Part Three: The Origin Story

There is a way out, but the way out is really a way within.– Ken Wilber

People are ultimately the driving force behind business, so it makes sense that vertical development is rooted in psychology. Until 50 to 60 years ago, psychologists believed that psychological maturity and development were complete by the time we reached age 18 to 21. In the mid-1970s, developmental psychologist Jane Loevinger conceptualized the theory that the ego “matures and evolves through stages across the lifespan as a result of dynamic interaction between the inner self and the outer environment.”

Since then, other researchers and psychologists have built on Loevinger’s work, fleshing out several models of the stages she originally conceived.  Some of these important contributors include Susanne Cook-Greuter, Ken Wilber, William Torbert, Robert Kegan, Nicholas Petrie, Jennifer Garvey Berger, and others.

The shift toward understanding development as a constantly-evolving continuum rather than a series of static signposts is essential to conceptualizing vertical development. When we use the framework of building consciousness, rather than building skills, we begin to understand how vertical development applies to organizational leadership, and how the field of psychology is woven into its history.

When we speak about vertical development, what we are really describing are the ways in which our thinking, being, and doing are conducted at different stages. The cognitive dimension, represented by thinking, includes not only our knowledge, but the concepts or ideas we hold, and our interpretations of both. Being refers to the emotional dimension, which includes our awareness, our experience, and our affect.  Lastly, doing concerns how all of this gets operationalized. Doing includes our behavior, what we perceive as our needs and what we do to meet them, and how we cope and take action. All of these are important components in leadership and organizational life.

Three is the Magic Number

Before we break vertical development into stages, let’s take a broad look at three basic things everyone should know about the idea.

  1. Vertical development is unidirectional.
    Although it contains the word vertical, it is not a straight line in one direction. Three tiers and a total of seven to eight stages (depending on the model) make up the spectrum of vertical development. However, since vertical development is about changing your perspective by getting in over your head, it’s not as simple as going to a class to learn a skill. The stages do go in a certain order, but you can still access and can make meaning from all previous stages as you develop into later stages. For example, even though someone may have an expansive ability to bring people together and create win-win solutions—a later-stage capability—they may also be the same person who wants to get on the plane first to make sure they get overhead space for their suitcase.
  2. Everyone has a Center of Gravity.
    Your center of gravity is the stage where you’re most comfortable making meaning most of the time. You can regress to earlier stages, and this often happens when we are stressed or otherwise not the biggest version of ourselves, though sometimes we are better able to see ourselves going back to earlier stages, even as we do it.  Often, myself included, people will notice a tendency to regress when they’re with their family of origin.  It was Ram Dass who said, “If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.”  It is also possible to reach forward occasionally, and these forward reaches eventually create solid ground that we move to as a new center of gravity.
  3. Language Matters.
    As we begin to define the stages of vertical development, it’s crucial to understand what vertical development is not, so we can be clear about what it is.

    The stages of vertical development do not refer or correlate directly to a person’s personality, competence, behavior, job position, intelligence, or socioeconomic status. There are plenty of examples of people who are highly developed vertically who have nothing to do with corporate America or who grew up in quite difficult circumstances.

    It’s natural to want to label and classify. We’re only human. But it’s important (and a worthwhile challenge) to avoid associating judgment with the stages of vertical development. We do this by being intentional and mindful with language. For example, we say earlier and later rather than lower and higher.

    The critical consideration is the fit between what the leader is being asked to do and where the leader makes meaning. We want leaders to be able to meet the demands of their role, or to be close enough to meeting the demands that they are not overwhelmed and can stretch towards them.

Extend the Idea of Unidirectional Development:

  • Have you been in a situation where you realized you were regressing to an earlier stage of development? For example, when you visit your child’s elementary school, do you feel a sense of fear of getting into trouble? When you are around your parents, do you find yourself acting like your teenage self?
  • Have you been in a situation where you were reaching forward developmentally? When did you feel like a bigger, more expansive version of yourself, able to see more as though you were on a balcony looking down at the dance floor of a situation you were also a part of?

Read Part Four: Breaking Down Vertical Development to learn how some of our most iconic figures fit into the framework of vertical development.

Learn more about the origins of vertical development