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Unleashing new levels of vertical leadership

Alan Littlefield

VUCA vertical leadership

With leaders tackling increasingly complex and dynamic problems in the workplace, Alan Littlefield, Lead Coach at Complete Coherence Ltd, says the only way for development is up

More than 65 years ago, Albert Einstein wrote, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels”.  This fundamental truth is as relevant today as it was then – we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. And the problems our leaders are grappling with are increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). 

It's a VUCA world


  • Increasing rate and scale of change
  • Dynamically changing systemic forces


  • Unpredictable future events
  • More bewildering outcomes


  • Multiple factors and perspectives
  • Non-linear contradictory relationships


  • Reality confused and misinterpreted
  • Meanings are incomplete or hazy

An IBM study in 2010 concluded that less than half of CEOs felt prepared for the level of complexity they were expecting to face.  Organisational success depends on the capacity of leaders to do more than just ‘cope’ with the VUCA world – they must evolve in order to thrive.  We need leaders with high levels of conceptual flexibility and learning agility who can think systemically and are comfortable with ambiguity. 

Vertical development

Traditionally leaders are developed by giving them additional skills, knowledge or experience.  It’s as if we pour more concrete into the foundations of leadership capability and expect this to withstand the tremors and high winds of a VUCA world.  Whilst a leader needs a firm foundation of capability, they also need to build enhanced capacity.  The majority of ‘leadership development’ today focuses on building competency, but that is just horizontal learning.

Extending leaders’ capacity to address the challenges of a VUCA world requires vertical development.  Rather than just adding software into a leader’s existing ‘operating system’, vertical development is an inside out transformation that upgrades the operating system itself.  As we upgrade, or mature, vertically we expand our capacity for understanding ourselves and our experiences – we see the world with different eyes.  Research at Harvard and other academic centres has identified vertical development as the top leadership trend for the next ten years.

Reimagining leadership development

Dr Alan Watkins, a specialist in the vertical development of leaders, describes four critical processes that determine the speed at which a leader can develop vertically (Coherence: The Science of Enlightened Leadership, in press).

First, leaders must awaken to vertical development and this is challenging because how we see the world is limited by the level we’re at.  The path upward is often concealed, so it can be difficult to imagine the view from higher up and it is uncomfortable heading up into the ‘unknown’.  Effective assessment of leaders can help to raise awareness of vertical development.

Reaching a new level of leadership takes more than just intellectually ‘getting it’ – leaders must put in effort to grow up to that level.  The developmental path also has dead ends, so leadership development specialists need to have developed vertically themselves to successfully guide others.  Often they are stuck in more traditional learning modes and are unaware of the phenomenon of vertical development.

As leaders develop they can own up to ‘shadow’ characteristics that are considered unhealthy, such as being “excessively detailed”, and understand how to value and work with them.  At earlier levels leaders tend to suppress, purge or rationalise the shadow.  Integrating the shadow enables leaders to let go of baggage and become ‘lighter’.  Leadership development rarely addresses the need to ‘enlighten’ leaders, instead seeing the shadow as faults to feedback and correct.

Alongside the processes of evolving and becoming enlightened, a leader will need to authentically embody their new version of self.  The most effective leaders often have a nourishing presence, tremendous energy and powerful concentration.  These are key qualities necessary to meet the challenges of leading in a VUCA world.

Enlightened leadership

The vertical development of leaders has huge benefits both personally and organisationally:

  • Boundless energy and cognitive capacity to innovate with agility
  • Greater capacity for emotional self-management and relationship building
  • Better able to engage, inspire and align people within a culture
  • Develop teams into strong fellowships with cross-functional collaboration
  • Maintain competitive advantage with flexible responsive business systems

If we are to address the world’s problems, we must develop leaders vertically so that they can be more resilient, think in new ways and thrive in a VUCA world.  Ultimately it is not just stakeholders that benefit from enlightened leadership; it is leaders themselves, their families and even society – and that means you and me.

Alan Littlefield is a professionally accredited coach and has dedicated most of his career to developing leadership capability in business people.  He is skilled in giving feedback, interpreting psychometric instruments and facilitating commercial teams in complex environments. Alan has worked in industry, public sector and a global HR consultancy and enjoys applying this experience to enable transformational adult learning and personal development.


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