How do you grow as a leader? What do you think about when you think about becoming a better, more effective leader? Chances are your plan includes an inventory of the skills you want to develop: delegation, feedback, influence, communication, etc. Most of us, when faced with this question, focus on the knowledge and skills we want to develop, and that’s important. What I’d like to suggest is that acquiring knowledge and skills is only one dimension of leadership development—and possibly not the most important dimension.

We can describe skills and knowledge acquisition as horizontal development. Until a few years ago, it was pretty much the only thing we talked about when we talked about growth. An additional dimension that has recently entered into the thinking about leadership development is vertical development. Charles Palus & David Horth of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) describe this dimension as being “about the ability to think and act in more complex ways. It’s about how you think. It’s about maturity, and growing ‘up’ and increasing one’s ‘depth.’”

Here’s a way to think about this distinction: Consider the difference between putting more water in a glass and increasing the size of the glass so it holds more water. Nick Petrie, also of CCL, suggests that: “The problem for most leaders…is that the cup of leadership knowledge is already full…They already know it; they just can’t be it. The limiting factor is no longer the content (the leader’s knowledge); it is the cup (the leader’s mind).” Increasing the cup size is vertical development.

Exploring Vertical Development

You’ve likely studied one or more of the theories that have been proposed about the stages children move through as they approach adulthood. What these theories have in common is that once we become adults, we hit “adult” stage and that’s the end of vertical development. From this point on, we’re just filling the glass. In recent decades we’ve learned that it’s not so simple.

In fact, as we develop as adults, we can significantly increase our capacity through vertical development. We can learn to respond to the world in qualitatively different ways—resulting in shifts that are just as big as when children learn that objects continue to exist even when they can’t be observed (a key stage shift in childhood—and the reason the game peek-a-boo is so exciting for babies!).

Just as children develop their capacity for complexity, we, too, can respond to the world with increasing complexity of thought and deeper understanding. We can grow our capacity to see ourselves more clearly, to genuinely appreciate multiple perspectives, and to become actors and authors of our own lives through vertical development. We can increase our ability to see the systems that we are part of and understand how we fit into those larger structures.

Here’s the big difference: Unlike the stages of child development, which happen with almost all healthy children, progressing through the stages of adult development is not mandatory.

Why does any of this matter? Because the world we live in is increasingly complex and we must evolve our capacity to understand, appreciate, and respond to complexity. Robert Kegan, a Harvard psychologist, is a pioneer in the field of adult development theory. He introduced his theory of adult development in a book titled: In Over Our Heads. In it, he also made the case that our survival as a species depends on our ability to tackle the world’s most complex issues—and that our capacity for complexity must shift if we are to do so. This message is equally vital for organizational leaders—people who face multifaceted problems that defy easy answers.

To address the challenges we face, we must increase the size of the cup.

One Move at a Time

The essential act of vertical development involves something that Robert Kegan described as the “Subject-Object move.” What that means is that when we are “subject” to something, it’s so much a part of our make-up and experience (be it an assumption we hold about people, a belief we have, a habit that is automatic, an emotion that we haven’t ever labeled, etc.), that we can’t see it.

The movement from Subject to Object happens every time we “see” something that was formerly invisible. When something shifts to Object, it becomes visible, observable. We can now reflect on it, we can evaluate our habitual response, and we can make a new choice.

Here’s an example: If you are Subject to your anger, you probably believe that someone else made you angry—there is no choice besides being angry. Your anger “has” you. You’re likely to act out of anger—whether that serves you or not. If, on the other hand, you can see your anger as Object, you notice it as it arises, and you can explore its sources and the feelings and thoughts behind the anger. You can see patterns. Because you see your anger, as an observer, you have made it Object—you “have” it rather than it “having” you. Now you can choose your response, shift your emotional state, and act in ways that serve you and others around you.

As we develop, first as children, then as adults, we have the potential for many shifts from Subject to Object. Emotions, thoughts, patterns, and whole systems become visible. Blind spots are revealed. Gradually, these shifts from Subject to Object are significant enough to give birth to qualitatively different stages of development. Each stage creates new possibilities for understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Stages of Development

In this post, I’ll provide the briefest of introductions to Kegan’s model of adult development stages—one of several that are each unique, and all with a good deal of commonality. As you read this, keep in mind that there is no inherently bad or good stage. Being at a higher stage doesn’t make us a better or smarter person—it may, however, be something to work towards if you are a leader trying to effect change.

A note: I describe these stages here with the help of Jennifer Garvey Berger—quotes are from her book, Changing on the Job, especially from the appendix.

Sovereign Mind

While typical of older children and adolescents, some adults operate from Sovereign Mind. They now know that objects stay the same even as their relationship to them changes (the distant building is not smaller). Feelings and beliefs stay constant too—they develop likes and dislikes. But, at this stage, genuine empathy is not possible because they don’t understand the minds of others. Rules are followed from fear rather than a sense of right and wrong. Others are seen in terms of how they can help them get what they want.

Socialized Mind

In socialized mind (about 50% of adults), we can control our impulses, needs, and desires—they have become Object. And, while we can be self-reflective and think abstractly, our actions are based on others’ expectations or on societal roles. When we operate from socialized mind, we try to do what others want or expect of us. We are primarily reactive. Our identity is shaped by our perceptions of the approval or disapproval of others. In simpler times, one could live from socialized mind, following the rules and the leader. In today’s world, the socialized mind is limiting—especially for leaders.

Self-Authoring Mind

About 35% of adults shift to self-authoring mind. At this stage, a person sees that they can define who they are—separate from how others see and judge them. The opinions and desires of others that controlled them when they were operating out of a socialized form of mind are now object to them. Now, an internal compass guides our decisions and how we manage conflicts. We can consider what others think and want—and follow our own principles as well. We navigate these views and use our own system to make decisions.

At this point, we can operate and lead from a vision of ourselves, a sense of what is right, and a commitment to purpose.

Self-Transforming Mind

While the self-authoring mind sees shades of gray, there are limitations. For example, people with self-authored mind may be so invested in their own way of doing things that they can’t see or appreciate other perspectives. They believe that their principles are true and right—inviolable.

The stage that lies behind the self-authoring mind becomes increasingly important in a complex world. To live in complexity, we begin to let go of being quite so sure and see multiple possibilities and perspectives, many shades of gray. Our principles and beliefs now can become object—we can see them clearly and recognize that they may not be absolute.

This form of mind is relatively rare today—and increasingly needed. A self-transforming mind brings wisdom as the complexity of the world increases. “They can see the systems at play and mediate between seemingly opposed views to find common ground.”

How Do We Do the Work of Vertical Development?  

Until very recently I didn’t talk about adult development with my clients very much. Then, I started to challenge myself. If I was finding it to be such a valuable lens through which to understand my world—perhaps they would too. And, to a person, I’m finding that to be true.

Understanding that we can grow vertically, not only horizontally, can help us to reframe the work of becoming a more effective leader. Instead of only focusing on gaining more knowledge and skills, we can spend time on cultivating a moment-to-moment ability to see things differently—to make that which was invisible, visible.

How do we do this? Jennifer Garvey Berger and her team have identified three “habits of mind” that we can actively develop. These are described in her second book, Simple Habits for Complex Times:

  1. Ask different questions—experiment with different ways of thinking about things by asking and encouraging questions different from the ones you typically ask. Start with the simple question: “What might I be missing?”
  2. Take multiple perspectives—actively work to look at situations from multiple vantage points. Start by asking other people more questions about how they see a situation.
  3. See the system—step out and attempt to see the broader system that you are part of. Start by reviewing the tool of polarity management—a way of seeing that allows you to start seeing the bigger system.

While this is, in one way, deeper work, in other way, it is easier than adding knowledge. We don’t need to know more and more in a world where it feels that we can never know enough. Instead, practicing these habits encourages us to slow down and spend more time thinking—on our own and in conversation with others. For leaders who want to be more effective, engaging in the work of vertical development will set them on the right path.