Developing leaders in turbulent times: learning from supervision

By Martin Vogel and Simon Cavicchia

We live in a world of adversity and disruption. The upheavals we are seeing in the social, political, economic and environmental contexts of work are material to how coaches work with their clients. In this article, we explore what kind of leaders and leadership we need for today’s world and ask what can we learn from the practice of supervision to support the development of these leaders?

The 21st Century, so far, has been punctuated by a series of shocks which, cumulatively, have upended our assurance that we live in an orderly, predictable, manageable environment. The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 November 2001 announced the asymmetric power of Islamist networks whose reach and barbarity seemed to grow exponentially over the subsequent years. The financial crash of 2007 brought the near collapse of global capitalism and planted the seeds of a national populist backlash throughout the Western world. This led in due course to the twin ruptures in 2016 of Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in America, and the establishment of governing styles which have challenged democratic norms and tested the checks and balances of both countries’ political systems. In 2021, while Brexit has been formally implemented, organisations and society in Britain face uncertainty about how its relations with the rest of the world will be arranged in the months and years to come. Throughout all of this, the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity have grown. As we started the present decade, there was a widespread realisation that the ten years ahead would present the last window of opportunity to avert climate catastrophe – but with no clear consensus on how to co-ordinate action across the globe. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, providing a crash course on how quickly social and economic life as we know it can be halted in its tracks by natural forces beyond our control. It has driven a wrecking ball through behaviours, routines and leadership priorities that have long been imagined to be solid and reliable. On a global scale individuals have adjusted to changes that, only a short time ago, were not considered necessary or even possible.

Just as we were coming to terms with the implications of this, the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota ignited protests of pain and anger across America (and many other countries) and a clampdown of unaccountable brutality by police, security forces and even private militia incited by President Trump. In the aftermath of the US election, as Trump denied the result, it was not clear that American democracy would hold. On 6 January 2021, a violent storming of the US Capitol building showed that this was no idle fear. At the time of writing, it is not clear that democracy has withstood the test.

Throughout much of this time, discourses on leadership, organisation development and executive coaching have made increasing reference to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature of the environment in which leaders are working (Stiehm, 2002). But business has carried on broadly as usual. So great has been the disparity between discourse and practice that the idea of the VUCA world has seemed little more than a platitude – an unconscious genuflection that usefully justifies leadership development interventions but has little bearing on either their nature or their impacts. Traditional views of coaching can be seen as a response to an outmoded view of leadership from the modern/industrial era when the world was assumed to be predictable. This orientation is bound by assumptions of linear cause and effect logic, short-term focus on pre-determined goals and an assumption that these can be achieved as intended.

The complexities of our times described above are shaped by further complexities such as rapid technological advances, shifting market forces, and new ideologies based on identity politics and “safetyism” (Haidt & Lukianoff, 2019). Leaders face uncertain and uncharted territory. They can no longer rely on assumptions from the past and what has worked well before. Best practice can only ever be yesterday’s practice. To respond appropriately to today’s leadership realities, leaders must pay closer attention to: how they are being impacted by the situations they face; how they make meaning from this experience; and how these meanings inform choices regarding action to be taken. They are inevitably confronted with the experience of not knowing and at the same time having to act.

This calls for new constructs of what it means to lead, and therefore it calls on coaches to ask themselves how their practice needs to evolve to support leaders to step up appropriately. In this article, we want to explore how executive coaching can find ways of responding to these developments by drawing on the practice of supervision. Synthesising traditions of reflective practice, holding complexity, collaborative meaning-making and acting intentionally and ethically, supervision seems to us to offer a perspective on executive coaching which can respond to the realities of the situations leaders inhabit.

We begin by exploring further the present context of disruption and how this is bringing a shift from managerialism as the dominant ideology of leadership to something that is not yet clear. We then turn to how this environment shapes the inner landscape of leadership: with the passing of managerialism, narcissistic styles of leading are demonstrating their shortcomings; leaders need to be supported to deal elegantly with complexity, emergence and not knowing. Finally, we consider how executive coaching can draw on insights from the tradition of supervision to meet the needs of leaders in this uncertain time.

We refer throughout to the political environment. This has two purposes. The first is context setting: the political system shapes the possibilities of leading in the much broader array of systems in which coaches are likely to be working. The second purpose is analogy: the political realm provides models of leadership that we wish to critique; but the lessons drawn are applicable to other domains of leading which concern coaches.

Chaotic times and the passing of managerialism

Before the Covid-19 outbreak turned into a global emergency, this was already going to be the decade which would demand of leaders that they drop any notion of business as usual. If we are to seize the critical opportunity that the next decade offers to avert catastrophic impacts of climate change and protect biodiversity, radical changes will be needed in how we organise our societies and economies.

Before 2020, the complexity of the global system made it difficult to imagine how these changes could be realised. But the pace, depth and breadth of the response to the pandemic may cause us to reframe our expectations. The rapid spread of Covid-19 around the world also transmitted a public awareness of our vulnerability that no abstract talk of the VUCA world could convey. Societies have demonstrated themselves to be willing to make dramatic trade-offs between short-term and medium-term welfare in the face of an immediate threat. Are they capable of translating this thinking to the longer-term payoffs of tackling climate change, with the inevitable short-term compromises and adjustments this would entail?

The indicators from recent history are not encouraging. The financial crash of 2007 highlighted how our capacity for complex innovation outpaces our ability to manage the outcomes. In the technology sector, the adoption of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019) to finance the development of tech businesses has enabled networks to grow beyond the capacity of their owners to regulate them, leaving democratic systems open to subversion by bad actors. The tech companies reactive responses to the Capitol storming in Washington do not represent any kind of resolution to this issue but perhaps the beginning of Western economies’ engagement with it.

The related trends of applying the market analogy to ever-widening aspects of social life and a construct of efficiency as the elimination of redundant capacity had brought to light the inability of the UK’s National Health Service to cope with demand long before the Covid crisis surfaced. Consider, for example, the Stafford, Gosport and Shrewsbury hospital scandals. These same dynamics have brought about the mass casualisation of labour, as zero hours contracts and the gig economy remove hard won protections and transfer risk onto workforces while business owners appropriate disproportionate rewards. Social care has long been a demographic timebomb – underfunded as the size of the elderly population grows, and staffed by poorly paid workers whose contribution, as the Covid crisis illustrated, is far from unskilled

The most significant factor that binds these developments is that democracies seem incapable of resolving their evident systemic dysfunctions. There is no upside for politicians to make the argument for long-term strategies the outcomes of which will be realised several electoral cycles beyond the timescales in which today’s political leaders might gain credit. The consequent degrading of the civic realm has left democracies wide open to subversion by populists whose successes (such as the Brexit referendum or Trump’s tearing up of America’s traditional alliances) have dismantled long-established certainties about the political order. Radical accountability movements – such as #MeToo, transgender rights, and the narratives of privilege and intersectionality – have established new progressive standards. But they have also contributed to a cancel culture whereby social norms around the civil mediation of differences are replaced by intimidation of those who don’t conform. Leaders are afraid of taking the initiative for fear of transgressing the diktat of a social media mob. These are not the conditions for reflective, still less visionary, leadership.

One of the challenges leaders face is that the whole idea of leadership has become much more contested. Until 2016, managerialism seemed secure as the dominant ideology not just of leadership but of Western society in general. Managerialism is not the same as management. It is the organisation of society in the image of and interests of organisations, specifically, the management class who control them. As described by Robert Locke and J.-C. Spender (2011), managerialism is the discourse of a self-serving caste who (consciously or not) pursue their own enrichment at the expense of the broader communities of which they are a part. It became the lingua franca of our age, to the extent that the logic of managerial capitalism – the closure of factories, the disavowal of responsibility for negative externalities and so on – came to be seen as neutral, almost natural, forces.

Managerialism was enabled by but is different from the shift to free market nostrums ushered in by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. As Thomas Klikauer (2015) puts it:

For managerialism, managerial techniques are the guiding principles, for neo-liberalism the guiding principle is the free market… Neo-liberalism at least pretends to serve the common good, managerialism has no common good… Inside the neo-liberalist project, democracy and politics remain important. Inside managerialism, no democracy and no politics exist. For managerialism, there are no democratic solutions to problems, only managerial ones.

As the backlash that followed the 2007 financial crash has coalesced into populism, corporate interests have been on the back foot in the political realm – discredited by political leaders alongside experts in general. Indeed, the doubt and risk brought by the Brexit process has only served to highlight the upsides of managerial capitalism that are now jeopardised – such as just-in-time, global supply chains that deliver food and goods with great efficiency; or cosmopolitan cities that attract talent and drive innovation, creativity and cultural exchange.

But, if Britain’s hesitant response to the Covid pandemic encapsulated the cost of denigrating technical expertise, it also demonstrated managerialism’s propensity to conjure apparently simple but abstract solutions to complex problems. Absent a strategy, the UK Government’s (mis-)handling of the Covid crisis was characterised by grand declarations of intent that they were unable to effect (such as the delivery and distribution of PPE or the promise of a ”world-beating“ track and trace system, when one that is even minimally effective has still to be put in place). When faced with data disconfirming their claims to having been successful, they not only persisted in promising the impossible but increased their intended targets.

In its denial of managerial interests while co-opting managerialism’s style, the populist turn represents an inter-regnum between the passing of managerialism as the dominant organising force and a new determinant that has yet to come into shape. In this inter-regnum, the high-water mark of managerialism may have passed from the political realm, yet it still shapes constructs of leadership in many organisations – particularly, corporations and state bureaucracies. Conventional management theory still owes a great deal to its roots in the production line of the industrial era. The analogy of the organisation as machine took hold, with management construed as a linear process of managing predictable resources with predictable outcomes.

This fostered a highly individualist view of leadership: the manager as lonely hero; the orchestrator of expert knowledge; ever ready with “solutions”; under normative pressure to be “world class”. Coaching as a practice has colluded with this construct – binding itself to linear cause and effect logic and a short-term focus on pre-determined goals. This has encouraged the profession to join in the affected apoliticism of managerialism – with coaches uncritically aligning with the organisational objectives of their sponsors and reticent about referring to externalities or wider societal considerations.

The factory-inspired model of leadership remains appropriate in what Snowden and Boone (2007) describe as complicated settings where linear logic and expert advice can still lead to controllable outcomes. The problem is that most organisations now inhabit complex settings, where they form part of a network of interlocking enterprises and where linear predictability breaks down. Complexity is defined by Snowden and Boone by its very unpredictability. It is not possible to know in advance how to get from A to B, and any causality there might be can only be seen in retrospect. So this calls for a very different form of leadership.

Simon Western (2013) has shown how a new paradigm, that he calls eco-leadership, is emerging in response to these changes. It is less hierarchical, more distributed, more cognisant of the world as interdependent networks as opposed to discrete organisations.

Alongside this, we are seeing a diminishing of the privileging of market-based approaches as the default strategy for tackling society’s problems. Government’s around the world have exponentially increased the state’s interventions to meet the challenges brought by the pandemic. The extent to which these are scaled back will be subject to public debate over many years. And, we can expect further extensions of the public realm in some areas – for example, to address the failures during the pandemic of privately run care homes to protect their residents, and perhaps to reclaim public space from private motor traffic to enable more socially distant interactions, improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions.

More than anything, the pandemic points up what managerialism has been denying for decades: that the complex and interdependent global society and economy we inhabit is not amenable to the pseudo-certainty of management-think. Managerialism’s abstract simplicities (“Brexit means Brexit”, “Move fast and break things”) can achieve top-level results at speed. But it is weak in managing the complex outcomes of its initial designs – hence the opaque financial instruments that outgrew the banks’ capability to control them; or the worrying failure of Britain’s “world beating,“ contracted out, crony-led public health initiatives to organise into any kind of effective system for containing the coronavirus.

The narcissistic style: a perspective on the inner landscape of leadership

These developments in the outer world of leadership have their counterpart processes in the inner landscape of leaders. Psychoanalysis has long considered the ways in which the inner life of personality and unconscious processes contributes to shaping outer manifestations – from behaviours to the forms of human organising to which these give rise. Pertinent to managerialism are the narcissistic processes in the human personality for shoring up and defending self-images of competence and greatness (processes which exist in everyone to varying degrees). These have always acted as defences against inevitable feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in the face of complex reality. The traditional images of leaders as messiahs, lonely super-heroes, masters of the universe, are at once external expressions of the human tendency to aim, in fantasy at least, for greatness as well as being constructs that shape and inform perception of what successful leadership needs to be.

Politicians with strong, sometimes extreme, narcissistic traits have achieved national leadership roles in a number of countries around the world (Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Putin, Dutarte, Orban – to name a few). Daily news reporting is rich with examples of such leaders choosing simplistic messaging and exhortations which, blatantly at times, deny multiple and complex sources of data that might threaten the desired images of greatness – as well as undermine the ideologies and actions that reinforce them. These soundbites in turn appeal to and are reinforced by those followers who, faced with the unsettling truths of more complex realities, choose to shelter in the illusory reassurance of fantasies, part-truth, untruth and wilful blindness to any data which threatens these defensive positions. The putchists at Capitol Hill were mobilised behind a big lie about a stolen election. The primary project of narcissism is to shore up whatever ego-centred, organisational and ideological ideals have currency at any given time in a particular social network.

Whatever an individual’s view on Brexit, its proponents’ exhortations to “just believe and it will be a success” point to the reliance on imagination and omnipotent fantasy as a way of containing anxiety in the face of a future that can never be predicted or fully known in advance. This is a major risk for leaders when faced with the dual challenge of needing to appear to be leaderly while not knowing with any certainty what is likely to happen next. Their not knowing arises not because they are intrinsically deficient, but because the nature of the world no longer lends itself to prediction and control. It is simply not possible to predict with any accuracy or know for sure what the implications of Brexit will be over time, yet arguments on both sides of the debate have been frequently cast in a tone of unquestionable certainty. During the Black Lives Matter uprisings, there has been a current which condemns as racist anyone who doesn’t explicitly express their support – conflating opposition to racism with a particular form of protest. For others, the destruction of statues of those who historically profited form the slave trade could be seen only as a criminal act, privileging the law and failing to consider the moral and ethical complexities which inform these acts, along with systemic and cultural suffering over generations. It is the inability currently of many leaders to acknowledge reality in its complexity (aggravated by the demands from followers that they “should know”) that sets up many for a fall. As their hesitant adaptation to rapidly changing knowledge in the face of Covid demonstrated, narcissistic leaders seem unable to befriend and normalise ordinary human limitation, confusion and uncertainty.

Whatever the specific context of any argument, what is true is that reality is multi-layered, complex, socially constructed, ambiguous and problematic. It is only by facing into this reality that strategies for responding can be developed which stand to optimise beneficial impacts while mitigating the inevitable but unintended damaging consequences of any course of action. No action can ever be guaranteed, perfect or ideal. But this is particularly so in a complex situation. Leaders need to be able to relax attachments to idealised self-images of their own competence and greatness, manage the unrealistic expectations of their followers, and tame their egos. They would do well to develop the humility required to navigate the boundary where omnipotent fantasy and imagined possibilities meet the cold light of implementation. Only here might they discover what actually might be possible in a world more real than imagined.

The needs of leaders

In terms of the practice of leading, this means leaders can no longer function in linear ways and expect to be effective. When the route from A to B cannot be discerned in advance, leaders need to be experimental and adaptive – using intuitive sensing alongside logical analysis. If they are called to set a direction while not knowing the answer, then leaders routinely will need to work on becoming more comfortable with uncertainty. This will mean finding the safety to be less fearful about admitting error, so that they can change course if they realise they have taken a wrong turning. Leading takes place at what Cavanagh (2006) calls “the edge of chaos” – where there is just enough instability to encourage discovery and invention but not so much that the system collapses over the edge into chaos itself. To be a leader at the edge of chaos is unnerving. It demands self-awareness and an openness to one’s own vulnerability that is not well supported in most corporate environments and where narcissistic processes are in play.

If this is what leaders need to be like to be effective in their own terms, complexity means that the expectations placed on leaders are expanding. They are held to account not just on their performance against corporate objectives that are self-interested (in the sense that the organisation’s primary aim is its own survival) but also by a wide range of stakeholders regarding societal needs. Business has a pivotal role in enabling society to adapt to climate change and in fashioning a more just and inclusive society in the post-Covid environment. The pandemic has laid bare the inequities that drive the risk of low margins onto the shoulders of the most vulnerable and undermine the preparedness of systems in the name of just-in-time supply strategies. Many citizens will expect more stewardship, wisdom and compassion of leaders as we emerge from the crisis. They won’t indulge them in simplistic fantasies about the way forward. They will demand honesty about the difficult trade-offs ahead and to be invited into adult-to-adult discussion of them. This is already evident in, for example, the demands of Extinction Rebellion for politicians to “tell the truth” about climate change and to engage society in an honest deliberation of the options through a citizens assembly.

The time for two-dimensional superhero characters has passed. We need leaders who are multifaceted human beings. People who can access their sensibilities as citizens alongside their corporate personae. People who can release attachment to a normative narrative of who they should be and find comfort with the multiplicity of mini-selves (Bachkirova, 2011) that shape a complex and perhaps contradictory inner identity. Such leaders anchor themselves in modesty and moderation in order to bring to the surface their deep sense of what is valuable and true. They are able to regulate their stress, anxiety and power complexes in order to function in the face of the activation of threat signals in their nervous system. Along with awareness of self, they bring high levels of relational skills and sensitivity to the ecosystems in which they operate.

The most obvious challenges we face at the societal level – Britain’s post-Brexit future, the care crisis, tackling racism and social justice, reforming democracy, climate change, future pandemics – these are impervious to confected certainty. They will be resolved only through enquiry, deep dialogue and experimentation – holding a creative tension between imagination and the limitations of reality. It is reasonable to assume that the challenges leaders face routinely in their organisational roles are similarly demanding of this kind of creative enquiry.

The kind of support leaders need in these circumstances is different from what executive coaching has traditionally imagined. Instead of an emphasis on performance-focused goal achievement, leaders need reflective space where they can feel contained in uncertainty; where they can cultivate self-awareness, creativity and systemic sensing; where they can locate themselves within pluralistic perspectives, at a distance from the dogmas that prevail within their networks. They need to encounter accountability in safety so as to pre-empt being exposed by the radical accountability that now awaits them in the public sphere. It is a form of support that considers not just their effectiveness in role but holds up an ethical standard of leadership good practice in order that they can assess how they are meeting society’s needs of them.

The statements released by some US companies after the killing of George Floyd have indicated that this kind of sensibility might be emerging. While many condemned the killing and pledged to tackle racism within their own corporate cultures, some went further. The chief executive of Slack, Stewart Buttefield, made a series of tweets highlighting “outrageous initiation or escalation of violence” by officers policing the protests. And the chief executive of Snap, Evan Spiegel, issued a reflective memo which was striking for his eschewal of the boilerplate language of corporate speak:

We will make it clear with our actions that there is no grey area when it comes to racism, violence, and injustice – and we will not promote it, nor those who support it, on our platform… I know there are many people who feel that just because “some people” are racist, or just because there is “some injustice” in our society that we are “not all bad.” It is my view that humanity is deeply interconnected and that when one of us suffers, we all suffer. When one of us is hungry, we are all hungry. And when one of us is poor, we are all poor. When any one of us enables injustice through our silence we have all failed to create a nation that strives for its highest ideals.

Some US corporates are responding in similar terms in defence of democracy.

Leaders face two problems when tasked to bring appropriate responses to the questions they face. Many are operating at the wrong level of cognitive and emotional development to meet the challenges of our age – because the complexity of life as we have organised it in the 21st Century outpaces most people’s comprehension (Garvey Berger, 2012; Kegan & Lahey, 1995). This is related to the second problem: that most are stuck in leadership discourses from earlier eras: framed in simplistic, linear, positivist terms which fail to account for the multi-dimensional nature of human experience (cognitive, emotional, psychological) and our interactions with the ecosystems of which we are part. Insofar as leaders enjoy development at all, they tend to be sheep-dipped in “programmes” which aggregate thinking from the machine age with a bolt-on warning that the VUCA world might demand more of them. If they are lucky, these programmes may include an element of coaching whereby, for a limited period, they may access support to try to integrate “learnings” into the hamster wheel of office life. But sustained space to step back to ground oneself and reflect is rare.

Most leadership development focusses on the individual alone. But leaders also need to consider themselves in context. Rather than being part of an organisation or a department, they need to understand themselves as located in interlocking networks, within and outside their organisation, and within and beyond their role as employee, leader or job-holder. Their insight and impact as leaders could be enhanced by integrating into their frames of reference at work their identities as parent, sibling, citizen, consumer, activist, and so on (Einzig, 2017). People are subject to the pressures and possibilities of the different communities of which they are a part. They need to understand the context of their own inheritance – the family and culture of their upbringing, the communities of choice, and their membership of the human species that shares the planet with other creatures. Their inheritance shapes how they respond in the here and now.

These considerations point to the salience in management of factors that lie beyond the instrumental self-interest of the organisations in which leaders act. As the pandemic has demonstrated, the public realm makes demands of leaders which are ignored at our collective peril. It is time we stopped thinking of managers as simply agents of their employers but, like professionals, accountable to society as a whole. The practice of leading needs to integrate questions of ethics, governance and stewardship at the core of what it means to be a practitioner, not as a nice-to-have bolt-on to the real business of management.

This means we need to change how we construe leadership development. It needs to evolve from its roots as a short-term, transactional intervention focussed on delivering concrete impacts. This may still have a place. But what’s missing is the normalisation of long-term, reflective support by which individuals can draw into their work identities their full personhood, and find the ground on which they can cultivate their own sensing, judgment and discernment. This is developing leaders less by filling their heads with new content and more by enabling them to draw out the wisdom and creativity they already possess by virtue of their experience as human beings. It blends exploration in depth of the self with enquiry from a societal perspective of what is demanded of a person as leader in their specific context and beyond.

What can we learn from the tradition of supervision

As contexts shift, the expectations upon and role requirements of leaders in their various contexts expand. There is a corresponding need for approaches which support the ongoing development of leaders to evolve. Importing ideas and orientations from the field of supervision into the coaching and development of leaders presents a number of possibilities.

This needs not to be a project of defining what leadership supervision is and is not. Rather, it is an exercise in revitalising and expanding existing assumptions and norms around coaching. We want to include perspectives and practices more relevant to the needs of leaders in their current situations and contexts, including wider societal challenges. To become overly preoccupied with defining a “new approach” is a throwback to the emphasis in managerialism on categorisation and demarcation. It colludes in positivist assumptions of the world being observable and controllable from an objective standpoint which are not easily applied to human relations. In the same way that leaders need to be able to relax attachment to (historical) fixed ideas about what leading is to make space for creative and innovative thinking and action to emerge, the same is true of approaches to executive coaching that might then be termed leadership supervision.

A regular process in many of the helping professions, coaching included, supervision offers a particular kind of reflective conversation in which leaders might come to understand better the forces impinging upon them socially, environmentally and psychologically. This space allows attention to be paid to how meaning is made from these experiences while also broadening perspective beyond familiar models and sense-making. Supervision treats meaning not as a truth but as a construct that can generate new insight. This in turn supports a greater capacity for creating and experimenting with novel strategies that might be more context-relevant than approaches based in the past.

A supervisory approach stands to act as a corrective to the transactional orientation of managerialism, integrating reflection and sense-making with action. It represents a radical challenge to assumptions about time-structuring and value predicated on busy-ness and frenetic activity. For supervision to be effective, the psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden (2005) insists, supervisor and supervisee each need to feel that they “have time to waste”.

Five dimensions of leadership supervision

We see five dimensions of supervision that can be applied to leadership development:

  1. Leading as continuous learning.
  2. A relationship over time.
  3. Pluralism in the cultivation of maturity.
  4. The development of ethical practice.
  5. An emergent process.

Leading as continuous learning

Supervisory approaches to learning emerge from the context of the helping professions where technical knowledge and expertise alone have long been acknowledged to be insufficient for ensuring professionalism, practice efficacy and ethical rigour in an uncertain and complex environment. There is a framing of the task and requirements of professionalism in terms of continuous improvement and lifelong learning. Leadership practice in this light is seen as much as craft as it is science and technique. A process of continuous improvement, refinement, personal development and lifelong learning.

That said, expertise and the depth and precision of specific scientific disciplines will always have their place. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has amply demonstrated that, in a context of fast-moving complexity, not only do specific disciplines offer an inevitably partial picture, but the interpretation and use of expert knowledge to inform policy and practice decisions is always a social process. It is mediated by subjective assumptions, personalities, prior conditioning and ideological bias. The science might have clearly demonstrated that early lockdown was vital in containing the spread of infection but it was assumptions, such as that the British public might not take kindly to the imposition of restrictions, that determined the timing of announcements and contributed to delay. Delay that the science is demonstrating resulted in a significant number of unnecessary deaths. That government advisers were caught flouting the very rules they personally contributed to creating further points to the complex relationship between science, principle, the law, “inner” assumptions and the “outer” actual human behaviour.

A supervisory orientation to supporting and developing leaders recognises that evidence-based scientific data and theoretical principle do indeed need to inform thinking and decision making. But the viewing angle is widened to acknowledge, track and explore the uniqueness of leaders in their specific contexts. It brings into enquiry their personal stories and dispositions as well as the multitude of forces influencing how leaders experience themselves and their situations, and how these shape how they think and might act. In the face of complexity and uncertainty, there is intrinsic value in the space to pause, reflect, and think together with a supervisor. Without it, there is a risk that leaders in the grip of anxiety and overwhelm, resort to more rigid and limited perspectives and range of responses.

A relationship over time

Supervision offers the possibility of reframing the nature of the executive coaching engagement from a short-term, purely goal focused engagement to a relationship developed and deepened over a longer time frame (Cavicchia & Gilbert, 2018). This enables the coach as leadership supervisor and the leader as leadership supervisee to collaborate to build and maintain the psychological safety and containment of anxiety required to support exploration of the multifaceted and personal nature of leading in complexity. The relationship as container becomes the crucible in which the formative, normative and restorative (Proctor, 1991) functions of supervision can be applied to leadership. A longer process of engagement and commitment further supports the depth of learning and development required to expand traditional leadership mindsets. It helps develop the perspectives, personal mastery, resilience and agility required for leading in complexity. As a further corrective to the lonely hero archetype of leadership, the supervisory relationship recognises and normalises the inevitable and ordinary human vulnerabilities experienced when navigating hitherto uncharted territory with only partial information ever being available.

Pluralism in the cultivation of maturity

Supervision provides an orientation which embraces pluralism and critical reflection in relation to theoretical frames informing meaning-making and leadership. This is a departure from a narrower view of managerial supervision which is primarily concerned with ensuring that established protocols and best practice methodologies are adhered to. Instead, the focus is on closely observing the process whereby supervisor and supervisee make meaning together about the situation the leader is in. It explores the challenges and questions he or she faces that are personal and particular to the context. It allows consideration of what might be required in terms of right action that is concerned with impacts beyond the immediate spheres of the individual and the organisation.

Existing theories and disciplines such as psychology, vertical development, systems theory, complexity theory, organisational discourse, best practice and ethical principle might float into consciousness to guide this exploration. But the basic premise is that no pre-existing strategy or single orientation can be assumed without investigation to be an appropriate resource or response until multiple factors contributing to the supervisee’s context and situation have been surfaced and considered. Pluralism extends to how the self is met for both supervisor and supervisee. Supervision provides a space where a multiplicity of selves and the process of “selfing” in context (the forms of being and acting that emerge moment by moment) can be recognised and integrated into the dialogue. Leaders are supported to inquire into and clarify their motivation, intentions, strategies and actions. They reflect on any inconsistencies between these domains of attention to ensure that they can account for their choices clearly and transparently, especially when scrutinised.

As in the case of ethical maturity (Carroll & Shaw, 2013), where it has long been recognised that the same rules governing ethical conduct cannot be applied without question in all contexts, a stance of leadership maturity approaches each leadership situation and any response in its situational uniqueness. The exploration of leadership in complexity is a creative process where meaning is co-constructed with the leadership supervisor drawing upon multiple intelligences – including mental models and cognition but also making room for emotional, intuitive and associative intelligence.

Where new strategies and choices emerge in the supervisory space, the relationship with the supervisor also can support acting on new possibilities. The aim is to enable a leader to experiment with approaches that, by their necessarily innovative nature, may be difficult to contemplate since they will appear to others as different to existing knowledge, methodologies and approaches. The consideration will encompass not just the nature of the innovative action but the influencing that must be undertaken to socialise the initative. In this way, supervisees can be supported to embody experimental attitudes and approaches to change agency, network and realtionship management.

The development of ethical practice

Arising out of the three previous dimensions is an orientation to the ethical dimensions of leading. The normative function of supervision in the helping professions draws on shared constructs of good practice. Leaders entering the reflective process of supervision can participate in and contribute to the development of constructs of leadership good practice. The supervision process can help them consider how they might apply such constructs to their own specific contexts and socialise them in their wider networks. Given the upheavals discussed at the start of this article, consideration of the impacts of leading beyond the leader’s immediate organisation is an increasingly relevant factor in the development of good practice. This demands of the supervision practitioner a familiarity with socio-political and ethical discourses pertaining to leading as well as a mature capability to facilitate pluralistic and non-directive exploration of them with their supervisees. This is a capability that is not much developed in current approaches to the training of coaches, with the consequence that many practitioners are uncomfortable with this territory for fear of straying inappropriately into a politicisation of the coaching space.

An emergent process

By embracing the need for reflection, and experimentation in practice, a supervisory frame for coaching offers an implicit and evolving research orientation to developing leaders. It balances fostering considered pragmatism for leaders with contributing to the research base informing contemporary leadership discourses. In this way, leadership supervision stands to close the gap between theoretical abstractions “about” leadership (often taught on leadership programmes) and the translation of abstraction into informed experimental action with impact.

Join the dialogue

The current era presents dislocations of a kind that most people of working age in Western societies have not previously experienced. Coaching, which emerged as a profession when assumptions of order and predictability seemed more valid, needs now to evolve to integrate practices that support leaders to produces imaginative and relevant responses to these new circumstances. We present ideas drawn from the field of supervision as a possible trajectory of how executive coaching might adapt.

The relationship with the supervisor stands to support leaders to regulate and manage their psychological state in the face of the impossibility of knowing what will emerge. It helps restore reflective objectivity when feelings are running high and develop the capacity to go on thinking and choosing how to respond when familiar reference points are limited or non-existent.

We offer this article as an opening statement to a dialogue that we hope will evolve to explore the potential contribution of the supervision tradition to leadership development. We will be hosting online conversations. If you would be interested in taking part in these discussions, please get in touch.

Martin Vogel and Simon Cavicchia are holding an online discussion about leadership supervision on Wednesday 24 February, 14:00-15:30. Book your place.

A shorter version of this article was published in the October 2020 edition of Coaching Perspectives

Image courtesy risingthermals.


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