Helping Leaders Manage Effectively in a VUCA Environment

Effectively in a VUCA Environment


Based on the following IOD Workshop, “Consistent Employee Engagement,” facilitated by Patricia Dammann. Click here to view this workshop.

Todays’ leaders need to change radically to meet the challenge of the complex business landscape, which is in flux.  Vertical Leadership Development and coaching leaders vertically is essential in an ever-changing VUCA, World. To explore this topic more thoroughly, let’s looks at some definitions.

VUCA Defined

Let’s start with the acronym VUCA, which was coined by the military, Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.  I am sure you will agree that during the last eighteen months, dealing with the COVID Virus, we have learned to operate in an everchanging VUCA environment.  Another word for VUCA is, “Its crazy out there”.  I worked for the State of Florida for 10 years, and we stated, “We will never have our employees work from home” and with the COVID Virus, we had no choice in the matter and now State and local organizations are experiencing a new normal with more employees working from home.  With the amount of complexity in today’s world, all leaders have to keep expanding and growing and if they want to keep up moving forward, it is imperative that they develop vertically.

Two Types of Leadership Development, Horizontal and Vertical

Horizontal Leadership Development Defined

Before we can look at vertical leadership development, and vertical coaching, it is important to explore the horizontal side of leadership development, which we are all more familiar with.  Horizontal leadership development refers to adding more knowledge, skills and competencies.  We expand our toolkit, gain more skills, expand our knowledge and become more competent.  Such training could include, but is not be limited to communications training, dealing with conflict, strategic planning and others.  We usually measure horizontal development through 360-degree leadership assessments. We in the Leadership and Development arena have been using this approach for over 40 years.  Don’t take me wrong, we still need horizontal leadership development, but it is not enough to survive in this everchanging VUCA environment. In order to move us forward and be more effective, we need to include Vertical Leadership Development with Horizontal Leadership Development.

Vertical Leadership Development Defined

Vertical Development is about expanding the mindset – advancing the way a person thinks and behaves.  Vertical development looks at professional maturity, emotional intelligence, and cognitive framework. It focuses on building the ability to think in more complex, systematic, strategic, and interdependent way.  The mindset refers to the mental models we engage when thinking, as our sense of identity.  Vertical development isn’t about training a leader in skills and increasing their knowledge; it’s about transforming the ways a leader thinks, which will impact what they do and how they behave.  Vertical development challenges a leader to make changes in the way they are, and then raises their self-awareness to engage in a higher level of personalized change.  Vertical development is about becoming more adaptable, more self-aware, more collaborative and able to span boundaries and networks to have a major impact on the organization and its effectiveness. 

Vertical development and vertical coaching promotes advancement in a person’s thinking capability, it looks at behaviors, mindset, professional maturity, emotional intelligence and cognitive framework. 

Best Practices in Vertical Leadership Development; What do the Experts Say?

So, what do the experts in Vertical Leadership Development say about how to develop leaders vertically and why is it necessary in coaching?  Let’s look at three key researchers in the field of vertical leadership development; Nick Petri from the Center for Creative Leadership, Dr. Susanne Cook-Grueter as we explore her Harvard University doctoral dissertation on the Levels of Leader Maturity and Neuroscientist Alan Watkins.

Nick Petri is a bright mind in the field of Vertical Leadership Development.  In a white paper entitled, “Vertical Leadership Development, Developing Leaders for a Complex World”, Petrie explains how to implement Vertical Leadership Development. The key is to recognize that three primary conditions must be in place in order for Vertical Leadership Development to be possible. Without all three being in place, Vertical Leadership Development does not occur. The three primary conditions are as follows:

  • The first condition is Heat Experiences. These are events or situations to which leaders cannot respond with their current way of thinking. Unable to make sense of their challenges, their minds open up and they start a new and better ways to respond. Heat experiences can be summarized as the ‘what,’ and they initiate the process
  • The second condition is Colliding Perspectives. Leaders are exposed to people with different perspectives and backgrounds, which challenges their existing mindsets and mental models. This is the ‘who’ phase, and it enables vertical development
  • The third primary condition is Elevated Sensemaking. Through the help of coaches, leaders integrate the new perspectives and experiences, and thus develop a larger, more advanced worldview

 Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuter, research for a Doctorate from Harvard University, looked at over 4,000 leaders to identify levels of leadership maturity.  She mapped the maturity levels on a Leadership Maturity framework.  The levels of maturity significantly influence our capacity to deal with life and work situations, how we see our role and function in the workplace, how you interact with other people, how you solve problems and how self-aware we are.  

Leaders develop through various stages of maturity as they grow. Leadership Maturity is about how leaders ‘make meaning’ or sense and interpret experiences at the different stages of development.  This is important because the perspectives leaders use to make sense of the world influences their thoughts and actions. This can have an impact on how leaders interact with different generations.  Incorporating the idea of the various stages of Maturity is critical to innovating leadership.  It is common for people to be promoted into higher levels, before they have achieved the vertical proficiency needed to be effective and successful, thus vertical maturity is essential.  Dr. Cook-Grueter outlines the principles of maturity to include the following:

  • We make sense of experiences & form a view of the world
  • Through vertical development, our view of the world changes & evolves
  • The Stage of Maturity follows a logical sequence, creating a hierarchy over our lifetime
  • These views are stable, as long as they are reinforced with internal and external support
  • The more support, the more stable the view
  • Not everyone grows fully
  • People tend to peak at a stage most suitable for their internal and external circumstances
  • A person cannot skip a stage of development
  • Early stages are characterized by narrow, simple, concrete, construct driven, protective stances
  • Later stages are characterized by broader complex, abstract, dynamic, context driven expletory stance
  • Those at earlier stages of maturity cannot understand later stages; Later stages can grasp earlier stage perspectives; They may reject some perspectives or include them by choice
  • Research shows several years are necessary to move from one stage of maturity to another; Maturity is dependent on internal and external support available

With each stage, individuals develop an increasingly complex and inclusive point of view. This contrasts with traditional horizontal development which focuses on the development of skills and abilities from a technical perspective and supplies useful strategy when problems and their correlating approaches for resolution are clearly defined.  People at higher levels of development have a greater ability to learn and solve complex problems. They can question their own assumptions about the world and are more likely to accept paradox while remaining centered and confident in their ability to take action.   

Horizontal Coaching Vs. Vertical Coaching

All coaching increases learning, but not all coaching causes a leader to challenge his/her thinking, and recognize conditioning. 

Regular or Horizontal Coaching causes leaders to become more effective, productive, and able to do a better job, providing definition, not depth or a shift in a person’s self-awareness, identity or view of the world. 

Vertical Coaching, causes the coachee to elevate their thinking, to challenge their behaviors, mindset, professional maturity, emotional intelligence and cognitive frameworks to expand their view of the world.  Through vertical coaching the leader challenges their mental models and focuses on building their ability to think in more complex, systematic, strategic and interdependent way.  This elevated thinking transforms one’s ability to make meaning of their world view, and empowers them to lead more effectively in a VUCA environment.

Dr. Alan Watkins, Neuroscientist indicates that organizations that select their own competences for vertical development miss the important ones that they feel they just don’t need.  In his book Competitive advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development Dr. Watkins, provides a list of key competencies that are necessary for an organization to expand, be more competitive successful in the ever-changing environment.  Additionally, he states that it is essential for leaders to develop vertically to address complex VUCA problems, navigate rapidly changing uncertain circumstances, handle ambiguity of leadership and drive transformational change.

Conducting a Vertical Development Assessment

Vertical assessments are different from horizontal assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or Dominance Inducement, Submission Compliance (DISC).  Vertical assessments measure stages of development rather than preference Start by encouraging leaders to understand the following:

  • Their current stage of development
  • The strengths and limitations of this stage of development
  • What their next stage of development looks like
  • Why people they work with view the world differently from them

The goal of a vertical coaching initiatives is to help leaders expand their thinking to a new level.  So, where do you start to get your organization moving toward Vertical Coaching:

  • Assess mindset and behaviors
  • Review feedback from formal and informal assessments
  • Assess level of competency
  • Assess derailers

Vertical development does not replace horizontal development. Both are equally important. In the past, however, too much attention has been paid to adding skills and methodologies, and not enough to changing the mindsets and perspectives of high-potential leaders.  By focusing on both approaches, companies can develop leaders who have the wisdom to choose the right strategies (thanks to vertical development) as well as the skills and experience to implement them (thanks to horizontal development).  

In summary

Vertical development and vertical coaching promotes advancement in a person’s thinking capability, it looks at behaviors, mindset, professional maturity, emotional intelligence and cognitive framework.  The focuses are on building the ability to think in more complex, systematic, strategic and interdependent ways.  Vertical development is essential to address complex VUCA problems, cultivate high stakes relationships, navigate rapidly changing unchanging circumstances, handle ambiguity of leadership and drive transformational change so needed in this day and time

About the Author:
Gene Wheeler is a Consultant, Educator, Public Speaker, Executive Coach, and Facilitator for Executive Coaching for the Institute of Organization Development.  He has been an adult educator and Human Resource Consultant for over 30 years, helping individuals, teams and organizations grow and strengthen human capital through recruiting, 360° and psychometric assessments, competency-based leadership development training programs, talent management, and executive coaching. He was also the director of the Air Force Leadership School, an on-campus, college accredited program for high potentials.

Checkout other Articles that Gene has Written
Executive Coaching in a Journey, Not a Race
Active Listening and Why it is so Difficult
Mindfulness, A Key to Successful Coaching
To learn more about a step-by-step strategic approach to executive coaching and how to be a change agent as a Certified Executive Coach for your organization, sign up for our eight-month Executive Coaching Certification Program,


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