International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring
2023, Vol. 21(2), pp.211-231. DOI: 10.24384/vbqa-nq24

Academic Paper

From developmental to transformative coaching to reach later stages in vertical holistic leadership development

Antoinette J. Braks (StageSHIFT Coaching & Consulting Ltd)



This paper distinguishes developmental from transformative coaching to invite and encourage more executive coaches to realise more of their human potential and to advance the frontiers of coaching to facilitate culture transformation and ecosystemic renewal. For the purposes of this paper, developmental coaching is defined as intending to ask clean, clear questions of the coachee to invite them to inquire into their needs, concerns, and challenges with a view to helping the coachee navigate life events and experiences at their current stage of vertical self-development.Transformative coaching is defined as intending to invite the coachee to expand their consciousness and leadership capacity through transformative third generation coaching (Stelter, 2014), mentoring, guidance, and counselling with a view to realising their aspirational leadership intent, itself pitched at a later stage of their vertical development and take a more systemic leadership role.

The research study reported in this paper draws on two nascent fields of scientific inquiry in relation to the fast-growing coaching profession (Grant et al, 2010; Peterson, 2011): the effectiveness of executive coaching (Athanasopoulou & Dopson, 2018; Jones et al, 2016); and vertical adult development (Cook-Greuter, 1999; Kegan, 1982; McCauley et al, 2006; O’Fallon, 2011, 2020; Rooke & Torbert 2005). The purpose of the research was to inquire into the potential capacity of transformative coaching to expedite the vertical leadership development of strategic leaders to later post-conventional stages. The paper first sets out a literature review of the two areas of research discussing how the two fields intersect. This leads into the methodology of the research study followed by the outcomes and findings that emerged, the conclusions drawn, and recommendations on how to apply the findings and for further research.

Literature Review

This section explores literature relating to the moderating factors affecting coaching effectiveness, the design of coaching effectiveness, and the appropriate measure of coaching effectiveness. It follows with a broader review of vertical development in terms of the stages of development, leadership effectiveness at later stages, the measurement of vertical development, the distribution of the executive population, and the factors leading to later stage development. These elements from both fields of research are then captured in a conceptual framework to frame the research question.

Table 1: The Moderating Factors in Coaching Effectiveness

Table 1

Coaching effectiveness

Five key moderating factors are considered to contribute to coaching effectiveness: the coach, coachee, their relationship, the coaching process, and the organisational coaching context (Rekalde, 2015). These moderating factors are identified in Table 1.

Rekalde’s (2015) meta-study found the affective factors listed to be the most influential. Various researchers have since ranked the importance of these moderating factors in relation to each other. Rekalde (2015) ranked their order of importance as the confidential trusting relationship, the coach’s commitment, the coachee’s commitment and the organisational guarantee of confidentiality. De Haan’s (2016) research study examining coach and coachee self-reported scores of coaching success suggested that the longer the coaching relationship, the more effective the coaching, and the stronger the coaching relationship, the higher the self-efficacy of the coachee. Cavanagh’s (2006) dynamic dialogical 8-step model of coaching conversation emphasized the momentum implicit in the recurring coaching process of storytelling, meaning making and reframing, as the engine of growth and change.

A third avenue of inquiry in coaching effectiveness relates to the self of the coachee in relation to Aristotle’s view of human growth as a natural and innate human tendency to seek out new experiences, discover new horizons, integrate new perspectives, and transform the self to realise their latent potential (Laske, 1999). Examples are self-congruence (Rogers, 1961), self-actualization (Maslow, 1962), self-regulation (Baumeister, 1986), self-determination (Ryan & Deci, 2017), and intentional change in self-identity to embody one’s ideal aspirational and purposeful self (Boyatzis, 2008). This latter distinctive focus on developing an understanding of the ideal self, led to a 67per cent behavioral improvement in self-awareness and self-management, and a 40per cent improvement in social awareness and social skills for MBA students at Case Western Reserve University, in contrast to a 2per cent improvement realized by other MBA Programs and 11per cent from industry and government programs (Boyatzis, 2008; Taylor et al, 2019).These research findings indicate that an explicit focus on the development of the self of the coachee is valuable.

Bachkirova (2016) gave close attention to the fourth factor regarding the self of the coach as primary.

Clients often bring for coaching the issues that affect their whole lives. I would argue that the interventions of the coach are initiated not only from the knowledge and understanding of the clients’ situation, context, psychological makeup, and goals but also from the personal resonating with all of these in the moment and, therefore, from the self of the coach. These interventions are the expression of the coach’s life experiences, current worldview, and the stage of his or her personal learning journey. On this basis it is possible to say that the coach is the main instrument of coaching. (Bachkirova, 2016, p.144)

This primacy of the coach may be enhanced in the shift from developmental, co-active coaching to third generation coaching (Stelter, 2014) which adjusts the role of the coach from focusing on coachee inquiry alone to holding an expansive field of consciousness that invites new insights to arise on the part of the coach and coachee (Wahl et al, 2013). Third generation collaborative coaching encourages deeper mutual reflection in meaning making and soul awareness (Stelter, 2014; Wahl et al, 2013). If the coach is at a stage of vertical self-development beyond the coachee, they are confidently able to inject greater breadth and depth into the level of consciousness present in the coaching conversation (Bachkirova & Borrington, 2018; Berger, 2012; Wycherley & Cox, 2008).

The fifth factor is the organisational context. This has received less attention in the coaching effectiveness literature and is more prominent in vertical development research. For instance, Jones et al (2020) found that if the organization’s leadership development mindset focused on core principles rather than values or skills, and on vertical rather than horizontal development, this led to more favorable developmental outcomes.

In addition to the five moderating factors which would all seem to play a vital part, coaching effectiveness has been considered in terms of how best to measure objective outcomes beyond coach reporting and coachee feedback (Athanasopoulou & Dopson, 2018; De Haan et al, 2013, 2016, 2019; Jones et al, 2016; Grant et al, 2010; Peterson, 2011). Enhanced coachee capabilities, career advancement, organisational performance, and financial measures (Grant, 2003; Kampa-Kokesch & Anderson, 2001; Wasylyshyn et al, 2006) have each been proposed without arriving at a firm conclusion on the most appropriate measure. The most immediate outcome-based measure of coaching effectiveness that is also surveyed by many organisations (Athanasopoulou & Dopson, 2018) and rises beyond singular capabilities, is the increased leadership effectiveness of the coachee.

Recent meta-analyses of executive coaching effectiveness (Athanasopoulou & Dopson, 2018; Ely et al., 2010; Jones et al, 2016; Theeboom, Beersma & van Vianen, 2014) sought scientifically informed studies with either a ‘within-subjects’ (before and after) or ‘between-subjects’ design (coaching and control group). The main changes evaluated amongst qualifying research studies were the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, individual resilience, self-efficacy, and wellbeing. These elements reflect leadership capabilities which, if considered holistically, could together also result in a measure of leadership effectiveness.

Vertical development

The theory of vertical development arose from Piaget’s (1954) articulation of a child’s cognitive development based not on accumulated knowledge and experience, but on the mindful act of constructing knowledge from that experience. Kegan (1982) extended Piaget’s model to adults, advising that adults also observe, interpret, and make meaning of what they perceive as their reality, according to the sophistication of their underlying mental model. He identified five orders of mind: impulsive, sovereign, socialized, self-authoring and self-transforming. The implicit proposition is that a person constructs their perception of their world from their inner mental model i.e., the world is not an objective reality, but a subjective perception.

Kohlberg (1981) distinguished phases of adult development – preconventional, conventional, postconventional and transpersonal – and, amongst other developmental theorists, articulated single lines of development related to morals, ethics, values, and faith (Fowler, 1981; Gilligan, 1982; Graves, 1970; Kohlberg, 1981). Loevinger (1976), a pioneering developmental psychologist, expanded the definition of vertical development as a holistic construct of the ego or self-identity, and identified an invariant sequence of nine stages of vertical development. Cook-Greuter (1995, 1999, 2000) extended this series to include later stages, identified the two-step process of realising each new level of maturity, and defined these progressive levels as explicit perspectives from 1st to 6th.

O’Fallon (2011) has since clarified three distinctive tiers of development distinguished by their Concrete, Subtle and Metaware objects that become perceptible within them. She also ascertained an alternating shift within each tier from individual to collective concerns and elaborated on Cook-Greuter’s (1999) two-step process. O’Fallon (2011, 2020) thus enriched the systemic structure underpinning the stages of psychological development. Table 2 offers an estimated correlation of the above models. The terms used for the stages in this article are shown in Table 2 in the final column and draw from the work of other vertical practitioners (e.g., Joiner & Josephs, 2007) using terms more easily understood in the workplace. Note that Kegan’s (1982) self-transforming mind is considered equivalent to mature Synergist.

Table 2: An Estimated Correlation of Vertical Development Models

Table 2

Table 3: Stages of Development (Cook-Greuter, 1999; Merron et al, 1987: Torbert et al, 2004; O’Fallon, 2011)

Table 3

Leadership effectiveness

This research formulates a sequence of 12 stages of development, two for each level or perspective. The series of stages form an invariant sequence, where each new level builds on the strengths of earlier foundational levels and exposes new shadows from earlier stages to be integrated (O’Fallon, 2011). A person operates from a spectrum of generally four neighboring stages, which mutates to incorporate later stages as earlier stages are released in favor of the broader perspective held at later stages (Braks, 2020; Torbert et al, 2004).

Later stages support an increasingly comprehensive and insightful understanding of growing intersystemic complexity, psychodynamic subtlety, and the recurring patterns of human events over longer periods of time (Cook-Greuter, 1999). The more a person is aware of, the more they can explain, explore, reform, and transform to realise better systemic, sustainable, synergistic outcomes for the benefit of all stakeholders and future generations (Torbert et al, 2004). This increased capacity to deal with complexity leads to the hypothesis that leaders at later stages are more effective. Notwithstanding that each person is a composite of a spectrum of stages, Table 3 outlines the strengths, shadow, and roles of executives at progressive stages of development. Each stage is most evident when it predominates an executive’s mental model.

Various research studies have identified that executives at later stages understand themselves, others and situations with greater depth and breadth, and are more effective leaders (Eigel & Kuhnert, 2005; Harris & Kuhnert, 2006, 2008; Strang & Kuhnert, 2009). In a study of 41 executives across five role levels from manager to C-suite, Harris and Kuhnert (2006) found that their stage of development was positively and significantly correlated to their overall 360 leadership effectiveness ratings. A bivariate linear regression analysis showed that 360 scores could be predicted based on their stage of development. In further studies of 74 and 67 leaders across the same five role levels, stage development could also predict leadership effectiveness ratings (Harris & Kuhnert, 2008; Strang & Kuhnert, 2009). These findings are considered provisional given their sample size (Lawrence, 2017), yet the research studies are quite expansive in scope (multiple role levels), took place over a period of years, and were overseen by Professor Karl Kuhnert, formerly with the University of Georgia.

In 10 longitudinal studies of organisational transformations lasting on average 4.2 years, involving multiple mergers and acquisitions with an average of 485 employees in each organisation, Rooke and Torbert (1998) found that the seven which prospered greatly to go on to become industry leaders were either led by a CEO at Synergist stage or built a high level of trust with external consultants at Synergist and Alchemist, treating them as close confidantes. The three unsuccessful CEOs were all at earlier stages of development without this type of relationship.

Given the larger sample size and the measurement of external performance indicators over a lengthy period in these research studies, the findings indicate that the Synergist is the first stage at which a leader can lead and sustain industry sector transformation. Brown’s (2012) study of later stage leaders endorses the Synergist capacity to transcend and lead the realization of sustainable intersystemic outcomes of the complex interconnected challenges we face in the world today. This is also affirmed by the two-step process of vertical development (Cook-Greuter, 1995). At Catalyst (early fourth perspective), a leader first becomes aware of this new perspective followed by a process of integration as they mature to Synergist (later fourth perspective) from where they can take decisive action to transform the systemic context and realise improved outcomes for all stakeholders in the wider community (Torbert et al, 2004).

Vertical measurement

There are several ways of measuring vertical self-development. Two of the most common (McCauley et al, 2006) are the Washington University Sentence Completion Test (WUSCT) (Loevinger & Wessler, 1970; Murray, 2020) and the subject/object interview (Lahey et al, 1988). The focus of this paper is on the WUSCT which invites the participant to complete 30-36 open sentence prompts such as: “Education …”, “I feel sorry …”. While the research into language construction at progressive stages is substantial (Cook-Greuter, 1995; O’Fallon, 2020), a person’s level of verbal fluency and educational and social background may affect the accuracy of these assessments (Lawrence, 2017; McCauley et al, 2006; Manners & Durkin, 2001). While the sentence completions are objectively assessed by qualified certified scorers based on a comprehensive scoring manual (Loevinger & Wessler, 1970) and inter-rater reliability has been shown to be high at 94per cent (Torbert & Livne-Tarandach, 2009), studies have also identified inconsistent assessments using alternative vertical assessment methods (Hirsch, 1988).

The WUSCT has been validated over time (Cohn & Westenberg, 2004; Manners & Durkin, 2001; Redmore & Waldman, 1975; Torbert & Livne-Tarandach, 2009) and while it would be valuable to continue to increase the quality of vertical assessments, the complex nature of human being as both the subject and object of analysis, may point to diminishing returns. Perhaps at later stages, only estimations of vertical development are realistic. Each sentence completion may incorporate signals pointing to different stages, so the scorer must weigh the evidence as objectively as possible while heeding their intuitive ‘fast brain’ (Kahneman, 2011) in their overall assessment of an individual’s stage spectrum. Holding the assessment lightly (Berger, 2004) while appreciating the fullness of a person’s potential, and the complex nature of vertical development interweaving multiple stages, suggests that vertical assessments, even if not entirely consistent, offer valuable assessments of and for self-development. If there is more evidence that leaders at later stages are indeed significantly more effective, especially to transform complex intersystemic networks during turbulent times, then the WUSCT may prove to be a useful measure of leadership effectiveness and, by extension, coaching effectiveness.

Executive population

The majority of executives have their centre of gravity, a term used to describe their predominant stage, at Achievist, a mature third perspective. As noted in Table 3 above, Achievists are motivated by goals, deadlines, and profits (Cook-Greuter, 1995; Torbert et al, 2004). They are the high performing heroic leaders who espouse a bold vision for others to follow - the archetype of the capitalist system. They prioritize individual and business success, and company profits over planet and people, although the support for more conscious business ethics and practices is challenging this conventional model.

The proportion of executives at Achievist reached its peak in 2005 and is now declining, while the proportion of Catalysts in the new fourth Perspective, has been growing at the rate of an estimated 11per cent per decade (Rooke & Torbert, 2005; PwC Report, 2015). This is encouraging as Catalysts are more concerned with values and conscious business practices (Cook-Greuter, 2019). Based on O’Fallon’s (2011) model, it signals a shift in the primary orientation of executives from the individual to the collective, i.e., from ‘me’ to ‘we’. Enabling community wellbeing while incorporating sustainable shared prosperity through a circular economy is becoming the new benchmark for business. The fullness of this trajectory represents a shift from navigating a single complex adaptive system to transforming global ecosystemic networks.

Given that Catalysts are at the initial individuation stage in the development of this new perspective, they are increasingly aware of the need but not yet able to lead transformation. This requires a leader to have their centre of gravity at Synergist. The rate of growth at this stage of development unfortunately seems to be stalled at one per cent per decade (Cook-Greuter, 1995; PwC Report, 2015). Contemporary leadership development interventions would appear to be inadequate (Beer, 2016). This dearth of Synergist leadership capacity reduces our readiness to overcome global dilemmas during the ever-increasing rise in complexity and volatility we face today.

Vertical development factors

Vertical development to later stages, is thought to be a relatively slow process. It has been found that developmental action inquiry over a period of five years leads to stage development to Synergist (Torbert & Fisher, 1992), and Torbert (by email 11 March 2015), a well-recognized global thought leader in vertical development, suggested it would take 5-6 years to shift to Synergist with a coach embodying at least Synergist leadership capacity. However, participation in intensive 20-day Integral Leadership Programs leads to stage shifts to later stages in one year (Brown, 2014). In a study of 10-month 25-day enhanced Community Leadership Programs, Vincent (2015) found that 27 per cent of Achievists and Catalysts shifted a stage to Catalyst and Synergist respectively.

There are a range of factors that are thought to facilitate vertical development to later stages such as Catalyst and Synergist that might strengthen developmental initiatives, including executive coaching. Valuable avenues to realising later stages of vertical development are thought to include disorientating dilemmas (Manners & Durkin, 2000), heat experiences and colliding perspectives (Petrie, 2015), revisiting life stories (Petriglieri et al, 2011), comfort with interiority, complexity and intentionality (Pfaffenberger et al, 2011), integrating analytical, conceptual, emotional and spiritual development (Quatro et al, 2007), shadow resolution (Kaiser & Kaplan, 2006; Kilburg, 2004), integrating polarities (Sharma & Cook-Greuter, 2012), resolving the tension between espoused and lived values (Rooke & Torbert, 2005), and contemplative and reflective practices (Cook-Greuter, 1999).

The drivers and processes of vertical development to fourth perspective in the organizational context have been shown to include increased environmental complexity (Brown, 2012), a deliberately developmental mindset (Kegan et al, 2014), accomplished facilitators (Scharmer, 2018), expert therapists (Petriglieri et al, 2011), later stage peers (Laloux, 2014), the safety of an intimate holding space (Delizonna, 2017; Gunnlaugson & Brabant, 2006; Scharmer, 2018; Torbert & Fisher, 1992), a principles-based vertical leadership development mindset with openness to vulnerability and risk-taking (Jones et al, 2020), and more evolved, purposeful, liberating, community-oriented, peer-networked organisations (Hamel, 2007; Kotter, 2014; Laloux, 2014). The organisation is seen as a container that either encourages or inhibits vertical leadership development depending on whether a person’s stage is up to or beyond the level needed in their role or accommodated by the organisation (Torbert et al, 2004).


In relation to coaching effectiveness, there are five moderating factors, a desire for a more objective measure of coaching effectiveness and the design of more research studies utilizing ‘within-subjects’ or ‘between-subjects’ methods. The increased leadership effectiveness of coachees could be a useful measure of coaching effectiveness. In terms of vertical development, there is a sequence of leadership development where leaders at later stages are more effective, particularly at the mature fourth perspective of Synergist. The WUSCT vertical assessment instrument is widely used yet still subject to quality assurance concerns. Given the nuanced nature of later Stages, it may still be a useful measure of leadership effectiveness. While there appear to be many and varied factors that ignite vertical development to later stages such as Synergist, they are largely untested while development to this level, urgently needed to surmount current complexity and volatility, is stalled.

This research study was designed to discover how a transformative coaching relationship with a Synergist executive coach might expedite vertical leadership development for conventional coachees to these later stages to gain greater clarity on the coaching process drivers and principles of later stage development to Synergist in an organisational context. These elements, presented within the conceptual framework depicted in Figure 1, are explored in relation to the coaching inquiry into the potential capacity for transformative coaching to expedite the vertical leadership development of conventional leaders to later post-conventional Stages.

Figure 1: The Conceptual Framework of the Research Study

Figure 1


The research project was a multiple case study (Yin, 2018) of 12 research participants who each undertook a 12-month coaching program with the coach/researcher/author. This section describes the process of participant selection, the background of the coach, and the approaches taken to complete the quantitative and qualitative analysis.

Participant selection and coach

The initial participants in the research study were drawn from the Executive Development Program for 400 of the most senior leaders in the Senior Executive Service of the New South Wales government in Australia. The researcher invited 25 executives to undertake the WUSCT; 19 accepted. Cook-Greuter (1999, 2000), a key researcher advancing our understanding of vertical leadership development and founding trainer of scorers in the WUSCT-based Mature Adult Profile, personally agreed to score the assessments as she did for Brown in his study of later stage leaders (2012).

Twelve of the 19 executives had more than 80 per cent of their profiles at the conventional stages of development, largely at Specialist and Achievist. They therefore met the research study’s purposive sampling criteria as conventional leaders and were invited to join the research study. Nine agreed. The majority of their average aggregate profile was at conventional stages. The preponderance of their current meaning-making capacity at conventional stages suggests that they had minimal access to meaning-making at the postconventional fourth perspective.

The executives were employed in C-suite, general management and executive director roles concerned with billion-dollar infrastructure program management, state and federal stakeholder and community engagement, substantial customer-centric services reform, strategic policy formulation, and technology innovation, across eight different governmental departments. All nine research participants (three women and six men) were graduates, five held Master’s degrees and one, a doctorate. Their average age was 52. An additional three participants, two from the financial services sector, subsequently joined the study to test the repeatability of the initial findings. The 12 research participants included five women and seven men at an average age of 50 ranging from 36-56; all graduates, six with a Master’s degree.

The coach who is also the author of this article had been assessed at Synergist three years prior to the research study. She had undertaken some 3,000 hours of executive coaching work and had designed and led the evolutionary transformation of two 1,000-person organizations. Her corporate background included leading People and Culture for an innovative energy company, leading Leadership Capital Solutions with Korn Ferry, and Strategic Human Resources with Shell. She had been qualified in many psychometric instruments including he Leadership Circle and Hogan and was an experienced designer and practitioner in Leadership Development and Organizational Development. Her educational background included an Honours degree in Law and an MBA at London Business School.

Quantitative and qualitative analysis

Participants undertook the WUSCT before and after the coaching program (Jones et al, 2016). The second round of assessments was undertaken anonymously to ensure there was no possibility of comparison with their assessments a year earlier. The WUSCT total weighted score based on the weighted average of all completed sentence stems for each participant was used to complete the overall quantitative analysis. The average aggregate profile for the group i.e., their average aggregate score for each stage of development across the spectrum of stages in their WUSCT assessments, was used to explore the nature of stage development from Achievist to Synergist. The overall quantitative findings are presented here; further detail on the nature of the shift can be found in Braks (2020).

The research participants undertook an average of eight 90-min coaching meetings over the 12-month period. This amounted to more than 150 coaching hours and over 100,000 words documenting the coaching conversations. The qualitative analysis of this data was instigated by Leximancer word analysis software to identify key themes and categories. This was followed by a cross-case inductive thematic analysis of the empirical research data (Boyatzis, 1998). A final set of eight drivers were identified based on their frequency and intensity in the coaching conversations with participants (Yin, 2018). An iterative approach to interpretive sense-making (Cavanagh & Lane, 2012; Denzin & Lincoln, 2017; Nije & Asimiran, 2014) led to an understanding of the dynamics of vertical development, the five active vertical coaching ingredients (De Haan et al, 2019), and the three underlying principles of vertical development. The drivers reflect the coaching content; the five active ingredients refer to the key elements in the coaching program, and the three principles offer a distillation of the coaching process.


This section sets out the initial quantitative coaching outcomes in vertical leadership development using the WUSCT assessment instrument in the ‘within-subjects’ study. This is followed by the findings that emerged from the thematic cross-case analysis (Boyatzis, 1998) to discover how the executive coaching program may have expedited vertical development. The section completes with a discussion of the implications of the findings for coaching and vertical development to clarify a number of potential concerns that merit attention.

The quantitative analysis of the before and after WUSCT total weighted scores showed that 83 per cent of the first nine participating strategic executive leaders shifted a full stage, mostly from Achievist to Catalyst; the other 17 per cent shifted two stages from Achievist to Synergist. Their average aggregate postconventional profile at fourth perspective – Catalyst and Synergist - shifted from 8 per cent to 43 per cent in one year, an increase of 35 per cent, a third of their profile. A matched sample paired t-test showed that there was a highly significant statistical difference between the before and after assessments. The R2 of this shift was 0.519 with a single tail p-value of 0.00001 at a 95 per cent confidence interval.

The magnitude of development of the additional three research participants was similar to the first nine. Two shifted one stage and one transformed twice from Achievist to Synergist. Their average aggregate postconventional profile also shifted by a third, 33 per cent. Three of the original participants undertook the WUSCT a third time three years later to add a longitudinal element to the study. Their average aggregate postconventional profile had shifted to 88 per cent with 40 per cent at and beyond Synergist. The shifts in the average aggregate profile for all 12 participants are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Aggregate Profile Shifts of the 12 participants in the Research Study

Figure 2

On more of an anecdotal level, the coachees accomplished career goals and realized unprecedented external success (Box 1). One was promoted to a general management role and was recognized with the Career Achievement Award by their industry association. Another received an Industry Award for the most outstanding Infrastructure Project of the Year, a $1+ billion program of work having consistently realized demanding milestones. Another was promoted to Deputy Secretary and was later honoured to receive a Public Service Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List for outstanding service. Many received invitations to make numerous conference presentations to large audiences and one was honoured as the most outstanding futuristic speaker in their industry.

Box 1: Coachee Impromptu Impressions

Box 1

Eight drivers of development

Two super-themes became apparent from the Leximancer Word Analysis Software: strategic business leadership and personal holistic leadership. Eight drivers of development were then distilled from the iterative thematic analysis for their frequency and potency (Boyatzis, 1998) and placed into context. Four involved strategic business leadership and four, personal holistic leadership. Four were largely reflective processes, and four involved external engagement. The eight drivers are presented in Table 4, identified in the general order they took place in the coaching conversations. Because the commencement of the coaching programs coincided with the beginning of a new financial year, setting strategic direction was top of mind for the coachees.

Table 4: The 8 Drivers in Vertical Leadership Development to Synergist

Table 4

The first two drivers began with the organisational context to lead strategic direction and distribute time very consciously to orchestrate the flow of engagement and increase productivity and creativity for all people in their division. The strategic scaffolding engineered by the coachees demanded leadership at Synergist level and expanded the space for the vertical leadership growth of the people they led. This liberated the organisational context to enable enterprise evolution and created the opportunity for vertical development for everyone reporting to the coachee.

The second set of two drivers focused on the development of the self of the coachee working with the Aristotelian notion of self-advancement, Maslow’s (1962) self-actualization and Boyatzis’ (2008) concept of the ideal self. However, rather than focusing on capability-based gap analysis or strengths-building, the coaching shifted to cultivating the self and embodying spirit leveraging the power of positive psychology, mindfulness, and heartfelt intentions.

This was followed by a continued focus on the self of the coachee with a view to resolving, healing, and releasing shadow psychodynamics signaled by criticism of others and emotional reactions arising within the self. This coaching intervention was designed to eliminate as well as regulate sabotaging reactive patterns to realise a calm, clear, self-transforming mind.

The accompanying sixth driver was the scripting and rehearsal of Courageous Caring Conversations in the workplace to hold values-based standards that had the power to create psychologically safe space for all employees and uplift the culture. It was found that only executives operating from mature Synergist could assert their leadership presence within the organisational context in the moment to hold standards, boundaries and priorities with grace and integrity.

The fourth set of drivers were designed to consolidate the strategic leader’s presence in their outer organisational context of stakeholders and community members, leaning into fifth perspective. The seventh driver, articulating a unique living Signature Presentation brought their purpose and passions to life with presence and promise. The eighth driver offered an orchestrated systemic method to collaborate widely across their organisation and externally to build the trust and momentum needed to generate ecosystemic synergistic solutions over time.

Five active ingredients

The eight drivers ranged across the coachee, the coaching process, and the wider organisational context. The depth of content incorporated in the drivers was taken from the transforming mindset and embodied experience of the coach’s mature Synergist perspective (Jones et al, 2020). The coach had also previously successfully led strategic culture transformations, undertaken significant personal shadow resolution work and, as a result, was very comfortable in taking their coaching role across the spectrum of coaching, mentoring, consulting, and counselling. The nature of the coaching relationship was that of a dialogical partnership engaged in third generation transformative coaching.

Table 5 extends the five key moderating factors portrayed in Table 1 at the beginning of this paper with the key active vertical ingredients identified in the multiple case study. All five active vertical ingredients that accelerated the vertical leadership development of strategic leaders to Catalyst and Synergist are considered to be vitally interconnected.

Table 5: The Five Moderating Factors Extended to the Five Active Vertical Ingredients

Table 5

Three fundamental principles

The findings led to an emergent vertical development theory shown in Figure 3 that underpins the eight drivers in relation to three fundamental principles of later stage transformation. They are the Intention to set purposeful, evolutionary aspirations; the Interaction to enable open respectful, orchestrated engagement to build self and other awareness; and the Integration of self, other and system that arises from shadow resolution and caring courageous collaborative conversations in the organisational context and beyond it.

Figure 3: The Drivers underpinned by 3 Fundamental Principles of Transformation

Figure 3

The power of Intention was activated by setting aspirations to become a more inspiring leader leading a purposeful organisation to generate beneficial ecosystemic outcomes. This intention was pitched at the level of a mature Synergist leaning into fifth perspective.

Coaching from a mature fourth Perspective invited each coachee to trust emergence. The power of concerted Interaction with open liberating agendas enabled everyone to flow with emergence, and collaborate on ideas, insights, and solutions. The synergy of mutual collaborative inquiry into new possibilities and initiatives generated high people engagement.

The power of Integration emerged from listening and learning, caring and healing, advocating and responding, while in dialogue with each other. The deliberately developmental context provided the supportive avenue for shadow resolution, team cohesion and systemic evolution.

In summary, the research study illuminated:

  • 8 drivers of vertical development to Synergist
  • 5 active vertical ingredients extending the 5 moderating factors in coaching
  • 3 fundamental principles that expedite vertical development
  • An emergent Vertical Development Theory
  • The nature of the shift from one perspective or level to the next (Braks, 2020)
  • The non-linear 2-Step Square Dance of vertical development (Braks, 2020)
  • 20 later stage cultural memes embedded in the coaching (Braks, 2020)
  • The distinctive nature of Transformative Coaching (Braks, 2020)
  • The dynamics of vertical leadership development refining and enhancing The Holistic Energy Operating System (Braks, 2020).

Coaching implications

While the coaching context was deliberately developmental i.e., vertically orientated (Kegan et al, 2014), there was no goal to shift participants vertically despite the use of the term ‘driver’ above. Rather, an explicit aspirational intent was set by each participant as to the type of leader they wished to become, a fourth level construct, similar to the articulation of the ideal self in Boyatzis’ (2008) Intentional Change Theory. The coach trusted that the more complex meaning-making leadership capacity at the fourth level would emerge over time. In other words, the intrinsic development of the coachee was honoured without any attempt to ‘move’ the coachee (Bachkirova, 2011; Berger, 2006; Kegan, 1982).

Cox and Jackson (2014) advocate that it is essential to focus on the agenda defined by the coachee rather than on any one partial model of vertical development. This research study encompassed both. The entire agenda of the coaching conversation was set by the coachee, with the exception of inviting them to articulate their aspirational leadership intent. The model of vertical development developed by the author was shown to the participants at the beginning of the coaching program and thereafter served as a backdrop. While the later stage of the coach was also consciously and consistently present in the background, it is thought to have influenced the new attitudes adopted by the coachees and generated the Green-Teal nature (Laloux, 2014) of their interventions in the workplace. Nevertheless, the coachee set the agenda at the beginning of each coaching meeting, and the nature of the conversation to best serve and honor the coachee in relation to their concerns and challenges, remained in the foreground.

There was also no overt creation of disorientating dilemmas or heat experiences to create temporary disequilibrium in the coachee or intricate them in colliding perspectives (Palus & Drath, 1995; Manners & Durkin, 2001; Petrie, 2015). There was ample potential in the coachee’s ordinary work life and occasionally home life, to facilitate deeper meaning-making and offer new approaches for them to experiment with. The coachee was invited to foster a deeper connection within their sense of their emerging self and to resolve and heal shadow as it became evident, to realise their aspirational self. This three-part strategy captured in Figure 5, is articulated as embodying spirit, cultivating self and healing shadow. By being consistently mindful of one’s thoughts, feelings, and self-expression, and releasing or integrating shadow parts of oneself from earlier stages, vertical self-development is a natural emergence.

The coach held an expansive coaching space of emergent consciousness (Gunnlaugson & Brabant, 2016) to invite insights and revelations to arise. This type of psychologically safe space included confidentiality (Rekalde et al, 2015), and the embrace of vulnerable authenticity (Kegan et al, 2014), as well as encompassing courage, compassion, and curiosity with an open will, heart and mind (Scharmer, 2018) in communion with spirit. Thus, the coaching space could be described as a psychologically safe and sacred space for the emergence of expanded consciousness. The shift to later stages is an inner shift that can only rise intrinsically from within the coachee’s own realm of consciousness.

The nature of third generation dialogical coaching (Stelter, 2014) was also embraced to enable the coach to share insights and deeper meaning arising from within their consciousness, not immediately accessible by the coachee due to their earlier stage of self-development. By offering these thoughts in a form of inquiry as part of the conceptualization, thinking phase in Kolb’s (1984) learning cycle during the coaching conversation, the coachee was exposed to and invited to construct systemic meaning-making. This served to expand the consciousness of the coachee and influenced their attitude and approach to events on return to their workplace. This coaching met the coachee where they were at, and who they were becoming (Kegan, 1982).

Given the strategic leadership roles of the participants, the coachees naturally raised concerns on providing strategic direction for their division of the organisation. Given the coach’s expertise and proven track record in leading the transformation of corporate cultures, the coach also coached participants in the use of liberating strategic frameworks and engagement processes so they could develop their strategic leadership capabilities to build a more engaged organisation with a more empowering culture (Hamel, 2007; Laloux, 2014). This fits more closely with the roles of mentoring and consulting, rather than coaching. The integration of enterprise evolution effectively freed the coachee from being hindered by the typical constraints of organisations at earlier stages of evolution (Torbert et al, 2004), and, based on coachee reflections, had the effect of lifting the engagement, development, and performance of the coachee’s division as a whole.

On reflection, maturing as a transforming Synergist appears to demand the simultaneous evolution of the organisation. It is in the act of leading such a transformation that the emerging Synergist leader embodies the mature fourth perspective. Thus, coaching across the spectrum from consulting in strategic frameworks to mentoring in engagement processes and counselling in shadow resolution i.e., a blend of business, psychology, and consciousness, may be prerequisites for the coaching effectiveness of strategic leaders to mature at Synergist.


The confluence of the two interwoven threads, coaching effectiveness and vertical development, hold the potential to expand the capacity of coaching to realise more of our human potential. If the presence and practices of executive coaches reached out to new frontiers of later stage vertical leadership capacity at Synergist and beyond, alongside the transformative third generation coaching approach applying the drivers identified in this research study, executive coaching could have a more significant influence and impact on enabling strategic leaders to realise more of their latent potential.

Considering humanity is in jeopardy as we are catapulted into an increasingly VUCA world, coaching could advance its frontiers to play a more active partnering role with clients. Coaches, partnering with leaders, have the opportunity to be pioneers while also holding responsibility for honoring coachees and integrating the emergent research that continues to bolster the foundations of our nascent profession. Coaching strategic leaders to Synergist to facilitate our capacity to surf the waves of complexity and ultimately sail out to calmer waters could be a significant contribution we could make as a profession to creating a better world for all.

Areas for further research

Coaches may wish to consider realising their own potential as later stage leaders at conscious Synergist and beyond and integrating the outcome of vertical self-development into their coaching presence and practices. For executive coaching to become more effective and advance its frontiers, there is an opportunity for coaches to step up as partners by sharing accountability for coachees’ aspirational intentions and evolutionary business outcomes.

Additional research using both a ‘within-subjects’ before-and-after mechanism, and a ‘between-subjects’ control group to measure increased leadership effectiveness and coaching effectiveness relative to vertical development, would test and advance current provisional findings. While further validation of the WUSCT may seem valuable, an increased awareness of human potential is perhaps more valuable than the absolute consistency of the WUSCT as a measuring instrument.

Buyers of coaching services who wish to realise transformative outcomes, would benefit from including the vertical stage of the coach and the nature of the coaching relationship, distinguishing transformative from developmental coaching, in their eligibility criteria. Further, this study suggests they would benefit from more consciously integrating vertical leadership development to later stages with enterprise evolution to Green and Teal accommodating all stages of self-development while supporting everyone to grow to their next stage.

For the coaching profession, the boundaries of ethical considerations in the coaching process and relationship may need to be honed to take account of the dialogical partnership that emerges from third generation coaching and the explicit backdrop of vertical development. While coaching may have started out as a ‘supporting’ profession, if the coach’s Centre of Gravity is a spectrum stage shift beyond the coachee, then it is also our moral obligation to also take a leading role in the coaching partnership.


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About the author

Dr Antoinette Braks is a Master Executive Coach and a thought leader in the Psychology of Vertical Holistic Leadership Development. She is the author of Executive Coaching in Strategic Holistic Leadership and was awarded the CEO Today Management Consulting Award 2020 in Leadership Coaching. Dr Braks founded the StageSHIFT Global Coaching Community.


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