We propose that anyone working in an organization who must engage in work under the challenging conditions of complexity, unpredictability and turbulence—but particularly those in a formal or informal leadership role–can benefit from strategies engaged by professional coaches.
Complexity, Uncertainty and Turbulence
Complexity demands a level of cognitive functioning that often leaves us, as Robert Kegan (1994) suggests, “in over our heads.” We must be able to understand and grapple with complex issues that are often nested inside other complex issues or are juxtaposed with other challenging issues. In complex settings we are faced with an additional challenge: we must simultaneously be able to think about our own thinking and take actions. We must be able to learn from our mistakes and successes, as well as be aware of the particular settings in which we learn and in which we don’t learn (often called meta-learning)
We are even more challenged when faced with uncertainty. Under conditions of uncertainty, obviously, we can’t predict what will happen next. However, there is an additional challenge: we are continually faced with new information that comes from many different angles. We must continually accommodate to this new information while abandoning—at least temporarily—old assimilated models, assumptions, and social constructions of organizational reality (Berger and Luchman, 1967: Argyris and Schön, 1974; Argyris, 1989; Senge, 1990). Using Kurt Lewin’s (1947) term: we are always unfreezing and never have a chance to settle in with our new learning and new accommodation.
Turbulence further compounds the challenge, given that we, as decision-makers, must live in a swirling “white water world” (Vaill, 1989) in which rapid change intermixes with patterned change, stagnation and chaos. Somehow in the midst of this turbulence—which is driven by ever-accelerating change—we must find our own personal (some would say “spiritual”) core. We search for sanctuary from this turbulence and must always adjust to a world with new change-dynamics. At the end of the day, we can’t even remember what happened to us at the start of the day—because we have had to make so many adjustments throughout the day!
We propose that if coach-based leaders can demonstrate in their daily work the value of the services they render as being directly aligned with, appreciative of, and effective in addressing the challenges of complexity, unpredictability and turbulence, then these leaders will be successful in the work they do.
Why 21st Century Leaders Should Embrace a Coaching Strategy
In their sometimes temporary and sometimes long-term leadership roles, 21st Century women and men face challenges of many different kinds, coming from many different sources. The system around them may have varying and often contradictory expectations regarding how this person is likely to perform as a leader, as well as how they would like this person to perform as a 21st Century leader. The leaders often find themselves making difficult decisions that impact not only on their lives, but also the lives of people about whom they care deeply. The leaders’ fundamental values and the relationship between these values and those of their organization are always being called forth—and challenged. Are the leader’s values and those of the organization aligned or does the leader repeatedly have to trade off what is most important in her life for that which the organization most values? Conversely, can the leader always consistently role model the noble values that make up the specific organizational culture in which he works?
In the flattened 21st Century organization, leaders often live in solitude, working in emotional isolation as performers, decision-makers, and people who must relate their own personal values with those of their organization. Even though these leaders may receive input from many sources, ultimately they alone must perform, make choices with unprecedented speed and align values and interests among dizzying numbers of stakeholders. These organizational responsibilities, often coupled with a need for confidentiality and support from equally over- extended peers and bosses, leave the leader with few, if any, outlets to share these burdens. We have noted with alarm that burn out occurs with great frequency among leaders at many different levels and in many different kinds of organizations—big and small, for profit and not for profit, high tech and low tech, manufacturing and service-oriented.
Our challenged leader might read an article about coaching or talk with a colleague about their successful use of a coach. Perhaps this will motivate the harried leader to emulate coaching strategies in their day-to-day work. They may use other words, but at the heart of the matter is a desire to break down the isolation. Increasingly, perceptive and strategic talent development professionals are learning to identify when and how a leader might engage coaching=based practices. The coaching resources that are available at the present time hold the potential, if effectively engaged, of having a greater impact on the work life of those with whom the leader engages than any other single developmental activity that could be offered.
Certainly, sympathetic listening, a willingness to observe the leader in operation, and the skills needed to provide helpful feedback are essential in this situation, but these skills might not be at all sufficient. What does a planned, logical and sufficiently in-depth sequence of organizational coaching practices look like? This certification program offers participants a variety of tools and strategies regarding masterful coach-based leadership.