What Is Vertical Leadership Development And Why Should You Care About It?

Vertical leadership development is the idea that we progress to higher and higher stages of vantage point, maturity and mastery of complexity, and that this pace and progress can be accelerated through skilled coaching.

I love this definition of vertical leadership development as defined by the Institute of Coaching as it captures for me the essence of what great leadership developmental work is all about – supporting leaders evolve their mindset, beliefs and sense-making capabilities in order to better navigate increasingly complex scenarios and develop more fully into their leadership abilities.  

And it seems like never before has there been such a need for great leadership as our world has become so increasingly connected, complex, volatile and uncertain.  Today we are increasingly being called upon to both think and act more systemically and very often the complexity of our work can make us feel like we are in over our heads…and oftentimes we are. 

So What Are These Stages?

Researchers Bill Torbert and David Rooke in their popular 2005 HBR article “Seven Transformations of Leadership” which was updated in 2020 identified seven stages through which leaders can develop.  Each stage or as I like to call them mindsets, builds on the previous one, just like the stacking dolls in the picture above.  The seven mindsets are: 

  1. Opportunist Mindset –  portrays a leader who is primarily focused on their own needs and is motivated to win whatever the cost.
  2. Diplomat Mindset – as the name suggests is a leader who is primarily driven by a desire to belong and fit in within the organisation and with their peers.
  3. Expert Mindset –  is a leader who is motivated by achieving mastery and who values and respects other people’s logic and expertise.
  4. Achiever Mindset – is one that is driven by goals, achievements and meeting the standards they set for both themselves and their teams.
  5. Redefining Mindset – portrays a leader who has the ability to challenge the status quo, reframe complex situations and inspire new ways forward.
  6. Transforming Mindset – captures leaders who think systemically and can lead game changing transformation at both an organisational and cultural level.
  7. Alchemical Mindset – sees the interdependent nature of things and represents leaders who strive to integrate both organisational and societal transformation.

Leaders can be found operating at all seven stages where there is a good role-to-mindset-fit, that is culturally aligned.    However when the role-to-mindset-fit is not aligned, then problems will arise if unaddressed.  Complex roles, where leaders are charged with leading organisational transformations, typically require later-stage mindsets to thrive in the role. 

Can you recognise your own mindset from this list?

Why Should You Care About Them?

Well, firstly as you can imagine there are unique strengths, challenges, blindspots and growth edges for each mindset and knowing how these align with your current role and future career ambitions is incredibly helpful.  For example, if you identified yourself as currently operating from an achiever mindset but have ambitions to be promoted into a more complex leadership role, then the refining and transforming stages will provide a great map to steer you through this growth.

Secondly what I have recently come to appreciate about the seven stages is what I first heard Nick Petrie call range – the ability we have as leaders to flex our response across a range of mindsets to best meet the situational need in front of us.  This enables a later stage leader operating for example from a redefining mindset to access their diplomat, expert, achiever mindsets as the situation requires.  Now while this might sound obvious, having a map and a visual aid in your toolkit enables you to authentically do this in an intelligent way giving you more bandwidth to work with.  Awareness of this enables you to lead from various altitudes, intelligently adjusting to the situational need for maximum impact.

Why Is Coaching Important?

Very simply, it’s hard to manage what you cannot see and are subject to – and that’s what you are dealing with when you are talking about shifting or evolving your mindset.  It’s no easy task for an leader to do on their own and it’s not a transactional thing that can be done and dusted on a two day leadership programme.  Equally the organisational needs and opportunities will not and cannot wait. They require an impactful response that is fit for purpose.  This is what coaching delivers.

Individuals skilled to coach with a vertical development lens will support you in seeing your situation from a new and higher perspective, map out a developmental plan which supports you stretch into a new mindset, confidently embody it and fully utilise your range.

Your mindset flows through everything you do and it is for this reason that we bring a vertical development lens to all our coaching programmes regardless of the leadership topic.  To learn more about our coaching programmes click here.

Wishing you well,


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