This blog comes from our associate coach, organisational expert and former school governor, Ben Gibbs.
‘The fallacy of rationalism is the assumption that the social world can be altered by logical argument. The problem, as George Bernard Shaw observed, is that “reformers have the idea that change can be achieved by brute sanity”.’
Michael Fullan (1991)
One of coaching’s greatest achievements over the last 30 years is to have moved the focus of leadership development from an over-emphasis on decision-making and rational authority, towards a model which prioritises understanding and empathy; from IQ to EQ (emotional intelligence), if you like.
Arguably, one of coaching’s greatest strengths is its focus on the individual and the development of their personal and professional capacity; it’s ability to provide a space in which the soul can emerge as a guide to practice.
It is possible as a coach, however, to go further than this, and to have an impact beyond the individual. Coaching can be used as a form of organisational consultancy; of school improvement.
The challenges faced by all organisations – including schools – which operate in contexts defined by the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the 21st century, cannot be addressed by heroic individual leaders.
In fact, the speed of technological, environmental, economic and organisational change makes a mockery of the very idea of the heroic leader; that lone ranger, setting an example through individual endeavour and inspiring followership through sheer force of personality (backed by the threat of the pistol in his holster!).
Leadership is now a collective act which requires new levels of engagement, collaboration, systemic thinking and teamwork. What it requires is ‘We-Q’, or the sort of relational intelligence that enables teams, through their ‘togetherness’, to be more than just the sum of their parts.
‘It is the ability of the leader to reach the souls of others in a fashion that raises human consciousness, builds meanings, and inspires human intent that is the source of power.’
Warren Bennis (1984)
So, if leadership is now collective, who (or what) should be the focus of the executive coach?
Widening the lens
Of course, how a leader shows up at work is still important and coaching that helps them reflect on that is a vital part of their personal and professional development. For a growing number of coaches, however, it is also important to see the leader in the context of their system; that complex, interwoven and dynamic set of dependencies that comprise organisational life.
Moreover, by adopting this systemic view, a coach can begin to work with the client to explore how they are interacting with the rest of the system, and how it is interacting with them. One can ask what it is about their role, their team, the school or the school system that brings out the best in them, and the worst? How their own unique perspective on things affects how they see the organisation, and what this means for their effectiveness? How certain aspects of organisational life might be a trigger for their defensive behaviours that can derail change, or inhibit teamwork?
This approach involves seeing the system through the individual so that one can also see the individual in the system and surface some of the dynamics that drive behaviour.
Dynamics that drive behaviour
By way of an illustration, school life is founded on a range of complex and multifaceted relationships which can quite easily become the focus of a good deal of stress and anxiety, and a drain on energy and time.
When brought to a coaching session, a client’s relationship with another individual provides very useful material for personal reflection on interpreting and understanding other’s behaviour, but it can also be representative of a broader organisational dynamic or challenge. A good example of this is outlined in a lovely case study from Andrea Berkeley and Emil Jackson in their new book ‘Sustaining Depth and Meaning in School Leadership’.
The authors describe a situation in which one of their clients – the Head of a free school – had managed to establish a full school roll and, to top that, had recently received a very positive Ofsted report. Despite this success, her chair of governors, a founder of the school, had become more critical and demanding of her, not less as she had expected. This, she found, had begun causing her a great deal of tension, frustration and probably self-doubt, which in turn, had begun impacting on her capacity to lead.
However, through careful and sensitive facilitation, the Head was helped to see that the chair’s behaviour was likely to be the result of his anxiety as the founder about what to do next now the school had, for all intents and purposes, been successfully ‘hatched’.
Exploring this matter through coaching conversations helped the Head understand that the issue was driven less by interpersonal problems than by a ‘systemic’ matter and that there was more at stake than just her relationship with the chair. This different perspective allowed her to see that it was not just her problem to solve, which in turn liberated her from much of the pressure that had previously been so consuming. She could now focus again on leadership; on supporting her chair and the board with succession planning and developing a strategy for the school’s next phase of development and growth.
There are, of course, many other ways in which coaching can help ‘liberate’ a school leader from personal anxieties or blockages so that they can focus on their role and affect organisational improvement. For example, addressing conflict avoidance can transform an individual’s capacity to take up their authority to delegate or orchestrate more effectively, helping colleagues better understand which decisions are their responsibility to take, and which are not.
Working around the (very common) experience of ‘imposter syndrome’ can have a similarly transformative impact on how a leader relates to people – like parents or other school leaders – outside the organisation, which can in turn improve a school’s reputation and profile. Or helping a leader to appreciate and respect their own limitations through careful and sensitive reflection on past failures and future fears can help them better understand the systemic limitations of the school, and to thereby avoid over-promising or over-reaching.
Coaching is a vital component of personal and professional development, but it is increasingly coming to be seen – and valued – as a key strategic school improvement tool too, with the potential for deep and sustainable impact.
As a school leader, you do an amazing job! Every day you invest enormous amounts of time, energy, passion and commitment – seeking to create better futures for our children and the communities you serve.
But this isn’t easy to maintain particularly amidst the emotional cost of school leadership, the complexity of the role and heightened levels of pressure.
Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects.
Yet little provision has been made for school leaders to ensure that they have the support, guidance and encouragement they need to keep going and performing at their best.
That’s why we offer free “Coaching for The Soul” support calls to ensure that school leaders have a space where they can …
– Talk through the challenges they’re currently facing in your role
– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help you overcome the issues they’re experiencing
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they have had on themselves as a leader and as a person.
– Gain clarity in their thoughts and current situation
If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!