Vertical development

The topic of vertical development is a complicated topic, if you really want an in-depth understanding I recommend reading the work of Susanne Greuter. This writing captures most of her work related to Ego development theory Greuter's work is derived from Jane Loevinger, adapting the WUSCT (Washinghton University Sentence Completion Test) to form MAP (Maturity Assessment Profile), which is also an SCT using adapted sentence stems. See "more recommended reading" for more background information on Sentence Completion methods. Greuter's work applied to leaders and leadership can be found here:

Next to Susanne Greuter's quantitative work, Dane Hewlett did a complementary qualitative analysis of people who inhabit higher-end Post-conventional and Transcendent stages (Strategist, Construct-Aware and Unitive), this was done in an interview setting and contains interesting quotes of things people said during these interviews.

It might also be interesting to read other people's view on Greuters work, such as and

Vertical development is different from horizontal development. Horizontal development is about learning new skills that compliment your existing skills. Vertical development is about creating a paradigm shift that allows you to see and experience the world in a new way. These kind of transitions cannot be forced, only if the person is ready for it will it happen. And the circumstances that the person is living is must allow, or even demand these changes. There is no point in having a post conventional understanding of the world, but still be struggling to have your basic survival needs met.

Looking from a distance Ego development theory identifies four major phases of development:

  • Pre-conventional
  • Conventional
  • Post-conventional
  • Transcendent

Each phase consists of several stages, and each stage has to be experienced, including the limitations it presents, before you can truly move on to the next one. Ideally the next stage integrates all the wisdom of the previous stages. In practice, for many stages, especially those before "Strategist", growing to the next stage comes with some kind of rejection of the stage you previously inhabited.

Pre-conventional is a phase that people are supposed to pass through in their childhood, people who retain this in their adulthood tend to unpleasant people to be around, they can be very defensive, or aggressive and are not really capable of connecting with people around them. They might view behavior only as bad if they get caught, much like a child would in some cases. Fortunately this is a minority of people, and you might not even be actively relating to these people on a daily basis.

Stages of ego development theory
The stages described in the Ego development theory, note that Diplomat is another word for Conformist, Pluralist is another word for Individualist, and Magician a rather poor way to describe Construct-aware.

Conventional forms the bulk of society, and contains the typical forms of adulthood capability that most of us are used to. The range is still quite broad, once people are able to see a person as separate from themselves (the so-called 2nd person perspective) it grants such a person the ability to fit into a society, but it is often a rigid, rule oriented and dogmatic way of fitting in, this stage is also called "Conformist". In this stage people form groups to feel safe in. Those outside their group are considered a threat to their own safety, or their identity. It isn't until the "Expert" stage where people start to develop the ability to look at themselves from a 3rd person perspective, and gain skills that makes them different from the group, that they start distancing themselves from over-identification with the group identity. The "Achiever" stage completes the development of the 3rd person perspective of themselves, which grants them a sense of themselves over a timescale of a decade.

Where will you be in 5 years from now?

Questions like this are typical for this stage, and shows the capability for self-reflection. People at this stage are also among the first to seek out feedback. One of the interesting differences between an "Expert" and "Achiever" is that the first focuses on "doing things right" and the latter on "doing the right thing". The "Achiever" has gained the ability to prioritize and work with constraints. The ability to reason about thoughts, which is also referred to as "Formal Operations" in the work of Jean Piaget (see is also a sign of this stage. This stands in contrast to the "Concrete Operations" (see that is achieved at the "Conformist" stage. Much of our scientific and technological developments were possible due to people at the "Achiever" stage, which offered the required cognitive skills to do this work. This stage is the peak of conventional development, and as such there are many people who see it as the peak of human development in general. Formal training usually brings people to this stage, but not beyond it, because the post conventional stages require a very different kind of development that is hard to grasp at the conventional stages.

Post-conventional stages take the "Achiever" stage, which is the peak of separating your self identify from your fellow humans and the world which you inhabit, and start to reintegrate that again towards a union that is conscious, as opposed to unconscious when the journey started. The transition into post-conventional can be confusing at first, because it requires breaking down previously established boundaries, it may even feel like taking steps back at first. The first post-conventional stage is often referred to as "Individualist", it grants people an early version of 4th person perspective, which is to say the understanding that they way things are viewed depends on the perspective of the person who is doing the viewing. It's like taking a step back and realizing that each and every person has a different perspective. People at this stage often abandon the idea that there is an objective way to look at things, but instead enjoy the many subjective views that are out there. This 4th person perspective also grants the ability to start reflecting on your beliefs, as you start to understand that these beliefs were formed through a particular perspective that doesn't objectively exist. Sometimes people at this stage also harshly reject the values of the "Achiever" stage, only to later realize that complete rejection was a bit too much. Some people who are in this transition are wanting to step out of the "rat race", because it no longer grants them the same amount of meaning and purpose it did in the past. The next stage, the "Strategist" matures the 4th person perspective, which grants them a broader sense of time, that matches the lifetime of a human being. The awareness of the impact of actions today on people 50 years from now requires the integration of a lot of information, and it grants these people a sense of purpose. At this stage, the many systems that these people know, which are based on many different perspectives, become integrated. The creation of these meta-systems requires a great deal of contextual awareness, which requires this ability to see through many different perspectives and choose one or several which are appropriate for the given context. Just like the "Achiever" was able to prioritize and choose the right action for the situation, so is the "Strategist" able to choose the right perspective for the situation. The "Strategist" is able to take these insights that were first formed with the "Individualist", but is able to apply them more effectively by simultaneously having far-reaching ideals, but also being realistic about the time, effort and patience is required to achieve them. Optimizing into win-win scenarios where important goals are met while allowing people to shine, this is among the many things that is sought after at this stage.

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. - Benjamin Lee Whorf

The next stage, the so-called "Construct aware" stage, is where things start getting a bit unusual. I say unusual because it is a transition stage into a place where ego cannot take you. So familiar tools that brought you to the "Strategist" stage no longer work. In the "Construct aware" stage people become aware of massive influence of language, something that has many words can be easily talked about, something that has no word is not part of your communication, and perhaps even your thoughts. The life story that people create without even realizing it comes slowly into awareness at this stage. The constructed meaning of life, the choices you make on how to interpret life, and the impact this has on the outcome of your actions and your life in general is something you become aware of. This is what is called 5th person perspective. It can be immensely freeing, but also make you a bit crazy. There are so many ways to interpret life, and at this stage, in order to live you have to choose one, being aware of all the others. During the "Construct aware" stage you will probably also become aware of your ego, one of the biggest constructs in your life.  The need of the ego to create a life story. Depending on where you are at in this stage you may spend your time constructing ever more complex meta-theories that reflect this new understanding, or struggle with letting go of ego identification, and identification with the stories the ego creates. My personal experiences have peaked into this stage, only to be profoundly confused, and arriving at only the understanding that navigating this stage can only happen by letting go, of how much I don't know yet.

Man carrying ego
How much energy are you spending carrying your ego story around?

The last stage mentioned in the Ego development theory is the "Unitive" stage, I somewhat understand what this about, but it also lies beyond my own understanding. In essence, if you can accept that the massive amount of understanding gained up to the "Construct aware" stage is not a burden, but something that can enjoyed. And if you can let go of this identification with the ego which is not really you, then you can be free. You will not be free of pain or hunger, but simply aware enough to see life much more like it is.

To summarize, the following table may help with understanding the various stages:

Comparison of the stages
Stage Goal Important themes
Conformist To be part of the group Emphasis on group-think (us vs them), but lack a true personal identity. Relations can be very needy. Concrete operations is achieved at this stage.
Expert To be different from the group Separation from the original group, looks for approval in new expertise based groups. Enjoy doing things the "right" way, growing their expertise.
Achiever To be the best one can be Birth of self-awareness, looks for feedback. Has the ability to prioritize and work with constraints, to do the "right" thing instead of the "right" way. Formal operations is achieved at this stage.
Individualist To understand themselves and other people Becomes aware that the (cultural) context of the observer affects perceptions, that true objectivity doesn't exist. Wants to enjoy the individual experience of themselves and of other people. Sometimes involves a harsh rejection of Achiever values, viewing it as a meaningless "rat race". 
Strategist To become the best one can become Ability to prioritize perspectives, seeing which yield a more positive outcome in the big picture. Strong emphasis on personal development, and proud of their understanding in a subtle ego way. Systems thinking, including systems of systems, and many interconnected systems are understood. Paradoxes are part of life.
Construct Aware To be aware Recognize the constructed nature of all language mediated thought and communication. Recognize the constructed nature of ego, the ego is essentially a story on a consciousness platform. Struggle with existential paradoxes, seeing the limits of ego and language mediated reality, but still experiencing things frequently from the perspective of the ego.
Unitive To be Accepting that understanding yourself is impossible. The mundane and the extraordinary are of equal value. Switching between constructs as the situation requires. More serene than construct aware.