The 4 C’s of Generative Leadership

generative leadership

What is the true meaning of leadership? I guess it depends upon who you ask.

Some may say that leadership is about authority. Others may define leadership as the capacity to have a vision and inspire others to support it. Many speak to leadership from the standpoint of direction and decision-making. And still others define leadership simply as influence.

When I consider my own definition of leadership, admittedly, I struggle. I find that I can’t limit leadership to a single “thing” like authority, direction, vision, decision-making or even a title. I believe this is because I see leadership not as a noun – a person, place or thing; but rather, I see leadership as a verb – a state or action. From this perspective, leadership becomes a journey. And an inner one at that. An exhilarating and frightening internal expedition completely intermingled with your own life’s path.

This is why I resonate so much with the term “Generative Leadership”. When you are generative, you are creating. You are bringing forth — giving rise to — continuously renewing, advancing and developing. You are producing. You are learning. You are evolving.

Generative Leadership

In 1990, Peter Senge wrote an article called The Leader’s New Work. The article was written on the premise that human beings are designed for learning and advancing. We are meant to evolve.

From this point of view, Senge makes a clear distinction between leadership that is motivated by challenges or problems which he refers to as adaptive leadership — and generative leadership which he coins as a “higher form” of leadership.

Often times, leaders turn their focus towards a challenge or problem – the very things that keep them up at night. As part of the solution, they try to adapt to the issue at hand. It’s true that this kind of leadership is crucial for the survival of any organization or community that wants to remain viable. But Senge contends that you also need generative leadership — the difference between the two being the sources of energy that underpins them.

In organizations today, the focus of leadership tends to be underpinned by problems. After all, someone has to step up to the plate and take accountability to solve those pressing issues. Yet once that critical problem is solved, most often adaptive leaders withdraw, receding into the background until the next major issue arises. This creates a fragmented way of leading.

On the other hand, Generative Leadership is underpinned by vision. And vision funds movement. If you are going to have continuous movement, you need a robust vision. Generative leaders create their future instead of reacting to it, moving a company beyond reaction and fragmented problem solving to a more forward looking, advancing organization.

The 4 C’s

Generative Leadership fosters innovation, organizational agility and high performance over time. More traditional perspectives on leadership are based on a leader’s individual characteristics. Generative leadership focuses on the interactions between leaders and team members with a focus towards building organizations as communities for learning.

The role of the generative leader is to lead and take accountability for the collective learning of their organization. Their function is to challenge people to recognize the lenses through which they view the organization and any personal biases or influences they hold that may impact thinking. Illuminating potentially limiting beliefs and assumptions before delving into significant dialogue promotes self-awareness and creates the conditions for more generative thinking and innovative solutions.

Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true leader.” – Albert Einstein

Generative leaders are fully committed to continuous learning; and that commitment is unwavering. They see it as their duty and responsibility to personally develop themselves and their people in order to guide the organization in identifying steps that can be taken to unleash the energy, intelligence and creativity from within the entire system in pursuit of the shared reality they hope to create.

“You know you are in the presence of a powerful leader when you walk away feeling greater.” – Susan Taylor Click To Tweet

Generative leaders are connected to and engaged with their people; you feel appreciated by them. That’s because they place value on building interpersonal relationships, welcoming the involvement of many and tapping the intelligence of all. They are active listeners. They are good communicators. And they are great collaborators, appreciating the diversity of ideas and opinions that exist within the system.

A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.”

— John Maxwell

Winston Churchill believed courage to be rightly esteemed as the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all others. It’s not groundbreaking news that leadership takes courage; but generative leaders tend to be more courageous than most. They have the tenacity to take risks and the guts to be decisive — often in the face of great opposition. What they are trying to achieve involves radical, tradition-defying ideas which are often met with a lot of resistance. Yet they stay the course. They are passionate about their vision, knowing they will better achieve it from a place of purpose over position. They trust themselves. They trust their instincts. And maintain unwavering faith in what they feel called to do.

It’s simple. Love is about helping another to complete himself.” – William O’Brien

Generative Leaders are complete. They are complete first within themselves — and from that place — help to complete others. And they do this with unabiding love. Yup! I said it – the “L-word”! Because love is essential to leadership. In order to create sustainable organizations that will lead us through the future, love and leadership must unite. The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued is vital. Generative leaders know this because they do not see their employees as a means to an end but instead as a means unto themselves. Generative leaders therefore do the requisite personal work towards self-realization; and from that place of wholeness, help others to develop their highest potential.

generative leadership


  1. Gérard Zeegers on March 14, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    I fully agree! It’s all about love and passion.

  2. Naini Singh on June 21, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Hi Susan,
    I feel that most leaders get to that position because of those traits! Okay , maybe “complete” is a powerful one.
    To be generative, shouldn’t you be creative and have critical thinking skills. Most leaders are great at organizing things but have little creativity.

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