To turn a toxic culture around and create a psychologically safe place for people to thrive at work start with your leaders. Leaders set the tone for your entire organisation. And yet great leaders are relatively rare. Why is that?

Well, when leaders underperform it is often assumed there is a skills gap and throwing more competency-based programmes at leaders (like delegation or coaching skills) will fix the problem.

This is the ‘horizontal growth’ approach. It’s like adding new programmes to your current computer operating system.

But with leaders, the problem is rarely a skills gap. It’s their subconscious programming and conditioned responses that really keep a leader change resistant.

This is what vertical growth is all about. Instead of adding new programmes to an already struggling system, vertical growth is like upgrading to an entirely new operating system.

To explain it let’s look at 2 common ineffective leader behaviours – the overly nice and the too tough leader. You might be able to relate.

Amit is nice but he avoids difficult conversations and cannot hold people accountable. Alice has a reputation as a micromanager with a short fuse.

You can send Amit and Alice on any number of horizontal growth competency-based programmes, but until they do the vertical growth mahi (work) they will not change their behaviour.

Vertical growth takes leaders on a journey into their messy, often uncomfortable inner experience, to understand what is really driving their behaviour.

When Amit did vertical growth work, he saw that wanting to be liked was driving his behaviour, and avoiding difficult conversations gave him immediate relief “Whew, I don’t have to address it now! I’ll do it later.” Which we all know never happens…

Alice was surprised to discover that micromanaging was how she relieved the anxiety she experienced about her team not meeting their targets. She honestly believed if she stopped micromanaging (and her team still met their targets) she might be seen as irrelevant. This is what I call a double whammy.

Sometimes it is the fear of success (not failure) that gets in our way. It’s called immunity to change and if you want to find out more, look at Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work.

At the core of vertical growth is mindfulness.

Now, let’s be very clear, I am not talking about meditation for leaders, but a deliberate skillset for exposing and interrupting what drives our reactivity so we can change our behaviour.

Why mindfulness is integral to vertical growth is beautifully explained using our brain’s two pathways, the fast pathway and the slow pathway.

The fast pathway engages the primitive brain for a rapid, reflexive response to anything perceived as a threat. It is fabulous for getting avoiding injury e.g., getting out of the way of buses! But it is also triggered by things like the anxiety of not meeting your KPIs or needing to have a difficult conversation that you’d prefer to avoid.

This pathway is fast, but it’s not always smart!

The slow pathway – on the other hand – engages the more evolved and smarter prefrontal cortex. The slow pathway allows us to see the bigger picture, think logically, control our urges and regulate our emotions.

The slow pathway’s job is to challenge and correct the fast pathway when it gets it wrong (which it often does!).

Leaders who do the vertical growth work practice bringing more awareness to their fast brain reactivity, while purposely responding from that wiser slow-brain state.

Self-awareness is the starting point for vertical growth work, but self-awareness without self-regulation is useless.

The trick is, you must be able to see and interrupt what yanks you around before it yanks you around!

Vertical growth ensures leaders answer two vital questions.

  1. What is the talk I’m trying to walk?
  2. And how do I translate my talk into effective healthy leader behaviours?

Ironically, when Amit stopped avoiding difficult conversations and started holding people accountable, they trusted him more. And when Alice stopped micromanaging, her team not only met but exceeded their targets.

The research is clear – too nice and too tough leaders have incredibly low engagement rates – 6.7% and 8.9% respectively. But when leaders learn to hold people accountable from a kind connected heart, engagement soars to 68% (Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman September 11, 2013).

Honesty is the most admired characteristic in a leader (followed by forward-thinking, inspirational, and competent) Kouzes and Posner which is why throwing horizontal growth alone at leaders is largely a waste of time, money, and energy.

So, what kind of leader do you want to be? Which leader would you prefer to work with? Which leader would you choose to follow?

Let’s get leaders doing the vertical growth mahi and let’s disrupt leadership!

You can watch the 5-minute video here.

If you’d like to create a great culture in your business, get in touch.

As the business partner for Awakened Mind and The Mindful Leader programme in New Zealand, I’d love to talk to you.