Vertical development is as essential to leadership effectiveness as
Pliability is essential to peak athletic performance

What does it take to be the best player that has ever played in one’s sport? It takes consistent top-level performance over a long period of time.

Look at Tom Brady. No one would ever say that he is the greatest athlete on any given Sunday, but it has now become harder and harder to argue that there is anyone who is a better football player. (And, this is a bit tough for me to swallow as someone who has rooted against Tom Brady throughout his career).

Just this last season, Tom Brady pulled off something truly unprecedented. At the age of 43, he led his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory. And, on top of this, he played nearly the whole season with a torn MCL in his knee.

Seeing this, it is reasonable to ask, what has allowed Tom Brady to play at such a high level for such a long time? He surely must either be supernatural or be doing something that others are not.

In fact, this question is what led me to pick up his recent book TB12. What I found amazed me. It seems his consistency and durability have less to do with any supernatural abilities and more to do with engaging in a training regimen that others are not doing.

In a similar vein, I believe we can make the case that the best leaders are not supernatural, but engage in a training regimen that others are not doing.

Typical Athletic Training Cycle

In TB12, Brady highlights the typical cycle of elite athletes. In the ideal situation, the cycle is “wear and repair,” meaning that you wear your body out playing and then repair it. In football, this is week in and week out. But commonly, the cycle is different: “wear, injure, and repair.”

And, the typical approach to training athletes is to elevate their strength and conditioning. The basic belief is that the stronger and more conditioned one is, the more they will be able to (1) withstand the wear they put on their bodies, and (2) easily repair after the wear.

While this approach is commonly accepted and well-intended, Brady says that it falls short.

Brady states that during his college and early pro days, this was the approach he took to playing football. He would wear and repair. He said his shoulder and elbow were always sore, and as the season went on, he said that they would become sorer and sorer. It then took the offseason to feel normal again. But, once a new season started, the cycle started all over again.

Simply put, his body was not able to effectively withstand the wear he was putting upon it.


Tom Brady’s Secret

Shortly into Brady’s career, he began to focus on something that most athletes do not focus on in addition to the typical “strength and conditioning.” This something was pliability, and it is what he credits to his long-term consistency and durability.

To summarize this approach, Brady says that the typical “strength and conditioning” approach can help people perform at high levels in a given moment (i.e., a bench press workout, or in a given play). But, it isn’t without its downsides. Brady says that “strength and conditioning” make the athletes’ muscles denser and shorter. When this occurs, the muscles are less able to withstand strain and stress and are more inclined to break or rupture.

To counteract these negative effects of “strength and conditioning,” Brady focuses on pliability, which is the softening and lengthening of his muscles. By making his muscles softer and longer, they are more able to withstand the strain and stress that he puts them through.

Instead of focusing on elevating his muscles’ ability to perform in a given moment (i.e., “strength and conditioning”), he has focused on elevating his muscles’ ability to withstand strain and stress.

In fact, Brady says that after he started to do pliability work, with added emphasis on the muscles around his shoulder and elbow, he stopped being sore during the duration of a football season.

foam rolling

Extending the Analogy to Vertical Development

Ok, you might reasonably be asking, what does this have to do with vertical development. There are valuable parallels.

The typical “strength and conditioning” approach to leadership development is horizontal development, which is improving our knowledge and skills to be able to improve in any given moment or situation.

But, what horizontal development doesn’t do is elevate our ability to increasingly withstand and navigate the change, pressure, uncertainty, and pressure that leaders face.

Vertical development, on the other hand, is similar to pliability in athletic training, in that it elevates leaders’ ability to withstand and navigate the change, pressure, uncertainty, and pressure that they face.

The technical definition of vertical development is: Elevating a leader’s ability to make meaning of their world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways.

Horizontal and Vertical Development Together

In order for an athlete to reach top-tier levels, that athlete needs strength and conditioning as well as pliability. Strength and conditioning without pliability are no longer enough for top-tier performance over a career.

Similarly, in order for a leader to reach top-tier levels, that leader needs horizontal development as well as vertical development. Horizontal development without vertical development is no longer enough for top-tier performance over a career.

I hope this gets you to ask the question: Am I focusing enough on vertical development?

If you want to focus on vertical development more (either for yourself or the leaders you are responsible for developing), let’s connect. You can grab time on my calendar here: Connect with Ryan.