What is Vertical Development and Why Do We Need It?


Vertical or Adult Development is a relatively new term in the management world and in leadership circles across the globe, even though the understanding of it goes back thousands of years.

Most management and leadership training in companies today is horizontal. Horizontal learning is aimed at improving our skills, e.g. time management, technical expertise in an area, or improving our communication skills. Its primary objective is functional.

Grown-Up at 90, or not?

Vertical learning, however, is aimed at how we think, feel and most important, how we make sense of the world. It is about increasing the complexity of our meaning-making. For a long time, it was believed that we stopped developing after our teens. At 20 we were considered “grown-ups”. Now, we know that we continue growing, albeit at varying rates, through different stages of mental development. At each stage, we make sense of the world a bit differently, we become more inclusive, and we can make sense of complexity. We see the forest instead of the trees. Many people mature as they age, but far from everyone, and since there hasn’t been any concerted or directed training to develop vertically, most never reach the potential they have as human beings. Furthermore, from a societal standpoint, we need people to start growing vertically, faster, and in larger numbers, if we want this planet to have a chance of surviving.

First in a Series of Posts on Vertical Development

Starting with the first vertical theorist that I want to mention in this series of posts on vertical and integral development, is a man that is well-known in Sweden’s and Europe’s management circles, Harvard Professor Dr Robert Kegan. Kegan is a Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development and a Psychologist, and has been researching this area for the past 30 years.

Kegan’s Model of Adult Development

Kegan has developed the so called subject-object theory, which is pretty close to the mindfulness concept of being the “witness”. In essence, it means that every level of development that we are currently at, we are subjects to. As soon as we move to the next level, we can start observing the situation we just were in, but now from a distance. We study it at an objective level. We can therefore think of the subject/object relationship as describing what we have in our perceptions, versus what has us. Or another way of describing it is to say whatever we are subjects to is outside of our control; it controls us. Whatever we are objects to we know and can look at without being beholden to it.

Kegan describes five developmental orders of the mind:

  1. Impulsive Mind – First Order. Mostly young children. Object is one’s reflexes. We are subject to our impulses and perceptions.
  2. Instrumental Mind – Second Order. Adolescents and some adults. Object is one’s impulses and perceptions. Here we are subject to to our needs, interests and desires.
  3. Socialized Mind. According to Kegan, 58% of the adult population is here. Object here is one’s needs, interests and desires. We are subject to our interpersonal relationships and mutuality. We operate following what we’ve been taught, how our families expect us to be, and how society wants us to perform. We follow an external authority. It is, for example,  difficult for a person operating at a socialized mind level to develop self-esteem or self-love for example, because there is no real inner foundation for the self at this order.
  4. Self-Authoring Mind.  This is where 35% of the population is at. Object here is one’s interpersonal relationships and mutuality. We are subjects to self-authorship, identity and ideology. This means that we can craft our own identity and walk our own path. We follow an internal authority. The entire self-help industry, where coaching has become an instrumental tool, is built on taking people from the Socialized Mind to the Self-Authoring Mind.
  5. Self-Transforming Mind. This is where less than 1% of the adult population is at. Object here is self-authorship, identity and ideology. We are subjects to the dialectic between ideologies. We start questioning our identity, and we see that there is more than one way to think and resonate. We are no longer beholden to one set of views, but are able to see value in both, without being caught in an either or perspective.

Integration, Moral and Spiritual Development

Looking at Kegan’s (and others) models of vertical development, it is important to point out a few things. Being at a higher meaning-making stage says nothing about our IQ or our EQ. We can be brilliant intellectually at Kegan’s third level, or be wonderful and caring people again at the socialized level. Furthermore, most of us operate at times at different levels. For example. Say that we normally are at the fourth level, the self-authoring mind, yet when we join our family around Christmas or the Holidays, we go back to the socialized mind, and maybe we even have such a tendency with our life-partner. Such a person can be said not to be fully integrated yet on the fourth level. And it might even be that we might have intellectual glimpses of the fifth level related to some aspects of our work, but we aren’t currently able to live from that level.

Finally, the way adult development is being taught by many, is not the same as becoming a wise, compassionate and an enlightened human being. Actually, you can be a major jackass, while still have a cognitive ability to see and handle greater levels of complexity. This can be compared with spiritual leaders that are high up on a spiritual awareness level, a level that might allow them to lead their followers into higher levels of enlightenment, yet who still can’t resist having sex with half of their flock. In order to develop our humanity, we need to dig down into our psychological ego-structure and start letting light shine in the dark crevices of our inner basements. And that is a whole other process than learning how to become more vertically developed. I believe both are desperately needed.

The Importance of Growing Vertically

No matter where we are at, we all need to move up the ladder. All the crises at our doorstep today, ranging from failing political systems to religious extremism, to global warming, to the European immigration and integration crisis, to Putin’s growing aggression, terrorism, increasing income differences, a failing school system etc, are all examples of what Kegan calls “In Over Our Heads“. We are living in such a complex society and yet both leaders and systems are operating at too low level. We need systems created at at least a fourth level of meaning-making in order to handle where we are going, and leaders who are at least at a fourth-level in order to help bring all of this about. This will by far be the greatest challenge of all leaders globally, and something I’m deeply passionate about.



First Year (Back) in Sweden – A Journey of False Starts, Clarity & Grounding

Skärmavbild 2016-05-31 kl. 13.53.24

Now it’s exactly one year since I officially immigrated back to Sweden. After close to 15 years in California, I’ve been trying to find my footing in my old native country, and it’s been a journey. Mostly consisting of false starts and stumbles, yet with each fall arises a new clarity of what I need and want. While I know, and sometimes envy, those who follow a more direct path, it seems to be either part of my pattern, or if you may, my destiny, or both, to learn in this roundabout way.

It reminds me of when I spent my first visit to the US as an Exchange Student, last year of High School at Sandia High, Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was such a strange new desert world. In order to immerse myself, being socially awkward, still is, btw, I tried out most groups, starting with the geeks, then the potheads, and when I was desperate, other exchange students. As I became involved in writing for the Yearbook, the groups shifted to fellow writers. Through the debate team I became friends with the Class President and some others power players, even though I never felt that I belonged there either. Somewhere along this zigzagging, I found two solid American friends, two women who both operated outside the school hierarchies, and one Danish friend. I never joined the jocks and the cheerleaders. Instead I practiced Kung-Fu in a seedy part of town, until my arms were blue, as the only Caucasian, only female, and the youngest, together with a group of pretty hard-core Mexican, Native American and Asian men. One of the Mexicans, a scary-looking tall and wiry fella with long scars and tattoos, always carried a knife stuck deep down into his cowboy boot. I found it immensely cool:). They were very protective of me, though, and one of the Asian men taught me how to channel my chi when hitting a giant, impossibly tight-strung double-ended boxing sack.

Being back in Sweden has been somewhat similar, minus the Kung-Fu experience. Before I left for the US, I was married, part of a social context, had a career trajectory, and led a sheltered, bland, and non-aware existence. Since I got back, I’ve been different, needing a lot of solitude, yet also seeking out people and situations that I never would have met beforehand, which is why it reminds me of my High-School Year. Using the words of the Diamond Approach;  I’m not only trying on identities, but also sorting out my mental images about myself and about others. Both liberating and tiring, yet ultimately,  necessary.

Closing the books of my first year here, I’m happy to say that while there have been many stumbles, I am finding more steady ground, internally, to stand on. A lot can be contributed to finding  oases, or islands, of highly-aware people that make my heart sing. I’ve also enjoyed re-engaging with old friends and family, which has offered other dimensions that I didn’t even know that I was missing. Which altogether leads me to a strong sense of gratitude. It doesn’t mean that I have fallen in love with Sweden, or with Swedes as a collective. I still feel like an International Cali-Girl far away from home, but with a foundation of people I care about and because there is so much more to do here and in Europe, I see how I can be of service. Being in Sweden, I can operate in a way I couldn’t back in California. I can spread my wings more, which seems paradoxical, since it’s also harder to breathe here. I don’t pretend to understand, yet with that knowing, there is also a relaxation. I don’t know what comes next, but I’m trusting the unfolding of life and the Universe as it is.



Becoming More Real

winter photo

One of the most striking things about being back in Sweden, and in Europe, after almost 15 years in California is the sense of being closer to reality.

Here it is impossible not to be impacted by everything going on in Europe, the Middle East and Russia (brilliantly summarized in this NYT-piece); the refugee crisis, parallel societies, the rise of Islamism and right-wing extremism, and Putin doing his well-oiled war-dance literally an hour away. California, despite the assassinations in San Bernardino a couple of weeks ago, has been an oasis consisting of millions of people from across the world joined together in a social experiment focused on moving society and humanity forward, whether through technology, social innovation, art, music, storytelling or human potential. So in a way it feels like I’ve been at a retreat for close to 15 years and now it’s time to get back to work. Which is strangely invigorating. And I see how it’s shifting my perspective and what I feel I need to get involved with. It’s waking up my pragmatic political side and at the same time, compassion and human consciousness development feel more important than ever, together with the need for storytelling and new creative solutions to solve the problems we are facing. It feels more real.

In all spiritual traditions as well as within psychotherapy, it is known that we need self-delusions in order to create and develop a healthy functional ego-construct. As children we need to convince ourselves of how we, and the world at large, work in order not to break. Self-delusion is also necessary if we are an entrepreneur or creative who believe it’s possible to create something out of nothing. Yet, along the journey of psychological and spiritual development we need to start facing the things we’ve been running away from. Which btw, no matter how evolved we are, will continue till the day we die. Because self-delusion is a slippery sucker and it hides in the most unlikely corner of our psyches. So pursuing reality, and its increasing depths, is necessary if we want to grow, yet often it’s like eating kale. Not always tasty, especially compared with chocolate, but filled with necessary nutrients.  And beyond healthy, it ultimately brings us home. In the end, as A Course in Miracles says: “only reality is wholly safe”.

Being back in Sweden feels like a multi-layered reality project with more kale than chocolate, yet it also feels strangely precious and it makes me more whole.


The Light and the Dark Within Us

One of the most powerful tools in the Diamond Approach, of which I am a student, is that we work with “forbidden” emotions like hatred, anger, jealousy, and revenge. We learn to accept that these emotions exist – in every human being – and that the work is to not reject them. Instead, we have to FEEL into these emotions, fully, while NOT ACTING them out. If we dare to go into our emotional black holes, we discover that there is a bottom, and that when this bottom is reached, the ‘dark’ emotions get transformed into something else. For example a feeling of hatred towards someone often turns to sadness for having been rejected or abused by that someone, or we discover that we feel inferior to said someone. When we stay with that feeling of inferiority or sadness, our hearts crack open to reveal yet another layer. It’s profoundly healing and the world would be in such better shape if we all had the tools and the desire to face our darkness.

I’m thinking of what’s going on in the world; the hatred that is so prevalent in terrorists, from IS to right-wing extremists, to women-haters across the world, to the desire for revenge that many Heads of State espouse, as well as the everyday scorning of others who don’t share our views, together with the small jabs and attacks that we all are guilty of. When we reject the shadow-side of ourselves, we pay a steep price since that is the gateway to profound goodness. In the shadow lies incredible gifts that can be unearthed if we dare to admit that we are all flawed, AND that we all are capable of redemption and incredible light.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

When No One Wants To Lead

To lead or not to lead

What happens in a company or in a country when no one wants to lead? And what happens to the world when we don’t lead ourselves?

Most of the leaders and executives I have worked with, individually or in a group, struggle with the issue of both wanting, and not wanting to, lead themselves and others. Yes, most people want to lead their lives on paper and most executives have made an explicit choice of wanting to lead others. But not when the shit hits the fan, not when it involves sacrifices, and not when it takes real courage. This struggle has always been present for me as well. I would say that my entire life has been a series of awakenings where I, each time, discovered another self-illusion. It is actually really difficult.

We are deeply conditioned by the society we live in, our family of origin, and the people we spend our days with. Our brains are wired to fear the loss of anything we have more than to rejoice at the potential of gaining something new. We are also wired to fear the loss of social standing (no one wants to be thrown out of paradise, facing nightfall alone in the wild is not for the faint of heart).

The fear of being disliked, combined with a lack of knowledge on how to deal wisely with dissent, are probably the two main reasons why leaders, especially in conflict-averse Sweden, prefer not to act in a clash. Over time this allows tensions to fester and positions get entrenched. It has been acutely visible in the political domain ever since I got back to Sweden, where the pride of being labeled as “good” or the fear of being labeled as “evil”, has stopped any form of needed intelligent discourse, and it has closed the hearts of many.

Finally, the most apparent example of absentee leadership is when a mistake has been made, and there is a fallout based on that mistake. This is probably the hardest test for any leader, and it shows us how far we’ve come in our own development. Unfortunately, in politics, as well as in the business world, most of us end up abdicating from  responsibility, not in the least in the US, where there is always a real risk to get sued, especially if there is money involved. We blame the circumstances, the structures; we plead naivety (Sweden), ignorance (the US), and as the often is the case, we try to pin the blame on someone else.

It is very difficult being a leader in the spotlight, whether in business or politics, if you never  learned how to lead yourself. Therefore it always comes back to basics; namely that in order to lead others we first have to be able to lead ourselves, and to make the commitment to keep evolving as human beings. We have to want to assume the responsibility of being active co-creators of our lives, of being agents instead of victims, and we have to dare to stand up for what we believe in – and to take the consequences of those beliefs. If not, we shrink as human beings, our souls shrivel up and we stop expanding. We never get to fulfill our potential, to become the wise, compassionate, creative, and absolutely unique person and leader we could be – and that the world needs. That is a high price – for ourselves and for the planet – to pay.

Lotta Lovisa Alsén








Yoga, Depression & Heart Coherence

Early yoga days, 2004, on a roof top in Stockholm

Yoga saved my life. Or to put it more precisely; it opened the door to life. My first yoga intensive weekend in Stockholm 2000 was the beginning of a whole new journey that took place in California where yoga was my North Star. A path that I wouldn’t have been able to sustain without my practice. When I moved back to Sweden this summer, 15 years later, I lost my footing, my yoga community, and I stopped practicing except for a few minutes a day. Which is not enough for me. The headaches, as well as my depression returned. It’s difficult for me to stay in the body, so I need a solid 6o minute-practice for a minimum of five days a week, which I find a very cheap, expedient and non-invasive anti-depressant. As soon as I recommitted to a longer session, thanks to online yoga classes with my favorite teachers, things  shifted and life now is increasingly getting lighter. My story is not unique.

Countless studies have been made on yoga’s effect on our health. Here is some of the latest research on what yoga does for our brains and bodies:

  • Yoga increases the so called “feel-good”-chemicals of the brain, which regulate our mood as well as our general well-being. The most well-known are serotonin, (happiness) dopamin, (motivation) and GABA (serenity).
  • Yoga regulates regulates both the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system (which helps us cool down after trauma) and restores balance in the body (by sending blood to the endocrine glands, digestive organs and lymphatic circulation, while the heart rate and blood pressure is lowered).
  • Yoga improves our immune system, probably by lowering cortisol.
  • Yoga reduces inflammation in the body, which we today know is the precursor for many serious diseases, like diabetes, heart disease and depression.

If that wasn’t enough to get you to a yoga class, new research is even more fascinating. According to Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk, professor in Psychiatry at Boston University and specialized in trauma and PTSD:

  • Yoga is one of the very few activities that creates heart coherence. A person that has suffered trauma automatically shuts off the body, the very place where trauma is stored, which makes it difficult to treat psychologically. Only when heart coherence is achieved, and the body is “on” again, so to speak, can the person begin to heal. But even if we haven’t sustained a major trauma, even life’s small stresses put pressure on the body and our heart coherence gets out of sync.
  • Heart coherence is a state “that increases synchronization and harmony between our cognitive, emotional and physiological systems”, according to HeartMath. Some of the benefits are “the ability to build resilience, which helps us dealing with stressful situations and recover more quickly, … as well as improvement of memory, increased ability to focus and process information and overall improvement in learning.”

I’ve been interested in heart coherence for years. When we were working on the video-game, my colleague and I did extensive research on how to achieve heart coherence through sensor technology and deep breathing. I had no idea at the time, though, that yoga did all of that automatically.

Beyond all the effects on the body, we also know that yoga affects our psychology and ultimately our ability to connect with something beyond ourselves.

With all this knowledge at hand, I’m more committed than ever not only to practice, but also to teach others. I’m particularly interested in supporting those suffering from trauma, for example many of the current refugees. Yoga means to unite and to take us from the darkness to the light. Now we understand why.

Lotta Alsén

A Mindful Nation


The UK is taking steps into becoming a Mindful Nation according to an article in the Guardian. The main reason is to find ways of diminishing mental ill-health, which is expected to be the biggest burden of disease by 2030 in developed countries, according to the WHO.

I’m wondering what would happen if all countries set out to be mindful, even if it only was pretty superficial to start with? What would be the practical implications? How would that impact policy and leadership?