Years ago, cantankerous therapist Fritz Perls famously accused psychologist Abraham Maslow of being a "sugar-coated Nazi." Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" theory remains popular and influential today, a half-century later, despite its flaws. The major flaw of Maslow's theory is its arbitrariness-posing-as-universality: Maslow's view of the "self-actualized" person is what Larry Kohlberg called a "bag of virtues," which is a set of arbitrary traits and values organized according to "a conventional standard which is both psychologically vague and ethically relative." Psychologist Robert Kegan, when discussing the arbitrary nature of Maslow's theory--and, really, any hierarchical theory of "levels of mastery"--invoked the same conceptually totalitarian tendencies that led Perls to call Maslow a Nazi: "It is comforting to think," Kegan wrote, "that, in totalitarian societies, where troublesome people are often psychiatrically hospitalized, the indigenous mental health professionals are themselves aware that their behavior is nakedly political and actually aimed at social control rather than the health of the person." But, Kegan pointed out, modern attempts to help people "develop" to "higher" levels of functioning may often serve the same function of oppressive social control, intentionally or unintentionally.
Maslow came to mind as I was reading Leadership Agility. Authors Joiner and Josephs have constructed their own hierarchy of "levels of mastery" which amounts to their own carefully sorted and stratified "bag of virtues." The book reminded me, as I was reading, of my years as a Boy Scout. In the Boy Scouts, gaining a certain number of merit badges and other accomplishments permits one to earn a higher rank, and each rank can't be earned without gaining the proper merit badges and passing through the previous ranks. Likewise, the theory of leadership development espoused by Joiner and Josephs proposes increasing "levels of agility" (like Boy Scout ranks) that are acquired by gaining new abilities (like merit badges) in four general functions: context-setting agility, stakeholder agility, creative agility, and self-leadership agility. These new abilities lead to increasingly "agile" performance in pivotal conversations, team initiatives, and organizational initiatives, according to the authors. Development is one-way and rigidly hierarchical: Higher-level (later) abilities cannot be consistently exercised without first passing through lower (earlier) levels of agility, although persons of higher-level agility can temporarily "unintentionally downshift" into lower levels. As the authors describe the process: "You master each level of play by using the abilities you already have to successfully meet the challenges you encounter. Each successful encounter stretches you, giving you new powers or abilities. By the time you've mastered all the challenges on a particular level, you've also gained a new set of abilities. Once mastered, these abilities provide you with the foundation you need to enter the next level." If this description sounds familiar, it may be because it bears some resemblance to the formal school system from which most of us have graduated. Joiner and Josephs are proposing a kind of universal post-graduate curriculum for leadership development.
The highest level of agility (equivalent to Eagle Scout) that Joiner and Josephs propose, the "Synergist," is basically a super-powered version of Maslow's ideal of the fully self-actualized person. The Synergist "experiences leadership as participation in a palpable life purpose that benefits others while serving as a vehicle for personal transformation." Although this "highest level" may seem "highly developed" to some people, it is, as Kohlberg described the bag of virtues, "psychologically vague and ethically relative." Some readers may like this myth, but unfortunately the "levels of agility" proposed in this book have all the objectionable features of stereotypes, and it is easy to imagine these stereotypes becoming a kind of oppressive social control if used as a tool for categorizing oneself, other persons, and other groups of people.
Although I enjoyed reading the book and I was stimulated by a few of the authors' ideas--and I have spent about a year thinking about it before writing this brief review--other books on leadership provide similar insights without the serious limitations of this book's Boy-Scout-like myth. I should note that I'm not against the Boy Scouts! Nor am I against Maslow or Joiner or Josephs, whom I'm sure are (or were) all wonderful persons. The relevant analogy here is that not every leader is, or wants to be, a Boy Scout. Any theory that claims that all leaders are, or should be, Boy Scouts could amount to a kind of "sugar-coated Nazism." I think we need to avoid this kind of coarsely typological thinking and create models that can handle the amazing diversity and complexity of people's experiences of leadership in space and time. In my own experience, there is no universal curriculum for leadership development. There are as many paths to mastery in leadership, and as many stages of those paths, as there are leaders.
Postscript, December 9, 2011: In the two years since writing this brief review, I've read numerous new articles and books that offer strong arguments against the conceptual weaknesses that I identified in Joiner & Josephs' book. Here's a subset of the growing literature that casts serious doubt on many of Joiner & Josephs' assumptions and methods: David H. Barlow & Matthew K. Nock (2009). Why can't we be more idiographic in our research? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(1), 19-21. / Michael Basseches & Michael F. Mascolo (2009). Psychotherapy as a developmental process. New York: Routledge. / Lars R. Bergman & Håkan Andersson (2010). The person and the variable in developmental psychology. Zeitschrift für Psychologie - Journal of Psychology, 218(3), 155-165. / T. S. Conner, H. Tennen, W. Fleeson & L. F. Barrett (2009). Experience sampling methods: a modern idiographic approach to personality research. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(3), 292-313. / Nicholas R. Eaton, Robert F. Krueger, Susan C. South, Leonard J. Simms, & Lee Anna Clark (2011). Contrasting prototypes and dimensions in the classification of personality pathology: evidence that dimensions, but not prototypes, are robust. Psychological Medicine, 41(6), 1151-1163. / Alexander von Eye (2010). Developing the person-oriented approach: theory and methods of analysis. Development and Psychopathology, 22(2), 277-285; discussion 287-294. / Kurt W. Fischer, Zachary Stein, & Katie Heikkinen (2009). Narrow assessments misrepresent development and misguide policy. American Psychologist, 64(7), 595-600. / Aaron J. Fisher, Michelle G. Newman, & Peter C. M. Molenaar (2011). A quantitative method for the analysis of nomothetic relationships between idiographic structures: dynamic patterns create attractor states for sustained posttreatment change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(4), 552-563. / Marc A. Fournier, Debbie S. Moskowitz, & David C. Zuroff (2008). Integrating dispositions, signatures, and the interpersonal domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(3), 531-545. / Kathleen Gallagher, editor (2008). The methodological dilemma: creative, critical, and collaborative approaches to qualitative research. London; New York: Routledge. / Paul van Geert (2011). The contribution of complex dynamic systems to development. Child Development Perspectives, 5(4), 273-278. / Paul van Geert & Kurt W. Fischer (2009). Dynamic systems and the quest for individual-based models of change and development. In: John P. Spencer, Michael S. C. Thomas, & James L. McClelland, editors. Toward a unified theory of development: connectionism and dynamic systems theory re-considered, pp. 313-337. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. / Susan W. Gray & Mark S. Smith (2009). The influence of diversity in clinical supervision: a framework for reflective conversations and questioning. Clinical Supervisor, 28(2), 155-179. / Nick Haslam, Elise Holland, & Peter Kuppens (2011). Categories versus dimensions in personality and psychopathology: a quantitative review of taxometric research. Psychological Medicine, [Epub ahead of print]. / Nick Haslam & Jennifer Whelan (2008). Human natures: psychological essentialism in thinking about differences between people. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), 1297-1312. / Adele M. Hayes, Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, Greg Feldman, Jennifer L. Strauss, & LeeAnn Cardaciotto (2007). Change is not always linear: the study of nonlinear and discontinuous patterns of change in psychotherapy. Clinical Psychology Review, 27(6), 715-723. / Kenneth S. Kendler, Peter Zachar, & Carl Craver (2011). What kinds of things are psychiatric disorders? Psychological Medicine, 41(6), 1143-1150. / Michael F. Mascolo & Kurt W. Fischer (2010). The dynamic development of thinking, feeling, and acting over the life span. In: Richard M. Lerner, editor. The handbook of life-span development, vol. 1, pp. 149-194. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. / Sandra D. Mitchell (2008). Explaining complex behavior. In: Kenneth S. Kendler & Josef Parnas, editors. Philosophical issues in psychiatry: explanation, phenomenology, and nosology, pp. 19-37. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. / Sandra D. Mitchell (2009). Unsimple truths: science, complexity, and policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. / John R. Nesselroade & Peter C. M. Molenaar (2010). Emphasizing intraindividual variability in the study of development over the life span: concepts and issues. In: Richard M. Lerner, editor. The handbook of life-span development, vol. 1, pp. 30-54. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. / Antonio Pascual-Leone, Leslie S. Greenberg, & Juan Pascual-Leone (2009). Developments in task analysis: new methods to study change. Psychotherapy Research, 19(4), 527-542. / Krista Langkamer Ratwani, Stephen J. Zaccaro, Sena Garven & David S. Geller (2010). The role of developmental social networks in effective leader self-learning processes. In: Mitchell G. Rothstein & Ronald J. Burke, editors. Self-management and leadership development, pp. 395-428. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar. / Gregory T. Smith (2009). Why do different individuals progress along different life trajectories? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(4), 415-421. / Sonya K. Sterba & Daniel J. Bauer (2010). Matching method with theory in person-oriented developmental psychopathology research. Development and Psychopathology, 22(2), 239-254. / Arthur A. Stone, editor (2007). The science of real-time data capture: self-reports in health research. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. / Jaan Valsiner, Peter C. M. Molenaar, Maria C. D. P. Lyra, & Nandita Chaudhary, editors (2009). Dynamic process methodology in the social and developmental sciences. Dordrecht; New York: Springer.