The serious business of playing the Fool

fool

It’s a shame that Hetty Einzig’s The Future of Coaching is so-called. Its concerns spread much wider than its title implies. It’s a radical and thoughtful book which holds before us the chaotic nuttiness of the world as it is now and asks what kind of leadership should coaching call forth.

Hetty Einzig takes it as axiomatic that the big challenges we humans face demand committed and creative interventions by leaders. Never mind present concerns such as Brexit or Trump, Hetty reminds us that the broader context is that of a trajectory to environmental catastrophe. She has no truck with the notion that coaches should be neutral facilitators of whatever goals their corporate clients might pursue. Nor does she believe leaders should collude with such ideas. Coaches and leaders alike are citizens in wider society as well as servants of the organisations that employ them. It is the legitimate task of all of us to try to influence organisations to play a constructive role in addressing society’s problems.

Hetty Einzig (like me) is part of a network of coaches who have taken inspiration from the socially-engaged approach to coaching of Simon Western. Where Simon locates coaches in a tradition of helpers stretching back to shamens, Hetty likens the coach to the Fool in medieval courts – with privileged access to leaders and licensed to speak truth to power in the interest of the wider good:

“The Fool at court saves the powerful from the fallacies and pitfalls of their own omnipotence. But he also speaks for every man and woman in challenging the excesses of power. He exposes assumptions and grandiosity but also elicits hidden goodness and latent generosity. His role is to shake up social norms, rattle cages but also to act as our conscience in reminding us of our contribution to the moral fabric of society. He is both guardian of justice, equality and fairness, and provocateur, a disruptor of the status quo. The Fool’s foolery is not just for entertainment nor his challenges gratuitous: they spring from an archetypal impulse towards truth and goodness.”

As she acknowledges, there is both subversive and conservative potential in this role. What it is not is apolitical. The very purpose of the Fool, and the coach, is as an outsider on the inside: the disruptor among the courtiers, bringing the concerns of society to those who may otherwise succumb to groupthink.

This book, you will have gathered, draws from sources much wider than the coaching literature. Hetty Einzig cites philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, art and literature. Where books on coaching tend to discuss the technical skills that turn a jobbing practitioner into a master craftsman or woman, she is interested more in the values that will enable us to play a relevant role, searching in partnership with leaders for creative engagement with the big issues. Instead of accepting at face value the goals with which clients come into coaching, coaches should locate themselves in a firm philosophical base and ask of their clients, “What for? What contribution will achieving your goals make to the greater good?”

The book is structured as a series of self-standing essays, which cover a range of iconoclastic themes. In contrast to coaching’s “tyranny of positivity”, she broaches darker subjects such as stress, depression and frustration – none of which does she view as wholly negative experiences. Out of stress is born resilience; out of depression, creativity; out of frustration, learning.

But she calls on us to challenge the environments that make normal human experience oppressive: the “perverse cultures” that create stress through unrealistic expectations, in which depression is taboo and in which espoused and lived values drift apart. The coach, as Fool, must be practised at making the unsayable sayable:

“Denial and turning a blind eye are so endemic, the coach must be committed to see what the client, embedded in the organisation, cannot or does not wish to see. The coach listens for what the client may not want to hear, and looks where others turn away. It is the coach’s task to bring to conscious thought what is semi-known but people don’t wish to know.”

She sees a big part of the coach’s role as being to support the “positive deviants” whose unease with corporate orthodoxy may be a lead indicator of malaise in an organisation. But like the simultaneously subversive and conservative Fool, the coach should not simply collude with the deviant in criticism of the organisation, but help them galvanise the system to reform itself. This is a task that, she acknowledges, will demand of the deviant courage, skill and stamina.

Throughout the book is an insistence on working with leaders in context, not as individuals on whose shoulders lies the unrealistic burden simply to work on themselves to further their organisation’s aims. Coaches supporting leaders in complex, dynamic environments need to have some understanding of how people behave in groups. They would do well also to grasp the radical demographic changes which are transforming the workplace: the prominence of women in leadership roles; the growing influence of the millennial generation; and the longevity of working life, which is seeing seasoned older workers reframing their contribution in the twilight of their careers.

The Future of Coaching is an unusual contribution to the coaching literature in that it is a good read: impassioned and challenging. It treats the role of leader not as a vehicle for the personal development of its holder but as an archetype that belongs to all of us. Anyone who steps into the role therefore has responsibilities to the community and must look to horizons that stretch beyond the instrumental aims of their own organisation:

“One of the strongest indicators of leadership potential is just this capacity to think beyond the immediate to the long term, to think beyond their organisation to global contribution and to think beyond themselves to understanding their role within the system.”

The coach, in this view, is an active participant in shaping leadership best practice around this societal role. The coach is there both to illuminate (amid confusing signals) the leader’s responsibilities and to hold the post-holder to account. Hetty Einzig’s book will make surprising and perhaps uncomfortable reading for those who expect coaches to be a neutral sounding board.

The Future of Coaching by Hetty Einzig. Available from Amazon.

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