Vertical Development: A New Paradigm for Leadership Development

This post is for anyone who cares about leadership development: coaches (including Agile coaches), leadership development professionals, and leaders of organizations. It’s about leadership agility and “vertical development” and how these two ways of thinking intersect to create a new paradigm for leadership effectiveness in today’s world.

The need for new thinking about leadership

In thinking about the future of leadership development, there are two important trends we need to take into account. First, the business environment has become what many call VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). This environment is not going away and is likely to become "even more VUCA” with each passing year.

Largely because of this increasingly turbulent environment, there’s a strong consensus that our organizations need to become more “agile,” more adept at navigating rapid change and interdependence. As a result, many companies are undergoing “Agile transformations” – and many more will soon be doing so.

Second, largely as a result of these emerging environmental demands, leadership development as a discipline has come to the very forefront of talent development priorities. Recent studies of leadership development needs around the world, conducted by firms like Center for Creative LeadershipDDIHarvard Business School, and McKinsey, underscore this need. Many companies – and leadership development professionals – feel their LD programming isn’t producing the results their leaders really need.

There’s broad recognition that we need to reexamine our assumptions about the kind of leadership that’s most needed for an increasingly turbulent environment, as well as how leadership development activities are structured and delivered. There’s a strong consensus that the kind of leadership that’s needed is agile leadership. This has been bolstered by the insight that Agile transformations don’t work unless there is simultaneous attention to the development of agile leaders and agile leadership cultures. However, in many quarters there’s not yet a robust understanding of what this really means.

Competency models – Are they giving us all we need?

Let’s take a moment to look at the way of thinking that has dominated leadership development for the past few decades. Leadership development has become a sophisticated profession, drawing on the ideas that fueled the shift from “management” to “leadership,” starting as early as the 1980s. It understands that all companies and all functions and levels within companies are different. Therefore, competency models were used to understand the kind of leadership needed in a particular organization.

Competency models, of course, are built by discerning what makes a company’s high-performing leaders so effective, by doing in-depth interviews about how they think and act. The patterns identified through these interviews are distilled into an abstract competency model, which is then used for activities ranging from hiring to assessments (for example, in-house 360s) to leadership development programming. Ensuring that this programming lines up with a competency model can provide confidence that we can deliver what our company and its leaders need most.

Why, then, the persistent gap between leadership development needs and results – the nagging feeling that we need to do more? Partly it’s that we need to go further in linking learning and application. The move toward blended learning and more experiential forms of learning, like action learning programs and the use of coaching in leadership development programs, has definitely moved us in the right direction. We need to do more along these lines, but, beyond this, there’s an underlying issue that goes more to the core of what leadership development is all about.

The need for leadership agility

Because of our VUCA environment, the leadership mind-sets and skill-sets that were effective not so long ago are coming up against their limits. For five years, I spearheaded an intensive research project that asked the question: Does this new environment demand a new kind of leadership? If so, what does it look like? We discovered that leaders still need the skills that worked in the recent past. But they also need to develop a new repertoire, a whole new level of leadership, if you will. Many of us realize this, but we haven’t had a clear road map with a systematic picture of what the new leadership requires.

The findings are captured in our award-winning book, Leadership Agility. The behaviors exhibited by highly agile leaders are made possible by a distinct set of cognitive and emotional capacities that can be learned and developed. Our research confirmed and elaborated on earlier studies, which showed that these capacities develop in distinct stages. Each new stage involves a significant shift in perspective, allowing a leader to operate at an entirely new level of agility. These agility levels can be assessed, and — with the right kind of training, coaching and facilitation—leaders, teams and leadership cultures can develop new levels of agility. (For an overview of the agility levels most relevant to today’s organizations, see my white paper, essentially an executive summary of the book).

Stages of vertical development

The developmental stages I’ve just referenced come from a field of research called stage-development psychology, which began in the 1920s with Jean Piaget’s studies of childhood development. In the last several decades this field has exploded with new research on stages of adult development, thanks to pioneers like Bill Torbert and Susann Cook-Greuter, who built upon Jane Loevinger’s extensive work on “ego development,” and Robert Kegan, who built on earlier work by Lawrence Kohlberg. These stages are not age-related phases of adult development. They are progressive, qualitatively different levels of cognitive and emotional growth.

This body of research has received increasing attention in recent years, sometimes under the rubric of “vertical” development, in contrast to “horizontal” development, which has been the traditional focus of leadership development programming. What does this distinction mean?

Horizontal development means that you gain new knowledge, skills and competencies while remaining at your current developmental stage. Horizontal development allows us to use our current cognitive and emotional capacities expand our competencies into new areas, but it does not change our developmental stage. Therefore, everything we learn is still filtered and applied using the mental models of our current stage. For example, if a manager is anchored at the Expert stage of development, which the stage before true strategic thinking emerges, that manager can attend a great workshop on strategic thinking, but not really internalize and apply the learning. I believe this is one of the primary reasons that what we want leaders to learn too often just doesn’t “stick.”

Our research on leadership agility shows that VUCA conditions not only require new leadership skills, but also “vertical development” – learning how to think and act at the next stage of cognitive and emotional growth. A big part of the re-think we need in leadership development programming is to incorporate vertical development approaches into our leadership workshops, coaching methods, and action learning programs.

Developmental Model for Leadership Agility

But to do so, we need a clear, practical, research-based roadmap to guide us. The Leadership Agility model comes from original research that synthesized, built upon, and in a few cases, corrected the vertical development frameworks that preceded it. The new knowledge that resulted from this research gives us a more complete understanding adult developmental stages and their linkage to the new forms of leadership needed in today’s world. Most importantly, we have a new understanding of how to facilitate development from one stage to another. This knowledge and the tested methodologies for doing this can be learned in our Leadership Agility Coaching Program.

The Leadership Agility model, 360 assessment tool, workshops, and coaching methods we’ve been using with clients all approach leadership development from the inside-out (vertical development) and from the outside-in (horizontal development of new competencies), always with an emphasis on making everything highly accessible, practical, and applied for busy, results-oriented managers.

Bill Joiner is lead author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility. He is President and a Principal Consultant at ChangeWise, a firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching, and training; team development; and organizational change consulting. ChangeWise also teaches coaches how to utilize its research-based methodologies.

Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @leaderagility

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