Making Vertical Leadership Work in Your Organization

Leadership development can take many forms in an organization. It can be an organic process that allows natural leaders to learn on the job and evolve over time, or it can be an intentional program that cultivates emerging leaders to fill a pipeline that is primed for smooth succession. For future-thinking organizations, implementing a thoughtful strategy will ensure easier transitions, minimize disruptions, and relieve tension. Vertical leadership is one approach to consider as you create or refine the development strategy for your organization.

What Is Vertical Leadership?

Vertical leadership is the application of vertical development in the leadership journey. Think about training and development in the context of two axes on a graph. The horizontal x-axis demonstrates an increase in skills and competencies as points move to the right. In the context of leadership, this might mean training in competencies such as time management, conflict resolution, and learning how to effectively lead a team. While these are valuable and necessary skills that should be developed in every potential leader, there is more to the equation.

The y-axis represents development of the mindset and capacity for delivering world-class organizational results. Rather than focusing on developing competencies, this type of leadership training teaches individuals how to think and behave like a leader. This preparation enables emerging leaders to adapt to ever-changing market conditions, handle a crisis, or act on new opportunities that require quick decision-making.

A well-rounded leadership development program will move candidates both horizontally and vertically to reach the highest level. Horizontal development adds knowledge, while vertical development adds capacity and the ability to think and behave optimally.

Why Should You Explore Vertical Leadership?

Vertical development applies to more than just individuals; you can also apply it to groups or teams within your organization—but only if you have the right leadership in place. A company that moves horizontally might increase profits over time as individuals become more efficient and improve productivity. On the other hand, a vertical move that enables a significant increase in market share might come from innovation, a radically different marketing plan, or identification of a gap in the marketplace.

If you want your company to move vertically in the industry, you need leaders with both vision and the capability to unleash the potential of employees. Strong leadership is about more than just good management skills. Having leaders at a development stage that affords them the ability to view a challenge or opportunity from a different perspective gives you a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Implementing Vertical Leadership in Your Organization

Teaching leaders how to open their minds and change the way they think requires an ongoing process that is connected to their daily work and is supported by supervisors and mentors. This leadership style is often developed through three approaches that intersect with each other.

  1. Going through experiences that challenge norms
  2. Being exposed to different perspectives that challenge current thinking
  3. Understanding how new perspectives can be applied to challenging situations

This type of development can happen naturally when an individual is “thrown into the deep end” with a project or assignment that is beyond their current abilities. At first, they might experience failures and frustration, but as they seek out new information and resources to help them cope, performance will improve, and they will eventually master the process.

Although these types of scenarios happen all the time with varying levels of success, when you do it intentionally, you can generate predictable results with teaching moments along the way. Going through a challenging experience with access to the appropriate learning resources and support from coaches enables vertical growth in a controlled manner.

Leadership development doesn’t typically happen in a traditional classroom environment. It requires visceral experiences that are often uncomfortable because participants have no other choice but to grow and change the way they think to get through them. However, you don’t have to create real-life challenges that present actual risk to the organization or individual. Experiential learning allows you to create challenging situations in a safe environment that enables leaders to test what they have learned, see how applying new perspectives leads to success, and apply that new knowledge to real-world challenges.

Experiential leadership training can be beneficial at various levels, but it is important to start at the highest positions so that executives can model this mindset. Vertical leadership is also just one part of a comprehensive leadership development program that should also incorporate skills training, mentoring, coaching, and measurement and retention tools.

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