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Why Organisations Need Vertical Leadership Development: The Ultimate Guide to Harnessing the Power of Vertical Development for Organisational Change

Every organisation needs to undergo change to keep up with the changing times, consumer trends and expectations, and practices. Learn how vertical leadership development can make a positive, transformative impact on your entire organisation.

Author: Arthur Lankester
June 30th, 2022

How Transformative Learning transforms leaders and their organisations to be ready for the 21st century

Since the 1980s, developing leaders used to focus on expanding skill sets and knowledge. They concentrated on conventional competencies, which involves improving personal attributes, inputs, and behaviours, and other interpersonal skills that professionals need to have to perform effectively at work.

Competencies became a popular identifier and predictor of leadership effectiveness and long-term success of potential hires. Thus, they became the foundation for further developing promising individuals in an organisation.

In this article, we’ll be sharing why organisations need to embrace vertical leadership development, as well as approaches you can use to create developmental stretch within your organisation. We’ll also cover the steps you can take to stimulate perspective expansion and what you can do to help your peers achieve elevated sense-making.

Change as the Only Constant Thing in Life

We’re living in uncertain, highly volatile times. We’re seeing a growing demand for leaders who go beyond mere competency development. No longer can organisations simply rely on outdated methods and approaches. As such, organisations and their teams need to be able to anticipate the future, as well as alternative realities that come with their own set of challenges. 

By future-proofing their capabilities and knowing how to handle changes as they come, leaders are better able to handle any new risks that may crop up. By adopting a new approach, particularly one that encourages vertical development, organisations can successfully make their way through different and constantly changing circumstances.

What is Vertical Development?

Part of horizontal development entails the expansion of technical competencies and subject-matter expertise. This leadership model is designed around informational learning or expanding one’s wealth of knowledge and skillset.

Meanwhile, vertical development is designed around the principles of transformative learning. This approach challenges people to test and expand their current perspectives and meaning-making processes. 

Instead of only focusing on building competence, vertical development aims to boost one’s capability to think in more systemic, strategic, and interdependent ways. This aspect of development pertains to mindsets and behaviours, such as dealing with uncertainty and integrating new understanding into action. In the words of adult development expert Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuter, vertical development is the ability to view reality with fresh eyes and change the interpretation of one’s experience.

Differences of Vertical and Horizontal Development

Vertical Development Horizontal Development
What to solve Adaptive challenges Technical challenges
Focus How you do what you do What you do
Learning Transformative Informative
Core principles Meaning-making: attention and interpretation of experience, affection, behaviour (action related to one’s views of reality) Knowledge, skills and functional or technical competencies that are essential to produce results in a job

Why Vertical Development is Critical for Organisations and Vertical Development Examples

Vertical development involves learning how to navigate through adaptive challenges. Compared to technical problems, adaptive issues aren’t resolved by established procedures or even authoritative experts. Vertically-developed leaders must first define the problem and then mobilise their teams to come up with possible solutions through experimentation and adjustment.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

Vertical development can better equip individuals to meet today’s leadership demands. Why? Vertical leaders are able to handle discomfort that others typically experience when undergoing new changes. They can also better manage their own discomfort, which allows them to grow alongside their teams.

Vertical development is considered more powerful than horizontal development because it gives people the capacity to think and respond more effectively to complex situations. Horizontal methods only equip leaders to meet so-called technical challenges, which can be resolved through standard procedures and authoritative decision-making strategies. 

Teams and leaders with a vertical mindset are ready to face adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are problem situations “for which solutions lie outside the current way of operating” (Heifetz, 2010, p. 73). These fluid and changing situations with no known or clear solutions push vertically-minded people to think out of the box and beyond learned processes.

Is your business undergoing a transition? Then it might be time to consider developing strong vertical team leaders to get you through critical times. Awarego can provide customised solutions to help give your business a strategic advantage. Contact us today to learn more about our programmes.

With vertical development and adaptive challenges comes developmental stretch, which allows leaders to strengthen their talents and skills and prepare for more complex roles. Developmental stretch is a crucial catalyst for an organisation’s vertical development. It disrupts conventions and promotes innovation, helping raise your organisation to greater heights.

Leveraging Developmental Stretch for Vertical Leadership Development

Developmental stretch experiences have the power to drive growth and development within your organisation. These experiences are situations or critical moments that challenge leaders and empower them to learn and gain new perspectives. They disrupt habitual ways of thinking and doing things within the organisation.

It’s a high-risk, high-reward venture that presents development opportunities for leaders. Developmental stretch is a catalyst that spurs career acceleration and places individuals in situations where they can apply their potential and gain valuable insights from such experiences.

Learning-agile leaders proactively seek out developmental stretch and understand that they may encounter failure while doing so. Embracing stretch can help them develop the courage to fail and allows them to learn from new and sometimes uncomfortable situations. It gives them the opportunity to be more open to new things that can potentially help them move forward.

However, as with its real life counterpart, uncontrolled stretch can potentially lead to your employees being spread out too thinly, which can adversely impact their development.

Let’s look at the approaches your organisation can take to create developmental stretch and start crafting your very own leadership development programme.

Five Approaches to Create Developmental Stretch

1. Creating Situations That Promote Developmental Stretch

How are leaders developed?

Often, we subject ourselves to leadership programmes that are too comfortable. Comfort zones, unfortunately, do not do much to spur growth. Conventional leadership or training programmes often employ trainers who teach and create a sense of order and predictability.

One of the best examples of creating developmental stretch in learning environments is the Case-in-Point Method, which was developed by Ronald Heifetz at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This type of leadership development programme puts task-focused leaders in a workshop that has no structure and no authority figure to tell them what to do. The participants scramble to make sense of their situation.

The Case-in-Point Method is an immersive exercise that’s shaped by a programme’s participants. Its goals are to help prepare leaders and make them more resilient to change and to help cultivate a heightened awareness in leaders and of the systems they’re part of.

You can try to create stretch within your organisation. To practise developmental stretch, create scenarios that will cause uncertainty or confusion among the participants. What you need to remember is to not let leaders stay in familiar situations where they feel comfortable. Furthermore, your moderators should learn to take a step back and allow the participants to come up with their own ways to solve a given problem.

2. Discover What is Preventing Your Growth

Vertical development focuses on identifying the factors or components within your organisation that are preventing your growth. The “Immunity to Change Approach”, which was developed by Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey, both faculty members of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, allows people to tap into their mindset to get a clearer picture of it and be able to identify key factor or hidden beliefs that are keeping them from embracing new ideas or working on improving their behaviour.

This approach requires leaders to identify if there are any hidden beliefs that are preventing them from adapting to change. It also requires them to run small tests that question their validity of their beliefs. The purpose of these experiments is to allow leaders to view their organisation more objectively.

To implement this type of leadership development programme in your organisation, identify existing potentially damaging behavioural patterns within your organisation. Ask leaders to implement a holistic feedback method. Help them identify the beliefs that are keeping you static. Once you’ve determined what these are, you can work on these beliefs or behavioural patterns and transform them to foster growth.

Within an organisation that’s pushing for vertical development, how can you create an environment that’s conducive for growth and learning? What experiences can you create to advance vertical leadership development? Below, we’re sharing more tools and approaches you can use to implement development programmes that stimulate perspective expansion.

3. Train Leaders to Embrace Developmental Stretch

Leaders are more likely to grow and develop when placed in stretch experiences. Examples of such experiences include:

  • Facing a task or assignment for the first time
  • Having the chance for the endeavour to fail or succeed
  • Feeling very uncomfortable about the whole situation

Many leaders attribute their greatest growth to the intense stretch experiences
they’ve faced. And while many people tend to avoid this stretch, those who are
agile when it comes to learning actually look for it. If you want to optimise your
organisation’s growth, look for a leader who loves developmental stretch. If you’re
unable to find one, you can create such experiences to help mould heat-seeking

One of the things you can do is to practise this leadership development program
example for creating leaders who embrace developmental stretch. Gather your
leaders and ask them to share their greatest experiences with developmental
stretch as well as the key insights they’ve gathered from those moments. This helps
other leaders gain a new understanding of how they can employ developmental
stretch for their growth.

4. Create a Culture That’s Conducive to Risk-Taking and Development

We’ve established that stretch experiences are catalysts for development acceleration, but what are the most powerful stretch types?

These include challenges such as an increase in the scope of your leadership, managing an underperforming department, being assigned to a foreign environment, or being asked to do something you’ve never done before.

Like any other developmental stretch experience, these may fail or succeed. How your organisation views and responds to failure on such stretch assignments will determine whether you’re bound to grow or stagnate. If you want to pursue growth and success, you need to bank on high-risk, high-reward experiences that empower your organisation’s leaders to apply their potential and learn from what they go through.

Ask your senior executives to share their experiences with failure, what they learned from these times, and how failures pushed them to succeed. This may help other potential leaders see the value of failing and learning from mistakes as a catalyst for success.

5. Designate Tasks to Employees Who Have a Lot of Potential for Growth

Common sense might tell you to assign complex tasks to your more qualified or senior employees. However, this isn’t always the case. You want everyone in your team to grow. You want them to stretch their leadership muscles.

To do so, you should start giving assignments to the least qualified person within your organisation—someone who’s capable of completing the assignment but will be pushed to rise to the challenge in order to succeed.

But why shouldn’t you assign tasks to someone who’s more qualified? This is because someone who’s overqualified is bound to learn less from the experience.

Another leadership development program example requires you to ask the leaders within your organisation to identify assignments that they’ll only succeed at if they grow. You can also invite your organisation’s senior leaders to discuss the extent up to which you should staff for development versus staffing for task completion. These exercises can help you unpack existing beliefs that drive your organisation, allowing you to discover how strongly your senior executives believe in developing their employees.

How to stimulate Perspective Expansion

Perspective expansion builds upon creating developmental stretch experiences. These experiences allow growth stemming from the need to change because they open up new perspectives. Developmental stretch takes people out of their comfort zones and pushes them to re-evaluate how they view their environment.

You can improve formal leadership programmes by creating different opportunities for perspective expansion among individuals who have different worldviews and values, as well as developmental stages. You can start by bringing together people from different teams and creating scenarios where they would be stimulated to interact with each other.

This approach opens up a world of different perspectives, thereby allowing them to discover how other people see the world. This is a key driver of vertical development and helps avoid creating leaders who have a simplistic way of thinking–who see things only from a certain perspective. Instead, this exercise can help leaders become more complex thinkers, or individuals who are able to process one particular situation and utilise different perspectives to understand it.

Running a complex business requires having leaders who are capable of shifting between different perspectives. Any organisation that only has simplistic thinkers is at risk of stifled growth and development.

How do you stimulate perspective expansion in your workplace to help your peers with embracing varying perspectives?

Methods for Stimulating Perspective Expansion

1. Utilise Experiences That Dismantle Perspectives

Seeing things from a different perspective is not the same as being able to actually experience such perspectives. While the capacity to embrace varying perspectives influences how a person thinks and makes decisions, getting immersed into another person’s actual experience drives a more significant transformation, which consequently spurs further development.

To create more developmental experiences within your organisation, mount programmes that encourage leaders to view things from other perspectives, both within and outside your organisation. We understand that while embracing others’ perspectives is challenging, try incorporate such experiences when possible and give them emotional depth.

2. Leverage Mentorship Opportunities

Action learning isn’t the best or the most effective method when it comes to vertical leadership development. In some cases, it’s not even properly implemented. Instead of delegating action learning to leaders who already have a lot on their plate, why not create a diverse group of individuals—preferably those from different backgrounds or who don’t usually interact with each other?

Walk them through how they can effectively act as coaches to their peers and allow them to work on real issues or challenges they’re facing. This enables leaders to know their peers’ personal challenges while giving them the opportunity to view the issues from a multitude of perspectives. 

There are plenty of developmental opportunities within organisations. The problem is, they’re not being properly utilised for learning and development. To initiate positive, holistic organisational change, you can start developing experiences that will allow participants to relearn how to learn.

3. True Listening to Expand Perspectives

Listening is a crucial skill but not everyone is fully capable of listening properly because we’re hardwired to listen to ourselves or to our pre-existing knowledge instead of being more receptive of others’ perspectives. For an organisation to embrace true development, its people need to go against what they already know and become flexible enough to welcome other perspectives. 

Deep listening is a tool that allows leaders to accommodate other perspectives while being able to examine their emotions and values. The focus of deep listening is cultivating and embracing different points of view, instead of patronising and going with one’s own perspective.

Vertical development is all about analysing and taking on a multitude of perspectives. To foster deep listening, start by designing experiences that will require leaders to withhold their assumptions and beliefs. This can help them practise the skill of being able to engage in others’ beliefs and assumptions. While it can be challenging to pull off, it can be a developmental experience for your organisation.

4. Have the Capacity for Integrating Polarities

Tension brought about by opposing ideas is always present in any organisation, and it’s not always resolved. The best any leader can do is to manage these opposing ideas. However, to be able to effectively manage tension, leaders should be able to move from a black and white (either/or) mindset to both/and thinking. 

This allows them to practice integrating polarities or the capacity to look at the best of both sides when it comes to opposing ideas. Integrating polarities requires leaders to go through a process that involves seeing, mapping, assessing, learning, and leveraging the different polarities they encounter. 

Leaders aren’t immune to overvaluing one polarity over the other. To develop this capability, you need to let leaders to be in situations where they can determine real issues and identify the polarities within these concerns. To take things a step further, ask them to identify polarities they’re struggling with within the context of their leadership style.

5. Creating a New Approach to Systems Perspectives

A systems perspective allows leaders to see their organisation as a whole entity instead of it being made up of independent or isolated parts.

In any organisation, system dynamics exist and govern how stakeholders think and act. Conventional leadership programmes tend to focus solely on behaviour and personality. By building and implementing a systems perspective approach for your organisation, you’re able to optimise how it functions. You’re also equipping leaders with skills that will enable them to see systems, work with more perspectives, and have a better view of how an organisation should ideally function.

It’s worth noting that for a leadership development programme to be effective, you must be willing to get in there and put in work. This means applying the methods and approaches yourself and becoming vulnerable. By setting yourself as an example, you’re encouraging everyone else to take the plunge.

Fostering a New Way of Meaning-Making Within Your Organisation and Making Use of Vertical Development Stages

To fully embrace vertical development, leaders will need to apply what they’ve learned from developmental stretch and use it to embrace new perspectives, as well as practise sense-making from different vertical development stages.

This empowers leaders to apply true transformational leadership and not just informational leadership.

Unlike the first two conditions—developmental stretch and perspectives expansion—elevated sense-making is an important yet often neglected aspect of vertical leadership development. For leaders to be able to foster elevated sense-making, organisations must provide them with three vital ingredients: time, map, and guide.


Time is an essential component that leaders need to have for them to be able to develop vertically. You have to give them the opportunity to reflect. Most leadership programmes are chock-full of content. While this can be beneficial, it can also hinder opportunities for establishing development.

Leadership development programmes should also give enough time to allow structured reflection and sense-making among participants.


Maps are important tools for faster development. Organisations should be able to provide leaders with stage maps that depict how their thinking has progressed over time. 

When it comes to maps and vertical leadership development, you don’t necessarily have to start from scratch. There’s plenty of research that covers these topics. All you have to do is implement them.


As its name suggests, the guide helps participants in their journey towards transformative organizational development. A good coach or mentor who has experienced vertical development can help push leaders forward and towards a more effective and smoother transformation. These coaches or guides should ideally understand how to approach each organisation. They should also know the stage you’re currently in so they can guide you properly towards the next developmental stages.

Approaches to Build Vertical Meaning-making

Vertical meaning-making doesn’t come naturally. With this in mind, we’re sharing several approaches you can use within your organisation to promote vertical sense-making.

1. Look Into Using Stage Maps

Stage maps don’t just cover past and the present developments. They also help chart a path for future progress. To start utilising stage maps, a mentor must encourage the leaders in a group to assess and estimate their current development stage. The mentor will then give them a stage assessment report and, from there, help them discover and learn more about different developmental stages.  

Typically, organisations focus only on horizontal perspectives. In reality, vertical perspectives provide leaders with the opportunity to develop on a more holistic and inclusive level.

2. Coach from a Vertical Perspective

Effective coaching through a vertical lens combines the three aforementioned conditions for vertical development: developmental stretch, perspective expansion, and new ways of meaning-making. As a mentor, part of your responsibility is helping your mentees examine their internal systems, which can include their values and beliefs, and letting them determine which ones are still useful and which need to be altered or cast off. This also gives you the opportunity to guide your mentees into more advanced frames of thinking. 

You can ask your mentees to take a look at leaders who are at different developmental stages. One group of leaders are at the same stage as them, while another is at a higher stage. Ask them to identify and compare the differences between the groups and how they can potentially approach leadership challenges from a higher developmental stage. 

It’s worth noting that for this approach, you need to select coaches who are skilled and who have an intimate understanding of the different adult development stages. By working with coaches who apply a vertical lens to organisational development, you’re levelling the playing field. The coaches are able to meet the needs and requirements of the participants at their respective development stage while being able to guide them through examining a stage that’s a step higher than their current one.

3. Redefine How You Create Developmental Experiences

Mentors who are at later stages of development are an important resource for vertical development. they ask probing questions and offer perspectives that don’t necessarily resonate with yours. They’re capable of seeing matters from a variety of perspectives—even that of your competitor’s. 

By pairing late-stage mentors with participants who are ready for the next development stage, you’re giving your organisation’s leaders the opportunity to get a glimpse of new ways of thinking. This can drive them to become more open to higher developmental stages. 

The challenge now is to identify leaders within your organisation who are several stages ahead of the leaders you’re currently training. The next step is to bring these late-stage mentors and your high potential leaders together and allow the former to guide the latter into sense-making using more advanced perspectives.

4. Make Your Executive Team a Part of Vertical Development Efforts

When building a leadership development programme, you also need to involve your executive team (ET). Your ET has its own set of beliefs and decisions that creates a vertical ceiling within the organisation. By enhancing the ET’s thinking and development stage, you’re able to create higher thresholds for everyone else, giving them the opportunity to tap into their unused potential. 

You need to engage and involve your ET in vertical development efforts. Start by having the leaders examine your business strategy and design a leadership culture that can help make it possible. Let them know that embracing a more elevated leadership culture entails them to become models, thus requiring them to welcome the shift not only in their actions and words, but also in their beliefs, values, perspectives, and behaviours.
Work with an experienced coach who uses a vertical lens. This will help them uncover the factors that influence their behaviour and will prompt them to shift how they act and think, allowing them to re-examine and alter their mindsets accordingly. 

The vertical wall we mentioned earlier also serves another purpose. When the ET leaders are capable of embracing radical change using vertical development approaches, these tools and mindsets will trickle down to the other stakeholders within your organisation. 

The executive team holds a lot of power and influence within an organisation. Once they’re capable of shifting towards vertical leadership development, the results will also be seen by everyone else within your organisation. Once these leaders realize that conventional ways of thinking won’t necessarily help them meet their desired strategies or goals, they’ll become more open to embracing new mindsets and coming up with innovative solutions.

5. Practise Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation go hand-in-hand with vertical leadership development. When designing a leadership development programme, you need to factor in mindfulness and meditation. 

How does reflection and meditation advance vertical development?

By training your leaders to turn inward and observe their thoughts and actions, you’re helping them to becoming more attuned to their meaning-making processes. Additionally, these practices bring with them plenty of benefits, from physical to spiritual. 

Mindfulness and meditation also help leaders gain a better understanding of their realities and their roles within the story that they’re crafting. For this to become successful, you first need to outline the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Then, mentors can guide the participants on how to properly meditate and coach them on techniques that will make their exercises more effective.

6. Rewire Your Body and Mind for Vertical Leadership Development

It’s not just a leader’s mind that’s important to vertical leadership development. The body also plays a major role in how adults develop and evolve. A person’s postural and movement tendencies weigh in on their beliefs. As such, their physical patterns can influence their beliefs and affect their leadership styles. 

Examine your existing leadership programmes. Do you have anything that can help leaders understand body-based experiences and how these play a role in their leadership styles? 

While there’s nothing wrong with paying attention to the thoughts in your head, you might want to consider taking a new approach toward vertical development by incorporating concepts on body intelligence (BQ), or an individual’s capacity to be aware of their body and their actions. In doing so, you’re helping leaders take on a new perspective on leadership challenges and how their bodies play a role in shaping who they are within the context of vertical development.

Final Thoughts

True organisational transformation takes a lot of time and requires you to put in a lot of hard work. You will need to embrace a paradigm shift and reassess your organisation to find out the root cause of impeded development. By being put in new, uncomfortable situations that prompt leaders to cultivate new perspectives and ways of making sense of development stages, you can make slow but steady progress towards innovative and transformative leadership.

  • Motivation psychologist David McClelland is known for pushing the competency movement. His 1973 paper pushed for the replacement of general aptitude tests with assessments on how individuals would think, act, and feel in their work settings.
  • Organisational psychologist Dave Bartram identified the “Great Eight” competencies that determined job performance, which he listed in his 2005 paper with the same title. They include: Leading and deciding, Supporting and cooperating, interacting and presenting, Analysing and interpreting, Creating and conceptualising, Organising and executing, Adapting and coping, Enterprising and performing.
  • Julie Chesley, Terri Egan, and Hannah Jones of California’s Pepperdine University spoke of the necessity of vertical leadership in their 2020 report Elevating Leadership Development Practices to Meet Emerging Needs.” These authors acknowledge that a hybrid horizontal-vertical approach to developing leaders is possible.
  • As part of transformational learning, vertical development Contemporary adult development expert and Harvard Professor Robert Kegan is a proponent of building this capacity to understand, appreciate, and respond to complex situations.
  • Vertical Development Academy research director Susanne Cook-Greuter believes this new lens on reality is more transformational than anything that horizontal learning can offer.

Arthur Lankester

Arthur Lankester is a passionate trainer and coach helping individuals and organisations in developing ‘transformational capabilities’. Simply said, Arthur help’s people to develop skills to go through complex personal or organizational changes’. Arthur is graduated (Msc.) Psychologist and Master of Business Administration.

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