The Vertical Development Stages
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The Opportunist is concerned with survival and security, Maslow’s first two needs. They are self-interested, relatively isolated and will get away with whatever they can. They operate on a day-by-day or minute-by-minute basis without a care for consequences. Their view of the world is that it is unsafe and everyone else is assumed to be an enemy. They play only to their own advantage.
The Opportunist is deceptive and manipulative. They are the executives who steal your ideas without recognizing their source, who always blame others when things go wrong, and seem to be unavailable when immediate help is needed. They will also attack first in order to defend themselves when feeling threatened and are completely adverse to feedback.
The Opportunist lives in fear, trusts no one and operates largely in fight, flight or freeze mode. This view of the world is their Autopilot. In 1995 some 4% of the Executive population were anchored at Opportunist, although this proportion has since reduced to 0%. Whenever our safety and security is threatened in the succeeding stages, it is relatively easy to regress back to the level of the Opportunist and resolve our situation based on self-interest alone.
The Conformist decides to play it safe. While they still view the world as a very challenging place to be, they believe that if they abide by all the rules and do what people in higher authority ask or tell them to do, they will be safe. They conform. They are risk averse and will only take action if instructed to do so. Most will also need a step-by-step approach mapped out for them. Their level of voluntary participation is relatively low.
In complying, Conformists give away their personal authentic power to positional authority. This leads to a sense of personal ineptitude that moves them to complain. In other words, when we give our personal power away to comply with others, we address this imbalance by complaining about others. If you know anyone in your workplace who complains a lot, they will be operating from a Conformist mindset. Around 10% of the Executive population are anchored at Conformist although there are very few anchored at this stage in organisations that invest in leadership development. It is a common fallback position for succeeding levels when under stress.
Conformists use reactive emotional strategies to get what they want. The three key strategies are appeasing others by being nice and bending over backwards to fit in – usually towards more senior people; controlling others by criticising, berating and offending others – usually towards more junior people; or otherwise withdrawing from people altogether by avoiding all communication and even eye contact.
All are unconscious emotionally manipulative techniques that produce workplace drama in the form of passive-aggressive behaviour manifesting in bullies and victims. We subconsciously base our boss-subordinate and peer-based interpersonal strategies on those we employed to get what we wanted as a child within the comparable context of parent-child and sibling dynamics.
The Specialist devotes themselves to their work. They wish to develop their skills, perfect their craft and focus on the details to get everything absolutely right. They switch their primary focus from being compliant and fitting in, to standing out through the course of their work. They are experts in their field and strong contributors dotting i’s and crossing t’s for as long as it takes to get something perfect. They can make up some 38% of the Executive population (1995) but this proportion too has dropped to under 10% in deliberately developmental organisations.
Specialists largely work individually and are focused on the quality of their work and mastery of their craft. They will drill down to the detail and ensure complete accuracy taking a perfectionist rather than pragmatic approach. A micro-manager is typically operating at the Specialist mindset. Their personal identity merges with their work so they take feedback very personally. They tend to be emotionally reactive on the receiving end of constructive feedback and emotionally responsive to recognition and praise.
While the reactive behaviours are still present, they are now more associated with their work than trapped within the power struggle of the endemic parent-child and sibling dynamics. They are driven by the need to perfect their work, which is a quantum step up the spiral from Conformist. Focusing on increasing the quality of our own work based on our own albeit critical view of self and others, leads to continuous improvement.
The Achiever is a pragmatist rather than a perfectionist. Their goal is “fit for purpose” rather than perfect. The Achiever begins to consider how their work meets the needs of colleagues, customers and clients. Their focus extends to the impact of their work rather than just the work itself. They are open to feedback on their work, can manage change, drive projects, meet deadlines, produce results and heed the customer.
Achievers also shift from working individually to working effectively with others as team players. They enjoy being in the driving seat and driving initiatives forward. They are competitive, strong performers, will do what it takes to win and enjoy the glow of success. Achievers can also be very black and white. This enables them to be decisive and proactive albeit somewhat shortsighted compared to more advanced stages of development when life becomes shades of grey.
Customer-centric organisations adopt an Achiever mindset by creating feedback loops and generating team accountability for customer interactions and the customer experience. The introduction of scorecards to drive results and address gaps in performance supports the Achiever’s competitive, capitalist worldview.
In the mind of the Achiever, the world is made up of winners and losers and their primary focus is to strive for more. This keeps them on the treadmill of doing more, wanting more and getting more. What they have is never enough. This vicious cycle is extremely stressful!
In 1995 they made up some 33% of the Executive population. The proportion peaked at 60% in organisations investing in stage development (2005) and is now dropping as more executives develop their leadership capacity at the later post-conventional level of Catalyst.
The Catalyst is the first post-conventional stage. It represents a leap into a new growth zone and an unfamiliar world. At the individuation phase of the Specialist we were focused on perfecting our work. At the individuation phase of the Catalyst we are focused on understanding ourselves: our thoughts and feelings, motives and fears, reactions and responses, and our deepest desires and aspirations. We ask existential questions: “Why?” “Why am I here?” and “What is the meaning of life?”
At Catalyst, we move into our personal growth zone where growing and evolving becomes our natural way of being. Even though the challenges we encounter along the way may be unfamiliar and disconcerting, for the participant, life is forever enriched. We shift from being satisfied with a life based on cause and effect to feeling our way forward in the world despite uncertainty in order to lead a more purposeful and fulfilling life based on conscious intention and committed action.
Catalysts are focused on engaging others, igniting change and working across boundaries. Their focus turns from the impact of their work on customers and clients to the input into the design and nature of the work itself through active early genuine engagement with all stakeholders. They are attuned to leveraging strengths, fueling personal growth and collaborating with others in order to exercise mutual power to co-create the best possible outcomes for the whole community.
The capacity to genuinely innovate and collaborate is initiated at Catalyst. At this mindset the inner world of the individual becomes more important than the external world within which they operate. In other words they heed their intuition and feelings to make decisions and generate new insights and ideas. They also listen from a much deeper place of inquiry and can therefore create a deeper connection with others and develop the ability to build real trust with others.
Many words beginning with “in” are associated with the Catalyst worldview: insight, innovation, intrinsic, innate, inquiry, introspection, intricate, inclusive, inquisitive, interest, intimacy, intuition and inspiration.
Executives anchored at Synergist still number just 8% today, even in organisations investing significantly in leadership development. At this point in their journey of increasing expanding consciousness, they have become self-aware and other-aware and have the ability to be discerning and self-validating. They do not seek approval or permission from others. They have developed strength of character and their integrity is evident.
Synergists have the vision, courage and presence to generate and sustain transformational change (Torbert, 1998). They have adopted the mantle of personal authentic power in the interests of serving their whole community and not just selected interest groups. This represents a shift from ‘not good enough’ at Conformist, looking good at Specialist, doing well at Achiever, doing good at Catalyst and onto focusing on the greater good for all concerned at Synergist, now and in the longer-term future.
When led by a Synergist, the organisation shifts from being customer-centric to community-centric. It succeeds in achieving medium-to-long term sustainable outcomes that make a real, significant and beneficial impact on the people they serve and affect now and in the future. They generate a new world through their convictions and intentions, living by their principles and in tune with their life purpose while embracing others with compassion and enthusiasm.
The mature Synergist is an authentic, inspiring and strategic leader. They lead confidently from the ‘inside-out’. They are able to consistently stand and hold their ground while holding a nurturing space for the emergence of a transformed world. They are extremely mindful, highly considered and passionately articulate in their advocacy for a better world and are able to take purposeful action in the moment to raise conscious awareness and liberate the emergence of latent potential across the organisation and amongst all stakeholders.
Alchemist (Constructivist – Alchemist)
The final stage that can be observed and calibrated in the post-conventional world is the Alchemist. They number 1%. The Alchemist can have a far-reaching impact on their world. They are the iconic leaders who ignite and generate social evolution as well as transform global industries. Illustrious figures such as Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson and Anita Roddick would appear to have realised their potential as Alchemists. However there are also Alchemists who are amazingly effective behind the scenes in niche markets and uniquely tailored roles such as executive coaching!
The Alchemist embodies their own intuitive guidance and employs mutually collaborative power to generate transformational shifts in the world that respect common humanity and all of life. They are able to hold and embrace wonderful future possibilities while standing firmly in the present and being cognisant of all that has preceded and led to the current situation. They look at events symbolically and value both the shadow and the light in the psychodynamics of common human interactions.
The Alchemist has released the shadow of the ego through grief and forgiveness, and surrendered their personal will to be an instrument in the divine orchestra on earth. They live to evolve in tune with the cosmos listening into the dark and the deep recesses of their soul’s voyage in life. They feel free to be uniquely themselves, liberated from any social or cultural conventions, and can feel both delighted and tormented as they perceive, attend to and process the vast cacophony of thought and emotion that swirls around them. They are able to be fully vulnerable yet vitally alive and vigorous as they give their conscious, compassionate attention to the dynamic interplay in each and every moment to exercise wisdom in action.
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