The Subtle Challenges of Leadership

Mar 13, 2015

If you’ve ever been around a teenager, you know that the transition from adolescence into adulthood has it’s challenges.So, it is with adults.

Before I explain what that looks like, let’s climb back into our imaginary elevator. Remember, after every fourth stage, we enter a new tier of development. This time, we’re not just pushing the button to the next floor. We’re making a giant leap into the Subtle Tier.

This tier represents a whole new way of life. Broader perspectives. New experiences. Bigger challenges. A new identity that can sometimes feel a bit awkward and messy.

As people transition from one tier to another, they often feel the need to disrupt the status quo: new friends, new career, new location, even divorce—these can all be indicators of someone moving from the Concrete to the Subtle Tier of development.

Before you get rid of the dog or divorce your spouse, take a deep breath. You may be growing into a new stage of development, and it’s all good. Sometimes we simply need to settle down in our cage until we learn how to adapt to this new view from the 5th floor of experience.

The Subtle Tier

At the Subtle Tier, we move from a “childlike” concrete world that is based on what is seen, heard, touched, and tasted to the more subtle world of thoughts, feelings, and glimpses into the future.

Obviously, children have thoughts at the concrete stage. They just aren’t aware that they come from within. As we shift into the Subtle Tier, we now have an increased awareness of our own thinking and our potential to make significant choices.

The many nuances of how this awareness plays out is far too complex for a single blog. Let me simplify by taking you back to those awkward years during and after high school. Do you remember trying on adulthood in whatever form it took, but never quite feeling like you owned it?

You may have imagined your future, but it was still a bit murky. Thoughts of independence, while exciting, might have also conjured up emotions of anxiety, uncertainty, or even fear.

These emotions are a natural part of growth and development because we feel like we must literally shed the “old skin” in order to claim the new. In our newfound identity, we crave change but fear it all the same.

The Expert Stage

At the Subtle Tier, we find ourselves on the 5th floor of development or what’s known as the Expert stage.

The subtle thoughts, feelings, and reasoning of this stage are often associated with details of precision. Individuals who score in this range often have a specific technical expertise, e.g., engineers, architects, medical doctors, dentists, etc. They are creative and productive.

People with this level of expertise also struggle with prioritizing and are often challenged working outside the scope of their own sphere. They might even casually dismiss those who do not share their level of mastery.

Because they focus on their own internal thoughts of precision, it is not unusual for “Experts” to appear aloof, confused, or distant. In reality, they are simply processing the next task-at-hand.

Without people at this stage, we’d live in a chaotic world void of laws and restrictions. These are the good guys who take responsibility seriously. They value facts and regulations and are loyal to their immediate sphere of projects, department, and family.

The Expert Stage and Leadership . . . Maybe?

If you’ve ever wondered why doctors, for example, don’t run their own offices, it’s because leadership can be a struggle for people at the Expert stage of development.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • A tendency to focus on an inner experience of time and the need for perfection in the moment. This leads to effectiveness over efficiency in terms of time and relationships.
  • A time experience that includes past, present, and a limited perspective on the future. Experts may not be able to visualize the future for the company beyond a three-year time span.
  • A propensity to micromanage due to difficulty in recognizing the expertise of others.
  • Perfectionistic tendencies that don’t allow for growth of the business.
  • Difficulty leading or managing others because of a preference to work in the business rather than on the business

This doesn’t mean that people at the Expert stage can’t become effective leaders. All it means is that leadership is not congruent with their center of gravity. They often prefer to work on their own in a precise setting that allows them to accomplish their goals. In order to become more effective in leading or managing a team, they would have to be willing to grow up and into the next stage of development.

Stay tuned next week as I explore the Achiever stage of development. We’re past all the early childhood and adolescent foundational stuff. It starts to get really interesting when we see what it means to grow up and wake up into the later stages of development.

Just remember. One stage is not necessarily better than another. Each stage has strengths and weaknesses far beyond what I can describe in a blog. The point is to live a healthy balanced life at whatever stage you’re in.

If you’d like to know about your specific stage of development and how it may be impacting your business and your life, please contact

[callout]This post is part of a series written by Sharon Spano, PhD. The series is titled, The Stages of Human Development. To learn about the stages of human development, read my posts: