Leadership Development: Minding the Lifespan Gaps

By Graham Williams, CMC and Eva Cooper, Ed.D.


Throughout our lives we are shaped by influences that guide our leadership outlook, approach, values, capacities and behaviors – some of which remain unconscious. There are optimum times or stages where positive development may best be introduced, taught and applied. But a number of emerging approaches allow us to address these lifespan influences later in life. The Culturescan Leading to Flourish platform incorporates such approaches. (Culturescan) It is founded upon and goes beyond typical leadership training and development methods. We believe that this platform is essential in a time of severe environmental, social and economic stresses, continuous value disconnects, discontent with outdated leadership styles, a yearning for meaningful purpose and engagement, and a raising of consciousness.

Influences that shape us

As we go through life, as depicted in the diagram above, we are exposed to and conditioned by a number of complex, interrelated external influences that contribute towards shaping our physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual selves. These experineces in our homes, neigborhoods, schools, clubs, workplaces, churches, and wider communities, including those on social media, inform the development of our potential and disposition. They influence our outlooks, values, attitudes, fears, and how we build our identity, prejudices, stereotypes, and beliefs.

There is a paucity of research into the impact of these influences on leadership competence and effectiveness. For example, “Little exploratory research has been conducted regarding the childhood experiences, activities, personalities, and perceptions of successful leaders”. (Madsen, S. 2006) Hence there may be gaps in the completeness and methods adopted in leadership development efforts.

It is worth contemplating the importance of addressing these influencers during leadership development initiatives, and whether such attention is effective during such initiatives, or more effective and better applied at the appropriate time during the person’s growth and development and exposure to the influences at play. This importance is magnified given the perilous state of things in the world- environmentally, economically, and socially- coupled with a seeming lack of moral backbone, widespread pursuance of self-interest, undisciplined capitalism, rampant bad behavior at nearly all levels, and a drastic decline in respect for and trust of leaders in general.

People lie, the president lies, corporations lie and cheat… The world is ugly and not many people are willing to stand up to it any more”. (Connelly, Michael. 2017)

Nature or Nurture?

Genes (nature) play a role in determining certain persoanlity traits and temperament, proneness to stress, phobia. Our very gestures- the way we move our hands, walk, or curl our lips- may indicate our lineage. Nurture influences both positively and negatively. Circumstances, experiences, activiites, diet, parenting, to mention a few, influence our values, prejudices, fears, attitudes, aspirations, how we handle stress, and live our lives.

Parental nurturing influences children’s nature. We are affected by the type and nature of our family, birth order, size, gender proportion, perceived and real favoritism, age gaps, marital status, circumstances, parental absenteeism or separation, and our perceptions of ‘the other’. Parental understanding impacts on the needs of different personalities, intellects, approval and identity formation, dispositions, and roles of offspring. The amount and quality of affection, protection, nurturing, authenticity and trust provided all determine how children’s relational attachment styles and values are internalized, as do parental communicating and relating styles (Authoritarian, permissive, neglectful …) (Baumrind, D. 1967)

Nature and nurture both matter and are no doubt linked. There is a dynamic interplay between our genetics and our experiences. For example, Francis and Kaufer offer an integrative view: Both nature and nurture are the parents and offspring of stress. While this probably seems obvious to the average thinking person, it’s taken scientists fifty years to prove it. (Frances, D & Kaufer, D. 2011)

We are not constrained by our nature, but are also children of nurture by nature. McCallum asserts in his book Ecological Intelligence that in our reptilian-brain activity there are “ongoing emotional responses to our inner and outer environments … our entire existence is dependent on this interaction with the environment”. (McCallum, I. 2010)

Murphy and Johnson are of the view that genetics, temperament, birth order, parenting styles, and attachment all influence leadership behavior and development. (Murphy, S & Johnson, S. 2011)

Leadership Development Across Lifespans

Given that nurture (and its dynamic interaction with nature) occurs throughout our lifetime, the question naturally arises: Are there optimum periods when certan leadership traits, values, and skills are best introduced and developed? This may be age related, but is also development stage related.

As an example, consider ethical maturity. As individuals grow, they generally develop and mature along a self managed path of:

  • Self interest (reinforced by punishment avoidance, then later, reward seeking)

  • Meeting the expectations of others (for their approval, and later in the interest of law and order)

  • Being principled (adopting principles that promote societal welfare- a ‘social contract’ followed by entrenching principles that are arrived at through independent reasoning- a personal virtues framework and a level of responsibiility to self) (Oberlechner, T. 2007)

During this journey, we are all exposed to many influencing factors, including our unique experiences, conditioning and priming, our unique personality types, whether we attirbute happenings (and blame) externally or internally (which is related to our locus of control) and to the development of our moral imagination (which includes factors such as empathy) and ethical decision-making.

When major change, adversity, extreme stress and high temptation takes place, strength of character is tested and an ‘ethics – stretch’ is required.  Another maturity requirement is that there is no compartmentalization of (and thus no need to ‘balance’) work, family and social life.  Instead, virtues and ethical behaviors should apply seamlessly.  Merton refers to “infused moral virtues”. (Cunningham, L. S. 1996) Physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual factors all play a part in this integration, and in the maturity- progression of the whole person.  Where thinking, feeling and acting are completely and consistently congruent. Where we can detect and withstand overt and covert manipulations to depart from our ethical standards.

How the individual responds to any ethical challenge at any point in time is a function of their ethical maturity.

Closing the Gap in Later Life- Using New Approaches

Leadership development at precisely the right time (age and stage) is the exception. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University have recognized the need to explore lifespan leadership development opportunities and adapt leadership programs accordingly. (Hanks, S.K. 2015) Thankfully, developments in psychology, sociology, and neuroscience provide ways in which we can build “catch-up” elements into our leadership growth, coaching and self-development initiatives. Leader development can include getting to know self, confronting our shadow side, and facing ourselves. This is no small task but neuroscience shows that what has been hardwired can be rewired. Values and behaviors best formed in childhood (like acceptance, care, and empathy) can ALSO be developed and enhanced later through emerging approaches such as mindfulness meditation, reflection, disclosure and feedback, priming and nudging, counter-attitudinal advocacy, uncovering and identifying unconscious biases, story reframing, psycho-synthesis, and the uncovering of one’s motivational fingerprint/ higher purpose in life.

These approaches are not outlined in this paper but to illustrate: professional observation of language patterns when people tell their stories could reveal that people with:

  • Avoidant, Ambivalent, Disoriented attachment style tend to talk too much or opt for silence, use too many words, show minimal facial expression, disconnect from communicating and relating interactions, lapse into push/pull conflict. They tend to be ‘left brain’ dominant, withdraw, dismiss, stress when approached ‘intimately’, and be protective of self

  • Secure attachment style often manifests in a melodic voice, kind eyes, use of touch, presence, other-orientation. Playfulness, curiosity, aliveness, empathy, listening and connecting happens. ‘Left’ and ‘right’ brains are integrated, they are welcoming, practice relationship repair, have well developed ‘social brains’.

This philosophy and related practices are built into the leadership approach, Flourish: Through Serving and Stewarding. Using Culturescan diagnostics the approach combines clarity of Purpose, raised consciousness, Leadership, and Mastery of deeper skills – (technical, relational, serving (kenosis) and higher – level thinking (metanoia). (Culturescan) It encompasses:

  • the principle that serving, stewarding relationships largely determine the quality of results that are obtained

  • an imperative of converting stated values to consistently displayed virtues

  • widening the notion of ‘customer’ (internal and external) to include serving of suppliers, citizens and other stakeholders (especially in the context of sustaining/ regenerating the economy, society and environment)

  • recognizing and accessing the huge character-reinforcing and character-building benefits of deeper mindfulness (in retreat and everyday settings)

  • identifying, unpacking, understanding and building the elements of spirituality (not religion), especially those of our interconnectedness, being plugged into a reality beyond self, and finding a higher purpose

  • utilizing advanced conversational and other means to guide individual and culture change skilfully and quickly (especially in a world of rapid, turbulent changes on many fronts)

  • developing “presence”

In outline:

The questions that direct the flow of our Flourish Approach align with Avolio’s model. (Avolio, B.J. 2005)


This cutting edge leadership development approach addresses essential existential questions that all successful leaders need to ask themselves and answer. For example, having open, outward, growth mind-sets (an aspect of What difference can I make?) requires the elimination of unconscious bias as far as is possible by learning to become present and aware, thinking differently, and establishing new habits. Unconscious bias can lead to unwittingly excluding certain people (from groups, opportunities, teams, promotion), something leaders should want to avoid at all costs, especially at a time when employee experience and engagement is a huge challenge. Servant leaders put primary focus on relationships. Hence, unconscious biases may be diametrically opposed to servant leadership principles.

The questions on the diagrams above cover both being and doing.(Williams, G. et al 2015) They also relate to work, home and social lives and focus on the positive without neglecting what needs mending.

We need also to discern and heed shifts in the grand narrative – this is the area where meaningful leadership operates. Humanity’s recent narrative (relatively speaking) has contained the elements of material abundance; simple and linear, direct cause and effect; the religious overiding the spiritual; the scientific overiding the religious; (patriarchal) order and control; the non-paradoxical, separation. Based on her biological observations, Elisabet Sahtouris paints a picture of beliefs along these lines of the elements mentioned above, shaped by the scientific worldview that became widespread a few centuries ago. This narrative includes dualistic logic such as the still prevalent struggle for survival of the fittest in every area of our existence. Societies and most businesses are “conceived, organized and run as hierarchical mechanics”. Self first. Even so-called ‘free’ markets are regulated to serve narrow interests.( Sahtouris, E. PhD 2005)

Humanity’s driving belief systems may be out of line with recent findings (ironically, mainly scientific) that indicate a slowly emerging new, and overarching grand narrative; containing elements of the holistic, of mutually dependent, interconnected and continuously evolving systems. Hence more voices are being raised to herald a ‘new consciousness’. Often these old belief systems manifest in workplaces with a prime focus on legislation, reporting and other compliance mechanisms, audit and risk management, ethics management, old style balanced scorecards, roles, duties, loaded appraisal systems, structure, responsibilities, “left-brain” strategies, reliance on intellect, cover-your-back and me-too mind-sets.

Our approach is founded on more value being added by adopting relationship – building, developing a larger “heart – mind”, ethical and spiritual maturity, virtues-driven behaviors, creativity, opportunity mind-sets, openness to new learning, new paradigm balanced – scorecards, detecting unconscious biases, narrative reframing, opting for a higher purpose, early detection and focused pre-warning and alerts, multi-level feedback, conversations, future orientation, intrinsic motivation, allowing vulnerability, showing love, appropriate decision-making and change – techniques, coping with ambiguity and paradox.

Clearly, arriving at answers to these questions requires wisdom, which is a search built into the intent,

content, and approach of the Flourish leadership development approach: Wisdom is a practice that reflects the developmental process by which individuals increase in self-knowledge, self-integration, nonattachment, self-transcendence, and compassion, as well as a deeper understanding of life. This practice involves better self-regulation and ethical choices, resulting in greater good for oneself and others”. (Trowbridge, R.H. & Ferrari, Michel. 2009)

These questions were for Tolstoy a lifelong quest:

In his turn, Tolstoy was of course aware that he was following in a long line of authors. In asking “Who, what am I?” he self-consciously echoed Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Descartes, Pascal, Kant, Rousseau. But he believed that ordinary peasants asked it as well. Tolstoy particularly loved a story about his old nanny. She would lie alone listening to the clock ticking on the wall; the clock asked: “Who are you – what are you?” (Kto ty_chto? Kto ty_chto ty?). Tolstoy echoed: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?””. (Paperno, I. 2014)

Eva Cooper, Ed.D. is a consultant based out of Columbus GA (evamariecoop@yahoo.com), and Graham Williams is a Cape Town-based independent executive coach and certified management consultant (centserv@iafrica.com)

Avolio, B.J (2005) Leadership in Balance: MADE/ Born Taylor & Francis e-Library

Baumrind, Diana Parenting Typology (referring to (1967) Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs),


Connelly, Michael. (2017) Two kinds of truth Orion Books, Great Britain

CultureScan https://culturescan.biz

Cunningham, Lawrence S. (Editor) (1996) A Search for Solitude: the journals of Thomas Merton, Vol three 1952 – 1960 HarperSanFrancisco

Frances, Darlene and Kaufer, Daniela (2011) Beyond Nature vs. Nurture


(Watch http://vimeo.com/104807649 This excerpt from the movie ‘Moving Forward’ utterly dispels the idea that we are at the mercy of our genes and contains interviews with: Stanford scientist Dr Robert Sapolsky (Prof of Neurological Science); Richard Wilkinson (Prof Emeritus of Social Epidemiology, Univ of Nottingham); Dr James Gilligan (Former Dir: Centre for the Study of Violence, Harvard Med School) and Dr Gabor Maté (Physician specialising in the treatment of Addiction and Attention Deficit Disorder)

Hanks, Sarah K; Kaufman, Eric K; Friedel, Curtis R; Cleghorn, Nicholas, A; Seibel, Megan M; Brunton, Kelsey C; Burbaugh, Bradley J A Model of Leader Development Across the Life Span Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication ALCE-104P Petersburg, Virginia State


Madsen, S. (2006) Developing leadership: exploring childhoods of women university presidents Journal of Educational Administration

McCallum, Ian  (2010) Ecological Intelligence Africa Geographic

Murphy, S and Johnson, S (2011) The benefits of a long-lens approach to leader development; understanding the seeds of leadership the Leadership Quarterly, 22

Oberlechner, Thomas (2007) The Psychology of Ethics in the Finance and Investment Industry The Research Foundation of the CFA Institute citing Kohlberg, L., Levine, C and Hewer, A Moral Stages: a current formulation and a response to critics in Contributions to human development, Vol. 10. 1983 Edited by Meacham, J.A. Karger, New York

Paperno, Irina (2014) “Who, What am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self Cornell University Press 1st Edition

Sahtouris, Elisabet, PhD (2005) The Biology of Business; new laws of nature reveal a better way for business. An expanded version of an article that originally appeared in VIA Journal, Vol three, Number One, Summer 2005

Trowbridge, Richard Hawley and Ferrari Michel (2009, Research in Human Development) Cited by Massimo (the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York) in Sophia vs Phronesis: two conceptions of wisdom September 20, 2016

Williams, Graham; Fox, Peter & Haarhoff, Dorian (2015) The Virtuosa Organisation: the importance of virtues for a successful business Knowres

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