Vertical Leadership Development:  the Value of Knowing Your Values

Do you work on developing yourself before you have to?  Over the years, I have come to believe that most of us wait until something that’s challenging us and others becomes a liability before we make time for development.

In one sense this is good as it means we’re highly motivated (and generally others around us are too).  But it also likely means we’ve been putting off the regular maintenance that would have kept our engines purring, and now we just want to get back on the road as quickly as possible.

In coaching, the desire for immediate solutions often takes the form of statements like these:

“I don’t know. You’re the coach, why don’t you tell me?”
“I want answers, not questions.”
“If I could have figured this out by myself, I would have.”

The problem (and why some auto mechanics – and coaches – have a bad reputation) is that in our desperation to solve our problem, we often end up with solutions to someone else’s instead of ours (e.g., the mechanic’s desire to sell you a $1500 control panel instead of a $20 wire).

This tendency reflects a stage in what is becoming commonly known as “Vertical Leadership Development”. Roughly, vertical development refers to how one makes sense of the world. The theory suggests that rather than developing ‘horizontally’ through activities like skills training, at a certain point the complexity of a challenge demands increasing our mental complexity to match.

Coaches who work from this theory of adult development believe that supporting and guiding someone to come up with their own solutions will benefit the client immediately, and serve them over the long term as they become better able to work through challenges they bump up against. It’s also why such coaches ask so many open-ended questions.

So where does one who wants to develop before she or he has to and would like to increase his or her complexity of mind start?  One way is by articulating your deeply held values or beliefs.

There are many ways to do this, but here’s one Linda Ginzel, clinical professor of managerial psychology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business uses:

Ginzel challenges the people she teaches and works with to begin creating their own leadership blueprint by writing an essay following the “This I Believe” NPR program submission guidelines (pasted below).

I have used this with executive teams to build trust, coaching clients to determine how they are or aren’t living according to their values (develop before you have to), and work teams prior to creating a shared vision. I recommend it to anyone looking to embark on the journey of figuring out what your particular (leadership) contribution to the world is or might be.

Give it a try, but maybe buckle up as it can trigger some strong emotions. Introspection and courage are key elements of this process. Also try to enjoy it, and let me know how it goes!

One of mine is pasted below. Or check out the great Muhammad Ali’s here.

Guidelines (from NPR’s This I Believe Website):

Writing your own statement of personal belief can be a powerful tool for self-reflection. It can also be a wonderful thing to share with family, friends, and colleagues. To guide you through this process, we offer these suggestions:

Tell a story about you: Be specific. Take your belief out of the ether and ground it in the events that have shaped your core values. Consider moments when belief was formed or tested or changed. Think of your own experience, work, and family, and tell of the things you know that no one else does. Your story need not be heart-warming or gut-wrenching—it can even be funny—but it should be real. Make sure your story ties to the essence of your daily life philosophy and the shaping of your beliefs.

Be brief: Your statement should be between 500 and 600 words. That’s about three minutes when read aloud at your natural pace.

Name your belief: If you can’t name it in a sentence or two, your essay might not be about belief. Also, rather than writing a list, consider focusing on one core belief.

Be positive: Write about what you do believe, not what you don’t believe. Avoid statements of religious dogma, preaching, or editorializing.

Be personal: Make your essay about you; speak in the first person. Avoid speaking in the editorial “we.” Tell a story from your own life; this is not an opinion piece about social ideals. Write in words and phrases that are comfortable for you to speak. We recommend you read your essay aloud to yourself several times, and each time edit it and simplify it until you find the words, tone, and story that truly echo your belief and the way you speak.

For this project, we are also guided by the original This I Believe series and the producers’ invitation to those who wrote essays in the 1950s. Their advice holds up well. Please consider it carefully in writing your piece.

In introducing the original series, host Edward R. Murrow said, “Never has the need for personal philosophies of this kind been so urgent.” We would argue that the need is as great now as it was 65 years ago.

Tyler’s ‘This I Believe’ Essay:

The Dock Start

One beautiful summer day at my Uncle Cecil Leif’s cottage on Eva lake in Northwestern Ontario, I must have worn my mother and father down, because they agreed to let me try waterskiing. I idolized my parents and wanted to waterski just like them. I was four.

Before I knew it I was sitting on the end of the dock, excited and terrified, feet slipping out of the bindings. As my mother adjusted my body parts into the right position she repeated this imperative again and again: “If you fall, LET GO!”

A few moments later, the boat’s engine revved, the slack on the rope scuttled away… and I was flying through the air – without skis – headed straight toward the water.  I didn’t let go.

38 years later, I remember it like it was yesterday. The sound, the darkness and paradoxical stillness of the water flowing over me as I was hauled along like a freshly caught fish underneath the lakes’ surface. After what seemed like an eternity, the boat lurched to a stop and I bobbed to the top, humiliated.

There have been many other ‘dock starts’ in my life.

My first marriage was a dock start, as were multiple attempts to help a loved one struggling with addiction, moving to Vancouver at 18 to try and become a professional athlete, shipping overseas for a job, taking a few missteps on the path to a fulfilling career, attempting my first marathon, joining a band, and many, many other things have been dock starts.

This stuff is devastating. When it happens boy do I want to crawl under a rock, throw in the towel, and remain permanently at a safe distance from my inabilities. But as I reflect on my life, I wonder what it would be like without dock starts?

Sure these times represent some of my darkest hours, like telling friends and family that my marriage was over. Or like waking up with a broken snowboard, a concussion, and no idea of what had happened to me, instead of appearing in the full-page editorial photograph in Transworld Snowboarding magazine (like the guy who landed successfully). Recalling these times summon feelings of despair over failing to reach a loved one in trouble and unsure of how to manage the impact on me and others. And so on.

But the triumphs (other than the story of how mommy and daddy got engaged) are not the stories my kids want to hear before bed. Heck, even that story is filled with adversity: like when my custom-made ring arrived and it wasn’t anything like the design.

These experiences and the stories that emerge from them teach us how we need to grow, who loves us and will be there when we need them the most. They give us a glimpse into what might be possible in the future, even though it didn’t work out the way we hoped this time.

So I believe in stepping (way) out of your comfort zone, even if that means failure, because failure is so often our best teacher.

Tyler Wier, (former) Senior Consultant