We learn and develop our awareness and opinion-shaping all our lives, and today, we have an increasing focus on an inner need to see a meaning, purpose and value in our actions, also on our workplace. This way of finding meaning has a structure and content that we have only become aware of in recent years. The prioritisation of material goods is no longer as dominant as it was just 10 or 20 years ago.

When you work for a higher purpose than just your salary or KPIs on productivity or sales figures, you will be able to navigate through your workday independently to a far higher degree and assess what is best for the company, regardless if you are an employee or leader. The many exciting changes in societies and not least in workplaces open up for new opportunities for all of us in the form of higher innovation capacity, more self-leadership, more self-responsibility and an strengthened ability to navigate independently. Surveys show that an increasing number of Danish employees are looking for this very thing: the opportunity to have more autonomy in the workplace, have a higher degree of influence on your workplace and to take part in work that is meaningful. And vertical leadership is a frame of understanding that can help you to give this to your employees.

Vertical leadership is a way of thinking, a philosophy and a tool all in one

This article is therefore on vertical leadership and on mindset, actions, culture and systems, and on what the interaction in these components will mean to leadership both now and in the future. Vertical leadership is both a leadership philosophy and a tool you can use as a leader to create the framework and conditions for more self-leadership among your employees.

I have worked with development of organisations and people for 36 years, and I have never encountered a so ground-breaking paradigm shift in the workplace as vertical leadership. Vertical leadership as a leadership philosophy is still in its early development, but it is a trend in rapid development. I would venture a claim that, in 10 years time, vertical leadership will dominate the Danish workplaces.

A new mindset requires a new leadership form

Figure 1 illustrates via two studies how we distributed in our opinion formation and way of interacting with the world around us. Our view on the world around us and ourself changes throughout our lives, but only if we choose to seize the opportunities for development, and only if the world around us lets us. But Danish companies will increasingly find that their employees’ mindset is changing or has changed from “socialized” to “self-authoring”, which creates new and exciting opportunities for development in the organisation, if the company is able to provide the right framework for the development (see Jennifer Garvey Berger).

The main point of the survey is that if you primarily have a “socialized” mindset, you will, as an individual, act according to opinion formation with respect to the world around you (other people, systems, legislation, organisations). At this stage, your ability to handle complex understandings will be lower than on the next level, which is “self-authoring”.

An individual with a “self-authoring” mindset will to a higher extent navigate according to an inner meaning and value compass. “Self-authoring” individuals therefore also seek a higher degree of autonomy and meaningful work as part of their personal development, which is in focus. As a leader, it will be a good idea to lay the groundwork that can satisfy employees with a “self-authoring” mindset. These employees will to a higher degree be able to act independently, assess complex issues and create innovative solutions.

However, they will make more demands on you as their leader, as you need to be ready to be challenged in the way you think the job should be done, while you seek to realise your own vision of having self-organising and autonomous employees. You also have a critical task in making it clear to your employees with the company’s higher purpose in society is, and how their own work and purpose can contribute to achieving this. This will also be an essential motivational factor for “self-authoring” employees.


Figure 1: Survey of the distribution of levels of mental complexity among adults. Sources: Study A: R. Kegan, In over our heads (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994). Study B: W. Torbert, Managing the corporate dream (Homewood, IL: Dow-Jones, 1987)

Vertical leadership works

And this brings me back to vertical leadership development that allows organisations the opportunity to give employees more autonomy and thus ability to act. And this ability to act will benefit both the individual and the company. Benefit the individual in the form of meaningful work with the power to make your own decisions and the opportunity to define your own role and benefit the company in the form of effective and independent employees.

But vertical leadership is not just about a higher degree of freedom for your employees. It is about more than just a style of leadership. It is about a philosophy that should characterise the entire organisation. A philosophy that the company exists to make a positive difference. A philosophy that you go to work to do work that makes a difference to others.

The bottom line is no longer the main objective but a side parameter

Companies are still in the early stages on using vertical leadership. But we see more and more examples of successful companies that are either founded on the principles of vertical leadership or that have subsequently implemented the philosophy in their organisation. In its purest form, you have companies such as the Dutch home-care organisation Buurzoorg, Bridgewater (the world’ best performing hedge fund) and the online clothing company Zappos. Buurzoorg has also been described in more detail in Frederic Laloux’s book[1]. These visionary first-movers can show the rest of us what kind of future we are looking into when it comes to organisation, human thinking, interaction and culture.

Because people that are motivated by meaningful work and working conditions and by the freedom to do what gives them a sense of meaning will become more efficient and contribute more to the company’s overall objectives, we will see companies such as Buurzorg benefit from high growth and maximum employee and customer satisfaction levels.  They still monitor the bottom line but they are not driven by it. They are driven by purpose. And yet, the company has the strongest bottom line within its industry in the Netherlands. The company is run through complete self-organisation in small groups with total autonomy within a purpose that drives people forward in a development.

Your own company is probably not yet ready to begin working with a brand new organisational form, but the principles in vertical leadership can be applied to all levels of the organisation. You could for example begin by looking into how you help make it clear to your own employees that their work is meaningful and has a purpose that is greater than just benefiting the company’s bottom line. And that they are probably going through an adult developmental process that enhances the ability to form new opinions and that it is a shared responsibility to support this process. You could also consider how you could gain more influence on your own work life, and how you could broaden the scope for self-leadership for your employees. I promise you that it will be worthwhile.  Not least when it comes to creating a meaningful work life for yourself and for your employees.


(Originally published in Danish in the magazine Ledelse i udvikling 2019 (2))

[1] If you want to go deeper into the essence and meaning of the thoughts behind vertical leadership, I would recommend beginning with the following sources:

  1. Frederic Laloux: Reinventing organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (describes the system perspective)
  2. Jennifer Garvey Berger et al: Changing on the job (describes the mindset development)
  3. Martin Mourier et al: Gateway to the new leadership (describes the development in actions in the relational field between humans)
  4. Kegan & Lahey: An Everyone Culture (connects mindset with system)