Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D. is a cutting-edge leadership development author, researcher, and consultant. He helps organizations vertically develop their leaders primarily through a focus on mindsets. He is also an associate leadership professor at the College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University, and a B.A. from Brigham Young University. As a consultant, he works with organizations to develop their leaders and improve their culture. Ryan is the author of Success Mindsets: The Key to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership. He has written multiple articles for Leading Saints, presented at a live event about mindsets, and is a repeat podcast guest. You can connect with Ryan at www.ryangottfredson.com.

Enter Ryan…

I have yet to meet a church leader who does not want to have a positive influence on the people that they are given stewardship to serve.

But, as you are well aware, some church leaders have a much more positive influence than other church leaders.

Regardless of how positive our current influence is, we can always improve. We can all become a more positive influence within our sphere of influence.

Do you believe that you can elevate your ability to be a more positive influence? If so, then the next natural question is: “How can I further improve in my ability to be a positive influence?”

In this article, I will provide two answers to this question. The first answer comes from the field of leadership development. You will find that while the answer from leadership development is beneficial, it can only be incrementally helpful. The second answer comes from the field of adult development. You will find this answer to be deeper, more cutting-edge, and has more potential for being transformationally helpful.

The First Way to Develop as a Church Leader (from the field of leadership development)

The vast majority of leadership development efforts can be categorized as “horizontal development.” Horizontal development involves efforts to improve our knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is like downloading an app onto an iPad, the new app (i.e., knowledge, skills, and abilities) allow the iPad (i.e., person) to be able to do more than what it (i.e., they) could do previously.

Generally, the focus of these efforts is related to what leaders could or should DO better or differently. Here are some examples:

  • Here are some things to DO when you extend a calling
  • Here are some things to DO when you conduct tithing settlement
  • Here is what you should DO to give a powerful sacrament meeting talk
  • Here is what you should DO to improve conversion and retention rates

Such development efforts can surely be helpful. But, they can only be incrementally helpful because, drawing on the iPad analogy, such efforts don’t actually improve how effectively the iPad (i.e., person) operates, they only expand the functionality of the iPad (i.e., person).

The Second Way to Develop as a Church Leader (from the field of developmental psychology)

Developmental psychology researchers look at how people develop through their lifespan. More specifically, they focus on how people increase in their ability to make meaning of their world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways. Increasing in our ability to make meaning of our world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways is called vertical development.

If horizontal development is like downloading a new app onto an iPad, then vertical development is like upgrading the iPad’s operating system. Vertical development does not necessarily broaden one’s functionality, but it elevates one’s ability to think in more complex ways, navigate uncertainty more productively, and process situations with greater emotional intelligence.

As developmental psychologists have studied people across their lifespan, what they have found is quite interesting:

  • During childhood, people naturally increase in their cognitive and emotional sophistication. Their vertical development seems to occur as a function of time.
  • As people go into adulthood, they can improve their cognitive and emotional sophistication, but most do not. In fact, research has found that 64% of all adults do not vertically develop beyond the cognitive and emotional sophistication that they entered adulthood with. It appears that during adulthood, vertical development is not a function of time, but of effort.
  • There are three primary levels of vertical development. When at a certain level of vertical development, individuals’ internal operating systems are focused on obtaining different needs, as follows:
  1. Level 1 – 64% of all adults operate here – Their internal operating system is programmed to ensure their safety, comfort, and belonging. A church leader who operates at this level is commonly focused on making sure no problems occur.
  2. Level 2 – 35% of all adults operate here – Their internal operating system is programmed to help them advance, accomplish, and get recognized. A church leader who operates at this level is commonly focused on the “numbers.”
  3. Level 3 – 1% of all adults operate here – Their internal operating system is programmed to contribute, elevate the group they are a part of, and lift others. A church leader who operates at this level is commonly focused on improving the culture of their group so that all feel included and their experience with the group is an uplifting experience for them.
When people operate in Level 1 or Level 2, their internal operating system is primarily focused on themselves (either their safety, comfort, and belonging or their advancement, accomplishment, and recognition). When people operate in Level 3, their internal operating system is primarily focused on something beyond themselves. Here are a couple of great video clips that demonstrate the differences between Level 3 and the two lower levels:

  1. In this video clip, Level 3 is “above the line” and Levels 1 and 2 are “below the line”: Locating Yourself – A Key to Conscious Leadership.
  2. In this video clip, the speaker identifies himself as Level 2 leader earlier in his career, and his transition into becoming a Level 3 leader and the impact this vertical development had on his leadership and his ability to more positively influence those he led: Benjamin Zander, The Power of Vertical Development.

The more I have learned about vertical development from the field of developmental psychology, the more that I see:

  • Jesus Christ as an ultimate Level 3 leader
  • That the purpose of the gospel is foundationally about helping people vertically develop. Yet, I believe that the primary developmental focus in our church meetings is on horizontal development.
  • When we focus on vertical development, we will engage with people more deeply and add greater value to their lives.

How to Develop Horizontally and Vertically

When it comes to horizontal development, we already do a pretty good job of this. We need to continue to gain greater knowledge about the gospel and practice the leadership skills associated with administering the gospel.

But, when it comes to vertical development, we will need to engage in some non-traditional developmental activities that are designed to push against our current internal operating system in an effort to help us elevate our cognitive and emotional sophistication. Such activities could include:

  • In Sunday School, Priesthood, or Relief Society, rather than approaching lessons as either (1) content or information to download into the attendees or to (2) simplify, approach lessons as an opportunity to create space for complexity.
    • We might do well to remember what Brené Brown says in her book, Atlas of the Heart: “Competing emotions and contradictory thoughts are messy and can feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, even irritating. But it’s important to remember that this push-pull is a reflection of our complexity, and if we’re willing to stay with it and stay curious, complexity is one of our greatest teachers. The problem starts when we don’t have the skills or experience to tolerate the uncertainty and ambiguity and we give into the cravings for neat, mutually exclusive categories. There’s nothing more limiting than tapping out of tension and oversimplifying the thoughts and feelings that have the power to help us understand who we are and what we need.” For example, classes might be an opportunity to explore: Why it is difficult to forgive or have faith at times? Why it is short-sighted and limiting to think about repentance as a series of steps? How do we focus on BECOMING better instead of focus on DOING better?
    • The Sermon on the Mount is a fantastic example of Jesus Christ encouraging vertical development. In Matthew 5, Jesus Christ encourages the vertical development qualities of being poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, and a peacemaker. Then in Matthew 6, He encourages use to make alms in secret, lay up treasures in heaven, take no thought for our own life, and to seek first the kingdom of God. Matthew 5-7 is replete with vertical development encouragement.
  • If vertical development is about making meaning of your world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways, we might want to inspect our “meaning makers.” Our “meaning makers” are our mindsets. What mindset research has found out is that different people can experience the same situation and interpret those situations with different levels of cognitive and emotional sophistication. For example, people with a fixed mindset see failure as an indication that they are a failure, while those with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. The former is justifiable, but not very cognitively and emotionally sophisticated. The latter is easier said than done, but is more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated. For more information about mindsets, here are some additional resources:
  • What the latest psychological research is finding is that a primary and foundational reason people get stuck in Level 1 or Level 2 is because they have experienced trauma in their past that has been unresolved. One of the best ways to vertically develop is to engage in therapy focused on resolving past trauma in healthy ways. By the way, trauma researchers have found that 70%+ of all people have experienced a significant form of trauma in their life. For more information about the connection between trauma and vertical development, see any of the following:


If you want to elevate your ability to be a positive influence for those in your stewardship, you can do that via horizontal and/or vertical development. Horizontal development is easier and more common, but it is limited how helpful it can be. This is because it is focused on our DOING more than our BEING. Vertical development is moderately more difficult, less common, and deeper; but it can be transformational. This is because it is focused on improving our BEING, and it recognizes that when we improve our BEING, our DOINGs naturally will improve.

How do we help leaders

Pin It on Pinterest