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What Is Vertical Development?

We all know that children develop as they grow from infants into young adults. It’s also true that adults can continue to develop in important ways through their later years.

Significantly, this development concerns the ways we see and understand the world, the cognitive capacities we can bring to bear, and the motivations that drive us.

For example, Bill Joiner (Leadership Agility; see reading list) has illustrated the shifting focus of leaders in successive developmental stages:

As we develop, our cognitive capacity is enhanced with the integration of richer skill-sets.


We become more able to be present and work creatively with contradiction, ambiguity, paradox, discomfort, conflict, uncertainty, and mystery. We can engage effectively and holistically with more complex systemic challenges — a critical ability in today’s radically interconnected and volatile world.

We build on important skills such as self-awareness, self-management, and perspective-taking. We become more capable of setting and evolving our own compass, rather than simply taking direction from our surrounding culture or subculture. Our reactive tendencies, often defensive, can gradually give way to a more creative responsiveness.

Consider this example of a developing scope of intention and capacity for leadership:

Adhering to Group Norms

Solving Problems Logically

Improving Ideas Across Functions

Systemic Awareness and Shared Vision

Intentional Participation in Emerging History

Vertical Development (also known as Adult Development)  is a significant area of study for modern psychology. It is represented by theorist/practitioners such as Jane Loevinger, Robert Kegan, William Torbert, Suzanne Cook-Greuter, Jennifer Garvey Berger, Bob Anderson, Kurt Fischer, Bill Joiner, Jenny Wade, and Ken Wilber.

I have studied formally and informally in this area for decades. My coaching is particularly informed by the insights of adult developmental psychology as taught by Global Leadership AssociatesCoaches Rising and Ten Directions.

Selected Readings

  • Ken Wilber, 1998, Integral Psychology

  • Robert Kegan, 1998, In Over Our Heads

  • William Torbert, 2004, Action Inquiry

  • David Rooke and William Torbert, 2005, “Seven Transformations of Leadership

  • Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs, 2006, Leadership Agility

  • Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, 2009, Immunity to Change

  • Jennifer Garvey Berger, Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World

  • Robert Anderson and William Adams, 2015, Mastering Leadership

  • Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, 2016, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization

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