business leader walking up a flight of stairs indicating growth

Learn why expanding leaders’ capacity is a crucial investment for today’s complex world.

Key Takeaways

  • Vertical development is more about thinking, behavior, and beliefs rather than skills and competencies
  • 5 benefits of vertical development: 
    1. More effective leadership
    2. Better business outcomes
    3. Self-betterment
    4. Linear, mappable progress
    5. Versatility

We currently live in fast-changing, complex times. There’s a lot for business leaders to work through. To truly flourish, they need to harness better leadership practices that bring real results — both in business and beyond. 

One game-changing investment: vertical development

This post will walk through the basics of this concept and five key benefits for business leaders when they use this framework.

What is vertical development?

Most leaders develop horizontally. This means they may take on more responsibilities as their skillset grows, but they’re not necessarily increasing their capacity as a leader. Horizontal development is primarily based on competencies people accrue with education or experience.

Vertical development focuses more on beliefs, behaviors, values and ways of thinking. It helps leaders address all the complexities of today’s world, which can be considered with the concept of VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. VUCA helps us define and understand the contemporary and ever-increasing density of the world and our culture.

From a VUCA vantage point, there are now greater requirements from our leaders. Things are constantly changing and becoming more complicated, so there is a strong business imperative for leaders to increase their capacity instead of, or in addition to, having a specific set of skills. Vertical development is most concerned with increasing this capacity. It is the more important form of growth that leads to real results.

Vertical development is about our current level of maturity or our level of consciousness. It is a much greater indicator of a person’s ability to be a successful leader than horizontal development since it is less about skills and more about dealing with complex notions.

The seven stages of vertical development run from the preconventional Opportunist to the more common and conventional Conformer, Expert, and Achiever to the post-conventional Redefining, Strategist and Alchemist

Each stage involves a developmental turn that causes growth. When we recognize that our current way of looking at the world isn’t working, we’re invited to unmake and remake our belief system to make sense of the complexity we are facing. This involves moving through beliefs that are now limiting , advancing us to the next stage of vertical development. Each stage addresses the limitations of the one before it.

This is a highly relevant concept for organizational life, since the different stages of vertical development help leaders understand where they are currently, what kind of leader they could be and the business results they can get. 

5 benefits of vertical development for business leaders

So, how and why does this framework impact business leaders so much? The benefits we’re going to walk through, while relevant to all stages, mostly apply to those middle stages of Expert, Achiever, Redefining and Strategist, as this is where the majority of leaders sit. Here are the advantages of harnessing vertical development:

1. More effective leadership

There are a lot of people out there who want to make a difference and solve problems, which ultimately drives them to lead others. It’s exactly these kinds of individuals who benefit from vertical development. It’s less about getting the right degrees and more about self-development, including being able to:

  • Reflect on their own thinking and behavior
  • Take in other people’s perspectives
  • Hold opposing ideas at the same time
  • Foster resilience
  • Improve their emotional intelligence

When people are able to grow as individuals with new perspectives and ideas, they become more effective leaders who can actually initiate change that will improve the organizations and even communities at large.

2. Better business outcomes

Vertical development gives organizations a competitive advantage. When leaders are still in the earlier stages of the process, they’re not yet ready to take on the complexity of the world. Vertical development opens up a lot more capacity so they can actually deal with problems and harness a big-picture perspective. This perspective then drives better business decisions.

The framework helps organizations create targeted development practices, so they actually see accelerated, meaningful business growth.

3. Self-betterment

Wellness and self-care are very common concepts in today’s society. Vertical development fits right in by helping leaders focus on themselves and their growth as human beings. Any kind of developmental journey is a gift because it offers new ways of thinking about ourselves, our ways of thinking and our future.

The framework in vertical development helps us explain our work and how we approach it. It explains how we think as humans and the phases of maturity we experience, both as people and as professionals. We can better understand where we are on our journeys as adults when we’re becoming more mature and understand what maturity looks like.

These concepts are important for leaders because they provide more meaningful information about capacity and success than other forms of feedback, like competency-based feedback, which can be vague and unhelpful in the long run.

4. Linear, mappable progress

Vertical development is a journey that has a clear road map. Leaders can always see where they fit within the framework and where they are on their own trajectory. Each stage is linear and leads into the next. And with a road map, leaders know exactly where they’re headed. 

The initial assessment places people on the map so they can understand their thinking and level of maturity in leadership. They can then figure out which levers to pull for growth.

It’s a big challenge for leaders to anchor themselves in a world that’s not centered around competency. It’s not always clear what success looks like, and there’s often no way to measure progress. For instance, leaders may hear they’re conflict-avoidant or a workplace bully, but how do they really know what either of these concepts looks like in the real world?

5. Versatility

The vertical development framework centers around helping leaders become more effective in dealing with the complexity of the world. But it can also be used for entire teams or as the foundation for organizational development. 

Vertical development focuses on beliefs and values more than skills, and this approach can help businesses as a whole see better results and create more effective leaders. 

The scale and scope of change gets bigger and more meaningful the later leaders get in the stages, and the same is true for organizations. The later phases help people consider and plan for longer timelines, even stretching into multiple generations. Visions expand so that leaders can think through a lot more than what’s happening right now. 

How the Sparks Group helps leaders find their potential

Vertical leadership is a crucial concept to master to become a better leader and achieve better business outcomes. At the Sparks Group, we’re focused on helping both leaders and organizations create change and make a difference. We believe that how we think is more important than what we know. We help clients increase their capacity and resilience with leadership development and executive coaching services.

To learn more, set up a free 30-minute discovery call with the Sparks Group.