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  • Writer's pictureKim Hafjall

Vertical Development – The Early Stages

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

In people development, a distinction can be made between horizontal and vertical development. The first widens our skill set while the latter deepens our capacities. Through life, we develop both.

Horizontal development

Horizontal development refers to the development you get from learning new stuff. From childhood, we develop new skills. From early days through our parents, other adults and via schools. Later through various schools, educational directions and other professionals. When we begin to work, most corporates continue investing in their people's development. Often with most focus on horizontal development - more tangible skills. Be it in the form of courses, upscaling of qualifications, or using new systems and techniques. It all helps the individual to become broader in their skillset. It teaches us valuable skills needed to carry out our jobs effectively and often has positive spillover effects on how we manage our lives.

Vertical development

We also develop vertically throughout our lives. From early on, we go through various stages of development. Gradually we increase our understanding of ourselves, begin to observe others, and slowly start to understand our strengths. Equally, we must accept that we are not perfect and that there is still room for further development. Thus, vertical development focuses on the various capacities built inside ourselves as we grow. New capacities build on capacities developed in previous stages. Some types of horizontal development can stimulate our vertical development too.

Various authors like Wilber, Kegan, Torbert, Joiners & Josephs have researched how these capacities play out in leadership in multiple situations and have created this leadership development framework based on that. A framework describing which capacities are at hand at the different leadership stages. A "Where am I now?" and "What new capacities can I expect to develop if I continue to grow vertically?" framework.

They name some of the sequential leadership stages differently and vary somewhat in the number of stages they believe there are. But overall, they share their understanding of the stages. They operate with nine personal development stages: pre-conventional, three conventional, and three post-conventional. Stage names have broadly been given to reflect what characterises each particular group(stage). I will refer to the stages as they are "named" in Joiner & Josephs 2007/Rooke & Torbert 2005 for the conventional and post-conventional stages (see figure below).

You can see it as a ladder, where you gradually climb a new stage as you gain a better understanding of yourself and others – and your capacities mature and expand. Reaching a higher stage does not mean that you necessarily always operate at this. In fact, you often operate at the more robust stage below initially. As you grow stronger in the new higher stage – this becomes where you mainly operate. It does not mean that you will be happier, nor does it predict how you will act. However, it gives some very liable pointers as to the qualities and types of leadership capability you may have as a leader. Irrespective of which stage you have reached, there will be days and situations where you operate at previous stages. You may be tired or, in other ways, not performing to your best abilities. Stages are not intelligence driven – but refer to the capacities you would have developed as a person at each stage. As the capacities at each stage build on previous capacities – you cannot jump stages.

Pre-conventional Stages

Explorer covers the earliest stage of life – think of a baby exploring everything around them. It is the stage where awareness and curiosity are awakened. We crawl around and grab things - we investigate and learn.

Enthusiast/Impulsive is the next level. It typically covers the early childhood years (2-7 years). In this stage, you realise that you are not like everyone else – but unique. I, me, and mine are well used and "own will" surface. An understanding of the time dimension, past, present and future, is developed, but you can still not fully distinguish between imagination and reality.

The Operator/Opportunist stage is typically reached during the school years. Limited attention to one's feelings, black-and-white thinking, and short time horizons focusing on immediate needs characterises this stage. Operators rarely take the blame for situations. You can now differentiate between imagination and reality.

Conventional Stages

The conformer/Diplomat stage typically emerges in the teenage years. Conformers/Diplomats work hard to avoid disapproval from the groups they identify with and want to belong to. In this stage, an "us and them" mindset thrives. They prefer stability and the familiar. Conformers/Diplomats are typically pleasant to hang out with, as long as you come from the same group. They understand that other people can see things differently than they do – still, it doesn't occur to them that others might see them differently than they see themselves.

Most people move through the pre-conventional stages through their childhood and develop to the conventional stages in their teens - a few will not.

You can, for instance, find adults still operating at the Operator/Opportunist stage. Most often in the form of people with narcissistic traits and a distinct 'everything is about me' view. If you dare disagree with an adult Operator/Opportunist, you are the enemy. They are closed to feedback (you are wrong in your observation of me). They feel little remorse for stealing ideas and blaming others. A few manage to climb to very high corporate and political positions. Today with more focus on people development, there are fewer and fewer reaching executive positions in larger corporates and organisations. Luckily, most people develop into the following stages.

Adult Conformers/Diplomats thrive in professional groups among like-minded people. They see a lot of the world from the point of view of the group they identify and interact with. That means they receive limited input and stimuli from outside groups, which tends to limit their perspective and approaches to situations in life. As most people they see will have the same views as them – other people must be wrong. It can be more than challenging to argue with an adult Conformer/Diplomat. It also means that tunnel blindness is very common at this stage. Conformers/Diplomats are highly risk-averse and thrive in rule-based jobs. Many will still believe that others see them as they see themselves. It is, therefore, not unusual; they try to create the image of their life as they want others to see them. Perception is indeed the reality for Conformers/Diplomats.

The Next Leadership Stages

The following two heroic/conventional stages and the last three post-heroic/post-conventional stages are named; Expert, Achiever, Catalyst/Individualist, Co-creator/Strategist, and Synergist/Alchemist. As these are where you find most managers and leaders operating today, each stage gets its Blog post over the following five weeks, as it would not give them justice to try to cover them in one. This series ends with a blog post on how you can actively develop yourself vertically and why coaching is an effective approach to accelerate your vertical development.

In the next blog post, we follow Expert leader Peter at work and uncover some of the capacities and limitations that characterise this leadership stage. If you want to hear more on vertical development, you can watch the previous blog post featuring a Youtube interview around the topic.

Further Reading

- Joiner, B & Josephs, S. 2007. Leadership Agility – Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

- Rooke, D. & Torbert. W. 2005. Seven Transformations of Leadership. Harvard BusinessReview.


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