The leadership gap – and the call to coaching

Published by matt on

22nd January 2017

What are the emergent challenges that leaders need most help with from their coaches?  I’m going to highlight two big themes here, which increasingly arise in both my own coaching practice and the coaching courses we are running at PCL – and which have resonance in the broader societal context of leadership to which we are all exposed if we follow the news.

I’m skipping over perennial themes, such as delivering performance, leading change and developing new skills or behaviours.  These bread and butter agendas of leadership are most likely familiar to any experienced executive or leadership coach.  Plenty of coaching blogs deal with these, so my aim here is look beyond to some of the more challenging aspects of leadership and what this means for coaching.

The first of my two meta-themes, is complexity.  Leaders face increasing complexity in their organisational environments as well as inner lives, sometimes combining with pressure and stress to the point of overwhelm, shutout or breakdown.  Dealing with complexity is a prime imperative for all of us and involves developing new levels of awareness, capacities for understanding and strategies for action.  Specifically, we need to develop our capacity for taking systemic perspectives (e.g. Seeing Systems, Barry Oshry, 2007), and engaging with systems forces (e.g. ‘Five Dimensions of Leadership’, Roger Evans, 2017). I emphasise the need for a systemic perspective here, because without it we are simply overwhelmed by content and detail, or worse, we deny and reduce complexity to fit our comfort zone of over-simplification, with potentially disastrous consequences.

To illustrate how this is playing out on the broader stage:

“…too many of the problems in societies today stem from leadership that is ill prepared to deal with present complexity. …too many leaders have been educated for a different time, a different world. Few are prepared for the task of dealing with the complexity and chaos of today when the usual formulas and stopgap solutions of an earlier era will not help”. (Jean Houston,

Adam Curtis’ latest documentary film of our times, HyperNormalisation (2016), echoes this state of affairs and tells the story of “How we got to this strange time of great uncertainty and confusion where those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed and have no idea what to do”.

Robb Smith ( expands upon this analysis of what is often now referred to as VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity): “…a rapidly-changing world that is in many ways moving too fast for all of us really is scary, uncomfortable and unsettling. We’re connected in ways we haven’t yet mastered, we’re learning at rates we can’t yet process and we are subject to forces we can’t hope to understand (even experts don’t really understand the complex dynamical systems at the core of their disciplines). We’re all in this messy, chaotic process together”.

And finally, an example Guardian columnist responding to the current crisis in society, “There is much dispute about the causes of this global disorder…but we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces…we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities.” Pankaj Mishra,

On our PGCPLC course we help coaches develop new perspectives on how human systems work and develop over time (e.g. with Frederic Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organizations’, 2014), as well as how to work systemically with clients (e.g. Systemic Coaching & Constellations, John Whittingdon, 2016).

Some challenging leadership questions about complexity

  • What are the complexities of your outer organisational world?  For example, multiple stakeholders and partnerships; rapidly changing markets; internal processes and projects; hidden politics, loyalties and motivations…
  • What are some of the complexities of your inner world? e.g. conflicting needs and motivations; creating synergy between your worlds of relationship, work, and self-understanding; aligning career direction with inner purpose and meaning; dealing with stress and crises…
  • How good are you at living with uncertainty and ambiguity?  Can you stay with not knowing? How much do you need to be in control?  How do you assert your need to be in control in complex or chaotic situations? Or do you withdraw or cut-off?
  • How developed is your systemic awareness?  Can you stand back from the human systems you are deeply involved in? Do you work with or against the systems forces in your organisation?

One word of warning – taking a systemic perspective isn’t just about clever objective systemic thinking (e.g. Senge’s Fifth Discipline). We need to include ourselves in the picture and combine big picture views with inner world (e.g. feelings, intuition, instincts) and psychological perspectives, in order to develop effective systemic practice.

My second meta-theme is being. As in the being of leadership being versus the doing of leadership, as in how to be a leader, as in creating the space for the human being in the workplace, as in being in right-relationship. The being dimension of leadership is also sometimes approached in terms of self-and-other awareness, or presence, or charisma. A door has also been opened to bringing or allowing the being to be more present in organisations through the growing popularity and acceptance of mindfulness practices (although ironically this often happens in very much a doing kind of way).

At PCL we suggest that successful leadership is as much about who you are and how you are, as about what you do (and the same is true for coaching).  Most leadership development focuses almost entirely on the doing aspect of leadership, the competencies, skills and behaviours, on strategies, tactics and execution.  Although the importance of leadership being is increasingly acknowledged, very little practical support or development of this dimension is offered.  Many good coaches might naturally bring their being to their coaching and nurture the being of their clients.  However, this can be pretty hit-and-miss so on our courses we explicitly help develop coaches’ awareness, capacity and subtle skills for working at the level of being, which we now refer to as coaching the being. This extends to helping leaders to do the same with the people they lead and create the context for what Frederic Laloux refers to as the principles of wholeness and purpose in evolutionary organisations.  Although, at an essential level, coaching the being is simply about being present, available and responsive to the other (e.g. Martin Buber’s I and Thou), attuning to our felt sense of being (see Euncie Aquilina’s ‘Embodying Authenticity’) and allowing the space between you (like in Patsy Rodenburg’s ‘Second Circle’ 2008), we very rarely find this easy given the busy-ness and clutter of both our inner lives and outer organisational worlds. As we grow and develop, our inner lives can actually become more complex and the impact of our unexplored history and unconscious drives more important.  Hence the need to explore our different levels (pre-personal, personal and transpersonal) of consciousness and unconsciousness and the psychological processes that work away in our psyche.

Some challenging questions about leadership being

  • What does it mean to bring your being, who you are most essentially, to your role as a leader? To what extent do you feel you do this?
  • Which parts of yourself do you bring to leadership and which parts do not come so easily?  Can you be vulnerable in your role as leader? Are you open to feedback?  Can you ask for help? Are you humble or hubristic?
  • How comfortable are you with finding time to deeply reflect in your day-to-day work? Are you addicted to busy-ness and activity? In what ways?
  • How quick are you to fill spaces and pauses in conversations and meetings with colleagues?  Do you allow surprises, unexpected ideas or insights to happen around you?

If this sounds interesting and you would like to explore your personal and professional development further, I invite you to find out about our Post-Graduate Certificate in Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching.  Our next five-month programme starts on 17 February 2017 and we have a few places left, so please hurry!

The next Fundamentals of Psychosynthesis also starts next Friday 27th January and I understand that there are some places left.

If you are an APECS member, I also draw your attention to the next Real Sessions on 24th January, titled Perspectives and Megatrends, which touches on the emergent challenges and complexity theme. Also please put a note in your diary of the APECS Symposium on June 7th at Henley Phyllis Court – more information about this to follow within the next few weeks.

Thanks for reading


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