Vertical Leadership

Our minds and the ways we make sense of the world continue to grow throughout our whole life.

We develop qualitatively different and increasingly more sophisticated ways of understanding and dealing with complexity. We gradually increase our capacity to cope with more ambiguity, see things from multiple perspectives, recognize and manage polarities, understand systemic contexts, and have more agile responses to complex situations. This is referred to as “vertical development” and is applied to leadership.

Researchers in “vertical leadership” conclude that leaders who map to more advanced stages of growth are more likely to be successful at:

  • Initiating and sustaining complex changes,

  • Envisioning longer-term strategic outcomes, and

  • Leading diverse and intricate organizations.

But just because a person grows older doesn’t mean they develop these vertical capabilities.

So how do you develop capabilities like executive presence, wisdom and good judgment, tolerance for ambiguity, or the ability to act courageously in the face of uncertainty or downright adversity?

These sophisticated leadership skills and capacities are built over time, and they can be consciously developed through active learning using assessments, expert teaching and facilitation, and proven coaching methods.

Reflective learners evolve over time through deeper and deeper integration of character and competence; you learn to do more difficult and complex things because who you are has become more complex. As you mature in this way, you are more able to:

  • Balance personal conviction with interpersonal awareness when making and conveying decisions

  • Solicit multiple perspectives from diverse stakeholders to optimally define and solve problems

  • Lead with presence and authenticity through change

  • Act courageously when faced with difficult choices

  • Tolerate ambiguity as a necessary part of the process of arriving at clarity

  • Suspend judgment, gather information, and then discern the best actions to take

  • Respond with agility rather than reactivity

  • Be resilient in the face of adversity


Go-To Resources for Vertical Leadership

  • Robert Kegan, “The Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization,” and “In Over our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life”

  • Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” and “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World ”

  • Barry Johnson, “Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems”

  • Bob Anderson, “Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results,” and “The Leadership Circle Assessment”

  • Suzanne Cook-Grueter, David Rooke, Bill Torbert, et. al, “The Maturity Assessment Profile”, “The Leadership Development Framework,” and “The Leadership Development Profile”

  • Bill Torbert and Associates, “Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership”

  • William Joiner and Stephen Josephs, “Leadership Agility: 5 Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change”

  • Jennifer Berger-Garvey, “Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World”