Being different - and vertical development

I’m increasingly working with clients who consider themselves ‘different’ or who others experience as ‘different’ in their working environments.  It can be a struggle between authenticity and fitting in, and it’s not comfortable.  Some of these leaders have been expressly recruited because they’re different – because they represent ‘new blood’ or because they’re thought to be able to bring in new ideas from other sectors or other organisations.

What’s often forgotten, however, is the weight and power of the prevailing culture, which no new blood can change alone or fast.

Sometimes that culture relates to the stage of vertical development of the organisation as a whole, and particularly of its leaders.



We are living in times of unprecedented, and growing, complexity, which it is the leader’s role to manage, negotiate and enable their people to flourish in.  It’s important, incidentally, to note that ‘complex’ isn’t the same as ‘complicated’: according to Dave Snowden in ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making’ complicated contexts may contain multiple right answers, and although there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it, or see it immediately. This is the realm of ‘known unknowns’.  On the other hand, in a complex context, right answers can’t be ferreted out: the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. There are many competing ideas, and there are no right answers.  This is the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’ – and it’s the territory of uncertainty.


What is vertical development?

Adults develop, from childhood onwards, through stages of cognitive, attitudinal and emotional development which research over decades has shown to be definable and predictable.  As leaders move through the stages they can develop their capacities to deal with com­plexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and volatility – capacities which are critical if the leader is to flourish and deliver on the demands of their role.

Nick Petrie writes, in ‘Lessons in vertical development’ that children mature, and, as adults, they become capable of doing more complex tasks through further stages of development and new capabilities and perspectives. Petrie likens this to an upgrade to your phone’s operating system.


Stages of Vertical Development

One way of looking at the stages of development uses consultancy Harthill’s seven-stage model, which they conceptualises as seven stages:

  1. Opportunist
  2. Diplomat
  3. Expert
  4. Achiever
  5. Individualist
  6. Strategist
  7. Alchemist

In my work with, or through, leaders I most commonly encounter leaders who seem to be at the stages in the middle of this schema.  David Rooke, who sets out the seven stages in his article ‘Seven Transformations of Leadership’ , defines these middle stages (or ‘action logics’ – what motivates us to take action) as follows:

Expert: characterised by the pre-eminence of logic and expertise, and the quest for rational efficiency

Achiever: characterised by an orientation to action and goals

Individualist: characterised by the interweaving of competing personal and organisational action logics, and the creation of unique structures to resolve gaps between strategy and performance.


The misfitting of developmental stages

When leaders have a sense of not fitting in, the reason can be a dislocation between their individual stage of development and the stage of development of their peers, their reports, their seniors or the organisational culture as a whole.  One specific reason for the misfit is that while, at any given stage, we draw on all the earlier stages we’ve come through, we can’t relate to the later stages: they’re out of our awareness.  A colleague who’s at a stage of development later than where we are, literally sees the world through different lenses, which offer a different view of complexity from ours – typically a bigger, more detached and objective, more comprehensive and holistic picture at each stage.

That misfitting can be a frustrating process for everyone involved.  The leader at an earlier stage may be puzzled by what the leader at a later stage is talking about, and the leader at a later stage may be frustrated by colleagues at an earlier stage not seeing the fuller picture that they can see, with its interdependencies and relatively greater ease with uncertainty and unpredictability – even though the individual at a later stage has also been through that earlier stage.


Addressing the misfit

The leader at a later stage can feel lonely and isolated (especially as there are fewer leaders in the population at later stages than at earlier stages).  They can’t force their colleagues at earlier stages to see and relate to the world from a later stage, but they may find that they can relate more easily by both using concepts and language that will be meaningful to their colleagues at the stage those colleagues are at, presenting the world of the later stage through earlier-stage concepts, and by finding or creating outlets for themselves – new, interesting activities, especially with others at a similar developmental stage (whom they’ll recognise by the way they think, speak and address situations).  Documentary or visual resources, experiences, groups and conversations that are novel, exploratory or experimental will often nourish and satisfy their evolving awareness and development.


Photo by Christophe Maertens on Unsplash


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