The Strategist and the Alchemist: Advanced Vertical Development

A woman looking out the window of an office building onto a city.

The sixth and seventh stages of vertical development are when leaders can expand their capacity and handle a complex world. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Strategists are on more solid ground than those in the Redefining stage and have a fuller view of themselves. 
  • They can take on multiple perspectives and prioritize them. 
  • The Strategist stage is most highly correlated with effective leadership and the ability to create and sustain transformational change.
  • Alchemists are often very spiritual with big ideas. 
  • They think in generational timelines and fully appreciate how everything and everyone is interconnected.

Strategist and Alchemist are the two most advanced, post-conventional stages of vertical development. People who reach these stages are able to harness inside-out thinking instead of outside-in thinking. They’re able to effect change and make transformational change.

This post will walk through what defines Strategists and Alchemists and how they’re able to expand their thinking and take on more complicated perspectives and problems.

What defines a Strategist?

Around 20% of the general population crosses over to the fifth stage, Redefining, but only about 5% advance to become a Strategist, the sixth stage of vertical development. In the Strategist stage, much of the “coming apart” of Redefining is integrated and resolved. Everything starts to fall into place in a more significant and more tangible way for people, and this shows in the power of this stage.

This stage most correlates with effective leadership, organizational outcomes, and transformational change. The earlier stages see more incremental capability. People reach a more solid foundation here to draw distinctions and architect outcomes. 

Strategists prioritize doing, like the earlier Achiever stage. But here, they create a better balance between being and doing. They get things done effectively but on a more meaningful scale. They are focused on growth, tolerant of others, and well-balanced. 

People in the Redefining stage appreciate and accept all perspectives, even those that may seem absurd. Strategists can start to prioritize perspectives. They still recognize that other views matter, but they can get closer to what’s right and true by evaluating different perspectives on their merits and discerning the relative value between them. They can determine what has more value and see that not all opinions are equal.

Strategists can also deal with a lot of complexity. They’re flexible, and they can incorporate feedback from multiple sources. Their motivation for getting feedback encapsulates self-awareness, improved outcomes, and understanding and comparing other perspectives. Strategists can also grasp individual systems and how they interact and fit with other systems.

This stage is where people self-actualize. They’ve been through all the earlier stage identity and ego challenges and are ready to be the bigger version of themselves. They’re integrating and consolidating as a whole human being, and thus being a Strategist can feel good and come with a sense of power and capability in the world. Strategists feel that a great deal is possible and are prepared and poised to achieve. 

With this stage also comes the recognition that they’re a player in the system and can influence that system. Their presence and involvement can change what happens. They’ve shifted to “both/and” thinking instead of “either/or” thinking. They can take on a more complex and exciting vision.

Strategists also become more collaborative than those in the Redefining stage, continuing to build their capacity to see and navigate complexity and engaging more with the outside world. They can meet other people where they are and help others be more effective, too. However, people in earlier stages may see Strategists as disconnected deep thinkers, even excessively so, whose ideas are too big for them to understand. 

They’re also more aware of their blind spots, weaknesses, and quirks. They understand their pet peeves, for example, even if they don’t get rid of them, and can talk and even joke about them. They’re able to integrate and own the parts of themselves that might be less attractive or even embarrassing.

Similarly, it’s essential to understand the concept of “shadows” in these later stages. Strategists begin to see their own shadow, meaning they can start to accept the parts of themselves that they’ve previously disowned or refused to see.  

They can start to reintegrate their shadow here, accepting those parts of themselves they’ve pushed away and seeing all sides of themselves. This is a significant shift that happens with Strategists, and the work continues into the Alchemist stage.

What defines an Alchemist?

The Alchemist is the seventh and final stage of the vertical development framework. We know the least about this late stage since so few people reside here, making it harder to study and understand than the other stages. 

Alchemists begin to see that everything is a construct. Language even becomes a challenge for them because it seems like an inaccurate way to describe what they’re experiencing. They see the judgment that’s inherent to language as well as its limitations and begin to understand and internalize the idea that everything is essentially contrived.

Because of this view, Alchemists deconstruct, construct, and reconstruct, playing with this new realization. They take things apart and put them back together, finding a way that works better or differently.

Alchemists can also integrate both the light and dark sides of things. They take ownership of the positive and dark parts of themselves and feel that accepting both sides leads to completion and a whole expression of the human. 

Alchemists can be very lonely and may feel deep despair. They take on a big-picture view of the world with extended timelines, so they open themselves to all the suffering taking place in the world. They can see how everything is connected and may have many existential conflicts.

Strategists may be able to see and fathom years in the future, but Alchemists’ view extends forward and backward in time before they were born and long after they will be gone. They see generational, historical, and cross-cultural contexts. 

But Alchemists are also able to accept paradox and ambiguity. They’re more comfortable with not knowing and they recognize that things may not make sense or will be in conflict. They embrace their mortality and their shadow.

Many Alchemists aren’t working in an organizational setting since it may be too small for them. Alchemists are more spiritual and have longer timelines than organizations can consider. They’ll likely feel limited working at a typical organization instead of pursuing what they genuinely want to do. 

Examples of Alchemists are figures such as Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They’re often associated with a government or religion. It can be hard to actualize transformational change if they’re not in a public position, and what they’re pursuing is often on a societal or social justice level. However, not all people in the Alchemist stage may choose to operate on such a large scale. 

How to learn more about vertical development

Understanding each stage of vertical development helps us become more aware of who we are and allows us to grow as individuals and leaders. The advanced stages of Strategist and Alchemist stages create more developed, forward-thinking leaders. Our world now requires such leaders who can expand their capacity in such ways to meet more complex needs and continue to improve society.

To learn more about the stages of vertical development and its improved approach to leadership development, contact The Sparks Group to schedule a 30-minute discovery call.