Succeeding at vertical development

To be successful, tomorrow’s leaders will require a vastly different set of skills than the leaders of today. Navigating increasing disruption requires a much higher degree of comfort with volatility, complexity and uncertainty. To achieve this, leaders need to take a broader, systemic perspective on challenges, learning to discern the high points of leverage in a system before acting. They need to learn to see things from multiple perspectives and be able to recognise and manage polarities. They need greater self-awareness and emotional intelligence, together with the ability to inspire and mobilise commitment in others. They need greater agility in dealing with situations, learning to balance drive and enabling styles of leadership. All of this requires the development of increasing mental complexity. In other words this requires vertical, not just horizontal, development.

Traditionally, most organisational approaches to development are horizontal. The focus is on increasing what a leader knows. The emphasis is on the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, to build functional capability and technical expertise. Whilst a leader may develop new skills and awareness, there is no development of the underlying mental complexity from which the leader operates. You’re changing the software, not the hardware. With vertical development, however, the emphasis on learning is different. Whereas horizontal development focuses on what you know, vertical leadership focuses on how one comes to know. It represents the transformation of how a leader thinks, feels, and makes sense of the world, representing the development of mental complexity and increased leadership agility in three areas – mental, relational and task agility.

Over the last fifteen years, our partners have worked with both some of the world’s leading multinationals as well as the most fast-growing technology businesses to help them develop vertical capacity. During that period, we have identified five key principles that form the bedrock of successful vertical development programmes.

1. Integrate leadership development and organisational change

The first of these is that, whilst training programmes, online learning and direct knowledge transfer has its place, vertical development is accelerated most when it is integrated live with real work on business transformation. By intervening to build capacity while working “live” on the business, an intervention not only develops leadership capability but also has a direct impact on business outcomes. Vertical development is not a skill you can teach on a programme or learn overnight. It is a journey to deepen awareness internally and broaden awareness externally, and takes time. It requires the capacity to reflect, learn and adapt in real time through successive iterations of action, reflection, learning and adaptation.

2. Develop systemic leadership capacity

Effective vertical development programmes place a large amount of focus on developing systemic awareness in leaders. To address complex transformation challenges, leaders need integrate a focus across three different levels – the organisation, the group and the individual. Over the years we have profiled and run vertical development programmes for thousands of leaders across a number of organisations. One thing we have consistently found is that individuals at a later stage of vertical development are more fluent at shuttling their attention between these three different levels of focus to develop a more integrated perspective on a problem. They can see how what goes on at personal, interpersonal and group level affects what happens at an organisational level and are able to interweave language across all three levels more adroitly to mobilise collective action.

3. Develop head, heart and hand

Vertical development is all about developing leadership agility. Not just cognitively, but also emotionally and practically, by developing capacity in three areas – mental, relational and task agility. Developing mental agility builds a leaders comfort with uncertainty. It enables them to hold multiple perspectives and engage in collaborative open inquiry with others, affording new opportunities and possibilities for action. Developing relational agility developing the self-awareness, emotional intelligence and interpersonal effectiveness needed to foster connection and collaboration. Task agility builds the ability to balance driving and enabling styles of leadership, to mobilise action and facilitate effective collaboration in groups.

4. Focus on here-and-now learning

The fourth principle is here-and-now learning. Vertical development hinges upon developing greater awareness, together with the capacity for reflection-in-action. The best way to become aware of what is going on when we are doing something, is to pause and reflect whilst we are actually doing that thing. We introduce group practices which allow groups to pause whilst engaged in action, in order to reflect on overall effectiveness, group dynamics and individual behaviour.  Ronald Heifetz at Harvard likens this process of gaining greater perspective in the midst of action to getting off a dance floor and going to the balcony. From our higher vantage point, we are able to discern events and patterns that we would have otherwise missed, developing greater awareness and creating new opportunities for collective inquiry and action.

5. Learn to analyse and code communication

The final accelerator of vertical development is coding and surfacing patterns of communication. At Living Systems, we have developed a unique approach for making the normally invisible architecture of communication visible. As individuals, we each use language differently – tending to use some domains, modes and forms of interaction whilst ignoring others. Similarly, each group has its own unique patterns of interaction, which is driven by the structural dynamics of its conversation. Very often what keeps a group or individual stuck is their limited use of the full palette of conversational styles available to them. The act of coding and surfacing patterns of language and interaction raises the group’s awareness of information that was previously hidden. This enables the group to be more choiceful and balanced in the patterns of conversation they use, improving the overall effectiveness of the group.

To manage more complexity in the future, leaders will need to focus on vertical development – becoming more aware, complex and sophisticated in themselves. Developing this awareness, mindset and capabilities is not something that can be done overnight, or just in a classroom. It requires continuous and conscious effort over time, integrating action, learning & adaptation. It also requires a systemic approach to development – meaning efforts on organisational, group and personal development need to be planned holistically and aligned. Whilst it does require significant, sustained effort, the payoff is significant – a leadership culture with the collective capacity to manage tough problems, adapt to disruptive change and lead more complex and intricate organisations.

Living Systems are industry-leading experts in leadership, group and organisational transformation. Start the conversation to move your business forward by contacting us today.