It is love that holds everything together, and it is the everything also. Rumi

Personal development and leadership development are largely cleaning up and growing up processes. What I mean by this is that they are about understanding our projections and doing whatever healing work is necessary to “digest” them.

When I talk about projections, I mean those aspects of ourselves that we unconsciously disown because we don’t ‘like’ them.  We then attach those unacceptable parts of ourselves to others and react to others as if they were the owner of these unacceptable behaviours. For example, I had a pattern of disowning my own vulnerability and then seeing any vulnerability in others as “neediness”. I then reacted to their perceived neediness by deciding that they were not OK. I would then withdraw from the relationship.

As a Coach or Counsellor, I work almost entirely with this projective process. For example, Leaders who unconsciously hold views about their own fallibilities such as, “I’m not ok if I don’t know the answer!”, and then exit employees from the organisation, who make the fatal mistake of admitting that they don’t know the answer. As Coaches, or Leaders, I suspect that you all recognise this process in others, and sometimes, dare I say it, in yourselves. This process of uncovering our projections will be familiar territory to many of you in the business of personal or leadership development. Another, far less talked about aspect of personal or leadership work, is the notion of vertical development. The notion that as we do our work around our projections, we also enable ourselves to grow into different stages of development. If you are doubtful about this central premise, try this exercise (borrowed from Terri O’Fallon):

Think about a difficult time you went through in your teens, remember how you felt, and how you made sense of what you were experiencing:

  • Now, think about that same event from your twenties, how did you describe that event to yourself?
  • What sense did you make of it 10 years’ on?
    And now?
  • What do you feel about the event?
  • What sense do you make of it now?

You are likely to notice that with the passing of time you have changed your perception of early events. Some of you may notice that while you make a different sense of what happened, there is still pain when you remember the event. Others of you may notice that you have long forgiven the causes of that pain. Another aspect to this idea of vertical development is that we are all at different stages in our development – that age is not a necessary factor in our upward path.

All world religions (Islam in the teachings of Sufism, Buddhism in the idea of Nirvana, Judaism in the teachings of the Kabbalah) point to the possibility of vertical development and prescribe sets of behaviours that may lead to that development. And all have key figures who have achieved those “higher” levels of development.

There are also current writers and researchers, such as Torbert and Rooke, in The Seven Transformations of Leadership (1995), Suzanne Cooke-Greuter and her Ego Development Theory, and Terri O’Fallon, developer of the STages model of human development, who all describe the same vertical development process but framed in non-religious or non-spiritual terms.  These more modern authors describe a vertical process of developmental changes that lead to differing stages in terms of growth – these different stages have clusters of features in common.  Torbert and Rooke describe developmental stages as leadership styles, the defining characteristic is how leaders respond to threat, with Opportunist taking a “win in any way possible” stance all the way though to Alchemist leaders who have long left behind any interest in the win/lose dynamic and are working generatively to transform at a societal level.

O’Fallon describes a similar but more nuanced process of human development, charting growth from the self-centredness of infancy through to the highest levels of development that we are currently aware of – described by many as the Non-Dual or Unified Tier – a state of ‘one-ness’ with all creation. She also attributes perspectival abilities to each stage, from a capacity for first person perspective, at early levels, through to capacities such as sixth, seventh, eighth (and possibly beyond) person perspectives.

Knowledge of these different developmental stages is useful for coaches and leaders alike. They are ways of making sense of certain of our shifts in sense-making and awareness that can be explained in no other way than through the lens of vertical development. It is also the use of that very lens that then offers a signpost for the kinds of support people need dependent on their stage of their

An example from my own experience illustrates this very point: I had worked with the same therapist for about 15 years. They were expert at the holding and challenging work I needed to own my own projections and do the necessary healing work over the course of many years. However, in the later phase of our work together, I was going through a fundamental shift in development, for which I had to no frame of reference or explanation, and neither did they. I was having mystical experiences and I was scared. In fact I thought I was going mad.
Fortunately for me, colleagues signposted different types of support, the first one being educative – offering a frame of reference in which my experiences and shifts in consciousness made sense – that of vertical development.

This educative process also makes clear that there are certain kinds of work that support these
developmental shifts:

  • Building the capacity to step outside of yourself and your attachment to the outcome you
    might want, by taking a third or fourth person, or “fly on the wall”, perspective to the issues
    you are facing.
  • Understanding your projections and doing whatever healing work is necessary to “digest”
    them. This most often requires therapy, coaching or group work.
  • A “stillness” practice or space for reflection eg praying, meditation, awareness-raising, mind-
    fulness, time spent in nature.
  • Having a frame of reference that explains and allows for upward development (this doesn’t
    have to be a religious one).

All of the ideas and practices I’ve described above are helpful in our development as humans but for
me, there is one magic key, if you like…and that is love.

Love and compassion are both the content and the process of late stage development. When we are looking for support in these late stages of our growth, we need guides and supporters who have these capacities – for without it, we miss the very point and under-pinning of our own growth.