The root cause of a lot of dysfunction in orgs is the inability to say ‘no.’ No org has enough capacity to handle that. If you want to be able to say ‘yes’ to one thing and ‘no’ another in a way that maximizes value, you need a purpose, a vision, a strategy, MMFs—a filter that helps you say, ‘this fits,’ and, ‘sorry, this doesn’t fit.’
In this episode, Richard and Peter answer the question: “All my stakeholders want all their stuff right now. What do I do?”
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Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show. In this episode, we’re going to describe a way of thinking about leadership that has been transformational for us personally and for many of the leaders we’ve worked with. It’s called the Leadership Circle, and it has a lot of nuance to it, so we’ll take the time to explain it in detail, then we’ll share our own stories for how it’s changed us as leaders, and finally we’ll share some ideas for how you might get started using it.
Have you ever been in a situation where something that has worked for you over and over again, that you’ve seen great results with, no longer seems to work, and it’s not clear why?
Many leaders find themselves in that situation. They’re leaders because they’ve been successful. They have strengths that work. Over and over again. And then, at some point, those same behaviors and practices no longer seem to work.
Yeah, it’s so frustrating to go from feeling really competent to just feeling stuck. After all, mastery, a sense that you’re good at what you do, is one of the key factors in intrinsic motivation.
The Leadership Circle is a model for making sense of that situation and moving through it. It helps answer:
- How did I get here?
- Why isn’t it working anymore?
- How can I move from that place to the next level of more effective leadership?
Leadership here, I should mention, is defined pretty broadly. It refers to creating positive outcomes with and for other people. So, while we often use the Leadership Circle in a work context, the changes people make with it have effects in the rest of their lives. We’ll both share examples of this from our own lives later in the episode.
So, if you have a sense that you may be bumping up against the limits of your leadership capability, if what has worked to get you here doesn’t seem to be helping you get to the next place you want to be, then the Leadership Circle can be a useful tool for you to grow.
By the way… You may be familiar with a personality or strengths assessment model like Myers-Briggs, DISC, Enneagram, or StrengthsFinder. Let me briefly contrast the Leadership Circle with those:
While there are nuances between the various personality or strengths models out there, one big commonality is that they tell you what you are and then, at their best, they tell you how to be the best version of that. If I learn that I’m a 1 or an INTP or whatever, I’m going to work on being that type, as well as I can be.
There’s some value in getting language for how you are. And there’s value in seeing ways in which others are different and how that can be good. But for the leaders we described a moment ago who’ve hit the limits of what they are, how they’re showing up now, it mostly just leaves them there.
The Leadership Circle is different. It’s a developmental model tied to the psychology of adult stage development. It tells you, here’s how you show up at this stage of development and, if you want to move to the next stage to have a greater impact, here are some ways you can choose to grow into that. People don’t do a Leadership Circle Profile and end with, “Ok, I guess this is who I am.” They always end a Leadership Circle Profile debrief with an understanding of who they are, a clear path to who they can become, and a concrete idea of how to start practicing that new way of leading right away. And they almost always see meaningful results in a matter of weeks.
Leadership Circle is our favorite tool for leadership development because it actually produces development, not just self-understanding.
So, before we jump into all the details of the Leadership Circle model, we want to help you with whatever challenges are most frustrating you right now. If you’re feeling stuck on something, whether that’s trying to take a more human-centric approach to your work, trying to make your product or business outcomes better, or if you’ve just got a tactical, process-related question, let us know about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with a few details about the situation, and we’ll share how we might think through your challenge right here on the Humanizing Work Show.
And just a quick reminder to rate and review the Humanizing Work Show in your podcast app, or if you’re watching on YouTube, please subscribe, like, and share today’s episode if you find it valuable to you. We really appreciate your help spreading the word about the show.
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OK, let’s dive into the details of the Leadership Circle.
Piaget & Subject Object Shifts
It’s widely accepted now that kids go through very distinct stages of development. The psychologist Jean Piaget named 4 distinct ones. He discovered that as kids move through those stages, their sense of how the world works and their own place in it shifts.
As they shift from an earlier stage to a later one, things that seemed like “just the way the world works,” like grandpa’s ability to magically summon a coin from behind their ear, those [conceptions] shift. When they’ve reached Piaget’s final stage, they can reason about abstract concepts and understand metaphors and symbolism.
Psychologists call these shifts Subject-Object shifts. Something they were subject to becomes something they can be objective about. The stages aren’t so much about acquiring more knowledge, so much as they are about adapting their mental model of how the world works.
Adult Stage Development, Reactive & Creative
Piaget’s ideas became widely accepted by the 1960s, and that led other researchers to apply a similar approach to adults. After all, many adults seemed to have different models for how the world worked and their place in it. The Leadership Circle is based on adult stage development work from Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan. The Leadership Circle focuses in on two stages in Kegan’s model, what he calls Socialized Mind and Self-Authoring Mind, but in the Leadership Circle, they’re renamed to Reactive and Creative. According to Kegan’s research, around 90% of adults are at one of these two stages, with a strong majority in or transitioning from the Socialized Mind stage; or what’s “reactive” in the Leadership Circle.
The Leadership Circle was developed by Robert Anderson, incorporating Kegan’s research with several other sources. Bob and his partner Bill Adams have written two great books about the model that both include lots of interesting statistical validation and applications as they’ve surveyed hundreds of thousands of leaders using the Leadership Circle. You can check out their books, Mastering Leadership and Scaling Leadership, at the links in the show notes. What follows is our summary of the model and how we’ve used it, which of course draws heavily from Bob and Bill’s work.
The Leadership Circle visualizes this by placing the Reactive stage at the bottom half of a circle and the Creative stage on the top.
In the reactive stage, we are subject to how other people see us. We see ourselves as a good person if other people see us as being a good person. Kegan calls it “Socialized mind” because our sense of self-worth is seen through that social construct. 70% of leaders are primarily at this Reactive stage, and lots of important things get done by those leaders; so it’s important not to view “reactive” as bad and “creative” as good.
As a leader develops from the reactive to the creative stage, they are no longer subject to how others perceive them. Which doesn’t mean they don’t care about it anymore, it means they can be objective about it.
At the creative stage, they’re willing to do things that may be socially risky when they believe it’s still the right thing to do, and they accept the consequences of how it might affect others’ perceptions of them. At the creative stage, they become subject to their own values and principles, what they believe is the “right thing” to do. Others’ perceptions of them are data—they can be objective about that data without being controlled by it. This is what Kegan means by Self-Authoring: his name for this stage.
There is another important distinction that’s a left-right visualization of the circle, where the left side is primarily focused on how we relate to others and the right side on how we get things done. There are Reactive and Creative views of relationships and tasks.
Explore the Reactive
So, zooming in on the Reactive half of the Leadership Circle it describes several styles of engaging with the world, of making sense of our identity and building our sense of self-worth, when we’re at the Socialized Mind stage of adult development. And as a reminder, the great majority of adults are at this stage of development, so this stuff should feel very familiar.
The Reactive section is divided into 3 (what they call) summary dimensions and then each of those has more specific outer dimensions.
On the left side, we have Complying. Here’s how the creators of the Leadership Circle describe it: “The Complying Dimension measures the extent to which you get a sense of self-worth and security by complying with the expectations of others rather than acting on what you intend and want.”
In the middle, there’s Protecting. Protecting is trying to protect yourself and maintain your sense of self-worth by withdrawing, being cynical, criticizing, feeling superior to others, or just trying to be the smartest person in the room all the time.
And on the right is Controlling. The Controlling reactive style is about getting your sense of self-worth and identity from task completion and personal accomplishment.
Sometimes, we use a metaphor to make these more memorable: Complying is about trying to lead with your heart, Protecting is about trying to lead with your mind, and Controlling is trying to lead with your muscle or strength.
Each of these styles has a gift—we develop them and use them because they work for us, by some definition of “work for us.” They’ve gotten us to where we are today. But each of these styles also has a cost. We’ll look at that in a moment. But first, let’s dive into the detailed reactive dimensions.
Within Complying, there are 4 more-specific reactive styles, or outer dimensions on the circle:
Conservative is, “I need to follow the rules and I need to be seen as someone who follows the rules, if I’m going to be successful.”
Pleasing is, “I’m only happy or successful if you’re happy.”
Belonging is, “I’m only successful if I’m part of the group.”
And Passive is, “I can’t make a decision or exercise power because it’s always going to upset someone.”
Moving over to Protecting, there are 3 specific reactive styles here.
Distance is about remaining aloof and objective, not getting sucked into the emotional drama. The old Star Trek character Mr. Spock is a great example of this; “How fascinating that these humans weep at death, all creatures die”.
Critical is, “I see what’s wrong here, and I’m happy to tell you about it.”
Arrogance is about a tendency to project a large ego, to be experienced as superior or self-centered.
Finally, moving over to Controlling, on the task side, there are 4 more reactive styles or outer dimensions.
Autocratic is a tendency to be forceful and controlling, to need to have things done your way to feel successful.
Ambition is about getting your sense of self-worth from moving up, from being recognized by others as successful.
Driven is, “I’m successful when I get stuff done. I need to get more done than anyone else.”
Finally, Perfect is a measure of perfectionism. “I’m only successful if I can do everything flawlessly.”
Different people have a different mix of these, but there’s usually one that feels like home. It’s the go-to reaction when we feel stressed.
And, of course, we go there because it works for us. Or at least it has worked for us in the past.
Right. For example, when I did my Leadership Circle 360 assessment several years ago, my strongest reactive tendency showed up as Distance. And that made sense. I’d been successful by being objective and logical, by not getting into emotional drama. It got me a long way in my personal and professional life. But it was also becoming limiting at that point. I was often perceived by others as aloof and uncaring. I didn’t have strong connections with a lot of the people I worked with.
And as we mentioned earlier, there’s a gift and a cost to each of these reactive tendencies. There’s nuance in each of the specific dimensions, but let’s just look at the gift and cost at the summary dimension level.
In the Controlling summary dimension, the gift, I think, is that you tend to get stuff done and done well. In many cultures this is actually perceived as strong leadership. But the cost is often burning out yourself and others in the process.
In the Protecting dimension, the gift is insight and objectivity–the ability to see things clearly. The cost is not being able to connect well with others, which can limit your influence.
And in the Complying dimension, the gift is that people often feel that you care about them, and you probably connect well with others much of the time. But the cost is giving up your power and influence and, often, feeling trapped because there’s no move that’ll keep everyone happy.
Explore the Creative
As long as we are in the Reactive stage, those costs seem like “just the way I am,” or “just the way the world works.” Being always exhausted and burned out if you’re a driven entrepreneur; or always rubbing people the wrong way if you’re the brilliant noticer of flaws in the system; or giving up personal power, if you’re the one who tries to keep the peace– that’s just the “cost of doing business.” As the psychologist Robert Kegan put it, “You don’t have those tendencies, those tendencies have you!”
Fortunately, the Creative stage of development describes how we might still get those three gifts while reducing the costs associated with them when they’re expressed reactively. This shift is not simply about gaining more knowledge or skill. It’s not about balancing our team so our weaknesses are other’s strengths. And it’s not just learning how to communicate with people who think about the world differently than you do.
Those are all great things to do, but the shift from Reactive to Creative is a Subject-Object shift. It’s inside of us. We can now be objective about how other people perceive us. Our new, self-authoring mind considers that as simply data, and uses it in service of creating the outcomes that matter to us.
Walk the Creative
So let’s dive into the Creative side, like we did with the Reactive one:
On the Creative side, there are five summary dimensions. On the far left and far right, we have summary dimensions describing how we relate to others, on the left; and how we get stuff done, on the right– and then as you move up on each side, we have two that are more about our awareness of relationships and systems, and in the middle,we have a dimension focused on the thing we are now subject to at the creative stage, namely our personal values and principles.
So let’s start on the Relationship side, where we have the Relating summary dimension, which is made up of [first,] Caring Connection, where others feel like you really do care about them. You get to know them, ask about their life outside of work, and develop meaningful connections.
Next, we have Fostering Team Play, which is about creating the conditions for teams to thrive. Leaders that score high on this dimension build strong, collaborative teams that feel safe to explore, challenge each other, and deliver strong results.
Next, we have Collaborator, where a leader recognizes that no great work is a solo act. They seek out others with complimentary skills and work through differences of opinion and perspective in service of a shared outcome.
Next, we have Mentoring & Developing, where a leader focuses on the growth and development of those that report to them and their peers.
Finally, Interpersonal Intelligence, which is an awareness of your impact on others. Sometimes we call this being “aware of your wake.” When you walk into the room, do you sense the energy? Do you see how your presence changes it? If you say this thing, this way, in this moment, how will it impact the people who are hearing it?
We’ll jump over to the Task side for the next summary dimension. Creative leaders are not just warm and fuzzy, they get things done! The Achieving wedge describes how they do this while minimizing the costs associated with the reactive, controlling approach to getting things done.
We’ll start with Purposeful & Visionary, which is about having a strong personal purpose in the work you do, and a vision for how things might be if we achieved the outcomes that mattered to us. Depending on a person’s role, Purposeful and Visionary can also be about enrolling others in that purpose and vision, or the skill of co-creating a purpose and vision. But no matter the role, leaders with strong Purpose & Vision capability know their own purpose and vision and use them in communicating about and deciding what to get done.
Just above Purposeful & Visionary, we have Strategic Focus. Strategic Focus has two main components. The first is about the ability to map out the big, broad steps it will take to achieve a purpose and vision. The second is about being skilled at saying no to all of the other demands on their time. Strong Strategic Focus means prioritizing personal, team, and organizational efforts on the things that are most likely to lead to great outcomes, and doing nothing else that might distract from that. In many ways, this is the antidote to burn out and exhaustion, with Purposeful and Visionary providing the clarity for how to prioritize as a strategic focus.
Moving down, we have Achieves Results, which is exactly what it says. If we do all of the other things well on the Creative half, but don’t achieve the outcomes that matter, we are still not leading effectively.
And finally, Decisiveness. Let’s contrast this with the Reactive tendency of Autocratic, because both are about making decisions. When we do that Reactively, it is in service of our own sense of well-being. When it is expressed Creatively, it is in service of the group and others experience it that way. There are times when a decision must be made, and Decisive leaders are willing to make the tough call when it will be in service of the group.
Now, let’s look at the two Creative Summary Dimensions related to awareness of relationships and tasks starting with Self-Awareness on the relationship side.
Self-Awareness is made up of Selfless Leader, which I’ll describe with an example. I remember attending a large industry conference and seeing that a well-known leader was going to give a keynote about their company’s amazing accomplishments. I had heard stories about that company and I was really excited to learn more about how they had done it. I was also excited for this CEO, since they had been a bit under-the-radar in the business community, and I suspected that this keynote would likely be a big launchpad for their career. As the keynote began, that CEO walked on stage, and said “Our company’s story is not about me. It’s about how our team came together to do great things. So I’m not going to tell the story, I’m going to invite my team up to do it.” That leader would have been fully justified in standing up on stage and taking the credit. But they didn’t. They were a great example of a “Selfless Leader.”
Moving up, we have Balance, which is about maintaining balance between our work and other areas of our lives.
Composure is about remaining calm in the face of challenges, uncomfortable situations, and setbacks. Again, we can contrast this with the Reactive tendency of Distance, where people feel like you don’t care. When leaders have composure, people know they care, but they stay calm and push through to resolve the challenges at hand.
Personal Learner describes a leader who has a natural desire to know more about themselves, to always be improving and growing as a human.
On the task side, the next summary dimension is Systems Awareness, which is intelligence about how things get done. Systems Thinker describes a leader who sees downstream impacts and relationships between parts, someone who can sort problems into the ones where there’s linear cause and effect that might benefit from planning and analysis, versus problems that are complex and unpredictable, that would benefit from experimentation more than planning.
Next to Systems Thinker is Sustainable Productivity, which is like systems thinking over time. Are we building systems that can succeed not only in the short term, but that can sustain and improve over the long haul?
And Community Concern is like Systems Thinking spread more broadly. Community Concern recognizes that our team is part of a bigger system, and our group is part of an organizational system, and our organization is part of a local community and an industry. When we show community concern, we are thinking in large systems and nested systems. How does something our company plans to do affect our industry? How does it affect our local communities where we live? The global environment around us?
And then finally, in the center, spanning the relationship and task sides of the model, we have the summary dimension of Authenticity.
Authenticity is made up of two creative competencies: Integrity and Courageous Authenticity.
Integrity isn’t exactly what we normally think of with that word. It’s not so much behaving ethically per se, though it’s likely to include that. Rather, Integrity here is about acting consistently with our stated beliefs and values.
Courageous Authenticity is about the willingness, one-on-one and in groups, to take up hard topics, to bring up the elephant in the room, to address relational issues. It’s different from the Critical tendency. Critical is experienced by others as being in service of the one speaking up, while Courageous Authenticity is experienced by others as being in service of the group or in service of a large purpose. You’re not speaking up just because it makes you feel better, “I’ve just got to point this out or it’s going to drive me nuts.” You’re speaking up because it’s the right thing to do for something larger than yourself.
How this model impacted us
As we mentioned earlier, the Leadership Circle is our favorite leadership development tool at Humanizing Work. So, how do we use it? There are two big ways.
First, we use the Leadership Circle as a tool for individual leadership development. There’s a Leadership Circle 360 assessment our clients can do, where your direct reports, peers, your boss, and others in your life can weigh in on how you show up. You end up with a report showing how you compare to a large population of people in the Leadership Circle database on each of those reactive and creative dimensions. You also see the similarities and differences between how you assess yourself on each of those, and how others experience you, which is often fascinating and really useful to dig into.Then, when the results are in, we do a 90 minute debrief and coaching session to help you make sense of the feedback and come up with a plan for using it in your personal leadership development right away.
Peter and I have both been through this ourselves on the client side, and we’ve used it with dozens of our clients, and it’s just a great tool. It really pinpoints your limiting behaviors and beliefs and offers clear and actionable opportunities for growth.
For example, when I took the Leadership Circle 360, my highest reactive tendencies were Critical and Arrogance. In the debrief around that 360, my coach taught me an important lesson. He said that we’re much more likely to change our behavior if we’re moving towards something, instead of just trying to avoid behaving a certain way.
He asked me “What Creative Competencies are calling to you? If you were going to shift from Critical and Arrogance, towards something else, what would that something else be?” Looking at all of the feedback, I chose Purposeful & Visionary, and Caring Connection.
That’s pretty common, actually, that when people are picking a shift, they end up picking two things, often one that’s more on the Task side and one that’s more on the Relationship side. It’s up and out.
Yeah, balancing the two sides is pretty important for effective leadership. Most of us tend to lean one way or the other. So the next question my coach asked me was for an example of when I went full Critical and Arrogant. And I could think of several of them– these of course were my strongest tendencies– and in fact I shared one example of that when I called out my CEO, Shantanu Narayen, in an earlier episode called “The One Where Peter Apologizes to the CEO,” so check that episode out for the longer story there.
The short version of that is that I went full Critical and Arrogant in that conversation with Shantanu. So, as I reflected on that, my coach asked me to try to fully relive that moment, what led up to it, what I was feeling; what I was thinking. He asked, “Right before you decided to speak up, what did you feel?”
And I replied “Frustrated.”
He said “What did it feel like in your body?” And as I thought about that moment, I could start to feel it again. I could feel the heat in my neck, and a nervous, tightness in my chest. Then he asked me to imagine, in that exact moment, asking Purposeful & Visionary and Caring Connection what I could do instead of going Critical & Arrogant. And I thought, “Hmmm, I guess, if I were to go to Purposeful Visionary, I could share my own personal purpose, why this was an important topic for me. Or I could go to Caring Connection, I could ask Shantanu what had been hard about this for him, and how I could be more helpful.”
My coach then asked me “How do you feel now, thinking about those options?” And I felt energized, light, excited! He said, “That’s the key. Any time you feel that heat in your neck, that nervous tension in your chest, just say ‘Purposeful Visionary, Caring Connection’ in your head and see what other options it gives you. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you feel energized, light, and excited!” That has been a huge help to me in my work, and as I described in that earlier episode, (really, you should go check it out) massively important in my personal life with my family.
So these are the types of changes we’ve seen from the 360 and the follow-up coaching, and they’re powerful, but they also require a time and financial investment. The other way we use the Leadership Circle in our work is as an ongoing thinking tool for individuals and groups. Just based on what we’ve described so far in this episode, you could pick a big shift you’d want to make in your own approach to leadership and start practicing it. You could share this episode with your team and talk about how different reactive tendencies have shown up in team meetings, conversations, and decisions.
To take that to the next level, we also teach the model in workshops like our Leading Organizational Transformation workshop. Or often we’ll do a batch of 360s with a whole leadership team. And that gives the group language for thinking and talking about how they’re showing up…and how they’d like to show up.
It’s not just a one-and-done assessment. It’s a tool for seeing leadership behavior more clearly.
I had a particularly vivid example of how the Leadership Circle functions as an ongoing tool, with layers, even within a single dimension.
Some years ago, I’d done my Leadership Circle 360 assessment and debriefed it with my coach. Distance was clearly my strongest reactive tendency and Caring Connection was the noticeable gap on the creative side. So, I started taking steps to connect better with my team. I tried to be more vulnerable and open when I noticed myself withdrawing and getting aloof.
Six months later, I went through the program to get certified to administer and coach the 360 with my clients. Part of that process is doing another 360 and being coached by another participant in the program. My 360 was still recent enough, though, that I didn’t need to do another one. It probably wouldn’t have shown different enough results yet. We were just going to do another coaching session on the same one.
So, I went into that session, frankly, feeling pretty good about my progress. I knew what my reactive tendency was, and I’d done good work on it. I was getting results. I expected the coaching session to be pretty uneventful.
When it came time for that part of the program, I got paired up with the most unlikely partner, the person in our cohort who was probably most different from me in experience, context, life stage, etc. which turned out to be really good.
So, we got into the coaching session. She asked me to talk through a current leadership challenge and really pushed for what was challenging and frustrating about that situation. We were trying to get at “What are the limits of my current way of responding?” I was analyzing the problem and describing it objectively, as I do.
I remember at one point, she asked something like, “How do you feel about that?” And I probably said, “Frustrated,” or “Angry,” or something. I don’t remember the details, but I’ll never forget what she asked next and the effect it had.
After I’d explained my feeling about the challenge, she asked, “And where in your body do you feel that?” Kind of a strange question, but I was willing to play along, so I started sort of inventorying my body to figure out where I felt it. The actual answer to that question turned out not to matter. Because as soon as I started paying attention to my body, I actually felt the thing I had been talking about sort of distantly and objectively. I found myself unexpectedly in tears, experiencing the emotion about that frustrating situation in a different way.
So, in my first round through my Leadership Circle profile, we’d addressed Distance as it showed up as relational distance from others. And that was good. It was important.
Revisiting the profile after I’d done some work on myself, to kind of peel that away, we discovered another layer to Distance. I’d also developed pretty strong distance from my own emotions. I didn’t really experience them. I sort of floated above myself and observed them as a concept, which wasn’t super healthy in terms of being fully human. I didn’t need to be subject to my emotions, which wouldn’t have been healthy but I should probably actually experience them.
So, that became my next focus area for my leadership development, and it has had good results for me over the years in both my professional and personal life.
Yeah, I think a common misunderstanding of the model is that once we’ve had the assessment, now we know who we are. But the stages are really fluid. How we show up on any given day is a result of the work we’ve done to develop, but also the context we’re in. A personal or work crisis can make it harder to be in Creative vs. Reactive. A new role with different expectations, or getting a job at a different company with different cultural norms– those can all provoke either friction that makes it harder to be at a higher stage of development, or a spark that encourages it. If we’ve done the hard developmental work, we have the capacity to function at that higher level, but we aren’t that level, we can just be in it.
Richard’s story illustrates being able to be at a certain Creative level with others, then needing to do more work to be at a creative level within himself. My story about feeling fluent doing this at work, then needing to practice to become fluent at home is another.
Are you interested in the Leadership Circle for yourself or your team? Contact us, and let’s talk about which approach is right for you.
And this is such a powerful model, we hope you enjoyed hearing about it, and that you’ll share this episode if you found it useful, and of course, keep sending us your questions and topic requests to email@example.com! We love digging into these tough topics, so send them our way.