What is Vertical Development?

Why are some leaders able to think creatively and make their companies thrive even in crisis, while others lose control over the situation?

Why does it come naturally for some leaders to seek employees’ feedback and reflect on it, while others consider it a weakness?

Why do many leadership development programs often give unsatisfactory results?

Vertical Development Theory has its roots at Harvard University thirty years ago, when Robert Kegan and Susanne Cook-Greuter hypothesized that human development is a continuous process. At the time it was commonly accepted that the brain was fully developed by early adolescence (when the prefrontal cortex is fully formed).

Today we now realize that the brain doesn’t stop developing until our mid-20s or even early 30s. In their research, Torbert and Cook-Greuter identified nine levels of leadership associated with the nine stages of adult development. They came to discover that throughout adult life many individuals experience a series of overlapping yet distinctly identifiable stages of mindset development.

Each of these stages represents increasingly complex mental and emotional capacities. They describe crucial sense-making processes by which people interpret and give meaning to their experiences, and then structure them into coherent worldviews and characteristic patterns of action. We describe these worldviews and patterns of action as Action Logics. Your Action Logics significantly affect your ability to solve problems, interpret experience, and interact with your environment. Each advancement of Action Logic offers a leader more choice, greater flexibility, more transformative power, and additional methods for aligning actions with core values.

There is increasing pressure for corporations to take the lead in addressing the world’s woes. Yet most business leaders are already in over their heads. Leaders have a significant gap between the complexity of the tasks they face and the complexity of their own mental processes. Bill Torbert’s research found that most leaders’ stage of adult development did not equip them to handle the level of complexity of their roles. In fact, only fifteen percent of the leaders scored in the three later stages of adult development – the level at which they are able to successfully lead organizational  changes, integrate diverse perspectives and bridge the gaps between actual performance and their strategic objectives.

Vertical learning occurs naturally, but it can also be accelerated by 3 to 5 times under the right conditions.

Under stress, adults often revert to behavior associated with earlier Action Logics because of unconscious patterns.

А brief description of stages

Fuck you meditationThe Opportunist

This is the first Action Logic found in the business environment. The Opportunist treats the physical or outside world territory of experience as the primary reality and concentrates on gaining control of things there. He views unilateral power as the only effectual type of power and works with very short time horizons, grasping opportunities and fire-fighting emergencies.

The Opportunist can easily manipulate and deceive others to achieve his or her ends. They are distrustful of others and assume that others do not trust them. The Opportunist believes that success depends on good or bad luck. They are stubborn and pushy, with a biting humor that exposes the soft side of others. They are self-centered and perceive the world through a focus on concrete tasks, rather than ideas, plans, principles or long-term strategies.

Four percent of leaders in the U.S. are at the Opportunist Action Logic. The percentage is small because their unilateral, dictatorial style does not fit well with complex, modern organizations.

Decision-making style: This is your problem, not mine.

Organizational type: Power and coercion. Might makes right.

Reaction to feedback: Experiences it as an attack and defends.

business teamwork - business men making a puzzleThe Diplomat

Moving away from the “anything-goes-that-serves-me” framework of the Opportunist, Diplomats begin to recognize the strength and values of the group over self-centered dictatorship. They seek to belong to established groups that are based on kinship, club membership, church or profession.

As managers, Diplomats tend to be overly agreeable, unable to criticize or reprimand others. They protect the status quo, avoid rocking the boat and defend the group, as well as themselves, from any outside influences or attacks. They depend on others’ acceptance. As conscientious individuals, Diplomats worry about what others think and feel at any given moment.

Time horizon: from 1 week to 3 months.

For Diplomats, any kind of conflict is experienced as a direct threat to both personal and group well-being, and therefore they attempt to avoid tension at any cost.

Diplomats provide social glue for teams and groups. They are good team players, but as managers they are hesitant, their way of thinking being rigid. They are unable make breakthroughs.

Eleven percent of leaders in the U.S. are at the Diplomat stage of Action Logic.

Decision-making style: Collegial. Doesn’t rock the boat.

Organizational type: Seeks acceptance and protection by a larger entity. He is most apt to be drawn into organizations with clearly defined identities and hierarchical structures.

Reaction to feedback: Is uncomfortable about feedback that is even slightly critical of him and may feel uneasy evaluating others, especially peers or superiors.

PerfectionistThe Expert

When moving from the Diplomat to the Expert Action Logic, individuals trade conformity to group norms for a willingness to actively experiment and seek more independent, but rational ways of doing things. Unlike Diplomats, Experts no longer identify with what makes them the same as others in a group, but rather with what makes them stand out. They give personal attention to detail and seek perfection. They argue for their own position and dismiss the concerns of others.

Experts tend to control the strategic territory of experience and long-term results. They like to learn and earn a degree in several fields — they might be an accountant, lawyer and marketing manager in one.

Experts admire “craft logic”. They focus on the specific procedures and knowledge in their area of interest or expertise (i.e. “craft”).

Expert managers may be more impressed with efficiency, technical wizardry and perfection than with effectiveness. Experts seek efficiency with little awareness of the wider implications of their actions within the whole system. As a result, they are unable to evaluate the effectiveness or long-term implications of their actions

Time horizon: from half a year to 1 year. As leaders, they can make short-term strategic plans.

Some Experts become interested in the technical detail of the framework and are overly concerned with its logical validity and reliability. A manager at this stage is likely to micromanage and be unable to prioritize among competing efforts or grasp the bigger picture.

Thirty-seven percent of leaders in the U.S. are at the Expert Action Logic.

Decision-making style: Based on a well-studied expertise.

Organizational type: Engineering types, technocrats, bureaucrats. Being in charge of oneself and one’s environment is the predominant trait. They have a clear-minded, pragmatic leadership style: “Do what I do.”

Reaction to feedback: May be highly critical of their performance within their own specialization, yet resents feedback in general, especially from those not of a higher craft status than themselves.

SuccessThe Achiever

As a rule, children pass through distinct stages of development (from Opportunist to Expert) on their journey to adulthood from 5 to 25 years of age. If this doesn’t happen, a person might become stuck at earlier levels.

According to Torbert’s studies, 60% of adults had not reached later stages and stay at earlier levels of development. But some (40% of educated adults) progress to later Action Logics under the right conditions.

The Achiever is the last stage in conventional adult development. It is the “model” adult Action Logic of modern times. Culturally it forms a kind of ceiling on development, surpassed by less than 10% of the general population.

The Achiever is effectiveness and results-oriented.

Beginning with the Achiever stage, behavioral and interpretive feedback is acknowledged as useful data and welcomed more than at earlier stages. The Achiever begins to appreciate complexity and systems.

While Experts focus on the exacting detail of getting a job done well, Achievers are concerned with successful plans and outcomes. Achievers design whole new methods and approaches to solving a problem and to streamlining processes. They initiate change and seek to move mountains. Their determination and energy are often inspiring to others.

Achievers will scrutinize the framework for a rational logic and seek to understand how they can learn to be more productive from it. If they find that its perspectives offer personal insight, greater influence or effectiveness, they may embrace it with enthusiasm.

Achievers are often concerned with the motivation and reasons behind behavior. They believe deeply in linear cause and effect, as well as objective rationality. From their point of view, the natural world, including the behavior of people, is governed by predictable patterns and laws. These can be researched, made explicit and applied to influence and control outcomes.

Achievers are interested in the psychology of self and others. Achieving long-term personal goals as measured by inner standards is important, as is the attainment of one’s ideals and values. They drive themselves hard, and this often has a pacesetting impact on others. They may enjoy teaching or coaching others to greater performance.

Time horizon: from 1 to 3 years. They define specific medium and long-term goals and strive for maximum impact and/or benefit.

The greatest strength of Achievers is also their greatest weakness: a singularity of purpose, focus and drive. In pursuit of their personal favorite goals, Achievers will disregard other important areas of business and/or personal life.

Thirty percent of leaders in the U.S. are at the Achiever Action Logic.

Decision-making style: When they take responsibility to do something about a recognized problem, conscientious persons can move with conviction. They are concerned with how to get started. “How do you get people to help? What is the most efficient and effective strategy to get this job done?” Conscientious persons are willing to take risks and to fail to a degree people at earlier stages are not.

Organizational type: Alliances are task-related or problem-oriented. How one relates depends on the specific task or problem and one’s role in the group which changes in different settings.

Reaction to feedback: Welcomes feedback, especially if it helps them to develop capability or achieve their goals

followThe Individualist

At the first post-conventional level, adults come to realize that the meaning of things depends on one’s relative position in regard to them, that is, on one’s personal perspective and interpretation of them.

The Individualist stage is the first post-conventional stage because Individualists no longer automatically conform to the reality view and to the behavior scripts offered by their culture. With this comes a shift in perspective about the objective nature of reality.

The psychological energy of the Individualist stage can be radically different from the earlier stages. The discovery that objectivity is a myth and what one sees depends on one’s viewpoint can have a profound effect. The Individualist recognizes that neither this nor any other Action Logic is “natural” — all are constructions of oneself and the world.

Such individuals now realize that things are not necessarily what they seemed at earlier stages because the interpretation of reality always depends on the position of the observer. Thus the idea of the participant observer, the observer who influences what he observes, now becomes a conscious occupation.

Individualists often replace the focus on causality (past) and goals (future) of the conscientious person with a fascination with the immediate present. They need to understand and watch how things unfold. Their focus turns from outcomes and deliverables to an interest in the processes, relationships and non-linear influences among variables. Individualists watch how they themselves and other people change and behave differently in different contexts.

They are open to conflict resolution and can recognize the hidden potential in every conflict.

Beginning with the Individualist stage, there is an increasing value placed on complexity, a growing appreciation for individual differences and an ability to think in terms of how complexities and paradox can be integrated into larger, coherent wholes or systems.

Individualist managers and leaders are aware that people may take on different roles in different circumstances and at different times. They themselves may experiment with different kinds of relationships and with using power differently in different contexts.

Since Individualists acknowledge a fundamental uncertainty about what one can know, they tend to provide less certainty and firm leadership to others. This may be seen as hesitancy or lack of drive.

They are willing to experiment with their own behaviors and with structures and processes in the workplace. Individualists become attracted to difference and change and will create this in their lives, often through inquiring into who they are and what they want. They may then open themselves to increased awareness of the possible conflicts between their principles and their actions, or between the organization’s values and its everyday actions. Resolving this conflict can often be a source of creativity. It can also make the Individualist look (and feel) like a rebel or malcontent.

Less driven by the need to deliver, the Individualist has a different relationship to time. The sense of time becomes more fluid and current situations are increasingly considered within a longer historical context. The future, so vivid for the Achiever, remains a concern, but added to this is an increased awareness of the unique qualities of the present moment. How these qualities match with espoused values will concern the Individualist.

Individualists may become confused by internal contradictions and describe themselves as having many personalities or voices which cannot be readily synthesized into a coherent picture. “Sometimes I act, feel, think one way, other times in another. There is struggle within myself, different voices competing for attention. And all seem real and important parts of me”. Thus, the prevalent anxiety is around integrating different parts of oneself.

The Individualist enjoys an increasing sense of independence — wanting more space to explore and create than many organizations are willing to give. This may cause them to leave their “Achiever” organization, to work at its margins or to seek out organizations more “Individualist” in culture.

Eleven percent of leaders in the U.S. are at the Individualist Action Logic.

Decision-making style: In organizations or teams where everyone’s opinion is equally valued, meetings can run on forever and little is resolved, yet people may feel heard and acknowledged. This more egalitarian experience is an important step towards further differentiation.

Organizational type: Extremely flexible. The Individualist enjoys an increasing sense of independence. They involve employees more than previous Action Logics. Flat organization.

Reaction to feedback: ”That’s very interesting — because this is just another perspective among so many possible ones!” But as all perspectives are relative and have an equal right to exist, chances are high that your feedback will be forgotten very soon.


sustainable-businessThe Strategist

Moving from Achiever to Individualist and on to Strategist involves a major shift in frame of reference. The Diplomat’s desire to stay in touch, the Expert’s love of craft logic and the Achiever’s focus on conventional results are replaced by self-generated and individual ways of viewing and interpreting the world.

The Individualist no longer automatically conforms to the reality view and to the behavior scripts offered by their culture. With this comes a shift in perspective about the objective nature of reality. Strategists, in contrast, are able to adjudicate among rivaling opinions and beliefs based on the quality of the arguments and ideas given.

They tend to value those perspectives that are constructive, people-oriented, inclusive, dynamic, and foster continuous learning over those perspectives that are critical or judgmental, single-position, exclusive, static, or merely fact-oriented or “objective.”

Strategists are as interested in the processes of doing something as in the results achieved. They will lead with a paradoxical mixture of “fierce resolve and humility” in acting as strong agents for constructive change at whatever level of the organization they occupy, testing assumptions and seeking to transform thinking and actions towards a more positive perspective. They recognize the importance of ethical principles and mindful judgment for making defensible decisions. Integrity is an important personal value.

Thus, Strategists want to know how the different systems they are engaged in (organization, family, society) interact with each other. They assess the balance and adequacy between the larger organizational mission (social vision) and the strategies and actions used to pursue them. Increasingly, they will be concerned with what is happening at all levels of an organization and point out potential long-term outcomes (intended and unintended) both for the organization and for its members, as well as wider circles of influence. That is, they have become capable of systems thinking.

They consciously commit to actively creating a meaningful life for themselves and for others through self-determination and self-actualization within constantly shifting contexts.

The Strategist is pragmatic and intuitive at the same time, and there is no contradiction. Strategist leaders question the social, technological, productive and market-oriented facets of their businesses and the interplay among them. They have learned to examine alternative perspectives and to choose one that allows for optimal effectiveness and influence as well as system-wide transformation. Reportees and juniors at earlier Action Logics may feel disconcerted by Strategists and their “odd view of reality”. They may find them too complex and not practical enough, always looking beyond immediate concerns.

Only five percent of leaders in the U.S. are at the Strategist Action Logic, so often the majority opinion wins.

According to Torbert and Kegan, companies in today’s world that have found and trained leaders operating from the Strategic and Alchemical Action Logics will be able to survive and thrive.

Strategists are concerned with extended time periods — looking forward 20 years to the continued success of the organization and their work.

The humor of Strategists is lighthearted, existential and spontaneous. They use humor and wit to defuse tense situations.

Decision-making style: Integral. Includes as many perspectives as possible at different systemic levels.

Organizational type: Self-developing organization. Holocracy.

Reaction to feedback: Good feedback makes one aware of what one is defending or blind to. They are able to discern among different types of feedback, and seek out illustrations that will confirm or disconfirm the assumptions, attributions, or evaluations embedded in the feedback. Because they are used to relying on their own assessment of complex situations, some Strategists may discount information that doesn’t come from those they look up to.

Woman's Eye and World GlobesThe Alchemist

In organizations, as well as in society at large, people who score at this level are very rare. In one Torbert’s sample of nearly 500 managers in the U.S., only three were at the Alchemist stage. Other terms considered for this stage, such as Shaman, Jester, Crone, Witch and Magician, also have connotations that are useful but misleading.

Alchemists are individuals who embody a deep wisdom coupled with the humility, ordinariness and the lightness of a jester. They are likely to personify seemingly opposite attributes such as complexity and simplicity, joyfulness and sadness, intensity and tranquility. In other words, they live in paradox, and at times appear to transcend it in a “marriage of opposites”.

Those at the Alchemist stage are committed to transforming themselves and others as well as changing the society and institutions in which they participate. They are able to hold many perspectives at once, seeing their multiple, interconnecting pros and cons.

In pursuit of potential transformation, Alchemists seek timely action on a moment-to-moment basis founded upon exquisite awareness of what is happening and who the potential stake holders are in the widest sense. They base decisions on all available sources from dreams to intuition to data and experience. Alchemists seemingly have a knack for doing the right things (often unexpected or unorthodox) at the right time.

They handle many things at once as they often hold more than one significant post in organizations and society, yet have adequate time available. Alchemists are capable of sincere and friendly contact with adversaries. But this is not a sign of weakness or lack of character – an Alchemist can be very unbending and determined when it’s necessary.

Alchemists will often take on the role of mentor to their peers and subordinates.  But they are often seen as mad or out of touch with common sense “reality” as well. They either attract others or intimidate and alienate them, given their unselfconsciousness, inner strength and charisma.

If Strategists begin to cherish paradoxes and understand how important and inevitable they are in organizational life and personal relationships, Alchemists provoke complex and paradoxical situations expressly and force others to develop and transform.

Their time horizon is multi-generational and global-historical.

Decision-making style: Intuitive, paradoxical, non-linear.

Organizational type: Alchemists tend to build their own novel organizations or work alone doing what they perceive to be their best contribution to humanity. They like to take on the roles of catalysts or transformers, but readily leave when they feel their transformational work is done. They feel successful when they have made themselves dispensable, that is, when the organization itself has become transformative and self-organizing.

Reaction to feedback: Alchemists welcome feedback and are able to give transformational, non-distorted feedback to others. But even a rainbow appearing during the conversation can be feedback for them.

Action Inquiry

There is an obvious question: can we somehow influence human development? Are there any practices or techniques to ignite the transition from one stage to another? And are there particular practices and techniques to facilitate the transition to later post-conventional stages?

Mindfulness and different types of meditation were proven to be very effective in stimulating such a transition by building meta-awareness, the capacity to observe our actions, emotions and thoughts non-judgmentally rather than just be swept away by them. This creates decision points we did not have before: we can observe ourselves during our everyday activities and refine ineffective strategies in the moment when they are arising – which is one of the main abilities of later stages.

Action Inquiry is another approach that can stimulate later Action Logics and which we actively use in our programs. Bill Torbert describes Action Inquiry as “a lifelong process of transformational learning that individuals, teams, and whole organizations can undertake if they wish to become:

  • increasingly capable of listening into the present moment from which the future emerges;
  • increasingly alert to the dangers and opportunities of the present moment; and
  • increasingly capable of performing in effective, transformational, and sustainable ways.

Action Inquiry can gradually become a moment-to-moment way of living whereby we attune ourselves through inquiry to acting in an increasingly timely and wise fashion for the overall development of ourselves, our colleagues, friends and family, and the wider world.

Description of stages is based on:

Susanne Cook-Greuter, Ego development: Nine levels of increasing embrace. Unpublished manuscript.

Barrett Brown,  The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism.

Bill Torbert, Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership

Effectiveness or harmony? Both!

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