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Helping Leaders Manage Effectively in a VUCA Environment

By Gene Wheeler

Today’s leaders need to change radically to meet the challenge of the complex business landscape, which is in flux.  Vertical Leadership Development 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 and stands for: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.  I am sure you will agree that during the last eighteen months, dealing with the COVID pandemic, we have learned to operate in an ever-changing VUCA environment.

There are two types of Leadership Development, Horizontal and Vertical.  Let’s explore both and see the impact on leader effectiveness.

Horizontal Leadership Development Defined

Horizontal Development refers to acquiring more knowledge, skills and competencies.  We expand our toolkit, gain new skills, broaden our knowledge and become more competent.  Such training could include, but is not limited to, communications training, conflict management, and strategic planning.  We usually measure horizontal development through 360-degree leadership assessments. This approach has been used in the Leadership and Development arena for over 40 years.  While Horizontal Leadership development is still important, it is not enough to survive in this ever-changing VUCA environment. In order to move forward and be more effective, we need to include Vertical Leadership Development with Horizontal Leadership Development.

Vertical Leadership Development Defined

Vertical Development focuses on expanding the mindset and advancing the way a person thinks and behaves.  Vertical Development looks at professional maturity, emotional intelligence, and cognitive framework. It increases the ability to think in more complex, systematic, strategic, and interdependent ways.  The mindset refers to the mental models we use, which form 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 and behaves.  It promotes adaptability, greater self-awareness and collaboration, and the ability to span boundaries and networks.

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

Nick Petrie, from the Center for Creative Leadership, in a white paper entitled, “Vertical Leadership Development, Developing Leaders for a Complex World”, 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 in place, Vertical Leadership Development does not occur. The three primary conditions are as follows:

  • Heat Experiences – Events or situations that leaders cannot respond to with their current way of thinking. They are encouraged to find better and different ways to deal with challenges.
  • Colliding Perspectives – Leaders are exposed to people with different perspectives and backgrounds, which challenges their existing mindsets and mental models. It promotes deep listening and encourages polarity thinking.
  • Elevated Sense-making – Through the help of a coach, a leader is able to see him or herself through a different lens and gain more advanced worldviews.

Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuters conducted research on more than 4,000 leaders to identify levels of leadership maturity and how they function in the workplace.  Leadership Maturity is about how leaders interpret experiences at the different stages of development.  The level of maturity 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.

The impact of leadership maturity on the organization is powerful and can produce a positive or negative effect.  People tend to peak at a stage most suitable for their internal and external circumstances, where their behavior has been reinforced and supported.  This forms a mental model that is used to make decisions and reinforce behaviors.  People at higher levels of maturity 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 paradoxes.   

Dr. Alan Watkins, Neuroscientist, in his book Competitive Advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development, states that it is essential for leaders to develop vertically to address complicated VUCA problems, navigate rapidly changing uncertain circumstances, handle ambiguity of leadership, and drive transformational change.

Based on the research from experts in the field, we need to consider that all coaching increases learning, but not all coaching causes a leader to challenge his/her thinking and recognize conditioning.

Conducting a Vertical Development Assessment

Vertical assessments are different from horizontal assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or Dominance Influence Steadiness Compliance (DISC).  Vertical assessments measure stages of development.  The goal of vertical coaching initiatives is to help leaders expand their thinking to a new level.  When assessing a leader’s level of maturity, consider the following:

  • 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 promote advancement in a leader’s thinking capability by looking at behaviors, mindset, professional maturity, emotional intelligence and cognitive framework.  The focus is on building the leader’s ability to think in more complex, systematic, strategic and interdependent ways.  Vertical Development is essential to address complex VUCA problems, cultivate high stake relationships, navigate rapidly changing circumstances, handle ambiguity of leadership and drive transformational change.  Through the use of Vertical Leadership Development, the OD community will ensure the success of their business partner’s strategic initiatives.

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 Wheeler has written:

  • Executive Coaching is a Journey, Not a Race
  • Active Listening: Why it is so Difficult?
  • Mindfulness, A Key to Successful Coaching

If you are interested in becoming an Executive Coach or would like to learn more about how to implement an Executive Coaching Program, please check out our Executive Coaching Certification Program. The ECCP program helps coaches advance in their career and build their reputation as an effective coach. This program provides participants with the tools and skills needed to develop an integrated executive coaching strategy.

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