in two categories: Passive Following and Active Initiation. Each level is enabled by a different Approach ranging from Control to Partnership.


Our leadership journey is not a mere external display of leadership. It's a transformative process that harbours the potential for personal growth and the opportunity to enhance our effectiveness in multiple facets of life. This perspective holds the promise of profound change that can redefine your leadership journey and amplify your influence.

A description of the developmental stages

Our leadership Orientation is shaped by assumptions, beliefs, and mindsets that shape our perspective on leadership. It is also influenced by our experiences with others—from an early age and beyond—which can set self-perceived boundaries on what we believe we can achieve.


For many of us, the Dominating phase marks the inception of our leadership journey. This phase is characterized by interactions rooted in Telling team members what is expected of them. Control becomes the default approach when we perceive no other avenues to exercise power. In this leadership style, individuals are not encouraged to voice their ideas for improvement; their role is to execute tasks as instructed. Consequently, they invest the least effort or self-initiative. When Telling dominates the communication, Compliance becomes the inevitable outcome. Regrettably, some leaders remain at this initial level in their leadership practice, unable to envision a more consultative approach with their team.

A similar logical pathway applies to the other three developmental levels. The influencingorientation brings more communication about the tasks at hand. While the control approach tells people what to do without much explanation, Influencing persuades team members of why it should be done in a given way. The effort to get concurrence gives the people involved an understanding of the rationale and the voice to suggest improvements in realizing the intent.  Both approaches represent Imposing leadership, a style that can only result in Passive Following. However, at these two levels, the absence of self-initiation and discretionary efforts highlights the weakness of this leadership Approach. Understanding this shortcoming can empower you to take a more active role in your leadership journey to avoid the pitfalls of Imposing Leadership.

The Valuing Orientation implies the leader’s belief that enlisting commitment is essential to effective leadership. Leaders at this level inherently believe in the difference it makes when people have bought in. They then strive to exercise leadership with the conviction that it is possible to pierce whatever skepticism they may initially experience. They know intuitively that many skeptics are probing because they must believe to commit. Leaders at this level value the people they work with and are committed to their success. They can see the potential benefits of this approach. They have the humility, the courage and the skills to have respectful, straightforward interactions in a way that engenders trust and, eventually, excitement at the success they experience together.  

The Stewarding Orientation requires a systemic view of the enterprise. It involves the active management of the interdependencies involving not only direct reports but also the different internal functions they interact with, as well as clients, suppliers and other external stakeholders. It is a truism that organizations that cannot partner internally will not be able to partner with external stakeholders. The increasing complexity of organizations and the intensity of internal and external interdependencies make it essential to significantly up the ante on collaborating internally across functions. The leaders who find the key to unlocking the partnership co-efficient in their organization will make a compelling contribution in the current business context.  

Engaging at the Partnership level is a highly respectful dance in which the leader, team members, and other stakeholders trust one another's capability and judgement. This relationship allows them to engage in exchanges where they can influence one another, confident that they will arrive at a better place. Leaders operating at this level will espouse thoughtful transparency, frequent communications, and explicit alignment across planning, development, and ongoing management. They benefit so much from the depth of their connections that they form trusting and robust bonds that ensure Active Self-Initiation.    

What are the implications for exercising leadership?

Engaging leadership is not just important; it's essential for actively driving the self-initiation and sense of ownership of the people you work with. Enlisting and partnering result in commitment and shared ownership of their collective goals. As a leader, engaging your team members is crucial. It's about empowering them to commit to their goals and take full ownership of the outcomes of their contributions. Leadership research over the last couple of decades has consistently supported the logic of these linkages. Your role as an engaging leader is pivotal in your impact. Making your team members and colleagues feel valued is integral to your success as a leader.

What has failed to sink in the minds of many leaders is that keeping close stats and pressing people to enhance performance by a few percentage points without genuinely connecting with them and enlisting their commitment will fail to mobilize them. They will get a response, but it will be momentary, with a fraction of the energy required to turn things around. Without commitment

and ownership, providing clients outstanding service is impossible, no matter how closely you monitor the interactions. Clients immediately perceive a lack of commitment on the part of those they depend on and react accordingly.

There is a clear distinction between ‘imposing’ and ‘engaging’ leadership. 'Imposing' leadership is about control and telling people what to do without much explanation. It can result in passive following. On the other hand, 'engaging' leadership is about mutual respect and understanding. It's not about avoiding setting expectations or providing straightforward feedback but about doing so in a way that respects the individual's dignity and self-respect. However, it does mean, for instance, that criticizing someone publicly is counter-productive because it affects the recipients’ self-respect and actively disengages them.   

What will drive a leader’s progression on this spectrum?

Although it is possible to learn by trial and error, purposeful learning is critical to triggering the cognitive aperture that will propel you from one level of mental practice to the next. Self-awareness will contribute to leaders becoming more conscious of their impact. The sharpness of your interpersonal skills, mainly listening, will also play a key role in helping you broaden this aperture.  

Unfortunately, leaders often get stuck at the ‘telling’ orientation. Many lack confidence in their interpersonal skills and adopt a more transactional style that keeps them from genuinely connecting with the people around them. Many understand the shortcomings of this leadership approach but are held to ransom by their perceived inability to relate to team members and other stakeholders. This is a trap where many otherwise capable ‘managers’ have fallen short.

This model can help you assess where you are on the spectrum and set goals for where you want to move your leadership practice forward.  

Beyond self-awareness, leaders require strong interpersonal skills to develop the quality of relationships that will allow them to move through these stages of development. Deep listening skills are essential for connecting with people in a highly charged environment. Another important factor is related to counter-veiling mindsets and beliefs. For instance, life experiences might make it difficult for a leader to trust people. It might be that a leader might think that if they don’t micro-manage team members, they will take advantage of the situation. This would represent a barrier to the ability along the leadership developmental spectrum. A skillful coach could help unlock these self-imposed limitations to their growth.     

The pathway along this spectrum can be bi-directional: some leaders might assuredly move forward while others might encounter experiences that bring them to regress. My work mapping out the values of hundreds of executives has shown that people will regress from the development stage at which they usually operate if they encounter significant adverse events in their work or lives. Such a situation will create internalized discordance that might lead them to anchor their position at an earlier developmental stage.   



We all constantly make choices about how we exercise leadership in our families, communities, and work. This developmental approach to leadership may illuminate the implications of those choices. Striving to constantly enhance how we relate and connect with people around us will significantly impact our personal growth and that of others. Reaching our capabilities' optimal leadership level requires a lifetime commitment to learning.      


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