The journey to authentic leadership

As the lifeline indicates, your development as a leader is not a straight line to the top (dashed line) but a journey filled with many ups and downs as you progress to peak leadership and continue leading through the final stage (solid line). These days your journey is more likely to follow a winding path than it is to be a race to the top.

Because many people are living well into their nineties these days, the leader’s journey follows the new span of life and subdivides into three periods, each of roughly thirty years. Each stage of the journey opens up a myriad of opportunities for leadership. In their first thirty years, leaders develop through education and studying, as well as extracurricular and early work experiences. Phase I is labeled “Preparing for Leadership.” Phase II, from thirty to sixty years of age, is the “Leading” phase in which leaders take on successive roles until they complete their peak leadership experience.

Finally, Phase III is for “Giving Back”. It begins around age sixty, when leaders have completed their principal career leadership roles, and continues for the rest of their lives. In this phase, authentic leaders look for opportunities to spread their knowledge and wisdom across many people and organisations, even as they continue their own active learning process.

Phase I: Preparing for leadership

The first thirty years is the time to prepare for leadership, when character is formed and people become individual contributors or lead teams for the first time.

Very few leaders these days are making career commitments in their twenties. Instead, they use the time following college to gain valuable work experience. Typically changing jobs every eighteen to twenty-four months to diversify their experience, many young leaders have an eye on gaining admission to graduate school in business, law, or government. Even some who complete their master’s degrees prefer individual contributor roles in consulting or finance before committing to a specific company or industry.

This self-absorption is a natural phase of development, as the measures of success in your teens and twenties are based primarily on what you accomplish as an individual. Your performance determines what schools you are admitted to and how well you do in your initial jobs.

Phase II: Leading

The second phase of your leadership journey begins with a rapid accumulation of leadership experiences and it culminates in the fifties, when leaders typically reach their peak leadership. In between, most leaders go through a crucible, a difficult period at work or at home that tests them to the core. The result is a transformation of their understanding of what their leadership is all about, followed by a rapid acceleration of their development.

Reaching your peak leadership these days is anything but a straight line to the top. In truth, it is the difficult experiences that prepare you to lead your organisation through the challenges you will face.

Phase III: Giving back

Today the last thirty years of a leader’s journey can be the most productive and rewarding of all. Many leaders are bypassing retirement to share their experience with multiple organisation. They serve on for-profit or non-profit boards, mentor young leaders, take up teaching, or coach newly appointed CEOs.

Adapted from

George, B., 2010. True north: Discover your authentic leadership (Vol. 143). John Wiley & Sons.

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