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Vertical Vs. Horizontal Leadership Development

Becoming an effective leader today requires you to develop sophisticated mindsets and become capable of doing more complex tasks, develop new capacities that enable you to deal with living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.

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

Horizontal Development

Refers to the acquisition of skills, abilities, and behaviours. It's technical learning, adding more knowledge, information, and models. One way to think about Horizontal learning: If you can google the information or how to do it, then it’s likely to be horizontal development.

Horizontal Development is:

  • Adding knowledge and skills to your toolkit

  • Information transmitted from experts

  • It’s about WHAT you think (not HOW you think)

However, Horizontal learning has limitations. This is why collecting information doesn't always result in transformation. Reading a book or googling more facts doesn't make us necessarily better able to build our resilience or increase our ability to deal with more complex things.

This is where the next type of development becomes crucial for leaders (or anyone who wants to thrive in modern society).

Vertical Development

Adults go through stages of cognitive mental development and at each higher stage our ability to deal with complexity increases.

It increases the leader’s capacity to hold more complexity, uncertainty, and multiple perspectives.

Metaphorically horizontal development is like pouring water into this glass. We're filling the brain up with content but at some point, the glass becomes full, and we become saturated with too much information. We hit brain overload.

In contrast this to vertical development, which seeks to expand the glass, transform its very shape, and by expanding the glass size, we increase capability and capacity for ability to learn more.

Vertical Development Is:

  • Growing abilities to think, feel and act in complex, systemic and interdependent ways

  • Happens through life experience and when your life conditions changes

  • About HOW you think

Research by Eigel and Kuhnert looked at 42 CEOS and middle managers of $5 billion plus revenue companies where the study showed that there was a direct correlation between higher levels of vertical development and leadership measures.

Effectively, leaders with strong vertical development could learn faster and solve problems quicker.

So that begs the question, can you find ways to expand the effectiveness of your leadership through vertical development and learning?

Some ways to expand vertical leadership include:

  • Attending workshops specifically aimed at expanding your capacity to think differently and take multiple perspectives

  • Group coaching with the aim of shining a light on old outdated beliefs and habits of thinking that no longer serve you.

  • Shifting the focus on who you want to "be" as opposed to what you want to "do"

Which ways would most appeal to you to start cultivating more vertical learning to develop your capacity as a leader?

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