Leadership programme

Vertical Development: Bridging The Gap Between NPQH/EL & Reality …

Ben Gibbs

What a breath of fresh air it is to read the ‘What else? What next? What if?’ report!

This invitation to rethink leadership in the school system could not have come at a more important time. The world beyond a school’s boundary – the socio-cultural-environmental ecosystem in which it is nested – is more dynamic and complex than ever, and where until recently schools could perhaps keep certain aspects of that complexity at bay, this is no longer possible. Perhaps this process was accelerated by the merging of what was ‘inside’ with what was ‘outside’ during the lockdowns as I wrote about for Big Change here in 2021 but either way, the lid is now off schools as ‘open systems’ and, as with Pandora’s Box, this spells trouble as well as hope.

The reality is that school and MAT leaders are now working in a context that’s not just volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, but also brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible. And so yes, this is absolutely the right time to be asking what they need from leadership development programmes.

The ‘What else?’ report suggests that there is a lack of research-based evidence about the design of these programmes, but it really depends on where you look! If one takes the blinkers off and looks beyond the school sector, there’s actually plenty of data about what works and what doesn’t.

For example, most leadership development programmes – and not just for school leaders – are competencies-based, strengths-based or models-based, and yet there is no evidence that any of these approaches have worked. In fact, as Dr Richard Claydon, a leadership development specialist working with business schools and large multinationals has found, it’s increasingly apparent that they’ve actually done more harm than good.

  • Competencies-based approaches prioritise achievement drive over leadership, and promote mediocrity over mastery.
  • Strengths-based approaches are focused on the individual rather than on the system’s needs, and can turn over-done strengths like confidence and ambition into toxic weaknesses like arrogance and greed.
  • And models try to be simple, accurate and generalisable but can only achieve two of the three, so are either complicated, inaccurate or specific.

Based on his analysis of a number of global studies and meta-analyses of leadership effectiveness (incl. the wonderful ‘Leadership BS’ by Stanford Professor of Organisational Behaviour Jeffrey Pfeffer), Claydon suggests that the outcome of the development programmes based exclusively on these approaches is a form of leadership that has not increased productivity, has not improved creativity, and has harmed people physically and mentally. In short, they have failed.

So we need a different approach and this is the focus of much of my current work; to build programmes that develop the forms of leadership we need at this moment in time, and which enable leadership clarity in complexity. Or, as a client – a Deputy CEO in a MAT – put it, to “bridge the gap between NPQEL & reality”.

Working with a number of specialists, academics and practitioners from a range of fields, I am currently building programmes for leaders of education that:

  1. focus specifically on developing an individual’s capacities for ethical leadership in complexity,
  2. are framed by the urgent need for them to develop an understanding of systems and how people interact with them and in them (systems leadership), and;
  3. use vertical leadership development methods as the catalyst for that growth.

So what is vertical leadership development?

Well, to start with, it’s not horizontal development, which is the focus of most leadership and talent development programmes in general, and all that are currently available to school and MAT leaders. These aim to increase technical or domain-specific skills and build a selection of in-vogue leadership competencies. They also sometimes present trainees with a couple of leadership models or styles to follow or use as a framework for their practice. The knowledge aspect of this is useful, but is only a part of what a leader needs to be effective in the current dynamic context.

In contrast, vertical development is about growing a person’s capability for leadership in their context; developing the more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking, being and doing required by a leader to effectively develop, adapt and use their authority and influence in a collective endeavour to achieve a set of intended aims. It’s called vertical development because it’s based on levels or stages of thinking, and involves ‘levelling up’ by gaining the new perspectives, mindsets and ‘action logics’ needed to make one’s leadership more effective. From a systemic perspective, vertical programmes result in more interconnected, interdependent and adaptive leadership cultures.

This is all vitally important now because – as I outline here – today’s more dynamic and complex context requires a very different form of leadership to that promoted in most development programmes. It can no longer be about pretending to know everything, claiming certainty and making all the decisions. These are impossible and no-one would believe you anyway. Rather, it’s now about creating the organisational conditions in which good decisions can be made and implemented by those closest to where the action is, and both tolerating and managing the complexity that entails.

For those at the cutting-edge of leadership thinking, what this shift requires of leaders is an understanding of one’s self, of other selves, of the leadership role itself, of one’s self in the leadership role, of how one adapts to influence people, and of how that role-adaptation impacts the system. Any programme that fails to provide carefully designed and professionally facilitated spaces for these things to develop is only doing half of what it needs to, and it’s not the most important half!

Ben Gibbs is a specialist in leadership development in the education sector, supporting school, college and MAT leaders with coaching, facilitation and organisational consultancy. He brings a systems-psychodynamic perspective to the work, enabling leaders to better understand the beautiful complexity of human behaviour in their organisations.


  1. Many now feel VUCA is no longer adequate to describe the experience of organisational leadership today. For Stephan Grabmeier (2020), we are now living in BANI times. What was volatile is now brittle. Uncertainty has given way to anxiousness. Complexity is now governed by non-linearity. And what was ambiguous is now completely incomprehensible.
  2. See Bohinc, T, Claydon, R & Reams, J (2020) The Prometheus Leadership Commons: A Meta-Framework for Leadership and Leadership Development. Integral Review. 2020, 16 (2), 48-77, and Claydon, R (unpublished) Towards a 21st Century Leadership Development Curriculum
  3. Pfeffer, J (2015) Leadership BS: fixing workplaces and careers one truth at a time. Harper Collins
  4. The principles of vertical development were derived from the adult ego development theories you may have heard about from Dr Neil Gilbride and his important work with colleagues at the University of Bath. Twenty or so years ago, these theories were transposed onto theories of leadership development by researchers like Susanne Cook-Greuter, Robert Kegan and Bill Torbert, and then used as a basis for the development of a conceptual map for understanding adult development and its vital role in leadership, and for designing development programmes.

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