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!
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?
My boss had been reading John Ortberg’s ‘Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them’ and it was time for us to plan our annual leadership team retreat. Looking for a theme title, he suggested half-jokingly, ‘How about ‘Everybody’s Weird’?’ I laughed at first but then thought for a moment…what a great concept and idea. It felt inspired. How to blow away any sense of normality and conformity and to meet each other afresh as we really are. Our creativity lies in our unique weirdness and what a great way to explore our individual quirkyness and its potential for the team and organisation.
Every group, every team, develops its own normative behaviours. Some even prescribe them by developing explicit competency and behavioural frameworks. It provides a sense of identity, stability and predictability. It can also improve focus and how people work together by establishing a set of ground rules, how we can be at our best. The flip side of all of this is that a team can begin to feel too homogeneous, too bland. It can lose its creative spark, its innovative spirit. The challenge was how to rediscover our differences, our wonderful, exciting, diversity in all its weird complexity.
We invited people to bring objects that represented something significant in their personal lives and to share their stories. We invited people to use psychometrics to explore their preferences to shared them in the group. We invited them to challenge the psychometric frames, not to allow themselves to be too categorised. We invited people to challenge stereotypes, to break the moulds they felt squeezed or squeezed themselves into, to look intently for what they didn’t normally notice in themselves and each other, to allow themselves to be surprised and inspired by what they discovered.
It felt like an energetic release. People laughed more, some cried more, others prayed deeply together. The burden of leadership felt lighter as people connected and bonded in a new way. It felt easier to challenge and to encourage. By relaxing into each other and themselves, people became more vibrant, more colourful, less stressed. They saw fresh possibilities that lay hidden from sight before. They discovered more things they liked about each other, fresh points of common passion, interest and concern. They built new friendships that eased their ways of working. It felt more like team.
What space do you and your organisation allow for weirdness? Do you actively seek, nurture and reward differences? Do your leadership style and culture bring out and celebrate individuals’ strange idiosyncracies, each person’s unique God-given gifts, talents and potential? Have you had experiences where a capacity for weirdness has enhanced your team or organisation’s creativity and innovation? Do you risk inadvertently squeezing out the best of weirdness by policies and practices that drive towards uniformity? Could a bit more weirdness be more inspiring and effective – and fun?! :)
I met with a group of Christian bikers yesterday who were discussing the Paris to Dakar rally. During the course of the conversation, the group leader spoke about the incredible teamwork and logistics involved in achieving success in such a gruelling event. He compared it by analogy to supporting each other as friends and fellow bikers on an exciting yet demanding journey of faith. He mentioned how we sometimes talk about the ideal team as a ‘well-oiled machine’. It was certainly a metaphor that appealed to the group. He went on, however, to challenge the metaphor. ‘A team isn’t a machine. It’s people. People like us. People like you and me. People who are different to each other, each with their own personality, talents – and quirky habits.’
He went on. ‘It’s that kind of team that I want to be part of. A team of friends who care deeply about each other, look out for each other, support each other, laugh together, cry together, pull together. A machine does none of those things. It’s cold, efficient, impersonal, inhuman. The machine metaphor is all about performance. The team I’m talking about is all about relationships.’ One bloke piped up with a playful glint in his eye. ‘This group is nothing like a well-oiled machine. It’s more like a buckled wheel – and I love it!’ As I looked around the room at these leather clad men, each with his own mixed life story of brokenness and success, I could see what he meant. There’s something about this team that's intensely human, personal and real.
I reflected more as I rode home. I thought back to teambuilding events I’ve been involved with, team coaching experiences, team models and technical scientific psychometrics. This man wasn’t simply advocating a different team model to the norm, a different team focus or approach. He was advocating a radically different existential–spiritual paradigm to that we find in many Western organisations today. He was challenging an over-emphasis on performance and efficiency that loses sight of humanity and meaning. I was taken back to a conversation with an African colleague who once commented, ‘I know Western organisations are preoccupied with targets and metrics. Our invitation, however, is to meet with us as people and to walk together.’
Is this hopelessly naïve, idealistic and unrealistic? What about all the pressures organisations face in increasingly competitive markets? What about increasing demands from boards, employees and shareholders for greater accountability, productivity and profits? What about organisational cultures that foster internal competition too? I agree, it’s a real challenge. It calls for visionary, courageous leadership, a radical step back to consider deep questions of identity, meaning and purpose at organisational and wider stakeholder levels. It begs profound questions, e.g.‘What is influencing our beliefs about what is most important to us?’ ‘What is driving our behaviour?’, ‘How can we be more human?’, ‘What legacy do we want to leave in the world?’
I’ve had the privilege of working with some leadership teams that have taken this challenge seriously. Admittedly, it felt counter-intuitive at the time, especially at first. How to build in a more explicit spiritual-humanising dimension to the organisation’s thinking, practice and culture in the midst of intense organisational busyness, pressures and deadlines? Wouldn’t it take more time than was available, slow things down? I could feel the understandable tension alongside the aspiration. One team decided to bite the bullet. Its 2hr meetings had constantly packed agendas. It struggled to work through everything and the pressure felt relentless. Some felt tired and wondered in conversations offline about their team’s sustainability and their own ability to cope.
We discussed how it would feel to check in with each other and with God at the start of each meeting - and they were open to experiment. We decided to allow 20 mins of each 2 hour meeting so that people could arrive and breathe before diving into business. As they settled in, they shared stories of how they were feeling, what was happening in their worlds at the moment, what was preoccupying them. They practised active listening, being genuinely present to each other. Sometimes they prayed. At the end of the 20 mins, they felt more relaxed and focused with a stronger sense of team spirit. They used the next 5 minutes to revisit the agenda: ‘What now stands out as most important to us?’ ‘How shall we do this?’, ‘What do we need to do this well?’
The team commented after practising this for a few months on how it had transformed their relationships and meetings. Their times together felt more focused, inspiring, energising, open, honest, human, and productive. They achieved higher quality and faster results. They began to identify ways of working that served them well (e.g. speak up; hear well; challenge; support) and used bright green cards light-heartedly to signal and affirm when anyone in the team modelled those behaviours. When others joined them for their meetings, they explained their new team culture and invited them to join in too. The effect was electric. It modelled inspiring team values and effective ways of working that extended beyond the team into the wider organisation.
So, some questions for reflection. What difference do you, your team and organisation want to be and to make in the world? How far and how often do teams you are part of feel and act like a human place? What are your best and worst experiences of team? What made the biggest difference? What kind of person, team or organisation do you aspire to be and become? What kind of personal, team and organisational leadership will it call for to succeed? What will 'success' look and feel like for those involved and impacted by it? What values, practices and culture will others notice characterise your team? What place, if any, do God, spirituality and prayer take in your thinking and practice as a team? I would love to hear from you!
The first thing I notice is the random cluster of bikes parked outside the café ranging from Japanese street machines to British and American cruisers. I wander inside and get myself a hot mug of tea. There are no formal welcomes, only various bikers in black leathers and motorcycle gear sitting in small groups, talking earnestly or laughing as they chat together. The leader walks in. He has long hair, a wispy beard and piercing blue eyes. This man, Graham, has an unusual warmth in his smile as he glances around, beckoning informally to whoever is interested to join him in the room next door. We get up and slowly wander in across the cold hallway. The seats, like their occupants, are covered in black leather. It’s chilly inside and there’s a single oil-filled heater in the corner.
The conversation starts easily, people speaking in relaxed tones as they talk about the ride in, things that have been happening at work in the past week, ordinary things, everyday things. There is no ecclesiastical language, no religious jargon, no speaking in stuffy tones. It feels natural, real. I wonder what’s going to happen next, curious about this earthy bunch of heaven’s angels. This was my first encounter with a Christian Motorcyclists’ Association (CMA) meeting, a loose organisation of ordinary blokes who share two passions: bikes and Jesus. One person talks about how much he struggles to get his head around anything to do with God at the moment, feels very messed up like everything is going wrong in his life. Others around the room nod and empathise. He looks reassured.
Another talks excitedly about his return to faith after years in the drugs and clubs scene. He is energetic and animated as he speaks and his enthusiasm is infectious. Another looks thoughtful and talks about how, when he’s working on his bike, he gets totally focused on it. He goes on to comment how easy it is to get preoccupied with things, whether good or bad. The conversation, like the bikes outside, feels random but a strange flow emerges. The bloke next to me chips in, ‘If we focus on something long enough, act on it consistently enough, we become defined by it.’ The bloke next to him agrees and says ‘Yes, like anger. If we allow someone to anger us, they control us.’ Another says, ‘Yes, and if you are always angry, it becomes who you are.’ The room falls silent.
One by one, these men start to share stories about when they’ve been angry, when someone has really wound them up, treated them unfairly, different things they’ve tried to deal with it. It gets quite heated at points and Graham chips in with Jesus’ teaching and example of forgiveness, how meaningful it is, how healing it can be. It felt unforced, timely, but I wonder how the others will react. They start mulling over this, how difficult it can be, what it feels like when they manage it even if only for a short time. You can tell these blokes want to get it right, want to follow Jesus’ example, and they’re instinctively determined not to gloss over realities. They close by praying out loud, whoever wants to, speaking on behalf of the group. ‘God, help us because we can’t do this stuff on our own.’
The meeting closes and we stroll back into the café. The whole thing has lasted just 30 mins. I feel immediately inspired and challenged by what I’ve just seen, heard, felt, being part of. I don’t own a bike (although I've owned 21 and crashed 19) but these guys accept me, a stranger. As we chat and laugh over bacon and egg, they are the same in the café as they were in the room. No facades, no pretence. They’re happy to get their hands dirty and their faith is very practical too, looking out for each other, providing pastoral care at biker events, running charitable activities, praying for people who need support. We exit the café, the bikes rumble off with a snarling roar…and I’m left with the distinct impression I’ve been in the presence of Jesus. (www.bike.org.uk/cma)
It was minus 7 so I got up early to scrape ice off the car windows. The journey to the train station that followed felt like torture. I got stuck behind a JCB for 10 miles with nowhere to pass. It reached a peak of 20mph and I kept glancing at the clock anxiously. Was I going to make it? I could feel the frustration like a tight knot in my stomach. Every passing moment felt like slow motion. I kept looking ahead, hoping for a clear stretch to overtake. It took forever. When I finally did get past, I felt like waving an angry gesture at the JCB driver. ‘How could you be such a *£%!&$* pain?!’
I left the car and jogged the final 10 minutes to the station. According to the clock, I’d missed the train but adrenaline spurred me on. On arrival, breathless, I discovered the train was running late. I caught it, stepped on board just as it pulled into the station. I sighed with great relief. Yet what a waste of nervous energy. The pressure I put myself under not to miss the train. The imagined exaggerated consequences if I were to arrive late. The risk of dangerous driving in icy conditions. My ungracious attitude towards the JBC driver. The life draining stress of an impatient journey.
How much of my life I live under self-imposed pressure. The deadlines I create for myself. The expectations I place on myself. The determination to arrive on time, never to be late. The avoidance of risks that could lead to a mistake. The drive to do everything perfectly. The unwillingness to let a ball drop. The desire always to do well, never to fail. Such pressures can drive me inwards, close me down, cause me to lose contact with God, lose contact with people. It leaves me tired, stressed, anxious, irritable, frustrated and self-centric. It’s not the kind of person I want to be.
I can almost hear God whispering to me, ‘Stop…look...listen...look up and around you…breathe…’ It’s about regaining perspective, keeping the most important things in view. Not losing sight of the people, the things, the issues, the actions that matter most. It’s about loosening my grip, learning to prioritise, learning to negotiate, increasing flexibility. I know these things in my head, I practice them in my work, but the experience this morning has flashed into consciousness with renewed energy and vision. It’s something about learning to live, to love and to know peace.
Strategic thinking is about keeping the big picture in view. It’s often about asking the right questions, questions that frame or reframe an issue and place it in a broader perspective. It’s about stepping back, raising awareness, challenging assumptions, discerning what’s most important. This demands listening to God, our environment, ourselves and each other.
In order to do this well, we need to develop an ability to step back from immediate detail, plans and activity. Imagine yourself with a camera. It’s about zooming out to see the wider landscape, the ‘what else’ that can go unnoticed. It’s often the bigger frame that makes sense of what we’re seeing when we zoom in. It provides context, a basis for meaning-making.
The value of stepping back mentally, metaphorically zooming out in this way, is that we can re-evaluate our priorities, our direction, what we’re spending time and resources on, how we’re approaching things, whether we’re focusing on the right things, whether we’re allowing ourselves to become distracted by things that are not adding optimum value.
One way to develop our strategic thinking ability is to jot down sample questions that can help draw the big picture into view. ‘What do our customers or beneficiaries value most?’, ‘What are our competitors planning and doing?’, ‘What are the major forces driving change in our environment or sector?’, ‘What challenges and opportunities are emerging over the horizon?’
Be open and curious. ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for our different stakeholders?’, ‘What do we do best?’, ‘What do we feel called to do?’, ‘Who are our potential allies?’, ‘What assumptions are we making?’, ‘What are we avoiding?’, ‘How are we constraining ourselves?’, ‘What might someone else see that we’re not seeing?’
Another way is to start with a day to day issue, perhaps something you’re working on at the moment. At an operational level, the key concern is how to do it well to achieve the desired results. It’s as if the frame has already been set. ‘This is what I need to do. I will spend my time, effort and resources on working out how best to achieve it, then do it.’
Now step back from the same issue a little and ask yourself or invite someone else to ask you some wider tactical questions. ‘What is it that makes this task so important?’, ‘What other ways could I achieve the same, or even better result?’, ‘How does what I’m doing dovetail with related tasks that others are doing?’, ‘How well does this serve our overall team goals?’
Take successive steps back until the questions you are asking draw the wider external environment and future considerations into account (as above). Now you are likely to be approaching a strategic level. The further you step back, the more research it is likely to entail. It’s about moving outwards from your normal frame of reference to consider wider issues that may prove pivotal.
What all these questions do so far is to develop an awareness of ‘what else is in the picture that we should take account of in our key decisions?’ In other words, they focus on the ‘what’. The next stage involves discernment, or the ‘so what’. What does all you’ve been thinking about, looking at, exploring and researching point towards that could be significant?
Facing multiple issues, knowns and unknowns, clarity and ambiguity, can feel bewildering. In light of this, moving forward may best involve working with others, drawing on shared thinking, experience, intuition, listening and prayer. ‘What are we hearing?’, ‘What should we pay attention to and what can we safely ignore?’
The final phase, the ‘now what’, involves making strategic decisions. These are the fundamental decisions that will form the basis of subsequent strategising and planning. The best decisions provide focus and clarity. ‘This is how the strategy will achieve our vision’, ‘This is what we will do and not do’, ‘This is how we will resource the organisation to achieve it.’
The process as a whole is about learning to plan with our eyes open. It’s about seeking to be open, exercising wise judgement and making sound decisions. In light of the fluid, rapidly changing and often unpredictable environments that many organisations are facing these days, strategic review and re-focus is now more often an on-going than periodic venture.
Griffin & Tyrrell in their excellent book, How to Master Anxiety, talk about the ‘three pertinent Ps’ that can contribute to anxiety or depression. It’s something to do with how a person perceives events or experiences and what meaning he or she attributes to them. Using this model, the coaching task could be to help a person surface and test his or her assumptions and conclusions.
The first P is ‘personalising’. It’s about whether the person believes that what happens to and around them is a result of something he or she has done. ‘I must have done something to offend her’, ‘It’s all my fault’. It’s as if the person perceives him or herself as the cause of whatever happens. It moves beyond, ‘I may have contributed to this’ to believing, ‘I’m solely responsible for it.’
The next P is ‘pervasiveness’. It’s about whether the person believes that the impacts of an event or experience in one aspect of his or her life or work extends to all other aspects. ‘It’s all ruined’, ‘I’m hopeless at everything’. It’s as if the person perceives a single incident or experience as indicative of how everything is. It’s a case of rash generalisation from the specific.
The third P is ‘permanence’. It’s about whether the person believes that an experience or the consequences of an action will extend forever into the future. ‘It will always be the same’, ‘This will ruin my whole life.’ It’s as if the person believes a current experience is a definitive predictor of how life and work will be from now on. There is no room for alternative possibilities.
Now there are of course situations where a person may indeed be responsible for something that happens, e.g. he or she may have said or done something that upset a colleague. The person may have taken a decision or acted in a way that had wider consequences than expected. The person may have experienced something genuinely challenging or life-changing.
The ‘pertinent Ps’ are about making incorrect inferences or assumptions, attributing causal relationships where there may be none, drawing invalid conclusions and projecting a fixed view onto reality and the future that, if combined with what I would call a fourth P, ‘pessimism’, trap the person in a stressful, despondent world that could lead to anxiety or depression.
I mention the pessimistic dimension because it’s possible, for instance, that a different person could experience the same ‘pertinent Ps’ positively, e.g. attribute positive experiences to themselves, believe that success in one area means success in all areas, imagine a bright future on the basis of what’s happening now. In this case, the person may feel confident and optimistic.
The difference and potential coaching solution may lie in a fifth P, ‘perspective’. As we have noticed, it’s something to do with how a person perceives an experience or event. Albert Ellis noted this in his ABC theory of emotion. What a person feels is a consequence of what she or believes about an event or experience, rather than a direct consequence of the event or experience itself.
The tricky part in coaching is that changing perspective is sometimes easier said than done. After all, our perspectives are shaped by history, including previous relationships and experiences, and culture. They can feel so familiar, so much part of us, so intrinsic to our way of seeing and experiencing the world, that to change them can feel threatening or disorientating.
A sixth P, ‘person’, can make a difference. When a client feels authentic interest, empathy and support from a significant other, which could include the coach him or herself, he or she is more likely to feel less anxious, less defensive, and thereby more open to consider alternative perspectives. It’s as if the relationship itself allows the metaphorical cognitive dust to settle.
One final P, ‘prayer’, can draw these domains together with profound effect. Deep prayer is trusting, loving relationship, sharing intimate presence with the ultimate significant Other. It’s a here and now experience where we are drawn and inspired into see a glimpse of the broadest possible perspective. It can become a true source optimism and confidence for both client and coach.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.