How to Identify Teal Leaders?


Conventional organizations often assess talents based on tangible capabilities, such as knowledge, skills, and past experiences. What’s missing is one of the intangible aspects required to understand a whole person – the mindset or action logic (the logic behind one’s actions), which is crucial in identifying a person’s strengths, especially his leadership capabilities.

These action logics are identified by Adult Developmental research (more details in this HBR article) and are roughly correlated to seven stages of development. As we progress through these stages, our worldview grows broader, so is our ability to cope with complexity and to recognize the connectedness of the world we live in. Understanding this framework is helpful in identifying natural Teal leaders. Below are the seven stages in ascending order.

1. Opportunist 

People with opportunist action logic live in survival mode and are eager to win at any cost. They can be distrustful, deceiving and self-serving. They focus on concrete things, are defensive when receiving feedback, blame others when things go wrong, and rarely self-reflect. A good example is Donald Trump.

2. Diplomat 

Diplomat action logic is about conformity to protocols and rules. They don’t voice disagreement, especially to authorities. They are polite and pleasant, avoid either conflicts or standing-out at any cost. They are uncomfortable with negative feedback and avoid giving it directly. They are loyal to their immediate group and are suspicious of people from distance.

3. Expert

Experts have a passion for details, improvement, and perfection. They are likely to regard their way of seeing things as the only valid reality. They are great problem solvers, critical of self and others based on their own belief systems. They value “indisputable” facts or “objective” opinions from experts or authorities with less regard to the context. Experts are consistent and excellent individual contributors. An example is the stereotypical German personality.

4. Achiever

This action logic is reflected in their focus on goals and results. Achievers like to feel in control of their destiny. They can be competitive, set high-performance standards and strive to achieve more. They are mindful of group dynamics and their impact. They try to be fair and encouraging. They welcome feedback that helps them improve. They are often their own harshest critics. They are action-oriented and are often in a hurry to reach the next target. One Achiever example is Hillary Clinton.

So far, these four action logics reflect the majority thinking in conventional organizations. Individuals at these stages focus on tangible things and short-term targets. They are receptive to ideas from authorities or experts and are easily influenced by external expectations. Post-conventional action logics as listed below are the late stages in the developmental framework. These individuals are often defiant to conventional wisdom and prefer to trust their own instincts. 

5. Catalyst

Catalysts are about personal transformation. They start to question the conventional assumptions of themselves, others and society. They no longer focus on goals or achievement. Instead, they focus on themselves, their relationships with changes, ambiguity and the invisible elements of the universe. They become more laid back and are increasingly aware of the flip side of their strengths. They begin to appreciate paradoxes, the multi-dimensions of life and its complexity. An example could be John Lennon.

6. Strategist 

They recognize the importance of principles (integrity), theory and personal judgment, not just social rules and traditions. They are dynamic and are at ease with paradox, contradiction and the unknown. They integrate elements from unrelated dimensions seamlessly. They are free thinkers and value individuality highly. They believe that what one sees depends upon one’s worldview, and all views are valid. They think holistically and are aware of the dark side of power. An organizational transformation such as Teal requires the leadership of a strategist.

7. Alchemist

Alchemists are capable of initiating historical and social transformations. They can interact with a king and a homeless, a friend and a foe with equal grace. They don’t see time and events as linear or literal but symbolic and metaphorical. They see both light and darkness in situations and work comfortably with order and chaos. They are often at the edge of society and are central to controversial changes. Personal sacrifice is often the price they pay. Nelson Mandela is such an example.

There is much more depth to this Adult Development framework for those who are interested. Once understood, it can serve as a tool to appreciate the strengths and to understand the limitations of ourselves and others. It is not meant as a tool of judgment but a tool of awareness. Like all tools, it is neither good nor bad. For example, a hammer can be used to build a house or to kill a person. Its impact is depended on the context or the intention of the user.

It is necessary to recognize that nobody operates from only one action logic. Although most of us have one dominate action logic from which we act most of the time. Many of us have two or even four depending on the circumstances. Steve Jobs is an example of someone who had all action logics between Expert and Strategist. Action logics are less correlated to tangible factors such as age, profession or level of education, and are more correlated to spiritual maturity.

People of all action logics are highly valuable in any organization. While those with conventional action logics are better at creating tangible products or achieving short or mid-term goals, those with post-conventional action logics are better at long-term, abstract and complex thinking. Neither is good nor bad and both are indispensable. However, it is easier for a late stage person to appreciate and understand early-stage person than the reverse. And it is easier for someone thinking outside of the conventional box to lead a transformation.

Obviously, the pioneer Teal leaders are Strategist (moving on to Alchemist), who have natural ability to deal with changes, ambiguity, and complexity. They are great at recognizing and appreciating individual’s uniqueness and potential. They are big-picture thinkers who know intuitively what Teal is and how to move towards it. While they remain a minority and are not always appreciated in conventional organizations, I have seen a growing number of Catalysts and even Strategists among the Millennials, which is encouraging.

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