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Vertical development or why leaders thrive on experience

Leadership development is vital for the survival and growth of any organization. Hiring talent is in itself a difficult endeavor. Keeping talented people on board is increasingly complicated and harnessing their leadership abilities seems harder than ever before.

The subject is not new, there are literally tons of literature on it and as generations change and technology is constantly (and rapidly) evolving the challenge to do it right grows accordingly.

It is high time the classic model gets a makeover.

As John McGuire and Gary Rhodes noted, “Organizations have grown skilled at developing individual leader competencies, but have mostly ignored the challenge of transforming their leader’s mindset from one level to the next. Today’s horizontal development within a mindset must give way to the vertical development of bigger minds.”

Horizontal development: a driving example

You may be wondering what exactly horizontal development is. In simple terms, it involves developing skills, abilities and adopting desired behaviors. This works wonderfully when it’s obvious what the knowledge gap is and what solutions for filling it are closer at hand.

It’s how we learn how to drive, for example. Instructors usually let you go about it as you wish (unless you are about to put yourself or somebody else in harm’s way) and if a mistake occurs you have to go back to the books. Driving itself is not something theoretical but unless you know what every sign means and what the appropriate reactions are in different situations, you should not be sitting behind the wheel.

It can be hard and frustrating especially when you constantly have to listen to the expert’s opinion but that’s how that particular skill is developed.

Vertical development: a semantic analogy

In contrast, vertical development refers to the different stages of learning. It regards progress as the natural way in which everything starts to sink in and make sense. It’s like the various stages of development we see in children. Although at one point that progress becomes less astounding, neurologists discovered that nonetheless, it goes on.

We learn as long as we are alive and it’s not just information but experience that allows us to acknowledge the world around us and gain what is generally regarded as wisdom. We are amazed when children learn words but the really amazing moment is when they begin to understand and interpret the world around through them.

Horizontal development is the mere accumulation of words, vertical development is making sense of what they mean and how they can be used together. It’s like the difference between getting better software and changing your laptop with a newer, more efficient one.

Corporate leadership: the right way is up

To sum it up, horizontal development deals with what you think, while vertical development is how you think.

You should be wondering, however, how this influences corporate leadership development. It shouldn’t come as a shock that people who have reached higher levels of personal development tend to perform better in complex situations.

Keith Eigel and Karl Kuhnert conducted a study that involved 21 CEOs and 21 rising middle managers from various companies, each with annual revenues of over $5 billion. This study proved that across a rather big range of leadership endeavors, there was a clear correlation between higher levels of vertical development and higher levels of leadership effectiveness.

It also found that “development is unidirectional and invariant, that is, one does not regress developmentally and levels cannot be skipped. What does vary from person to person, however, is the rate of development and where on the trajectory development stalls and for how long.”

Vertical leadership development: a definite winner

Managers who reach higher levels of cognitive development perform and lead better as they are a lot more successful in complex situations. It’s not the extra information they have but the more intricate way of reasoning.

As McGuire and Rhodes of the Center for Creative Leadership noted: “Each successive level (or stair) holds greater ability for learning, complex problem solving, and the ability to set new direction and lead change. People who gain another step can learn more, adapt faster, and generate more complex solutions than they could before. Those at higher levels can learn and react faster because they have bigger minds; people at later stages are better at seeing and connecting more dots in more scenarios (which means they are better at strategy). That’s all. But that’s a lot.”

In order to grow leaders on the vertical model, a company needs to encourage critical thinking, allow some room for trial and error and most important give leaders enough autonomy. Learning from the experts is great and they will always be an important asset to any organization but keep in mind that growth requires space.

With business decisions getting more and more complex it’s vital they are made by people who are genuinely capable of analyzing all the angles and implications before making a move.