What are we learning about leadership coaching?

Published by matt on

4th October 2016

Back in March I celebrated the completion of our first PGCPLC programme, with the following: Many thanks to each of our co-pioneers for trusting us enough to embark on this journey of learning and discovery (to see some of the feedback look here).  Together we have given birth to something exciting and unique that we are now ready to take out more fully into the world.  By this I mean that Psychosynthesis leadership coaching has become established as an evolving practice in its own right – to some extent building upon and consolidating what has come before, but also synthesising and evolving new directions.  In particular, the synthesis of the psychospiritual perspective (e.g. Assagioli) with the developmental (e.g. Laloux) with the systemic (e.g. Whittington) establishes a very powerful platform for leadership coaching within an organisational context.

I added I would write something in the near future to expand upon our experience of learning and discovery from this founding course, and this it is (later than intended).  It would be impossible to do justice to all the learning from that first programme so I will not attempt to.  As a team of tutors (Paul, Ruth, Peter and myself), we have already listen to the feedback from the participants, reflected upon how to improve the course and hopefully we are incorporating this in our second programme.  This includes (i) streamlining the theoretical content, (ii) improving the flow and sequencing of key ideas, (iii) shifting the learning style towards experiential learning followed by sense-making, rather than theory followed by experience and (iv) giving more time to triads coaching practice and the group process of unpacking learning about what works in terms of coaching skills and techniques.

So this piece is a very personal and partial perspective on the learning from the first programme. I am simply going to touch upon a number of themes around which my perspective on leadership coaching was changed by the course and our engagement with the pioneering students on this first programme.

Three perspectives on leadership coaching

By the end of the first programme, we had more fully evolved the the three-part theoretical underpinning to our approach to leadership coaching.  Psychosynthesis is our core psychology and provides the organising context and method for coaching with Trifocal Vision. The developmental perspective of Frederic Laloux (who neatly synthesises other contributors in this field such as Wilber, Graves, Loevinger and Kegan) provides an essential navigational perspective, both for the development of leaders and the situational diagnosis of the organisations in which they find themselves. Awareness of the transitional crises that leaders go through, as they shift between paradigms or worldviews, enhances the psychosynthetic understanding of the crises that arise from the individual journey of growth shifting between self-actualisation and self-realisation, e.g. crises of duality and meaning.  The third leg of our stool is the systemic perspective, which again is both important to working with individual leadership coaching clients and also essential in contextualising their organisational situations.  Assagioli understood the collective nature of human beings and the importance of systemic context, however thinking in this field was embryonic in his day.  Roger Evans identifies systemic awareness as one of his Five Dimensions of Leadership and I know from personal experience the importance he places on taking this perspective when coaching within organisational systems.  Through the first programme we found some practical ways to quickly equip coaches with systemic tools for their coaching, with material from Barry Oshry (thanks to Peter Young) and John Whittington (thanks to Ruth Rochelle). Whittington in particular has translated Bert Hellinger’s work on family constellations into practical methods for coaching individuals and groups within organisations and Ruth ran a group constellation in our final workshop to show how it works.

I have been pondering whether adding developmental and systemic thinking as complementary perspectives to psychosynthesis is more important for leadership coaching than life coaching.  Sometimes coaching life clients may not seem to need these wider perspectives, but I also have many experiences of supervising life coaches where the lack of either developmental or systemic awareness was getting the coach into trouble (but this is not the place to go into the specifics of these cases.)  With life clients, family constellations may be more relevant than organisational constellations, and indeed with leadership clients, family systems are also always present and may need to be visited.

Meta skills expanded

Overall I feel that the key distinction in our competencies model between core human skills, coaching process skills and meta-skills is still valid, having tested this with two different groups.  The value of the distinctions is as much pragmatic as theoretical: core human skills are universal and widely taught within personal and leadership development programmes; coaching process skills are professional skills specific to coaching but also partially transferable from similar professional roles, e.g. counselling or consulting; meta-skills are not widely taught or even recognised in organisations and are instrumental for coaches and leaders alike in making the shift to evolutionary (or teal) thinking.  An alternative approach would be to sub-divide human skills into inter-personal (communication and relationships, etc.) and intra-personal skills (some of the meta-skills, e.g. self-reflection and presence), that sit alongside psychological skills (the other meta-skills).

There are potentially many more meta-skills that we could include than I had anticipated, and I realised after the first workshop that my analytical mind had limited the options (and I’ve had the same experience from the first workshop of the second programme!) Many of the contributions students made give life and detail to the six categories we have already identified, others are potential new categories altogether. The key change that keeps us within the six category framework but allows more possibilities is to subsume working at different levels within systemic thinking and to create a new category of mastery of the psychological functions (which includes imagination, intuition, sensing etc.).  The next step is to develop the six meta-competencies framework and show this all in more detail.

The leadership context

We asked our students to dialogue about what leadership means to them, why it is important now and how this relates to their calling as a coach.  The rich and varied outputs from this reminded me of why we call this leadership coaching rather than executive coaching.   Leadership has so many dimensions to it and can be interpreted in so many ways, for example, one of the presentations made an interesting distinction between leadership of self (or personal leadership), leadership of followers (such as in a leadership role) and leadership of leaders (such as in a professional role). Leadership is about both shaping the future and responding to the emergent present and in both aspects needs to be very much anchored in the systemic awareness discussed above.  Leadership is now a far more complex challenge than it used to be in the past (in the pre-interconnected universe of Jim Collins for example), and involves having to work with the nuances of a multi-cultural and pluralistic world both within and beyond our organisational boundaries.

How positive psychology can find its place

I love the stuff coming out of positive psychology (e.g. about attitudes, happiness research, strengths-based leadership, etc.) in the same way that I loved the stuff that came out of NLP (e.g. rapport, time-lines, reframing, accelerated learning, etc.) in the 90’s.  However, I have noticed how dedicated practitioners of these approaches can become seduced by technique and how, on their own, positively oriented leadership interventions might become limiting or formulaic.

Through our workshop on coaching psychology and the psychospiritual model of development, we discovered that drawing upon humanistic and positive psychology approaches, once transpersonal awareness has been established, is more powerful and liberating.  Once you include and seek to access transpersonal energies and resources (as well as acknowledge the messages of pre-personal energies), the role of personal level positive psychology interventions find their place (e.g. Play! Explore! Empower!).

Somatic coaching is a natural fit with psychosynthesis

The Body, Feelings, Mind model of psychosynthesis provides the perfect theoretical underpinning for somatic work within coaching. The somatic perspective offers an interesting counter-point to conventional psychological thinking; it is not enough that we understand why we are the way we are (e.g. how our history has shaped our mindsets and behavioural patterns), we need to become aware of how we are the way we are (and work with how our habits and patterns are held in the body).  Our challenge is how to bring this insight into both the workshop learning experience and into our coaching. Fortunately, on our first programme we had more than one somatically aware practitioner (thanks Rachel and Angelika) who helped us attend to the energy in the room. Since the first programme I have read read The Art of Somatic Coaching by Richard Strozzi-Heckler and going forwards I am keen to bring somatic work more explicitly into the psychosynthesis coaching model.

Self in motion – an embryonic model

By the end of the programme I had made some progress with developing a flow model of coaching (Self in Motion) – in which the coach supports the healthy functioning of an individual (in terms of optimising performance and development), by attending to healthy patterns of flow in a number of dimensions: e.g. inner-outer, conscious-unconscious, parts-whole, individual-collective and realisation-actualisation. This is an embryonic model and I will expand on it at a future date.  The essence of the model is contained within a quote by Roberto Assagioli:

“Life is movement, and the superconscious realms are in continuous renewal. In this adventure we move from revelation to revelation, from joy to joy.  I hope you do not reach any ‘stable state’. A ‘stable state’ is death.”

That sums up my experience from facilitating this coaching programme pretty well – moving from revelation to revelation!

Aubyn Howard


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