“Which leadership book or training can you recommend me? How can I become a middle leader?” These simple questions require very complex answers if you consider all dimensions of leadership. Day, Harrison and Halpin (2009) advocate an integrative model of leadership development with three levels. The first, visible level targets skills. Leadership is a question of expertise. Theory and training can help to acquire the right skills and knowledge for the right roles. Middle leaders learn to develop their social capital, influence their stakeholders and lead in a transformational way.

The second level is less visible and targets identity changes. Leadership is a question of ‘being’. The degree and the way one sees oneself as leader determines the leadership behavior. It’s not because someone is trained to tell stories in a convincing way, that that person develops his own story. It’s not because someone is told to empower his employees in an inspiring way, that he or she will increase his or her own personal power. Conscious identity development is what accelerates leadership development (Day et al., 2009).

Identity develops by planned reflection, positive experiences, feedback and support (Day et al, 2009). During leadership workshops, we create identity workspaces (Petriglieri & Petriglieri, 2010) by asking middle managers to draw or express their position in the organisation. We explore their biography and connect the dots between defining moments in their life and look for the relationship with their leadership DNA. We analyse and challenge their implicit leadership theories. We let them project their leadership future and construct in this way “provisional and potential leader selves” (Ibarra, 1999) which they in turn can further develop. All these exercises aim at self-in-context awareness fuelled by peer coaching, feedback and continuous reflection.

The last level of development described by Day et al. (2009) is adult development. Kegan and Lahey (2010) define three qualitatively different levels. “Socialized minds” are team players and try to live up to the expectations and definitions of their environment. “Self-authoring” people are on the next level and have their own compass. They make choices on personal basis. Their identity is a coherent whole of personal values and beliefs. They can take full ownership and learn to lead. The “self-transforming mind” is the final stage, as they see the limits of any belief system, hold inner contradictions and tensions without trying to ‘solve them’. Their self is no longer dependent on one clear identity. They lead to learn.

Adults develop during their life span different identities, capacity for critical thinking, self-regulation and moral judgment in a never-ending process of disintegration and integration (Day et al., 2009). We all develop our “ABC”, while fulfilling our duties and taking on responsibilities. Without disturbing events or experiences our ABC becomes stronger and stronger. Others discover at a certain moment that their “ABC” doesn’t work anymore, e.g. by a personal tragedy or a very tough assignment. These people live the disintegration of their “ABC” and can develop a “DEF”. This transformation needs support and safety, e.g. in the form of trust, mentoring, coaching and a development culture.

Leadership develops against this broader background. As organizations need more and more middle managers to develop their “ABC” into a “DEF”, they need to design transformational experiences and provide proactively support and safety to accompany them on this journey. This also means that they have to take into account the developmental readiness of people and to create a context for personal and life long adult development.

In the last blogpost of this series, we’ll share our research results on the leadership program we created to develop middle managers into middle leaders and that is based on the insights developed above.

Any comments?

For Middle managers part 1 click here, and for part 2 click here, and part 4 here.


- Day, D., Harrison, M., & Halpin, S. (2009). An integrative approach to leader development. Connecting adult development, identity and expertise. New York: Routledge.

- Petriglieri, G. & Petriglieri, J.L. (2010) “Identity Workspaces: The Case of Business
Schools.” Academy of Management Learning and Education, 9 (1), 44-60.

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