On transformational coaching and why it’s so important right now
We have been fooling ourselves pretty much for the past two hundred years. Ever since the industrial revolution took off, we have come to believe in the malleability of almost everything. Not only our actions but also our thinking has ‘mechanised.’ We have become overly specialised and lost sight of the myriad connections. They became invisible but never disappeared. And now we suddenly realise, with a shock, that everything is connected. That the Scottish-American naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir was right when wrote: “When we pick one thing out, we find that this one thing is attached to everything else in the universe.” The complexity we now ‘suddenly’ face is defined by the relationships and mutual interactions between those ‘things,’ and precisely this has fallen between the cracks of our thinking. To see and recognise them again, we have to learn to look anew — differently and from multiple perspectives.
A “flaw” in the model of the world
The American economist and former chair of the Federal Reserve (‘The Fed’), Alan Greenspan, shows this is far from easy. When questioned by a committee of the US House of Representatives in 2008, shortly after the start of the 2007 credit crunch, Greenspan said he had found a “flaw” in what he had considered “for 40 years or more” to be the model for how the world works ∆.
Greenspan, by no means a stupid man, painfully displays the consequences of linear thinking, being trapped in a self-fortifying system and having a myopic worldview. Even after discovering the flaw, he considered it nothing more than a mere imperfectness in a system that “was working exceptionally well.” And he is far from unique, of course, as we see this way of thinking — linear and irrefutable — everywhere and at every level in our society. In government, in politics, and also in our boardrooms.
What do I know?
What we need today are leaders who embody the opposite. Who look beyond their immediate environment, ‘industry’ and interests. Leaders who see and understand the bigger picture, break down barriers and forge connections. Who think for themselves.
This isn’t something you quickly learn. It is not a matter of acquiring new or deepening existing skills — or repairing a flaw. Instead, it is about changing deep-seated beliefs or generalisations with which we interpret the world. And that may be the hardest thing there is. It requires that we trade our certainty for doubt and curiosity. That we relentlessly question what we know or think we know. Like the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who summed up his motto in the question Que sais-je? What do I know? His essays are a continuous quest for meaning.
Transformational coaching is exactly that: an exploration into the structures that shape your sense of self (who you think you are). Through this, you will be able to grow to higher levels of self-awareness (who you want to be) and find your way in the world’s ‘new’ complex reality — with wisdom & clarity of mind.
In my work as an executive coach, I not only draw inspiration from (classical) philosophy, art and humanistic education (Bildung), but also from Robert Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development and Susanne R. Cook-Greuter’s Theory Of Vertical Growth And Meaning Making. What these and other constructive developmental theories have in common is the notion that the cognitive systems through which we see and understand ourselves, others and the world around us can grow and change over time.
This is a discontinuous process with consecutive stages, each characterised by qualitative differences in consciousness and increasing levels of complexity of thought. And although the development of abilities, such as specific emotions or ways of thinking, has a distinct start and endpoint at each stage, there is no precise moment for those abilities to appear or disappear. Some types of thinking, feeling, or behaviour may seem to turn up suddenly, but it is more likely that they have gradually developed in our subconscious. It is also good to realise that you never leave previous stages behind. They are and remain anchored in you, like the annual rings of a tree.
We also call this self-actualisation or vertical development. Unlike horizontal development, this isn’t about adding more knowledge and more skills, about what we know, but about how we know. As we develop vertically, we no longer see the world in dichotomies and either-or dilemmas. We have learned to accept differences and look for what unites us instead of what separates us. We hold our beliefs loosely and see things from different perspectives without feeling the urge to judge. We also accept that we cannot know the answer to everything, nor do we have to. The English poet John Keats called this negative faculty ‡: the ability “to dwell in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any spurred reaching for fact and reason.” Keats resisted the urge to reduce reality to generalisations and simplifications in an attempt to explain it.
Today, the importance of vertical development has only grown as we now find ourselves in what the historian and economist Immanuel Wallerstein called a ‘world system transformation.’ A time ‘between worlds’ in which the entire modality of human existence changes, from economics and politics to culture and even our natural environment. In this ‘liminal space,’ the old, familiar structures no longer hold, while the ones replacing them still have to emerge.
Who do I choose to be?
As an executive coach, I support people in this shape-shifting process. I invite them to self-examination — to explore and question the beliefs, images and interpretations about who they are and their purpose and place in the world. The transformational coaching process focuses on learning and doing what is required to grow into the embodiment of who you choose to be. It leads to profound changes in the deepest part of one’s being. These changes occur gradually and reveal themselves to everyone in different ways.
And although all of us have the capacity to grow vertically, I mostly work with people in leadership positions who have reached their limits. Often, how they think, what guides them, and how they relate to others and the world around them have come under increased pressure. They know they need to find new ways of seeing, but their cognitive systems are holding them back. Another reason is a deeply felt inner need for meaning and an answer to the question, What do I value? How can I see the world in all its diversity through my own eyes?
Whatever the reason, transformational coaching is always a search for new ways of ‘being’ and what it takes to embody them. It is a journey inwards and this is, according to the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, “the longest journey.” A quest that not only enables you to grow in your role as a senior executive but also, and this perhaps even more important, to reach your full potential as a human being.
∆ “I found a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works,” Alan Greenspan said in response to a question from the Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Henry Waxman (Washington D.C., October 23, 2008).
In 1851, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in his collection of thoughts, entitled Parerga and Paralipomena: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. This is an error of the intellect as inevitable as that error of the eye which lets us fancy that on the horizon heaven and earth meet. This explains many things, and among them the fact that everyone measures us with his own standard—generally about as long as a tailor's tape, and we have to put up with it: as also that no one will allow us to be taller than himself—a supposition which is once for all taken for granted.”
‡ The 17th-century French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal made a distinction between, what he called, intuitive comprehension and mathematical explanation — the esprit de finesse and esprit de géométrie. Where the mathematical mind captures thinking in abstract principles, the intuitive mind leaves room for complexity and diversity.
I live in the Netherlands but work across Europe. So regardless of where you are, if you want to know more about my work or explore working together, let’s start a conversation. If distance allows, we can go for a walk or visit a museum. But there is always time for an unhurried conversation.