Seven Steps to Elevate Your Leadership through Vertical Development

Some leaders see the big picture very clearly—they understand complexity, know their own weaknesses well, and follow principles rather than rules. These leaders are called post-conventional, and our guest, Michael Morrow-Fox, has studied them deeply for his doctorate and consulting practice.

He’s teased out several ways we can all grow and develop toward post-conventional perspectives. It’s not easy, he warns…but he shares them in this episode.

To update an old adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s HOW you know.”

Today’s business climate can be maddening for leaders. It’s complex. It’s uncertain. It’s rapidly changing. In short, it’s VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). Yet there are some leaders who understand the complexity, stay steady through the uncertainty, and guide the change. These are post-conventional leaders, and, according to Mike, their key to personal growth is “vertical development.” That’s a process that not only enhances what they know but how they think and understand the world around them.

To oversimplify a bit, “horizontal development” is increasing what you know or expanding your knowledge. Vertical development, meanwhile, enhances how you process and apply that knowledge; it’s your growing mindset and actual thought process. This is where visionary leaders are born.

Fortunately, Mike has seven tips to help you on your own vertical journey:

1. Keep learning.

Get to know what your goal of post-conventional thinking is all about. Read articles on leadership development (may we recommend this weekly newsletter?). Get books by researchers in this field such as Bob Keegan and Susanne Cook-Greuter. Listen to our podcasts. Knowing what your end goal looks like makes it a lot easier to achieve.

2. Turn on the heat experiences.

These are simply things that push you out of your comfort zone. You can’t learn new skills or see new perspectives if you’re always doing the same old same old. Try joining a project at work that’s a little over your head, or volunteer to make a speech to a group you’ve never met. These new experiences help literally rewire your brain.

3. Bump heads (figuratively!).

Mike calls this “colliding perspectives.” Your parents may have called it “agreeing to disagree.” You want to expose yourself to ideas different from your own, so engage with people whose opinions are far from yours. Then listen instead of worrying about defending your own position.

4. Elevate your sense-making.

As you gain knowledge, experience, and exposure to others’ perspectives, your own perspective grows. You begin making sense of the world in new ways, often in ways that let you see a bigger picture of issues and their solutions. It helps to have someone whose worldview you admire—a mentor or coach who may already be a post-conventional thinker—help you understand your path.

5. Get to know yourself.

As leaders, we all have strengths to offer our teams, organizations, and the world. Get to know your weaknesses, too. Those are nothing to fear; forgive yourself for what you don’t do well, bring people into your team who can do them, and then love yourself for what you CAN do well. Mike points out that at this stage, you realize “I no longer have to be perfect.”

6. Be curious.

Watch for the differences in the ways others view the world. Ask questions. There’s an energy in curiosity that activates and charges the mind. This is why humanity’s greatest thinkers often seem so childlike; they never stop wielding the magic of “why?”. As Einstein said, “Never cease to stand like curious children…”

7. Get support!

This isn’t easy. Both Mike and our CEO, Maureen Metcalf, reiterate this several times during the podcast. There are growing pains, just like we had physical pains during childhood growth spurts. Draw on teachers, mentors, friends, and family for personal support. And take advantage of online offerings from researchers and thought leaders in the field, such as Terri O’Fallon at STAGES International.

Take heart. If you read the article through here, you’ve already taken the first steps on your own developmental journey: you’re curious and learning. Prepare to see a whole new world—a new leadership point of view!

*VUCA = Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Learn more in our interview with Chris Nolan at


This article was adapted by Dan Mushalko from our podcast episode Growing Up and Out: Development for Modern Leaders.

Thank you for reading our newsletter, where we bring you thought leaders and innovative ideas on leadership topics each week.

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