Previously published on Forbes
What can you count on coming your way in 2021? More ambiguity, uncertainty and change! Hooray!
As a leader, your challenge is to increase your capacity in the face of it all, because traditional approaches to leadership development aren’t keeping pace with the kinds of complexity we now face. Currently, fewer than 18% of leaders have the qualities of mind to optimally lead in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environments (Hall & Rowland, 2016). Fortunately, many bright people have been working on this very agenda over the past decade or so. What are they cooking up for us for 2021?
Vertical leader development.
Before we jump into vertical leader development and how to engage in it, let’s begin with an area of study most of us are now familiar with – neuroscience. Julie Chesley, Hannah Jones and Terri Egan, respected researchers of vertical leadership whose report on Elevating Leadership Development Practices to Meet Emerging Needs was recently published in the Journal of Leadership Education, point out that there’s been an “explosion of neuroscience research” in the past two decades, and it’s already informing how we approach leadership development.
As David Rock explains, neuroleadership seeks to “improve leadership effectiveness within institutions and organizations by developing a science for leadership and leadership development that directly takes into account the physiology of the mind and the brain.” Our increased understanding of the brain, the mind and the body are revolutionizing the way we go about developing the smart people that lead our organizations.
It’s no longer only about what you do as a leader. It’s also about who you are and how you think. Your mindset matters. We can thank Carol Dweck for her body of work on growth mindset, which has been embraced by so many in corporate America.
Vertical development encompasses the important insights in both neuroleadership and mindset and goes beyond them.
What is Vertical Leader Development?
To understand vertical development, it’s helpful to contrast it with something we are all familiar with: horizontal development.
Horizontal development is about expanding your toolkit by adding to the tools you already have. You gain more skills, expand your knowledge and become more competent. Think communications training, dealing with conflict, developing a more strategic approach to growing the enterprise and similar areas.
As Chesley, Jones and Egan write, “The majority of leadership time and money is invested in the realm of traditional/horizontal development where the focus is on preparing leaders to successfully achieve stated objectives and building mastery in areas with relatively well-defined and agreed upon outcomes.”
Vertical development is about expanding your mindset — changing the way you think and behave.
Your mindset refers to the mental models you engage when you are thinking, as well as your sense of identity. Vertical development focuses on transforming the ways a leader thinks, which will impact what they do and how they behave. In vertical development, you pay attention to becoming more adaptable, more self-aware and more collaborative, as well as better able to span boundaries and networks. You develop across what Chesley, Jones and Egan call the SPINE dimensions of whole-person development: Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Intuition and Emotion.
To help differentiate horizontal and vertical leader development approaches, they developed this table:
In the Journal of Leadership Education article, they also offer very specific and practical actions you can take to integrate vertical development into your organization’s assessments, individual development plans, expert knowledge sharing, mentorship, coaching and experiential learning opportunities. This takes a lot of the mystery out of a big idea. Once you read it, you will have a clear sense of where to begin in your organization to upgrade from horizontal to vertical development.
The big idea is to ready yourself and your team of leaders to lead in an uncertain world - a VUCA world – by engaging in vertical leader development. This can be an exciting and growth-filled adventure. Welcome a new year and new ways of learning and leading!