Coaching in a messed-up world

By Martin Vogel

The Universe: its future may depend on you
The Universe: its future may depend on you

Last night, I attended a stirring call on the coaching profession to wake up and recast its responsibilities in relation to a world that is messed up and in crisis. The call was made by Aboodi Shabi, who one might reasonably describe as a leader of the coaching profession in the UK. Courtesy of a platform with the London Coaching Group, he extemporised on themes I have advocated myself, most recently in my presentation to APECS. But Aboodi made the case with a passion and bluntness that challenged me to stand up for this agenda with much greater clarity. A theme of the evening was how coaching could “come out” as a profession that engages with society’s problems. Aboodi’s message resonated with a good proportion of his audience, although it also provoked fear and dismissal among a vociferous minority.

That the world is in crisis is self-evident. Witness the big things like the spread of ebola, the challenge of climate change, the civil war in Syria and the attendant rise of Islamic State. Witness also the dysfunctionality of the Western economic model which elicits the increasing enrichment of a tiny minority and the increasing impoverishment of the mass.

Aboodi’s thesis is that the world being in crisis is a context for coaching that we can’t ignore. Not just because the organisations in which we coach may be contributing to the crisis but also because, increasingly, the clients for coaching may be effected by it. More fundamentally, given the depth of the ills the world faces, coaching could be so much more than an exclusive privilege for executives; as a profession we could be thinking about how we can contribute to alleviating or solving the world’s problems.

Aboodi ridiculed superficial approaches to coaching which prioritise a positive attitude and a conviction that anything is possible – what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “the cult of mandatory optimism”. He pointed out that such comfortable lives that any of us have are based on the discomfort of people at the bottom of the heap. Coaches, he maintained, should be sensitive to the world in which we live as the context of our work. Without this, we risk colluding in the illusion that corporate agendas can be pursued without consideration of their externalities. “Are we revolutionaries or evolutionaries when we go into organisations?” he asked. Perhaps the answer is that we are conservatives, entrenching the status quo.

Aboodi saw two distinct but related ways forward. One was for coaches to challenge the hyper-rationalism of corporate cultures and to advocate for acceptance of the body and emotions as domains of learning. The other was for coaches to work on themselves in order to be grounded and of service in challenging circumstances. Challenging hyper-rationalism means helping people to be whole persons at work, to honour the insight they can gain from their emotional responses and gut instincts as well as from their logical analysis. But to help people to be whole persons, coaches have to work on being whole persons ourselves. A coach can only help someone grow as far as the coach has grown him or her self.

If we can work on our ability to be grounded individuals, we can bring value to organisations as outsiders able to ask awkward questions that are difficult to ask from the inside. Aboodi argued that the value of this arises from being able to stand outside the epistemological dogmatism that has come to dominate so much of corporate and public life: holding to a view that the world is one particular way, and being incapable of construing alternatives. Coaching, he maintained, had arisen to address concerns that traditional professions – rooted in the dogmatism – cannot address. In cultivating an ability to ask difficult questions about the system, we must cultivate also an ability to hold our own beliefs with lightness so that we can meet and engage with other world views. Coaching, in this context, recreates the kind of space that religion commonly provided which meets people’s longing to be heard. But as well as being heard, people need to meet radical agents of provocation who can provoke them to think creatively and freshly about the challenges we all face. For coaches to be such agents, we need to “come out” as advocates for a better world.

Aboodi was scathing of a certain style of coach who feigns to avoid news and current affairs because it is all too depressing. He thought it was critically important that we are engaged with what is happening in the world so that we can bring sensitivity to this context to our coaching relationships. I found this encouraging and not just because I am a former journalist. Coaches often make great play of their grounding in psychology and familiarity with the psychotherapeutic tradition. While these aspects of our training are important, I would argue that our coaching is enriched if we are also able to bring a facility to discuss with our clients how their situation is influenced by broad social, political and economic factors.

That Aboodi’s stance was, on the whole, well received demonstrates that these concerns are moving from the periphery to the mainstream. Some in the audience pointed out that these debates are taking hold throughout the business world, and this is our experience too. There’s widespread unease with the way the current economic settlement is failing the mass of society. Coaching needs to step up to be part of the solution. Among those in the audience who were discomforted, though, their stance extended beyond disagreement to outright hostility to having the conversation at all. If this is representative of coaching as a whole, it punctures coaching’s claim to be a profession. Professional status, if it means anyting, implies not just rooting one’s calling in societally-based ethics but being open as a group to self-reflection on precisely what it is we are called to do.

It seems to me also that in the profession of coaching we have aggregated a large number of people with highly cultivated helping skills that are under-utilised in being excessively focussed on the executive market. An urgent task for coaching as a profession is to work out how to enable all its members to diversify the applications of their capabilities to help meet society’s challenges and perhaps thereby find more rewarding vocations for its members.

Given the scale of the crisis, I confess that Aboodi’s talk prompted some doubt in me as to the impact coaching can make insofar as it entails working with leaders in organisational cultures that are inauspicious and entrenched. How I reconcile this is to notice that there is often great individual and often corporate intent to change course but it is systemic factors that create inertia. A system is not easily changed but it is ultimately only the sum of the individuals it comprises. By helping individuals to grow and be whole persons at work, coaches can enable clients to have an impact on their organisational cultures. Aboodi quoted a Buddhist proverb which encapsulates this aspiration to take seriously an individual’s potential incremental impact, without getting carried away with the possibilities: “Act always as if the future of the universe depends on what you do, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.”

Or, as Gramsci put it more succinctly: “Pessimism of the intellect. Optimism of the will.”

Image courtesy Hubble ESA.