Ben has just taken his first leadership position. As a top performer, he was promoted to a supervisory role. He quickly realizes that the rules and expectations are entirely different. As a technical expert, he felt confident. As a people leader, he feels inadequate.

Ben goes to a leadership development program, where he learns models and tools for effective decision-making, team building, communication and trust-building. He applies these tools on the job and finds some useful, but when it comes to the tough realities — the stress, the interpersonal problems, the impossible demands from senior leadership — there’s a disconnect between what he learns in the safety of the classroom and the challenges he faces daily.

Ben can build his leadership competencies, but – until he develops the capacity to manage the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment in which he works – he will always be roiled by chaos. What Ben needs now is vertical development.

What Is Vertical Development?

Vertical development is the advancement of a person’s ability to think in complex, strategic and interdependent ways. Whereas typical leadership development programs address building leaders’ knowledge and skills, vertical development addresses growing their attributes, abilities and characteristics.

Building on a large body of research into the developmental stages of children and adults, David Rooke and William Torbert identified seven stages that represent how leaders are likely to interpret and respond to situations, as summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Leaders at different stages react differently to the same demands for change – with leaders in earlier stages of development having a more dependent mindset, those in the middle with an independent mindset and those at later stages taking an interdependent perspective. While these leaders may have learned the same change management strategies, their priorities in the change process will be different.

A Process for Integrating Vertical Development into Leadership Development Programs

By understanding these developmental stages, leadership development professionals can create experiences to help leaders grow and elevate their thinking. Here’s a four-step process that you can apply to integrate vertical development in both new and existing leadership development programs:

Step 1: Determine the vertical stage needed for the organizational environment.

As you define the leadership competencies to be developed, consider the stages at which those competencies will be applied. What stage of development is required to succeed in the organization’s current environment?

Step 2. Know your audience and their level of development.

Next, understand your audience and their current stage of development. Apply an assessment for determining developmental stage, such as the vertical maturity indicator or the leadership circle profile.

Any group of leaders will represent different stages of development. William Torbert’s research shows that most leaders in today’s organizations are at the achiever or redefining stages.

Note: People must progress through all of the stages in sequence. A leader at the diplomat stage cannot jump straight to the achiever stage any easier than a toddler watching TV can suddenly understand symbolism in Shakespeare. While it can take years for leaders to advance to their next stage, an important first step for development is awareness of their current stage and how to get to the next stage.

Step 3. Create experiences to fill the gap between the leaders’ stage and the requirements of the organizational environment.

Once you understand the gap between the organizational environment and the leaders’ current stage of development, identify strategies to close that gap (see sidebar). Consider the key competencies to be developed, and identify the vertical elements of those competencies. For example, delegation requires building trust, and communication requires building empathy. Then, create the conditions for vertical development.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) identifies three primary conditions for creating experiences that accelerate vertical development.

  1. Heat experience: A complex situation that disrupts and disorients leaders’ habitual ways of seeing the world; by breaking leaders’ existing mental models, these conditions help expand their thinking. Examples include simulations and other experiential learning modalities. According to Nick Petrie of CCL, an effective heat experience has the following characteristics:
  • Presents new experience for the leader.
  • Includes chances of success and failure.
  • Induces feelings of discomfort and unfamiliarity.
  • Includes the proper support to get through the experience.
  1. Colliding perspectives: Exposure to people and data that shift leaders’ existing mental models and expand the ways in which they see the world, providing more strategies to address disruption and complexity. Examples include presentations or seminars from guest experts at more advanced stages of development and collaboration with other leaders at various stages of development.
  2. Elevated sensemaking: A process in which leaders examine previously held mindsets from an elevated perspective to make intentional changes, aided by coaches, journaling and mindful meditation. Examples include self-reflection, in-depth debriefs and action planning.

While encouraging growth to the next stage of development, help leaders recognize key characteristics of previous stages, so they can understand and communicate effectively with others at those stages. For example, while a transforming leader may frame goals in terms of benefit to employees and community, they need to emphasize the tactical goals and objectives for revenue or cost reduction for leaders in an achieving mindset.

Step 4. Incorporate vertical development into ongoing learning.

Ongoing learning allows for individualized support and development. The work environment itself offers opportunities for heat experiences via stretch assignments; colliding perspectives via communities of practice, benchmarking and thought leaders; and elevated sensemaking via coaching and mentoring.

Leaders can also add activities to their daily operations to encourage vertical development in their people.


Applying this process to Ben and his struggles, it became clear that Ben is operating in a transformational culture that requires him to lead differently. The competency-based leadership development program that Ben has already taken looked like Figure 2.

Figure 2.

To integrate vertical development, the program was redesigned to leverage more heat experiences, colliding perspectives and opportunities for reflection. The experience begins with an orientation simulation that replicates the complex work environment where leaders are struggling to prioritize and meet ever-changing demands. During the debrief, Ben discovers that fellow participants feel overwhelmed, too. They share ideas for how to cope. Ben hears from his peers at his stage of development and learns from those at later stages.

The rest of the learning experience follows a pattern of application, feedback and replanning, with formal teaching limited to solely information relevant to application:

  • Quick introduction to key concepts.
  • Immersion into simulations that present increasingly difficult situations.
  • Quick follow-up on additional key concepts.
  • Team discussion and debrief.

After several days of simulations, Ben goes into the organization to watch an experienced leader at work. This leader is at a higher stage of development than Ben, so she helps Ben expand his perspectives while learning new strategies.

At the end of the learning experience, Ben completes a capstone activity that integrates all the competencies and perspectives he’s learned. Ben and his team react to a scenario in another simulated environment, get feedback from each other and the instructor, reflect on their insights, and plan how to apply those insights and continue to develop.

Ben shares his reflections and action plan with his manager, and they plan ongoing activities for Ben’s continuous development.


When applied to a leadership development program for manufacturing leaders at a large aerospace company, participants indicated that this approach to learning was more engaging, giving them both transformational insights and increased confidence. Though this program was just the beginning of their development, it better prepared them to manage the complexities of their job and develop the mindsets necessary to excel in their roles.


As today’s organizations face greater complexity and change, leaders need more than training on policies, procedures and leadership strategies to be effective. They need confidence and the capacity to lead in their unique environments. By integrating vertical development into leadership development programs, leaders can develop both the capabilities and the capacity to lead through disruption in complex work environments.