Vertical development helps leaders grow beyond their meaning making, transforming the way they see the world. It transforms the way we coach, too

By Lindsay Wittenberg


By the time this column is published, the high summer sun will have mellowed in the UK and some other parts of Europe.

I’m reminded of the sunglasses we wear consciously that may dull the brightness, or protect us from it, and the filters we apply – especially unconsciously – as we perceive the world.

I’ve become increasingly involved with the world of adult (or vertical) development – which builds the leader’s capacity to perceive and work with more complexity, more uncertainty, more unpredictability, more perspectives and more nuanced ways of experiencing themselves – ie, development which expands and enriches both the sunglasses and filters they apply, and thus their interpretations of the world around them. Such development means we grow beyond our previous interpretations (our ‘meaning making’) and transforms the way we see the world. The implications for both coaching and leadership can be profound.

Rather than being another tool or technique, this is a fundamental change to the stance and philosophy of the coach: to the coach’s competencies (ie, skills) and capabilities (ie, skills plus awareness of self and relationships), are added the client’s context, developmental stage and potential: this is deliberately developmental enquiry-based coaching. It can enhance the leader’s process and outcomes of meaning making, and lead to wide-ranging transformation.

Engaging with this philosophy offers me a richness and perspectives that I find refreshing and exciting. Its complexity offers me freedom and scope which are changing the way I coach.

Perversely, at the same time, I’m aware that, if I’m not careful, the attractiveness of this new world could risk screening out my generous consideration of other stances – acting as a filter which risks being judgmental or arrogant, and which risks constraining both my vision and my authenticity.

I became aware of this recently with a client for whom I thought I could see an opportunity for development, and to whom I offered a couple of developmental practices. Fascinatingly, he responded that because the ideas I was presenting didn’t relate closely enough to his current knowledge and meaning making (whereas for me they reflected how I thought I could facilitate new perspectives for him), he commented that he’d lost some confidence in himself – and yet he came back to the next session reporting feeling delighted with his learning and energised about where he could take it.

Thanks to this deliciously complex process, and having reflected between sessions on whether I had been a cause of the client’s diminished confidence, I became more aware of the importance of being acutely conscious of both the emergent and the need to move continually between the dance floor and the balcony, as Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) put it. Sunglasses with too strong a filter have no home here.

Of course, what interests me, and what I believe in, will inevitably be an intrinsic influence on how I coach, while I risk unconsciously filtering out what doesn’t interest me and what I don’t believe in. My reflective practice now encompasses consideration of what might be dazzling me, what I’m choosing not to see through the sunglasses I’ve designed, what I’m seeing that I’m not noticing, and what filters I’m choosing – and why. In other words, reflection on
(and a mirrored reflection of) my own meaning making.


  • Lindsay Wittenberg is director of Lindsay Wittenberg Ltd. She is an executive coach who specialises in authentic leadership, career development and cross-cultural coaching   www.lindsaywittenberg.co.uk



  • R Heifetz, A Grashow and M Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Harvard Business Press, 2009

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