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4D Leadership

4D Leadership – Competitive Advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development

Twenty years ago the accumulation of skills, knowledge and experience (‘horizontal development’) was sufficient for business success. Today, it’s not. 4D Leadership – Competitive Advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development, offers a new approach of ‘vertical development’.

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Stop playing catch up and start getting ahead


Most people would recognise the ever-increasing pace of work. We need to bring products to market more quickly, make decisions faster, make sense of much more information, and cut through increasing complexity. We’re running faster and faster, but struggling to catch up with the pace of change.

So, how do you cope?

The traditional view is that the strong survive through adaptation and the rest go to the wall. It’s all about the survival of the fastest and the fittest; that view no longer applies. Things are moving so fast and are so complicated that simply running faster isn’t enough. Adding more skills to your repertoire and increasing your knowledge is no longer the answer. We now need to upgrade our operating systems; we need a Pentium dual core processor. Many of us are operating with the equivalent of a ZX Spectrum with 3.5 megahertz processing power. What we need is the Intel 3.9 gigahertz processor – that’s more than 1,000 times the processing power.

What does that shift in processing power look like for a human being? It’s vertical development. It’s all about increasing maturation and sophistication. Most of what goes on in the leadership development space is learning – the acquisition of skills. People often called that development, but it’s not. Acquiring skills and knowledge is important, but it’s not development and it isn’t going to increase our processing power. In 15 years of talking and working with multinationals, I’ve never once been asked by any leader, or HR professional, to explain aspects of adult vertical development. That is despite the fact that the Center for Creative Leadership recently identified it as the number one leadership trend in the next five years and, furthermore, it’s critical to success over the next 10 years.

What is adult vertical development?

Most people will understand that children go through stages of development – you cannot run before you can walk. The stages of development can be physical, emotional, intellectual, or moral. We all recognise how true that is for children. Very few people realise that there are also well-defined levels for adult development. In fact, these levels are not only well defined they can be measured.

Some of the tensions we see today in organisations, are simply a result of technically minded and knowledgeable individuals struggling to cope with the fast pace and complexity they face. They have not developed vertically. You sometimes see behaviour in the boardroom that would be more normal in a high school playground. This lack of vertical development is why bullying is not an uncommon phenomena in business today.

The challenge we face is getting adult vertical development implemented in modern organisations, but it’s vital this starts to happen if we’re going to rise to meet the commercial demands we face.

The levels of vertical development

Around eight academics have written extensively on the subject of vertical development. The most precise of all these models is that developed by my colleague Terri O’Fallon, at Pacific Integral in the USA. Terri has outlined 12 well-defined levels of adult vertical development that can be distinguished. The three most common levels at which you see people operating are: experts, achievers, and individualists. Around 85%of the people operating in multinationals are operating at the level of achiever or below. Less than 15% are operating at the individualist level or above (there are five more levels above the individualist level).

Experts and achievers are in the conventional logic area of vertical development. The individualist level is the first level of post-conventional logic, which represents a big transformation. The reason this is important is that post-conventional leaders are capable of much more. For example, in a recent HBR article, Bill Torbert, (reference) revealed that post-conventional leaders are much more able to drive organisational transformation.

Simply being able to identify what level of maturity a leader operates from is important, but if you’re able to develop or coach someone up one or two levels, then you have real competitive advantage. Left to their own devices, most leaders are unlikely to move up a level. They need careful guidance, which is not available from the vast majority of coaches. This is because most coaches are not trained in vertical development, they can increase a leader’s knowledge and skills but they can’t help them actually develop. Very few coaches anywhere in the world are capable of guiding vertical development, but this is the breakthrough that leaders need from their coaches in order to be able to thrive in the Volatile, Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world they are now battling in.

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Dr Alan Watkins

Alan is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance. He has a broad mix of commercial, academic, scientific and technological abilities.

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