Leadership, vertical development & transformative change: a polemic

This morning, while doing some research on leader development, I googled “vertical leadership” and “coaching.” The search returned 466,000 results. Wow. Looks like vertical development is hot in the coaching world!

Two hours later, after scanning dozens of web sites, I was left with the following impression: 

Vertical development occurs through profound, disruptive, transformative insights that alter how people see themselves, improve their relationships, increase happiness, and help them cope better with complex challenges. The task of the coach is to set people up for these experiences. Evidence of success is offered through personal stories of transformation.

But decades of developmental research contradicts this picture. This body of evidence shows that the kind of transformative experiences promised on these web sites is uncommon. And when it does occur it rarely produces a fairytale ending. In fact, profound disruptive insights can easily have negative consequences, and most experiences that people refer to as transformational are really just momentary insights. They may feel profound in the moment, but don’t actually usher in any measurable change at all, much less transformative change. 


"The good news is, you don’t have to work on transforming yourself to become a better leader."


The fact is, insight is fairly easy, but growth is slow, and change is hard. Big change is really, really hard. And some things, like many dispositions and personality traits, are virtually impossible to change. This isn’t an opinion based on personal experience, it’s a conclusion based on evidence from hundreds of longitudinal developmental studies conducted during the last 70 years. (Check out our articles page for some of this evidence.)

The good news is, you don’t have to work on transforming yourself to become a better leader. All you need to do is engage in daily practices that incrementally, through a learning cycle called VCoL, help you build the skills and habits of a good leader. Over the long term, this will change you, because it will alter the quality of your interactions with others, and that will change your mind—profoundly.


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5 thoughts on “Leadership, vertical development & transformative change: a polemic

  1. Thanks for the entry. A very sober view on development which I believe would actually help us liberate ourselves from the current fad that wants to see “vertical development” as something almost fantastically transformative and redemptive. I would think that what we are seeing today is some kind of collective projection of the desire for salvation onto this concept called “vertical development”…

    In any case, one quick question. In this entry, you state “profound disruptive insights can easily have negative consequences”. Could you kindly provide examples of “negative consequences” you have observed over the years as it is so rare that the researchers mention on this topic?


    Much appreciated,


    Norio Suzuki

    • Hi Norio,

      I was thinking of the potential dangers associated with breaking through psychological resistance. Clinical psychologists receive rigorous training that involves many hours of supervised practice, because it takes training to recognize the difference between phenomena like psychological defenses, which need to be probed carefully to assess the volatility of the problems they’re masking, and a mental models that are ripe for challenge.

      “Vertical development” models that focus on ego development are particularly vulnerable to misuse in the hands of inadequately trained individuals.

      BTW: Concerns about the boundary between psychotherapy and coaching are frequently raised in the context of coaching. Search “coaching, psychotherapy, ethics”, to view a number of formal statements on the issue.

  2. Hi Theo

    Many thanks for the clarification. Very helpful.

    As you note, as those who are attracted to developmental approach are rarely qualified in clinical psychology (myself included), I agree that they are running the risk of delving into the dimension where they are not really qualified to deal with.

    Given the change of mental models can indeed potentially destabilize or deconstruct psychological defenses in place in the client–thus can open up the whole can of worms–I agree that developmentally-informed supporters and educators should be more careful and aware of what he or she is getting into… 



  3. I’ve just come across ‘vertical development’ through a Colleague who went on a course with [Company name].

    I’ve been looking into it more and it seems far more valuable that mere skills based learning. Your post has made me think twice though.

    Do you think this kind of ‘developmental learning’ would be better done as an ongoing project, rather than a one off workshop? Or do you feel it is risky in general?

    • Hi Glyn,

      Not easy questions to answer, for a few reasons. First, “vertical development” does not have an agreed-upon meaning. In this particular case it appears to involve ego development and the idea that vertical development is the opposite of horizontal development. This way of thinking about learning and development is what developmentalists call a “downward assimilation”—a misunderstanding that takes a complex idea and simplifies it in a way that changes its meaning—of an idea Jean Piaget articulated in the middle of the last century. In Piaget’s model, the horizontal bit (assimilation) was essential for the vertical bit (accommodation), and the process of learning & development involved a constant dance between the two. (This, too, is an oversimplified explanation, but it’s closer to the original idea.) Piaget would never have suggested that one of these processes was better than the other or could be accomplished independently of the other.

      A second difficulty with answering your question involves the blending of two disciplines. The authors of an article describing the course you refer to seem to have mushed together the armchair psychological theories of the last century with the research-based theories of cognitive developmental science. This is pretty common in the adult development community. Unfortunately, this mushing has led some to believe that the primary focus of developmental science has been ego development. The truth is, developmental science has focused on just about every domain of knowledge and experience. In fact, my mentor, Harvard’s Kurt Fischer, personally studied learning and development in numerous domains, including ego development. He and his colleagues never found a single instance of magical transformation and neither have we. It is only the mushers who espouse 48-hour transformations.

      This leads me to problem 3. The authors go on to do something that is all-too-common among those claiming to produce transformative learning. They tell us it can’t be measured. What does this actually mean? It means they don’t have a shred of evidence that their program works. They may have exit surveys showing that their course made people feel transformed, but that’s it. This is bad enough, but it isn’t the only thing going on here. The authors are also leveraging positive attribution bias by telling people that changes in their behavior downstream will be the result of attending the authors’ workshop. This is a nonsensical and entirely unsupportable claim.

      Learning and development is slow. Trying to speed it up can slow it down even more. The best way to build understanding and learn real-world skills is with VCoL+7 and processes like VCoL+7. The course you pointed me to seems to be more of a group therapy session than a learning experience per-se. The idea that there are things locked inside of us that need to be surfaced is from clinical psychology. You can’t get a clinical psychology license without lots of training and many hours of observation. That’s because it can be downright dangerous. For this reason, I would never entrust my psyche to unlicensed practitioners.

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