I am sitting on the cliffs above a lighthouse. The day is big and bright; I feel blessed by the sun that follows a dull, overcast morning. I look down from my godly heights at the square-shaped inlet that tucks in under the rocky lighthouse headland.
I am mesmerised by the glinting points of light as the sun catches the wave caps, a constant shimmering far below me. What I suddenly see is a vast silver net, covering half the bay. Made of the finest silken thread, each point of light is a tiny knot that connects to another in a skein of perfect entanglement.
The waters move ceaselessly, non-stop, never-ending and never still enough to look through. Yet here it feels as if I might see something of their tenebrous depths. It is as if the waters reach to the sky to be touched by light for the briefest but infinite second, infinitesimal yet ever-present.
Casting the net through coaching
Coaches work to catch those glimpses of light. Yet often they and their clients avoid the deeper dive. What coaching needs to develop is the capacity to also see that infinite tracery of connections.
Coaches can cast the net wider to gain a bigger perspective for themselves and their clients. Broadening the focus will enable us to see the connections that run through our lives and enjoin us to the wider whole.
Leaders and coaches need to be bold enough to envision a world where the joy of being fully alive – that is, fully participating and validated for one’s contribution, in service to a greater purpose – is accessible to all.
To do this, we can swim below the surface of action and look for the wisdom that lies beneath.
A wider context for a changing world
Expanding our approach is crucial in a changing world. Context matters more than ever – behaving differently according to the needs of our immediate environment. Whether in the office, climbing a mountain, playing with our children, or presenting at a board meeting, we adapt appropriately.
But we now need to think about a much wider context. We must be more than the proverbial goldfish in a bowl – unaware and unquestioning of the water we swim in, of the world beyond the glass.
A more appropriate analogy for us, at this point, is that we are like crabs in a rock pool. Our immediate environment is affected by the tides, every day and in every way, whether we attend to them or not.
The water swirls around us. Our world is changing faster than we are programmed to adapt. Yet by and large we continue to take continuity for granted – even while we talk about disruption and change.
Evolved maps for shifting boundaries
Many of the models and theories that coaches and leaders use are premised on unconscious maps of a relatively stable world with clear boundaries. They include concepts like the problem-solution binary, goal setting, and the popular four box models.
Such models are based on beliefs around good and bad performance, and success and achievement, drawn from an image of the world that may now be slipping away.
In turn, those models underpin an outmoded concept of leadership: vested in a single person, asserted through dominance, knowledge and action.
These leaders and the systems they uphold appear increasingly creaky in our VUCA world: one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I believe they are no longer fit for purpose.
Sinking, swimming and finding fresh waters
Much coaching work is about helping people develop coping strategies. Couched in terms of ‘raising performance’, many coaches do help people survive, and sometimes thrive, in the world. At the surface level, for many, this simply means earning more money.
And this type of coaching is necessary; there are plenty out there struggling. Many people are drowning, or lost to themselves. Giving them techniques to navigate what can feel like workplace rapids, and develop the resilience to survive the storms, is time-honoured coaching work.
But there is a growing discomfort today at the compromises such an approach entails. Are we simply propping up structures no longer fit for purpose? What is the cost – in terms of time, energy, wellbeing and a deeper sense of self? This applies at every level up to and including management – there are too many truths left unspoken and dreams dashed against the rocks.
We can start to see this as buried treasure. It is coaches and leaders who can be the first to cast the net wider and take a deeper dive. Our changing world demands it.
And this may be where we can find ourselves and regenerate, like light dancing on water.
My latest book “The Future of Coaching – Vision, Leadership and Responsibility in a Transforming World” is available to order on Amazon.co.uk, on Amazon.com, and direct from Routledge.