One Trait to Rule Them All

Can it be true that it the whirling vortex that is ‘leadership traits’ and ‘managerial competencies’ that there exists one trait to rule them all? Below is a basic introduction to adult developmental theory (also known as ego development) that might just claim such power.

Leadership is seen by most in the field of ‘Leadership’ as doing things different/right/clever etc. The focus is on action and behaviour. This in itself has been a significant move (that is yet to complete) from the idea that Leadership is ‘knowing things’. A traditional MBA would have hinged on knowing how a business worked. The reason was likely that not only have people overemphasised knowledge but the mechanisms for teaching anything other than knowledge didn’t exist. 

Besides, across enough business leaders of various skill levels, knowing more about the business and how it works would generally equate to some success in that environment. However, look a little closer and we can see that a number of people were not made more successful by knowing more and additionally a handful of people were already successful despite their lack of knowledge.
This was the contradiction from which sprang the new ‘science’ of behavioural leadership. The idea that leadership is about the right traits. But where training is still about knowledge then we still have the issue that staff (including managers) despite knowing the behaviour required still don’t demonstrate it.

The reason for all this discrepancy logically lies with the ability of the person, their ability to express and understand these new behaviours and their cognitive ability to succeed without them. These factors that contribute to personal success are lost in many organisations, where people in leadership positions may be there through processes outdated both in their approach and measurement. 

Otto Laske (2006) describes leadership as “the natural process of adult development over the lifespan, rather than monumentalizing, and thereby marginalizing, it as a privilege and as special” and as “the natural expression of what adults are rather than have, such as special traits, dispositions, or competences”. Interestingly, considering this definition, Laske also believes that leadership can be developed.

This approach draws on the work of Brian Leclerc (2006) who’s adapted diagram is shown below.  According to this, Laske’s approach is that Leadership originates on the left-hand side of this diagram, to be expressed on the right-hand side. In other words, being a leader is the only reliable way to ensure that leadership is expressed i.e. that the individual behaves like a leader. The Leclerc diagram draws on the ‘integral’ work of Ken Wilber (2000, 2005) and builds on his assertions that the most effective leader is an integral one, who can effectively manage themselves via all four quadrants.

“As can be seen, the leader’s [self] straddles left and right quadrants, and functions under the influence of both social-emotional and cognitive self (Cognitive Development + Emotional Development = UL (Upper Left quadrant)). On the behavioural side, the [self] manages … its “shoulds” and values – imposed on itself (UR/LL), and the … social environment which it constructs and in which it finds itself (UR/LR)” (Laske, 2006).

According to its supporters, of which there are many, this diagram remains true for everyone. How then does it give us access to Leadership? Laske, Wilbur and others argue that being able to integrate (and therefore be an ‘integral leader’) hinges on the developmental levels of the individual and their ability to ‘make sense’ and ‘make meaning’ (UL) of the environment, their values, their role as leader and the social context they find themselves in.

The work of Clare Graves, Rob Kegan, and others has already given us the means to understand this in more detail. They have created models for development that lead to the ability to integrate the needs, wants, aims and internal/external pressure into what they do by virtue of what they are (mirroring the language of Laske). These levels, also called Adult Developmental Levels,  follow an individual reaching the ‘formal reasoning stage’ (Piaget, 1952), typically in their teenage years. For this reason Kegan’s nomenclature for these levels begins with ‘Stage Two’.

Stage Two – The Individualist

  • Separate from others
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose the help and support of other people
  • Guided by their own self-interest.
  • Know people in terms of how helpful they are
  • Have their own perspective
  • Play a win-lose game
  • Cannot empathise with other’s feelings about them
  • Subject to their own small ego

Stage Three – Community Member

  • Other peoples viewpoints are internalised
  • Defined by social expectations
  • Holds to community values
  • Feel obligations and have possible guilt feelings for not following them
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose other people’s regard
  • Guided by self group interests
  • Their perspective is composed of internalised perspectives
  • Play a win-win game
  • Can easily imagine other people’s perspective and walk in other peoples shoes
  • Can take many different perspectives
  • Rely on best practice

Stage Four – Self Authoring

  • Defined by own values
  • Strive for integrity
  • Define their own path separate from other people
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose their integrity
  • Guided by their values
  • They have their own perspective and take other people’s perspective into account
  • They make rigorous distinction between their own and others experience
  • Can be professional
  • Respect others and are reluctant to advise or interfere with them
  • Define the rules of the game for a win-win or no deal
  • Can easily imagine other peoples experience
  • Create best practice but may not follow it.

Stage Five – Self Aware

  • Aware of their own personal history and values its effect
  • Defined by relationships with others and with self
  • Values in flow
  • Risk themselves by opening themselves to relationships
  • No need for control
  • Not attached to any particular aspect of themselves
  • Take multiple perspectives on multiple perspectives
  • Play an infinite game the purpose of which it to continue to play.

No stage is wrong or inferior version of another and each can ‘work’ and seems to be a perfect fit for that person, in that situation, to that person. However the world does become a richer and more varied place with progressive developmental stages and creates more opportunities and decisions can be made with more ‘information’ (from more perspectives) to draw on. The below table summarises these levels.


Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

Stage 5

View of Others Instruments of own need gratification Needed to contribute to own self image Collaborator, delegate, peer Contributors to own integrity and balance
Level of Self Insight Low Moderate High Very High
Values Law of Jungle Community Self-determined Humanity
Needs Overriding all others’ needs Subordinate to community, work group Flowing from striving for integrity Viewed in connection with own obligations and limitations
Need to Control Very High Moderate Low Very low
Communication Unilateral Exchange 1:1 Dialogue True Communication
Organisational Orientation Careerist Good Citizen Manager System’s Leader

The below study results are a simplification of results gathered by Susan Cook-Greuter with regard to the general population (US) and a management population (UK). The sample sizes were approximately 4000 and 500 respectively. For the purposes of this article, all of Loevinger’s ‘Post-Developmental’ stages have been combined to ‘Stage 5’.


UK Managers (%)

US Gen. Population (%)













It would be hard to find a ‘leadership trait’ that has a similar level of correlation with being in a position of responsibility (although general intelligence comes close). Two other important correlations have been identified. Firstly, as the stage of development increases the level within organisations tend to increase. Secondly, as age increases developmental level tends to increase. Neither of these are strong enough to be useful for predictive purposes but work is ongoing to predict leadership success using Loevinger’s sentence completion test, or similar, that measure developmental levels.

Increasing your developmental level is no doubt challenging, society is geared to get people from Stage Two to Stage Three (O’Connor & Lages, 2007) but there exists no societal or organisation system to move people further. Kegan offers us this insight: “People grow best when they continuously experience an ingenious blend of support and challenge; the rest is commentary” (Kegan, 1994).

References and Recommended further reading:

Kegan, R (1982) The Evolving Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Kegan, R (1994). In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Laske, O (2006) On Leadership as Something We Are Rather than Something We Have: Introducing Instrumentation to Strengthen the Integral Approach for Use in Organizations. Interdevelopmental Institute Centre for Executive and Organisational Growth

Loevinger, J. (1976) Ego Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Loevinger, J. & Knoll, E. (1983) Personality: Stages, Traits and the Self. Annual Review of Psychology 1983, 34, 196-222

O’Connor, J. & Lages, A. (2007) How Coaching Works. A C & Black: London.

Wilber, K. (2000) A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Boston and London: Shambhala