What is vertical development? Here’s what’s missing from most leadership development programs.

“My leaders aren’t keeping up with the pace of change, which means their teams aren’t either.”

I’ve been hearing the same complaint a lot lately when I’m talking to senior leaders about their leadership programs. They’ve had the same programs for years, but are realizing their leaders aren’t building the skills they actually need.  

Most leadership programs resemble the skill-building focus they’ve had for decades: creating a set of competencies and skills that would look familiar to a 1980s executive, things like decision-making, delegation, difficult conversations, or giving feedback. 

These skills are still part of the foundation that leaders need to be taught as they move from individual contributors into manager roles. But these aren’t the skills they need to solve the problems they’re facing.

Today’s challenges have changed our leadership needs. 

As the Change Management Review notes, the vast majority of leadership development programs focus on building additional skills to solve specific problems.

These programs are designed for scenarios where leaders are expected to help their team find a defined solution to a known or complicated problem. With the higher rate of change in today’s organizations, often with teams and leaders facing situations no one has tackled before, including implementing AI technology or managing hybrid workplaces.

Complexity guru Dave Snowden calls this the difference between situations that are complicated and those that have complexity. Complicated problems have a clear and defined solution (even if it takes us a while to solve the problem). A situation with complexity has new issues emerging without best practices or past examples of solutions because it’s likely that this situation hasn’t happened before. 

We need to go beyond the limits of horizontal skill-building. 

While the term horizontal leadership development might be unfamiliar to you, the concept is the core of most corporate leadership programs today, which tend to focus on skill building.

We spend time defining the skills, competencies, and behaviours leaders need, which is an important foundational step for leadership development. We can’t ignore horizontal skill building; it’s been the foundation for leadership development for a reason. 

However, horizontal skills keep us focused on relying on what we’ve already learned, not adapting beyond it to seek out new solutions. “Best practices” and other tried and true approaches shared in horizontal development keep us focused inward and often, stuck in approaches that won’t work.

Understanding vertical leadership development: think iOS, not apps. 

Vertical development involves shifting our growth beyond the “doing” of tasks to expanding our thinking to consider radically different approaches. Instead of doing x and y to be a competent leader, a strong leader is someone who remains open-minded and considers different scenarios and options. 

As you explore vertical development, you’ll have the ability to continue to keep your team engaged and feeling a sense of belonging

The metaphor I’ve seen used here is the difference between adding apps to your phone (like adding Todoist to improve your task management activities) and upgrading your iOS (which might solve capacity issues, like improving battery life). 

Let’s look at a work example—here’s the difference between horizontal and vertical skills when solving team capacity issues:

  • Horizontal skills: learn how to identify roles & responsibilities and communicate them to your team
  • Vertical skills: leader introspection to understand why you resist delegating tasks to your team

We aren’t talking about learning more; it’s about expanding your worldview to consider completely new ways of thinking, working, and leading to solve increasingly complex challenges in new ways.


Leaders today need high connection and responsiveness. 

When I developed the Evolved Leader Model, I wanted to highlight what can happen when we don’t focus on high levels of connection and responsiveness in our leadership:

  • Low connection, high responsiveness: Fake; our teams don’t trust us because we don’t really know them
  • Low connection, high reactive/controlling: Forceful; we aren’t taking time to understand the situation or our teams yet we’re pushing our solutions or ideas onto them
  • High connection, high reactive/controlling: Erratic; we are staying close to our team but change our minds rapidly as new data arises in an effort to control the narrative
  • High connection, high responsiveness: Evolved; we’re adapting as we stay connected to our team to better understand what’s needed to support them in their work.

If we can shift into an Evolved leadership style, we’re building the adaptive mindset our team needs and we’re staying connected to the needs of our team as the situation changes. 

First steps to building vertical leadership skills

All of my leadership development work, including work I do as a Dare to LeadTM facilitator, includes understanding how our nervous system responses are driving behaviours we don’t necessarily like or aren’t helpful in today’s work environment. 

Here’s how we start to examine leadership through a nervous system lens:

1) Make self-awareness a daily task

Even the most self-aware leaders need to accept that this work isn’t a “one-and-done” activity. I’m not talking about completing an assessment and debriefing it with a coach (although that’s a helpful place to start); it’s about taking time each day to reflect on how you moved through the day. Are there places where you wish you had responded differently? Could have asked better questions? Did more to make my team feel engaged and connected to what matters?

Adding in a daily reflection practice can go a long way to helping you see new patterns or changes you want to make. Being open to new information and understanding that increased self-awareness will also require ongoing changes or adjustments to your leadership style is the vertical skill-building your team needs.

2) Train yourself to stay calm

There are two parts to building a calm and evolved leadership presence: regular practices to calm your nervous system, and intentionally staying calm during stressful events or issues as they come up.

Take time (ideally daily) to support calming your nervous system. Practices vary widely and include everything from mindfulness meditation to walking outside (ideally in nature). If this is new to you, explore a range of activities initially to see what has the biggest calming effect on your nervous system and then work to integrate them into your daily and weekly routines.

As you integrate these practices, start to notice situations where you aren’t able to stay calm. What’s happening in the room? In others? In your mind and body? As you notice what aggravates your nervous system, see if you can start to catch yourself in the moment. As you do, focus on calming your breathing. Take a moment before responding to consider if other responses might be more helpful or appropriate.

As a bonus, you’ll discover that your ability to stay calm will have a calming effect on your team. This is called co-regulation—their nervous system is wired to respond based on how they perceive your system is reacting. So your ability to stay calm will keep your team calm too.

Engaging in calming practices can help you cultivate a calm leadership presence and improve how you respond in complex situations.

3) Increase the data points you use for decisions. 

As our work continues to increase in complexity, we need a wider range of data to help us navigate these situations, some of which we’re dealing with for the first time.

We are trained in the corporate world to use quantitative data for all of our decisions, which keeps us in our head centre of intelligence. 

You have two other centres of intelligence: heart and body. If you can tap into these centres as you work through decisions, new data points will become available that might help you adapt and respond differently. 

Increasing your leadership capacity through vertical development doesn’t mean abandoning the horizontal skill building we’ve come to expect; it’s a “both-and” addition to our leadership that will help us solve the leadership challenges of the future and the unanticipated ones we’re dealing with today.



Picture of Carolyn Swora

Carolyn Swora

Carolyn is a leadership consultant, team coach, certified Dare To Lead™ facilitator, and two-time bestselling author. Her most recent book, Evolve: The Path to Trauma-Informed Leadership, brings new focus to an often ignored, yet critical leadership component: the nervous system. In her work with organizations, from phama to non-profits, Carolyn focuses on driving change through leadership focused on compassion and humility.

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