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7 lessons I’ve learned about Vertical Development

Vertical development is becoming more well-known and talked about within leadership development. I’ve heard various people talking about the wonders and benefits and others talking about all the risks and dangers. Which is true? After using vertical development tools and models for 10 years, I thought I’d share the 7 most important things I’ve learned.

1. Leaders find it helpful on many levels: Many leaders tell us it helps them understand what they are experiencing but don’t have words for, “I’m not crazy, I’m just a little more developed than my organization’s culture and that can feel frustrating.” It also helps them remember that they are not a ‘fixed’ self. Many start out thinking ‘I am who I am’, and end up musing, “I’ve been changing my whole life……maybe I can keep changing”. This one simple idea has reignited many leaders’ development.

2. It is just a model: it is not ‘the answer’ or the only way of understanding humans. You may have heard the saying, ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’. Vertical development can’t tell you everything about yourself. But it can tell you some important things (see bullet above).

3. Hold the stages lightly: it is possible to fixate on the stages. That’s not that helpful. The stages are just signposts or approximations of how you might evolve. My colleague Jan Rybeck likes to say, ‘Hold the stages lightly and take your development seriously’. Yea, what she said.

4. You are too complex for any assessment to capture: no one can tell you who you are, based on an assessment (thanks Susann Cooke Greuter for this point). An assessment is like a finger pointing at the moon. It is not the moon itself (it’s a finger!). We call the tool we use the Vertical Mindset Indicator. It looks at mindsets and mindsets can change. And it’s an Indicator meaning……. well, you get the idea right?

5. You are not at a stage: most people have range of mindsets that they flow through each day. While we can help you identify your likely center of gravity, in practice you probably flex your mindset and behaviors to fit your context. This is not linear or one way. You are not at a stage. You are not just an achiever. Don’t let people box you in. You are bigger than that.

6. Higher stages are not ‘better’: there is nothing magical about the later stages. Operating from a later stage does not automatically make you happier or better at your job. It could even make you worse. People tend to be most effective when their mindset is a good ‘fit’ for the complexity of their role. Ever met an Alchemical surgeon? It’s not a race to the top, because…

7. There are heroes at all stages: this is a saying used at a company we work with. They recognize that their business is not shooting for 10,000 Alchemists. Things would not end well. Their business needs many different mindsets for many different roles. There is a seat on the bus for everyone. And you can move to new seats as you grow and evolve.

The world is pretty complex and organizations are looking for ways to support their people through it. Vertical development is one approach that leaders seem to find both relevant and useful. I’ve found that if I keep to the 7 principles above, leaders can experience and use the ideas in ways that are safe, respectful and helpful (and we don’t drive into a ditch).

Those are my 7. I’d be curious to hear from others. What are some of the lessons you have learned from doing this work?

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I help organizations develop leaders who can navigate complexity, stay resilient and lead through networks. To connect email


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