Horizontal development: what does your glass look like?

Image by Nele on Canva, inspired by Nick Petrie in ‘Vertical Leadership Development – part 1’

Lifelong learning

What do you think about ‘learning and development’?

Our environment is changing at an ever-increasing rate. Maybe you’ve felt overwhelmed or doubted your ability to deal with everything that’s going on. Then you are certainly not the only one. With the complexity in the world today, leaders and employees must continue to evolve and grow to keep up and move forward. So, L&D? 

Hmm, yes, but what exactly should that entail?

Often we think of learning new things or developing new skills, also called ‘horizontal development.’ While valuable, this type of development does not generally lead to real change nor to a shift in our mindset. It is becoming increasingly clear that the way forward for today’s leaders and employees is through vertical development.

Just because you know what to do, it doesn't mean you are actually able to do it

Traditionally, training and leadership programs have focused mainly on horizontal development. What is it that leaders need to learn, and how do we give them that? At first, this sounds sensible. But if leaders already know what great leaders do and still can’t do it, what value is there in telling them again?

What got you here, won't get you there

Horizontal development is adding more knowledge, skills, and competencies. It is analogous to adding more apps to your phone, which is a simple expansion. Vertical development involves a complete upgrade of the operating system, which is much more complex. It involves letting go of fundamental beliefs and looking at the world entirely differently.

Simply offering new content through training is not enough. The cup of leadership knowledge is often already full. They have heard this all before. The limiting factor is no longer the content (the leader’s knowledge); it is the cup (the leader’s mental capacity). Research over the last 20 years on adult development clarifies why the competency model does not work as the sole means for developing leaders: we have failed to distinguish between vertical and horizontal development.

Photo by Inspire Toud on Unsplash

No more horizontal development?

Vertical development does not replace horizontal development. Both are equally important.

The real opportunity lies in the combination of vertical and horizontal development, which produces lasting and powerful change. Vertical development gives you the wisdom to choose the right way to act. Horizontal development ensures that you have the skills and experience to apply your chosen course of action in your life and relationships. 

With ‘Vertical Development’, not only can we support our development, but we can also support the development of others.

Berger, J. G. (2020). Changing on the job. Stanford University Press.

Ellison, S. (2020) ‘Understanding Vertical Development’, Ellison Consulting Group.

Kegan, R. (1998). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press.

Petrie, N. (2011). Future trends in leadership development. Center for Creative Leadership white paper5(5), 36.

Petrie, N. (2014). Vertical leadership development–part 1 developing leaders for a complex world. Center for Creative Leadership, 1-13.

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