Quality Transformation: Vertical leadership development

David SchwinnDavid reflects on the task of developing the “bigger thinking” that characterizes transformative leaders, and offers a framework for looking at leadership and management.

One of the glorious benefits of teaching in higher education is being able to take a sabbatical from time to time. In 2011, the modest purpose of my sabbatical was to “re-conceptualize the disciplines of management and leadership as they are needed in this century.” I believed then and now that the global challenges we face require new behaviors, and that leaders and managers in all walks of life have a significant influence on how people think and act. My primary intention was to help my students understand that there is a better way of managing and leading for the demands of the 21st century. In pursuing that purpose, my wife, Carole, and I conducted research on the topic and interviewed 41 managers/leaders from around the world whose practices have the potential to help transform our organizations, communities, and societies.

After I fulfilled the requirements of the sabbatical, Carole and I were so in awe of the leaders we interviewed that we thought their stories deserved to be more public. We decided to write a book about them. When we revisited the interviews, we recognized that not only were these leaders and managers using transformative practices, but the organizations they led were also contexts in which the people themselves had opportunities to become more highly conscious human beings.

That second review of the interviews, along with extensive additional research, resulted in our book, The Transformative Workplace: Growing People, Purpose, Prosperity and Peace (2015).  That second analysis contained a new framework for looking at management and leadership. In The Transformative Workplace: Growing People, Purpose, Prosperity and Peace, we organized the stories of the organizations we visited based on adult development theory and a pathway to higher levels of consciousness from Selfness to Otherness to 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 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.

That framework has been affirmed through a number of other recent books on the topic including Robert Kegan’s An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberatively Developmental Organization (2016) and Frederick Laloux’s A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness (2014). What each of these books and numerous articles are calling for is what has come to be known as “vertical leadership development.”

The term vertical leadership development seems to have been first named as such in 2009 by the Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) John McGuire and Gary Rhodes in their 2009 book, Transforming Your Leadership Culture. In their book, they argue that “Organizations have grown skilled at developing individual leader competencies, but have mostly ignored the challenge of transforming their leaders’ mindset from one level to the next. Today’s horizontal development within a mindset must give way to the vertical development of bigger minds.”

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 “Future Trends in Leadership Development.” “If horizontal development is about transferring information to the leader,” Petrie writes, “vertical development is about transformation of the leader.” 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.

In his 2014 study, Petrie identifies four trends for the future of leadership development as follows:

  1. More focus on vertical development
  2. Transfer of greater ownership development to the individual
  3. Greater focus on collective rather than individual leadership
  4. Much greater focus on innovation in leadership development methods

Our own thinking has evolved as we have begun practicing vertical leadership development with several colleagues as an experiment and doing further research into our upcoming book, Practicing Wholeness. The current framework for our experiment and for Practicing Wholeness is based on an adaptation of our original organization from selfness to otherness to wholeness. Our current developmental pattern is:

Deepening Self-Awareness





Strengthening Relationships





Heightening Perspectives





While our evolving thinking continues to be focused on the workplace, it more deeply appreciates the roles that everyone plays in leadership and management. We are all leaders and managers and these two disciplines are really team sports.

My upcoming sabbatical will be focused on how to more fully integrate vertical leadership development in our management and leadership development efforts at my college. I deeply think that vertical leadership development is essential to all of our wellbeing in this new century.

I’m anxious and happy to provide whatever help you like if you choose to pursue these practices in your own organizations or your own community. I’m also anxious and happy to take in whatever comments, questions, or advice you have regarding what I consider an essential set of practices.