Can You Skip Steps in Vertical Development?

A man skipping steps on clouds to reach a target.

While we can’t skip stages, we often go back to earlier stages, and sometimes we take on the state of another stage without fully embodying it.

Key Takeaways:

  • No skipping the line: We can’t skip vertical development stages – think of the framework like tree rings, where the outer rings can’t exist without the inner
  • Range is good: We can think of the stages as being fluid like states, and having the flexibility to bring the right state or stage to a situation is good
  • Go vertical: Conditions that help us grow include getting in over our heads, experiencing a major life event, or being around someone at a later stage

Growing through the stages of vertical development means leaders are increasing their capacity to lead others and understand themselves. They move through each phase of their journey, gaining the capacity to reflect on themselves with increasing objectivity, seeing and navigating complexity, appreciating others’ perspectives, and as a result, maturing along the way. The vertical development framework involves moving through seven stages, which are:

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

But can we skip stages? 

Because vertical development is a linear model, we can’t. Leaders must move through them in order, at their own pace.

Let’s discuss why it’s not possible to skip stages, how we can move backward, and the potential to be in different states at a given time.

Why can’t you skip stages of vertical development?

It’s helpful to think of our vertical development like the rings of a tree. A tree can’t have its outer rings without the smaller ones on the inside, helping build it out. The earlier rings are always there, even though the outermost ring – the part that grew most recently – is what’s visible. 

Just like we can’t add outer rings before inner rings, we can’t get to the later stages of vertical development without going through the earlier stages. This is because each stage of development solves for the primary limitations of the previous stage.  We “include and transcend” the earlier stages as we grow to later stages of development. 

In this way, vertical development is another way to think about the process of leadership maturity. We become more mature over time, and it’s hard to rush that process. In vertical development, we’re not going to see someone suddenly jumping way ahead to Alchemist. The other stages are required to get there.

Stages vs. states

It’s also important to make the distinction between stages and states. We reside in a primary stage of vertical development based on how we think and behave and make decisions in life. But we can also think of the stages as states, and we can be in different states at different times.

For instance, if we’re a manager in a meeting with the people we supervise, we may take on the Achiever state to show other people what to do or to motivate them. If we’re being interviewed about our field of study, we might become an Expert during the interview. It is possible to show up differently depending on what’s being asked of us. We can fluidly move through these states or ways of being without actually moving to different stages.

It’s rare, but sometimes people can reach a forward state, even if they’re not in that stage. People may experience the Alchemist state, for example, when they have an intense moment of connectedness to the universe, feeling part of it all and becoming pure joy or love. But this doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually brief and fleeting.

It’s much more likely that we will go backward, or regress. Like the tree, we are comprised of everything we were before, but we transcend it when we grow. So in certain situations, we can temporarily revert to those earlier states.

For example, when boarding a plane, we might become Opportunists again to ensure we get an overhead spot for our carry-on. That stage is always inside of us when our needs must be met. It is essentially about matching whatever the situation requires.

Another example is if something triggers us in organizational life. For instance, when we make a mistake, we may start asking early-stage questions of ourselves, like, “Do I look bad?” or, “Am I a bad person?” We’re essentially trying to figure out, “Am I OK?” This is a more elemental response.

The more advanced response would be to take a breath and evaluate what actually occurred. Why did it happen? What needs to happen next to move forward? We can return to the part of us that’s bigger and respond from that place.

What conditions promote vertical growth?

The primary way to grow vertically is to experience difficulty. It happens when we get “in over our heads,” as Robert Kegan describes it. We realize our current way of looking at the world isn’t working, and we’re forced to unmake and remake our belief systems that can account for the new level of complexity we’re experiencing. 

Any major life event can invite that kind of growth, whether marriage, divorce, a major illness, having a child, or moving to a new place. Anything that changes our context is an invitation to grow. Earning a promotion or becoming a manager are great examples of getting in over our heads, which gives us that context to initiate growth.

It also helps to view ourselves as on a perpetual journey. This orients us toward growth and allows us to regularly work on ourselves. Then, we’re more likely to experience vertical growth.

Another way to promote growth is to spend time with people in a later stage than we are. We benefit from seeing and experiencing their worldview, and this in turn helps us grow.

There is no one right timeline for everyone, but stage transitions can generally take one to two years, though the transition from Achiever to Redefining is generally three to five years. Sometimes growth can happen fast – it all depends on the individual and the circumstances. And many people never make the journey to the post-conventional stages, finding a good fit at Expert and Achiever.

We can think of growing into each stage as a gradual process. We may have increasing moments or periods of time where we stretch ahead to the next stage, and over time we begin to consolidate at that next stage. This looks like getting established and confident in that new stage and finding our footing. we can embody that new stage fully.  Lastly, sometimes we need to resolve a trailing edge, a part of us from an earlier stage that may be a significant inhibitor in some way. 

Why work with The Sparks Group?

The world continues to become progressively complex. Leadership development initiatives must address this complexity so leaders can take on multiple perspectives and craft more effective solutions to problems that may not always have a clear answer.

The Sparks Group uses vertical development for leaders to help people understand their journey and continue to grow. Learn more about our process by scheduling a free 30-minute discovery call.