Creative coaching creates creative leadership

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.

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Britain’s shame: projections and substance regarding Boris Johnson

On Tuesday afternoon, a friend in Boston emailed to acknowledge that my country was now officially more embarrassing than his. This had been a bone of contention between us: him cringing at how Trump was eviscerating the reputation of the United States; me pointing to Brexit. But the elevation of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to Prime Minister of the UK had tipped the scales in our favour. Thus was my attempted sabbatical from political engagement brought to an unwelcome end.

On Wednesday, I had a disturbed night. I kept waking to the anxious residues of Johnson’s first day in office, as I absorbed the seizure of government by a clique of “nepotists, chancers, fools, flunkeys, flatterers, hypocrites, braggarts and whiners“ – as Nick Cohen put it, with uncharacteristic understatement.

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Exploring voice

One of the most stirring encounters that I experienced this year was a one-hour lesson with Nadine George on discovering your voice. Nadine has been teaching voice for thirty years to actors, directors and other creative types. According to her website:

“Having spent eight years researching the voice at the University of Birmingham Drama Department, Nadine has developed her own voice technique. She now works closely with many international theatre companies and drama schools all over Europe. She has been teaching at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland for the past 20 years, where her work is now the chosen technique taught by the Centre for Voice In Performance.”

What was I doing there? A good question. I wasn’t entirely sure myself. I was sent to Nadine by my wife who had previously trained with Nadine, and who had an instinct that I’d find the lesson rewarding.

Her method is in a lineage that descends from Alfred Wolfsohn via Roy Hart. These were not names that meant much to me before this year. Suffice to say this is not an entirely performance-based tradition of voice work. Wolfsohn suffered shell shock during the First World War and used vocalising as a form of self-treatment after other therapies failed to help. While Nadine does not claim to be a therapist, she recognises that her work has therapeutic impacts.

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On getting it wrong

At its edges, the world of coaching is influenced by memes that originate in new age thinking. This isn’t entirely to be deprecated. Coaching’s porousness to diverse influences helps make it adaptive and less susceptible to the orthodoxy that eventually stifles professions. But occasionally an idea threatens to break through that needs to be stamped on if we are to maintain rigorous foundations for our work.

One such that I have encountered this year is the comforting notion that “you can’t get it wrong”. I think this translates as: “Don’t worry about messing up – there’s no single right way to do something, so just go ahead and imagine that the way you are doing it will meet the exigencies of the situation.”

I have come across this in relation to the practice of mindfulness and with respect to how to practice as a coach or supervisor. Before long, this kind of thinking will be infecting organisations and letting leaders off the hook for all sorts of things. The idea has a beguiling appeal and sounds like it’s in the same terrain as constructs that are helpful to dealing with a complex world. But, in fact, it’s opposed to them.

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Grounds for optimism

Not everything about chaos is miserable. We may be living through an epoch-defining collapse of the socio-economic settlement we have known for four decades. A reckoning with free-market, shareholder value capitalism is long overdue and it is happening in more disruptive ways than was needed. Things may look disturbing and confusing. But, as David Brooks reminds, out of chaos comes hope:

“There have been many moments in our history when old ideas and old arrangements stopped working and people chopped them up. Those transition moments were bumpy, and it was easy to lose hope, but then people figured it out. Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity.”

He doesn’t mean the kind of blind-faith, glib, muddling-through, bulldog-spirit, groundless hope that keeps churning out the same answers to new problems. He’s not British. He’s talking about the application of imagination to the invention of new paradigms; meeting a new reality with new strategies.

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Britain’s duff leadership culture

The challenge of bringing fresh and adaptive leadership in a complex and volatile world is a global problem. But an insightful analysis by The Economist highlights distinctly British dimensions:

“Britain’s leadership crisis is rooted in the evolution of the old establishment into a new political class. This evolution has been widely hailed as a triumph of meritocracy over privilege, and professionalism over amateurism. In fact, the new political class has preserved many of the failures of the old establishment. It is introverted and self-regarding, sending its members straight from university to jobs in the Westminster village, where they marry others of their kind. It relies on bluff rather than expertise, selecting those trained in blaggers’ subjects like PPE and slippery professions like public relations and journalism (Mr Cameron worked in PR before going into politics, whereas Mr Gove and Mr Johnson, along with his brother, another Tory MP, were hacks).

“At the same time, the political class has abandoned one of the virtues of the old establishment. The old ruling class preserved a degree of gentlemanly self-restraint. Senior politicians left office to cultivate their gardens and open village fetes. The new political class, by contrast, is devoid of self-restraint, precisely because it thinks it owes its position to personal merit rather than the luck of birth. Thus meritocracy morphs into crony capitalism. Tony Blair has amassed a fortune since leaving office and George Osborne, Mr Cameron’s former chancellor of the exchequer, is following eagerly in his footsteps.”

The attitude described here infects leadership well beyond the sphere of politics. The Financial Times has described the rewards extracted by the top brass of the Crossrail project – where private sector executives have used a governance structure designed to limit political meddling to extract handsome rewards, despite failing to deliver the project this year as promised:

“The deal gave Crossrail’s bosses great freedom so long as they lived within their budget. They took full advantage, paying themselves handsomely. When (departing chief executive) Mr Wolstenholme left this year, he received £765,689, including a £160,000 bonus, and £97,000 for ‘loss of employment’, despite numerous signs that the project was unravelling. The previous year, he banked £950,000, including a £481,460 bonus.”

Duff leadership is a problem not just because it has adverse impacts on the issues it is trying to manage. The self-aggrandisement of the chumocracy combined with its ineptitude undermines people’s belief in change and thus their motivation to engage. Perhaps this accounts for the strange inertia as the country heads towards the possibility of a car-crash Brexit.

We need a revolution of distributed leadership. Looking to the elite to empower activists is a waste of time. People of initiative need to come together in self-organising common cause to brush aside the narcissists whose reign has failed.

Image courtesy Miguel Bruna.

The thoughtlessness behind organisational perversity

Robert Conquest’s claim that “every organisation behaves as if it is run by secret agents of its opponents” seems outlandish at first glance. But if you allow yourself to reject the fake news, bullshit (non)sense-making that most organisations try to impose on us, it’s hard not to keep stumbling into the truth of Conquest’s law.

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The leaders we create

It’s a cliché of politics to say that we get the leaders we deserve. If that’s true, it begs the question: what have we done to deserve the myopic and divisive leadership that has taken us to the precipice of chaos? A clutch of articles looking at Britain from the outside provide some answers.

The Economist considers how Britain’s European allies are looking on with bemusement at its collective nervous breakdown. For them, it’s not just that they are losing a close partner but also grieving the loss of an idea of what Britain represents. No longer sensible and reliable but a country revealed to be as chaotic and headstrong as any other:

“The biggest worry is not that the world’s view of Britain is changing. It is that this darker view of Britain is more realistic than the previous one. The Brexit vote could almost have been designed to reveal long-festering problems with the country: an elite educational system that puts too much emphasis on confidence and bluff and not enough on expertise; a political system that selects its leaders from a self-involved Oxbridge clique; a London-focused society that habitually ignores the worries of the vast mass of British people; and a Conservative Party that promotes so many pompous mediocrities. The reason Brexit is doing so much damage is not just that it is a mistake. It is a reckoning.”

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A moderate proposal

Matthew Parris is worried that the UK is heading for a no-deal Brexit because the moderate majority in Parliament doesn’t know how to face down the Brexit extremists (£). A former MP himself, he thinks it imperative that scared centrists among the Conservatives and Labour find a way to break ranks with tribal party loyalties to make common cause. He has a proposal that would both break the stalemate and allow Theresa May to relinquish her loathed deal with good grace:

“Don’t whip the vote. Declare this decision to be so important, so epoch-making, that only a free vote by MPs could honestly legitimise it. The public will like the sound of this, and there’s a chance Labour might be embarrassed into lifting their whip too. The government is still likely to lose but the defeat then would be far from a ‘confidence’ issue. For May, the can is kicked a little further down the road, which seems anyway to be as far as she wants to lift her eyes.”

The appeal of this proposal is not only that it might create new momentum in the Brexit process but also that it could create a new dynamic in the wider political culture:

“When Remainer Tories walk through the voting lobbies alongside Labour MPs they’ll see opponents who have become co-campaigners, kindred spirits, perhaps even friends. Who can say what might result, but I think that in purely human terms, something might shift within that ghastly Victorian prison they call Westminster. As MPs shuffle past the tellers together, momentarily unattached from party, and in a flurry of shared glances, something might be born.”

I think this is the most likely way that we will eventually overcome polarised politics. For all the talk of a new party, the hunger for new ideas, and the waiting for a political saviour, the most plausible impetus for change will be when people of shared values link hands across traditional divides and begin exploring the possibilities that emerge.

Image courtesy Sandra Ahn Mode.

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.

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