Evolving as a Leader – from Opportunist to Alchemist

Being a leader means dealing with people, interested parties and rapidly changing situations, often with conflicting agendas. It takes maturity to stay calm and acting constructively. More specifically, it takes social maturity. 

All of us intermittently embark on journeys of development in our lives. On these journeys we move from reactively focusing on things in our immediate proximity, to proactively dealing with comprehensive goals and possible conflicting objectives. 

Within a leadership context, progressing in these development stages means you are moving towards a state of higher social maturity. The concept was coined by American psychologist Robert Kegan. In short, it describes different development stages you go through as a leader (and, of course, as a person), in relation to surrounding factors. 

A socially mature leader is capable of reconciling, integrating and uniting diverse perspective in an organisation, without losing the ability to define a route forward for the organisation. Reaching a state of social maturity demands personal growth and a sense of how one reacts emotionally to interactions with different people and environments. An extensive summary of Keagan’s theory can be found here

Seven development stages and leadership styles

In his 2017 article, Dr. Tom Murray of University of Massachusetts Amherst introduces a model of how leaders can transform from opportunists to alchemists. This means going from being controlled by ones own needs and impulses, to observing and managing different macro-processes (both within and outside the organisation). These processes, in turn, construct needs for different principles of leadership and development.


A socially mature leader can adopt to unexpected changes that are common, sometimes inevitable, in todays rapidly growing, disruptive market. For example: value chains that suddenly become outdated and economical dead weight; restless co-workers seeking personal development instead of security; start-up competitors that, lacking existing structures, can set up new and opportunistic solutions. 

The personal development journey 

Personal development is about gradually maturing towards a stage where one is able to act with regard to different identities in different contexts. It describes how your surroundings shape you as a leader, and as a person.  

Excerpt: Constructive Development Theory, Robert Keagan – In over our Heads

To illustrate, let’s visualise three people. One person is a CFO, one is a line manager and one is an employee. The CFO strives towards structure and predictability first, and business development second. This might be perceived as counterproductive by the line manager and the employee, as their perspectives are less holistic. In the model above, the employee represents the left bubble (the socialised mind), the line manager represents the middle bubble (the self authoring mind) and the CFO represents the right bubble (self transforming mind). 

Improving your leadership maturity

In the above example, the CFO has reached a higher stage of social maturity than the other two. But, given time and resources, anyone can get there.

Alumni’s assessments focus on a leader’s emotional stability, non-reactiveness and social competence. By helping people develop their ability to face profound complexity, we assist them in identifying their role in conflicts and identities. As a result, they come out as more socially mature leaders.