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What is Vertical Leadership Development?

All organizations want great leaders. The question is how do you get them? Vertical development could be the answer to your question. Vertical leadership development is different from traditional leadership development. It takes the concept of ‘growth mindset’ and gives the leaders a map and a compass to go on a developmental journey.

Vertical development is based on 5 key ideas:

1. You are not static – you are evolving

Psychologists have found that children grow through a series of developmental stages. As they mature they develop more sophisticated mindsets and become capable of doing more and more complex tasks. Most people assume that once you are ‘grown up’ the growth ends (hence the term). However, researchers have found that adults don’t stop growing. They can continue to evolve through further stages of development.

2. The stages of growth follow a path

Researchers who examined 1,000’s of leaders found that they evolved through predictable stages of development. Each new stage becomes increasingly complex and unlocks important new capabilities and perspectives that were not previously available. Think of it like an upgrade to your phone’s operating system.

3. There are seven developmental stages

The researchers identified seven stages through which leaders can develop. Each later stage builds upon the previous stage. It is like the rings on a tree that expand out and include the previous rings.

The 7 stages for leaders are:

  1. Opportunist: Deeply concerned with own needs. Tries to win any way possible.

  2. Conformer: Focuses on conforming with the rules and norms of the organization or peers.

  3. Expert: Motivated to gain mastery and expertise. Values logic and respects other experts.

  4. Achiever: Driven by goals, achievement and meeting the standards they have set.

  5. Self-questioning: Inspired by meaning and purpose. Challenges the status quo to finds new ways.

  6. Strategist: Generates organizational and personal transformations. Sees the system they are in.

  7. Synergist: Integrates wisdom with a deep sense of global conscience. May be happier outside of organizational boundaries than in.

4. There are two forms of development

When supporting a leader’s development there are two forms of growth we can focus on. They are both important and interconnected, like two sides of a coin.

Horizontal Development – is lateral growth within a stage. 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.

5. Fill the cup AND expand the cup

Imagine that the leader’s mind is like the cup below. When a leader goes to a horizontally focused leadership program the goal is to fill the cup with new information, knowledge, and models. A vertically focused intervention doesn’t aim to fill the cup, it aims to expand the cup itself. It increases the leader’s capacity. That way the leader can hold more complexity, more uncertainty, and more perspectives. Both forms of development are important and connected. Great leadership development aims to both fill the leaders mind (horizontal) and grow the leaders mind (vertical).

Most leadership programs do a good job at horizontal development but often neglect vertical development.

(The above is an excerpt from my upcoming whitepaper Lessons in Vertical Development. You can dive deeper into the what and why of vertical development in my previous whitepapers Future Trends in Leadership Development and Vertical Development: Part 1.

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