Vertical Development – Growing the Capacity for Dealing with Complexity, Change, and Difference


Vertical development is a concept rooted in both ancient and modern theories, focusing on enhancing an individual's cognitive and emotional sophistication to navigate increasingly complex environments. Unlike horizontal development, which emphasizes technical skills, vertical development progresses through different levels of thinking capability, enabling more complex, strategic, and interdependent ways of thinking and action.


Vertical development is about growing the ability to function at higher levels of awareness and take on greater uncertainty and complex challenges:  
  • More Effective Leadership: Vertical development enables individuals to gain new perspectives, making them more able to create positive change within organizations and communities by integrating collective interests and actions.
  • Self-Betterment: Vertical development aligns with concepts of wellness by helping leaders focus on personal growth and gaining perspective. It helps expand one's capacity to handle stress, complexity, and uncertainty with greater resilience.
  • Enhanced Decision-Making: Vertical development focuses on elevating mindsets and values, enabling individuals to engage in more complex ways of thinking and perceiving the world. This heightened cognitive and emotional sophistication enhances one's capacity to navigate challenges effectively and make wise decisions.
  • Better Business Outcomes: By expanding leaders' capacity through vertical development, organizations become better equipped to handle complexity and work interdependently across functions and agendas.
  • Innovation: Through vertical development, leaders gain the ability to see greater complexity and interconnectedness. This expanded perspective allows them to identify novel solutions and synthesize disparate ideas in innovative ways.


Vertical development is a concept with many roots – from the ancient Indian system of chakras to modern theories of leadership development. Vertical development focuses on advancing an individual's awareness and mindset, enhancing their ability to be effective in increasingly challenging environments. Two key ideas related to vertical development are: Horizontal development focuses on technical competencies and skills, while vertical development enhances cognitive and emotional sophistication, enabling individuals to navigate complex challenges effectively. Vertical development involves progressing through different levels of thinking capability, allowing individuals to engage in more complex, strategic, and interdependent ways of thinking and action. There are typically seven stages that move from more dependent to independent to interdependent orientations that are needed for more complexity and challenge. As you advance your capacity, you embody more sophisticated and effective approaches to leadership. One framework was mapped by Bill Torbert in the article titled Seven Transformations of Leadership (see links).  Developing Vertical Capacity Leaders develop their capacity to grow “a bigger mind” by facing challenges that shift their perspective and ways of operating. While development can’t be reduced to a formula, Nick Petrie emphasizes the importance of creating the conditions and experiences that support vertical growth. This involves taking on complex challenges, engaging with others who may have different perspectives and agendas, and rising above one’s default thinking and assumptions.
  • Heat Experiences: Heat experiences are complex challenges that disrupt individuals' current ways of thinking, prompting them to seek new and better ways to make sense of challenges. These experiences catalyze vertical development by pushing individuals beyond their current cognitive limitations.
  • Colliding Perspectives: Colliding perspectives involve encountering diverse viewpoints and ideas that challenge individuals' beliefs and ways of thinking. Individuals can broaden their understanding and enhance their cognitive flexibility by engaging with different perspectives, contributing to vertical growth.
  • Elevated Sense-Making: Elevated sense-making refers to the process of inquiry making sense of complex situations by asking questions, observing, reflecting, and seeking deeper understanding before making decisions. This approach fosters a more interconnected and interdependent leadership culture, essential for effective vertical development.

Sample Activity

Vertical development is enhanced by stretch assignments (heat experiences) that involve teams and space for coaching and reflection. The Transformations card deck is a tool that can be used to gain awareness of one's journey and how we have grown from challenges. There are two kinds of cards:
  • Life Logics cards that illustrate how people make sense of the world with increasing maturity across seven transformations. 
  • Catalyst cards that surface the shifts as people learn, grow, and change.
An approach entails asking participants to browse and choose cards that represent their journeys: past, present, and future.  First, arrange the tables to create a central space and spread out the Transformation cards for all participants to access. A single deck is adequate for about six people.  Create an open-minded atmosphere conducive to reflection and sharing with a centering activity. Encourage participants to trust their instincts and choose cards that speak to them personally. Invite each person to select cards from the deck that reflect their past, present, and aspired future stages. They can pick 3-5 cards for each stage. Ask them to lay the cards out on a poster/flip chart to map their journey. Next, ask them to reflect on their context and how they responded, based on their mindset and capacity:
  • What were the distinctive challenges that they faced? How did they respond to these challenges? 
  • How did their response reflect their mindsets, values, and skills? What did they do that was effective? Where did they face limitations of capability? How were they changed by the experience(s)? 
  • For the future state, how do the cards reflect their aspirations? What are the personal transformations they need to make to become more of who they wish to be? 
Ask the individuals to share their cards and stories in small groups of 2-4 people.  Debrief the activity about the shifts and development pathways, capturing key themes on a flipchart or whiteboard.  Use the debrief to share the concept and process of vertical development – challenging experiences, colliding perspectives, and elevated sense-making. Ask participants to identify activities they can take to grow in line with their challenges and aspirations. Provide time for them to reflect and journal individually and then return to their small groups to share.  Other resources include:
  • Assessments can be used to help leaders understand the stage of adult development they’re in and how to grow. Do a web search on vertical development assessments to find providers.  
  • Transformations is a tool for enabling insightful reflections and conversations about human development at both the individual and collective levels (
  • Action learning team projects that include stretch assignments along with coaching to help individuals. See the paper on heat experiences for vertical development.
  • Handouts and readings (see links list)

Target Audience:

  • Leaders
  • Facilitators
  • Coaches

Got feedback or input? Please share!