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Vertical Growth: What is it & Why Is it Crucial For Leadership?

Michael Bunting's book Vertical Growth helps leaders become more authentic

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Someone criticises your work. What do you do? It’s likely you’ll want to blame something or someone to protect your image and reputation.

This “image management” is common, and one of the ways we react unless we’ve done work on our vertical development.

Horizontal versus vertical growth

Upskilling was the buzz word during the pandemic. When we talk of upskilling it’s likely we’re talking about horizontal growth.

Horizontal growth is learning and developing new skills (such as video conferencing) or getting better at something (such as using team communication software).

Vertical growth, on the other hand, is seeing downward into our unconscious patterns of thought and behaviour – and learning to deal with them – so we can grow upward towards our values and ideals.

Why vertical growth is important

Michael Bunting, author of Vertical Growth, says that behind the gloss of image management leaders can actually suffer tremendously. Leaders will admit they need validation to deal with deep insecurities.

As Anna Fillipsen, head of People and Organisation for the Asia region of Novartis pharmaceutical company told Michael in Vertical Growth:

“That’s the real problem with inauthenticity. It’s not productive. We put all our energy into image management, rather than impact. It’s about us looking good, rather than doing good.”

How do we do this vertical growth?

Michael Bunting says vertical growth can be developed through self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-examination.

Michael says it is critical that “we live from the self-examining mind and become very clear on who we are, what we stand for, and the core values that govern our behaviour and decisions.”

“When we’re clear on our own values and we shape our life around them, we feel more alive and engaged in life in general.”

Honesty is part of vertical growth

A 30-year study by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner into the characteristics of admired leaders showed that four qualities stand out from the rest, the highest being honesty, followed by inspiring, competent, and forward-looking.

Michael Bunting says honesty refers to being honest both with ourselves and others. It is a key part of vertical growth.

“We don’t often give honest feedback because we’re afraid of ruining relationships or disengaging people. (Here is that image management again)

“If we want people to feel psychologically safe with us, honest, sometimes uncomfortable, constructive feedback is part of the deal.”

Michael shares that his own vertical growth has come from working on two values – kindness and honesty.

They counterbalance each other beautifully, he says.

“When I’m practising honesty without kindness, it can get a bit brutal and unfair at times….equally, kindness without honesty can turn very quickly into neediness and faking.”

Vertical growth means choosing your growth values

Michael says clarity around our growth values is critical to living a self-examined life.

Effective, mindful leaders are “deliberately developmental” he told us in this week's book club interview.

We learned this means: 

• Declaring the talk you’re trying to walk. These are 2-3 values you live and work by. 

• Defining what your behaviour promise or code to your team is. If your values are honesty and kindness, what promise do you make to them? (Example: “I promise I will never let you go home not knowing where you stand.”) 

He says if you struggle with anger and impatience, you may choose patience and kindness as growth values. If you constantly avoid conflict, you might choose courage and honesty as your growth values.

Your behaviour promise is the lived behaviours that give authenticity to you "walking the talk" of these values.

Going for the growth zone

It can be difficult and clumsy at first, but it is important to push for the ‘growth zone.’

This is a patch of discomfort between your comfort zone and your terror zone.

One of Michael’s business clients Isabel avoided difficult conversations. When she tried to give them clear and direct feedback, it felt very uncomfortable.

“When I hear my own voice, I sound like a monster. My head is telling me that my feedback is harsh, blunt, and aggressive,” she told Michael in Vertical Growth.

However, the people around Isabel preferred her new directness.

Michael says you will often feel like you’re going too far when you’re actually being quite mild.

4 steps to taking action on vertical growth

Step 1: One Big Thing

Identify ‘one big thing’ to work on for your journey to vertical growth. It needs to be one thing you want to change in your behaviour that will help you live your values and aspirations more consistently.

Michael’s tip: It’s probably the last thing you want to do, the thing you resist the most.

Step 2: Identify additional skills you will need

Ask yourself “Are there any other steps I need to consider to help me succeed?” If you have chosen your one big thing as “Become more effective at holding team members accountable” you may want to read books and attend seminars on improving your communication skills.

See the summary of Growth Faculty’s masterclass on Radical Candor with Amy Sandler.

Step 3: Hold yourself accountable

When you hold yourself accountable you create healthy pressure for change. Methods can include involving other people (such as your team members) to help you.

Step 4: Create support structures

Set up support structures to help you succeed. These could include rituals, involving other people, and seeking out educational opportunities.

For example, Michael suggests that if your one big thing (OBT) is “Be calm under pressure” you may want to start a daily ritual of 10 to 20 minutes of meditation.

Developing self-awareness

Once you’ve discovered the values that you want to move towards you need to cultivate the self-awareness and self-regulation to help you get there.

Mindfulness is like a door to that self-awareness.

Through meditation and mindfulness we:

·       Become more aware of the habitual reactions that hold us back.

·       Expand the gap between stimulus and response.

·       Make wiser choices.


Why mindfulness helps

Through mindfulness we can mindfully feel and accept the emotional discomfort in our body when we do a behaviour that we might prefer to avoid.

As psychologist Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, says, “Emotions are data, they are not directives. Our emotions contain flashing lights to things that we care about.”

Michael Bunting says mindfulness can slow our reactions while accepting our emotions.

“Then, we can dig beneath the surface to discover the source of our feelings and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.”

How to practice self-awareness

If you were to practice self-awareness right now, what would you do?

This question stumps most people, says Michael Bunting. He says mindfulness training is about becoming continuously attentive and aware of our experience.

“To be self-aware means directing trained attention to what is going on inside us.”

The 4 foundations of mindfulness

Without mindfulness, Michael says, it’s impossible to develop enough self-awareness to reliably transform our behaviour.

Here are four aspects or realms of the self of which we can be aware:

1.     Mindfulness of the body/senses.

2.     Mindfulness of the feeling tone. (i.e. pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral ‘feeling tones’)

3.     Mindfulness of thoughts.

4.     Mindfulness of the way we make meaning. (i.e. all the unconscious conditioning that feed into our fundamental assumptions)

“Once we become mindful of these four foundations, we are no longer possessed by them or pushed around helplessly by them,” says Michael.

Questions to consider:

  • What value/s if practised would help me to grow and become more balanced and wise?
  • Who do I know that I admire and what specific qualities or values in them do I admire?
  • What value do I secretly wish I was better at?
  • What value that is important to me do I find the most challenging to master? 

Upgrade Your Skills With Our Growth Faculty Pass

Vertical growth requires development in areas such as empathy, self-awareness, inclusivity, psychological safety, trust, team-building, communication, unlearning, and adaptability.

These skills and more are among core topics included in our Growth Faculty Pass.

If you'd like to increase your professional and personal development why not consider becoming a Growth Faculty Pass holder?

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Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash


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