18 Feb 2016 20:27 IST

The six levels of leadership

One must aspire to reach the sixth level, where leadership transcends perks and promotions

In 1958, renowned psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg initiated a theory that outlined the six stages of moral development. Rafe Esquith, an innovative teacher, used those stages on his students in the classroom. I prefer his terminology to reflect on how these levels apply to leadership, especially in the business world.

Level 1: I don’t want to get into trouble

This is the base level of human behaviour. It is triggered by the need to avoid negative consequences, or punishment. This is the behaviour of the driver who only stops at a red light when there’s a cop at the signal, or there is a camera recording violations. Even though it’s the base level, many of us do not outgrow it in several areas of our lives. I recall how in one organisation, taking an online compliance and ethics course was mandatory for all senior executives. Most treated it with indifference until the message arrived that email access would be revoked for those who didn’t complete the course by the deadline. Employeess instantly complied, but the trigger was the need to avoid ‘punishment’. Today, what aspects of our behaviour are motivated by this fear? Can we overcome such fear?

Level 2: I want a reward

This is a better level, and yet it is not good enough. Here we are motivated by reward. This may be a Grade-Point-Average or the Batch Topper badge when we’re in B-School today. When such a response becomes a pattern, then we risk having tomorrow’s managers and leaders who are only motivated by reward. The reward could be anything - a bonus, a promotion, or perks that make us feel good.

I recall discussing with a colleague about his choice between two roles that had come up in the company. One was an easier, no-stretch, minimal-personal-growth role, but one in which he perceived a faster path to promotion. The other role was the tougher, more challenging role with more potential for his growth and contribution; but he worried that getting a promotion on this path would be slow. I coached him to opt for the tougher role and not be unduly concerned over the promotion. “Go for growth, go for where you can learn best and make a difference” was the crux of my message to him. He hesitatingly accepted my suggestion. A few months later he thanked me — he found the role more meaningful and empowering. He also got a promotion.

B-school graduates, who shun the fatter pay cheque in favour of striking out on their own, or opt for jobs they feel more connected to, are clearly seeing the need to go beyond this level. Both these levels form the basis of the ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach that is the bane of leadership. What happens when there is neither a carrot nor a stick? Then how do I motivate my team and myself?

Level 3: I want to please somebody

In B-schools today, doing something may be about doing something to please a faculty or the Dean; whereas in a job tomorrow, it could play itself out as the ‘please the boss’ game. This is when we do things to enhance our worth in somebody else’s eyes. Late nights at the office to impress the boss, agreeing with the boss’ plan even when deep down we have fundamental questions about it, not asking tough questions of a customer whom we do not wish to displease — all these are toxic effects of this level. As someone put it, character is what I am prepared to do even when no one is watching.

Level 4: I follow the rules

When in Singapore, we Indians walk 300 metres to find a trash bin to throw in trash; or wait patiently without honking, when a pedestrian crosses the road. When in Singapore we follow Singapore’s rules. As soon as we’re back in India, we don’t hesitate to throw the chocolate wrapper out of the car window, or almost mow down a pedestrian on a zebra crossing. As long as there are rules that are enforced, we follow them. In fact, we sometimes exploit a little loophole in the rule. At such times, we follow the rule in letter and violate it in spirit.

A good example is the surrogate advertisements that liquor companies air on television, despite rules that ban it. Both the company and channel slyly follow the rule by ensuring that the advertisements are about a music CD, or mineral water, or playing cards; but break the spirit of the rule. A leader who is driven only by rules becomes an impotent leader. In contrast, real leaders sometimes have to question the rules, break outdated ones, and are consistent in leading by transcending rules.

Level 5: I am considerate of others

This is a very positive level. It means we’ve gone beyond thinking about what is just good for us. In the must-profit business world, companies like Unilever, with their sustainability thrust, are showing how they are profitable and considerate of others at the same time. Worthy of emulation! But can we go beyond this level?

Level 6: I have a Personal Code

This highest level is reached when we are motivated by a personal code. Rafe calls Level 6 the ‘Atticus Finch level’, named so after the hero in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, who fights for what is right, despite opposition from his peers, his neighbours and the threat to his career. He does the right thing, motivated only by his personal code, going beyond being a slave to rewards and popular approval. His personal beliefs light his path. Such leadership transcends perks and promotions and rules and rewards. It springs from within. This is the peak we must aspire to — becoming genuine Level 6 leaders.

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