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Article 4.2

How to Cultivate Leader Development Through Coaching

  • Ellipse 3

    Aephoria Partners

    18 Dec 2023

In the heart of today’s corporate landscape lies a silent crisis. 37% of leaders – specifically corporates – rely on a rigid “win-lose” mentality (Cook-Greuter, 2000), believing that certainty can be engineered through technical know-how. Yet this approach lacks crucial ingredients – namely relationship and empathy – and bubbles over to limit their impact on the organisation and their relationships with colleagues.

An additional 11% of leaders suppress their true identities to conform to their group. Tragically, this leads to a loss of autonomy and damages their capacity for innovation and strategic thinking. 

That’s where developmental coaching comes in. Developmental coaching gives you, the coach, a roadmap to support your corporate clients toward greater levels of growth and later levels of maturity. The result: they can positively impact themselves, their organisation, and the world around them.

“The more people come to terms with their own inner worlds, the more they can work with the emotional aspects of leadership, like strategy, innovation, uncertainty, and culture.” – Dr. Julia Kukard of Aephoria Partners.

The Necessary Traits in Leadership Development 

Dr. Julia Kukard identifies the need for leaders to evolve beyond traditional roles and take up “heartbeat functions” – such as decision-making, visionary thinking, and excellent communication – even in an era where those functions are sometimes being delegated to artificial intelligence (AI). 

The demand is for leaders who can fill the roles that machines cannot, roles that require relationship-building and distinctly human attributes. This kind of leadership supports organisations to respond adequately to complexity, ambiguity, anxiety, and uncertainty. 

The necessary traits for leaders in today’s business arena include:

  • Strategic Foresight: The ability to envision and guide towards a long-term vision, transcending beyond the immediate and apparent.
  • Innovative Thinking: A willingness to challenge the status quo and embrace novel ideas, breaking free from conventional patterns. A leader must stand out to lead effectively.
  • Inclusivity: An understanding and appreciation of diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of respect and collaboration.

An Introduction to the Stages of Development

In the leadership development journey, we would ideally help our clients navigate from the early conventional stages – Conforming and Specialising – towards the Performing stage and thereafter into the post-conventional stages of maturity. 

This progression encapsulates the evolution from adhering to established norms and honing technical skills to embracing a holistic view that incorporates ethical considerations, systemic thinking, and a deep emotional intelligence. 

The Conforming Stage of Maturity in Leadership Development

The ‘Conforming’ level stage of maturity is characterised by a strong alignment with group norms, where one’s identity is deeply intertwined with the group. It leads to the repression of agency and individuality in favour of the safety of the pack.

For example, a leader might develop a persona or faḉade that aligns more closely with the corporate culture, even if it does not fully reflect their true identity and values. This could involve projecting an image of confidence, ambition, and competence at all times, even if the leader feels insecure or uncertain in some situations. Regarding workplace implications, individuals at this stage may struggle with complex strategic tasks and are more suited to routine and predictable tasks where a process or script can guide operational decision-making.

If your client is at the Conforming stage, they will likely exhibit the following traits:

  • Group-Defined Identity. People at the Conforming stage derive their sense of self from their group. Group norms and expectations heavily influence their identity.
  • Avoidance of Conflict. There’s a marked tendency to avoid both internal and external conflict. This often involves suppressing personal needs, opinions or thoughts that might disrupt the harmony of the group.
  • Perception of Feedback. Feedback is often interpreted as personal disapproval, making it challenging for individuals to separate constructive criticism from personal attack.
  • Us vs. Them Mentality. A clear distinction between their own group and others is prevalent, leading to a limited worldview.
  • Minimal Self-Reflection. There’s a notable lack of introspection or self-reflection, as the focus remains predominantly on aligning with the group and the tasks at hand
  • Intolerant. At the Conforming stage, diversity is often viewed through a lens of rigid norms and rules, in a binary ‘us and them’ way, with a tendency to see differences as problematic, necessitating regulation to foster unity. 

The Specialising Stage of Maturity in Leadership Development

After the Conforming stage, individuals progress to the ‘Specialising’ stage. Formal exposure to higher education or specialised training can assist with this transition. This stage is marked by an emphasis on expertise, objectivity, and technical proficiency.

In South Africa, many leaders in sectors like manufacturing, insurance, and resources are at this level of maturity. They excel in improving technical skills but often overlook half the picture by ignoring qualitative, relational, cultural and emotional data. This lack of a rich inner world and limited engagement with qualitative aspects mean that these leaders may struggle with empathy, which is crucial for connecting with people and understanding organisational culture. Leaders at this stage often act as if their context is akin to the predictability and controlled environment of a “zoo”, whereas the reality of the organisational context is much less predictable and more like a “jungle”.

“When you don’t understand feelings, the chance of you understanding an organisational culture is practically zero.” – Dr. Julia Kukard.

The belief in certainty and reliance on numbers can also lead to rigid, numerical strategies that fail to account for organisational and systemic cultural nuances. This can result in ineffective responses that are out-of-touch with the realities of the workplace – for example, requesting that staff work overtime in the office on a project when the office is situated in a neighborhood that is unsafe at night, and not seeing concerns regarding safety as relevant or valid when they are raised.

Key characteristics of the Specialising stage include:

  • Technical Expertise. Individuals become experts in their field, often focusing on a particular technique or scientific area.
  • Emotional Dismissal. Feelings and emotions are often ignored or dismissed as irrelevant or weak, especially in decision-making.
  • Need to be Right. There’s a strong emphasis on achieving perfection, being right, and relying heavily on the logic of their specific craft.
  • Competitiveness and Criticism. A tendency to be critical of others and competitive, driven by a need to stand out based on their expertise.
  • Lack of Agency and Accountability. Some level of personal agency is present, but it’s often confined within the boundaries of their technical knowledge.
  • Difficulty with Intangibles. Challenges arise when dealing with intangible factors like culture and emotions, which are not easily quantifiable or technical.
  • Inflexibility. The Specialising stage sees leaders uncomfortable with uncertainty and lacking flexibility, which is increasingly problematic in today’s fast-changing world.
  • Limited View of Diversity. As individuals progress to the Specialising stage, there’s a superficial acknowledgement of diversity – the belief that traits like skin colour or gender are only skin deep and do not significantly influence one’s identity or capabilities. 

The Performing Stage of Maturity in Leadership Development

At the Performing stage, leaders have achieved a level of competence and excellence that instils confidence. They better understand their inner world, and this self-awareness translates into more effective leadership. This stage is where leaders are starting to be better positioned to handle the emotional and more complex aspects of leadership, such as dealing with uncertainty, strategising, fostering innovation, and understanding organisational culture.

“The combination of the technical expertise achieved in the Specialising stage [and the maturity gained in the Performing stage] makes leaders at this stage incredibly outcome-orientated and they can produce extraordinary results.” – Dr. Julia Kukard.

Several key characteristics mark the Performing stage:

  • Self-Agency and Independence. Leaders at this stage are confident in their abilities and make decisions independently, trusting their own judgment.
  • Responsibility. There’s a heightened sense of responsibility and a commitment to duty, aligning personal values with professional obligations.
  • Effectiveness and Efficiency. A focus on achieving results most effectively and efficiently, demonstrating competence in various aspects of leadership.
  • Emotional Intelligence. Developing a deeper relationship with their own emotions and those of others marks the beginning of psychological self-awareness.
  • Welcome Feedback. An openness to feedback is evident, as leaders see it as an opportunity for improvement and personal growth.
  • Awareness of Subjectivity. While striving for objectivity, there’s an understanding that complete objectivity may not always be possible, recognising the influence of personal biases.

Exploring Post-Conventional Leadership Development

After the Performing stage, your clients transition into post-conventional development. The Internalising, Strategising, and Transforming stages of maturity are all post-conventional, and generally less than 20% of the population hangs out in these stages. Here, the complexity of moral, ethical, and cognitive considerations expands. Once clients have reached the post-conventional stage, you may recognise the following traits:

  • Advanced Moral Reasoning. Navigating complex ethical dilemmas with principles that extend beyond conventional norms and rules.
  • Systemic Understanding. A holistic approach to leadership that appreciates the interconnectedness of systems and the broader implications of decisions.
  • Empathetic Engagement. Deepening emotional intelligence to foster more profound connections and understanding across diverse groups.
  • Global and Long-term Perspective. Leaders adopt a visionary outlook that encompasses global challenges and focuses on sustainable, long-term impact.
  • Non-dual Thinking. Here we transcend either/or thinking and start working in the both-and way of integrating polarities.
  • Embracing Multiple Perspectives. This allows for an inclusive engagement from a diversity perspective and allows for different points of view to be held and respected simultaneously, allowing for more dialogue.
  • Capacity for Complexity. Leaders work much more effectively with the non-linearity, ambiguity, and unpredictability of complex systems and therefore approach change and problem solving more collaboratively.

Why Adopt Developmental Coaching Into Your Practice

Developmental coaching offers coaches a uniquely rewarding experience with tangible, measurable benefits. Seeing the positive transformation in clients’ lives and leadership styles is not just fulfilling; it’s a visible testament to your intervention.

Another benefit is that the concept of developmental coaching resonates widely and is often intuitively understood and appreciated by people from diverse backgrounds. We all want to be more mature, we all want to grow and we all can feel quite lost at points of our development journeys. 

There is also the ‘leveraged’ effect of developmental coaching. Supporting someone’s maturation unlocks improvements across various aspects of leadership, including better inclusion, strategy formulation, and interpersonal skills. This creates a ripple effect, enhancing multiple facets of leadership simultaneously.

How to Approach Developmental Coaching for Leadership Development

When it comes to developmental coaching with leaders, the journey begins with you – the coach. As a coach you need to engage in your own introspection and development; you need to understand your own stage of maturity and your range across the stages. This will help you adopt an approach that meets the client and walks with them through their transformation journeys.

“Each stage benefits from emotional work and self-reflection. You have got to be very careful how you coach at each stage to enable people to find value at all stages.” – Dr. Julia Kukard. 

Match Maturity

Ideally, a coach should be a stage or two further along in the maturation journey compared to their client. However, mismatches do happen, especially in the corporate world. Making such mismatching work is difficult and takes conscious awareness and effort on the part of the coach. It is often much more effective to match the client with a different coach. 

Respect Each Level

Every maturity stage has value and challenges. Recognising the unique value and potential growth areas at each level is like understanding different languages of human development. The coaching process should be nurturing, helping clients strengthen their abilities at their current level before gently nudging them toward the next step.

Beware of Arrogance

A word of caution for coaches, especially those who’ve reached the later stages of maturity: watch out for arrogance. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ve arrived but it is useful to notice the ways in which you are still evolving. , the maturity model isn’t a hammer, and clients aren’t nails to be hit. It’s a tool to be used in an empowering, non-judgmental way. 

The Benefits of Developmental Coaching for Leadership Development

Developmental coaching offers a wealth of benefits for clients in leadership roles, transforming their approach to challenges and decision-making in profound ways.

Enhances Self-Awareness

One of the primary benefits of developmental coaching is the development of self-awareness. It’s about understanding who you are in the face of challenges and how your actions and decisions impact those around you. This self-awareness is a fundamental building block for effective leadership.

Expands Perspective and Capacity for Complexity

Developmental coaching helps leaders expand their minds, enabling them to understand and appreciate diverse perspectives and complexity. This broadened viewpoint is crucial in today’s interconnected and multifaceted world, where decisions can have far-reaching consequences.

Encourages Systemic Problem Solving 

Instead of focusing on immediate, event-based solutions, developmental coaching encourages leaders to think systemically. This means addressing the root causes of problems, not just their symptoms. For example, rather than just solving a day-to-day parking issue, it prompts a leader to look at the broader system – perhaps addressing the need for more parking space or even rethinking transportation policies.

Builds Contextual Understanding 

Leaders learn to understand and respond to the context of their challenges, not just the challenges themselves. This involves seeing the bigger picture and considering how various elements interact within a system.

Offers a Sounding Board 

A maturity coach acts as a sounding board and a thinking partner, providing support and guidance as leaders navigate complex situations. This partnership is invaluable in helping leaders refine their thinking and decision-making processes.

Supports Inclusion and Diversity

At the Performing level, there’s a growing recognition that diversity brings richness and value, enhancing team dynamics and outcomes. Here, differences are not just tolerated but seen as a source of strength and learning. Individuals at this stage actively seek diversity, understanding that it enriches their lives with new perspectives and insights. 

This maturity level also brings an awareness of internal conflicting ideas and biases, fostering a more reflective and open approach to diversity. Criticism and difference are viewed as opportunities for learning rather than personal attacks.

Looking Ahead at Developmental Coaching and Leadership Development

At Aephoria, we’re here to ensure you can make a meaningful impact in your coaching practice. That’s why we offer to train you in developmental coaching and the maturity model. It’s the first step in making a difference in your clients’ lives. 

As Dr. Julia Kukard says: “People don’t remember you for technical changes you made in an organisation. They remember you for the relationships you built and the impact you had in people’s lives.” 


Cook-Greuter, S. R. (2000) ‘Ego development: Nine levels of increasing embrace’, Journal of Adult Development, 7(4), pp. 227–240.