Just another WordPress site

The Mechanism of Vertical Development

Posted on


Leaders are “subject to” many assumptions, beliefs, motivations, and behaviors in the same way that a fish is subject to water. When a leader expands their consciousness, their previous “self” arises as an object in the consciousness of their new sense of self.  


In some increasingly rare, mercifully-simple business situations, a knowledgeable manager can simply define a job as a series of tasks and then require workers to comply with the instructions to complete the tasks as instructed.

Alas, these scenarios exist less and less as industries, technology tools and processes evolve at a rapid pace. Many managers find themselves having to constantly expand their own capacity and the capacity of their teams just to keep up with the demands that are placed on them by the externally (by the marketplace) and internally (by their organization). As you no doubt have experienced yourself, managers and leaders are constantly being asked to accomplish results that they have never achieved before.


It seems that we are all being asked to do things that we can not easily do or know how to do at all. The curse of the learning curve is impacting nearly all of us daily.


Learning is Essential to Successful Leadership Today

At the Stagen Leadership Academy, we define learning as the process of closing the gap between our aspiration and our ability. If we want to achieve a goal (to do something) and we aren’t yet able to do those things, then clearly, we need to learn.

While there are some examples where leadership is occurring yet learning is not, we find those situations rare. In today’s fast-evolving workplaces, it’s easy to see that learning is fundamental to leadership.


Two Kinds of Learning

There are two broad types of learning: acquired and adaptive. For those already familiar with developmental psychology, acquired learning is also known as horizontal development and adaptive learning is known as vertical development.  


Acquired Learning

Acquired learning occurs through training and experience that imparts new knowledge and skills. Most organizational training and development programs aim to deliver this type of learning.


Acquired learning is referred to by psychologists as “horizontal development,” because it broadens our existing knowledge base and skill set and increases our ability to successfully execute tasks.


To draw on a familiar metaphor, acquired learning can be compared to loading additional data and applications onto a computer, thereby extending the system’s capability. The vast majority of employee training, management, and yes most leadership training programs only leverage acquired learning. They add new knowledge and skills to a mind, but the mind itself has not expanded its capacity.



Adaptive Learning

The second type is referred to as adaptive learning, and it is new to many people. Extending our same computer metaphor, when updating a computer operating system (OS), the new system transcends and includes the capabilities of the previous system.  Much of the same data and applications are retained, but the new operating system also opens the door for additional, more expansive, capabilities that simply were impossible with the older system.

As demonstrated by the last 20 years of developmental psychology research coming out of Harvard and other leading institutions, human beings also have operating systems— referred to as meaning-making systems. Much like computer operating systems, they come in different versions of increasing complexity and capability.

Returning briefly to acquired learning, developmental researchers have found that few adults ever upgrade their meaning- making systems beyond the level of consciousness entered during early adulthood.

Most people engage the horizontal acquisition of new skills and knowledge, becoming better at what they do, but they tend not to deliberately engage in the vertical adaptation of new perspectives and capacities that might fundamentally shift how and why they do what they do.


Unlike acquired learning, which simply adds new knowledge and skill to an existing mind, adaptive learning transforms and expands the mind itself by helping it evolve to the next level of consciousness complexity.


In the last decade, academics and organizational experts have opened what Good to Great author Jim Collins calls “the black box” of developmentally advanced leadership and have created a reliable roadmap to initiate and sustain adaptive learning. Leaders today do not need to wait for random adversity to push them to greatness. They can choose to train in more controlled conditions, with feedback and support, to safely accomplish what in the past had been a riskier and far less predictable journey.

One of the most exciting insights emerging from the fields of developmental psychology and integral psychology in the past decade is an understanding of the specific circumstances and prerequisites for upgrading a human being’s meaning- making system. Further, the latest breakthroughs in the field of organizational development and corporate lifecycle research show that similar upgrades are available to teams and even entire organizations.


This special kind of learning is facilitated through carefully selected practices that help people to expand their awareness and deepen their capacity to hold increasingly larger and more complex perspectives.


Psychologists refer to this process as “vertical development,” which brings us back to the somewhat provocative statement we opened this article with. We wrote, “Leaders are subject to many assumptions, beliefs, motivations, and behaviors in the same way that a fish is subject to water. When a leader expands her consciousness, her previous self arises as an object in the consciousness of her new sense of self.”


The Subject-Object Move

While this phenomenon is the topic of dozens of books and thousands of pages of academic texts, we will briefly highlight it here in this short article. Adaptive learning practices—as we call them—involve a “next-level“ psychological dynamic that helps us to see a much larger perspective. Robert Kegan calls this dynamic a “subject–object move.” That is, humans are so identified with them that they are not aware of their existence. This is like a fish is subject to water. The fish takes the water for granted as its reality and lacks an objective view of the water.


When a person’s cognitive functioning (structures) develops to a higher level of complexity, people become objectively aware of those aspects of themselves to which they were formerly subject. As Kegan succinctly puts it, “The Subject of one level becomes the object of the subject of the next level.”

This Subject-Object Move requires the ability to observe—with some degree of dispassion—that with which the person was previously identified.

Naturally, this process takes a long time. To achieve a Subject–Object Move, one must find ways to obtain an objective self-view and become aware of aspects that have previously been outside of awareness.  

In plain English, this means that when leaders that we train adopt the practice of integral leadership, not only do they become more effective in their roles (strategic thinking, decision-making, communication, motivation, influence, etc.) but they engage in and internalize integral practices that over time spurs vertical development (increase in psychological maturity, consciousness complexity).  


While there are no guarantees that a particular path or practice will generate one of these subject-object moves and elevate us to the next stage of development, engaging these practices in earnest, over time, certainly creates favorable conditions for vertical development.


Adaptive learning is challenging, and large shifts require a long-term commitment. Furthermore, it is inherently disorienting and can sometimes be disruptive. This explains why many people prefer the comfort zone their current level affords.

It takes a special hunger and drive to overcome the intrinsic obstacles that come with this type of development. This is why we invite leaders to commit to a “transformational journey.” They aren’t just changing the scenery (their organization’s circumstances), they are changing themselves in fundamental ways.