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Vertical development: 50 on the outside, 14 on the inside

9th Jun 2015
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Dr. Alan Watkins writes on the science of coherent leadership which encompasses a wide range of areas brought together to help individuals in business increase their developmental levels and be more personally effective. Alan is an honorary senior lecturer in neuroscience and psychological medicine at Imperial College, London and originally qualified as a physician. Alan worked with the Great Britain rowing squad prior to the London Olympics and provides continued guidance to the coaches in advance of Rio 2016. He is the founder and CEO of Complete Coherence

If your business enjoys a competitive advantage, beware – the game is changing so quickly it might be lost in just a few months. Conversely, if your business is struggling to compete, take heart – you could leapfrog the competition within a year. In both scenarios, the only thing likely to protect or enable your success is vertical development. 

Vertical development is not about acquiring skills that enable you to be slightly more proficient – that is learning. It’s about unlocking higher levels of capability and upgrading your operating system to step change performance.

For example, most 14-year-olds can function pretty well in an adult world. Introduce them to your friends at a dinner party and they can hold their own in a conversation. After reaching this level, there is no imperative for a 14-year-old to develop, so while they continue to learn they don’t actually develop much.

Similarly, many executives are extremely knowledgeable about all manner of commercial activity. They may have experienced all kinds of market cycles, cultural challenges and geographic postings – but this is all learning, not development. As a result many leaders are 50 years old on the outside but remain 14 on the inside. This is why we see many power battles at the top of companies: toys out of the pram episodes in the boardroom, tantrums and bullying.

This lack of development is at the very heart of business success and failure. Recent research suggests that the more sophisticated a leader is, the greater their ability to drive organisational transformation.

Vertical development is objectively quantifiable through assessments that can help you jump to the next level of performance. Of the different lines of development that can be measured in a human being, there are only eight that really matter in most businesses: physical, cognitive, emotional, ego, values, behaviour, connection and impact.

A common start point is to look at the physical line, which defines how much raw energy leaders have and the quality of that energy. A leader today needs an endless supply of energy to drive the organisation forward. If their biology is in chaos, their brain can shut down and derail their leadership performance.

Energy can be quantified by measuring heart rate variability (HRV) for 24 hours. Developing more energy can begin through learning to regulate HRV through rhythmic breathing techniques and then learning to control your emotional state.

When a leader develops vertically they are likely to have higher energy levels, more resilience and tire less easily; their leadership presence increases. Cognitively, they become more sophisticated and are able to understand multiple layers of complexity. They become a systems thinker who can appreciate interdependencies both inside and outside the organisation.

Their high degree of self-awareness means they are often more receptive to input and understand that their own views may be partial. As a result they are often inquisitive, particularly in relation to their own development.

Fundamentally, as a vertically developed leader they behave as an adult. They might have a strong point of view, but they are less attached to it and can surrender their point of view or flex if it’s appropriate, creating a constant state of growth and development.

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