Exploring Vertical Development: Origins and Applications in Personal Growth


Why are we talking about Vertical Development?

Are you still being asked: What is Vertical Development?

We think it is worth sharing a personal understanding of this concept that has gained significant attention in the fields of psychology, leadership, and personal growth, and yet it is still a foreign concept to many. 

By comparison, unlike horizontal development, which involves acquiring new skills and knowledge at the same level of complexity, vertical development refers to advancing through stages of thinking, understanding, emotional awareness, and behaviour. 

If we wanted to simplify with an analogy, much leadership development focuses on designing, uploading, and improving apps for an existing operating system, i.e. teaching new skills and improving existing competencies without fundamentally challenging the conventional mindset, the underlying worldview, and the implicit logic that inform personal actions and decisions. 

Vertical development, instead, focuses on developing and innovating the overall operating system, so that existing apps can function more smoothly and new ones can be developed and uploaded in a way that would have been impossible with the old operating system.

The science behind vertical development

Does it sound too good to be true? Does it feel like just the latest branding to market some leadership training? 

Not quite. 

First of all, the idea of vertical development in adults has a long history and has been scientifically researched for almost a century.

The concept of vertical development has roots in developmental psychology, particularly in the works of Jean Piaget, Jane Loevinger, and Robert Kegan. 

  • Piaget’s stages of cognitive development laid the groundwork by illustrating how children’s thinking evolves through distinct stages. 
  • Building on Piaget’s ideas, Jane Loevinger developed a model of ego development that extended these stages into adulthood. Loevinger’s stages describe how individuals progress through increasingly complex ways of understanding themselves and the world.
  • Robert Kegan further elaborated on these ideas with his constructivist-developmental theory, which emphasises how people make meaning of their experiences. Kegan’s stages of development describe a process where individuals move from simple, self-centred perspectives to more complex, other-centred, and systemic ways of thinking. 

These models collectively provide a framework for understanding how vertical development unfolds across the lifespan. This is at a very high level an indication of direction rather than a deep exploration of where the vertical development is coming from and is not doing any favour to all the contributors in the field.

The business case for vertical development

Secondly, unlike what has happened in the last years with some speculative leadership theories, the higher impact of later-stage, highly developed individuals in leadership positions is well documented. Compared to their colleagues, they seem to be much more capable of:

  • driving organisational transformations, 
  • managing effective relationships with a variety of stakeholders, 
  • implementing advanced sustainability strategies.

All these, while getting their businesses to grow. Or, better, leveraging on these elements to enable the growth of their businesses. 


Capabilities addressed by vertical development approaches

Having to choose one way of describing the features of vertical development through the lens of our capacities for meaning-making, we would choose the one that Karen Ellis and Richard Boston describe in their book Upgrade. 
They propose four capacities as differentiators in our ability to survive and thrive

  • Sense Making: The ability to perceive, interpret, and connect disparate pieces of information to form a coherent understanding of complex situations.
  • Perspective Shifting: The capacity to consciously and deliberately view situations from multiple, diverse viewpoints to gain a broader and more inclusive understanding.
  • Self Relating: The skill of introspection and self-awareness, allowing one to understand and manage their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in relation to others.
  • Opposable Thinking: The ability to hold and integrate two conflicting ideas simultaneously, fostering innovative solutions and creative problem-solving.

Leaders with highly developed capabilities in these four areas can foster a more innovative, adaptive, and inclusive work environment, leading to better decision-making and enhanced team collaboration. Their nuanced understanding and management of complex situations drive organisational growth and resilience.

Practising the four capabilities

Keeping in mind these 4 capacities there are many things that we could apply in our self-development to experience vertical development. The above-mentioned book gives many practices for you to choose from, here are some of our favourite ones:

  •  Regular Self-Reflection: Set aside time for introspection. Journaling can help articulate your thoughts and track your development over time.
  • Expose Yourself to Diverse Perspectives: Engage with people from different backgrounds and with different viewpoints. This can broaden your understanding and challenge your assumptions.
  • Critical Thinking: Practise questioning your assumptions and considering alternative explanations and solutions.
  • Complex Problem-Solving: Take on challenges that require innovative and complex problem-solving skills.
  • Mentorship and Coaching: Work with a mentor or coach who can provide guidance and support in your development journey.
  • Study Developmental Models: Learn about models of vertical development to understand the characteristics of each stage and identify where you are in your journey.
  • Adaptability: Develop the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and view uncertainty as an opportunity for growth.
  • Authentic Connections: Build relationships based on mutual respect and authenticity.
  • Define Your Purpose: Reflect on your personal and professional purpose and how it aligns with your values and actions.
  • Contribute to the Greater Good: Seek opportunities to contribute to causes larger than yourself, such as community service or advocacy.

Vertical development offers a powerful framework for personal growth, emphasising the progression through increasingly complex stages of thinking and understanding. This journey not only enhances personal growth but also improves one’s capacity to lead and contribute meaningfully to society. 

Understanding and applying vertical development principles can transform how we approach our personal and professional lives, enabling us to navigate the complexities of the modern world with greater insight and resilience.

This article has been created through the contributions of Andrea Cardillo and Cosmin Gliga

Andrea has been the Managing Partner of TPC Leadership in Italy since 2011. He has extensive experience in consulting, training, and coaching in the fields of leadership and people skills development, working with diverse public and private sector organizations. Andrea holds a PhD in Philosophy and is currently pursuing a second PhD in Psychology. His studies focus on the interaction between morality, psychology, and leadership, and he has published numerous books and articles on ethics and religion, responsibility in a complex world, leadership development, and cultural change in organizations.

Cosmin is an Associate of TPC Leadership in Romania where he acts as a coach, facilitator or trainer focusing on leadership development and sustainability. He works with leaders and teams to enable their development and identify opportunities within themselves that impact their whole organisation. Cosmin approaches coaching with a curious mind and facilitates inquiries within clients in order to co-create a deeper understanding of the challenges at hand.

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