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The Vertical Growth Imperative

by | Dec 8, 2022

Why is it that there is no shortage of leadership development materials, yet outstanding leadership is so rare? Despite having access to so many leadership principles, tools, systems, and processes, why is it so hard to develop and improve as a leader?

The answer is that the vast majority of leadership materials are based on what we all horizontal development versus vertical growth.

To illustrate the differences, consider the example of Sheila Frame, President of the Americas for the pharmaceutical company Amryt Pharma. She shared with me her past experience of work days spent putting out one fire after another. There were times when she struggled with proactively setting an agenda and creating a plan for her team. When her team members didn’t really know what was expected of them, she would step in and solve problems for them.

She became aware of this self-defeating pattern and what was creating it only when she went through one of our vertical growth training programs. As she explained to me, ‘I started to realise that my resistance to planning, goal setting and proactivity came from my wanting to keep my options open, because I like to be in the action. I’m a master at managing a crisis. It’s an adrenaline rush for me and I love it. So why would I be more proactive when it would cut off my opportunity to be in the centre of all the action?’

Until Sheila experienced this moment of self-awareness, goal-setting or proactive planning skills were of little value to her. She would simply revert to her default behaviour pattern. She was driven by her unconscious need for the short-term gratification of managing crises, which took precedence over her aspiration to create a more strategic focus in her team.

Sheila first needed to see this pattern to realise how she was contributing to the team dysfunction. This is what self-awareness and vertical growth are all about, and why they are far more important for long-term leadership success than leadership theories, tools and techniques. Instead of reacting to challenges and opportunities based on our programmed algorithms, we develop enough awareness to recognise our algorithms in action and question their value.

Horizontal skills and knowledge versus vertical growth

In my work, I differentiate between horizontal development and vertical growth. Horizontal development is about acquiring knowledge and developing new skills to bring about a new competency. While improving horizontal competencies may require repeated practice, it typically requires no growth in self-awareness or self-regulation. Simple examples might be learning planning skills or mastering MS Word or Excel.

In a leadership development context, it can be easy to confuse leadership development principles and training with vertical growth. For example, the leadership techniques and practices needed to ‘enable others to act’ or to apply ‘agile methodology’ are typically taught as a set of horizontal skills, learnable by any leader, regardless of his or her level of self-awareness and maturity. The mistake we often make is that when these skills are applied poorly or inappropriately, we assume the techniques and skills we were taught were inadequate. This is rarely the case. It’s a vertical growth challenge.

Vertical growth involves both downward seeing and upward growth. We see downward (vertically) into our unconscious patterns of thought and behaviour and learn to deal with them with awareness, patience and compassion. The more we do this, the more we increase our ability to grow upward in the direction of our values, aspirations and ideals. Through vertical growth, we are able to train our mind to engage less in the reactive and programmed algorithms of our mind and body, and more in a deliberate and flexible set of behaviours based on our aspirations and values.

In short, as illustrated in figure I.1, with vertical growth we explore downward in ourselves to resolve our deep-seated assumptions, fears and patterns in order to grow upward into our best selves. It’s an ‘inside-out’ job rather than an ‘outside-in’ job. This, combined with basic behaviour science (prompts, rituals and the like) and the necessary horizontal skills, delivers on the promise of amazing leadership and healthy cultures. We can briefly summarise the two forms of development as follows:

  • Horizontal development (of new skills and knowledge) means developing the skills and gaining the knowledge I need to work in the organisation to get my job done efficiently, effectively and safely.
  • Vertical development (of a new mindset and behaviour) means developing the ability to change how I perceive and value my inner and outer world (mindset), then building the self-regulating awareness to support the development of new behaviours in a sustainable way aligned with my core values.

Vertical versus horizontal development

In leadership development, personal behaviour change or culture change, horizontal development is just not enough. Leaders may learn the specific skills of strategic planning, conflict management, productivity improvement and empowerment on the assumption that understanding the what and how is enough for the skills to be applied and embedded. Organisations may publish new values statements, explain them really clearly and educate people on their importance on the assumption that it will result in culture change. But it will not.

Horizontal development is extremely important, even in the complex field of leadership development and culture change, but alone it’s a false promise. It is not enough, because horizontal skills and knowledge compete with fears, limiting beliefs and other mental models that keep us locked in habitual patterns and reactive loops. Seeing and changing these loops is the function of vertical development.

In leadership terms, this is when ‘walking the talk’ becomes far more consistent. A term we like to use in our work is the self-examined mind. This is the stage of development in which a person consciously authors his or her values and daily behaviour, instead of being trapped in the unconscious reactivity of what Harvard development experts Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call image management.

Image management refers to the time and energy we waste in organisations on blame, denial, deflection, defence, gossiping, politics, saving face, masking our weaknesses and other fear-based strategies to make ourselves feel safe or look good. Kegan and Lahey maintain that image management is a second job for most people in typical organisations. One research study we performed involving more than 5000 people from various global organisations indicated that image management may suck up about 40 per cent of people’s time and energy on average. This is a staggering waste of time and energy, costing billions of dollars.

More critically, image management creates values breaches, wherein people fail to speak up or admit mistakes, judge or blame others, and avoid addressing inefficiencies — all to ensure their image is protected. This arrests growth, damages leadership credibility, shuts down innovation and impacts mental health, while keeping relationships superficial.

Self-aware people who embrace a vertical growth mindset see themselves as a continual work in progress and become progressively less afraid to look at themselves honestly. Through the process of developing self-awareness, they begin to realise that their dysfunctional patterns of behaviour have nothing to do with their self-worth. This realisation is a pivotal growth moment. They understand that all human beings, even the best of us, have conditioned patterns of behaviour, and these patterns can be recognised, questioned and changed, and are therefore logically not who we fundamentally are.

With this understanding, their growth accelerates. They take things less personally and are less interested in defending and protecting their image and more interested in becoming more aware and adaptive in a complex world. As leadership expert Edwin Friedman observed, ‘Leaders who are willing to make a lifetime commitment to their own continual self-regulated growth can make any leadership theory or technique look brilliant.’

Margaret Dean, Head of People and Organisation at Novartis Oncology, shared with me her view of vertical growth as about recognising and dissolving her self-defeating patterns. ‘One of the key insights in my process,’ she explained, ‘was to start seeing the stories and patterns I have developed as a way of protecting myself. I’ve had to reflect and be deliberate about letting go of them in order to create the life I want. It’s much easier just to ignore these patterns and keep living them. But when I’m willing to peel back the layers of the onion and ask myself if this is really what I want, I can see what’s not serving me and holding me back.

‘So growth for me is about letting go of old beliefs and patterns and replacing them with awareness and curiosity to enable the development of more thoughtful, mindful ways of behaving. This requires us to always push ourselves out of our comfort zone where we can learn something new.’

With vertical growth, we are no longer looking outward but rather are turning inward. We’re bringing a level of precise awareness to our inner thoughts, emotions, sensations and behavioural patterns. We’re questioning why we behave in certain ways, why we are emotionally triggered by certain things.

Brian Gladsden, Head of Worldwide Commercial and Portfolio Strategy at Novartis Oncology, put it even more simply: ‘To me, vertical growth comes from being clear on my personal values, but more importantly, the real growth comes from feeding those values. Am I nourishing what’s most important to me?’

To use an analogy, horizontal development is like having a computer operating system such as Microsoft Windows and adding apps like MS Word, Whatsapp and other useful programs to facilitate our work. But vertical growth is about changing the entire operating system to generate more power and manage greater complexity. That then enables a much smarter use of the apps and programs.

Vertical growth requires a willingness to face tremendously difficult truths about our thoughts and behaviours while cultivating an attitude of kindness and patience towards ourselves. The amazing payoff is an increased capacity to choose our behaviours with insight, wisdom and compassion.

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