Ep 126: The Three Stages of Leadership

As with many other things that grow and develop, leadership comes in stages. In this episode, Adam Quiney dives deep into the three stages of leadership, what makes it challenging to move through each of them, and how to distinguish where you are in the whole journey. Growing as a leader is not always the easiest thing. As something granted than something greater than yourself, it’s going to demand a lot from you. But understanding how the whole process unfolds can help you move from one stage to the next a bit more easily. Tune in and learn how you can grow and maximize your potential as you move forward in your own leadership journey.

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The Three Stages Of Leadership

We are having conversations here that cause and provide you the opportunity to practice leadership. A reminder that leadership has always in the moment our edge. The practice of leadership is out on our edge. If it wasn’t, you’re not leading something that calls you forward. Instead, you may be leading something for you or something that you love doing. Taking on work that you love doing is a beautiful thing. It’s just often not leadership. Leadership is where our being, the way we show up in the world, is granted by something greater than ourselves. Whenever something is greater than ourselves, it’s going to demand more than what we are comfortable providing. That is where our leadership shows up. It’s in the expansion into a gap that is there.

The Three Stages of Leadership

That is what we are supporting you with. That is the aim of these conversations. What we’re going to be talking about is a distinction I’ve been working with for a while and developing over the years, which are the three stages of leadership. The summary for this is that I’ve noticed leadership tends to progress through three main stages. There are three places of practice in our leadership. We’re going to be distinguishing those three stages, what makes it so challenging to move through them, and then how to distinguish where you are operating from. These Stages Of Leadership are inspired by David Deida and his Three Stages of Masculine and Feminine Practice as well as a woman named Jodi Jan Larson, who was paramount in developing my leadership. She and I both trained coaches, developed leaders together. She did a lot of work supporting me in my journey and my growth early on.

I remember the way she worded it. She wasn’t talking about three stages or anything, but she said, “The first stage of leadership is blurting. You got to get yourself out there into the space. The second stage is responsibility. You can be responsible for the impact of whatever you’re blurting rather than just blurting out.” Over the years, I’ve worked with that and then grown it into this distinction we’re going to go over. Someone was asking me like, “Could it be innate like you naturally start in the third stage?” Not so much. We’ll go over them and then I’ll talk about why that often isn’t the case and how it tends to look instead of that way.

These tend to be places we move through as we step further into our leadership. As you move into a new edge and take on something that calls you forward to a deeper extent than you’ve been comfortable in the past or maybe you’re stepping into a new arena, you may find yourself back in the first stage. One stage is not better than the other. They’re more milestones and it’s easy to be like, “I’m a third stage practitioner. Look at these losers in the first stage.” Even uttering that statement, you’re dropping yourself down into the second stage. The three stages look like this.

GL 126 | Stages Of Leadership

Stages Of Leadership: The practice of leadership is typically out on your edge. If it isn’t, you’re not leading something that calls you forward.


First Stage: The People Pleaser

The first stage of leadership, most of our focus is exclusively on other people. We are concerned with how the way we show up might impact other people. At this stage of leadership, there’s a great deal of people-pleasing and censoring ourselves. We don’t want to upset other people. We don’t want other people to be mad at us. We don’t want to have people angry at us or to feel like we’re indebted to someone else. This stage of leadership, there’s a great deal of managing the world around us. All of our attention is going on other people to determine what they need.

Things like giving gifts can be a function purely of how do I make sure this other person likes the gift I give rather than what would it feel good for me to give? That would be more of the second stage of practice. In that first stage, we focused our attention on other people, and we expect that other people do the same to us even if we’re not aware of that expectation. What that looks is that when someone does something that upsets us, we get mad at them like, “I can’t believe that person took up all the space. They should have given some space to me. They were so rude,” which maybe is true. We’re not interested in looking at what’s true or false, or right or wrong but more to illustrate it, that frustration is a real first stage of leadership degree of frustration.

Second Stage: The Truth Teller

It’s operating from this assumption that person should be aware of how I feel and should conduct themselves accordingly as opposed to a second stage practice. It would be more like, “In this moment, I want more space, so I’m going to take that space. I’m going to show up to shut up you.” That would be a little more second stage. In the first stage, we’re censoring ourselves, we’re managing other people, there’s a lot of people-pleasing and what we would call co-dependence. I am wrapped and enmeshed with you the way I show up as a function of what I believe will be acceptable to you. At the first stage of leadership, there’s not a lot of waves. We don’t have much of an impact. We tend to be nice. People relate to us as they’re nice and people like us. We’re lukewarm, tepid, or like mild bathwater. No one is going to get burned and too upset but no one is going to be inspired by us either.

The second stage of leadership is where the focus shifts to us. It’s on me rather than us. My focus is on myself. How do I feel at this moment? What do I want at this moment? What am I called to share, to do, or to be in this moment? When you hear people say something like, “I’m tired of censoring myself, it’s time for me to share my truth.” When you hear someone describing themselves as a truth-teller, “It’s what I do. I tell the truth. I can’t stop myself.” That’s them speaking to the second stage of leadership and from the second stage of leadership. At the second stage of leadership, I will express whatever’s authentic for me to express. When I say authentic for me to express, our authenticity is a function of whatever level of depth we currently have.

Express whatever is authentic for you to express. Click To Tweet

People will express themselves thinking they’re being authentic but there may be a deeper level of authenticity they can’t even get down into. They haven’t had that level of introspection and support, but it would still be an expression of second stage leadership practice. There’s not a level of depth of authenticity that determines the stage of our practice. It’s more, am I sharing for you or am I sharing for me? If I’m sharing like, “Adam is saying this thing so that you will like him.” That would be the first stage of leadership practice. If I’m saying this thing because I feel it and I feel it’s important for me to speak myself in the space, that would be more of the second stage of practice.

At this stage like in the first stage, my expectation is other people do the same thing. If you are taking up too much space, I’m going to tell you to be quiet. I’m going to get upset with you. I might compete with you, talk over you, or tell you to shut up. In doing so, I’m going to hold like, “It’s not my responsibility to manage how you feel about that. My responsibility is to ask for what I want.” Notice the attention is now over here. There’s no attention on you. In the first stage, all the attention goes outwards. In the second stage, all of my attention goes inwards. You’ll notice that in both of these stages, there’s an us versus them. That is part of what makes up the first two stages of leadership. There’s a me over here, and there’s a you over there. When it’s group dynamics, there’s an us over here, and there’s a them over there.

People at the second stage tend to feel a lot freer. They’re like, “Finally, I don’t have to censor myself. I’m tired of doing that. I’m not going to apologize for myself anymore.” This is something to be applauded. This is a real shift from that first stage of the enmeshment of co-dependence with someone, of being unable to show up in the world because you’re so afraid of how other people will receive it to some real freedom for yourself. “Finally, I can be.” For someone who’s now practicing the second stage, you can imagine that there’s maybe a resistance or almost an allergic experience when they think about going back to the first stage. If you were to ask someone in the second stage for an apology, they suck at it because it’s hard for them to get over there with you. You’d be like, “When you said that, I found that insensitive. It hurt my feelings.” The apology from the second stage of leadership often sounds something like, “I didn’t intend that. That’s not how I meant it. I’m sorry that’s how you heard it. I’m sorry that’s what you thought I was saying.”

You can hear even in that the apology holds me sovereign over here and you sovereign over there but there’s no crossing. “I’m apologizing for how you received what I said,” which is a weird apology. It’s like, “I’m sorry for what you did,” which isn’t much of an apology. It’s better and it’s not better. At the first stage of leadership, the way an apology goes and the way cleaning up our mess goes is we collapse. We lose all of ourselves. We fall all over the place, apologizing to this person, “I’m so sorry. That was so wrong of me.” We lose ourselves completely. There’s no spine at the first stage of leadership. Whereas at the second stage of leadership, it’s all spine. The front becomes hard and rigid. We’re a strong back, we can hold ourselves, but there’s no capacity for empathy, real connection, or something deeper beyond what is there for me alone to feel, experience, and take ownership for. The first stage leadership has attention over there on others. The second stage of leadership is attention over here on me.

Third Stage: The Committed Leader

The third stage of leadership is where our attention and our focus are on the greater commitment. The commitment greater than myself. The commitment greater than you. An example of third stage leadership would be Mahatma Gandhi’s commitment towards the British leaving India through peaceful resistance. That is a tremendous commitment. That’s a commitment to something greater than any one individual. If you have not already, I recommend you go and watch the Ben Kingsley movie, Gandhi. It’s a biopic has. There’s a scene where the Brits have closed down the salt mines because that was part of how India made money. The Indians are showing up and lining up to go to work. The Brits are there with their batons not letting them in. The Indians, each, lineup, and then they take a step forward, and the English hit them with the batons. These other Indians run, grab them, pull them off, administer medical care, and then the next person walks forward. There is no room for that act in a second stage of leadership.

GL 126 | Stages Of Leadership

Stages Of Leadership: The third stage of practice can often look like the first stage of practice when where you are currently is the second stage of practice.


You could get yourself there, find some way, but at that second stage of leadership, there is always going to be a point where your own self becomes more important because that is where the attention is. The third stage of leadership is where things become possible like dying for a cause because we are committed to the greater good. I’m not advocating for dying for causes here but I want to use that as an example of illustrating the difference between the second stage leadership and the third stage leadership. Often when we are creating something that matters to us, what shows up at our second stage of leadership is like, “Am I getting compensated for this? Is this fair? Do I want this?” These are questions in the second stage of practice.

The third stage of practice is like, “Why have I chosen into this? What is my greater commitment? What is called for so that I can find my way back to being enrolled in this possibility?” We’re stepping past. It’s not wrong. We’re not relating to it as wrong that the little eye that shows up in second stage commitment is a little triggered. It’s feeling like, “Where’s my compensation?” In the third stage of leadership practice, we are giving ourselves away in service of a greater commitment. At this third stage, some things show up that are different than the first in the second stage. The irony here is that the third stage of practice can often look like the first stage of practice when where you are currently is the second stage of practice. If you are currently at the second stage of practicing leadership and someone is standing for your leadership and inviting you into what would be a third stage practice, it will often occur to you like they’re telling you to go backwards.

Here’s a simple example of how that looks. Remember, at the first stage of practice, we are almost exclusively apologizing for our impact continually, either by trying not to have it by censoring ourselves or by apologizing profusely and losing herself collapsing, “I’m so sorry for what I did to you.” From there, we moved to the second stage of practice where we are no longer willing to apologize because I said something and it upset you, “I’m sorry to upset you, but I got to say what I got to say.” The attention is there. The attention is that I will say the words, I’m sorry, but not sorry. I can only clean up so much because I’m reserving the right to be right about what I’m right about. At the third stage of practice, we might start to take a look at like, “What am I committed to? Am I committed to being right? Am I committed to creating a powerful relationship with this person? If I look through the lens of creating a powerful relationship with this person, what might I see that could be different? What might there be to apologize for from that place?” At the second stage of practice, that’s going to occur like co-dependence or enmeshed.

At the third stage, it transcends the us versus them that is present in the first and second stages of leadership. Part of what is so challenging about this is that we relate to what we see externally as a reflection of the same stage of leadership we currently operate from. For someone who’s currently practicing in the first stage, seeing a third stage practitioner clean up their messes, they’re going to be like, “I’m already doing it. Look at me. I’m already there. I’m cleaning up those messes. I’m practicing. I’m in the third stage. This is great. Good show, Adam, 10 out of 10.” For someone in the second stage witnessing a third stage practitioner cleaning up their mess, they’re going to say, “That looks co-dependence.” That’s not your fault how they received what they said. You’re being weak. You’re getting enmeshed in them. It looks like a step backwards when where we are is in the second stage of practice. This is what makes it so challenging to step forward.

Responsibility is free of blame. Click To Tweet

The last thing I’ll say is from our first stage of practice, witnessing someone in the second stage of practice looks obnoxious. It looks like being plain rude because we expect when we’re currently working at the first stage that everyone managed themselves accordingly so they don’t create waves. Anyone doing anything different doesn’t make sense. I talk about what is provided at each of these stages and then we’ll start to wind down. If you’d like to know more, if you have questions about these particular stages of practice, you can send us an email. It’s the questions that allow this to grow. I use this with my clients and support people in stepping more deeply into the third stage of practice when it comes to leadership but I don’t always know the questions that people are left with when I’m laying it out a distinction this way.

What We Get From Each Stage

We are getting something at each stage of practice. At the first stage of practice, we get freedom from upsetting people. We don’t have to be with much upset. The way we get that is by managing ourselves and managing other people. It’s a lot of work but you truly don’t have to be with the upset of other people. You get freedom from being with other people’s reactions. It’s not true freedom because you’re constantly worried and managing it, but you don’t have to be with it. At the first stage of practice, you don’t have to be responsible for your own life. Remember, at the first stage of practice, our expectation is that other people are conducting themselves in such a way that they don’t upset or do something bad to us. That lets me off the hook anytime something happens to me that I can blame on someone else, “It’s not my fault that I never get a raise. It’s my boss. He’s a jerk.” “It’s not my fault that I never seem to get the right jobs, it’s just that the world is set up against women, Geminis, or goats.” That sounds a little weird when I say freedom from being responsible for our lives, but that is truly freedom. There is a degree of freedom there.

It’s a powerless freedom but getting responsible for the entirety of your life is something every human being, including you and including me, has a great deal of resistance to. That is part of what we are getting in that first stage of practice. The second stage of practice, we get freedom from managing other people. We don’t have to censor ourselves anymore. We don’t have to worry about how other people feel. That is a great deal of freedom, especially when we’ve been spending so much time in that first stage of practice. We also get freedom from having to be with our own impact. What happens is that at the first stage, I’m avoiding having an impact. At the second stage, I’m putting myself out there. I’m saying stuff. I’m going to have an impact but there is a freedom from it because of the way I’m relating to other people and what their job is. If you get upset by something I say, you can move on. You can go somewhere else. It’s not my fault. I say my truth. If you don’t like it, you’re free to go.

GL 126 | Stages Of Leadership

Stages Of Leadership: From the first stage of practice, witnessing someone in the second stage of practice looks obnoxious.


There’s real freedom from having to get not what your intention was, and there’s a freedom from having to be like, “This is the impact I’m having in the world.” Getting to be free from that, that feels nice. The trouble is that it’s not a true freedom. You’re forever going to be the victim to your impact. It’s that you don’t have to be with that. Your impact is still having an impact. The way you show up in the world is still causing stuff to happen, it’s that you get to be oblivious to it at the second stage of practice. There is a degree of blissful ignorance to that. The last thing that you get at the second stage of practice is responsibility for your intentions. You get to now be responsible for what you intended. The second stage allows for that.

There’s even an opportunity sometimes when you have a moment of vulnerability and someone’s like, “That felt you were being a jerk.” You’re like, “I can see that I was intending to hurt you.” There is access to more responsibility than in the first stage of practice. There is access to a little more ability to take ownership and the place we can do that as often in what we intended. The third stage of practice provides you these things. First, it provides you complete and total responsibility, not just for your intentions but also for your impact in the world. Responsibility is free of blame. We’re not blaming you. You’re taking ownership. The way I posted that message, the fact that I didn’t use emojis seemed to leave that person upset. At the second stage of practice, we would say, “That’s on them. They’re reading my thing a certain way,” which then has you unable to own that there is part of an impact that you created and then do something about it.

At the third stage of practice, it provides an opening to start to be like, “Around people that show up like this, I might need to use more emojis so that they can hear my message a little bit better because my deeper commitment is my message gets out there and changes the world. I’m not willing to sit on expecting other people to read my stuff or fuck off.” I’ve had those thoughts, so there’s not a judgment of anyone. Admission of what can show up for me. As you learn to be with this, it can be quite heavy at first because you’re like, “All of this is my creation, but it also provides an opening.” It provides an opportunity for you to start to take ownership of everything that you are creating, of all of your impact, which gives you access to power. If you can own your role and how things are getting created, then you have the power to do something about it.

The third stage of practice gives you ownership of everything you create from the intention to how you are impacting people. There’s a lot of power available in this stage of practice, but often at the cost of it not being quite so blissfully ignorant. Finally, at this stage of practice, you get the ability to create results in the world that are larger than yourself. The vast majority of people are creating results that are a function of themselves. From that model, they do everything they can as an expression of themself, but there are memes and sexy rhyming aphorisms like dreams need teams. In order to create a result that’s bigger than ourselves, it requires getting to that third stage of leadership. You can’t do it otherwise because we can only get as far as what we intended. We get stuck in that second stage.

What do you do with all of this? For now, you might start to notice these stages. Usually, people look, “I’m probably in the third stage. I’m mostly in the second stage but sometimes have moments of the third stage.” If that’s true, I would ask you or invite you to take a look at like, “What am I committed to that’s greater than myself? What is the commitment I am showing up in my life that is greater than myself?” Most of us don’t have something like this. We’d say our kids but that’s your genes. On some level, it’s true that most parent is practicing some third stage leadership with their children. We want to get a little beyond that so you can see past the low-hanging fruit. The other thing you may notice is where your attention is. Are you looking over there to see how the reaction is happening, or are you asking yourself, “Was I right about that or am I wrong?” Which is the second stage practice question. I get in that a lot.

This is like a sliding scale or a spectrum. We’re moving in and out of this practice always. There are moments where I’m like, “Do people think I’m a jerk?” When I see someone show up on a post I’ve written with a challenging comment, I can fall into first stage leadership at first. “Do I upset people?” As I moved through that, start to get into the second stage of practice, and get indignant that they’re calling me wrong, I’m like, “Screw you. I’m right.” My second stage practice stands. If I’m willing to slow down and take time, I can usually find my way back to, “What am I committed to here?” It’s rarely I am committed to making someone else wrong. That’s a second stage of practice. The Third stage of practice is beyond right or wrong. I don’t need you to be wrong. I don’t need me to be right, but I am committed to having a particular impact. How do I respond to this thing that’s shown up in such a way that I can have that impact?

One of the beautiful and most powerful ways to practice at the third stage is to be in the practice of cleaning up your messes, even in, especially when you’re certain you haven’t made one. If you’ve said something to someone and it’s left them upset, I promise you that there’s something for you to take responsibility for. It’s often more than like, “I should have known better how to handle their shit.” Not much responsibility for you in there. Look through these lenses, be in the practice of noticing when you’ve made a mess, and see if you can take ownership for that fact. What that does is it starts to allow you to see the gate through which you can walk to begin practicing at that third stage. Most of the time, we’re so busy saying, “That’s not my fault. I didn’t do that,” which is the second stage of practice that we never even have the gate appear for us to walk through. There’s no hope of moving beyond it.

Finally, wherever you are practicing is okay. Relating to one is better than the other is problematic at best. It’ll get you stuck, and it’ll get you to start judging other people, “At least I’m not there.” You’re stuck in the second stage of practice. That’s what we’ve got for you. If you’d like to learn more about this, we need your questions on this particular topic especially. If you want to know more about these three stages of practice or have questions about how they interact, or how does this show up, or what do I do? Send an email to PR@AdamQuiney.com. We’d love to hear from you. That’s going to be everything that we’ve got for you. Bye.

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About Adam Quiney

I’m an obsessive perfectionist, high-performer, former lawyer, and now an Executive Mentor. I know what it’s like to succeed easily and quickly. To blindly put my happiness in the hands of achievement.

All the success, money and possessions in the world couldn’t cure my boredom. Couldn’t produce a loving, intimate relationship with my wife…and definitely couldn’t fulfill me.