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Vertical Development and Great Leadership: What’s the Link? And a Word of Caution.
Adult development theories and approaches have been around for a few decades. They're not new. For a long time, this research has unfolded on the fringes of developmental psychology, largely out of sight of the general public. So what has sparked the immense interest of organizations and leaders in this type of development, particularly in the last few years?
The increasing interest is grounded in the idea that there is something special about this type of human development that makes a difference to a leader’s impact and effectiveness, particularly in disruptive, changing contexts. Previously we’ve explored what vertical development is and how it actually defines a process of maturity-building that is fundamentally different from simply acquiring new knowledge and skills. Such maturity has become more coveted in the leadership space than ever before mainly because the challenges leaders are navigating seem ever more daunting.
In the last few years the world has seen huge disruption, which forced organisations to adapt almost overnight, invent new ways of working, find solutions to problems nobody in this generation had faced before, and co-create a path forward when no one knew the right answer. All of this created new awareness of the value of having mature, wise leaders at the helm. By ‘mature’ I mean leaders who are able to be equally collaborative and decisive, who are able to both step back to take perspective and swiftly act when the situation requires it, who are self-aware, empathic but equally pragmatic and courageous, leaders who can admit when they don’t know and harness the collective wisdom of their team in figuring out the next step and, most of all, leaders who walk the talk. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, countries and organizations with more mature leadership seemed to have a definite advantage and, perhaps for the first time ever, we could all witness in real time the impact of good/bad leadership.
While the case for vertical development seems strong, do we have any research proving that late-stage (more developed) leaders are better equipped to thrive in the disruptive, challenging environment of today? The answer is: Yes. Here are a few thought-provoking studies about the effectiveness of late-stage leadership.
Leaders high on the vertical development continuum - often also called ‘post-conventional’ (an umbrella name given to the most advanced cluster of adult development stages) - have been shown to be better at leading adaptively and considering multiple perspectives, as well as dealing with ambiguity. They also have been shown to perform better in highly complex roles and have been more likely to be identified as high-potentials in their organizations, or deemed highly effective by superiors, peers and subordinates.
In a fascinating early study, considered a classic to this day, David Rooke and William Torbert showed that post-conventional CEOs were significantly more successful at leading through organizational transformations than earlier-octave peers. Rooke and Torbert followed ten organisations (5 for-profit and 5 not-for-profit) for a period of between two and five years. They found that the five CEOs measuring at the late ‘Transforming’ stage of development successfully supported 15 progressive organizational transformations. By contrast, the authors state, “the five CEOs measuring at pre-Transforming stages of development supported no progressive organizational transformations. The progressively transforming organizations became industry leaders on a number of business indexes. The three organizations that did not progress developmentally lost personnel, industry standing, and money as well.”
In a more recent study, Brandt & colleagues found some clues as to what exactly post-conventional leaders do differently. It turned out, they're more likely to empower employees, more likely to offer colleagues freedom within a frame, more open to being vulnerable and encouraging the expression of emotion in their organizations. These mature leaders were better at facilitating dialogue and holding space for divergent points of view. And all of these behaviors mitigate the pain of organizational transformation and created positive impacts in the culture.
Moreover, in a couple of very intriguing studies, Boiral & colleagues suggested that post-conventional leaders might even be more likely to embrace and push forward a sustainability and environmental responsibility agenda - both within and beyond their organizations. So in a world where climate change and corporate action are paramount, these leaders seemed more ready than others to take on the gnarly challenge of profit versus/and sustainability and walk the talk of climate action. The reason for this might be that late-stage leaders are more likely to embrace world-centric versus self-centric views, so they could be more capable to step back, see the bigger picture and envision outcomes beyond their immediate interests.
“Leading in complexity” is a much talked-about notion at the moment and, as it turns out, post-conventional leaders are consistently better at it. In a 2012 study, Barrett Brown has shown that “these leaders are willing to not know, and will work with the uncertainties of the design process. They trust themselves, other actors, and the process they have created to navigate through ambiguity. This appears to help them manage complex initiatives in environments replete with unforeseen changes and influences.”
While there is much more work to be done to explore other facets of vertical development as it impacts leadership, the proof is out there for investing in fostering vertical development at all leadership levels, and particularly at the level of senior leaders - as their actions and decisions have a disproportionate impact on organizational success or failure, as well as broader community impact.
While hopeful about the promise of vertical development, it’s important to stay cautious and not regard it as a silver bullet.
My own and other reaserchers' work, as illustrated in this article from Elaine Herdman Barker, is a constant reminder that later octaves DO NOT guarantee mature behavior. Post-conventional leaders are just as susceptible to fallback and reactivity as any other human being (we will discuss the fallback phenomenon in more details in a separate article).
Later stages (octaves) of development indeed come with more complexity and a broader behavioral repertoire. But there is no guarantee that all late-stage leaders will decide to put their complexity in the service of the greater good. Also, leaders with the right intentions and competencies, working in supportive cultures, can create positive impact regardless of their octave of development. Quite often, a community-oriented 'Diplomat', a highly knowledgeable and disciplined 'Expert' or a focused, goal-oriented and action-driven 'Achiever' can be extraordinarily powerful catalysts of organisational progress.
Upon closer inspection, the impact of vertical development might be seen as a ‘right stage’ for the ‘right context’ kind of match. When a late-stage leader misses all technical skills for the job, or lacks experience in the field and knowledge of the industry, that might make it as hard to excel in their role as when an early-stage leader is placed in a high-complexity, high-ambiguity role that they lack the psychological maturity for. Vertical development is one of several important attributes an excellent leader needs and should not be seen as a one-sided ‘superpower’ that can compensate for the absence of other, equally important, attributes of great leadership.
So let's hold in mind this intriguing paradox: there is real value in advancing vertical development to the latest stages AND, at the same time, no stage is in and of itself a guarantee of highly ethical, mature or wise behavior. Every stage, regardless of its position on the developmental continuum, holds strengths that can create a positive impact - the challenge is accessing the right stage for the right purpose and creating the organisational environments where people can thrive.
As developmental coaches or leaders, it's important to remember we are not engaging in a race to the end with the people we coach or the teams whose growth we might be supporting. Rather we might think of ourselves more as gardeners who nurture their plants and trust them to grow in their own time. We might hold space for our people to consolidate their current stage, encouraging them to make the best use of all of its potential. At the same time, we might hold a perspective on what is possible, see untapped into potential and stay on the look-out for developmental opportunities. We might gently nudge our mentees to stretch into developmental discomfort whenever possible, and allow them to grow towards more maturity in their own time and their own space.
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