One of the most powerful frameworks I’ve come to deeply understand over the past few years is the distinction between Reactive and Creative leadership. It’s become foundational to my coaching work, and I’ve been able to apply it to every dimension of my life.
Of course, the underlying concept isn’t new: variations on Reactive versus Creative show up in a lot of places, from philosophy to self-help books to sports psychology: Conscious Leadership Group uses the terms “Below the Line” versus “Above the Line,” terminology that resonates with a lot of my clients. Football coaches speak of “Playing Not to Lose” as opposed to “Playing to Win.” Ed Batista talks of Warrior and Sage. And Brené Brown uses the terms Armored and Daring.
When it comes to leadership, the most advanced perspective comes from Robert Anderson and William Adams, outlined in their book Mastering Leadership and its sequel Scaling Leadership. Anderson and Adams and their partners at Leadership Circle offer an integrated model—The Five Levels of Leadership—that unifies decades of research in cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, systems thinking, and management. Theirs is a non-pathologizing approach to management capability, meaning the levels don’t describe innate, fixed qualities or define who you are. Instead, we are all capable of moving through these stages of development. With every step, we increase our capacity to take perspective on ourselves and the world, build more sophisticated interfaces, and become more effective at leading through complexity and uncertainty.
In the Leadership Circle model, these levels aren’t wholly distinct and independent—every leader is somewhere along the spectrum, probably operating across more than one stage simultaneously in different dimensions of the job, or one way when motivated and another when under stress.
Egocentric is the first level, a “my way or the highway” authoritarianism that 5% of leaders never transition away from. I’m sure an example or two will pop into your head before you reach the end of this sentence. Reactive and Creative are the second and third levels, respectively. Integral, level four, is a form of servant leadership that emphasizes creative involvement in the broader system in which the organization is embedded. Unitive, level five, is a spiritual level of awareness that is largely aspirational. It’s like unlocking the Obi-Wan Kenobi Force Ghost mode of leadership. The Reactive-Creative boundary is the most momentous and one that most leaders will never fully cross, so we’ll focus most of our time on those two levels.
To illustrate Reactive leadership, where, by Leadership Circle’s estimate, 70% of leaders primarily operate, let’s look at a common scenario in product management:
“People are pushing back on the product strategy I presented. I’ve spent months working through the details and trying to get everyone onboard. Suddenly everyone seems to have a different opinion, and some are really unhappy with the direction.”
Now let’s see how three different product leaders respond:
“I’m getting increasingly anxious that nobody can agree. I’m worried that people are starting to dislike me, and there’s so much tension. So I start to pare the plan back, looking for compromises anywhere I can find them. The conflict eventually dissipates, but my strategy gets watered down or abandoned. I feel pleased that I was able to navigate all of these strong personalities, but I tell myself I should learn to pick my battles.” (Complying Posture)
“I’m getting increasingly annoyed that people are challenging me. People are second-guessing my plans, and therefore my intelligence, as if I’m naive and haven’t thought things through. I start to get even more strident, vigorously defending my plan. I start to focus my energy on attacking the weaknesses in everyone else’s arguments. I eventually win, but sense that the dissent didn’t get fully resolved and merely moved underground. That leaves me worried that people will try to undermine me or screw up my plan.” (Protecting Posture)
“I’m getting increasingly frustrated that nobody recognizes how hard I worked on this plan. I redouble my efforts, putting more energy into convincing everyone. I play a bit fast and loose with the facts and eventually grind people down. My strategy gets adopted, but everyone seems exhausted and wants to give up in the wake of my intensity and perseverance. There’s nothing that can’t be solved with energy or grit, it’s just too bad that some people have to be dragged along.” (Controlling Posture)
Each of these examples illustrates a vicious cycle. First, a problem or threat appears. Second, the leader responds from a place of fear, based on their internal assumptions or beliefs. Third, the leader reacts, and then the cycle repeats endlessly. These underlying beliefs and the form of the reaction vary, but the result is the same: They’re stuck in a repeating place of seeking equilibrium between their reality and beliefs.
Charlie, Linus, and Lucy approached the situation from a Reactive State of Mind. Reactive tendencies aren’t bad in and of themselves and, in fact, probably contributed a lot to each of them getting to where they are today. For example, early in our careers, conscientiously following the directives of our manager while stressing over the details might have gotten us promoted. However, these tendencies become especially self-limiting as our scope and responsibilities expand and the complexity and ambiguity of our environments increase. While this mindset can still get results, they often come at a high cost to the leader, the system, and others. We can see that cost in each of the examples.
Shifting to a Creative State of Mind allows us to lead with mission, purpose, and vision. Our mindset shifts from an outside-in “to me” framing to an inside-out “by me” point of view. Unlike with reactive leadership, we are less dependent on external validation. Instead, the focus is on long-term impact and truly scaling capacity. Creative leaders respond from a place of openness, possibility, and passion, and their actions are intentional. They look to create outcomes, not simply counter threats or solve problems. With each turn of this loop, their identity evolves, and they unleash the potential in themselves and others.
This isn’t just my opinion: Anderson and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated that Creative leadership is positively correlated with both leadership effectiveness and business outcomes, and Reactive leadership is negatively correlated.
Chart: Biggest Gaps Between Creative and Reactive Leaders’ Strengths
Making the Shift
It seems easy, right? Just shift your perspective. Of course, it’s not so easy.
To do so, we must understand and confront the underlying habits and assumptions that keep us reactive. For example, Charlie is quite clearly tuned in to the needs and emotions of others, a “Heart type.” He probably has high empathy and an easy-going manner that helps him naturally connect and build strong relationships. That’s a tremendous gift. But it’s causing him to over-index on Complying. The advice to “stop caring what other people think” and “don’t be such a pushover” probably won’t resonate with Charlie since he may not yet see how to take a stand for his ideas without stepping on others’ toes and compromising relationships. In fact, we’re often cemented to reactive postures because our only understanding of other approaches is shaped by observing alternative (and equally ineffective) reactive postures. In Charlie’s case, perhaps his only model for not giving away power is acting like Lucy, an approach that Charlie probably finds distasteful.
Linus is a deep-thinking problem-solver or “Head type,” but it’s costing him in relationships. He’s taking a Protecting posture. Suggesting he “stop worrying about appearing smart” and “don’t be so preoccupied with your own ideas” isn’t going to land since it goes straight to his sense of identity. Likewise, Lucy values continuous improvement and seems to have endless personal energy, a “Will type.” But she’s leaving a trail of destruction in her path with that Controlling approach. Suggesting she “take a chill pill” isn’t going to be helpful because it flies in the face of her energetic nature.
Chart: Top 10 Liabilities of Reactive Leaders
Charlie’s relationship skills (Heart), Linus’s thoughtfulness (Head), and Lucy’s boundless energy (Will) are gifts that shouldn’t be abandoned but instead harvested and redirected toward a more creative approach. Although these examples are cartoon characterizations (literally) of leaders coming from an extreme place of Complying/Protecting/Controlling, most leaders operate in a composite fashion across all of these postures to some degree, although one is likely their core place of comfort. The key takeaway from this model is that these underlying beliefs aren’t wrong; they’re just self-limiting when directed against Reactive Tendencies. Instead, leaders can begin to shift their gifts toward corresponding Creative Competencies such as Relating, Self-Awareness, Authenticity, Systems Awareness, and Achieving.
This transformation is challenging work and can require unwinding old stories we tell about ourselves, untangling ourselves from our environments, and connecting with a more profound sense of self. I’ve witnessed many leaders reorient themselves around their creative competencies, and it always leaves me breathless. This is the land of breakthrough innovation, play, connection, and courageous authenticity. It’s where winning products and extraordinary cultures are made.
So, where do you start?
Fortunately, Leadership Circle created the perfect instrument for helping us accomplish this shift—the Leadership Circle Profile 360 assessment (LCP). The assessment combines feedback from peers, direct reports, and bosses with self-evaluation to measure your behavior, underlying beliefs, and assumptions against these competencies. It compares you against the hundreds of thousands of other leaders who have taken the assessment and gives you actionable insights to help you grow and improve. I learned more from my own LCP than I learned from every performance review over the history of my career combined. I kid you not.
I was so impressed by the Leadership Circle research and model that I became certified to offer and debrief LCP assessments myself and now use this tool with all of my coaching clients. Please let me know if you’re interested in bringing this powerful tool into our coaching or want to learn more about Reactive tendencies versus Creative competencies.
If you only have time for one book, I’d recommend Robert Anderson and William Adam’s Mastering Leadership, which introduced the Five Levels of Leadership model. I have to warn you that it’s not exactly a page-turner—it’s a dense management science book full of charts and research. If you don’t want that level of investment, there are a ton of whitepapers on the Leadership Circle website, and this one is the best place to start.
Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan is an intellectual hero of mine. His work, spanning the past forty years, is foundational to the profession of coaching. His adult stage development research, performed in collaboration with his long-time collaborator Lisa Laskow Lahey, forms the basis of Anderson’s model. Natali Morad’s five-part Medium series How To Be An Adult is a quick and fun introduction. Read Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change (2009) to go deeper. If you want to geek out, continue with Kegan’s seminal—but less accessible—The Evolving Self (1982) and In Over Our Heads (1998).
Jennifer Garvey Berger was both a doctoral student of Kegan and one of my coaching teachers. Her book, Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World makes Kegan’s theory practical and accessible to managers, coaches, and anyone else invested in growth and development.
Structure of mind flow diagrams and some paraphrased explanations courtesy of Leadership Circle®, all rights reserved. www.leadershipcircle.com