Never heard of the term ‘vertical learning’? To put it into perspective, you’re probably already really good at horizontal learning. A good example is learning to drive a car. When you started, you were incompetent, you had to take it slowly and have a lot of instruction. Gradually you became consciously competent, and now with all the driving practice you’ve had over the years, you have mastered driving skills so well you are now unconsciously competent.

That’s horizontal learning – learning a skill, whether it is working with computers, engineering or medicine and gradually becoming better at what you do, through constant practice. We call horizontal learning ‘translative’: moving from one knowledge step to the next logical and more complex step. Starting off, say, as an apprentice electrician and retiring one day as a master electrician.

What is vertical learning?

Vertical learning or vertical development is the evolution over the course of your lifetime of stages of consciousness. It is the ability to hold more and more complexity, to hold increasingly more perspective in your awareness. Have you ever experienced growing out of a set of friends? People who used to really interest you but now just seem to be less fun to be with? You feel there is more out there that you want to discover – more range, more complexity…

We know from Piaget that children grow through stages of development, each stage transcending and including the previous one: from crawling, we learn to walk. We don’t forget how to crawl – though it might hurt as we get older! As we move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, we don’t only grow our physical skills. We have the ability to increase our capacity to reflect, to be increasingly more self-aware and aware of many ways of viewing the world. Vertical learning is ‘transformative’ – we transform and increase our capacity to hold and embody more consciousness, more complexity. We also, as a result, become more resilient in the face of constant change.

Which is better: horizontal or vertical learning?

We need both horizontal and vertical development. However, vertical development is seldom taught or even encouraged in Western education, including at our business schools, yet nothing could be more important in leadership.

“…vertical learning not only upgrades a leader’s operating system, it rewires their hardware and expands their leadership competency and capacity. It literally alters brain functioning and recreates a leader’s worldview.”
Barrett C. Brown, Ph.D. The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism (2014)

Vertical learning involves just what great leaders need: the capacity for perspective-taking, for showing care and concern, for embracing diversity, maintaining high states of alertness and resilience, making skilful choices, and choosing to live meaningfully. The simple magic for leaders of climbing up the vertical development ladder is practice – consistent practices in increased complex awareness of me, we and world.

Watch this space or contact me for more specific information on the nuts and bolts of these practices.