Coaching: a vocation for our times

By Martin Vogel

Coaches follow in the tradition of shamans.

Book review: Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, by Simon Western

Simon Western seeks to challenge and expand our view about what constitutes coaching but, in so doing, he also challenges and expands received wisdom on what it means to be a leader in today’s complex and fast-moving organisations.

Coaching is a young practice, scarcely a profession. On the one hand, it has an inferiority complex in relation to other helping professions, particularly psychotherapy from which it takes much of its sense of good practice. On the other, it is rapidly being colonised by big management consultancies and business schools who recognise coaching’s threat to their turf. Talk of codifying what coaching should be through accreditation and even regulation is a sure sign of vested interests attempting to appropriate ground for themselves.

Western’s book, Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, investigates coaching as it is practised rather than how it is conceptualised in the literature. The strength of this approach is that it resists the tendency to reduce and constrain how coaching is defined. Instead, Western celebrates its diversity – from new age influenced life coaching through to corporate coaching interventions with their solutions-focussed processes and returns on investment.

He identifies four discourses that inform how coaches operate: the soul guide, the “psy” expert, the managerialist and the network coach (see diagram below).

This is a more expansive view of coaching than is conventionally portrayed and illustrates how the profession is responding to the demands that leadership makes of individuals in all four of these terrains. Yet, in organisational contexts at least, coaching tends to market itself in relation to the “psy” expert and managerialist discourses. These are knowledge-based, rational discourses that align with the instrumental objectives of the corporate sponsor to improve a coachee’s performance at work. The psy expert discourse is about the tools and techniques that coaches draw on to help the coachee change their behaviour in relation to others – what Western calls “the outward self”. The managerialist discourse, concerned with optimising an individual’s performance in their organisational role, focusses on goal-setting, targets, and evaluating outcomes in relation to corporate objectives. Western views both these discourses as modernist interventions, located in 20th Century mechanistic thinking about how humans function from a scientific/psychological perspective and their place in the organisation, viewed as a hierarchically organised machine.

But while organisations still construe themselves in these modernist terms, Western highlights how coaches – through their actual work with individuals in organisation – are picking up that the world has moved on and are working in a more flexible, post-modern way. The defining reality of social organisation is the network rather than the hierarchy. Managerialism itself has connived in the eradication of traditional forms which defined the 20th Century organisation. As corporations have delayered, downsized and outsourced, influence and connection have replaced authority and control as the means by which people organise and get things done. This is reflected in broader society, for example as social protest movements push aside traditional parties as vehicles for political expression. The network coach discourse addresses this context in which leaders operate, drawing in consideration of broad currents like the socio-political and environmental agenda beyond the organisation, and the narrower currents such as mapping the individual’s own network. There’s a clear ethical stance by which coaches hold back from aligning with the managerialist agenda and bring consideration of the organisation’s stewardship role in relation to the community, society and the environment.

This is where coaching morphs into the soul guide, which touches on the individual’s deep feelings and values. Given the dislocation wrought by modernism and managerialism, it’s easy to see why coaching becomes a vessel for such exploration. The domain of work has become one of the primary sources of meaning and social connection in people’s lives, yet their experience of it is often empty and disspiriting. Traditional sources of support to which people turned in the past have diminished, so it is not surprising that the bonds created between coach and coachee might lead to explorations of existential concerns. Western, in fact, locates coaching’s roots in ancient helper roles such as shaman and priest as well as in friendship and modern, expert-driven helper roles such as therapist and counsellor – which are, he argues, secular versions of the priesthood, sanctified by rationality rather than by faith.

One important area that Western discusses concerns the difficulties that arise when organisations begin to articulate values. He is scathing of the managerialist requirement that people conform heart and soul to organisational values, and I don’t demur. Yet I speak all the time about the need for alignment between organisational and individual values. There is a need to be clear about what values alignment means in post-managerial terms. What I have in mind is that organisations should move in the direction of people’s values as whole persons. If companies paid more attention to the things people actually value outside of their work persona – things like love, beauty, justice and honour – they would not become so detached from the societies which are their very ground. It is organisations that should align with their employees, not the other way around. This view of values is discernible in the organisations highlighted by Frederic Laloux and Gary Hamel as exemplifying a new and better way of doing things. They document companies that recognise that they employ complex human beings whom they don’t expect to show up as managerialist automatons.

Western’s portrayal of coaching is the most holistic and rounded I’ve encountered. And it makes total sense of the reality of coaching work. Contrary to the privileging of psychological rigour, coaching is a multi-disciplinary practice because the reality of coachees’ experience is so much more than their psychology. Mapping my own practice against Western’s discourses, I find I operate in all four. Much as I might critique the managerial discourse, I work in it much of the time because it is the dominant reality for many people and organisations. In the soul guide discourse, one might find a yearning for life to be otherwise. But one always has to come back to the givens of the current situation and the risks in challenging it. Coaching, in my view, demands a facility with the managerial but also an inclination towards its transcendence.

It’s the possibility that coaching holds out of transcendence, of ushering in the next paradigm, that makes it so relevant. At the end of his book, Western refers to the barbarism of contemporary life: the instrumentalising of happiness and emotions, the turning of employees into objects, the conformance of behaviour to productivity goals:

“Re-inscribing individuals and communities with ethics, virtue and the ability to become conscious of the connectivity, and the interdependency we have with each other and with the natural environment, is necessary in order to think our way out of the abyss. Coaches can play an important part – after all, their core task is to be thinking partners to the leaders of organizations. If enough coaching practitioners claim an ethical stance, and work with individuals and organizations towards a progressive and emancipatory agenda, then coaching will become a virtuous vocation. Coaches can help create the network of leaders, in all walks of life, that will resist destructive and oppressive tendencies, and work towards creating the ‘good society’”

Flexible and adaptive, drawing on a variety of discourses, coaching is able to work within the managerial paradigm while pointing our way out of it. Diverse in its practice, with low barriers to entry, it meets people as equals with no claim to work on them as experts. It welds awareness of the big picture to attention to human development, and it insists on putting profoundly human considerations back into the centre of how we organise ourselves socially. With its roots in shamanistic traditions but with post-modern understanding of how contemporary society operates, it’s an urgent and relevant reponse to the challenges of our age.

Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, by Simon Western. Available from Amazon.