Navigating the Complex World Through Vertical Development

by Dr. Archana Mishra

see leaders of today facing the grand, complex, and adaptive challenges of the 21st century. For example, rapid economic growth has also brought along environmental degradation; globalization has brought people from around the world together, posing challenges to societal integration while also trying to retain ethnic diversity; improved material wealth has provided physical comfort to many but has also led to increased inequality and “diseases of affluence” such as diabetes and cardiovascular ailments; and despite an increasingly plentiful life, many youth are experiencing depression and anxiety. These challenges seem to be increasing in intensity and intractability, and a few years ago I wondered why some leaders and organizations seem to be better able to manage them than others. This query motivated me to further explore the reason behind such variation among leaders.

Lateral Horizontal explanation
Source: Suzanne Cook-Greuter, 2014
We Are Different, In Many Ways

Many of us are familiar with the psychological assessments that show how people differ in personality type and preferences. During my Ph.D. study, I came across another way in which we fundamentally differ—our developmental stage. We humans develop in two directions, horizontal and vertical, and both are important but different in their effectiveness. Horizontal development occurs through formal education, training, skill development, and self-directed learning, as well as simply through exposure to life. So we learn new concepts and gather more information while retaining the same perspective about ourselves and the world. Vertical development in adults is much rarer and refers to how we experience our world through a new set of lenses, how we change our interpretations of experience, and how we transform our views of reality. So we differ not only in what we experience but also in how we interpret that experience, and it has a profound impact on the differences in our ability to manage complexity. Below I present a simple representation of horizontal and vertical developments as offered by Suzanne Cook-Greuter, a prominent scholar in this field.

Nine Levels of Increasing Awareness

When I learned about the nine levels of vertical developmental action logics (the beliefs or logics driving our action), my own developmental journey became clear to me. I could see where I came from and what my developmental potential is. Along came a greater appreciation of how and why we are so similar and yet so different from each other. To further clarify, I provide below a summary of the nine stages (from later to earlier) that adults traverse in their lifetime should they meet their full developmental potential.

A Journey of Changing the Subject into Object
Using the subject-object relationship helped me to better understand this staged development. In other words, what is subject at one stage becomes an object for our reflection which then propels us to move to the next stage. For example, at the Opportunist stage I was my needs, then as I began to see my needs I moved to the Diplomat stage where I focused on following the norms around me, and as I began to see and reflect on the norms that I was blindingly following, I moved to the Expert stage and merged with my knowledge and expertise which then gave way to the Achiever stage where I began to scrutinize my expertise in light of system effectiveness. At this stage, I was the most active in all spheres of life. I was an active advocate for the issues I believed in and undertook several personal and professional commitments with high energy and enthusiasm. Then slowly I began to reflect on how overcommitted, and hence exhausted, I had started to become, and realized that it was no longer working for me. This realization made me stretch and reach out to utilize the next action logic: Individualist. At this stage, the more I reflected on myself and my interaction with the system that I was in, the more I began to critically analyze my entire belief system. I began to question my underlying assumptions and the complexity of the several systems that I was a part of. I realized that everything I believed in no longer held any validity for me and I began to entirely focus on self-inquiry. I experienced decision paralysis as I saw shadows on all sides, and it reached a critical point where this action logic no longer served me. I felt extremely challenged by my environment, which demanded action, but at the same time I felt supported by the resources available to me (I underwent a vertical development training). As a result, I moved to the Strategist stage, which is my current center of gravity. Meaning I now predominantly use this action logic for making sense of my day-to-day life, while all other earlier action logics are still available for me to tap into should the circumstances demand that. Here, I am now able to integrate the advocacy and inquiry from earlier stages, and despite the complexities involved, I feel better able to make clear and informed decisions. However, in moments of stress, depression, anger, or any other crisis, I involuntarily fall back to earlier stages. This is normal, as we tend to span across three action logics—center of gravity, fall back, and emerging. If my environment continues to support and challenge me, then I will begin to experience the limitations of the Strategist action logic and Alchemical stage will become my emerging action logic. I have yet to enter that stage so I am unable to reflect further from my lived experience. Next, I have summarized the process of vertical development below 1.
Source: Suzanne Cook-Greuter, 2014
  1. Adults develop in stages—from simple to complex—in such a way that each successive stage differentiates from but includes the previous stage while transcending to the next level.
  2. Later stages can only be reached by journeying through the earlier stages, and once we arrive at a later stage, the previous one remains part of our response repertoire.
  3. At each new stage, we acquire a new perspective and gain a greater ability to become aware of, pay attention to, and hence influence and integrate multiple aspects of life, much like climbing a mountain where we gain an increasingly higher vantage point.
  4. We increasingly experience autonomy and freedom, embrace ambiguity and differences, and acquire more flexibility, reflection, and skill in interacting with our environment.
  5. Our worldview evolves from simple to complex, from static to dynamic, and from egocentric to socio-centric to world-centric, i.e. from “I” to “us” to “all of us.”
  6. People at later stages can understand those at earlier stages but not vice versa.
  7. Such staged development is a life-long phenomenon of transformation, and is a function of continued interaction between adults and their environment where the environment needs to be both challenging and supporting.
The Three Most Prevalent Action Logics
While nine stages of consciousness have been studied and broadly categorized under pre-conventional, conventional, post-conventional, and transpersonal stages,2 the three most prevalent stages among the current leadership population are Conventional Expert, Conventional Achiever, and Postconventional Individualist. As the name suggests, when I was at the Conventional Expert stage, I focused on gaining expertise in one or more areas. I tended to be a perfectionist and only accepted feedback from other experts. I made decisions based on technical merits and tended to have an either/or approach to decision making: there is only one right way. As I moved to the next stage of Conventional Achiever, I valued achievement rather than gaining expertise and began to think beyond personal concerns to those of society. I acquired a much broader perspective at this stage and began to understand conflicts and contradictions. However, being constantly divided between personal and professional spheres exhausted me. A deeper questioning of this way of being further enabled my developmental journey and I moved to the Postconventional Individualist stage, where I gained a relativistic perspective and no longer took an either/or approach. I valued relationships more than achievement and operated at the systems level. I was now at ease with paradoxes and contradictions but became challenged in decision-making because most of my attention was taken by self and systems inquiry. Realizing the limitation of this stage, and supported by vertical development training, I continued the developmental journey and became more and more at ease with making decisions while managing complexity and contradictions at my current stage of Postconventional Strategist.3
From Outward Expansion to Inward Focus
One of the key differences between conventional and postconventional stages is that we grow and expand externally in the conventional stages. In other words, our awareness increases in regard to the world outside. Whereas an inward journey marks postconventional development. At this stage, our focus of inquiry is what’s within us. This focus then allows for a deeper and broader awareness of ourselves and others.

I would like to emphasize here that no stage is better or lesser than the other; each has its merits and limitations. It is the context that makes one stage more suitable than the other. And so, given the increasing complexities for leaders today, postconventional stages seem more suitable for people in decision making capacities. It is because only at the postconventional stages do we begin to fully engage with and address complex, contradictory, and paradoxical issues that are becoming increasingly common. However, given the small percentage of people at a postconventional stage, I can see how most leaders are grappling with these issues, without much success. Hence, it is plausible that achieving more complex outcomes in practice requires building the capacity of leaders to process complexity. In my experience, this cannot be accomplished via horizontal development alone; it also requires vertical development, which helps expose blind spots in our worldviews and provides the resources to make increasing complexity more cognitively comfortable.

My work and personal life environments were sufficiently challenging and supportive, so I took an average of four to five years’ time to move from earlier to later stages. Given that gaining knowledge only enhances horizontal growth, reading about developmental theories was not enough to help me to transcend to the next stage. Specific long-term practices, self-reflection, action inquiry, and dialogue as well as living in the company of others further along on the developmental stage enabled such growth. Additionally, I recently underwent a vertical development training by an organization practicing in field that helped me move to my current stage.

We All Carry a Piece of Truth
While it is possible to grow and develop throughout our lives where our worldviews expand to include more depth, complexity, and systems thinking, our awareness and understanding of ourselves and the world around us will always remain partial and incomplete. It is, at its core, a never-ending quest with several stations, and each station is valuable for what it offers. As we move further along, it is important for us to ensure that we try to meet people where they are without wishing them to be somewhere else. Therefore, for organizations, it is important to have people at different stages while also allowing for vertical development of their decision makers. In conclusion, I believe that vertical development may be one of the most effective ways for our leaders to navigate modern-day complexities.

I now invite you to take a moment and reflect on where you may be on this journey, where you came from, and the path ahead of you. Extend this inquiry and reflect on whether it allows you to have a better understanding of where people around you may be and how their worldviews differ.

1Adapted from Suzanne Cook-Greuter’s work on Ego Development. 2 I have not elaborated on the Transpersonal Ironist stage here as it is rarely found among the current organizational leadership. 3 I had my action logic stage formally assessed through a sentence completion test and debrief by experts in this field.
A headshot of Archana Mishra PhD
Archana Mishra, Ph.D., is a research scholar affiliated with the University of Queensland Business School, Australia. She recently conducted a large-scale international empirical study on different subjective beliefs among leaders about business and societal welfare. Dr. Mishra has previously worked as an industry, community, and economic development advocate in Australia, the United States, and India. Her own journey from gaining expertise to achieving broader goals to an inward journey of self-reflection has enabled her to take a deep dive into inquiring her own purpose in life. While the inquiry continues to evolve, she wishes to contribute in a small way towards building a better, more inclusive, and kind world.