Erik Erikson, an original protégé of Sigmund Freud and one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, proposed that we all move through eight predictable stages of growth and development. Each stage presents a challenge with a potentially positive outcome and a potentially negative outcome. If one resolves the challenge at each stage, one can then move on to the next stage. Failure at any stage, however, results in difficulty getting beyond that stage. The worst case would be a dramatic failure to achieve a basic sense of trust in infancy, since that would prevent one from achieving satisfactory resolutions at any stage beyond infancy. In general, having resolved the challenges of life relative to one’s age prepares one for potentially effective leadership of those who have not necessarily moved on to later stages. One interesting feature of Erikson’s stages is that the age ranges for the challenges in the later years have expanded due to expansion in the life expectancy of human beings in the third millennium.

Age 0-2 Basic Conflict: Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust. The infant must form a trusting relationship with primary caregivers or risk developing a generalized sense of mistrust. The basic sense of trust we all need to develop at this stage is also the basis for courage, faith, and empathy for others. The irony at this stage is that the infant is thoroughly dependent on caregivers and is not able to control the process of achieving trust. Studies consistently indicate that habitual antisocial, criminal, and sociopathic behavior correlates strongly with a failure to achieve a basic sense of trust in the beginning of the life cycle. One obvious conclusion is that effective parenting and care-giving are critical to everything that follows in the life cycle. 


Age 2-3 Basic Conflict: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. At this stage, the child's energies and attention are directed toward the development of basic physical skills, including grasping, rectal sphincter control, walking, and talking — the skills upon which all future complex skills depend. The child may develop shame and doubt if this stage is not handled well.


Age 4-5 Basic Conflict: Initiative vs.Guilt. The child continues to become more assertive and to take more initiative, learning that its actions have consequences in the world. If the child is consistently too forceful or aggressive and causes unnecessary damage, guilt feelings may emerge.


Age 6-14 Basic Conflict: Industry vs. Inferiority. The child must deal with demands to learn new skills and develop habits of sustained work over extended periods of time or risk a sense of inferiority, failure, and incompetence. This is the period of formal schooling, where sustained effort over several years results in knowledge and competence, as symbolized in graduation ceremonies. It is also the period when future athletes, musicians, performers, and professionals in all fields begin to develop habits of sustained effort and training, which lead to significant results — but only over extended periods of time.


Age 12-25 Basic Conflict: Identity vs. Role Confusion. The teenager and young adult must achieve a sense of identity in occupation, sex roles, politics, and religion. This is one of the most complex and fascinating stages. Failure at this stage results in a sense of confusion and panic over one's place in the world. Life in our post-modern poses extremely complex challenges for identity formation due to rapid changes in cultural norms and assumptions about racial, sexual, and ethnic identity itself. A useful, stable sense of identity will not change significantly over time, but must be revised and tweaked regularly to reflect changes in the self and the world.


Age 22-30 Basic Conflict: Intimacy vs. Isolation. The young adult must develop stable intimate relationships or suffer feelings of isolation. The biological imperative here is the need for stable child-rearing relationships to nurture and support the next generation, but the more comprehensive psychosocial imperative is about the capacity to maintain long-term relationships with one or a few other individuals.


Age 30-70 Basic Conflict: Generativity vs. Stagnation. Each psychologically healthy adult is challenged to find some way to relate to, support, and lead the next generation. This stage of life is inherently a period for leadership. The biological imperative again is about effective parenting, but Erikson claimed that every adult can be generative as long as they are doing “the work of the world.” Failure at this stage results in a sense of stagnation, confusion, and lagging purpose.


Age 70-death Basic Conflict: Integrity vs. Despair. As the end of life comes into view, the culmination is a need to feel fulfilled in relation to one's purpose in life and one's relationships to significant others. The central issues are about relationships and moral values, not material achievement, wealth, or success. A failure at this stage results in a sense of despair and worthlessness. Shakespeare captured the challenge of integrity versus despair at this stage in King Lear, his tragic drama of an aged king who squanders his legacy and his sanity at the end of his life.

Applications for effective leadership.

1. Until the final stages of the life cycle, the young tend to follow their elders. This is especially true in traditional cultures, where life spans tend to be shorter and formal education tends to be of little importance. Among children, age is important because it tends to correlate with size and strength. And wherever experience is useful, such as in most workplaces, age still matters. The critical early stages, of course, are defined by the need for parents, teachers, and adult role models to provide guidance and examples for the young.

2. Inability to lead or follow effectively is often a consequence of failure at an early stage of development. Even if they have not fully resolved the challenges of early life, some people may be able to function reasonably well in situations that do not require leadership skills and values or commitment to long-term goals and collaboration with other people. Developmental failures in the early stages, however, can hinder effectiveness in later stages, especially when generativity and integrity are required, as they are in most leader-follower interactions. The population of those who wind up in jail for violent crimes is disproportionately composed of those who failed to resolve the first stage of the human life cycle: basic trust versus basic mistrust.

3. In the adult stages of life, attention is directed outward to the welfare of other people. The challenges of intimacy, generativity, and integrity are all focused on relationships with other individuals and with the larger community. In this context, Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development mirror Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs (wherein the highest level of need is for meaning and purpose) and Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning (wherein the highest level is based on empathy for other people).