Leadership Development for our times: Why Understanding Vertical Development is critical.

For many years I have worked in the field of developing leaders. I’ve prided myself on my ability to help clients find solutions to tricky leadership problems, develop skills for navigating stakeholder relationships and embed practices for thriving in demanding roles.

Increasingly though, I have come to question whether most leadership development, training and coaching is truly serving our coachees, their organisations, our global community and indeed our planet. Whilst client feedback may indicate satisfaction based on increased productivity, business returns, personal wellbeing and happier stakeholders, we cannot ignore the accelerating rate of global disruption all around us. The direction we are heading in as a global civilisation is unsustainable; we are on the verge of social, economic and ecological collapse. 

The question we must therefore ask ourselves as learning and development practitioners is; How have we been unwittingly contributing to this?

Einstein’s wisdom “you cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking and consciousness that created them” is a good starting point. If we keep applying the same approaches to the same type of problems we just keep re-enacting the results that nobody actually wants. And “levels of thinking and consciousness” is exactly what vertical development theory addresses. It explores how the lenses through which we perceive and construct our world develop – both as individuals, from infancy and through adulthood, and as an evolving global society.  Essentially, we see the world through ever widening and deepening levels of awareness, the stages of which which have been eloquently described by a number of practitioners, including Loevinger, Cook-Greuter and O’Fallon. 

In order to try and summarise the theory I’m going to draw on a metaphor used by Otto Scharmer who describes vertical development in terms of updating our operating system*. Operating system 1.0 is based on a traditional world view that values duty and loyalty, resulting in rigid, hierarchical structures, control and conformity. Great for creating stability but stifling for creativity and entrepreneurship. OS 2.0 based on ego-awareness brings in competition, entrepreneurship, the free market, growth and the accumulation of wealth but leads to social inequity and environmental degradation. New in OS 3.0 is the stakeholder perspective – the capacity for empathy and the best possible outcome for all– leading to institutional innovation, a more networked way of working, and the social market. 

OS 3.0 is where I’d argue much of current “developmental coaching” and leadership development activity focuses. We have been skillfully nurturing our clients’ horizontal development by helping them to add new apps (skills, strategies, practices) to their current operating system. BUT, as we have witnessed over the past decades, OS 3.0 is failing to respond effectively to global externalities and the VUCA world. Our habitual downloading of more apps is simply getting us more of the same.

Put another way, what Einstein was telling us is this; the output of our work in a system is a function of the level of consciousness that people in the system are operating from. It follows therefore, that we can’t change a system, unless we change consciousness.

So, coaches and facilitators of learning – our part to play is this:  We must stop going round in circles, adding new apps, practising horizontal development and instead work to help our clients vertically transcend to the next level of awareness. 

The upgrade to OS 4.0 –  the shift to eco-awareness, is what we need to address the eco-systemic challenges we are facing. At OS 4.0 we integrate mind, heart and spirit leading to awareness-based systems change and a co-creative / emergent way of working. 

We need leaders with this integrated perspective. Leaders who can transcend the turmoil and cut through complexity, trust emergence and navigate uncertainty, and transform the world by sparking ingenuity. 

This is a vertical development challenge. 

Understanding vertical development and its application has transformed my perspective on leadership development. How we, as practitioners, can support this development for our clients is work that Antoinette Braks is pioneering with her StageSHIFT approach to coaching. It is bold and courageous heart and soul work that explores both our highest possible selves and the shadow material that holds us captive. A full exploration of the multiple facets of this work I will save for future articles, but for now I will leave you with this…..

We need leaders with an operating system that corresponds to the complexity of the challenges we face.

We need to let go of the 20th century idealisation of linear Newtonian thinking and to let come a new awareness….through expanding minds and unleashing heart and soul potential. 

For the sake of our collective future, we need to expedite vertical development. 

Will you join the shift?

* It is worth noting that Otto Scharmer’s Operating System numbering does not correlate with the numbering in Stages Theory which draws on the 1st, 2nd , 3rd etc person perspective of any given stage of development. That aside, however, I find it a useful metaphor.

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