Creative coaching creates creative leadership

By Martin Vogel

In the knowledge economy, creativity is at a premium. But the same economy encourages lifestyles and working routines that crowd out creative impulses. This isn’t just bad for productivity, it’s bad for wellbeing. This presents a two-fold challenge for coaches: how to stay fresh and creative in how we practice; and, how to support our clients to nurture creativity in their likely busy lives.

It’s something of a paradox that modern life wrings us out. Digital technology, information abundance, the range of choices in how we use our leisure, opportunities for travel – these all offer rich stimulation to our senses and lower the barriers of entry to the means of creativity. But filling our minds with information and our leisure time with activity brings it own stresses, maxing out our capacity simply to process experience. The journalist, Oliver Burkeman, has written recently of how keeping up with the news has transformed from being a contained and relaxing ritual (reading a newspaper, watching the TV bulletin) to a civic duty that (thanks to inexorability of social media feeds) no longer has boundaries. The lost boundaries are not simply temporal they are boundaries of decency and decorum. Browsing the news today exposes us to abuse, hyperbole and dark thoughts about the state of the world – inducing in many a constant state of panic and insecurity. Hardly ideal circumstances for creativity.

Cal Newport, a computer scientist and writer on productivity, has a powerful critique of how the norms of social media have infected the world of work. There’s normative pressure on employees to be publicly engaged in social media. And for many people, processing messages is what constitutes a working day (about 125 emails a day for the average knowledge worker, or one every 3.85 minutes).

As Newport points out, this might be what fills their day but it’s not the kind of activity that generates value. For that, people need to create space for what Newport calls deep work – “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

In a complex world, facing intractable environmental, social, economic and political challenges, it’s obvious that hard, creative thinking is needed. But, given the distractions of contemporary life, it’s difficult to work out how to create the conditions that sustain deep work.

It’s difficult because it’s counter-cultural to block out a few hours a week for private, focused time. It involves, for example, detaching from the expectation of being immediately responsive to emails. (Or, perhaps, even detaching from being responsive at all. We put egoic pressure on ourselves to answer incoming mails, but will the sender really be perturbed if we don’t reply? Possibly not.)

Creating space for creativity entails taking an honest look at the opportunity cost of the activities that consume our time. People can often point to some value in participating in Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, or grazing boxed sets on Netflix. But is the value sufficient to justify what it squeezes out of life – such as relating to people face-to-face, reflecting on experience, or simply being bored? Embracing boredom, it turns out, is an important part of nurturing creativity. Standing at a bus queue listening to a learned podcast might feel like time well spent, but when does the mind get a chance to stop receiving new input and simply wander (or wonder)? It’s in the interstices between thinking that our minds often reach break-throughs.

Another reason why it’s hard to find space for creative thinking is that corporate cultures rarely appreciate it. Working life privileges cognitive rationality, conformity and linear thinking. This carries risks – such as group think and wilful blindness – that frequently lead organisations into reputational scandals. Creativity, by its nature, draws on a more diverse range of intelligences (including emotional and aesthetic). It is non-conformist and open to intuitive leaps. But the insights thus generated may challenge institutional routines and are not incentivised. Creative thinkers can easily put themselves at risk of ostracism.

Where coaching can help

Coaching can be an antidote to corporate aversion to creativity – not just fostering it but normalising it as a healthy aspect of working life. In order to fulfil this potential, coaches need to check that they are not colluding with rituals that are antithetical to creativity. Instead, we can trade on our status as licensed outsiders, bringing a spirit of difference into organisations.

I try to find ways of working with clients that represent a breach with the conventions of office culture – to eschew the cues that make coaching seem like just another meeting in a client’s busy calendar and trying to find a spirit of playfulness. But I notice resistance to this, both in my clients and in myself, in the context of a professional relationship.

It can help to draw on the science of the mind to contextualise working in this way. Whether it is Iain McGilchrist’s work on the brain’s hemisphere differences or Daniel Kahneman’s account of the mind’s fast and slow systems, the message is that our propensity for automatic, heuristic thinking often narrows our focus and overwhelms the more effortful and metaphoric thinking that allows us to see patterns and make sense of the whole picture. Crucially, given coaching’s reliance on conversation, there’s an imperative to get beyond the limitations of speech to access the non-verbal insights that are a strength of the right hemisphere. Beyond our mind’s mental shortcuts lies our direct experience of reality, fertile ground for creativity.

I like to get out of the coaching room and into places like art galleries or parks. Just the experience of physical movement in a nurturing environment fosters freshness. Charles Darwin famously walked a path in his garden every day as he thought through the theory of evolution. Einstein is said to have made a breakthrough with the theory of relativity while riding a bicycle.

But from a coaching perspective, talking while walking presents opportunities for working with found objects, such as an artwork or an arrangement of trees, to facilitate the client to make an imaginative leap in the coaching issue. Or one can simply notice what the body is communicating, in a way that might not show up in the coaching room. Jonathan Hoban, a practitioner of walking therapy, says, “Sometimes clients are angry but they don’t even know it. They say they’re fine, but I notice that they’re kicking pebbles as we walk. So I say, ‘You’re fine, but how are your feet?’ That’s when they realise.”

Another approach that influences me is not to look at art with a client but to help them to create it. Anna Sheather has developed a coaching methodology around this. In her book, Coaching Beyond Words, published this year, she explains how she draws on art therapy and mindfulness to guide clients through drawing a representation of their coaching issue, often having to overcome an ingrained fear of drawing. Among the benefits she lists are: accessing emotional depth; communicating in a way that words cannot; making sense in a complex and paradoxical situation; playfulness, joy and wellbeing.

Approaches like these access ways of experiencing that we normally bracket out of working life. But they are not just novel ways of coaching. By inserting into the client’s day a pause for play, restoration and reflection, they model ways of nurturing creativity that people can migrate to their working life. Productivity advisors such as Tony Schwartz and Caroline Webb emphasise the need to manage one’s energy by means of scheduling focus time in 90-minute blocks, inserting micro-breaks between meetings and protecting time for reflection. Their message is that to be creative, one must take one’s wellbeing seriously and not expect to work like an automaton.

We need more diversity in our lives, pauses to recover our ground and the curiosity to get out of our reflexive ways of thinking. We sometimes think of creativity as an endowment of talented people. But it’s accessible to all of us if we can build a routine that supports creative orientations.

This article was originally published in the July 2019 edition of Coaching Perspectives.

Image courtesy Ella Jardim.

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