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The Leaders Growth Curve

The Leaders Growth Curve is a graphic model I use in coaching.  Like all models, it’s a simplified depiction of a more complex reality, but it tells an important story.  It maps nearly all leaders on to seven points on the curve and shows how most find themselves stuck on what I call the “leaders plateau”.

I use the Leaders Growth Curve with clients in two ways.  First, to help them figure out where they stand in their growth as leaders.  Second, to help them decide what position they want to reach.


What did I base the Leaders Growth Curve on?  I used five sources of data:

  • Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” research in the late 1990s.
  • The people I met during my 28 years in industry before becoming an executive coach.
  • Clients I’ve worked with in my 16 years (5000+ hours) as a professional coach to leaders.
  • The Center for Creative Leadership’s research into why successful executives derail.
  • Gallup’s research into the connection between engagement and business results.

Leaders Growth Curve: The Big Picture

Here’s how it looks in its simplest form:

As you can see, it maps leaders into seven positions on or around the curve, based on three criteria:

  • Their degree of maturity, defined as their presence, knowhow and skill under pressure.
  • Their effect on their unit’s results. “Units” include teams, departments, small businesses or international companies.
  • Their employees’ degree of engagement.

As you move from left to right, the horizontal axis represents growing leadership maturity.  The higher you go up the left-hand vertical axis, the better the results.  The higher you climb on the right axis, the more employees feel engaged in their work.  As you probably already know, research shows that the two vertical axes correlate.  As people become more engaged in their work, sales growth, margins, customer service, innovation and total shareholder return improve.

The model says that as a leader’s position on the curve rises, employee engagement and results improve.

The main curve spans five positions: First Timer, Technician, Subleader, Real Leader and Master Leader.  Now here’s a key point: the curve has nothing to do with a person’s seniority in their hierarchy.  So, for example, you can find CEOs in the Technician and Subleader positions.

You’ll see two more positions on branch lines off the main curve: Radical Loner and Rock Star Leader.  Although they aren’t on the main curve they conform to the vertical “results” and “engagement” axes.

You could say the model sums up a leader’s potential evolution.  However, the model doesn’t imply that all leaders pass through every stage.  It just says these are the main points on the growth curve.

The Seven Leader Positions on the Curve

The First Timer is the beginner.  First Timers have no previous experience in holding the role of official leader in any team, department or company.

Further to the right on the curve you see two leader positions with greater maturity that achieve better people engagement and results: Technician and Subleader.  In my experience, most business leaders are at or near these two positions.

Technicians see leadership through the lens of technical authority.  They assume they must know as much or, ideally, more than their staff about the unit’s work to succeed as leaders.  So they engage people and deliver results by relying on deep technical knowhow and focusing on task processes.  The trouble is, they have limited behavioural flexibility under pressure, which lowers their skill when “surprise events” occur.  They also struggle to connect with and inspire others when a change in mindsets, atmosphere, behaviour and results is needed or when their people have knowhow they don’t possess.

Subleaders don’t have Technicians’ deep technical knowhow but get consistent results by organising others skilfully.  They are good at hiring, assigning and delegating tasks, ensuring there’s a plan, finding resources and following up.  They are confident in what they do, but they don’t set direction – instead, they accept goals from someone else, usually their boss.  You could say they stress Task Progress & Results and Individual Attention but neglect the other two leadership dimensions (Motivating Purpose and Group Unity).  They typically rely more on the power of their job title than personal presence to make things happen.  They usually have greater behavioural flexibility under pressure than the Technicians, but it’s still limited.  They often have difficulty with what they call “the vision thing” and, like Technicians, struggle with challenging conditions that demand urgent shifts in peoples’ creativity, attitude or behaviour.

To the left of the Technician and Subleader positions, just off the main curve, you’ll see the Radical Loner.  Usually younger and less experienced, Radical Loners use their exceptional intellect and superb domain-specific knowhow to deliver outstanding results, usually in smaller teams and departments.  But they are weak at engaging people (note the engagement gap) and poor at gaining people’s trust.  Unlike Technicians, they are often insensitive, abrasive and uninterested in people’s feelings or views.  Colleagues see them as brilliant but selfish, driven by personal career advantage.  Eventually those who work for them start to revolt.  Radical Loners are likely to derail if nothing changes.

Even further to the right and much higher up the curve you’ll find the Real Leader.  Real Leaders are rare.  Why?  Because in industry we’re not good at growing leaders.  Real Leaders achieve remarkable results in small and larger performance units by having intuitively or intellectually grasped the bigger picture: the four dimensions of leadership I touched on earlier.  They mobilise people to define and achieve a vision or goals that matter to them with a successful blend of control and autonomy.  They create a sense of group unity while looking after individual motivation and no longer rely on job title power as they’ve gained genuine leadership presence.  This gives them greater credibility, flexibility and skill in inspiring and unifying people, especially during times of major change.  Not surprisingly, they are much admired.  My clients aim to be Real Leaders because it’s a demanding but attainable position on the curve.

You’ll see a dotted line towards the highest position on the main curve: Master Leader.  That’s because Master Leaders are even rarer than Real Leaders and you cannot guarantee that a Real Leader will become a Master Leader.  The Master Leader position corresponds to what Jim Collins called a “level 5 leader” in his book, Good to Great.  Master Leaders summon outstanding collective performance from others that endures even in tough times through skilled handling of the four dimensions of leadership.  A high degree of self-mastery means most of the seven qualities of “leadership presence” are on display.  Master Leaders are fearless, strong-willed, ambitious for the performance unit and concerned for its success after exiting.  They draw out people’s ability, helping them to grow as successors.  Understated and unselfish, they are not publicity hungry and share power skilfully.  Others see them as genuine, resilient, flexible under pressure and working for other peoples’ best interests.  They take responsibility, don’t blame others for their own mistakes and share the credit for successes.  The people reporting to them admire, trust, respect and remember them long after they’ve left the scene.

For completeness, there’s one more position, which lies above the curve to the left of the Real Leader.  This is the Rock Star Leader.  This overlaps with what Jim Collins called a level 4 leader.  Charismatic and hard-driving, Rock Star Leaders can force companies to raise their sights and achieve far higher performance levels than before, mainly by dominating rather than truly engaging people (again, notice the engagement gap).  They seek personal publicity in the mass media and usually get it.  You’ll find them surrounded by “yes men”.  They often praise themselves for successes and blame others for failures.  They lack the maturity of Real Leaders and unlike Master Leaders they don’t build for the future beyond their term of office.  Rock Star Leaders’ impressive results mask their interpersonal flaws for a time, but their company’s results usually fade after their departure, which can be sudden.

Getting Stuck or Falling Off the Plateau

The point of the Leaders Growth Curve is to show that most people (in the Technician and Subleader positions) get stuck on the plateau I’ve circled on the graph or fall off it (Radical Loner).  What causes them to get stuck?  What drives them to derail?  What stops more people reaching Real Leader?

In my experience, three things.  First, problems with their mental model around “leadership” and “being the leader”.  Second, major limiting beliefs around their self-image, which cause unrealised fears and unhelpful defensive behaviours.  Third, four specific leadership knowhow gaps.

The first problem is the one I address in my YouTube video series, “On the Four Dimensions of Leadership“.  I hope you enjoy it.

James ScoullerThe author is James Scouller, an executive coach.  The second edition of his book, The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Knowhow and Skill, was published in September 2016.  You can learn more about it at If you want to see its reviews, click here: leadership book reviews.  If you want to know where to buy it, click HERE.  You can read more about his executive coaching  services at The Scouller Partnership’s website.


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