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Challenging the ‘VERTICAL’ in Vertical Development: less ‘stairway to heaven’ and more ‘piano playing’
One of the strongest (and most frequently mentioned) criticisms of vertical development theories and approaches (and perhaps the reason certain scholars in the field avoid the term ‘vertical’ altogether) is the implicit hierarchy. It is easy to be seduced by the notion of fixed stages, unfolding in a pre-determined way. While there is mounting evidence that leaders at the later stages are better able to navigate adaptive challenges and thrive in turbulent times, this becomes an easy excuse to oversimplify the topic and conclude that ‘later is better’.
More than once in my work I’ve heard top leaders ask how might their organisation just ‘shift into the ‘transforming’ stage - ideally bypassing any earlier, messier, more inconvenient stages. When vertical development stages are spoken of as steps on a ladder, it makes it seem that a very complex topic and what is, in reality, a very messy process are straight-forward. It might even make it seem as if vertical development could be an easy-fix to many organisational ails.
While vertical development is indeed a pre-requisite of mature leadership, there is no recipe for growing through the stages, nor does inhabiting a later stage automatically guarantee mature behaviour. In fact, researchers - most notably Dr. Valerie Livesay - have shown that falling back into earlier stages happens often, even to the most mature individuals. Under stress, organisational pressure, as a result of trauma or other factors, people can revert back into immature behaviours and simply lose (usually temporarily, other times for longer periods) their capacity to think and act in complex ways. Interestingly, whenever people become aware of their fallback moments, they have a chance to grow from the experience and that in itself contributes to their ongoing vertical development. So it seems it is from our lowest moments we grow the most.
Furthermore, we’ve learnt from other contributors to adult development theory, such as Ken Wilber, that any individual can at times access peak states (either in meditation or in a moment of flow or transcendence) - glimpses into advanced stages of consciousness. It is easy to confuse the temporary state with the actual stage, starting to believe you have truly transformed, only to revert back to old patterns and behaviours and feel disappointed the ‘change’ doesn’t seem to last. It was still Wilber who threw another hammer in the works by suggesting each stage is in fact composed of various lines of development - thus someone might be highly advanced in their cognitive development but highly immature in their emotional development - with the result being something that looks very little like wisdom or maturity.
We also know from other great work by Elaine Herdman Barker and colleagues that later stage leaders inhabiting an early stage organisation might literally go into hiding, enacting earlier stage behaviours in order to fit in. So being capable of late-stage thinking does not automatically guarantee you’ll show up as such at work. Organisational transformation requires top-leadership commitment, creating developmental contexts and fostering the psychological safety that allows later stage leaders to take risks and show up as their authentic selves. It requires leaning into the discomfort of having late-stage employees challenge the status-quo - and that is a tall order for many organisations.
Hopefully by now it should have become obvious that, as seductive as the concept might be for both leaders and L&D practitioners, vertical development is by no means a silver bullet, it doesn’t represent a straightforward developmental trajectory towards some sort of super-human abilities, nor does it happen in isolation.
In my own research and practice I found myself challenging the notion of stages as boxes that people move from and into - as I know many other researchers in the field have done. The more I looked into it, the more it seemed to me that the true value of vertical development lies in the breadth of perspective it offers, with every step towards growth. It seemed much less like a stairway to heaven, as critics have with irony (and for good reason) called it, and much more like a piano, where brilliant music is made through a combination of technique (horizontal development) and breadth of notes/octaves (vertical development).
Some of the most mature individuals I have had the chance to work with seemed to be those capable of skilfully playing all the octaves in their mental, emotional and behavioural repertoire - thinking flexibly, adapting their behaviour to the circumstances while holding a high level of self-awareness. Reversely, I have met people who, when measured, scored at the latest stages, but who in day-to-day life had real challenges in taking perspective, managing their own emotions or forging healthy, balanced relationships at work or beyond.
If anything, researching vertical development and striving to translate those insights into real-world learning interventions and supporting others to do the same has taught me to stay curious and cultivate humbleness. I believe the work of vertical development is like learning to play the piano in more ways than one - it’s hard, non-linear; it rarely comes through major break-throughs and most often through hard day to day work with self and others; it requires patience, perseverance, constant self-inquiry and experimentation. As with piano playing, vertical development is real work - at individual and collective level. An instructor might support your practice, but they can’t do the work for you. This work that can be frustrating and uncomfortable. In fact, if it’s neither of those things you’re probably not developing much, because one of the things we do know for certain from the last four decades of research in the field is that vertical development occurs only when we step outside of our comfort zone.
There goes our hope for the easy fix and the golden recipe! In its stead we’re left with a fascinating, messy process that, when followed through, can truly lead to whole new perspectives and ways of being, just like years of loving musical practice can lead to the most uplifting symphonies.
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