different sized green plants representing different stages of growth

Vertical development recognizes 7 stages of personal growth that help leaders mentally and emotionally prepare to guide organizations and themselves through an ever more complex world 

Key Takeaways:

The 7 main stages of vertical development

  1. Opportunist
  2. Conformer
  3. Achiever
  4. Expert
  5. Redefining
  6. Strategist
  7. Alchemist

The traditional approach to leadership development has been to focus on what people know – what skills and education they have. It’s been all about how competent they are to drive productivity.

But this way of measuring effective leadership just doesn’t work in the complex world we’re living in today. Everything is changing fast, especially with the digital revolution and emerging technologies that change how we interact with one another, conduct business, earn money and view the world at large.

Vertical development is a new approach to leadership advancement that is less concerned with building skillsets and more concerned with developing maturity and leadership.

What is vertical development?

For us to understand vertical development, it’s helpful to talk about what it isn’t: horizontal development. Horizontal development is concerned with building competencies to succeed in a career. It’s all about getting the hard skills necessary to complete tasks, whether through education or real-world job experience.

On the other hand, vertical development is about self-development and becoming more mature. It supports the idea that the best leaders are more impactful in our current complex world when they are able to see and navigate complexity, take on other people’s perspectives, reflect on their own thinking and behavior, and even hold two opposing ideas at once.

Horizontal development is about what we know; vertical development is about how we think. 

By training leaders in vertical development – more than skills and experience alone – they can truly unlock new ways of thinking and become more effective leaders.

The 7 stages of vertical development

What does vertical development look like? There are seven defined stages people may develop through across their lives, but very few people go through all of them. While the stages are clearly different from one another, and each one is a stepping stone to the next, many people are in more than one stage at the same time. The stage we most associate with is our home base.

Let’s dive in:

Stage 1: Opportunist 

This is a preconventional stage, meaning the person hasn’t quite reached where most people need and want to be in the professional world. In fact, this stage is more associated with child development, and very few adults are only in this stage – although that doesn’t mean we don’t come back to it in situations where we need to look out for ourselves. Opportunists are self-interested and can be manipulative. They know how to get their basic needs met, so they’re great in times of crisis and often excel in jobs like sales. But few people want to follow Opportunists as leaders since this stage is overly self-oriented.

Stage 2: Conformer

Only about 10% of adults sit in this second phase. Conformers have let go of the self-interest associated with Opportunists and now align more with a group’s state of mind, whether that is their family, peers at school or members of an organization. They want to conform to and fit into a group’s larger identity, usually adopting the ideas of a leader. Conformers are not yet concerned with trying to change things or speaking up.

Stage 3: Expert

This stage is where the majority of adults sit, with 40% residing here. People reach the Expert stage when they begin wanting to be recognized and get credit for the things they know and do well. 

Experts realize that it’s not great to be only self-interested or only a Conformer to group ideas. They’re ready to solve problems with a strong body of knowledge they’ve built and are guided by logic and expertise. Experts typically feel like they’re the smartest person in the room in their given specialty, so they’re not great at teamwork and don’t tend to have much emotional intelligence.

Experts are needed at most organizations because they solve problems and accomplish tasks really well. These are classic front-line employees.

Stage 4: Achiever

Achievers are still really great at what they do but transcend the Expert phase by becoming more collaborative with other people. They want to start reaching bigger strategic goals and begin to see that they can’t do that alone. Achievers excel at teamwork because they understand that collaboration brings better results.

Achievers are very hard workers and productivity-oriented. They’re very effective in entry-level roles and managerial work. When we think of the modern Western businessman, we’re often thinking of an Achiever.

But Achievers also tend to take on too much work. They’re very ambitious, and it’s hard for them to recognize their limitations or think outside the box of logic and rationality. Some 30% of adults sit in this phase, and many stop here or at the Expert level.

Stage 5: Redefining

About 20% of people continue along this development path to stage five. At the redefining stage, people are driven by a sense of burnout or questioning why they do things a certain way. They start to look for other ways of doing things with a less conventional mindset. Redefiners start to challenge the norm and how they’ve been taught to think.

When we hear about people having a midlife crisis, that’s generally the way pop culture shows the redefining phase. These people are ready to make big changes and transitions, often ones that don’t make sense to those who’ve known them for a long time. Redefiners start to align their lives to their own values instead of everyone else’s values.

In this phase, people can start to frustrate colleagues because Redefiners start to view traditional processes and mindsets as unimportant. It can be isolating to stop doing what people expect them to do.

Stage 6: Strategist

Only about 5% of the population reaches this stage. Strategists are most associated with accomplishing transformational change. They’re collaborative people who continue to challenge existing beliefs and assumptions.

Strategists can start to actually deal with all the complexity of the world. They can see the big picture and consider lots of different perspectives and ideas. Strategists create their own ideas and solutions to improve what was already there. 

There can be some tension between people in this stage and those in the earlier stages. Strategists may come off as weird to others because they’ve recognized that there aren’t really any rules to doing things. Strategists may also become more spiritual or gain a sense of peace as they begin to view people as interconnected. 

Stage 7: Alchemist

The Alchemist brings societal change and organizational transformation. They have historical significance in what they do and are often the people in history who have made such a big impact that we still talk about them today. 

Alchemists have gone through the stages and are now able to see bigger truths about society and the solutions needed to solve major problems. We’ll delve deeper into this in future posts.

Those seven stages make up the core of vertical development. Very few people go through all of them in a lifetime, and there may even be more stages beyond those seven yet to be identified. But if your goal is to develop stronger leaders inside your organization, helping them develop and grow into new stages of vertical development can unlock greater resilience, flexibility, problem-solving and interpersonal skills. 

One of the best ways to encourage this development is professional coaching. 

Learn more from The Sparks Group

The Sparks Group is dedicated to helping leaders and organizations grow vertically through these stages, creating more leadership capacity and resilience. 

We provide executive coaching and leadership development opportunities to help people achieve better results and become better leaders in our complicated world, where horizontal development is no longer enough.

Set up a free 30-minute discovery call with The Sparks Group to learn more.