It has been great to work with charities, human rights and international NGOs for over 25 years. Yet I keep seeing the same 4 x Cs impeding and undermining well-being, development, sustainability and hope. These are: culture, conflict, corruption and climate. In the face of complex global, systemic issues and dynamics and what can look like insurmountable odds, we can feel like Sisyphus of Greek mythology, endlessly pushing a heavy boulder uphill only to have it endlessly roll down again.
Take a culture that denies girls and women access to education, thereby limiting its own potential and capacity for the future. Or a violent conflict that wipes out years of progress, reducing people’s homes, livelihoods and infrastructure to ruins. Or insidious corruption that stifles human rights and drains away precious resources to line the pockets of the rich and powerful. Or dramatic changes in climate that render whole populations vulnerable to drought, flooding, poverty or displacement.
I wish I could point my finger at the anonymous, proverbial ‘they’ or ‘them’ who are responsible for all this. I’m tempted to blame politicians, media, religions, banks, multinationals, oil companies, rich, poor, uneducated, apathetic, self-interested, everyone…but myself. Yet, if I’m honest, I see imprints of similar dynamics at work within me too. It’s what Francis Spufford (in his vivid, graphic paraphrase for the Christian notion of sin) calls bluntly: the universal human propensity to f*** things up.
So - what advice could we offer Sisyphus today? What can we learn as leaders, coaches, trainers and OD? 1. Recognise that who we are and what we do is part of what is: we are part of the problem and part of the solution too. 2. Step back from immediate issues and concerns to view things systemically and prayerfully: who or what is causing and sustaining what, why and how? 3. Be humble, collaborative and courageous: who else's insights, talents and resources could we draw on to achieve meaningful change?
I haven’t always been good at doing the sensible thing. Take, for instance, the time when I left my job and studies in industry after 5 years of hard work, 3 months before my finals. I had recently become a Christian and believed Jesus was leading me into a new volunteer role in community development instead. My family and friends thought I had gone crazy. What on earth was I thinking of? They urged me to do the sensible thing, not to be so reckless with my life. I could understand what they were saying. Nevertheless, I resigned and never looked back. Not even for a moment.
That was one of the best decisions of my life. It changed the course of everything for me. I also wasn’t sensible, apparently, when I decided to give all my possessions away, to live out of a rucksack in an attempt to identify with the world’s poorest people. I wasn’t sensible when I worked in some unstable and dangerous places in the world in my work with charities, human rights and NGOs. I wasn’t sensible when I applied to do a master’s degree when I didn’t have any of the pre-requisite qualifications. I prayed, negotiated, worked hard and completed it with a distinction grade.
I wasn’t sensible when, more recently, I crashed my bike on a charity ride and snapped my knee sideways, leaving me seriously debilitated. I was told to be mindful, to accept my new reality and not to fight against it. I refused and I dragged myself forward step by painful step. I can now walk. I have managed to cycle and swim further than I had ever done before. I have learned that ‘sensible’ is a construct, a preference, a cultural outlook, a state of mind, a stance in the world. It appears self-evident, rational, reasonable and safe. Yet how far are we willing to take a risk - a leap of faith?
Harley Pete is a rough diamond. He’d say so himself. This morning we sat in a small group in the local biker café. In spite of the sunshine, it was freezing cold. One bloke arrived feeling wrecked because he ran out of petrol on route and had to push his bike uphill for a mile. Another arrived late because his bike wouldn’t start. We were glad for hot mugs of tea and the struggling warmth of a single oil-filled radiator.
A bloke appeared at the doorway. I’ve never seen him before but he strode in, walked up to Harley Pete and shook his hand. He then turned to the rest of us, looked a bit self-conscious about having interrupted the conversation and announced quietly yet with conviction, ‘Because of this man and because of Jesus, I am still alive.’ Then he walked out. The rest of us glanced at each other, then at Harley Pete. Silence.
Turns out the bloke had been involved in drugs and stuff and his life had fallen apart. I don’t know the details, what Harley Pete had done, what had made the difference…but what an impact. In that unbroken moment of utterly transfixing silence, I sensed a bright light flash across my own life, my work and my relationships. ‘Because of this man and because of Jesus, I am still alive.’ What a legacy. What a calling.
‘I don’t know’ is a leadership act that invites others in. (Karakusevic)
It all depends on the voice. I can say, ‘I don’t know’ with heavy heart and sloped shoulders, a voice of resignation, a paralysed feeling. A sense of no way forward. This may be a voice that I speak to myself, to others, when I encounter unfamiliar territory, new experiences, fresh challenges. It can leave me feeling stuck, lost, hopeless. I’ve heard this voice whisper in my own head from time to time and I’ve felt its debilitating effects.
I’m learning that I can use a different voice too: ‘I don’t know - but I’m really curious to find out. Let’s start something and see what happens!’ This voice comes from a free place, a spirit of playful inquiry, a willingness to experiment. It’s a voice that releases me, invites others to contribute, draws people in. It’s an approach to co-creative leadership that liberates and empowers. It’s at the heart of coaching: the power of not-knowing to release knowing in others.
This approach to living and leading can build optimism and agility in organisations where things are ambiguous and uncertain. No surprise, therefore, to see 2 new books in 2015: ‘Not knowing’ (D’Souza & Renner) and ‘Nonsense – The Power of Not Knowing’ (Holmes). Not-knowing frees us from the pressure to know and allows us to explore new ideas, new horizons, new paradigms. It enables us to embrace the future with open minds and hearts.
So I’m noticing resonances between current thinking, my Christian spirituality (e.g. ‘Cloud of Unknowing’) and what I’m discovering through experimental fields (e.g. Gestalt). And I’m very curious to hear from others who live, work and play in this not-knowing space too. How do you create and sustain a not-knowing mindset? How have you applied it to your leadership or coaching practice? What benefits of not-knowing have you found to be true?
Easter is a good time to reflect on dying to an old life and rising to a new one. If what I believe is true, the cross reveals in the starkest terms possible that no matter who we are or what we have done, we really matter to God.
I woke up this morning with a sense of excitement, threw back the curtains and…oh no. It was foggy and grey. The weather app had predicted sunshine and the heavy mist dampened my spirits as well as the ground. I was looking forward to a ride out on the bike under blue skies and bright sunlight. Now I would need to dress for the wet and return my cool cycling shades to the shelf.
Immediately, the voices started in my head. Not literal voices, but speaking powerfully to me all the same. ‘Take the day off.’ ‘You don’t want to go out in this weather.’ ‘The bike will get covered in salt and you’ll need to wash it when you get back.’ ‘My knees are aching anyway so best to give it a miss.’ ‘Wait until another day when the weather is better.’ ‘Go back to bed!’
It was as if everything inside me was subtly yet fiercely resisting what I really wanted to do. My creative mind was generating a whole host of rationalisations to convince me of a different course of action and, what is more, to persuade me it would be the right or best thing to do. Yet deep inside, somewhere, I wanted to go out on the bike and knew I would feel much better if I did.
There are parallels in my Christian experience where one part of me wants to live in relationship with God and yet another part struggles actively against it. (If you’re interested in this dimension, have a look at Romans 7 and 8 in the Bible). Projected across a lifetime, this struggle can be exhausting and calls me to something, someone, beyond myself to grow and know peace.
On the whole, it’s as if there are competing beliefs, values, motivations or dynamics within us that struggle for prominence, analogous to Freud’s struggle between the superego and the id. Willpower alone is insufficient to win the battle, although in some situations it works. Often, I’ve found I just need to ignore the voices of dissent: get the bike out or drive to the swimming pool.
Motivation theories suggest different factors that motivate us. Sometimes, it’s about moving towards something, e.g. ‘If I save hard enough, I will be able to buy that shiny new bike.’ Sometimes it’s moving away from something: ‘If I get this new job, I will be able to leave this terrible neighbourhood.’ Sometimes it’s about doing one thing to avoid having to do something else.
As leaders and mentors, we’re often engaged in helping people grow in awareness of subconscious motivations, or motivating them to move in a different direction or towards a more healthy and sustainable goal. It’s one reason why understanding motivations is important in leading change. The closer changes align with people’s motivations, the greater chance of success.
We get stuck when competing motivations leave us feeling paralysed, like the proverbial donkey that stands between equidistant piles of hay and dies of starvation because it can’t decide which pile to go for. We weigh up pros and cons and yet they still hang annoyingly in the balance. ‘Should I tell people in advance about possible changes or wait until the changes are finalised?’
I believe this is where skilful coaching can really help, e.g. by enabling a person to understand ‘what lies beneath’, identify wider systemic influences, paint a picture of a different desired future, release fresh possibilities for lifestyle and action. As for me, enough of writing this blog. It’s time to get the lycra shorts and t-shirt on and to head for the open road! :)
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
It’s Christmas Day and I could have better used the title Christmas mess-edge for this short piece. The story of Jesus Christ isn’t just a sweet and sentimental account of a baby boy born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago. If it’s true, it’s about God entering the very real messiness of our lives and world and offering the potential to transform them into something completely new. Something beyond our wildest dreams, hopes or expectations. Something that stretches and transcends the boundaries of all human existence and experience.
I’ve known something about this notion of stretching boundaries over this past year, about extending the edges of my own experience. I bought a new bike in the spring, challenged myself to cycle over 1000 miles in 6 months and over 50 miles in a single ride. I had never done anything like that before and yet I did it. I also challenged myself to swim 1 mile 3 times in the same week. And I did it. It felt like I had crossed over an important physical and psychological line, achieving things that had previously felt impossible for me.
I wrote and had published my first article with the British Association for Counselling and Psychology (BACP). I’d written lots of articles for different publications before but this felt like the next step up in a professional field that sits close to my heart. The editor of Coaching Today invited me to write on spirituality and I jumped at the chance. To top it off, I did my first ever series of radio interviews on spirituality too. It was a great opportunity and a novel experience so sit in a recording studio and to share my beliefs openly on air.
And if that was the end of the story, there would be no need for a Jesus, at least for me. But it’s far from the end. I’ve struggled and failed on so many fronts. Sometimes, I haven’t even struggled when I have known I should. I’ve known deeply and personally what Francis Spufford aptly calls the universal ‘human propensity to f* things up’ (Unapologetic, 2013). At times, I’ve failed in relationships, made mistakes at work, fallen short of my own standards, spoken when I should have kept quiet and kept quiet when I should have spoken.
What’s more, one of my closest friends has fought courageously with terminal illness. I’ve felt hopeful and helpless, trying to offer support where I could yet knowing I can’t make it OK. I’ve yearned to take the anxiety away but known that I can’t. I’ve watched Syria in the news, the damage that human beings are able to inflict on each others’ lives, on whole countries and regions. I’ve felt impotent and confused. Not all the time, but enough to know that redeeming the world is something I can take part in yet, ultimately, lies well beyond me.
And so as I reflect on Christmas, I know what it is to be an aspiring yet fragile human being. I’ve felt exciting moments on the edge of success and have known what it is to screw up and need forgiveness. I have felt the amazing love of others, often undeserved yet tangible all the same. At that first nativity, I believe God himself entered the messy complexity of our lives and world with the most profound message of love and hope possible. Not just in words but in a life well-lived and a promise of presence and eternal life. Merry Christ-mas!
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
Calling has long-standing roots in theistic spiritual traditions, often associated with being ‘called by God’ to a certain way of life or to a specific course of action. Existential psychologists have commented on how sometimes it feels like a situation is calling for its own response from us. In both cases, the source of the calling is attributed to someone or something beyond us. It’s a phenomenon that can feel like an evocative pull, tugging at something deep within us.
I’ve experienced this many times since becoming a Christian, a strange intuition that feels beyond me, prompting or leading me in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems very clear or inspiring, at others it’s more of a vague notion, a restlessness that compels me to move or change. I’ve often experienced it in coaching relationships too, an almost irresistible impulse to speak or act that feels like revelation, an energising compulsion from the situation itself.
It’s not magic, something I can make happen, something I can manufacture for myself. It’s sometimes unexpected, sometimes challenging and sometimes involves scary risk-taking. It’s not definitive either, something I can measure, test or prove in a lab. This can make the experience of calling feel mysterious, sometimes spiritual, a step in faith in response to a curious, invisible stimulus. It’s as if something ‘out there’ connects with something ‘in here’, setting up a dynamic resonance.
So how to apply this in leadership and coaching? How to listen for and discern calling in the midst of so many other tasks and preoccupations that clamour for our attention? How to weigh up calling in order to act wisely? In my experience, there is no simple formula. It’s mostly about learning to be still, to live with awareness, to tune into my intuition, to be sensitive to prompts from the situation itself, to experiment and see what happens, to be open to God in prayer.
I wish I could say I always follow this call. Sometimes I'm sceptical, sometimes I pull back for fear of embarrassment or failure. Nevertheless, I've seen and felt amazing things happen when I do listen and act. I would love to hear from others on this topic of calling. When have you felt called? What was the situation? What did the experience of calling feel like? What did you attribute the calling to? How did you act in response? What happened as a result?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.