The Integrative Leadership Model Our Future Depends On

Disclaimer: In this blog and on my podcast, I like to cover topics around whole-person personal development, as well as how said development impacts leaders and teams. This gives me a lot of latitude to go broad on the subject of development while diving deep into the many facets that make up integrated development. 

As a practitioner with a bias toward personal experimentation, I approach topics primarily as an experimenter and teacher rather than as a research scientist. While I do my best to ensure that my words don’t conflict with the findings of the academic and scientific community, it’s important to note that those communities also tend to be a decade or so behind. This is due to the lag-time they have in accepting, and then researching, methods that practitioners like myself are already experimenting with and benefiting from. 

The Problems with Our Current Leadership Development Model

Our most prevalent leadership development model today focuses on improving effectiveness and efficiency of skills. This is called a “horizontal development” model. With horizontal development, a leader can gain new, valuable skills that allow him or her to be more effective, but from the same level of development as they were when they approached the training.

In horizontal development, leadership training focuses almost entirely on developing skills that facilitate effective and efficient team coordination. This makes sense given that we’ve largely viewed leadership as either a transactional or motivational act. The theory behind this training is that new tools and knowledge are necessary to communicate a vision and values, as well as direct effective execution.

Ken Blanchard’s situational leadership training is a good example of this transactional approach. In the mid 1990’s, transformation and service were seen as important attributes of effective leadership. So training programs were developed to help leaders be more transformational and become servant leaders. Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Servant Leadership are examples of this trend.

These latter developmental approaches were on the right track toward a more integrative approach, in that they poked holes in the notion that leadership is all about skills and not character. They pointed to something that all employees knew already: no matter how skillful a leader was, his or her character was the primary factor in their effectiveness. 

The new programs operated on the premise that character was important, and that positive character qualities such as compassion and humility could be developed. Yet, those early leadership training programs were taught using the same impersonal seminar techniques as skills-based training, and did little, if anything to actually help a leader evolve their character up the ladder of consciousness. Character development is very personal and intimate, and approaching it as one would to teach a hard skill is quite ineffective. Therefore, these programs never created measurable shifts in leadership character.

The Emergence of Vertical Development

Given the obvious gaps in horizontal leadership development, something has to give. Over the past several years, leadership development pioneers, including my own company Unbeatable, have easily made the connection between western adult development psychology research and traditional eastern holistic development approaches such as martial arts and yoga. 

By combining the development research of legends such as Jane Lovinger, Robert Keegan, Susan Cook-Greuter and Ken Wilber with eastern philosophy, we’ve created novel methods of integrated leadership and team development. Using this nascent “vertical development” method, individuals and teams quickly go through a distinct number of stages toward higher stages of development. This gives them more access to the nuanced, “soft” qualities often touted by academics as being most effective for leading in today’s VUCA world. 

Merging Horizontal and Vertical Development: The Holy Grail

With horizontal development, a leader can gain new, valuable skills that allow them to be more effective, but from the same level of development as they were when they approached the training. There is no transformation of the leader’s character, therefore no “vertical” development to higher stages of growth. The holy grail of leadership development is to combine both horizontal and vertical development into a single, integrated leader-team model. 

It’s important to note that both horizontal and vertical development models are valuable. One cannot exist without the other. Horizontal leadership techniques develop skills and tools that help you be effective where you are. Vertical leadership development spurs you on to greater levels of awareness and complexity, while granting access to more effective and evolved character traits.

While there is no research yet on the efficacy of integrated development’s ability to facilitate, or even accelerate, higher stages of development, those of us who are pioneering the training methods can point to impressive results, both personally and via a multitude of testimonials from very happy clients.

The Future of Leadership Development

Leaders grow faster when they embark upon a development program with a team (ideally their own team). There is a growing body of research around psychological safety and bias that supports this assertion. We grow more when we are challenged by teammates who we trust and can be vulnerable with. 

In a team context, vertical development is circular and exponential because you’re working with constant feedback, in a trial and error manner, to find optimal ways to show up for your team. The challenge is that this work is often approached by the leader in a vacuum. With good intentions, there is an attempt to evolve oneself alone, without the context of a team or coach. This is largely ineffective because the leader doesn’t benefit from the intensely real, and often personally painful, feedback loops that happen in a coaching and team context. 

Unfortunately, during the vertical development process, sensitive or inflated egos can easily get triggered. As these protected leaders delve into this work, they may get defensive in learning that they’re not as evolved as they would like to believe. These types of leaders are not going to be a proponent of vertical development for their organizations either, because they sense that it will expose that they are a source of some of the challenges the organization is having. This can be problematic, to say the least, since vertical leadership development requires buy-in of the entire leadership team… and requires full participation.

While it may be difficult to get all leaders on board an integrated development model at first, I know we can make that shift. I’ve seen it happen firsthand in my own work and during my time with the SEALs. My hope and belief is that the most effective companies will soon embrace company-wide vertical development where everyone participates and benefits. And the most successful organizations will find a way to put their egos aside and combine both models into a holistic, integrated development plan at the individual, team and organizational levels. 

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