reshape the mould

September 23, 2019

Muniinder K Anand is Managing Director-India and South Asia at
Center for Creative Leadership.

As in many other spheres of organizational functioning, the VUCA reality demands drastic shifts in leadership behavior too. The traditional way of developing leaders alone would not suit the new context. It has to be combined judiciously with ways of enhancing one’s ability to think differently.

In today’s VUCA world where everything is dynamic and evolving, the need for new age leaders who are comfortable with the constant shifts is paramount. We need leaders who would not only survive but thrive in the tough conditions that are characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Such is the pace of this change that today’s corporates have had to stand up and take a hard look at the way they do business, there is a drastic shift in the way planning is done, we see products hitting the market faster than ever before, we see companies taking their business models  abroad without much ado, we see talent move across geographies, the changes are far too many to name them all.

To keep up with these changes we must also revisit the way we develop our leaders, it helps first to understand the present state of leadership development. What we see in typical executive development programs is a pattern that repeats itself with smart, ambitious managers gathering in a room, and learning new tools, techniques, and models for how to become a better leader. By the end of the program, the participants are motivated, and commit to making changes back at work. Then they return to work and fall into their old ways of working and habits that they had before the program. What is going on?

As per Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL’s) research on the topic, we have identified four common issues built into the design of most of leadership development programs:

  • wrong focus: We spend extra time on delivering content and not enough on the actual work of developing the leaders themselves. Most leaders lack the personal development to execute what they already know they should be doing.
  • lack of connectivity: The content of the program might be great and truly meaningful but does not translate to the workplace of the leaders, such that when they return to the real world and are overwhelmed by tasks; it is just too hard to apply their learnings into actions that address their problems.

Much of the stress we now see in leaders has less to do with workload and more to do with the strain of trying to deal with an environment that has become too complex for their present stage of development.

  • leader in isolation: Most programs focus only on the leader and do not engage the leader’s key stakeholders at the workplace, due to which they tend to forego the support, advice, and accountability of colleagues, but may in fact cause their stakeholders to resist any changes the leader might want to bring as they do not understand the reason for the changed behavior.
  • too short: The development programs are designed as one-stop events ignoring that behavioral change is a gradual processes and the programs must be designed in a way that it lends ongoing support to solidify new thinking and behaviors into new habits.

Thus CCL has put forth a process to start designing programs in a way that solves all four of these issues at once. In other words:

  • focus more on development, less on content
  • make the development and the work inseparable
  • create strong developmental networks at work
  • make leadership development a process, not an event.
Vertical leadership

To understand why therefore some leaders are so effective, you first ought to consider that way they process things and think them through. We all understand that leaders do think differently from others but what most of us are not aware is that they think from a different developmental stage altogether.

Consider the example of Nelson Mandela—upon his release after thirty years of incarceration in a South African jail, he inherited the presidency of a country on the verge of civil war. The masses expected him to claim retribution. But the statesman saw the world otherwise. Rather than take the straightforward path of revenge, he invited all South Africans to follow him to a higher plane and build a ‘rainbow nation’ that shone not as a result of its uniformity, but as a result of its diversity.

Mandela’s ability to lead the country through a healing process of reconciliation and hope had less to try and do together with his knowledge, having never been to leadership development program, but more to do with his ability to create a higher meaning for his countrymen from a very volatile and complicated scenario thereby demonstrating a highly developed mind.

Mandela absolutely embodies Einstein’s quote that we cannot solve our present issues from the same level of consciousness that created them in the first place. The problem of apartheid had been created from one level of development, and its resolution required a leader who could think and act from a level above it. Leaders in new age organizations face the same challenge. Their environments are growing increasingly complex, and for many, that complexity is more than their capacity to cope. Much of the stress we now see in leaders has less to do with workload and more to do with the strain of trying to deal with an environment that has become too complex for their present stage of development. Many leaders find themselves out of their depth as they deal with challenges never seen before. Management teams and consultants, learning and development professionals recognize these same set of conditions in various organizations at times and are realizing that leaders need more than conventional training, and we circle back to the question how to ensure our leaders are equipped to deal with an increasingly VUCA world.

The outcome of vertical stage development is enhanced ability to think in complicated, systemic, strategic, and interdependent ways about a situation.

 The answer is: we develop them—just not the way we always used to.

The initial step in helping leaders develop for a complex world is to acknowledge that there are actually two sorts of leadership development: horizontal and vertical.

  • Horizontal development refers to the adding of more knowledge, information, data, skills, and competencies. It is about what you recognize, things we can measure and collect data on via 360-degree feedback.
  • Vertical development refers to the level of advancement in a person’s thinking capability. The outcome of vertical stage development is enhanced ability to think in complicated, systemic, strategic, and interdependent ways about a situation. It is about how one thinks; these can be measured learning stage development interviews and surveys.

Traditionally, leadership programs have focused principally on horizontal development. What is it that leaders ought to learn, and how will we offer them that? Initially this sounds wise. But if your leaders already grasp what good leaders do and still cannot do it, what value is there in telling them again? What if the downside is not what the leader is aware of, but who the leader is as an individual?

A traditional, horizontally-focused program aims to add new content into the leader’s leadership cup, such as the way to develop sub-ordinates and manage teams. The trainer passes along new tools, frameworks, and models. The problem for many leaders, however, is that the cup of leadership knowledge is already full. They have heard this all before. They already know it; they simply cannot be it. The limiting factor is no longer the content (the leader’s knowledge); it is the cup (the leader’s mind). In the case of Nelson Mandela, he had the same information as others, but the way he saw that scenario and processed it made all the difference. He created sense of the world from an advanced stage of thinking. In the new age world, it is the developmental stage of the thinker that matters. For this reason, a vertically-focused program places less stress on the content to be poured into the leader and lays additional emphasis on the cup itself (the mind-set, identity, and mental models of the leader).The aim of vertical development is not to feature more dimensions of the cup itself.

Let us be clear though—traditional, horizontal development still matters. Nobody is going to be effective without being able to think strategically or lead change. But the real opportunity lies in looking at development through the horizontal and vertical lenses at the same time. As leaders advance vertically, the way they think about and enact those competencies expands.

For an organization to truly excel in today’s world, they need to develop leaders who possess skills and experience and have the ability to combine them with right strategies.

 For an organization to truly excel in today’s world, they need to develop leaders who possess skills and experience (horizontal development) and have the ability to combine them with right strategies (vertical development).The pressing challenge for organizations these days is that their leadership development efforts are centred solely on horizontal development with not enough vertical development. The bull’s eye is to search out strategies that develop leaders vertically and horizontally at the same time.

CCL, along with its client partners, is looking at leadership development interventions where we are combining three key levers to develop their leaders:

  • intense stretch experiences (the what)
  • new ways of thinking (the how)
  • strong organic process networks (the who).

It is at the intersection of those three circles that leadership programs move out from the comfort zone of content and knowledge into the zone of development and transformation.




Vertical Leadership Development–Part 1,Developing Leaders for a Complex World by: Nick Petrie, Center for Creative Leadership