vertical development

by Ryan Gottfredson, PhD.

If you are a computer scientist and you want to improve your computer so that it can more effectively perform the functions that it needs to, which option for improvement would you prefer:

  1. Adding new programs and apps, or
  2. Upgrading the computer’s operating system?

If you are an Air Force general and you want your aircraft to be more technologically sophisticated and versatile, which option for improvement would you prefer:

  1. Adding new technology to existing aircraft, or
  2. Manufacture a new aircraft with the latest innovations and technology?

If you are someone who eats and breathes, you probably answered “b” for both of these questions.

Why is it then, when organizations want to develop their leaders, they spend more time, focus, and attention on:

  1. Helping leaders gain more knowledge and skills (i.e., add new programs or technology), instead of
  2. Upgrading leaders’ internal operating system such that they can more effectively navigate change, pressure, uncertainty, and complexity?

Two Types of Leadership Development

There are two types of leadership development: horizontal development and vertical development.

Unfortunately, 90% (or more) of all leadership development focuses on horizontal development, yet what we want is vertical development.

What is the difference between the two?

Horizontal development is adding new knowledge, skills, and competencies to the leader. The benefit of this form of development is that it broadens the leaders’ functionality. They can do more than what they could do previously. But, the limitation of this form of development is that it doesn’t improve how effectively the leader can function.

Vertical development is elevating a leaders’ ability to make meaning of their world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways. The limitation of this form of development is that it doesn’t allow you to do new things. But, the benefit of this form of development is it allows you to do the things that you already can do much more effectively.

When comparing the outcomes of the two forms of development, it is appropriate to say that horizontal development leads to incremental growth, while vertical development leads to transformational growth.

Here is a summary of these two forms of development:

The 10 Laws of Vertical Development for Leaders

In order to see why vertical development is so critical to focus on, let me share the 10 laws of vertical development for leaders:

  1. As a leader’s altitude of vertical development (cognitive and emotional sophistication) rises, they become more conscious of the dynamics of their world. They can see further, see more clearly, see more details, and see more interdependently.
  2. The greater a leader’s vertical development (cognitive and emotional sophistication), the more capable they are at dealing with change, pressure, uncertainty, and complexity.
  3. The greater a leader’s vertical development (cognitive and emotional sophistication), the more capable they are at doing things that may not make sense to others less vertically developed, such as:
    1. They are ok looking bad if it allows them to enhance their learning and development.
    2. They are ok being wrong if it means that they find truth and think optimally in the process.
    3. They are ok wading through problems if it means that they are getting closer to their destination.
    4. They are ok putting themselves on the back burner if it means that they can better lift others.
  4. Leaders put into place organizational structures, practices, and policies that emerge from their level of vertical altitude (cognitive and emotional sophistication). More sophisticated leaders implement more sophisticated and effective structures, practices, and policies.
  5. The culture of an organization is a reflection of its leaders’ development level.
  6. Organizations cannot evolve beyond their leaderships’ level of vertical development.
  7. There is no organizational transformation without a preceding transformation in the vertical development (cognitive and emotional sophistication).
  8. The most effective way to shift the altitude of an organization is to shift the vertical altitude (cognitive and emotional sophistication) of its executive team.
  9. The less vertically developed a leader is, the more resistant they are to vertical development. The more vertically developed a leader is, the more they recognize the importance of vertical development.
  10. The more vertically developed a leader is, the more capable they are capable of leading successful change (incremental and transformational). Also, the more vertically developed a leader is, the more they recognize that change starts with them.

Next Steps

If you have read to this point, I am sure you are asking yourself: “How do I go about vertically developing?” or “How do I help others to vertically develop?”

What you need to focus on can be found in our definition of vertical development. Vertical development is designed to elevate leaders’ ability to make meaning of their world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways.

If we want to vertically develop or to help others do the same, we need to focus on our “meaning makers.”

What are our “meaning makers?” They are our mindsets.

To help you awaken to the quality of your mindsets and identify areas to focus on for your vertical development, I have developed a personal mindset assessment. It should only take about five minutes to complete, and you will get an individualized and comprehensive report of the quality of your mindsets relative to 20,000+ people who have taken the assessment.

About the author

Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D. is a cutting-edge leadership development author, researcher, and consultant. He helps organizations vertically develop their leaders primarily through a focus on mindsets. Ryan is the Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-selling author of “Success Mindsets: The Key to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership.” He is also a leadership professor at the College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. You can connect with Ryan at www.ryangottfredson.com. You can also learn more from him at Virtual LeaderCon.