Over the past 50 years psychology has played an ever more important role in understanding leadership and its development. One aspect of this, from a developmental psychologist’s perspective, is that throughout our adult life we have an opportunity to traverse a series of well-defined stages of adult development. Perhaps the most well-known transition between two of these stages is the phenomena often referred to as the midlife crisis. However, most of us are blind to this unfolding journey, at least until our midlife crisis kicks in (and even then we are not able to contextualise this event as part of a developmental journey). Our blindness to these stages and their inherent opportunities of growth results in limiting our potency and impact on those around us, and this is particularly so when we are inhabiting a senior leadership position, whereupon we can become stuck and less influential than our role requires of us.

Consequently when we talk about leadership development in the context of senior leadership, we can distinguish between what is often referred to as horizontal and vertical development. Horizontal growth and expansion happens through many channels, such as training, self-directed and life-long learning. Vertical development, which is the direction of travel given to the traversing of these adult life stages is much rarer, but far more impactful. As we begin to inhabit a new stage we learn to see the world through new eyes, we change our interpretations of experience and how we transform our views of reality. Each stage describes increases in what we are aware of, or what we can pay attention to, and therefore what we can influence and impact.

As an example of what these shifts in stages mean in practice, consider how one might receive critical feedback. It is widely accepted that for leaders to grow and develop, feedback is essential to highlight hidden strengths they might not be appreciative of in themselves or to draw their attention to blind spots which are unknowingly limiting their effectiveness. As a leader, we might have attended a course on how to give and receive feedback (which is a form of horizontal development), however our capacity to fully realise this training will be dependent upon our stage of development. At lower stages of adult development the meaning / interpretation we give to receiving critical feedback might include seeing it as an attack which needs to be defended against, or disapproval from others or as a personal rejection of one’s competency and expertise. During these stages and their consequential implications for meaning making, no amount of traditional feedback training will allow the critical feedback to be inculcated as a potential learning experience. In later stages of development however, feedback will likely be seen as a mechanism to increase effectiveness, a welcomed opportunity to grow self-awareness and even an activity to help one become familiar with one’s darker sides of personality and embrace it. Notice the wide range of interpretations or meaning making given to the receipt of feedback and the consequential usefulness in receiving it by the recipient and these interpretations being dependent upon the stage of development they currently inhabit.

In general, transformations in our view of reality or mindset are more powerful than any amount of horizontal growth and learning. Most learning, training and development is geared towards expanding, deepening, and enriching a person’s current way of meaning making. We develop leaders by teaching them new skills, behaviours and knowledge and to apply their new competencies. This might be described as working from the ‘outside-in’ and is the bone of programmes such as MBAs. Vertical development, on the other hand, refers to supporting people to transform their current way of making sense towards broader perspectives and here we are working from the ‘inside-out’. The most recognised mechanism for achieving these shifts in stage is through coaching, more specifically transformational or developmental coaching.

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