A Guide to the Early Stages of Vertical Development

man standing at the bottom of a staircase looking up indicating personal growth

Learn the characteristics, advantages and limitations of the two earliest vertical development stages – Opportunist and Conformer – and how they fit into the workplace.

Key Takeaways

  • Opportunists are self-focused and know how to get what they want and need
  • Conformers identify with the beliefs and opinions of a group and may not be aware of their own ideas
  • These two stages aren’t well suited for leadership roles, since they typically can’t see the bigger picture and are overly concerned with themselves or being accepted by a group
  • These stages usually rise to the next stage and beyond

An innovative way to approach leadership development is to go beyond skills and competencies, tapping into more meaningful forms of growth, like maturity and broadening perspectives. Vertical development is concerned with those very concepts. 

To briefly review, here are the seven stages of vertical development:

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

This post will focus on those first two stages, which tend to happen in late childhood and early adulthood. But vertical development is not automatic or necessarily correlated with age, so we do see adults who may still have a center of gravity at one of these earlier stages. 

By and large, however, most adults have moved past these earlier stages. Everyone still has access to the stages that came before, so people can often go back and tap into these stages if needed – for example, Opportunist can be a valuable stage for salespeople to call up – but they aren’t usually based in these stages.

In these early stages, language is more simplistic. People think and speak more in clichés without much nuance. They are more concrete thinkers who may struggle with the abstract. They tend to stereotype or generalize. From a leadership perspective, these early stages can be limiting.

Let’s dive deeper into what defines the Opportunist and Conformer stages.

Stage 1: The Opportunist

The Opportunist stage is likely held by less than 1% of adults. This stage is most interested in and identified with their own needs and wants. They’re most concerned with protecting themselves. That is the worldview that drives them.


  • They’re good at marshaling support for what they care about.
  • They have a lot of clarity about what they like and what they don’t like.
  • They’re not pushovers.
  • They can be great at closing sales deals and in emergencies.


  • They tend to view other people as instruments or resources, a means to an end, not whole human beings.
  • Any feedback they receive can feel threatening since they define things in good versus bad terms.

Phrases Opportunists may use include “it’s my way or the highway” or “might makes right,” as these reflect a view that they are focused on getting their needs met regardless of the potential impacts on others.

Stage 2: The Conformer

About 10% of the population sits in this stage. The Conformer’s identity is driven by being part of a group. It could be their company, a professional sports team’s fanbase, a religion, a school, the mafia, the military, fire and police teams, and the like.

Conformers adopt the beliefs and behaviors of the group they identify with, and they may not be highly aware of what their own independent opinions or wants are. It’s important to them that they conform to the ways and mores of the group they’re in. They take on an “us versus them” mentality, as they have a desire to make someone else the “other.”


  • They can function well on teams since they want to ensure the group stays together.
  • They’re relationship-oriented, which can foster a positive sense of teamwork.
  • They’ve come out of the self-oriented mindset of the Opportunist.
  • They care about following rules.


  • Feedback feels like it threatens their membership or good standing in the group, so they’re not very open to receiving feedback.
  • They may not be able to identify or articulate their own feelings on a topic.
  • They’re not good with conflict.
  • They’re not really interested in changes that would threaten their membership or standing in the group.

Conformers may use phrases like “don’t rock the boat” or “follow the leader.” They’re frequently seeking affirmation about their place in the group and whether they’re OK. This phase of development may be well-suited for customer service or team/administrative support roles.

How the early stages fit into the workplace

The current stage of a person’s vertical development has significant impacts on how they would lead, could be led and the kind of outcomes they’re able to realize inside organizations. 

Unfortunately, these two early stages are not well correlated with leadership effectiveness. This applies to Opportunists, in particular, but often both stages lack the maturity required for such roles. It’s hard for them to think about the needs of the organization, the customer and the community because they can’t get out of their own way. 

Leadership is about producing meaningful impacts and relevant outcomes, which requires deeper and wider perspectives. These early stages aren’t big change-makers. They won’t introduce disruption into their environment willingly. That said, people at these stages can be effective contributors at the individual contributor level.

What moves a person to the next stage of vertical development?

One of the main factors that helps people move on from a stage is hitting its limitations and wanting to move past them. Each of the seven stages solves for the biggest pain points of the stage before it. 

Conformers focus on the group to solve for the isolation associated with the Opportunist stage when they realize they’re not integrated with the people around them. The journey from Conformer to Expert, the third stage, solves for a sense of too much group identity and a lack of personal identity or uniqueness by focusing more on the individual. But now they have a broader perspective and new ideas about what equals success and value in their world.

In fact, as we move forward through the seven stages of vertical development, their main focus tends to swing back and forth between focusing on external considerations (i.e., appreciating other perspectives, getting things done with and through others) and internal factors (i.e., establishing one’s own expertise, identifying and reconciling personal values). In the process, people’s worldview and maturity get bigger at each successive stage. 

Eventually, people at the later stages in vertical development sometimes feel a sense of connectedness and oneness with everyone and everything, which is a more developed way of looking at the world.

How to help your people along the vertical development path

It is possible for leaders to help employees move from these early phases to later stages of development. Managers should support them in recognizing their own competency in solving problems and give them problems to solve. They can make employees the master of their own castle within their expertise, which helps Conformers move on to become Experts.

While an organization can create the right conditions for development, it can’t force development. Unlike horizontal development, where leaders can send someone to a class to learn a skill, vertical development isn’t so straightforward. People need to be challenged enough, but not too much, to grow. 

It may help to put earlier-stage employees in more challenging situations to create the conditions for them to see that their current way of looking at the world is insufficient. This invites them to unmake and remake their worldview to make sense of the more complex situations they find themselves in.

How The Sparks Group fosters vertical development

Vertical development is our focus at The Sparks Group. We firmly believe that how someone thinks is more important than what they know when it comes to leadership development and being successful in an increasingly complex world.

We support leaders and organizations in reaching their full potential to be able to solve the complex problems we face in the world today. We offer leadership development and executive coaching in vertical development, which helps people navigate complexity more effectively, become more resilient and increase their capacity to lead.

Learn more about the stages of vertical development and better ways to help your leaders reach them by scheduling a 30-minute discovery call with The Sparks Group.