What Prevents Us From Developing Vertically

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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Last week, I suggested that most leadership development programs focus on horizontal development, but very few focus on vertical development.

Horizontal development involves helping leaders add more knowledge, skills, and competencies. This is like adding an app onto an iPad. It increases the breadth of its operation. But, it doesn’t necessarily improve the operating power of the iPad. This form of development is focused on enabling a leader to do more.

Vertical development involves helping leaders elevate their thinking capabilities to better navigate complex and uncertain environments. This is like upgrading the operating system of the iPad. It improves the overall functionality of the device. This form of development is focused on enabling a leader to be better.

The reality is that, as we move into more and more uncertain and complex environments, we need leaders who are developed both horizontally and vertically. But, the leaders that are going to be at a competitive advantage and under greater demand are those who are more vertically developed.

Developing Vertically

When it comes to developing vertically, there are two things to consider:

  1. What generally prevents us from becoming more vertically developed?
  2. What can we proactively do to enhance our vertical development?

This week, I will focus on this first question. Next week, I will focus on the second question

What Prevents Our Vertical Development

The greatest impediment to our vertical development and all the benefits that come with it is ourselves.

Generally, we become comfortable at our current altitude (i.e., our current plane of development), and we have likely built up a personal identity rooted in this particular altitude.

We definitely don’t want to go back down to a lower altitude (we find the views too great and valuable). But, when we think about going higher in altitude, we likely have the following thoughts:

  • I am not sure I can go any higher
  • Even if I go any higher, I am not sure it will be worth the effort and discomfort to get there
  • Because I have never traversed that terrain, I have no clue what I am getting into

Thus, it is likely that when we are invited to develop vertically, we nonconsciously reject such invitations as a way to protect our well-being, comfort, and ego.

This is why only one in seven patients change their lifestyle after their doctor tells them to change (e.g., diet, exercise, stop smoking), or prematurely die? It isn’t because they don’t care about dying, and it isn’t because they don’t want to make the change. It is because they want to ‘save their life’ as they currently know it.

When we are invited to enhance our altitude, our current “life” is put at risk. In fact, enhancing our altitude suggests that we must let go of our “old self” for our “new self” to arise. This is a scary proposition.

Two Examples

Changing My Diet

I have always been a runner, but for most of my adult life, I would only run a couple of miles a day. I couldn’t seem to go much beyond that barrier. Also, for years, I was 30 pounds overweight.

I didn’t recognize it at the time (key here: lack of self-awareness), but my added weight was likely a primary factor in my inability to run further distances.

I didn’t necessarily need horizontal development (e.g., learning a new running form). What I needed was vertical development (e.g., changing my body).

But, for many years, while I wanted to lose weight, I could never bring myself to take a serious crack at it because I didn’t want to give up on the foods I so enjoyed eating.

It wasn’t until my sister lost 30 pounds that I saw that the vertical development was not as scary as I thought it might be.

I then went on to lose 30 pounds, I have run a half marathon, and now run 4-5 miles per day.


I talk about Alan throughout my book, Success Mindsets. Alan is the CEO of a small organization, and he has a turnover problem.

The reality of the situation is that Alan has historically been a great individual contributor in his past roles. As an individual contributor, Alan developed the mentality that he needed to always:

  • Look good
  • Be right
  • Avoid problems
  • Get ahead

As an individual contributor, these desires seemed to serve him well in outperforming his peers.

Now a leader, he still carries these desires around, which has led to the creation of a hierarchical, command-and-control leadership culture in his organization.

Alan is like I was when I was 30 pounds overweight. He is trying as hard as he can to be successful, but can’t seem to make progress. He can’t see that he needs to change and elevate his leadership. And, even if he did know that he needed to change, he has no clue how to go about doing it.

He doesn’t realize that, at a foundational level, he needs to shift his desires as follows:

  • Looking good → Learning and Growing
  • Being right → Finding truth and thinking optimally
  • Avoiding problems → Reaching goals
  • Getting ahead → Lifting others

This is a common example demonstrating that leaders generally don’t need to be developed horizontally, they need to be developed vertically.

Want to Focus More on Vertical Development?

If you want to focus most on vertical development for yourself or for developing your organizations’ leaders, I want to help you out. Connect with me by clicking on this hyperlink: Connect with Ryan

Or, you can join me for an upcoming free webinar (11/17 @ 1:00 p.m. PST) that I am hosting for those that might want to sample how I can help them vertically develop in the new year. Register here:

Elevating Your Leadership Development in 2021

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