Leadership has changed. No longer can leaders succeed through only achieving performance-related goals. No longer can leaders succeed by only adding additional capabilities to their leadership through skills development. No. To succeed in today’s ever-changing, ambiguous, and complex world, leaders need to grow in maturity; in how they see the world and how they respond to complex problems. What I’m talking about here is the required shift from “horizontal development” (growing through skills acquisition) to “vertical development” (growing through stages of personal maturity).
Why Should We Care?
Vertical development has been identified as the 1st of 4 trends for the future of leadership development. Many experts interviewed state that competency models for leadership development need to stop. People are more than a list of things they are good at or training sessions they’ve completed. When organizations speak of bringing your whole self to the workplace, do they provide room for you to develop personally and from a maturity perspective, or via skills acquisition and competency models?
Leaders with the capability to better understand the nuance in decision making, who can see problems from multiple perspectives, continuously grow in personal maturity, and expand their worldview, are far more likely to succeed than leaders who haven’t yet matured to this stage. Take the recent focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace (disclaimer: I’m still learning about this and do not consider myself an expert). There has been a public outcry about the historical and ongoing discrimination against minority groups of all kinds in our world.
Organizations are expected to have a response to how they’re embracing diversity and providing opportunities for minority groups to be heard. What’s a leader in such an organization to do? A leader in an organization focused on growth through competency models and skills acquisition might decide that all employees go through mandatory DEI training. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing to do or it isn’t part of the solution, just that it’s insufficient given the complexities of today. Conversely, a leader who approaches leadership with a vertical development mindset would look inward and acknowledge their own unconscious biases, how they may be contributing to the issue, access feedback that might be difficult to hear, and do the real work it takes to mature past their current reality.
We cannot expect our leaders to be successful navigating complex issues like this, let alone effectively contributing to society by becoming part of the solution in such an issue without something more than increased leadership competencies.
What is “Vertical Development”?
To understand vertical development, it can be helpful to first understand horizontal development. Horizontal development occurs when we acquire new skills, and new knowledge. This typically occurs in the context of a training program, reading, self-study, etc. Consider someone moving into leadership for the first time. That leader often has a checklist of standard leadership training that they need to complete. Some of it will be virtual and self-paced, some might involve completing certain readings, and other parts of it may include completing a new leader’s development program. All of which is horizontal development, the adding of new skills to the leaders abilities.
Vertical development, on the other hand, occurs over time as we experience life. We start to question our assumptions about how the world works and, through that reflection, gain new perspectives on ourselves, others, and the world around us. Consider an experienced executive in an organization who has already spent time learning leadership skills and criteria…it is unlikely that they are tasked with continuing to learn new leadership techniques and more likely that they and their organization agree that the leader’s time is better spent developing personally as a way to finesse and improve their existing knowledge. This can be seen in the fact that most leadership assessments focus more on who the leader is and less on the skills they possess.
Another way to think about vertical development is to picture yourself near a mountain. This would quite literally be the physical equivalent of vertical development. When we’re at the base of the mountain, we can only see what’s right in front of us. As we climb higher and higher on the mountain, we can see more and more (or further and further). So, the higher the altitude, the greater the perspective; the further and the more that one can see.
My Journey with Vertical Development
I thought it was silly. Plain and simple. My business partner expressed his desire to take a vertical development assessment and work on becoming certified coaches in this area. I went along with it out of respect for my partner and his interests as well as his perspective that this would be beneficial to us in many ways. Let me say that I was also not in the best place mentally or emotionally at this time, which definitely contributed to my thinking that vertical development was silly.
As I engaged in the process of taking a vertical development assessment and a debrief of the results with a Certified Leadership Maturity Coach, the results really resonated with me. I saw myself in the results and was able to identify some areas that I could start working on in my own life. The process of becoming a certified coach lasted another three years or so. The deeper I got into vertical development coaching, the more I saw its usefulness.
Fast forward four years from when I first thought it was silly and I’m all-in on vertical development. I believe it is absolutely necessary for today’s leaders. Vertical development provides a new lens through which you can view yourself and focus your growth efforts on areas that you want to grow in as a person. It can help you become a more self-aware, socially-aware, empathic, compassionate, wise person, which will make you a better leader. But there’s a catch…it takes an enormous investment in terms of time and commitment for vertical development to make an impact in your life.
How Do You Begin with Vertical Development?
Starting your journey into vertical development/personal maturity can be quite simple. I recommend starting by incorporating the following:
- Simply noticing – notice things throughout your day and in this very moment. What do you see happening? What can you see, hear, smell, taste, touch around you right now? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? There is nothing more to do here, just notice without judgment and without need to fix or resolve.
- Reflect on what you’re noticing – not in the moment, but during a scheduled reflection time at the end of the day or week. During this time, you may want to write down or express your thoughts in some other way. Journaling is a popular approach for this type of reflection.
- Identify areas for growth – where do you think you need to grow personally; where could you expand your perspective or worldview?
- Determine how you will support yourself – who/what needs to be included in your journey and in what ways do you need support on this journey?
- Take action* – What will you do next? Based on your reflection exercise, what would you like to do differently? How would you like to be different or show up differently in certain situations? Write down what you will do and then go and do it.
*Often this step/process is best completed with the support of a coach, mentor, or other qualified person in your life to guide you through the process and be there to help you to reflect and determine what to do as a result.
A Challenge to Leaders
To be a successful leader in the world today, it is no longer enough to gather skills and experiences. My belief is that it is absolutely critical to develop yourself personally, with an eye towards vertical development. Skill building and horizontal development will only get you so far. Without taking opportunities to grow in personal maturity, leaders will be ill-equipped to guide their teams and organizations through the uncertain and complex business world we find ourselves in today. Remember our mountain analogy for vertical development? Whatever point on the mountain you find yourself, I encourage you to select a development program that supports your growth specific to where you are today and where you want to get to. Whether that is receiving the full benefits of the stage that you find yourself in now or choosing a path to move further up the mountain. Let’s step together into the future as leaders who move themselves out of competency and into maturity.