The Future of Leadership Development: It's Vertical

A new leadership paradigm seems to be emerging with an inexorable shift away

from one-way, hierarchical, organization-centric communication toward two-way,

network-centric, participatory, and collaborative leadership styles. Most of all

a new mind-set seems necessary, apart from new skills and knowledge. All the tools

in the world will not change anything if the mind-set does not allow and support change.

—Grady McGonagill and Tina Doer

This article explores the need for leaders to develop a new mind-set, emerging approaches to developing that new mind-set, and an invitation to journey toward that new mind-set.

Leadership development is a $30 billion industry in the United States, and yet, according to Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends survey, 40 percent of respondents believe that “their current leadership programs provide only ‘some’ value, while 24 percent report that they yield little to no value”  (Wakefield et al,, 2016, p. 28). So why are leadership development programs failing so dramatically to produce a return on investment? And why are they failing to prepare current and future leaders to navigate in a world that is increasingly characterized by the term VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity)? And finally, what are the implications of these failures for quality leaders, especially those in higher education?

Context: The State of Leadership Development

Prominent critics report that current leadership development programs are typically:

·     Aimed at individuals, when the most important work that is done in organizations today is accomplished through highly diverse, self-managed, and often geographically distant teams and work groups

·     Focused on a small number of “high potentials,” when leadership skills and talent are now needed at all levels of the organization

·     Offered in isolation from the workplace, making it difficult to engage the interest of those left behind, or to apply what is learned back on the job

·     Organized around content that may or may not be timely, relevant, or necessary to the real challenges faced in the workplace and beyond

·     Owned by Human Resource—or more recently Talent Development—departments, rather than by those with leadership responsibilities or by individuals and teams interested in their own growth and development

·     Extremely expensive—limiting accessibility—and often dependent on outside trainers, coaches, and consultants with prescribed approaches, rather than homegrown or highly adaptable to specific environments 

·     Short-term and intermittent, when the work of developing leaders is a long-term and continuous process

The most serious and significant criticism, however, is that the vast majority of leadership development programs focus on horizontal, rather than vertical development. While the origins of the term vertical leadership development are uncertain, one early differentiation was made by the Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) John McGuire and Gary Rhodes in their book Transforming Your Leadership Culture. McGuire and Rhodes argue that “Organizations have grown skilled at developing individual leader competencies, but have mostly ignored the challenge of transforming their leader’s mindset from one level to the next. Today’s horizontal development within a mindset must give way to the vertical development of bigger minds” (McGuire & Rhodes, 2009, p. 12). 

The contrast that McGuire and Rhodes drew between the two types of leadership development is further explained in a 2014 study of the issue by their CCL colleague Nick Petrie, titled “Developing Leaders for a Complex World” Petrie explains, “If horizontal development is about transferring information to the leader, vertical development is about transformation of the leader” (Petrie, 2015, p. 9). 

In other words, horizontal leadership development focuses on the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and abilities, while vertical development focuses on advancing the leader’s capacity for more complex and conscious ways of thinking, being, and acting. 

Implications for Higher Education Leaders and their Students

It is not only private industry and the public sector that are functioning in the new VUCA world. Today’s higher education environment is also rapidly changing, characterized by: 

·     Dramatic retirement rates of college presidents and key leaders

·     Continual turnover in the governance structure

·     Competing demands of various college constituents 

·     Needs of an increasingly diverse student population

·     Dwindling resources

In a September 2016 article in the Journal of Experiential Education, titled “Assessing Vertical Development in Experiential Learning Curriculum,” authors Kirsty Spence and Mark McDonald advocated for adding “vertical development” to the competency-based management education approach used by most higher education institutions (Spence & McDonald, 2016).

The authors of Rethinking the "L" Word in Higher Education: The Revolution of Research on Leadership(and others) have been calling for major changes in the field’s leadership development approach for many years. In such times of change and challenge in higher education, the Rethinkingauthors suggest a new kind of leadership that is process-centered, collective, context-bound, nonhierarchical, and focused on mutual power and influence processes (Kezar, et al., 2006).

Exploring the World of Vertical Leadership Development

Vertical leadership development draws on the research of various theorists who have studied the developmental pathways we follow throughout our lifetimes to expand our understanding of ourselves and the world. The well-known work of Abraham Maslow, for example, proposed that we develop over time by meeting our needs for safety and security, self-esteem, belonging, self-actualization and, eventually, self-transcendence. Adult developmental theorists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in their most recent book, The Everyone Culture:  Becoming a Deliberatively Developmental Organization, describe a pathway through “three plateaus in adult mental development,” which they call the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind, and the self-transforming mind (Kegan and Lahey, 2016, p. 62-63).

One particularly elegant and graphic way of describing the perspectives of those who have traveled these developmental pathways is offered by researcher Susanne Cook-Greuter: 

The metaphor of climbing a mountain can serve as an illustration of what it means to gain an increasingly higher vantage point. At each turn of the path up the mountain I can see more of the territory I have already traversed. I can see the multiple turns and reversals in the path. I can see further into and across the valley. The closer I get to the summit, the easier it becomes to see behind to the shadow side and uncover formerly hidden aspects of the territory. Finally at the top, I can see beyond my particular mountain to other ranges and further horizons. The more I can see, the wiser, more timely, more systematic and informed my actions and decisions are likely to be because more of the relevant information, connections and dynamic relationships become visible. (Cook-Greuter, 2004, p. 3)

In a 2015 book, co-authored with my wife, Carole, titled The Transformative Workplace: Growing People, Purpose, Prosperity and Peace(2015), we described this gradual elevation of perspective taking as a movement from selfnessto othernessto wholeness:

Selfness includes those early developmental challenges where we begin to realize a sense of our own individuality and who we are in relationship to our families and those closest to us. At this stage of our development we are most concerned about biological, safety, and survival issues, as well as seeing to our need for recognition and self-esteem. 

Otherness includes development of a sense of who we are beyond our immediate relationships and surroundings. It includes an increased valuing of other people, groups, and communities in our lives. Otherness also includes a concern for meeting the needs and expectations of others, as well as our own. 

Wholeness refers to an expansion of consciousness that includes an awareness and concern for all living things. A wider embrace of all life leads to decisions and actions that lead to a more sustainable and peaceful way of living. (Schwinn & Schwinn, 2015)

Approaches to Vertical Leadership Development

In his “Trend Watch” article on vertical leadership development, CCL’s Nick Petrie suggested that “There are no simple, existing models or programs, which will be sufficient to develop the levels of collective leadership required to meet an increasingly complex future. Instead, an era of rapid innovation will be needed in which organizations experiment with new approaches that combine diverse ideas in new ways and share these with others” (Petrie, 2014, p. 6). In later reports, he identified a number of innovations currently in play, including: 

·     Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s approach to working directly with the beliefs and assumptions of leaders, using a four-column “change map.” The map helps leaders identify goals for their own improvement; actions that distract them from reaching those goals; “hidden” commitments that lead to these distractions; and, the “big assumptions” or deeply held beliefs that must be challenged to move forward. (Kegan & Lahey, 20126) 

·     John McGuire and Gary Rhodes’ top-down approach to culture change, working with the beliefs and assumptions that underlie the organization’s business strategy, and then developing top-level executives as models for new ways of thinking. Through this approach, executives are expected to identify, emulate, and cascade down through the organization a more appropriate leadership culture. (McGuire & Rhodes, 2009)

·     Jane Weber and Roelien Bokxem’s (of the PresenceAtWork consultancy) body-based approach to collective leadership development. The pair uses a body-based assessment that helps individuals identify their primary strengths, preferences, and talents, which leads to group insights about how to leverage each person’s strengths to improve overall performance. (Weber & Bokxem, 2014)

The Practicing Wholeness Approach

“We are what we repeatedly do.” —Aristotle

Practicing Wholeness is an innovation in the field of vertical leadership development that is designed to address each and every one of the inadequacies in traditional leadership development approaches listed at the beginning of this article:

·     Aimed at highly diverse, self-managed, and often geographically distant teams and work groups

·     Focused on voluntary formal and informal groups, teams, or communities of practice at any level in the organization who are committed to increasing their effectiveness 

·     Offered in the context of the group or team’s regular work life, ensuring that all members are engaged in the same shared experience

·     Organized around the real challenges faced in the workplace and beyond

·     Owned by those with leadership responsibilities or by individuals and teams interested in their own growth and development

·     Have high accessibility and adaptable to specific environments, often using homegrown facilitators 

·     Consist of a long-term and continuous process, meant to move participants to greater self-awareness, stronger relationships, and heightened perspectives 

Practicing Wholeness is a practical guide to vertical/collective leadership development that is meant to be used in any environment where there is a recognition that developing more highly conscious people who can work together to find innovative solutions to increasingly complex problems is the key to creating a world that works for all. It is an approach that is based on the idea that it is possible to advance one’s capacity for more complex and conscious ways of thinking and being by acting as ifone has already become more highly developed. In other words, the focus is on engaging in practices that are already the hallmark of highly conscious people.

Practicing Wholeness is organized around a process of engaged conversations among two or more people who commit to being together for a minimum of twelve meetings of 90 to 120 minutes. Each of these twelve conversations focuses on a practice or discipline designed to deepen self-awareness; strengthen relationships with others; and, heighten perspectives. They include:

Deepening Self-Awareness

·     Presence

·     Courage

·     Authenticity

·     Integrity

Strengthening Relationships

·     Truthfulness

·     Forgiveness

·     Compassion

·     Generosity

Heightening Perspectives

·     Humility

·     Unity

·     Equanimity

·     Celebration

Resources available to groups or teams working with these wholeness practices include:

·     A pre-reading that describes the practice, along with references to additional and optional readings and resources 

·     One or more questions or conversation starters for individual and group reflection

·     Suggestions for taking the practice into participants’ daily lives

Facilitating the Practicing Wholeness experience does not require group facilitation expertise, but familiarity with dialogue and circle processes for engaging participants in productive conversations is very useful. Toward that end, helpful resources are also available to facilitators, including a set of guidelines for facilitating a circle, resources for helping groups function effectively, and a suggested outline for facilitating each meeting of the Practicing Wholeness circle. Initial trials, both in and outside the classroom, have proven very successful.

My 2018 sabbatical is organizing additional Practicing Wholeness experiments with partners interested in accessing and using these resources in their own environments. To explore participation, contact me at


Cook-Greuter, Susanne. "Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective." Industrial and   Commercial Training, Vol. 36 No. 7. Last modified 2004.Retrieved February 21, 2018 from devel.%20persp.pdf.

Eddy, P. L., & Boggs, G. R. (2010). Community college leadership: A multidimensional model for leading change. Sterling, VA: Stylus

Kegan, R., & Lahey, R. (2016).  The everyone culture:  Becoming a deliberatively developmental organization. Boston: Harvard Business Review Publishing

Kezar, A. J., Carducci, R., & Contreras-McGavin, M. (2006). Rethinking the "L" word in higher education: The revolution in research on leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

McGonagill, G., & Doer, T. (2011). The leadership implications of the evolving web. Retrieved January 3, 2016 from 

McGuire, J. B., & Rhodes, G. (2009). Transforming your leadership culture. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Petrie, N. (2014). Future Trends in Leadership Development. Retrieved June 10, 2016 from

Petrie, N. (2015). Developing Leaders for a Complex World. Retrieved February 21, 2018 from

Schwinn, C., & Schwinn, D. (2015). The transformative workplace: Growing people, purpose, prosperity and peace.Minneapolis, MN: Transformations Press Unltd. 

Spence, K. K., & McDonald, M. A. (2015). Assessing vertical development in experiential learning curriculum.Journal of Experiential Education, 38(3), 296-312. doi:10.1177/1053825915571749 

Wakefield, N., Abbatiello, A., Agarwal, D., Pastakia, K., & VanBerkel, A. (2016). Leadership awakened. Retrieved February 23, 2017, from

Weber, J.  & Bokxem R., 2/8/2018

Carole Schwinn