‘I turned my head and saw yet another wisp of smoke, on its way to nothingness…’ (King Solomon)
On three separate occasions, a female grass roots activist in the Philippines was followed at night by strangers: men on motorbikes. As she walked alone, they would ride slowly and menacingly behind her, aiming to threaten and intimidate her into silence. She had taken a very public stance against corruption in high places – a stance that, for other activists in her country, had resulted in a deadly blade or a bullet in the back from a passing motorcyclist.
Undeterred, this young woman turned around and confronted the bikers, fearlessly: ‘Even if you kill me, you can’t take my life.’ She’s a radical follower of Jesus who has chosen a determined, startling and courageous life stance at the cutting edge of faith. It stands in stark contrast to the greyness of nothingness that the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks to at the start of this blog. It’s a spiritual-existential stance that holds the potential to transform…everything.
Zoom out now, back to our own lives. Strip back the trappings and tear away the superficial facades. What lays behind and beneath for us? This is the deep stuff of spiritual and existential coaching. It touches on fundamental questions: identity, meaning, purpose and stance. ‘Human life must be risked if it is to be won.’ (Jürgen Moltmann). ‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis). I don’t want my life to be a wisp of smoke. You?
(See also: Deep; Spirituality in coaching; Existential coaching)
‘What is it your plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ (Mary Oliver)
Íñigo López de Loyola suggests a fast-forward in your imagination to the end of your life, then to ask yourself seriously from that standpoint what you will want your life story to have been. Having decided it, rewind back to the present and ensure that your vision of the future guides your priorities, decisions and actions now. This idea resonates with Stephen Covey’s 'begin with the end in mind', and Simon Sinek’s 'start with why'. According to John Kotter, if our vision is convincing enough to the mind and compelling enough to the heart, we are most likely to see it through. Without such a vision, we may drift meaninglessly.
I believe the best visions are rooted deeply in ethics and values and, in essence, a fulfilment of them. I have been incredibly inspired by Jasmin’s vision, a poor follower of Jesus who lives among the poor in the Philippines: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ The challenge is not just in the aspiration itself but in her sheer determination to live it out in practice. She scares me.
My own vision is shaped by a trust in God too. I slip and slide on route and have sustained and caused too many scars to prove it, yet Jesus still influences profoundly the purpose, focus, boundaries and possibilities of my life and my work. As I get older, I'm experiencing a subtle and gradual shift from what I want to do in the future, to what legacy I want to leave behind me. It doesn’t feel like a mid-life crisis. Echoing Richard Rohr, it feels more like a falling upward than a falling apart. I still want to make a significant, positive and tangible difference in the lives of the poor and most vulnerable people in the world. I – you – we can be hope.
What’s your vision for 2022 and beyond? How will it influence your decisions now?
‘The opportunity to make effective personal choices is highly unequal.’ (Robert A. Dahl - After the Revolution)
New Years’ Resolutions. A time and practice in Western cultures when some of the more reflective or impulsive among us will commit to do something new. It could be, for instance, a new relationship, a new job, a new home, a new diet or a new fitness routine. For many people, very soon after having made a decision, the resolve will dissolve and be lost in the mists of time. Yet central to this idea of resolution is the notion of personal choice and, with it, the principle that I can succeed in achieving what I choose – if I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
I often create (prayerfully) a list of key aspirations at the start of each year, then put practical steps in place so that, all things being equal, I will be able to look back at the end of that year and see that I have fulfilled them. The goals are intentionally inspiring and stretching. They are, with God’s help, within my grasp and, therefore, possible. On the whole, this discipline works by ensuring focus, parameters and accountability. It also centres on people and things that are genuinely important to me and, thereby, taps into values, motivation and determination.
We can think of this choosing-acting-influencing phenomenon as exercising personal agency. Shaun Gallagher describes this as, ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action’. ‘I can choose’ is a profound existential, psychological and political statement and stance. It means I can break out beyond the apparent default of my circumstances. We hold the potential to be catalysts of real change in the world, within ourselves as well as in broader relationships and situations – and this brings opportunity and responsibility.
I can choose and you can choose. I think vividly of Jasmin in the Philippines, a poor woman among the poor who chooses to follow Jesus’ call and example, whatever the cost. Rather than allowing herself to be limited by her circumstances or by expediency, she exercises radical personal agency and transforms everyone and everything in her path. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are famous examples of women too who take personal choice, action and influence seriously – and, similarly, at considerable personal risk.
There are wider dimensions. A person's sense and scope of agency are affected by structural factors that transcend the individual, e.g. social status; wealth; education; gender; ethnicity; culture. Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische observed that a person’s lived experience limits what possible alternatives or future scenarios he or she is able to imagine. Paulo Freire proposed, on a similar basis, that critical consciousness (‘conscientisation’) is a necessary condition for people to exercise freer choices and agency for change.
I worked with a client from Myanmar and asked her what she dreamed of. She looked at me blankly then responded that she was unable to conceive of a different reality to the one that she had lived until now. She felt crushed by the mental and practical constraints of living as an ethnic minority in a country dominated by a military dictatorship. The impact of unequal and unjust social-political power is not a fixed determinant of agency – but the stark psychological and tangible inequalities of choice and opportunity it engenders are significant.
Other influences include personal confidence, competence and capacity. If a person operates psychologically and relationally from a secure base with trust and support, he or she is more likely to choose to take a positive risk. If, conversely, someone is and-or feels alone and has experienced or anticipates unfair discrimination, negative evaluation or other painful consequences, to act can feel hazardous – especially if the stakes are high. Agency can demand energy, courage and resilience. A person may not (yet) feel ready, willing or able to take that step.
If a client is unaware of or avoiding personal agency, William Glasser suggests stimulating his or her sense of reality, responsibility and relationship in order to enable more life-giving choices. If stuck in a pattern of apathy or passivity, John Blakey and Ian Day propose offering high challenge with high support. If we risk inadvertently colluding with or disempowering a client, Reg and Madge Batten advise focusing attention on what the person can do for him- or herself and, only after that, what we could do by agreement with them, or on their behalf.
Viktor Frankl, victim of Nazi persecution concluded that, fundamentally: ‘The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond.’ In our personal, social and political lives, we can see how a person’s choices, actions and influence are affected by a diverse range of factors. These include the privileges a person may hold (or not) and the opportunities he or she has benefited from by birth, background or context. Jesus – help me choose this year to exercise my own agency for the life and liberation of others. We can be hope.
(Would you like to discover how to exercise greater personal agency? Get in touch!)
'Not all those who wander are lost.' (J.R.R. Tolkien)
I felt ridiculously excited last week to get first class train tickets for the same price as second. It was a brand-new experience for me. Not used to this level of luxury, every time a steward passed by and offered me food or drink I asked, hesitantly, ‘Is it free?’ They looked back at me and smiled, perhaps with a hint of pity in their eyes, and said, ‘Yes sir, it’s included in the price of your ticket.’ Wow. I’ve never eaten so many bags of crisps, ham-salad sandwiches and chocolate brownies. Amazing.
Yet a far more adventurous journey for me was 4 years ago, from the UK to the Philippines. 30 mins drive + 2 hours on train + 2 hours wait in airport + 12 hours flight to Hong Kong + 2 hours transition in airport + 2 hours to Cebu (West Ph) + 30 mins motorbike to port + 2 hours wait + 12 hours ship to Samar (East Ph) + 30 mins drive in car + 30 mins on motorbike + 30 mins up-river on boat + 30 mins trek through jungle – to arrival. The warm welcome of Waray children made it all worthwhile!
That was, however, nothing compared to the journey of a Christian biker friend, ‘Iron Butt Rob’, who met and prayed with me at the start of that journey then set off at exactly the same time as I did on a gruelling non-stop 1800-mile motorbike ride to all 4 extreme corners of the UK. The whole time I was on route, he was riding…and riding…through torrential rain to finish at the same time as I did. His remarkable feat raised sponsorship money to support the Filipina activist who was hosting me.
Yet perhaps a deeper journey still was into that amazing encounter with those 120 children. They had never met a foreigner and, as we walked between their simple wooden huts, they smiled, laughed, held our hands and skipped along in front of us. They joined in everything we did with infectious energy and, astonishingly, appreciated absolutely everything. When we left a few days later, the children picked wildflowers as gifts as we meandered back to the boat. We all cried as we said goodbye.
When have you taken a life-giving or life-changing journey – literally or metaphorically? What impact has it had on you?
Running for the school bus every morning felt like hard work. I don’t know why I didn’t just get up a bit earlier but, hey, I was a teenager. I remember vividly having my attention caught by a programme on TV featuring Timothy Gallwey and his revolutionary idea of The Inner Game. I think it served as an introduction for me to the world of psychological insight. I practised his idea, focusing away from the activity itself onto something else as a distraction, and the running became smoother, easier.
Some years later, the UK’s Guardian Newspaper ran an advertisement on TV, Point of View, that challenged perspective and interpretation. It invited viewers to re-think their own ways of making meaning of events, including the implicit risks of assumptions and prejudice. I found the ad’s message simple yet profound. It was at a time when the need to question everything was already pulsating through my own mind, within a prevailing culture that seemed to question far too little.
Later still, I saw a psychology experiment on TV, The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, designed to test selective attention. The narrator invited viewers to try the test for themselves by watching a short video clip with specific instructions to follow. She also suggested that viewers record it so that they could play it back afterwards. I dutifully followed the instructions and was so completely astonished by the results that I did play it back to check if I’d been tricked.
Such influences, among others which now included my Christian faith, drew me into the professional fields of psychological coaching, training and organisation development (OD). I continue to be curious, intrigued and amazed by the dazzling weirdness, complexity and potential of people, teams, groups and organisations, and by different cultures. I hope and pray I will never lose that sense of wonder. Who or what have been the earliest or greatest influences on your life and career?
‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ (Maya Angelou)
It was a dire and inspiring experience, a hospital for children with severe disabilities in a desperately poor country under military occupation. Conditions were severe, the children were abandoned by their families and the staff were often afraid, suspecting the children were demon-possessed and, therefore, holding them disdainfully at arms’ length. A fellow volunteer, Ottmar Frank, took a starkly different stance. He was a humble follower of Jesus and I have rarely witnessed such compassion at work. I asked him what lay behind his quiet persistence and intense devotion. He said, ‘I want to love these children so much that, if one of them dies, they will know that at least one person will cry.’
Ottmar’s words and his astonishing way of being in the world still affect me deeply today; the profound impact of his presence, and how my own ‘professional’ support and care felt so cold by comparison. I remember the influence he had on others too – how, over time, some others started to emulate his prayer, patience, gentle touch and kindness – without Ottmar having said a word. It invites some important questions for leaders and people, culture and change professionals. If we are to be truly transformational in our work, how far do we role model authentic presence and humanity, seeing the value in every person and conveying through our every action and behaviour: ‘You matter’?
‘Will not conform.’ (Christian Biker)
Misfit. Outsider. Square peg in a round hole. Rocks the boat. Shakes the tree. Breaks the mould. You may have worked with one. You may be one. There are different types of deviance; configured around, 'acceptance or rejection of cultural values and goals' on the one hand and, 'acceptance or rejection of conventional ways to achieve them' on the other (Robert Merton). This means that, if you consider me disruptive, it’s likely to be because I challenge what you want and/or do, and/or how you do it.
A deviant person can feel very uncomfortable to be around, unsettling as a colleague and difficult to manage. The answer to the question, ‘Is he or she a good fit?’ will be a resounding, ‘No’. A deviant person is a testing stone that reveals a contrasting norm; and he/she may galvanise a sense of shared identity and purpose among those who do fit: ‘We are X, not Y’. An oft-unquestioned assumption is that the defiant-dissident should change to fit in, and not that prevailing goals or culture should change.
Yet constructive divergence can be a critical catalyst for transformation: ‘I’m proud to be maladjusted’ (Martin Luther King); ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’ (Eleanor Roosevelt). Performance enhancers look for positive deviants that display exceptional qualities, then seek to replicate them. Psychological coaches help people to learn from their positive deviant experiences: ‘when the problem isn’t a problem’ (Mark Tyrrell). Radical leaders invite positive deviance to innovate, to break through.
How deviant is your thinking and practice? How do you enable positive deviance in others?
‘My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes; most of which never happened.’ (Michel de Montaigne)
Imagination can be a rich blessing and a painful curse. On the one hand, it can enable the most amazing creativity and innovation; on the other, it can cause the most terrible suffering and pain. Learning to handle and harness the power of the imagination can be a very valuable skill. Yet it can feel like trying to tame a wild horse. We sense and feel its power and potential but can never quite control it. Sometimes it can inspire or entertain us; at other times, it can terrify or overwhelm us.
I remember an advert for an organisation that supports people with a frightening, degenerative, physical disease. It said quite simply, yet so poignantly, ‘It’s what goes through your mind that’s the worst’. I remember, too, a colleague who comments that, ‘The past exists only in memory; the future exists only in imagination.’ Imagination creates the possibility to experience as-if reality, now. So, if that means experiencing our happiest dreams – good; if our worst nightmares – not good.
An opportunity and a challenge is that the brain doesn’t distinguish sharply between actual reality and as-if reality. This means that, if we imagine something vividly enough, it can be as if, mentally, emotionally and physically, we go through that experience for real. That's great for fields like, say, Appreciative Inquiry that capitalise on positive imagination to create a better and brighter future; not great for professionals who experience, say, vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress.
How do you draw on the immense power of imagination to achieve positive change? How do you avoid or address its potentially damaging effects?
Cliché: ‘There’s no I in Team’. Linguistically correct; yet conceptually so wrong! Inspiring and effective teamwork is always a dynamic interplay between I, you, we and they. It’s the magic that occurs where personal leadership and team leadership intersect and collide; releasing fresh insight, energy and potential. Here (below) is a short case example. What do you think?
I remember their faces vividly. I was invited to work as team coach with a leadership team that was experiencing significant conflict. Our introductory meeting was filled with deafening silences, with team members looking around or down at their notes to avoid painful eye contact. The next step was to meet with each team member individually. A resounding, recurring theme emerged: the conflict was between 2 team members, with each of the 2 attributing the blame to the other, and the rest of the team were innocent bystanders. It was the 2 protagonists who needed to change.
I invited each of the bystanders, separately, to look back to the last time conflict erupted in a team meeting. ‘What happened?’ They each described the behaviour of the 2. ‘And what did you do?’ They each described sitting back, saying nothing. ‘And why was that?’ Their responses ranged from, ‘I didn’t want to get caught up in the conflict’ to, ‘I didn’t want to be seen as taking sides’ to, ‘I didn’t want to make things worse.’ I pressed on with the challenge, ‘So, as a leader, what could-will you do differently next time?’ They looked bemused, or alarmed, and shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.
What we are seeing here is an intersection between personal leadership and team leadership. The conflict between the 2 was influenced, or supported, or sustained, by the behaviour, the passivity, of the wider group. I teased out different scenarios with the bystanders, the kinds of interventions they could make instead: e.g. ‘I feel really uncomfortable when this kind of conflict breaks out in a meeting.’; ‘When you 2 fight, I find myself withdrawing.’; ‘Let’s find another way to tackle this that doesn’t get so heated.’; ‘Let’s look at how to hold robust conversations that feel more constructive.’
At the next team meeting, I invited team members to share their reflections from our conversations, along with what they would take responsibility for and what they were willing to do. I was amazed by the courage and humility that surfaced: ‘I sometimes sit quietly and don’t say anything when I should. I’m going to try to speak up in future. I want you to help me to do it.’; ‘I play it safe when I should take more risks. From now on, I’m going to say what I’m thinking and feeling, even if I feel scared.’ It was the start of a transformational leadership-team process…where everyone changed.
How can I help you build a more inspiring and effective team? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Being in the question is wondering what things mean instead of assuming you already know…It involves treating your first thought as a hypothesis rather than as a statement of truth…It means being willing to learn something new about a situation. The first step is to consider the possibility that the situation may not be as it seems.’ (Latting & Ramsey, 2009)
I was encouraged to glance at this book, Reframing Change, recently after having posted a blog on a similar theme. I love the idea of ‘being in the question’. Posing a question is the act of projecting an inquiry outwards. By contrast, being in the question is about our own presence, attitude and stance – a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity – and a willingness to invite challenge.
It’s so different to proposing a solution. At times, we jump to answers too quickly, draw conclusions too rashly and potentially miss a deeper meaning, a greater significance that could change our thinking, our lives, our organisations, our world. This is a high cost of our do-it-now, instant, everything-in-the-moment, high speed culture. We lose the ability to reflect and to…....wait.
Perhaps being in the question is one reason why e.g. Jesus and Socrates had such a profound impact. Perhaps it is why coaching and therapy can be so transformative. Perhaps it is why rediscovering not-knowing is a theme in so many books on leadership and change today. Two questions: How far are you ‘being in the question’? How are you enabling others to be so too?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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