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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3 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… 



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