Heat Experience: A Necessary Prerequisite to Vertical Development

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson


Vertical development is a form of development focused on upgrading one’s internal operating system. It is literally improving the wiring in one’s nervous system in such a way that they:

  • Widen their window of tolerance
  • Elevate their capacity to take on stress, change, pressure, uncertainty, and complexity
  • Enhance their capabilities of vertical development characteristics like: patience, humility, psychological flexibility, empathy, vulnerability, and emotional intelligence

(Horizontal development can never lead to transformational changes in the characteristics above.)

Given the above information, I believe that everyone wants vertical development. But, few know what it is, and even fewer know how to vertically develop.

In this article, I want to introduce a necessary prerequisite to vertical development: A heat experience.

Heat Experiences

Heat experiences are events or situations that cause one to question their current mental models and ways of thinking.

Heat experiences can be external events or internally driven.

An external heat experience is often a trial or difficult/stressful situation that we encounter that exists outside of us. It could be getting a divorce, a child having health issues (watch this video about Satya Nadella and how his son helped facilitate his vertical development), getting into an accident, failing an exam, etc.

For me, getting fired from Gallup was a heat experience that caused me to question my current mental models and ultimately led to me adopting more elevated mental models that involved a greater willingness to step outside of my comfort zone, start a consulting business, and write a book.

But, we don’t need an external event to occur for us to vertically develop. We can facilitate internal heat experiences.


Internal heat experiences, while less common, involve us intentionally and proactively questioning our current mental models.

It is my hope that people who take my vertical development assessment or personal mindset assessment will utilize those assessments as heat experiences that motivate them to be more intentional about upgrading their internal operating system.

Why Heat Experiences Are Necessary

The formal definition of vertical development is: Elevating our ability to making meaning of our world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways.

Thus, fundamentally, vertical development involves us changing how we make meaning of our world. And, it is only heat experiences that get us to question, introspect about, and open the door for changing our meaning making and mental models.

How to Capitalize on Heat Experiences

But, while experiencing a heat experience (e.g., such as getting fired from your job) is necessary for vertical development, it is not sufficient for vertical development to occur.

One can go through a significant trial and not question their mental models. In fact, one can go through a trial and become less vertically developed because they become more self-protective instead of less self-protective.

Thus, in order to capitalize on heat experiences, we need a combination of the following:

  • The safety to inspect our current mental models
  • The identification of elevated mental models
  • The safety, room, and structure to try on the elevated mental models

Organizations themselves often do not create the structure or the space for these elements (although they could, or at least outsource them).

This is why we commonly see that the leaders and people who vertically develop generally have a coach, partner, or therapist to guide them in their journey. These people:

  • Create a safe environment for inspection and questioning
  • Invite them to consider alternative perspectives and elevated mental models
  • Create the safety, room, and structure to practice operating with new mental models

Your Leadership Development Programs

Whether you are focused on your personal vertical development or the vertical development of others, you need to ask yourself:

  • Am I going through or creating a heat experience?
  • Have I created the support structure around me or others to allow for the capitalization of the heat experience?

This is the wave of the future in leadership development. Have you started riding it yet?

If you are a mid-sized to large organization and would like to talk about your current leadership development efforts, let’s connect on a quick call: Connect with Ryan.

Subscribe for the latest posts

Sign up for updates

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter to accelerate your vertical development journey. Includes cutting-edge vertical development articles, tips, and resources.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join the Newsletter

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter to accelerate your vertical development journey. Includes cutting-edge vertical development articles, tips, and resources.