By Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner TPCL Italy

Every good leader knows that there’s room for improvement. There are new skills to learn, new information to assimilate, new methods to master. But too often we get stuck in horizontal development, adding ever more tools and ideas in our leadership toolbox without radically changing the way we think about leadership.

While it is totally acceptable to develop our own knowledge and skills – in fact, it’s an essential part of a leadership role – this should always be complemented by vertical development focus and practices. This is a more fundamental, internal and transformational development journey aiming to engage, at a deep level, the leader’s mindset, attitude and understanding of their world. 

Vertical development doesn’t only add more jewels into the treasure chest, it makes the treasure chest bigger and capable of holding that much more.

Becoming a more “grown-up” leader

Vertical development is a personal evolution that is similar to the way a child develops, with various stages that must be transcended and integrated.

In the 1930s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described cognitive development as having four key stages. First, from birth until they are two years old, a child is going through the sensorimotor stage, ultimately learning about object permanence – the knowledge that things exist even if they can’t be seen.

Preoperational (age 2-7), concrete operational (7-11) and formal operational (adolescence to adulthood) follow, with the child developing symbolic thought, operational thought and eventually the ability to understand abstract concepts.

Note that this isn’t about the child learning to feed themselves or to walk or to write their own name. It’s more about their ability to think, understand, perceive, rationalise and make sense of the world around them.

In the same way, vertical leadership development isn’t about gaining skills. It’s about increasing your capacity to understand yourself and others and to think strategically in an increasingly complex world. It is, at a very fundamental level, about “growing up” as a leader.

Models of vertical leadership development

Just as Piaget was able to distil the cognitive development children go through into four key stages, so a variety of experts have created a number of models to help us understand vertical leadership development.

Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan identified specific stages in moral development, Clare W. Graves and Don Beck in culture and values development, Bill Torbert in the way leaders make meaning of themselves, integrate diverse perspectives and process ambiguity and complexity. 

The Leadership Development Framework, developed by David Rooke, helps leaders to map and make sense of the implicit ‘logics’ and assumptions that might underpin our actions and decision-making in increasingly complex business scenarios.

Another useful model for understanding leadership development in context is Frederic Laloux’s exploration of how organisations have evolved throughout history. He describes this in his book Reinventing Organisations (2014), which draws on previous work by the likes of Clare Graves, Robert Keigen and Ken Wilber.

For more info about these models keep an eye on the next post on the models of vertical leadership.

Common assumptions and how to avoid them

At this point, it’s important to point out that vertical leadership development isn’t about ascending through the ‘levels’ or pigeon-holing ourselves into one ‘category’. It is about expanding our capacity by exploring and integrating different action logics, which naturally operate within us. And it’s about appreciating and including the most useful and context-appropriate elements of each as we transcend them.

Most of us will find that we move up and down the list in different contexts. For example, in times of stress, people who have accessed the later stage action logics may well revert to the problem-solving Expert or results-driven Achiever.

It’s also important to remember that while there are benefits of the later stage action logics, the earlier ones are not without use. If you were ever in a street fight, for example, it would be prudent to ignore the Strategist visionary thinking in favour of the self-protective instincts of the Opportunist.

That said, there can be great advantages to integrating later-stage action logics, especially in complex, changing environments where strategic thinking is essential. At these more advanced stages of development, a leader is more capable of integrating the points of view of different stakeholders, of listening more deeply to their implicit and explicit needs, of understanding more fully how the structures and the systems around them are influencing these. As a result, they are more likely to challenge the status quo, innovate and find new solutions.

So if we assume that you want or need to inquire into and further develop through your action logics, how do you go about it? 

How to grow and develop vertically as a leader

In its simplest form, vertical development is about enhancing your capacity to experience and understand yourself and others and to think systemically and strategically in an increasingly complex world. As such, it is outworked within an individual, interpersonal and institutional context.

The challenge for an individual is to understand the space you currently occupy and envision what it would look like to think, feel and act out of the box. One-to-one coaching can help facilitate this kind of personal development work in order to gain insights about yourself as a leader.

When it comes to how we relate to others, 360 feedback, action learning and team coaching may all be powerful tools for identifying and navigating interpersonal dynamics. Learning to shift our perspective to that of someone different to ourselves is an important skill for any leader who wants to get the most out of the teams he or she works with.

At a wider level, senior leadership teams can undertake wider consulting interventions to apply vertical leadership development principles across the organisation. This might take the form of the creation of a community of practice, for example, or the facilitation of disruptive thinking when dealing with business issues.

Being a successful leader is about more than adding new skills and knowledge to your toolkit. Instead, it is about developing greater capabilities for understanding yourself, others and the wider, complex environments in which you lead. Doing so allows you to move beyond incremental development and achieve a transformational quantum leap in the way you lead yourself and others as you transform your business.

This is the first in a series of five articles covering Vertical Leadership. Stay tuned.

@copyright TPCL (2021)