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  • Writer's pictureNick Petrie

How Vertical Development Happens

The below is an excerpt from my new whitepaper Lessons in Vertical Development.

When supporting the development of leaders there are two forms of growth you can focus on. They are both important and interconnected. Think of them as two sides of the same coin.

Horizontal Development – is lateral growth within a stage of development. We add more information, knowledge, and models to what we already know. Our current way of viewing things becomes more detailed, refined, and broad. We become increasingly skilled and knowledgeable from the stage we are at.

Vertical Development – is upward growth to a new stage. We expand our capacity to think, feel and act in more complex and adaptive ways. We grow beyond our old meaning-making system and transform the way we see the world.

Life, and a leader’s development, is a continual balancing act between adding to what you know (horizontal growth) and transformation of how you know (vertical growth). In my workshops, I’m often asked just how we grow beyond our old meaning-making system and how does vertical development really happen.

How Vertical Development Happens

Life is full of challenges. Beginning from when we are children we create mental models to make sense of our experiences in the world. These models and assumptions form the foundation of our mindset and create our rules for living. But throughout our lives we must constantly revise our assumptions about the world to fit our lived experience—“Even if I am nice, not all people are nice to me”. This process of revision and accommodation of new information is gradual and incremental (horizontal development).

However, every so often we face situations (such as becoming a first-time parent) where our preexisting mental models are so out of synch with the new reality that we cannot make them fit (‘Wow, being a parent is nothing like being single”). When faced with persistent discrepancies that cannot be resolved through horizontal integration, a transformational change may occur. This involves a restructuring of our whole meaning-making system and a transition to a new stage of development (vertical development).

Because transformation requires that we let go of our previous assumptions, worldviews, and perceptions of ourselves, this can be a painful process. In a sense, vertical growth represents the death of who we once were, so we can be born into who we will become.

Life, and a leader’s development, is a continual balancing act between adding to what you know (horizontal growth) and transformation of how you know (vertical growth).

For more on this topic, check out my article What is Vertical Leadership Development.


To speak to Nick about bringing vertical leadership development into your organization send a LinkedIn message or email

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Mike Anderson
Jul 27, 2023

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