One of life’s most persistent and urgent questions is…What are you doing for others?

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Part Five: The Postconventional Stages 

Have you ever met someone who stood out from the pack, but you couldn’t figure out why? It could be someone with a powerful presence or an ability to create consensus around a common vision. Maybe it’s an innovator who challenges convention. These people could be in the Postconventional tier of vertical development.

Only 15 to 20 percent of adults have a center of gravity in the Postconventional tier, which is why they stand out, especially in business leadership and change contexts.  Postconventional meaning-makers value complexity, rather than being overwhelmed by it. At this tier we gain a comfort level with paradox—we can sit with the concept of two conflicting ideas being valuable and ‘true’ at the same time.


Like the Conventional tier we explored in Breaking Down Vertical Development, the Postconventional tier has three stages. The Self-Questioning stage is where we begin—and getting here from Self-Determining is a big transition.

Up to this point, people make meaning from the outside-in. Reversing meaning-making to inside-out requires deconstructing the outside influences we’ve listened to our entire lives and reconstructing them from the inside out. We decide whether to keep or discard different ways of making meaning.

Think of the Conventional stages as the boardroom of our lives, but we aren’t seated at the head of the table. When we transition to Postconventional, we move to the head of the table. We have the same stakeholders and inputs, but we can mediate conflicts and decide for ourselves, even when it goes against the grain. Sitting at the head of the table is inside-out meaning making.

Getting from Conventional to Postconventional is not unlike the death and rebirth experiences inherent in the “hero’s journey” of our favorite books and movies. Think of Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi. The Self-Questioner is able to ask and answer, “What are my values and what would it look like to construct my life in accordance with my values?”

The distinction between being and doing becomes important in the Self-Questioning stage. The productivity and potential burnout at earlier stages come under examination as the self-questioner asks, “What is all this ‘doing’ for, anyway?”

Lastly, the black and white, concrete perspective of earlier stages gives way to a more nuanced lens. There is the dawning realization that everything is a made-up construct. While this reflects greater capacity, it can also be a rub with the majority of people who view things in a more exacting way.

People with a center of gravity at Self-Questioning have more capacity to lead through change and complexity, but they may come across as rebellious as they actively reject “the way we do things here.” Fitting a Self-Questioning leader into a Conventional organization can be challenging, but within these challenges we find value that leads to growth.


Now we reach the place with the highest correlation to achieving and sustaining transformational change: the synergistic intersection of leadership and change. Our leadership development imperative is to bring more people to this stage so we can begin to reap the benefits of transformation within organizations, and in the world at large.

Self-Actualizing leaders prefer people-oriented, inclusive and constructive perspectives. If we look at Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership II Model (SLII), Self-Actualizing leaders function at the end of the leadership adaptation continuum; they delegate to a trusted team to get results, and they’re adept at tailoring their management styles to diverse team members.

Leaders in this stage invite feedback from multiple sources and are committed to personal development. They are interested in collaborating and value communities of practice. Their level of consciousness gives them a light-hearted, existential sense of humor, as opposed to sarcasm or derision. Given that less than five percent of adults have reached Self-Actualizing, it’s possible that you either haven’t seen a leader at the stage, or you have, and it was memorable.

Construct Aware

It’s even less likely that you have met someone at the Construct Aware stage, which contains less than one percent of adults. However, because they are able to achieve personal, organizational and societal transformations, there are plenty of cultural examples of Construct Aware leaders. We are even on a first-name basis with some of them.

Iconic leaders who may fall into this stage include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. When we talk about Construct Aware leaders, we use words like wisdom and lightness. These social catalysts and visionaries are often perceived as being out of touch with reality, because they have created a new reality from the inside out, while we are still living an outside-in life. It can also be a lonely place where feeling seen and heard is a rare experience.

We don’t know what stage Oprah Winfrey has as her center of gravity, but it’s likely she makes meaning in the Postconventional tier most of the time. Here’s a great video of Oprah talking about failure. See what you notice that lines up with later stages of vertical development. Then, watch the Jack Welch video from Part 4 again and compare. What differences do you notice?


This wraps up our journey through the Leadership Maturity Framework and the stages of vertical development.  I hope your mind is percolating with ideas about the implications and utility of this framework. We’ll explore this very question in the next, and last, part of the series.

Extension Questions:

  • Can you think of someone in each stage of the Postconventional Stage? (Self-Questioning, Self-Actualizing, Construct Aware.) What have these people achieved? How do they show up?
  • What is your growing edge? How is the fit between your center of gravity and what you are asked to do at work?

Read Part Six: Now What? to learn about the intersection of vertical development and change management.

Learn More about the Preconventional and Conventional Stages:

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