Last week I participated in a beauty parade for an organisation looking to bring on-stream a number of new change facilitators to work with its senior leaders. At one point in the client’s selection process, together with the other participants on the day I was asked to describe why I became a coach. I began by saying that I didn’t see myself as a coach, or a facilitator, or a consultant, or a trainer, for that matter… Before I got any further, one of the other participants laughed and chipped in “Ty, you need a coach!”
It was a funny quip and got a laugh from everyone, as it cast me as some sort of crazy, mixed-up person. But it struck me powerfully that this colleague (who does identify himself as a specialist coach) and I hold very different paradigms of coaching. I came to learn throughout the day that for him, coaching is about getting clients to clarity and working towards answers.
I see nothing wrong with this, per se, yet my work with senior leaders often throws up the importance of working with complexity and ambiguity in change processes. Things often aren’t clear and solutions are only partial and interim. I think it’s important to help clients build the muscle of recognizing and holding multiple perspectives and conflicting options with grace and ease.
Gestaltist Frank Staemmler calls this “cultivated uncertainty.” He points to the importance of working with “not knowing” in some circumstances, until we sense ripeness and can act with, rather than against the grain of circumstances. Similarly, Complexity Theorist Ralph Stacey talks about how leaders often have to be able to operate in a zone where there is little certainty and little agreement.
This is often not welcome news. At a human level, paradox, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity throw up the vulnerability of leadership. What is the coach’s role here? I believe that honest engagement with these issues opens the doorway to creativity and to collaboration. I see the leaders role as one facilitating the emergence of shared possibilities and responsibilities. Working with models like GROW certainly have a place. But for me, leadership identity is not forged this way.