Generativity—Its Role in Promoting Leader Development

To be human is to be social, historical, and semiotic (i.e., meaning-making). Personal identity emerges in this context. Role identity, as a leader or as a non-management worker asserting an act of emergent leadership, takes shape in a still different, broader context. It's defined by collective purpose (mission), a constellation of relationships, and an organizational culture that specifies norms of engagement.

Generativity spans all of this as a normatively positive and adaptive means of nurturing growth and promoting sustainability. Let me explain.

There is a we before the I

Our first encounter with we-ness is in the arms of our mother. In this preverbal, precognitive exchange, we first explore, through her mediating presence, the surrounding place, which is our social reality. And there, felt needs find their resolution depending upon her availability and responsiveness. First impressions of what the world is like are formed. Is there reason to trust relationships? Is it okay to express my experience and needs freely?

In time the compass of what we experience as place expands to include family; later, school and our first exposure to public, institutional life; and then work, career, and perhaps a family of our own. In any case, our development is always supervised, perhaps in wholesome, supportive ways that facilitate growth, or perhaps in ways that cause us to avoid intimacy and to worry about the trustworthiness or reliability of others. We emerge, shaped by that experience, with more or less optimism, openness, and confidence. We carry those dispositional tendencies forward.

So much of that shaping is dependent upon those who are responsible for providing care and overseeing our development. And that brings us to the vital role of generativity in development, whether at home or at work. For generativity is the normatively positive orientation that we may (or may not) choose as we advance into our adult life. Spanning the middle years (nominally, 35-65), it arises after we've established our personal identity, our vocational life, and our intimate attachment to partners and friends.

At this point, we may feel the pull of needs to give back, to serve a greater good, to be guided by feelings of care and concern for others, especially the next generation. If we do not heed this call, our choice tends toward an egocentric position of self-absorption, an orientation that leads to stagnation. You see, our election of the generative path is not only helpful for the next generation (Table 1). In a cog-wheeling manner, it opens new avenues of development for us too. We are revitalized by it.

Table 1. Characteristic behavioral differences between Generativity and Stagnation.

Table 1. Characteristic behavioral differences between Generativity and Stagnation.

The impact of a generative style of leadership

As the contrasting patterns of attitude and behavior in Table 1. indicate, a generative style of leadership conditions the culture in ways to encourage leader emergence. And it's a win-win outcome for senior leaders and those they lead. Through helping the next generation find their voice and assert their leadership we realize intrinsic rewards, including an expanded sense of personal impact, which creates a legacy of sustainability.

In this way, generative leadership creates space for diverse, early-career professionals and developing leaders to emerge, contribute, and learn. Their role-based identities evolve to incorporate new capabilities, technical and relational. These identities are affirmed through their actions and results, but also in the interactions between their emergent "claims" of leadership and the supportive "grants" of leadership by those who follow their lead. (More on this in an upcoming blog).

In closing, we should note that the generative role is not a matter of handing over a fully-formed world or enterprise for the next generation to continue as it's always been. Each generation must interpret what has come before in light of what is and what might be. This goes to our semiotic nature. We cannot become active agents of leadership, emissaries of the next generation without first acquiring our own authentic understanding and practical grasp of the mission and purpose at hand.

As always, we are happy to discuss your questions and comments. I can be reached at 617.312.5305 or by email at Thank you.