Leadership development - focus on mindset rather than competencies

During 2014 I was involved in projects to design new leadership development programs. This forced me to reflect on my understanding of how leaders develop, but it was an article and a book that finally helped me ‘connect the dots’ and make sense of what I came to realize in those projects.

The article is Vertical Leadership Development - Part 1, by Nick Petrie at the Center for Creative Leadership, that argues that vertical leader development will be a more important component of leadership development in the future. This article led me to the models of Professor Robert Kegan at Harvard. He introduces the concept of horizontal- and vertical leader development. Horizontal development refers to developing competencies and skills, which is the main focus of most leadership programs today. As an important complement, Kegan adds the Vertical leader development, referring to how a leader develops his/her thinking, perspectives, references, values, beliefs or mindset. I.e. how the leader creates meaning of what is happening and determines how to act.


A analogy to understand the difference between horisontal- and vertical development, is to view our competencies as bricks. We can add more bricks, or improve the quality of the bricks, by horizontal development. But how we think we can use those bricks, to build a simple wall or a beautiful building, is to develop vertically. Perhaps the low effectiveness of traditional leadership development is because we focus too much attention on improving the bricks, but not enough focus on the way leaders think of why and how they will use the bricks.


Professor Kegan outlines 5 stages of adult development. Stage 1 and 2 is less interesting for the purpose of leader development. The interesting stages are:

Stage 3 The Socializing Mind
People on this stage shape their thinking and actions based on what they believe is expected by others. These could be described as ‘followers’.

Stage 4 The Self-Authoring Mind
People at this stage have shaped their own ‘inner voice’ or belief system. They can decide by themselves what is right or wrong to them and choose how to act. These could be described more as self directed leaders.

Stage 5 The Self-Transforming Mind
People at this stage can look at their own beliefs and mindsets and see them as incomplete. They can hold more contradictions in their mind, and are more open and comfortable with ambiguity.

It is quite clear that a person on stage 4 has a greater ability to lead in unknown environments when there is less certain answers or no one to ask for direction, than a person on stage 3. Further a person on stage 5 can handle even more complex environments, with more ambiguity and understand that there are more than one answer to many questions, than a person on stage 4. As most organizations today are existing in an ever more complex environment, we need more leaders to develop to higher stages in order to be effective at change and transformation.


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How can we help leaders to develop vertically? Here follows a step-by-step process, developed in close cooperation with our clients, with the main objective to help high potential managers improve their authentic leadership styles. The main parts of the process was delivered in workshop settings of 20-30 managers, with home-work and follow-up between modules.

  • Identify your individual beliefs and principle values
    A process built on peer-coaching and self reflection, where managers identified and articulate their most important values and principles.
  • Comparing individual values with corporate values
    Managers reflect and discuss how they can exercise their individual values inside the organization and find matches. This process is built on also understanding the organizations culture and values.
  • It’s OK to live your values
    Managers discuss and realize how they can use their own values and principles in the organization and feel confident that the match is sufficient to be able to act with authenticity, i.e. use their own values and principles as guidance.
  • Articulate your values and beliefs as a leader
    Managers clearly describes their individual values and beliefs, as to fully understand what is ‘driving’ their way of making sense of the environment and how they make decisions.
  • Describe your Leader Vision
    Managers explore their individual vision for their leadership, to create a clear and future oriented purpose and goal for their leadership.  The vision and values helps by providing each manager with a clear why and how to motivate the personal changes needed.
  • Define how to role model “your true self” at the workplace
    Managers reflect on behavior changes necessary to become stronger leaders, by better aligning their values and beliefs with their actions.
  • Identify limiting and enabling beliefs
    A group- and individual process to become more aware of what drives ones behaviors, and practice the ability to reflect on once underlying thinking rather than acting only.

The above ‘exercises’ are supporting managers to develop from level 3 to level 4 and towards level 5 in Kegan’s model. Using the model from Nick Petrie, we can also see that the steps 1-7 supports a manager to develop from Dependent-Conformer, to Independent-Achiever and towards a Interdependent-Collaborator.

Source: Vertical Leadership Development–Part 1 by Nick Petrie of Center for Creative Leadership.

Source: Vertical Leadership Development–Part 1 by Nick Petrie of Center for Creative Leadership.


The managers that participated in the program had already been through many types of leadership training based on competencies. Of course it is essential that managers acquire  essential leadership skills such as communication and other interpersonal skills. But knowing what to do is not the same as doing it.

Unless managers get support to develop their own ‘inner voice’ and develop the purpose of their leadership, they might not effectively apply the skills.

The above steps helped the managers to gain clarity in what is important to them as individuals, and feel confident that their principles and beliefs are OK and fit to use in the organization. This confidence and clarity, then helps them to improve their behavior as leaders to act more effective and consistent. Being able to act authentic and being perceived as acting authentic, are key outcomes.


Think of how you could integrate the above steps in your leader development programs. And of course we are happy to get in touch to explore how leader development can be further strengthened in your organization.