Innovative Leadership takes work

The Path to Vertical Development – Excellence is Hard to Achieve

This week’s article is by Maureen Metcalf, CEO of Innovative Leadership Institute as a companion to her interview with Terri O’Fallon and Kim Barta from Stages International. In addition, it is a companion to their interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled  Bringing Clarity to Vertical Development Confusions that aired on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022.

Before moving into a conversation about confusion, I want to ensure we work with a shared language. I use the STAGES model in our work to support leadership development. This process is often called vertical development or moving one’s center of gravity from one level or stage to the next level or stage – each stage being progressively more complex and better able to lead in complex environments. This framework also helps leaders work across diverse groups of people more effectively. From the STAGES website, “STAGES is currently being widely used in many different areas of the world.

  • Individuals– Therapists, coaches, educators, teachers, and other motivated individuals wanting to harness the power and predictive capacities of STAGES are using this model and work to better serve their clients, students, and activities in the world.
  • Institutions– STAGES is helping senior leaders and founders to better assess their own organization so they can understand how to motivate, inspire, and satisfy the needs of those who bring the institution to life, no matter if that include students and teachers, non-profits and their clients, or think tanks and their principle partners.
  • Companies– CEOs and founders can better assess their company culture, leadership teams, and employees, and use those assessments to clarify how they are working and communicating to create the most harmonious culture, efficiency, shared outlook, and common values to motivate and inspire.
  • Academics– A wide range of issues are benefiting from the developmental understanding supported by STAGES, such as climate change, pedagogy, psychology, conflict resolution, economics, social justice, and many other fields and areas of interest and concern.”

About The Model: What Is STAGES?

STAGES is a model of ego development starting at infancy and moving into increasing levels of differentiation and integration through adulthood.

A stage is a coherent and internally consistent belief system that describes how someone is likely to think, feel, and behave in various life situations. A stage is a level from which we consistently make meaning of life’s experiences.

The STAGES model has 12 distinct stages and 6 different kinds of perspectives: from the first-person perspective of an infant to the third-person perspective of the scientist to the 6th-person perspective of the most advanced ego stage yet known to us. This model is based on Terri O’Fallon’s research and is put into context by using the theoretical frameworks of the philosopher Ken Wilber as well as other leading developmental psychologists such as Suzanne Cook-Greuter and Jane Loevinger.

This model is not a hierarchy like a ladder or a staircase. It is more like a balloon, where human perspectives evolve around and as our egos, not merely “on top” of an existing structure. One of the best ways to understand this model is that it allows us to see where and how we make meaning, and what is an “object” of our conscious versus an object that we are “subject” to.

For instance, while some adults are their relationships (meaning they are subject to them; or what therapists might call codependent), others are able to have relationships. In other words, they can have a relationship to their relationships. This means the relationship is an “object” they can see with their minds, not something that is part of their self-identity.

That is one example of hundreds that could be given to show how humans evolve in their capacity to develop an awareness of concrete objects like bicycles and toys; subtle objects such as thoughts and feelings, and relationships to relationships; and even met aware objects, like awareness of awareness itself.”

Now we shift to the Confusion people are likely to experience as they move between the most common levels we see in organizations. We tend to have confusion as we transition from one stage to the next. The confusion comes from: you’re not the person you used to be, but not sure what you are now or are becoming. By understanding the confusion, we can accelerate development and mitigate some of the challenges that naturally arise at each level. As we develop, no matter what level, we develop new capacities and with each new capacity or ability, we have a learning curve before we become highly effective. While we can’t avoid all naturally occurring growing pains we can ease them.


This interview also delves into the deeper shadows that arise as people develop. Shadow is the part of your awareness that is hidden from you. Understanding and reintegrating the shadow is an essential element in moving through the later stages of development. Kim offers a free assessment if you are interested in exploring your own shadow.


Confusion is a normal and healthy part of development. When we take on new activities, we go through a natural learning process. For leaders, this process can feel disorienting because we are running businesses and we don’t have time to be confused. Unfortunately, growth comes with a learning curve that is unavoidable. My clients often say they feel like they should have overcome these challenges earlier in their careers. The reality is, for people who continually learn and grow, the challenges and confusions continue. Our goal is to find ways to navigate the inevitable challenges, learning curves, and confusions associated with excellence. Building excellence is messy.

We will start with the first leadership stage: explore and experiment called Expert, skill-centric, or STAGE 3.0. It’s the first adult stage we see extensively in the workplace and typically in young adults. A typical pattern at this level is perfectionism, getting it right every time. This focus can be paralyzing, motivated by a fear of being punished with failure. Experts see time but have trouble being timely; they don’t see timeliness. To help experts develop, challenge them in small doses; micromanage the time, but not the work!

At the Achiever Level, STAGES 3.5, people have a sense of the future; believe in that plan, and have benchmarks for a goal – but visualization usually doesn’t match the reality that unfolds. The confusion here is the difference between visualization and reality. While achievers are very clear about ownership of concrete items such as physical property, they don’t consistently make the same distinction at the subtle level. People don’t see the difference between what’s mine and yours which can result in plagiarism and copyright infringement. They can see all ideas as theirs. They don’t realize they’re stealing. They do have a tremendous capacity for imagination and reflection. Reflection can be essential to help Achievers develop,

The Pluralist Level, STAGES 4.0, is the first post-modern developmental level; 4th Person Perspective. At this level, awareness boosts, and people can be confused because they have trouble understanding the difference between awareness and metacognition. Deeper awareness flashes in and out and will eventually become more permanent. They also start realizing the social construction of reality – meaning people begin to see that their perception impacts their experiences.

The Strategist Level, STAGES 4.5, also takes a 4th person perspective. At this level, people can see systemic patterns and long-term trends. At this stage, the confusion involves understanding projections or seeing where they realize their judgment of others can intensify when they see the same issue in themselves. This doesn’t happen until the very end of this stage. People at this level can reflect and find projections or triggers.

As you move along your developmental journey, we invite you to learn more about the STAGES of development and the journey. The more you understand, the easier the journey. You may find the STAGES Roadmap interesting to help you learn more about this process.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, SpotifyAmazon MusicAudible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Also, stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

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