A Leader’s MaturityNov 03, 2023
The general understanding of the term “maturity” is of a person behaving emotionally and mentally as would an adult, and immaturity is behaving as an adult wouldn’t.
Based on the people we have known during our lives, it would be hard to convince us that all leaders are mature, even though they may be adult. And not all adults are leaders or mature.
A 12-year-old who is captain of their sports team is their leader but is neither an adult nor mature – yet still the leader.
An 18-year-old entrepreneur who starts a new digital platform is likely to be more mature than the 12-year-old but arguably does not possess the maturity of a fifty-year-old adult.
What is clear is that one’s maturity varies among people and is not “granted” automatically to them. A person who is 50 years old has secured the age but may not have developed the maturity of other 50-year-olds who have had different lives, different experiences, and different contexts.
Leadership is affected in the same way. A leader who has achieved adulthood and had many years in, say, leading a digital work-from-home business with a handful of employees, may have developed maturity in and for that context. However, that level of maturity may not help that leader if placed into a 4000-employee organisation with a multiplicity of people-management issues.
Context counts. The aspects of maturity for leadership will vary and different aspects will come into focus under different conditions. Sometimes, the context will draw on an aspect of a leader’s maturity that lacks sufficient capability or substance.
A leader who is called on to be compassionate but lacks compassion will be challenged. A leader who is called on to adjudicate an ethical practice issue, but who lacks an ethical standard within themselves, will be challenged. The examples are endless but highlight that the aspects of maturity need to match the needs of the context.
That doesn’t mean that a leader can lack some aspects of maturity when the context doesn’t call on them, but rather that the leader who lacks the level of maturity needed for a context will likely fail the tests that the leader confronts.
So, what role does maturity play in leadership, and can maturity be enhanced in a meaningful way? What are the attributes and dimensions of maturity in leadership?
The following are the attributes of maturity and therefore of effective leadership. The following list doesn’t necessarily mean that a person lacking some of these maturity attributes is not a leader, rather that lacking any of these maturity attributes will increase the likelihood that the leader will meet situation where they are seriously challenged in their ability to deal with them.
Conversely, it is rare to meet anyone who displays all of these attributes. It’s not impossible, but it is very rare. Regardless, it should be an aspiration for all leaders to optimise these maturity attributes as such capability will significantly enhance their leadership effectiveness.
Some would also argue that people (leaders or not) who exhibit most of these attributes are highly evolved people.
However, these attributes don’t necessary imply intelligence, as each attribute is different and independent from intelligence. People with “average” intelligence are able to achieve these maturity attributes too.
The other important dimension of all the maturity attributes is that having or getting the attribute is not like turning on a switch: one minute you don’t have it and the next you do.
The possession of an attribute is on a continuum: at one end is “absence of the attribute” and the other end is “adequate for most realistic situations”. The space between is travelled through experience, time, and context.
In some situations, having “some” of an attribute may be sufficient, while in other contexts it may be inadequate to handle the situation.
One other important dimension to mention here is that of culture. There are multiple cultures around the world and each one has characteristics that set it apart from other cultures.
Some cultures might be more accepting of corruption, or respect for others, or attitude to the authority of leaders, or blaming others, or self-aggrandisement, emotional control, humility, the making of promises, and so on.
The challenge therefore is to understand mature leadership in the context in which it is being applied.
For an individual leader who may have the influence of cultures other than the one in which they are leading, they need to reflect, adjust, and adopt themselves more appropriately to their leadership environment they’re in, to be an effective and mature leader.
Here are the characteristics of maturity in successful adult leadership not in any particular order (remember, they’re context defined.)
Knowing and understanding context – the mature leader is well aware of the stakeholder’s objectives, the organisation’s objectives, likely impacts and influences of them and on systems, processes, and existing protocols.
This comes from the leader’s familiarity with the organisation and it various dimensions, functions, and activities.
The mature leader knows the “hot buttons” and the things that aren’t as important. The mature leader immediately understands the things that matter and where to focus.
Learning from the past – experience is a great teacher. The mature leader is aware of what worked in the past in the organisation and what didn’t.
Similarly, the leader knows which of their decisions and actions worked and which didn’t.
This understanding is embedded in the mature leader’s memory and way of thinking. For the mature leader, the past represents the historical record of successful and failed actions, and thus a wealth of wisdom.
Thinking before acting and knowing the consequences of acting – knee-jerk reactive thinking is easy. The mature leader has learned however, that such decision-making has ramifications that are often difficult to rectify.
The mature leader knows to reflect on a decision, especially one that has significant ramifications. Sometimes fast decisions are required but when one has the time, one needs to reflect and examine the evidence.
Thinking-through the impacts of all decisions is a critical requirement for all mature leaders.
Clarity of context’s purpose – not having clarity of the intent in a context will almost inevitably, lead to poor, confused, unhelpful, or harmful decision.
The mature leader will always seek clarity of purpose of an issue, problem, situation, or opportunity. Clarity of objective defines solution strategy.
Mature leaders tend to probe, ask questions, and seek validation for those issues, causes and contexts with which they have lower levels of familiarity.
Taking responsibility – the mature leader will always take ultimate responsibility for all the things in their role description and any activities they take on.
Taking responsibility does not threaten or harm their ego or their self-image.
They see difficult situations not as threats, but as opportunities to enhance, improve and fulfil expectations.
Self-management of ego – the mature leader knows who they are. They know how strong they are and where they need assistance and help from others.
In both cases, such understanding of their core essence does not impact their ego – they don’t gloat, brag, or think more of themselves.
They also don’t deny not knowing something and welcome the input of others. If anything, the input from others, instead of demeaning them, enhance their knowledge and understanding and makes them “more powerful”.
Self-awareness – at all times, the mature leader is comfortable “in their own skin”. They don’t try to have others perceive them for other than who and what they are, or try to present themselves as bigger, better, wiser, more connected, or more able than what they are.
Subject to their sense of compassion for others, they tend to “tell it the way they see it”, without aggrandising or demeaning others.
They tend not to have depressive feelings of self-doubt or of self-worth. They seek to learn and understand, and the gap in such learning and understanding is an opportunity to enhance themselves.
Emotional self-control and effectiveness – a mature leader has strong control over their own emotions. Rarely will they shout, lose control, yell at someone, or react uncontrollably.
They understand the impact on others of such behaviour. Not only do they have strong personal control, but they have a good understanding of other people – what they say, what they do, and their body language.
That doesn’t mean that they are empaths in the common sense of the term, but they are receptive to the feelings of others, and they do understand more about others than the less mature person.
Because of their understanding of others, they are able to achieve more when working with them – because they “know what makes others tic.”
Humility – the way a mature leader demonstrates humility is not a demonstration of their meekness, which is the frequent meaning, along with lack of vanity, unassertiveness, and lack of pride.
The mature leader’s humility is better defined as an appreciation and satisfaction of one’s self, of one’s talents and skills, and one’s virtues. It’s not having the psychologically driven need to extoll, validate, and assert one’s self.
The humility for such a mature leader comes from their perspective and respect of life where “in the context of the greatness of humanity, the magnificence of life, the vastness of knowledge, I am but a mere speck.”
In such a context, they are humble, yet they understand, respect, and admire who they are and what they have achieved.
There are cultures where humility is “part of their DNA” where self-praise is not only unacceptable but scorned. In such a context, it’s relatively easy for a member of such a culture to satisfy the need for humility, subject of course to that individual’s own psychology.
Dynamic listening skills – without the attentive and conscientious listening to others, one can’t fully understand and appreciate their motivations, their objectives, and their feelings.
The mature leader is a dynamic listener, and it forms one of their most important sources of new knowledge.
With maturity comes the recognition that other people have a view, have needs and have legitimate opinions. They also have solution that you may not have contemplated.
Therefore, by actively listening to those talking to you, you hear much more than the mere words. Mature leaders understand this and live it every day.
Strong values, ethical, legal, and moral frameworks – not an option, but a standard for living, a yardstick against which all the mature leader’s decisions are made.
When actions, policies or other organisational aspects breach the leader’s framework, one of two outcomes normally occur: The framework is altered to comply with the mature leader’s values, ethical, legal, and moral frameworks; or the leader leaves the organisation.
Respect of others and being supportive – the leader, mature or otherwise, will be a leader of people. When one recognises the humanity of all people, then one is able to acknowledge their individuality, their different histories, different contexts, different needs and different desires.
Understanding this of people leads to a respect of all people – “had I lived the same contexts and situations, that may have been me.” That’s generally an empathic or compassionate person’s approach to others.
When maturity is applied to this context, then not only is there respect, but there is an acknowledgment that even though people deserve respect, they may have differing views that the mature leader may or may not agree with. These views may or may not help the organisation, task, or activity. This is a therefore a very magnanimous and conciliatory view of others.
The challenge for mature leaders is to understand when others have significantly different views to them, yet the mature leader will still and always treat them with respect, compassion, and fairness.
Another challenge is to guide, mentor and support those with whom the mature leader disagrees.
Open-mindedness – a mature view of one’s self normally acknowledges that one is not an expert or perfect in everything – in fact, one is not perfect in anything.
Conversely, and according to the Kruger-Dunning effect, there are people who really do believe they are perfect in their area.
The argument then goes that for one to believe they are perfect but where their belief can be disproved, they must view their capability illogically and unrealistically, thus their view is an immature one.
However, it is both more realistic and reasonable to believe that there is always more to know and understand about any topic. That is both a more rational and mature approach to one’s self.
The mature leader then, has a willingness to listen to the ideas, experience, and knowledge of others so as to better benefit their own skills. This open-mindedness is a fundamental characteristic of a mature mind.
Authenticity – people who play a role they think better suits the context or their own self-image are not being authentic to themselves. They are playing a character that is not them.
When this occurs in leadership and management, and it is a frequent occurrence, then it is virtually impossible for others to understand the “real” person behind the actor’s mask. That makes sincerity, honesty, frankness, trust, and communications more difficult to convey.
Unfortunately, many people (leaders and managers) are lousy actors, so others in the organisation detect the lack of authenticity and consistency and are confused by it and by acting roles that conflict in style and substance with each other.
A mature leader consistently maintains the same persona. That doesn’t mean they don’t get angry or sad or frustrated because they do. It means that their responses are consistent to similar triggers across situations, contexts, and issues. They are understood by others, and they are relatively predictable.
What people always see is the real leader because the leader has no reservation about showing their real selves.
Commitment to fulfil one’s promises – when a leader makes a promise to someone and that promise is fulfilled to the best of their ability, then trust in the leader is enhanced.
There is nothing that will destroy trust and followship as quickly as a promise made and broken.
The mature leader understands this very well; but they believe that the promise or commitment is much more than “merely” a commitment – it’s a solemn promise that the leader takes to their heart and their focus.
Can handle criticism and flattery – a person who is insecure about themselves, their image, or their reputation may find criticism as both threatening and unpleasant.
Conversely, such a person may also take flattery too seriously and may cause their sensitive ego to over-inflate without justification.
When a person’s self-image is threatened or over-inflated, there may be responses that are not helpful. For example, a threatened ego may see the exclusion of helpful assistance, while an over-inflated ego may see the person ignoring the opinions and input of others because of their unjustified belief in their own superiority.
A mature leader doesn’t have these issues. Firstly, they accept criticism in the context in which the criticism is given – and they see it as an opportunity to improve themselves and the context.
Secondly, flattery is nice, and it’s also nice for the mature leader, but it is never over-blown or taken too far by the leader. The mature leaders know their limits, their skills, and their capabilities. They welcome sincere and proportionate flattery and praise but accept it only in healthy doses.
Gratitude and graciousness – because the mature leader respects others and has compassion, they are both quick and happy to say “thank you” to those who have performed admirably – whether within their role specification or not.
The mature leader doesn’t believe that the showing of gratitude or the giving of thanks to others threatens themselves or suggests their own inability.
They are secure in their own self-image making gratitude and thanks giving very easy – and frequent.
Gratitude and graciousness are important dimensions of followship and need to be displayed by mature leaders without fear or favour.
Ability to trust and be trusted – a leader lacking trust in them by others or lacking trust of others will complicate and degrade leadership.
Trust is a fundamental attribute of successful leadership that affects all levels of an organisation.
A board that doesn’t trust the CEO will either make the CEO work much harder to validate every decision or will lead to the CEO’s termination.
A CEO who doesn’t trust their direct reports creates an environment of doubt, uncertainty, secrecy, and lack of confidence. And so on down the organisational hierarchy.
A mature leader knows this and works very hard to build and maintain trust.
- Understand the context of the issue and its impacts.
- Understand what have past attempts achieved in tackling the problem.
- Think through the ramifications of all proposed actions – avoid knee-jerk actions.
- Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve in all contexts. Avoid loose assumptions without validation.
- Take responsibility for everything undertaken at your direction.
- Don’t let your ego become a player.
- Be comfortable with who you are and what you bring to the table. It’s not about you - it’s about the problem, issue, or challenge.
- Stay cool. Stay calm. Stay focussed. Stay determined.
- Stay humble – your image and reputation will be enhanced when you successfully solve the problem, not when you tell everyone how great you are.
- Listen It’s not about hearing, but about understanding the speaker and their motivations.
- Maintain your values and standards.
- Keep an open mind.
- Be authentic at all times.
- Keep your promises and commitments.
- Don’t personalise criticism of you or
- Be kind, gracious and be grateful.
- Trust and be trusted.
If you have or suspect negative responses to these issues, then your leadership or the leadership of others may be compromised.
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We’re proud to advise that the authors of this piece are Advisory & Mentoring directors.