Why Excellent Leadership Begins with Vertical Growth

Michael Bunting

  • Author, leadership expert
  • Website
Michael Bunting is a best-selling author and leadership expert who has worked with global brands such as Qantas, Novartis, HSBC. His new book is Vertical Growth: How self-awareness transforms leaders and organisations.

Why is it there is no shortage of leadership development materials, yet outstanding leadership is so rare? Despite having access to so many leadership principles, tools, systems and processes, why is it so hard to develop and improve as a leader?  

The answer is the vast majority of leadership materials are based on what we call horizontal development versus vertical growth.   

In my work, I differentiate between horizontal development and vertical growth. Horizontal development is about acquiring knowledge and developing new skills to bring about a new competency. While improving horizontal competencies may require repeated practice, it typically requires no growth in self-awareness or self-regulation. Simple examples might be learning planning skills or mastering MS Word or Excel.  

In a leadership development context, it can be easy to confuse leadership development principles and training with vertical growth. For example, the leadership techniques and practices needed to ‘empower others to shine’ or to apply ‘agile methodology’ are typically taught as a set of horizontal skills, learnable by any leader, regardless of his or her level of self-awareness and maturity. The mistake we often make is when these skills are applied poorly or inappropriately, we assume the techniques and skills we were taught were inadequate. This is rarely the case. It's a vertical growth challenge.  

Vertical growth involves both downward seeing and upward growth. We see downward (vertically) into our unconscious patterns of thought and behaviour and learn to deal with them with awareness, patience and compassion. The more we do this, the more we increase our ability to grow upward in the direction of our values, aspirations and ideals. Through vertical growth, we are able to train our mind to engage less in the reactive and programmed algorithms of our mind and body, and more in a deliberate and flexible set of behaviours based on our aspirations and values.   

In short, with vertical growth we explore downward in ourselves to resolve our deep-seated assumptions, fears and patterns in order to grow upward into our best selves. It’s an ‘inside-out’ job rather than an ‘outside-in’ job. This, combined with basic behaviour science (prompts, rituals and the like) and the necessary horizontal skills, delivers on the promise of amazing leadership and healthy cultures.  

Image management

The reason why vertical growth is key to excellent leadership, is it cuts down on time wasted in the reactivity of ‘image management.’ Image management refers to the time and energy we waste in organisations on blame, denial, deflection, defence, gossiping, politics, saving face, masking our weaknesses and other fear-based strategies to make ourselves feel safe or look good. One research study we performed involving more than 5000 people from various global organisations indicated image management may suck up about 40 per cent of people’s time and energy on average. This is a staggering waste of time and energy, costing billions of dollars.   

More critically, image management creates values breaches, wherein people fail to speak up or admit mistakes, judge or blame others, and avoid addressing inefficiencies — all to ensure their image is protected. This arrests growth, damages leadership credibility, shuts down innovation and impacts mental health, while keeping relationships superficial.   

Self-aware people who embrace a vertical growth mindset see themselves as a continual work in progress and become progressively less afraid to look at themselves honestly.

To get started on a journey of vertical growth, there are five key steps:

Self-awareness: Self-awareness is the essential foundation for vertical growth, without which all the other steps are not possible. Self-awareness gives us the ability to consciously regulate our behaviour. We cannot deliberately live a values-based life, nor can we learn to see, accept and compassionately take accountability for our shadow without first properly developing self-awareness.

Fast brain, slow brain: The fast brain engages the parts of the brain that act impulsively, habitually and with short-term comfort in mind. The slow brain, on the other hand, engages parts of the brain that enable us to act with intention and awareness before our fast-brain reflex response takes over. To shift from our fast to our slow brain, we need to have clear intentions and deliberately choose our values and responses, rather than being held hostage by habitual responses formed in our past.

Find your vertical growth edge: Between our comfort zone and our terror zone is what we call the growth edge. We can become comfortable in patterns that don’t serve us. So, in order to grow again, we first must disrupt our sense of order and move outside of our comfort zone to build a new, more functional order. 

Be values-driven: Values are far more than yawn worthy statements on a website. They represent an invitation to grow towards more functional order in our lives and organisations. When applied with self-regulation and internal honesty, they are living, breathing forces that direct our behaviour for our own happiness and that of others. Are your values a living practice? What practices do you use and what actions do you take daily to align with what you stand for? If you need to think about it, then it’s probably not operational in your life.

Commit to daily action: It’s pointless to choose values without a daily commitment to deliberately cultivating that value in action. It's the daily commitment that gives you the opportunity to notice your habitual fast brain patterns, then to engage the slow brain by consciously regulating out of those patterns into a more values congruent, self-aware state.

Vertical growth requires a willingness to face tremendously difficult truths about our thoughts and behaviours while cultivating an attitude of kindness and patience towards ourselves. The amazing payoff is an increased capacity to choose our behaviours with insight, wisdom, and compassion.   





Tags: leadership, marketing leadership, transformation

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