April 17, 2018 § Leave a comment
I should straightaway say that I’ve never sat with someone who is dying.
But a few pages in a book which touched on the author’s experience of sitting with those who are dying, have led me to insights and confirmations about the role of coaching (Parker J. Palmers “A Hidden Wholeness”, 2004).
“We must abandon the arrogance that often distorts our relationships – the arrogance of believing that we have the answer to the other person’s problem … What is before us is not “a problem to be solved”, but a mystery to be honoured.” page 61.
In the phraseology of the Coactive model of coaching, the people we work with are naturally creative, resourceful and whole; not someone who needs fixing.
I’m learning that people who have sat with a dying person find that they are not just taking up space in the room. They may find words inadequate to describe their experience, but are often their description is some version of “I was simply being present”.
When I consider I’m being at my best in a coaching session, I notice afterwards that I too was often “just” being present: practising being present, sitting with a living belief in the value of the other person, and their capacity to pick their path (their path) through their truths and limiting beliefs. My contribution was the quality of my attentiveness, my listening to them and to myself, and my hopeful and supportive expectation of the best in them.
In his book, Parker J. Palmer quotes an incident in Nikos Kazantakis’ Zorba the Greek, in which the narrator is overly-impatient in watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon. The narrator breathes on the cocoon to warm it, which at first encourages the butterfly to emerge. But it emerges too early, and its wings, which should have opened and dried naturally in the heat of the sun, are folded back and useless. He watches its struggles, as it is artificially and prematurely brought to a new place, before its time.
The metaphor for coaching is clear: we are not there to point out what for us are obvious solutions to the other person’s problem. For example, “Have you spoken to the other person about this?” may seem like an obvious and sensible suggestion. But the coachee might not be ready to take this step, or may not have the skills or awareness to ensure a good conversation. They’ve probably already considered and rejected this course of action. But their coach ’told’ them to, and imperfect skills or an imperfect inner commitment to the task may result in an unfortunate outcome.
Rarely does offering advice or a suggestion in coaching bring such dramatic consequences as for that emerging butterfly! But the story confirms for me that though I might offer models or abstract theories, or a reflecting challenge to help the person really understand themselves better, essentially my work is nondirective.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of “the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect, border and salute each other.” A definition of the coach’s role, perhaps?
December 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Annie Medcalf (The Fusion Firm, and a fellow executive coach and consultant, and graduate of the Academy of Executive Coaching) and I had the great privilege recently of running a coaching skills training session for international human rights defenders at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights.
The Centre hosts an annual scheme for human rights defenders at risk. This year’s defenders come from Egypt, Ukraine, Sudan, Kenya and Azerbaijan, and over the years defenders from these and many other countries with poor human rights records have benefited from a three to six months’ protective residency in York. My involvement has included interviewing and learning from them about their leadership styles and experience; I also teach part-time at the Centre on leadership and management to the Defenders and to Masters students.
The coaching skills workshop began with the premise that these Defenders, in order to be effective and to mitigate the risks of detention and harassment, are already steeped in local and international networks. These networks offer support, information, co-operation – and some measure of protection. Most Defenders are also leading or working within a local human rights organisation.
So our approach to the Defenders was an offering of training in coaching skills to help develop their leadership skills, and to help them in situations such as supporting burnt-out colleagues, managing ‘maverick’ or disruptive partners, and nurturing up-and-coming activists.
Their response was enthusiastic, and with the support of the Centre for Applied Human Rights the training went ahead last week. We are now offering on-going coaching, to support the defenders in their practice of leadership when they return home.
Though Annie and I brought models and techniques to the workshop, we were of course learners too. It’s humbling to discover the challenges some communities and individuals face in standing up for freedoms that York citizens take for granted.
December 5, 2017 § Leave a comment
The news that Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party have (perhaps temporarily) delayed the Brexit negotiations is the latest version of a story right out of Grimm’s fairy tales.
Some versions of the Grimms’ story begin with an invitation sent to 12 fairies to each give a blessing to a new-born princess. A thirteenth – and uninvited – fairy, hearing what the others are up to, turns up in a rage and delivers a curse rather than a blessing.
This 13th fairy is sometimes depicted as an evil fairy; but according to Peter Hawkins of CSTD, from whom I’m proudly borrowing the idea for this blog, this fairy isn’t evil. They’re just mad at being forgotten.
The result: they turn up late, and make trouble – because they were forgotten in the first place.
So when I heard the news this morning, my fanciful mind wondered if the DUP might be feeling like a thirteenth fairy.
And the link to coaching?
When we’re working with teams, or unpicking complex ideas, or making decisions which affect a range of stakeholders, it’s not always easy to identify all those who need to be involved.
So what might be the implications for coaches, supervisors and for those involved in strategic planning processes?
- When supervising a coach who is coaching a team: invite them to map the team on a flipchart, and as a coach be interested in who turns up ‘late’ in the story; and ask, Who else isn’t on the flipchart yet? How are they connected to the other people on the flipchart? What message are they bringing?
- When providing conflict coaching: asking who else is there in the conflict – perhaps someone on the sidelines?, or who might appear less visible, who could offer another perspective or who might have skills or resources to help bring about resolution.
- When doing a stakeholder analysis with colleagues, asking again and again: Who else have we forgotten? Who else has an interest in what we’re deciding? If we were to look back to today, who might we realise needed to be inside the tent with us?
- When coaching someone who is facing a dilemma or a difficult decision: which opinions haven’t they paid attention to yet? Is there any voice inside them which hasn’t yet been heard? (this might be the voice of the outcome or some deep yearning which they haven’t yet dared to admit to themselves). What other options are available, in addition to the possibilities they’ve already thought of?
October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
I mentioned the phrase Culture will eat your strategy for breakfast in our coaching session last week, and you asked for more details.
I hope the following is helpful?
On the surface, the phrase simply suggests that it’s irrelevant how much time and care an organisation pours into creating a strategy: it will be powerless against the prevailing internal culture, which will have far more impact on future behaviour.
For me there are also some deeper truths within the phrase, with implications for other realities of organisational life.
First to say, perhaps, is that we can’t expect a strategy-shaping process on its own to change the culture. An organisation’s culture is a product of history, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. It is a long-enduring reality. Culture is what is surprising or confusing to us when we’re a new-starter – and, infamously, culture is what we then are blind to after three months in the job.
Culture begins to shape itself the moment the organisation begins. If you’ve ever been involved at the start of an organisation or group, you may have witnessed this process happening around you.
(For more information, Edgar Schein wrote some of the most influential and enduring ideas on understanding organisational culture.)
The ‘joke’ is that it takes seven years to change significantly a culture. I don’t think that’s necessarily true in every case, but there’s no doubt that an organisational culture can endure even if the majority of staff leave and are replaced by new-comers.
Second, your strategy is enacted by, or mediated through, the culture. Culture is day-to-day, and every day. It regulates default behaviours and decisions. So if the strategy document imagines radically different behaviours, instead what will happen is more of the past. People will say ‘yes’ and act ‘no’.
This is why a good culture is such a prized organisational goal.
The reality, however, is the culture is what the leadership collectively behave (another Peter Hawkins quote). So changing a culture often requires an appreciative or solutions-focussed approach: identifying which behaviours do we want more of, or which of the staff are holding the attitudes or values we want everyone to have; and then naming and affirming those and giving opportunities to copy them. That’s why story-telling can work well in culture-change. And woe betide the leadership team when they fall back into the old ways without accountability or explanation: contradictions between espoused values and actual behaviour are never more obvious (and damaging) than in organisational life.
Lastly on culture, a quote from the business world: your competitors can copy everything except your culture. Companies – and not-for-profits – which can flourish in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambivalent world, have the characteristics for survival. Your culture collectively dictates your resilience, your flexibility, and your ability to innovate.
And whilst survival isn’t everything, it does at least offer more choices.
With best wishes,
September 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Good leaders find it increasingly difficult to use the processes and practices that worked well in the past to evoke people’s inherent motivation, commitment, and creativity. Yet if we notice who we’ve become, we can recommit to who we choose to be as a leader for this time.” Meg Wheatley
January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
Writing retreat, south Lakeland, 23-28 April.
Together with a colleague from Birmingham University, we’ve designed a retreat for those who are wanting to start a new project, or to take forward or finish off a current piece of writing whether for formal publication or personal use.
There will be the opportunity to hear from the tutors about our experience of writing, and one to one time with us; but the emphasis will be on enabling time in a supportive atmosphere to devote to your writing.
December 1, 2016 § Leave a comment
Though it’s written for a Quaker audience I’m hoping it may offer general thoughts about the challenges of good leadership – and of supporting those in leadership roles. For some Quakers, the idea of leadership is challenging; and as for needing at times to be good followers and being disciplined as part of a group together – well, that can be a challenging idea too!
The full text is below; many thanks to Craig for hosting me. Click here for a longer, referenced article from which the text below is drawn.
Two taboos? – leadership and followership
This is a guest post by John Gray.
I am wondering if we can become more conscious and celebratory of the many expressions of leadership we see around us – and can find within each of us. I like to think about Quakers being good followers (where appropriate) as well as being open to offering good leadership. Those in leadership roles, and those who are not in formal roles but who are otherwise taking initiative amongst local Friends, certainly need support for themselves and in how we respond to them.
For some, the phrase ‘leaderful behaviour’ might sit more comfortably than any claim to leadership; and who would not welcome a resurgence of leaderful behaviour amongst Friends. I hope that contemporary Friends are open to seeing the need for celebrating and nurturing leadership amongst us; leadership grounded in our tradition, our service and in our contemporary witness, and imbued with a strong dash of 21st century savviness and realism.
A historical note of how early Quakers understood leadership
Stuart Masters at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre has commented that church leadership as understood by early Friends was at the same time both charismatic and provisional. Charismatic in the sense that any call to leadership should be understood as coming from God and not via human agency or organisation. And provisional in the sense that the calling might be revoked, or ‘be time-limited and/or focused very specifically on a particular issue or task’. Hence, as Stuart Masters identifies, Friends’ emphasis on discernment of rightful calling and authentic authority; and that acting faithfully was held as more important than achieving specific outcomes.
We can see the enduring success of these early leadership initiatives in the fact of the survival of Quakers through the centuries, with some organisational structures and processes created 350 years ago still serving useful purposes; and that a reliance on waiting in – and acting from – the light within remains a central description of current Quaker practice.
Leadership in contemporary British Quaker experience
“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
Quaker leadership in modern times is under implicit and sometimes even explicit criticism. The reasons for this may be debated, but may in part have to do with the rise of individualism in society at large, or an imbalanced reliance by contemporary British Quakers on the primacy of individual discernment above the submission to discipline and testing by the worshipping group (for more on this, see Craig’s post in 2014). Sometimes Friends seem driven automatically to kick against even authentic expressions of leadership or leaderful behaviour – the so-called ‘tall poppy’ syndrome.
We are called to speak truth to power, but I may erroneously assume that I have all the truth and ‘the other’ has all the power. If the other is another local Friend, that criticism can be a devastating experience. Our over-busy lives do not help; and there are many roles which need to be filled. At local and area meeting level in Britain Yearly Meeting, is it going too far to describe contemporary Quaker leadership at times as being leadership by the available – or, by the least unwilling?
But we have many resources to draw on for leadership, even if we do not remember them. Amongst other characteristics for leadership, George Lakey identifies the non-distinction between holy and secular ground; that as a priesthood of all believers we are all expected to make a contribution; we have a history of inspiring action; and that mentoring and community lie at the heart of supporting each other (Powerful beyond measure: Trusting the call to leadership. 2011 William Penn Lecture. http://vimeo.com/22094824, at 13:35 – 33:35 minutes).
In a beautiful phrase, Lakey describes leadership as ‘taking initiative in relationship’, implying both the quality of relationships we need to foster; and that we are called to initiate, not just coast along. And enthusiasm for servant leadership by some Friends is welcome – so long as the actual practice of servant leadership is not passive-aggressive manipulation, nor a mock-humble and unassertive denial of the responsibility to initiate and guide! If modern Quakers are ambivalent about the exercise of leadership within our worshipping communities, how much more unpalatable might be the proposition that at times we need to be good followers!
Yet the theories of followership have much to offer us. We can be usefully interested in the characteristics and behaviours of individuals acting in relation to leaders, recognising that the terms ‘follower’ and ‘leader’ refer to roles not people (and note here the echo of early Quakers’ understanding of leadership). Followers and leaders can switch between roles when tackling different issues or over time. They can share a common purpose. Their roles are relational and dynamic in nature. Leaders and followers interact to co-construct leadership, followership and outcomes.
How different the experience of leadership if followers are active not passive, and if they bring independent, critical and yet supportive thinking. Well might Ira Chaleff praise the leader’s courage to be less dominant and a follower’s courage to be more dominant (though we might prefer the term ‘influential’ rather than dominant; Chaleff, The courageous follower: standing up to & for our leaders. 2009). The courageous follower needs to be willing to assume responsibility, to serve, to participate in transformation and change processes when needed, to challenge the leader, and even to take a different stand in answer to their own moral values.
Supporting those in leadership roles
If we regard Friends in leadership roles, or demonstrating leaderful behaviour, as acting in the ministry, then at the very least we have our Quaker processes of upholding each other in worship and in practical ways. Threshing meetings, meetings for clearness, and nominated support groups, may prove useful mechanisms for some of those in leadership roles. Oversight, coaching and mentoring are available too; as are peer processes such as collaborative inquiry approaches, action learning sets, and self-and-peer review.
So where is all this leading?
Firstly, for sure, I yearn for a reclaiming and celebration of leadership as an essential element of Quakerism practice today. Leadership is not a dirty word, and need not be automatically equated with abuse of power or a trammelling of others’ freedoms.
Secondly, we should embrace the concept of good followership, as a gift that Friends can offer each other and their worshipping groups.
And thirdly, we need those who are willing to offer leadership or to learn its ways, and to prayerfully discern the opportunities for leadership to which we are called. I am particularly interested in the engagement of young Friends: in these uncertain times, passion and fervour are as much our allies as grey hairs and wise souls. In reality, of course, our ageing demographic means much is also required of those who are no longer young. Equipping for Ministry, and the Young Adult Leadership Programme, are exciting initiatives which over time will help change the Society’s attitudes to leadership; similar programmes are also running elsewhere in the Quaker world. In essence, we will do well to create routes into leadership roles for members of our community, and educate them in the soft and harder skills of leadership, collaboration, conflict resolution, globally responsible practice and values-in-action.
John D Gray
If this blog piece has caught your attention, you may be interested in some reflective questions:
· Where do you prefer to place yourself on the spectrum of leader – follower?
· Does the phrase ‘leaderful behaviour’ carry meaning for you (in comparison to ‘leader’)?
· What further thoughts or actions might this piece encourage for you?