How I Disappointed a Client Because of My Lack of Vertical Development

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

I recently spent some time on-site with an executive team that I have been working with all year. For context,

  • Throughout the year coaching these executives, I have gotten to know each of them on a deeply personal level
  • On this particular day, this workshop was the first of a day full of workshops for the executives
  • They have also gotten to know me quite well.

Given our relationship and knowing I was going to be seeing them all in person, I was excited to share with them my new book, The Elevated Leader, which I was able to do at the end of our workshop.

Maybe it shouldn’t have caught me off-guard, but I wasn’t fully prepared for what was about to occur.

After the session, with their books in hand, many of them came up to me and asked for me to sign their copies, which I was more than happy to do.

But, this put me in a position that made me feel anxious (which is a signal that my nervous system is having difficulty regulating my emotions and my cognitions are not where I would like them to be; i.e., a signal of a lack of vertical development).

I felt anxiety for two reasons, both of which I can connect back to my childhood/upbringing:

  1. I don’t like feeling like people are waiting on me (I had a line of people waiting on me)
  2. I don’t like being late to things, and I really don’t like making others late to things (they had another workshop to get to)

Because of these anxieties, I signed each book with their name, but I wrote the same thing in each book. What I wrote was a deep desire for each of them, but it lacked personalization.

I later got feedback that they were disappointed in my lack of personalization, and understandably so given our relationship.

Reflection: Connecting This Back to Vertical Development

Have you ever felt caught off-guard, anxious, and then didn’t handle the situation in the best or most productive way?

I think we all have.

There are a couple of lessons to learn from this.

Lesson #1: Small missteps by a leader can counteract a lot of really good leadership

What I feel really bad about is that I get the impression that my prior eight months of doing really good work with these leaders went out the window after a relatively minor lapse of judgment and lack of personalization.

But, I also know that I am not alone.

When I work with executive teams, I commonly will have their subordinates evaluate the vertical development and mindsets of their leader. These items are generally rated on a scale of 1-5.

What has been interesting is that a low score for an executive is not a 1 or 2. Instead, a low score is a 4.2, and a high score is a 4.8. This is not even a complete difference between “Agree” and “Strongly Agree.”

What this says to me that even poor executives operate effectively as a leader about 90% of the time. The problem with their leadership is the other 10% of the time.

One the other hand, the great executives operate effectively as a leader about 99% of the time. The difference between the two is the 9% of missteps.

What makes it so challenging to work with the more poorly-rated executives is that when they get the feedback, their mind naturally goes to the 90% of the time that they do a good job, and they think, “But, I do X, Y, and Z on a regular basis, how is it that you consider this score (which is lower than their peers) to be a sign that I am not effective as a leader?” In other words, they overvalue the times they do well and undervalue the impact their minority missteps have on those they lead.

Even the worst leaders engage in decent leadership the majority of the time.

Lesson #2: Small (and large) missteps occur when we are feeling anxious

Almost all missteps occur at a time when the leader is feeling anxious. When we feel anxious, we become self-protective and we do what will best address our anxiety, which is often at odds with the people we are leading.

This was me with the book signing. I did what helped me feel less anxious, but it had a negative impact on those around me. Could I justify my behavior? Yes! But, was it effective? No!

man signing a book

Lesson #3: Generally, the things that make us anxious are connected to trauma that we experienced in our past

When we feel anxious, it is a signal that we are dealing with a situation where our body’s nervous system is not able to adequately deal with the stress of that situation.

Inadequacies in our nervous system can almost always be traced back to our past trauma (often we are unwilling to acknowledge this). Side note, here is a great video that explains this from a really good comedian, Taylor Tomlinson: Taylor Tomlinson – Look at You: Childhood Trauma.

For me, I have discovered that I was emotionally neglected as a child. How I survived my upbringing was by becoming fiercely independent and responsible. This helps me in many situations. But, my responsibility, at times, can make me anxious, particularly when I feel like others are waiting on me and when I might be the cause of something negative for others (e.g., being late).

To me, I feel I can see a clear connection between my childhood trauma and this particular instance where I disappointed the executive team I have been working with.

Lesson #4: If we want to be a more positive influence a greater percentage of the time, we need to heal from our past trauma and enhance our body’s capacity to take on anxiety-inducing moments

If we want to misstep less, and become a more positive influence within our spheres of responsibility, we need to upgrade our body’s nervous system. And, upgrading our body’s nervous system is really about healing from our past trauma.

This is what vertical development is. Vertical development is a form of development that is all about upgrading our internal operating systems so that we experience less anxiety-inducing moments and can operate with greater cognitive and emotional sophistication.

Next Steps

If you want to dive into how you can vertically develop and upgrade your body’s internal operating system, check out my newly released book, The Elevated Leader: Level Up Your Leadership Through Vertical Development.

Also, something I have started doing with organizations is a Leadership Diagnostic, where I get to know a leadership team via personal assessments (vertical development and mindsets) and interviews. This helps me to assess the vertical altitude of the individual leaders as well as the team as a whole. This leaves organizations with three things:

  • My overall observations of the leadership team
  • Recommendations for helping the team vertically develop
  • A road map for helping the leadership team elevate

If this is something you would like to do with a leadership team in your organization, connect with me here.

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