We used to think that adult – and leader – development stopped in early adulthood. It doesn’t. Not only can we continue grow in experience, knowledge and skill during adulthood (horizontal development), we can also transform how we see and relate to the world (vertical development).

By knowing the predictable stages of vertical growth you can assess your current capability as a leader, and what the next steps in your development might be. You can also discover whether the complexity of your thinking is sufficient for you to provide the leadership demanded of you!

These stages, like the stages of childhood development, are travelled through in sequence. And, like the stages of childhood development, one stage is not better than another, just different. Each subsequent stage includes and builds on the qualities of each earlier stage.

Each of the stages is summarised above, and the journey through the stages is shown in the diagram. The percentages show the proportion of leaders estimated to be operating from each of the stages.


Conformers behave so as to fit in, meet others’ standards, behave correctly, and maintain face and status. Conformers can therefore be tactful, loyal, and respectful but may also find it difficult to deal with conflict, give or receive criticism or take unpopular decisions.


Experts see other people’s views as one factor affecting their own actions rather than virtually the only thing. What is important for the Expert is finding the one ‘right’ answer to the problem at hand. Whereas Conformers identify with what makes them the same as others in the group, Experts are more interested in what unique skills they have that enable them to stand out from the group – but they still define themselves in terms of the group.


The Achiever’s interest extends beyond their unique skills towards how to use these skills to achieve goals that will help the organisation (and themselves) be successful. Achievers are interested in other people’s views, in working effectively with them, and in achieving results. Their overall goals and ethical framework, like those of the Conformer and Expert, are determined by the organisations to which they belong.


The Catalyst phase is the first stage of post-conventional Leadership Development. People at this stage are less interested in being a highly effective and productive component of the organisation and more in discovering what particular contribution they may be able to make. This stage involves an exploration of who they are, what their special and unique gifts are and also recognition of their limitations. The key personal transition they make is in moving the source of authority in their lives from external to internal.


As the Catalyst becomes clearer about who they are and what their unique qualities and skills are, they begin to become bored with further personal exploration and their interest turns towards what they can do with the new levels of self-knowledge they have gained. And so, just as the Expert turned their attention out into the world to find ways to use their skills and stepped into the Achiever phase, so the Catalyst looks out into the world to find ways of using their gifts and uniqueness and steps into the Co-creator phase.

Synergist As the Co-creator’s imaginal skills develop and broaden, and become increasingly integrated with their interpersonal skills, a consciousness shift takes place and a systems perspective emerges. At this Synergist stage leaders act to promote quality of life internationally by influencing positive change relative to equality, conflict resolution, creative technology, and ecology. They form mutually beneficial relationships with employees, customers, suppliers, community, and wider society.

At each of these predictable stages of development, the leader’s thinking becomes more complex, their perceptions more nuanced, their self-awareness more profound, and their behaviours more strategic.

Thus, to lead an organisation in the increasingly ambiguous, complex and fast moving environment we find ourselves in, operating from a later stage may give an advantage over someone else operating from a earlier stage. But what is more important is whether the demands of the role are matched by the leader’s stage of development.

Mike Munro Turner has been helping people develop their capacity for leadership (of self and others) and achieve increased levels of performance, effectiveness and fulfillment for over 20 years.  He specialises in helping people manage the psychological dynamics that prevent them from making and sustaining changes in behaviour, and in supporting them to make the inner transitions necessary to lead successfully in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, and to fulfil their potential as human beings.