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Leadership Development – Horizontal or Vertical?

The sheer volume of writing on Leadership is astounding. Every week brings a new book, article and research study to the fore on Leadership and Leadership Development in addition to countless sites on Google search. Yet a significant number of these writings focus on competencies and a defined number of ‘do and don’t’ behaviours. A lot of material is also written on the VUCA world in which we find ourselves. The complexities of our modern world are increasing at a rapid rate.

A lot of this focus is on what is termed ‘horizontal development’: technical competencies, skills, behaviours and adding information and knowledge. These interventions expand and enrich leaders within the context of their current way of making sense of their world. Development in this way teaches the leader or manager new skills and behaviours which they add to their existing competencies. It also helps them transfer existing skills into new areas. In this way they widen their range of available resources at their current level of development.

Horizontal development happens through the traditional channels of school, university, training, self-directed learning and through exposure to life, in general. Most executive leadership or talent management programmes apply horizontal learning. As useful as these learnings are, they are only partial. They do not show how a person makes meaning in their current paradigm. As Einstein once said: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Another, uncommon, form of development is that of vertical development. Vertical development means learning to see the world by changing the interpretations we make of experiences and transforming the meaning making of such experiences. This is transformational and changes the leaders’ interpretation of their experience and transforms their views of reality. It increases what the leader is aware of and what they can pay attention to. In this way it develops influence and leads to integration. Viewpoints evolve from simple to complex, from static to dynamic and from egocentric to socio-centric to world-centric. This vertical development is unidirectional – from narrow to personal to broad and global. From current experience to historical perspective and from external objects to internal processes.[1]

A review of developmental research, by Day and Dragoni, identifies four key indicators necessary for leadership development; leadership self-efficacy, self-awareness, leader identity and leadership knowledge, skills and competencies. Work in these areas can lead to outcomes such as having more dynamic skills as well as increased levels of complexity of meaning making structures and processes. There is a clear link between awareness development processes and desired leadership competencies.[2]

When we come to solve old problems with new perspectives we are able to bring about transformation. Adult stage development is a well researched but, in the business world, seldom addressed subject. People are promoted, often beyond their level of maturity, to positions that require broad and deep perspectives, strategic problem solving, great influence and high level impact. In many instances they are competent technocrats and prone to manage accordingly!

Dr Theo Veldsman and Andrew Johnson refer to maturity leadership in their closing chapter, in ‘Leadership: Perspectives from the Front Line’, on the way forward for leadership.[3] Talent development and management would be well served by paying attention to the understanding of adult human development and the ‘leadership maturity’ of their leaders. Whatever your growth path it is useful to understand if you, or your people, have what it takes to manage the level to which you or they would want to go. Understanding adult stage development is core to developing effective strategies for working with people, cultivating talent and identifying their learning edges for accelerating leadership capacity.

[1] Dr S. Cook-Greuter: Center for Leadership Maturity’s Leadership Maturity Framework Module 1.
[2] Day, D., & Dragoni, L. (2015). Leadership development: An outcome-oriented review based on time and levels of analyses. The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2(3), 1-24.
[3] Dr. Theo Veldsman and Dr. Andrew Johnson. (2016): Leadership: Perspectives from the Front Line; Knowledge Resources.

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