Knowledge Center

Coaching, Community, and Courage

By Timothy Bentley

When a phenomenon like coaching for leaders bursts onto the scene, it attracts plenty of hype because it's very powerful and the workplace certainly needs it.

But the mystery of how it actually works has remained largely unexplored.

The art of coaching is both terribly simple and wonderfully complex. Since the dawn of time, it has harnessed universal human abilities.

The alchemy of evolution

The problem executives face today is that life in organizations is changing at a dazzling rate. The leisurely pace of natural evolution could never generate the velocity of intellectual and imaginative progress demanded by this age.

But there is a unique form of evolution which we human beings have developed to provide us with the capacity to build civilizations, improve physical health, travel across and beyond our planet, and guide complex organizations.

This magical tool, coaching, has been with us so long I'd call it the second-oldest profession. Look back to ancient Greece, and Alexander the Great is being coached by the philosopher Aristotle. Fast forward to the 1940s, and Dick Grayson is coached by millionaire Bruce Wayne. (This dynamic if mythical duo terrorized criminals under the names Batman and Robin.)

Competitive sports provides the most compelling contemporary evidence of its power. The great coach Vince Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. "Leaders are made, they are not born," asserted Lombardi, and to this day his wisdom inspires fans and business people alike.

But the ultimate competitive arena today is the executive suite. Leaders in organizations are staggering because, in a world grown too complex, they carry responsibility for the well-being of their shareholders, plus much of the working population, and increasingly the economic health of the planet itself.

There have always been managers who sought out coaches for help with that kind of load, and mentors who guided the development of their protegees. But ironically, because no one talked about it openly, organizations never developed the tradition of coaching they need to support their leadership. Until now.

Looking in the mirror

Why the silence? It turns out that the greatest single cause of failure among executives is so personal as to be embarrassing: a lack of self-understanding.

No, not the lack of technical skills—the inability to read a balance sheet, for instance, or write a strategic plan. What's missing too often is self-awareness.

Many otherwise excellent managers simply do not understand the inner forces that drive them. They don't recognize the huge impact they have on other people.

Currently, our firm receives more referrals of leaders who are hurting their teams and dragging down their productivity than of any other group.

Their need, as Robbie Burns once put it, is "to see ourselves as others see us". And it's precisely the confidential quality of a relationship with a coach that allows leaders to view themselves from a more panoramic perspective.

Recognizing the logic of their own confusing patterns, and understanding how others see them, they can begin to approach the issues of their work with new clarity and make significant leaps into greater effectiveness.

Change within community

The power of coaching is based on the most basic and reliable human technology: a relationship with another human being who is committed to one's growth. It is the technology of simple wisdom.

How did we learn to use a fork, to dance, make love, play baseball? By spending time with someone who had already learned those skills, or was in the process of learning, generally a person with a luminous quality of caring.

Think of Robert Redford's film character in The Horse Whisperer, watching for the right moment to help a horse and its youthful rider to transcend their limitations. Coaching is powerful because it employs the medium in which we human beings learn best: not isolation but community.

Effective coaching is a relationship of generosity, in which the coach is clearly identified as a fellow learner.

Quality of relationship

But there's more to coaching than companionship. In fact, coaching is most effective when the parties push the envelope, examining what's happening within the relationship itself.

Coaches ask the darnedest questions, and the answers can sometimes turn a career around.

They use inquiries like these: "Have you ever considered that you might be keeping yourself from succeeding?"

Or,"Did you know that you are very powerful?"

Or, "Has anyone ever told you that what you're saying is really difficult to understand?"

Or, "The things you've just said to me had a big impact. Would you like to know more about that?"

Of course, it takes courage to open oneself to questions of that quality. But the exercise of personal courage is precisely how one develops as a leader.

The safety net

On the other hand, it is natural that such a relationship could make a person intensely nervous. That's why coaches are effective only when they develop a "safe-zone" for the coachee. This means a commitment to privacy and confidentiality, along with an unconditional positive regard for the person being coached.

Without that margin of security, people won't take those risks which might catapult them into creative and strategic effectiveness. After all, we evolve most quickly when we feel safe enough to share not only our wisdom but our confusion, even our mistakes.

So coaching works because its very foundation is the value we place on one another as growing human beings.

Recursive Learning

Finally, coaching relies on a cyclical methodology for learning. The coach and coachee strategize experiments, then the coachee tries them out. Whether the ventures fail or succeed—and in most cases they do both—he or she brings the results back to the coach for immediate fine-tuning.

Then it's back to the workplace to run the experiment again. And back to the coach.

That dynamic helps to focus and re-focus the power of self-reflection, making it inherently more powerful than the application of off-the-shelf solutions, textbook examples, or classroom training.

Corporate coaching is gaining momentum because it enhances productivity and feeds the bottom line. But that explanation touches only the surface of its success. The crucial other half of the equation is that coaching enables us to learn the way we learn best, in a relationship of generosity and respect.

Timothy Bentley is Chief Operating Officer of Panoramic Feedback.

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