Five Step Process of Change: How Leaders Deepen and Accelerate Their Development

Five Step Process of Change: How Leaders Deepen and Accelerate Their Development

Many believe that as humans, we have an inborn imperative for growth and development. But how does leadership grow and develop – and how can that growth and development be accelerated or deepened? 183 What do the meta competencies have to do with it? What is the role of the Neutral Witness?

The Key to Developing Leadership Is Developing the Meta Competencies

The diagram below shows the four meta competencies (slightly reformulated as think, feel, act, be), pulled out of the Venn Diagram, and shown as a system dynamics casual loop diagram. Each of the meta competencies effects the others in conscious and unconscious ways. As we have discussed, our state heavily influences how we think and feel, and consequently the actions we take. These actions have the most visible effect on the quality of results we achieve. Conversely, the results we achieve and the actions we take also affect how we think and feel, and consequently our state of being. All four meta competencies, collectively and individually, effect results. Thus, the stronger leadership’s meta competencies are, the stronger the results will be. The path to leadership development lies in strengthening these leadership meta competencies, with the Neutral Witness playing a lead role.

System Dynamics View of Meta Competencies

Leadership development is possible when leadership, alert to feedback, becomes conscious of the strengths and limits of how they see/do/connect/be, disrupts their current routine, expands their repertoire of strategies, and builds these new strategies into habits through practice.

What is the cutting-in point? A gap between desired and experienced results. If leadership is achieving its desired results, there is no imperative for change. However, when leadership experiences this gap, each of the meta competencies offers a powerful gateway to change.

  • Be: Operating from a calm state that is flexible, agile, coherent, energized and stable (F.A.C.E.S.), helps leadership be alert for and receptive to essential feedback. Having the self-regulating capabilities to stay tuned into your inner essential core 184 enables you to have the presence you need to exercise choice – choice of where you place your awareness and what you notice (see), what actions you take (do), and how you engage with others (connect).
  • See: Increasing awareness provides us access to a fuller array of data, an expanded set of options for interpreting the data, as well as an expanded mindset through which to experience the data. Like a fish who recognizes he swims in water, 185 we see how we construct our world, what perspectives we take, how we develop our meaning, and what filters we use. 186 We literally see more, as our perspectives are broadened and the lens though which we view the world is recognized and can be shifted. 187
  • Do: By doing something different, we directly experience new ways of achieving different results. This can expand how we see, connect, be and help us move beyond our normal range or habits. These different actions can be almost imperceptible (e.g., breathing differently or shifting our posture) or very noticeable, such as changing how teams use their time together in meetings.
  • Connect: Having a different emotional experience (e.g., feeling emotional safety or feeling “seen” or “cared for”) can shift the way we see, do, be. Our emotions (e.g., gratitude or frustration) can directly affect the thought processes that drive performance (i.e., creativity, problem solving and indicators of intelligence), as well as our physiology (i.e., immunology/bio chemicals and heart rhythms). 188 Furthermore, as our limbic systems and mirror neurons work together to create more moments of positive resonance, the virtuous cycle of “connection begets connection” is triggered.

Five Step Process of Change

The process for leadership change can be described in a five-stage cycle. 189 The first stage requires gaining awareness that the old approach is not working and a desire to change to get better results. The second stage, Map the Territory, includes diagnostic analytics to understand the underlying patterns of what is not working and why. The third stage includes seeking an opening and disrupting these patterns. The fourth stage includes experimenting with new strategies, to find a new approach that works. The fifth stage includes practicing, to build the new approach into a new habit. At the end of this final stage, the new approach is fully integrated into the leader’s repertoire, successfully achieving the desired results. Each of these steps powerfully utilizes multiple meta competencies, as well as the integration across them. In each of these steps the Neutral Witness, operating from a calm, curious, engaged stance, plays an out-sized role in helping leadership observe itself – how it thinks, acts, feels – so it can see more, do more, connect more, to achieve the desired outcomes.

Five Step Process of Change

Awareness / Desire to Change

Leadership effectiveness is measured through results. Change starts with the awareness that the current approach is not achieving the desired/required results and a desire to do something different to get better results. While this might sound obvious, a felt sense/need/desire to change is a key pre-condition for effective leadership change. 190

Awareness is achieved at the confluence of “being” (a stance of curiosity, openness, non-defensiveness) and “seeing” (noticing critical feedback). Sometimes leadership’s own reflection on the experience of undesirable results yields awareness of the need to develop. Other times, feedback from others is required to increase awareness. Sometimes we as leaders cannot see our own contributions to the undesirable results -- the need to develop sits in our blind spot. In these cases, we need help expanding our awareness before meaningful change can be achieved.

Map the Territory

It often takes some diagnostic analysis or exploration to understand the results that are not being achieved and the current patterns that are maintaining the undesirable status quo, in order to generate a hypothesis of the root causes and assess the nature, shape, location, and scope of the needed change. It requires an understanding of the current state and a definition of the desired state. Consider the following lines of inquiry:

  • What are the desired/required results that are currently not being achieved (i.e., what is the new desired state)? What is the gap? What are the desired outcomes? How will you know you are successful?
  • What is the locus of leadership that can achieve these results in the most effective, efficient, timely way? Who is the leadership – an individual leader? A duo? A team? A unit? The whole organization? Consider short-term and long-term effects of engaging different communities of leaders.
  • Leaders operate in systems. What is the system? What are the key drivers and the relationships between them? What is the “currency” that motivates the system? In what ways is the system stuck? (Systems Thinking 191 helps leaders understand the relationships between factors operating together in a dynamic system.)
  • What are the root causes of the current failure?
  • What external (i.e., outside of self) data can inform an accurate understanding of the terrain?
  • What internal (i.e., inside of self) data is available? In those moments where the gap between desired and realized results is keenly felt, with compassion for oneself, simply observe one’s own reactions. How is my gut interacting with my reality or my plan? With my strengths and challenges? Is something off? Where in my body can I feel this disconnect? What are my somatic responses suggesting? Am I seeing something in an “out-of-date” or narrow way? What am I inadvertently doing to contribute to the results that are frustrating me? What are the costs and benefits of seeing, doing, connecting, being in the way I am?

The components of leadership (envision; enroll; enact) can be used as a short-hand diagnostic tool to identify why the desired results are not being achieved. The diagram below provides an illustrative set of questions that leverage the meta competencies to ferret out root causes.

Illustration of How to Use Meta Competencies Diagnostically

Of course, the line of questioning, as well as the ultimate intervention, will look different, depending on the scale of leadership that is subject to change. 192 193 The diagnostic questions that will illuminate organizational leadership gaps will differ from those used to illuminate individual leadership gaps.

While “Mapping the Territory” is valuable to understanding the change that is required, it is also useful to remember that “the map is not the territory.” Thus, there is a paradox at play here. Mapping the Territory helps us “see more.” At the very same time, we want to maintain awareness that the mental model we are creating – the very one that helps illuminate what and how we should change to improve desired results – is just that, a mental model. Like all mental models, this map illuminates some parts of reality and obscures others. Thus, at the very same time that we invest in this map and buy into its direction, we want to hold it as a “strong idea, loosely held” and maintain active curiosity about what aspects of it are limited or evolving.

Seek Opening/Disrupt

The current approach represents a way in which leadership’s current “meaning-making” structures, their repertoire of action or their ways of connecting are inadequate for their desired/required outcomes. Something is keeping the current, ineffective approach in place – a limiting mindset, a stuck structure, a conditioned habit, a constraining emotion, etc. The original patterns must be disrupted and new strategies must be experimented with before new habits can be developed.

In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009), Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, make a distinction between adaptive and technical challenges. They write,

While technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery), they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization’s current structures, procedures and ways of doing things. Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses and generating the new capacity to thrive anew. 194

Both technical and adaptive change requires leadership to “see more” so they are capable of new actions. Technical change requires leadership to learn new information, processes, approaches or solutions that are new to leadership, but known to the world. Adaptive changes require a shift in mindset. Both technical and adaptive development can significantly enhance leadership performance. Both require the five-stage cycle for change. However, because the path to disrupting and replacing the old approaches with the new are less straight-forward with adaptive change, we will focus here on how to “seek the opening and disrupt” as it relates to adaptive change.

To understand the limits of our current approach and expand beyond them, we call on our Neutral Witness, so we can “see” our own thinking, feeling, acting, and being. We toggle between two simultaneous roles, as the director-actor (or the coach-player, if you prefer that metaphor). We become a keen observer of both what is happening outside of us (e.g., read the room) and inside of us (i.e., our own cognitive, emotional, physiological experience). We understand “It’s all about me AND it’s not about me.” As described earlier, our Neutral Witness can help us illuminate the opportunity by making subject-object shifts or engaging in double-loop thinking or reducing binary thinking. Once we can appreciate how our current approach is limiting and can see new, potentially more effective approaches, we can identify opportunities in our day-to-day to experiment with these new approaches. These are the very “openings” and opportunities for “disruption” that provide a critical inroad to change.


It takes some experimentation to find a new approach that works and can feel authentic. Fascinatingly, what we believe will change our biochemistry, even if it is imagined. 195 Our brains cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality, 196 so we have the opportunity to construct our own reality. Yet, this is not “magical thinking.” By stepping back, we can see something different. By linking it to our original experience, we can create a coherent, integrated new experience from which we can authentically operate. If we use the meta competencies as the cutting-in point, there are four fundamental approaches to experimentation:

  • “Imagine your way to new actions” 197
    • Frame/mindset experiment: Changing the way you think will pave the way to new actions, which will change the results. For example, re-frame how you see yourself, the other, or task at hand and see how these different ways of thinking naturally produce different actions.
    • Role of Neutral Witness: Engages awareness of awareness (e.g., awareness of our perspectives / mental models, including their value and limits)
  • “Act your way to new thoughts”
    • Action experiment: Try something different. Different actions generate different results, which can shift how we see, connect, be. Also, as the inverse of a frame experiment (shifting the way you think so new actions naturally follow), try this: act as if you have new beliefs 198; as you shift your actions, the dynamic will change and so will the results achieved, paving the way for the new beliefs to be credible. Change your posture and act from that new way of being.
    • Role of Neutral Witness: Engages awareness of and ability to control your actions
  • “Relate your way to new thoughts and actions”
    • Attune to self and others, increasing empathy and compassion, causing you to see yourself and others in a new light and thus enabling you to act differently.
    • Role of Neutral Witness: Engages awareness of your own and others’ experience
  • “Operate from a different state of being, thus shifting thinking/feeling/acting” 199
    • Use mindfulness training to develop the self-regulating capabilities (executive control of attention) that are critical to accessing a broader set of options for seeing, doing, connecting and exercising choice. Where we direct our attention determines what fills our awareness and what specific pathways in our nervous system will be activated. This directional attention immediately affects:
    our thinking (i.e., what we pay attention to, the information we take in or ignore, our view of the world); our actions (which flow from our inner space/state); and our moods and emotions (as well as our capacity for empathy, positive resonance and relationships). 200
    • Role of Neutral Witness: Engages awareness of our inner space/state; ability to self-regulate and stabilize our state, so we can be centered and available, even in the midst of chaos, clutter, distraction. 201

Inherent to the experimentation cycle is assessment of what is working and is not. It is important to have a solid hypothesis that includes a clear view of the desired outcomes, the new behaviors (who will do what with whom, when) that may achieve those outcomes, and a means of assessment. This feedback is essential to understanding what shifts are effective and should be embedded through practice.


Once leadership finds an approach that works for them, it is necessary to practice, practice, practice. The act of repetitious practice creates new neural pathways and grooves, so that the new approach becomes a firmly embedded as a conditioned response, a new habit. Over time, the new approach becomes an old approach, if it is no longer achieving the desired results. The cycle continues. Again, ongoing monitoring and assessment plays a critical role.

Neuroscience helps us understand how our brain circuitry and bio-chemistry works to build and reinforce these connections, with repeated practice. Daniel Siegel summarizes,

‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.’ 202 We are our attention. The more intense and perhaps specific our neural firing (which we create with the focus of our attention), the more long-lasting synaptic changes we’ll likely initiate in our brain. As one aspect of the mind is the process that regulates the flow of energy and information, the mind is attention. What you do with your mind can change the structure of your brain…. Energy and information flow drive neural firing. When neurons fire together, they strengthen their synaptic connections and make it more likely that the associated firing patterns will recur over time." 203“The fatty sheath created by glial cells that insulates the long axonal lengths of neurons such that the speed of neuronal firing is increased by 100 and the resting or refractory period is decreased by 30 times. The result of practice, myelin thus increases the effective communication among interconnected neurons by 3,000 times, creating the enhanced functioning necessary for skill-building. 204

Thus, practice is the mechanism through which new, more effective strategies become embodied in our physiology and, over time, replace less effective strategies as our automatic response. High quality practice calls on the integration of the meta competencies. With openness to change (being), we gain understanding of a new strategy, its benefits, and how it is best employed (seeing). With commitment to the change (connection), we engage in repetitive action (doing) to regroove our historical responses. Altogether, our open stance, understanding, commitment and action are necessary for the sustained, repetitive practice needed to build new habits.

Key Points Summary: The Five-step Process for Leadership Development

The path to developing leadership capacity lies in developing the leadership meta competencies, through a five-step process.

  • Awareness: An awareness of a gap between desired and experienced results creates the impetus for change. Awareness is achieved at the confluence of “being” (a stance of curiosity, openness, non-defensiveness) and “seeing” (noticing critical feedback).
  • Map the Territory: Understanding the gap, its root causes, what is needed to close it, and the barriers to and opportunities of that change all inform the approach. This high-quality diagnosis helps ensure that the successfully implemented change will actually improve results.
  • Seek Opening / Disrupt: Original patterns must be disrupted before new strategies can take hold. Our Neutral Witness helps us sharpen our understanding of our current approach by helping us “think about how we think.” This enhanced awareness helps us increase our range of strategies and choices in any given moment, thereby expanding our capacity for more effective action.
  • Experiment: It takes experimentation to find a new approach that is more effective and we can use authentically. Drawing on the meta competencies, there are four approaches to experimentation: imagining your way to new actions, acting your way to new thoughts, relating your way to new thoughts and actions, and operating from a different state of being and thus shifting your thinking, feeling and acting. Ongoing assessment provides feedback that is critical to discerning which experiments are working and why.
  • Practice: It is only through repetitious practice that new strategies become ingrained. With an open stance, clear understanding, commitment and frequency, high quality practice of the new, more effective strategies helps drive deep, sustained change.

Leaders can accelerate development by expanding the ways they are able to see, do, connect, be. These meta competencies working in concert to support leadership development, as less effective approaches are transformed into more effective approaches through a five-step cycle of change: Awareness/Desire to Change; Mapping of the Territory; Seeking an Opening/Disrupting; Experimenting; Practicing. Leadership develops by: becoming conscious of the strengths and limits of how it is able to see, do, connect, and be; disrupting the current routine; expanding its repertoire of strategies; and building these strategies into habits through practice. This expansion of leadership’s ability to see, do, connect, and be is what enables it to envision, enact and enroll more powerfully to create change aligned with the desired outcomes and purpose, in a broader array of contexts. This process of learning is supported by our neuro biochemistry. While this learning can be accomplished alone with conscious and disciplined reflection and practice, the process can also can be accelerated through targeted coaching and/or engaging with purposeful communities of learning.

© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham