An Introduction to Vertical Leadership Development

by , February 4, 2014

A few years ago the Center for Creative Leadership, among others, began to examine whether the field of leadership development is still meeting the needs of leaders given the rapidly changing landscape in which they now lead. As organizational boundaries slip away, systems and networks continue to become more complex and interconnected, and information remains ambiguous and non-linear, it seems a given that leaders need to continue to learn and develop - but perhaps they need to do so differently and with a different starting mindset for how they operate as leaders (and as cultivators of other leaders). Educators like Tony Wagner, Expert in Residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, began to reconceptualize how and what students learn given the changes described above. Looking at the distinct (but connected) fields of education and leadership development, these researchers identified a similar set of skills that contribute to effective leadership:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

What they discovered is that leaders and students need to develop more complex and adaptive thinking abilities – they need to be able to make sense of the changing world around them. It is no longer sufficient only to know the “what” of one’s job – skills and competencies – but it’s become essential to advance one’s thinking simultaneously.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Development


As a result, the way we develop leaders needs to shift, too. In his 2013 paper Vertical Leadership Development: Developing Leaders for a Complex World – Part I, CCL Senior Faculty member Nick Petrie describes the two ways in which we develop leaders:

Horizontal Development refers to the adding of more knowledge, skills, and competencies. It is about what you know, which we can measure through 360-degree feedback.

Vertical Development refers to advancement in a person’s thinking capability. The outcome of vertical stage development is the ability to think in more complex, systemic, strategic, and interdependent ways. It is about how you think, which we can measure through stage development interviews and surveys.

As described by Petrie, “If horizontal development is about transferring information to the leader, vertical development is about transformation of the leader.” And while we need leaders who have the skills and competencies to get the work done, we also need them to be able to think wisely and adaptively about the work.

Coaching as a Vertical Development Tool

So, how do we introduce new and adaptive ways of thinking? How might we help a leader develop a long-term view or see many shades of gray? How might we support a leader to see patterns and or accept uncertainty as the norm? One tool for developing a leader’s thinking capability is through coaching. At CompassPoint, we define coaching as

[. . .] a set of specific skills, a mindset and a facilitative process that helps others think forward. Coaching supports individuals to make more conscious decisions and take new action. [ . . .]

We believe that the ultimate goal of coaching is to help someone move to a new action or behavior while learning, growing and developing – not only skills but new ways of thinking as well. Coaching can help a leader see the connections between seemingly disparate decisions or events, make sense of behavioral patterns (their own and others’) and try on diverse perspectives of a vexing problem. Because coaching is about helping leaders learn, rather than teaching them, it can unlock a leader’s potential for adaptive behavior and new ways of thinking.

Are you ready to try it out?


Looking for more great reads on nonprofit management, leadership, strategy, and more? Sign up for CompassPoint's e-newsletters here

Want to learn more about vertical leadership development and the skills we need in this changing world? Take a look at:

[1] The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need—And What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner (2008) and Future Trends in Leadership Development by Nick Petrie (2011).

Recent Posts

Lupe Poblano

How do some structures at nonprofit organizations make it harder for people of color to thrive and survive? In this open letter to other POC leaders, Project Director Lupe Poblano explores how patriarchal, white dominant structures that prioritize hierarchy and productivity fail to support community, connection, and the ability to bring our authentic selves to work. 


In our blog this week, Project Coordinator Kad Smith explores the ways in which individuals can contribute to change by exercising influence, even without positional authority and the power and privilege that often go along with it. Do you agree with Kad?

Shannon Ellis

Have you ever wondered what a theory of change really is, but been afraid to ask? Well, wonder no more. In this blog, CompassPoint's Shannon Ellis provides a thorough rundown of what you need to know about this strategy tool and how it can be used in your organization.

Submit a comment

(1) Comments

Interested in your vertical leadership development articles