Unknowing: an orientation for coaching and leading

By Martin Vogel

One doesn’t need to work long as a coach to encounter clients who bridle against the profession’s non-directivity ethos and demand answers. “I want tips, not coaching,” one said to me recently. “What’s making you say that?” I replied – impolitely deflecting the request.

In fairness, this encounter arose at a time when I was particularly unlikely to comply. Through the pandemic, I’ve been musing on what I call my unknowing project. I’ve become convinced that we cherish knowing too much – or rather, the feeling of knowing. We live in an era of intersecting complex challenges – globalisation, environmental crisis, social and racial inequities, nationalism. Covid, sometimes referred to as a syndemic, cuts across all of these. Complex challenges are defined by the difficulty of designing a solution. Yet they characteristically call forth simplistic answers from people who are uncomfortable with this fact. Which is to say, most of us. Homo sapiens, the man who knows, prizes having answers. But we are, as Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have found, more ignorant than we allow.

Any client who comes into coaching feels, at some level, the pressure of the need to know. Coaching risks colluding with the fantasy of knowing in the face of complexity. Perhaps, instead, we can contextualise it. Both coach and client can try to approach the world with some humility about the limits of our knowledge.

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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.

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A restoration begins

By Martin Vogel

Sometimes, when you watch an event, it is only when you sleep on it that its significance lands. Last week, I watched with shock but not surprise as America’s Capitol was invaded by seditionists. Even as I watched, and despite the delay in police and security forces containing the uprising, the insurrection looked unlikely to succeed. But, the next morning, the deeper significance sunk in. This was an event that shouldn’t have happened in a mature democracy. Given the connivance of an uncomfortably large number of elected representatives in Congress, with a more competent seditionist than Donald Trump in office, the coup might have prevailed. America, and the cause of democracy around the world, was stained by the insurrection but also saved by an ethos that held when tested.

Yesterday, as Joe Biden took office, the rituals of inauguration seemed familiar but their significance was overwhelming. The words of the presidential oath carried unusual meaning as Biden, with evident decency and determination, promised to uphold the constitution. After dealing with the urgent crisis of Covid, this is his most important task. It’s not yet clear whether the mediation of differences in the United States can be contained within democratic norms. But everything about the inauguration signalled that an attempted restoration is under way.

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The missing piece in supporting internal coaches

By Martin Vogel and Hetty Einzig

All professionals need to make time regularly to reflect on their work and how they are developing in the role they play in the workplace. This is good professional practice not just to keep their expertise up to date but also for their own wellbeing. It stops us falling into habitual ways of doing things and habitual patterns of overworking or reacting to pressure that may be unhelpful for us and for those we work with. This is even more imperative if your job involves working with others.

Supervision is a means of providing just such reflective space. It’s considered normal best practice for professional coaches to have regular contact with a supervisor to review their work, their practice and their sense of being in the world. In complex and fast-moving organisational settings, where corner-cutting and groupthink can lead to questionable practices, supervision provides a space to find one’s ethical ground.

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What is ecosystems supervision? An explainer

By Martin Vogel and Hetty Einzig

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Ecosystems supervision is a collaborative and experimental approach which explores coaching practice within the context of wider societal and environmental considerations. It combines enquiry in depth into who we are as individuals and as professionals with exploration in breadth of the systems and networks within which – and which shape how – we operate. 

This article explains our approach and what it is like to experience ecosystems supervision. It is by nature a work in progress as we employ an action learning approach in our work, adapting and developing as we learn with participants in our groups. 

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Is supervision a gendered pursuit?

By Martin Vogel

Who is supervision for? Anybody who would value a reflective space in which to reflect on their practice and encounter fresh perspectives.

Who comes for supervision? Good question. Women, it would seem. At least that is the case for the flavour of supervision that I have been offering with my colleague, Hetty Einzig, for the past year.

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Undeveloping Britain

By Martin Vogel

Back in January 2019, Matt Bishop and Tony Payne at Sheffield University’s Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) posed the question of whether Britain might be the world’s first example of an undeveloping state. By this they meant that the characteristics that sustained the UK’s development over four hundred years as a pioneer of capitalism and industrialisation may have turned into pathologies that hold it back in the modern global political economy:

“Britain could again be first, albeit in a league table not of its choice! It could be the first of the ‘early developers’ to be forced to grapple with the implications of sustained ‘undevelopment’. This is defined here straightforwardly as the dismantling, rather than the building, of a viable, functioning political economy that satisfactorily serves its people.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought this thesis visibly to life. Britons have spent 2020 discovering that the securities they have for decades taken for granted are in fact very fragile. I won’t rehearse the catalogue of incompetence that has characterised the British Government’s approach to the coronavirus. But, lest it becomes too normalised, I commend keeping to hand the excellent Sunday Times investigations whose titles say it all: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster and 22 days of delay and dither on coronavirus that cost thousands of British lives.

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Join our ecosystems supervision group beginning in January

Martin Vogel and Hetty Einzig are opening a new round of ecosystems supervision focussed on supporting practitioners as society’s response to the pandemic enters a new phase. If you are a coach or practitioner whose work involves supporting people, we invite you to join this programme of group supervision sessions. Depending on circumstances we plan to offer a blended model of online and face-to-face sessions.

Our innovative approach fosters awareness of the ecosystems in which we are located and the influence we can bring to bear on them as individuals. It encourages an integration of our identities as people, practitioners and citizens.

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Speaking up and speaking out

By Martin Vogel

My time in lockdown has been bracketed by two enjoyable adventures in podcasting, courtesy of Charmaine Roche and her new series, Speak Up, Speak Out. Charmaine is a coach, working in the education sector, and is also researching a PhD on how coaches can help clients deal with the stress arising from ethical challenges. In her series of five podcasts, she has interviewed a different person each week on questions related to her research interest. I was privileged not only to have been her first guest but also the guest host in the final episode, interviewing Charmaine herself.

Listening to each episode, I have enjoyed how she has opened up an expansive view of coaching as a liberating intervention. She explores with her guests how people in organisations often feel pressure to conform against their better judgment and how coaching can help them access their integrity as professionals.

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Reflections on the emergency

By Martin Vogel

I’ve been writing about the COVID emergency at my new blog, The Unknowing Project. I began this as a space to develop thoughts around the question of unknowing as a stance for our times, which has since become the task of all of us as old certainties have collapsed. One of the themes that is emerging is about cultivating equanimity.

This is from a month ago:

“Fierce equanimity looks into a potential abyss and steps back into a grounded responsibility. We don’t know what the next weeks and months will hold. But we each have a part to play in mitigating the virus. That part entails apprehending it with due seriousness and changing our behaviour accordingly.”

Read the full post: The awakening.

And this is from today:

“A lot of what we’re feeling at the moment is grief. Some of the emotional response to the Prime Minister’s condition exemplifies this. The laying low of the nation’s leader symbolises not just the loss of our sense of security but an anticipatory grief about what lies ahead. That it should happen not just to our Prime Minister but to somebody as bumptious and boosterish as Boris Johnson pulls the rug from whatever lingering denial we may have been labouring under.”

Read the full post: Nobody knows anything.

Please be in touch if you have any reflections. At a time like this, it can be hard to find one’s moorings. We might respond in different ways: perhaps with a frenzy of productivity or perhaps berating ourselves for not being productive enough.

My blogpost on trauma has been getting a lot of traffic. We are collectively going through a traumatising experience and it’s important to know where you can get the right kind of help.

If you would like to talk, please get in touch.

Image courtesy Javardh at Unsplash.