What kind of thinkers do you need in your business? What types of leadership will get you desired results? To answer these questions, you’ve got to be thinking about a different kind of learning.

You are probably providing all sorts of opportunities for what is called Horizontal Development. Horizontal development is about knowledge, skills and information.

But Vertical Development is entirely different. It’s about more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking. It’s called vertical development because it is based on levels, or stages, of thinking. It involves gaining new perspectives and leadership mindsets needed to make the business strategy work.

For example, managers and groups learn to tackle a problem with inquiry — questions, observation and reflection — before jumping into advocating, lobbying or deciding. This opens the door to deeper understanding, greater clarity, more options and multiple right answers — which are especially needed for leading in complex, uncertain situations.

The What, Who & How of Vertical Development

CCL’s Nick Petrie has put together two white papers about vertical development: Vertical Leadership Development–Part 1 Developing Leaders for a Complex World and The How-To of Vertical Leadership Development—Part 2: 30 Experts, 3 Conditions, and 15 Approaches

Petrie has found that three “primary” conditions support vertical leadership development:

  1. Heat Experiences. The leader faces a complex situation that disrupts and disorients his habitual way of thinking. He discovers that his current way of making sense of the world is inadequate. His mind starts to open and search for new and better ways to make sense of his challenge. This is the what that initiates development.
  2. Colliding Perspectives. The leader is then exposed to people with different worldviews, opinions, backgrounds and training. This both challenges his existing mental models and increases the number of perspectives through which he can see the world. This is the who that enables development.
  3. Elevated Sensemaking. The leader then uses a process or a coach to help him integrate and make sense of these perspectives and experiences from more elevated stages of development. A larger, more advanced worldview emerges and, with time, stabilizes. This is the how that integrates development.


Many well-intentioned leadership development programs fail to deliver results because they hit on only one or two of the conditions for vertical development. Any one can provide some value, but it is not until you combine all three that development really takes off, Petrie explains.

Where’s Your HR Function Focused?

Is vertical development factored into how you think about your talent, your culture and how people learn and grow? Petrie offers a Vertical Leadership Development Audit, which includes questions about the perspectives of the human resources/organizational development functions, including:

  • Do our organizational development people understand the difference between horizontal and vertical development? Are both vertical and horizontal development incorporated into our leadership development methods?
  • Is our organization aligning our leadership culture to our strategy? Leadership cultures develop through different vertical stages: dependent/ conformer, independent/ achiever, interdependent/ collaborator. Has our team worked out which leadership culture our strategy requires? Are we designing leadership development to match?
  • Do the people responsible for leadership development have a good understanding of adult development and how leaders make different sense of the world at each of the stages? Whether explicitly or implicitly, is this understanding blended into the way we develop our leaders?

Tailoring Leadership Development

Remember, employees come into their roles with different experiences, skills, perspectives and stages of development. Your role is to tailor development and meet people where they are; not everyone is ready for the same stuff at the same time.

For example, you may emphasize horizontal development for your early-career talent, but you can plant the seeds for vertical development for them, too. Learning from heat experiences, colliding perspectives and elevated sense making can support them through many first-time challenges and accelerate their learning. For senior or experienced leaders, their process of vertical development will likely be more complex and collaborative — but their mindsets or approaches may be more fixed.

“There is an important difference between helping a leader grow and trying to force her to,” says Petrie. “Each stage of development and both types of development are important. Your job is to create the right conditions in which many different people can grow.”

Read more from Nick Petrie: The How-To of Vertical Leadership Development—Part 2: 30 Experts, 3 Conditions, and 15 Approaches

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