A team leader talking

By Reyna Matthes

What is vertical leadership development, and how do you do it?

It’s almost an understatement these days that the business environment is one of rapid change. Organizations have to be agile to deal with complexity and uncertainty. The new business environment even has an acronym: VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Do we need new styles of leadership to meet these challenges? Many commentators say ‘yes’, and point to flexible and transformative leadership modes, such as vertical leadership.

Vertical leadership development

Nick Petrie (2014) defines vertical leadership development as moving through transformational stages of leadership – an evolutionary model. This is contrasted to horizontal leadership, which is seen as developing skill and knowledge sets at a specific level of leadership. He characterises the shift as a move from ‘what’ to ‘how’. Personally I think we need both.

There are a variety of vertical leadership development models, from Charan and Drotter’s Leadership Pipeline to Collin’s Good to Great model, which generally speaking describe passages of leadership towards expanded domains of responsibility and agency.

Our simple leadership model: I-WE-YOU

In my leadership coaching with individuals, I like to use Executive Central’s I-WE-YOU model, which is to an extent informed by Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. I love using this model because it is simple and elegant.

‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’

– Da Vinci

Many of us start off our leadership journey focused on ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, as we need to develop strong self-awareness and clear personal goals. The problem comes when ‘I’ is our primary operating driver.

I attended a talk by a well-known professor, a high achiever in his field. What struck me was not the achievements but rather how often he said ‘I’.

“I got my research team to analyze contributing factors for me. . . what I found was. . .”

I came away feeling that the worth of those achievements was tarnished by the apparent lack of generosity he showed in acknowledging the work of others. It was all about him.

The leader focused solely on ‘I’ is ego-driven: sometimes this is useful, sometimes not. They tend to be quick to take credit for successes and to blame others for failures. And underneath all this can lurk a lack of self-confidence. I used to have a manager who was so ego-driven and paranoid that any idea for improvement had to look like it came from her, otherwise the innovator would be shot down in flames. But I’ve also had a manager who always gave credit to the team: we loved working for her.

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.’

Dale Carnegie

As the leader expands their view of leadership, the word ‘We’ becomes more prominent in their vocabulary. There is a much stronger sense of team, of collaboration and consultation. ‘We’ focused leaders are very good at enlisting people around them, gaining and giving loyalty.

A fully developed leader recognizes that their key leadership role is to unlock the potential of others: to put their own ego needs aside and let others shine. They talk about ‘You’. It takes strong self-esteem and self-confidence to let go of the glory. We also see in this person humility, strong emotional intelligence and honesty about their own mistakes.

I saw this quality at a national company conference recently. The CEO stood up to give the keynote address. He put a blank flipchart up and said: ‘Now, what would you like me to talk about?’ It takes a supremely confident leader to open him or herself to critique from their organization in this way.

The most effective leaders base their work on a concern for others, and revert to ‘I’ and ‘We’ positions on a conscious and strategic basis. They also extend their generous 360 degree perspective to all stakeholders. They are confident enough to enable staff, clients, suppliers and others to shine.

With the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say:

“We have done this ourselves.”


The I-WE-YOU model is scalable. For example: as coaches we can use it at a micro level, as part of a critical coaching conversation where we’re exploring the use of language: ‘I notice you often use the word ‘I’ – what does that mean to you?’ It is also useful at a macro scale as a framework to consider a lifelong leadership trajectory, or to re-imagine organisational culture more generally.

A 21st century leadership framework

Transforming and evolving leadership is pivotal to the executive coach’s work. As people pursue their leadership journey, they come to realize through experience and reflection that one of the most powerful things they can do as leaders is empower and give credit to others. They also know when to take back the reins and make a strong ‘I’ statement, and when to work within the team.

‘I-WE-YOU’ is both a development model and an operational model: it’s both a perspective that we develop as we go along, and a ‘styles toolkit’ that we can dip into as needed.

We find that the I-WE-YOU model provides a powerful framework for leaders at any level of the organization; for developing their toolkit, and for dealing with the challenges of 21st century organisational life. You can find more information on the I-WE-YOU model here.

Please contact me if you would like to discuss the I-WE-YOU leadership model, or for a consultation about professional development.