Why leadership training fails

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 I call horizontal development versus 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, 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

vertical versus horizontal development of leadership

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.

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.