Ecosystems supervision is a collaborative and experimental approach which explores coaching practice within the context of wider societal and environmental considerations. It combines enquiry in depth into who we are as individuals and as professionals with exploration in breadth of the systems and networks within which – and which shape how – we operate.
This article explains our approach and what it is like to experience ecosystems supervision. It is by nature a work in progress as we employ an action learning approach in our work, adapting and developing as we learn with participants in our groups.
The idea of the ecosystem originated in the realm of ecology. But the analogy with natural systems is now widely drawn in disciplines such as psychotherapy, economics and sociology. All of us, all the time, are embedded in interlocking and interdependent systems. Our focus as supervisors is on systems that are internal to us as individuals and those outside the individual in which we are participants. We use the term ecosystems expansively. It includes: the natural communities of living organisms; the sociological systems by which we organise human activities; and the technological systems which mediate them.
Dynamic, complex, self-organising systems are the template nature uses. A tree is a self-organising system as is a forest. So too is a human being and a community. In the world of work, we can identify ecosystems at multiple levels: the team, operating within a company, which is part of an industry, with a network of suppliers, partners, affiliates and stakeholders in wider society. An individual exercising leadership within a team will influence and be influenced by dynamics operating at all these levels – while some system dynamics will function seemingly beyond the agency of people to influence them.
Ecosystems, then, manifest orders of complexity and interdependence. Healthy ecosystems are resilient, ensured through diversity. When diversity diminishes, ecosystems tend to become rigid, lifeless and prone to disease. To stay healthy, ecosystems need a favourable context and space for experimentation – which necessarily leads to levels of disorder, as the system transforms. Complexity can also bring fragility. This is uncomfortable for humans since we are wired to seek stability, certainty and predictability.
Given the rapid rate of change of our contemporary world, with its globalised, complex interdependencies, we believe it is necessary to develop our capacity to perceive, understand and become comfortable thinking in systems. We aim to foster awareness of the ecosystems in which we are located and the influence we can bring to bear on them as individuals. Ecosystems supervision encourages an integration of our identities as professionals, citizens and private individuals.
We look to the whole person
Ecosystems supervision attends to the mind, the body, the heart and the spirit. Whether it is the supervisee, the client whose story they bring to supervision or actors within that story, we are interested in the selves that show up in the narrative. We are many selves and play many roles. A person may bring to supervision their professional self as a coach, their tentative child nervous at being in a group, their rebellious teenager determined not to conform, their outraged citizen having just read the news, their caring healer who sees the distress of another, their ambitious, competitive warrior, their skilled team player and so on. Who shows up at any particular session will depend on many factors – not least the chemistry of the group and dynamics of the group system.
Our work is grounded in the embodied person. This is a synthesis of metabolic and social processes, so questions of emotional and physical wellbeing arise alongside those of the context in which the actors are located. The embodied self is also the somatic self. The body can be a wise barometer: sensing, interpreting, reacting and responding faster than our mind, often before we consciously make sense of what is happening. If we blunt our sensitivity to this instrument we miss a whole source of information and vital engagement with ourselves, each other and with our clients.
We explore how people are embedded in ecosystems and networks
We take a broad view of the areas of enquiry that are relevant to coaching, leading and supervision. People do not operate in any given context in isolation of the other systems of which they are a part. There is an inter-reaction between them: family, team, profession, organisation, community, society, the environment. In these times of crisis, questions of politics and economics might come to the fore. As do matters of people’s upbringing, ethnicity, culture, affiliations and interests. Some of the networks in which people move might appear to have clear boundaries – for example, the company for which they work – in comparison to the circles of friends and associates who make up the social fabric of their professional and private lives. However all boundaries are porous, with energy constantly flowing within and between entities. This is the nature of complex, self-organised systems.
We view people as embedded in time
There is also a temporal aspect to consider. We exist in the present. Coaches work with their clients in the present and so do we as supervisors. While people, whether in supervision or coaching, generally talk about things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future, how those stories show up in the present moment is significant. We might attend to aspects such as the emotions that are present, the metaphors employed or the body language observed, or physical sensations experienced.
We may also enquire into how people’s past is shaping their present – and their sense of what possibilities for the future might be. How people think, act and feel in the present is shaped by their biographies: their family and cultural inheritances; their lived experience of the systems in which they have participated and which have formed their inner selves.
Taking account of all this – present-moment awareness, the playing out of our past in the here and now – creates a foundation for contemplating action in the future. Supervision serves limited purpose if it does not create a sense of direction. There is space for formulating strategies, contemplating where one needs to develop one’s networks and how to exercise influence within them.
Putting this together in ecosystems supervision
Ecosystems supervision tries to work with an awareness of all of this while responding to specific material that supervisees bring to a particular session. This makes it necessarily an emergent process. The aim is to meet the individual in his or her wholeness, while locating them within any of a potentially limitless set of ecosystems. We consider the ecosystems of the coach coming to supervision and those of the clients whose stories they may bring. At any level of these stories – family, organisation, wider society – it is possible to expand the systemic perspective and access different discourses which might shed light on the object of enquiry – and the enquiry itself.
We value diversity in the modalities that we adopt in supervision. We want to resist our own ecosystem becoming too institutionalised in its routines and perspectives. Coaches can be particularly grounded in the sensibilities of the corporate world or maxims about professional coaching practice which risk becoming dogma. We put a premium on questioning received wisdom and bringing freshness. So we might, for instance, use drawing, unorthodox locations, found material, imaginative work or embodied awareness to create new frames of consideration. Diversity extends to how we hold the session. While we take responsibility for holding the space, we see ourselves as peer supervisors and honour the expertise and experience of the group. Together, we aim for relational presence: we maintain a collective curiosity in how the sessions unfold and what the unfolding means. Disagreements or conflicts, met in this spirit, add to the richness of the experience.
A session may address specific cases brought by participant coaches. Or it might address more thematic questions being raised by the ecosystem. If coaches don’t raise these themselves, we might introduce them. In this, we are conscious that coaches and their clients may sometimes (perhaps unconsciously) bracket out of consideration matters that are considered too political, too risky or too difficult. But, to work with ecosystems awareness, these need to be brought into the conversation. There is an ethical element to this. Ecosystems supervision holds that coaches and leaders should act with full awareness of their impact on the community and the environment. In this, we align with the idea of ecoleadership as defined by Simon Western: to act in good faith to create the good society.
If you don’t realize that we’re living in what are overtly challenging times, then you’re probably not paying attention. In the micro sense, it seems everybody I know is going through something on a personal level. In the macro sense, these personal journeys are being exacerbated by threats of nuclear attacks, political breakdowns, financial crises, racial tension, mass shootings, devastating earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, merciless wildfires, storm-of-the-century hurricanes, and more. It is indeed a sign of the times…but I’m not playing the game, and I invite you to do the same.
If you believe your thoughts and feelings have an effect on your reality, the moment you react to these external events with survival emotions, you begin putting more of your attention on them, and if you’re putting your attention on these event (events over which you have no control), you’re giving away your power to them. Every time you react with fear and anxiety, because fear and anxiety are emotions and emotions are energy, they only serve to feed the next moment of unrest. What we need to learn how to do in this moment of history is to be in the stillness—to become the eye of the hurricane. The eye of a hurricane is a place of calm, around which spins the storm. We become the eye when we pull ourselves out of the chaos and into the present moment. This is, after all, why we do all the training we do—because it’s in the eternal present moment where all of creation is engendered. By regulating internal emotions independent of external conditions, this is how we begin to master our environment.
Humanity is in the throes of a push and pull whereby there’s an ever-growing collective consciousness that wants to evolve, yet old ways of being and outdated modes of consciousness are struggling to hold on to the known. Depending on the lens through which you view this idea, these struggles could range anywhere from the world’s power structures all the way down to our individual egos. The more you react to your outer world and keep your attention on emotionally charged issues, the more you feed the problems because it’s your energy that keeps them alive. Multiply that by a million, or a billion, and it seems obvious why things might seem like they are getting worse.
The stronger your emotional reaction to external events, the more you’re displacing your energy in the opposite direction of creation—creative energy that you could turn inward and use for creating a better life, healing your body, or empowering your energy into a new experience, to name but a few.
While we need to be cognizant and vigilant of injustices in our society, I would encourage you from time to time to disconnect from the news, and if all you see is tragedy and negativity in your social-media news feeds, perhaps disconnect from them as well. If you don’t want to completely disconnect, then be a force for adding light and love to those social feeds. Better yet, in your day-to-day life, perform a random act of kindness for a stranger, call someone you haven’t talked to in a long time, forgive someone or forgive yourself for something you’ve been holding on to. At the very least, be loving and kind to yourself and those around you, because everyone is going through their own challenges.
Remember—fear and anxiety result from anticipation of events that have not yet happened, and as we know, we are the creators of our reality. If you find yourself spinning out in your mind into an unknown future or regretting about the past, just pull yourself back into the present moment. Why? Because when you change your energy in the present moment, you change your future. That’s being the best example of change—changing your choice—in a world that looks like it might be falling apart.
It’s human to react to these global events, so if you do, just don’t spend a lot of time there. Just get over it. Don’t talk about them, give them energy, give them life, or make them something else. Don’t propagate them, because when you begin to tell stories about the events, you feed them.
Now is not a time to contract. Now is a time to expand into love, after all, love conquers fear.
In this paper I bring together two ideas which can share some common ground even though at first glance they come from different worlds. These are haunting and loving dislocation. I describe each separately and then consider the possible links. My purpose is solely to explore possibilities, believing that following one’s curiosity can open up new perspectives, even when one is not necessarily certain of the direction of travel. I want to emphasise that I do not see them as coterminous, but simply on occasion they overlap and that haunting may sometimes be a loving dislocation.
Loving Dislocation The idea of the term ‘loving dislocation’ occurred to me some years ago (Phillips, 2008). At that time I focussed on the role of the ‘helper’ – counsellor, therapist, coach – and her role in somehow being a supportive, yet disruptive figure. My definition is, ‘a considered intervention by the helper intended to cause discontinuity for the client, but given with respect and warmth’. The aim of the helper therefore being to prompt dislocation in order to help the client reconnect. The subsequent reconnection might take place in terms of self, self and one’s body, self and one’s family, self and one’s community. This might include the spiritual dimension regarding core beliefs integral to one’s sense of being. It might also involve stepping into or indeed creating for oneself a whole new world. I imagine this is very familiar territory for a lot of readers, particularly those from the helping professions.
Katherine Long, founder of EvolutionOD is a Specialist in leadership and organisation development and
co-leader on our 'Theory U' event for supervisors being held in April 2020
She has wriiten the first in a series of essays on the online platform 'Medium' exploring the potential of living systems approaches
This is the first in a series of essays exploring the potential of living systems approaches to contribute to the wider mission of diversity and inclusion practice. Living systems approaches are not a recent invention, they have existed in various forms for millennia, but are being rediscovered and reclaimed today owing to their potential to shift entrenched patterns of thinking that keep creating results that nobody wants (Scharmer, 2007). Through eons of time, the living world has evolved millions of species of organisms which each have their own place within highly complex ecosystems, and there is an increasing movement amongst the fields of design, leadership and organization development, social entrepreneurship, healthcare and policy makers to explore how learning from nature helps us not only to solve some of the pressing issues of our day, but also how we live in more harmonious relationships with the planet and with each other.
In contrast to the extremes of the neo-Darwininan view that has legitimized a modern discourse of hyper-competition, living systems approaches recognise that whilst competition of course exists, that it is contained within a much greater pattern of hyper-collaboration that enhances the overall resilience of earth’s ecosystems. The damage humans are doing to the planet ironically reveals less about the competitive aspects of nature, but much more about its interdependencies and feedback loops. This essay explores an overarching question: ‘What might we learn about how Nature organizes herself that we could bring back into our human relationships?’ and attempts to suggest possibilities for D&I through identification of promising practices, as well as potential pitfalls.
Taking creativity for a walk: an action research inquiry into coaching supervision on location
Over the past year, I’ve been working in a new way by engaging in group supervision in diverse locations. There’s been a growing trend for coaches and supervisors to move their work with clients from the indoor world of rooms and offices into the outdoor world of parks and the countryside, or into galleries, museums and other cultural spaces.
I’ve written before about two of these experiences of group work on location, following visits to Tate Modern last December, and Kew Gardens in April this year. By changing location and including movement in my work, my intention has been to stimulate new and diverse connections, tap into our creativity and imagination differently, and hopefully to enable greater emotional awareness and insight.
I’ve now written an article presenting my reflections and key findings about this new area of work. It’s entitled ‘Taking creativity for a walk: An action research inquiry into coaching supervision on location’, and has been published in the autumn edition of the online journal, e-Organisations and People (e-O&P), published quarterly by the Association of Management Education and Development (AMED).
I’m very grateful to AMED for the opportunity to write about this work
Nature as dynamic co-partner: beyond the ‘walk and talk’ experience… by Catherine Goreham
This article by CSA graduate, Catherine Gorham, appeared in the October 2019 issue of Coaching Today, which is published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (c) BACP. Catherine Gorham sets out the potential potency of working outdoors - going far beyond the 'walk and talk' experience - with Nature offering a mirror up to the inner landscape of both client and coach/supervisor. Catherine also covers the importance of psychological safety and containment in an open space.
What are the benefts of working with the natural world – for both ourselves and our clients – and what do we need to consider? Coach and supervisor Catherine Gorham shows how we can invite the outdoors in to our coaching relationships...
Shaping the Container of Supervision: lessons from a potter’s wheel by Will Medd
by CSA graduate, Will Medd
Sarah had a particular technique for teaching me to throw pots on a wheel. I call it ‘just a moment too late’. She was keen on giving me instructions just after I needed them. I’m still not clear if intentional or not. Either way it was genius. I learnt from getting things wrong, by having to feel my way through. And the hardest thing to learn: how to centre the clay! If I think I’ve centred it and start to shape the clay into a pot, it may appear to go well and then suddenly go all over the place. Either I find myself having to rescue – note that, rescue - or it leads to collapse. If I centre the clay well, then forming the shape, the container, is a beautiful process of coming into being. Almost effortless. A coming into being of a container defined by the space it creates.
Supervision, when it goes well, is also about the coming into being of a container, one defined by the space it creates for the coach to explore their work of being a coach. It’s one thing to describe supervision as a container for a conversation, another to know just how to create it. While there are some technicalities to supervision that help shape the container - for example formal contracting - the real challenge is how to be fully centred and present in order to hold up a clean mirror to your coach in a way that enables them to see something new. Partly that requires creating and holding a space in which all sorts of surprising ‘stuff’ can come up, be processed and either settle down or transform into something new. For that, the supervisor needs to be centred, present and open to possibility.
Centre yourself first
But how to centre? There are various techniques and pointers that potters offer. They all work for different people in different ways – pulling, pushing, bracing, coning! Don’t worry, you don’t need to know. Beginners find this a frustrating process. I’ve heard accomplished potters say they still have bad days where they just have to walk away. “I can never centre when it’s full moon,” one said to me. What I’ve realised is that these potters may know the art of centring the clay; what they haven’t learnt is that pottery really can be the new yoga. I learnt that if I centre myself first, then centring the clay emerges with ease. I close my eyes, breath deep into my belly, sense into my whole body as I become present and then bring my awareness into my arms, and lean in with my hands, bracing the clay on the wheel. A relational presence between mind, body and mud! As the wheel spins, my hands shape the clay into a centred piece, experienced through a smooth movement within my hands while the wheel rotates at speed. And once the clay is centred, lifting my hands gently away so as not to disturb the form; a gentle letting go. Then the clay is ready to throw into whatever it is to become – it feels sometimes like it chooses the path. It is as though we’ve come to an agreement, a contract, between myself and the clay. I’ve a lot to learn still; I’m a novice at throwing clay. Yet I’ve definitely learnt that if I centre myself first, the clay is much more willing to join me.
Centering as presence
As a supervisor one thing I learnt at CSA was just how easy it is for my head and indeed my ego to get in the way: my head and it’s close friend my ego do not know what centring really means. They might be able to define it. They might be able to say, ‘Okay, now I’m centred’. The results rarely last! To really be able to hold the shape of a container, as supervisors we have to experience a deeper sense of being centred, a type of centred that comes with presence. This is not about simply about being present - rather it is a deeper sense of centring that involves recognising we are only ever present, we just don’t realise it. Centring is about becoming present with all that life has to offer. It is about being able to hold the paradox of tapping into the all-pervading stillness of awareness while also dancing within the effervescence of life. That dance of life includes being more attuned to your own, sometimes petty conditioning and darkest corners in ways that enable you to be clean to the person you are with. It means, as a supervisor, being more sensitive to the possibilities of projection, projective identification, transference, and counter-transference. To the tendencies of wanting to rescue, of deference, as well as disinterest.
As supervisors, when we’re centred and present we’re able to be there for the other person with what is really present for yourself, first, and so then hold up the mirror to help them they see what is truly present for them. There is no denial. This is an ancient art. Just as people have been throwing clay for thousands of years, so too, the art of being centred and present with another human being has a long history. A present, centred supervisor is one able to be honest and authentic; one who knows when they are off-centre and who knows how that may be impacting on the supervisory relationship. They know how to spot that and to discern when it might be helpful to name and call it out, or when it might be helpful to recalibrate, perhaps to pause or spot-contract with the supervisee.
You are already in presence
There is no one way to find your centre and presence. There are of course techniques to learn however I think this is about more than a 5 minute ritual we undertake before a session. It’s about more than cultivating ‘being present’, it’s about resting in, abiding in, a broader sense of presence that you bring to your work. It’s about what we bring into our whole life, it’s about how we set up our relationships, our contracts, organise our working time. It’s not something to be achieved in the future when everything else is sorted, clear. It’s about being in the messiness of life and working with that messiness in the space of awareness.
That space is the space of “open mind, open heart, open will’ described so well by Theory U.
Now glazing pots, that’s another story!
Reckoning with myself by Amanda Ridings
From March 2020 I will have two spaces for new supervision clients – if you are contemplating a change in supervisor and think we might work well together, please contact me
Last autumn a coaching client talked about a ‘reckoning’ with herself. I was taken with the phrase and, from what she went on to describe, I took it to mean an examination of her approach to life and work so she could take restorative action.
Later, I checked my dictionary. The entry for reckoning includes words such as appraisal, evaluation and judgement. To reckon with is to settle an account with. And so, in reckoning with myself, I have a sense of settling an account with a part of self that represents wholeness and integrity.
Recently I’ve been in such a period of reckoning, aided by a week at walking pace in the Scottish Highlands. Beyond a soundscape of wild winds, thunderous rivers and the susurration of leaves was a background quiet, a deep tranquility in the turbulence of nature.
As I walked, I reflected.
Work-wise, the last twelve months have been more difficult than any other time in my twenty years of working independently as an executive coach, coach supervisor and specialist in embodying dialogue practices. My sense of struggle is substantiated by the complexity and challenge of the issues I’ve raised in professional supervision.
The way I’ve used supervision has varied. Sometimes I’ve needed to tease out the interdependencies that often arise in assignments in a small country, trying to understand and articulate differing duties of care. At other times, I was seeking the resources to remain graceful in testing and unrewarding circumstances. And on the rare occasions that a client found our work difficult to accept or digest, I reflected on what had occurred to surface any learning.
Learning from adversity is a delicate thing – it requires forensic clarity about both my part in what unfolded and any contextual factors outside my influence. Untangling an appropriate balance of responsibilities between me and another (such as a client or colleague) also requires dispassion and compassion. What is mine, to attend to and learn from? What belongs to others?
It’s almost impossible to get this kind of perspective from within a situation, which is where supervision is worth its weight in gold. When a trusted and experienced colleague supports me and challenges my perceptions, it helps me explore how I contributed to events, allowing me to settle my account with myself as a practitioner.
My personal reckoning mirrored this professional process, with the landscape providing different perspectives. I saw my tough year in a broader context of both a feeling that the world seems increasingly bonkers (to me, at least) and a realization that my approaching 60th birthday marks a threshold: I’m now in the back-end of my working life.
Grasping the reality that I’m entering a new phase of life invites a re-appraisal of my identity and work. If I’m no longer establishing myself as a practitioner, and striving to build a credible business, who am I? What am I transitioning towards? How do I embrace this life-stage with grace and integrity?
Pondering, I found inspiration in the autumn season. I read somewhere that trees produce fruit to store sugar for food in the winter months. In addition, they drop their leaves to conserve energy. And so, the autumn of a life invites me to consider the fruits of my labours. What have I created that will provide nourishment in the coming years? What will I shed to use my energy well?
And nature is abundant: a tree generates more fruit than it needs, providing food for others. And so in my fruiting years I will transition towards doing more writing and supervision, activities that sustain me and also (I hope) feed others.
Julie's clients describe her style as challenging and candid, yet respectful. She combines logic and intuition to stimulate new thought and perspectives, catalyzing the efforts of individuals and teams to achieve their full potential.
CSA graduate, Julie Johnson brings our attention to unanswered questions.......
I’ll never forget a coaching session I had years ago with a leader in the shipping industry – a rough and tumble environment. We were working on his coaching leadership style. He asked me to be tough on him, to challenge and not hold back. I agreed, and wondered when opportunity would present itself.
Well, it did, in a very surprising way. We were discussing a behavior that he would repeat often with one of his direct reports, that was negatively impacting her performance. I asked him, “How do you think she might feel when you do that?” His answer had nothing to do with feelings. Interesting. I let him speak his mind for a bit, to see where it would go.
Finally interrupting, I said, “OK, but how do you think she might be feeling?” He responded with a new direction, but it still had nothing to do with feelings. Now THIS was interesting!
I asked a third time, “But when you do that, how do you think she feels?” Amazingly (I could hardly contain myself), he went in a third direction that had nothing to do with feelings! He was clearly not answering the question.
OK, no more Mr. Nice Guy! I held my hand up like a stop sign and said, “For the FOURTH time, how do you think she might FEEL?!”
His eyes got as wide as saucers, the silence hung heavy, and I didn’t know if he was going to hit me, walk out, answer, or what! He turned his gaze toward the window and took a deep breath. Then more silence. Finally he proceeded to generate seven or eight really good ideas about how she might feel when he behaved in that way. In his case, it was very challenging to shift gears to think about feelings, much less talk about them. This conversation and his answer ended up creating the foundation for his motivation to change.
I thought long and hard about what had happened and realized that there are often very interesting moments when our coachees don’t answer our questions, and we often let them get away with it!
Since that coaching session, I’ve observed and debriefed hundreds of ‘everyday conversations’ between leaders practicing their coaching leadership style and their direct reports. This is very rewarding work because you can help leaders recognize something important happening in the moment that they may be missing – such as questions not being answered – so that they can turn an ‘OK’ conversation into a very valuable one.
Here are some examples of questions I’ve seen go unanswered:
Coach asks: “What can you do to control your emotions more?” – Coachee responds with another story, but no solution.
Coach asks: “Your colleague isn’t answering emails and voicemails. What could be keeping him from doing so?” – Coachee responds by expressing how frustrating it is for her, but does not put self in the shoes of her colleague.
Coachee says: “How can people behave this way!?” (with no intention of seeking an answer – instead wanting to ‘vent’). You as coach reply: “What do you think? How CAN they behave this way?” – Coachee responds by noting the negative impact of others’ behavior on self.
Here are some reasons that people don’t answer a question:
The obvious – They don’t have an answer. Perfect! If an answer would help the coachee move forward, then stay with the question and seek an answer together. This is part of what coaching is about – the creation of new thought and ideas.
They don’t want to think or talk about the topic. Great! It might be something they’ve been avoiding, such as putting themselves in the shoes of someone else. This is one of the key benefits of coaching – to get our coachees to think about topics they’ve been avoiding.
They don’t understand the question. Interesting! If the question is clearly worded, like the question about feelings in the example above, then the concept of feelings may be fuzzy for the coachee, and we as coaches can help clarify what we are asking for.
So the next time you are asking a question and it doesn’t get answered, consider staying with the question until an answer has presented itself! Remember that letting your coachee get away with an unanswered question is almost always a missed opportunity for a more productive conversation.
We are delightedto see that the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring 2018, Vol. 16(2), published a superb article on one of the creative tools that CSA uses on its acclaimed supervision diploma. Our students all over the world, love this way of exploring systems and deepening their skills in supervision. CSA graduate Lily Seto and her colleague, Tina Geithner, have placed the Magic Box in the context of contemporary coaching theory, although its earlier, therapeutic roots are in Gestalt, Sandplay and Transpersonal work. I was taught this tool by two masters in the field - Barbara Somers and Ian Gordon-Brown of the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology, London - and CSA adapted it for use in supervision and supervision training. We hope you enjoy this article and that you can find ways to use this potent and creative way of working with your supervisees and clients.
Abstract: Metaphor Magic draws from symbolic modeling, systems theory, sandplay therapy, and Clean Language, and uses symbolic metaphors to support clients in coaching and coaching supervision. The Metaphor Magic Box contains small objects with which clients build and explore their metaphoric landscape in relation to a question, topic, or scenario. The coach or coaching supervisor facilitates a discovery-based process using direct, succinct, open-ended questions to support clients in unpacking and examining the content and context of their landscape. The underlying neuroscience and somatics of Metaphor Magic are offered, along with applications to different audiences and examples of transformational experiences of participants.
Introduction: Metaphor is defined as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them” (Merriam-Webster, 2017). Metaphor is also defined as “a type of figurative language that alters the literal meanings of words or phrases” (Bowes and Katz, 2015, p. 1). Research indicates that the use of metaphor is common in conversation (Cameron, 2008; Glucksberg, 1989), and that metaphor provides a concise way of communicating complex information in a way that enhances, illuminates, clarifies, and/or explains concepts not easily understood with literal language (Ortony, 1975). Metaphors actively demonstrate our central ways of thinking, meaning-making, and taking action in the world (Tompkins and Lawley, 2006). They reflect our views of the world and offer a vehicle for the coach or coaching supervisor to understand clients, as well as a way in to self-understanding for clients. The purpose of this article is to capture the essence of Metaphor Magic, which utilizes symbolic visual metaphors in coaching and coaching supervision. The theoretical underpinnings of Metaphor Magic are presented, along with an emerging model which combines the tool (the Metaphor Magic Box), the clients’ content, the process, and the magical intersection of these three, all working within the background of its energy field. In addition, an introduction to the neuroscience behind what makes exploring symbolic metaphors so powerful is offered, and some examples of the applications of Metaphor Magic are provided.
Edna Murdoch, co-Founder of CSA is an EMCC Accredited Supervisor. She has been working internationally, with individuals and groups for over 30 years. She is an experienced coach, coach supervisor, stress management consultant, workshop leader and author.
Every now and then, I get a kind of itch around statements I read or hear about so-called ‘narcissists’. I realise that I am not comfortable with the accumulation of perceptions and comments on social media and on You Tube that effectively say – those people over there (narcissists) are not good; neither am I one of them and here’s how to deal with them.
Of course, we sometimes label in order to describe and communicate – where would we be without our MBTI ‘labels’? (Another story, another time..!) But there is always a problem when we label people, no matter how benign our intention; labels fix people in time and leave little room for imagination, change or development. They also restrict our relationship with someone for just as long as that person is boxed inside a label that inevitably colours our perception, thinking and feeling. Deeming someone a ‘narcissist’ for example, means that we talk to and about them, in a certain way and from a slightly superior position.
Using labels that dis people – and which can make us feel a little better because we may imagine that we are not one of them – is miles away from the ‘I-Thou’ of meeting espoused by Martin Buber:
“The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being”.
When we treat someone as an ‘It’, we create separation and take the heart out of our conversation with them. Coaches cannot afford to do this. It is one of the forms of othering that we are advised to be aware of:
‘Othering is a process that identifies those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream and it can reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination’.
Some years ago I wrote a short piece about Recognising and Working with the Narcissistic Personality. I reproduce it below:
It’s far from perfect and there are even a couple of times I use the words ‘narcissist’ – them! But I offer it here for information and for reflection. I’m also aware as I re-read it, that there have been times in my own life and career, when I too have pushed and pushed for achievement, while being ignorant of how I was affecting those around me. In those moments I have probably been unbearable! Just a glance at social media tells you that there are probably quite a few of us who from time to time have been tarnished by the narcissistic brush. Who would like to cast the first stone??
Recognising and Working with the Narcissistic Personality
(Written for coach supervisors and coaches)
This short paper uses information from psychotherapy to illustrate the presenting behaviours of the narcissistic client. I use terms like ‘narcissist’ and narcissism’ not in their full clinical sense, but only as a way to describe certain patterns of behaviour. Coaches need to know about the key presenting behaviours of narcissism; however, the clinical explorations and treatment of full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, are beyond the scope of this paper – and of our work as coaches.
A typical scenario illustrating narcissistic affects.
Imagine that there is a powerful coachee whose mild touch of narcissism is beginning to result in considerable imbalance in self-perception, behaviour and general well being. He appears super confident, is bossy and occasionally bullying, but he dare not admit to his real feelings of low self-esteem. He works excessively and expects others to work at his pace. His doctor has tried unsuccessfully to get him to slow down and let his body recover from too much work, food and alcohol. Typically, this coachee feels that he needs even more success, in spite of his many achievements. He knows that a coach can get him to the next level – quickly. This man is often in a hurry – he is driven – sees his goals very clearly and is prepared to work night and day to achieve them. The best coach is hired but, in this scenario, the coach himself displays some elements of narcissistic behaviour – not too disabling, but enough to be pursuing his career relentlessly without noticing personal cost or that his life also, is well out of balance – just like that of his coachee. The coach is utterly dedicated to his coachees and is brilliant in supporting them to achieve their ambitions and goals; he is very, very good at what he does.
Enter the third member of this scenario – the Coach Supervisor. The coach hires a supervisor because although the coachee has been powering his way to his goals, he is now drinking very heavily and his marriage is suddenly in trouble. This is disrupting progress and the agreed coaching outcomes are in jeopardy. For the coach, the stakes are high – commitment to the coachees’ goals, his own sense of achievement, his reputation and his capacity to manage the on-going contract. The coach is concerned that he will not be able to hit the coachee’s targets and worse, that his feelings of not being ‘good enough’ will surface once more. So, he has to try even harder and must get the supervisor on board to help him deliver all that is required of him.
The coach supervisor has to stop the rot right there and avoid being caught in the coach/coachee system. He must be able to understand quickly what is going on – i.e. he must recognise that the wound of narcissism is affecting both the coach and the coachee – and ‘name the game’ in an appropriate way. Supervision will be successful if attention is drawn to parallel process and the resulting unconscious collusion with the coachee. Good supervision ensures that the coach is supported to come back into balance; this level of personal development may take time and courage on both their parts; only then will the coach be able to do the same for their coachee. It is the responsibility of the Coach Supervisor to understand what is going on and to intervene in such a way as to break the pattern of ignoring the human cost of drivenness. It need take only a simple opening intervention like – ‘I notice that you (coach) are getting as stressed about outcomes here as your coachee is about getting to their goal. Neither of you seem to be enjoying the process’, to highlight the parallel process and open a healing conversation. This intervention creates space for the coach to begin a process of personal and professional reflection which breaks the unuseful collusion in the coach/client system and which can eventually bring health, stability and balance back into the coachee’s life and experience.
So what is Narcissism?
In the original story, Narcissus is absorbed in his own reflection and so narcissism is often misunderstood as self-love; it is not this. Full-blown Narcissism is a debilitating personality disorder, a preoccupation with oneself that results in an unbalanced self – to the point where a joyful, healthy experience of life is almost impossible. Happily, the brush of Narcissism which coaches find in their work with coachees is often easily resolved, if the coach and Coach Supervisor know what to look for and how to work with it. Should narcissistic behaviours be present in a significant way, Coach Supervisors may well suggest that a coachee is referred.
Narcissism includes the inability to accept failure and it brings with it a marked need for power and control; what the person actually feels is at the opposite end of the spectrum – he actually feels worthless, powerless and believes that he has not achieved enough; there is never ‘enough’ to compensate for what this person feels inside. Driving the compensatory behaviours is the ‘injured self’, the ‘little person’ inside who has been diminished at an early age, has not had sufficient endorsement from significant others and who tried to get love and affection through achievement. A leader with this type of psychological background usually tries to hide their true self from others, by identifying almost completely with achievement and very high standards. Coaches may find this type of coachee almost impenetrable and slow to acknowledge their need to change. Classic work/life imbalance can be a signal to the coach here. And when a coach gets to know their coachee better, this client will often ‘confess’ to feelings of not being good enough, or of fearing that others will see through them and that, in spite of huge achievements, they have little sense of pleasure and even less sense of their own personal reality. These are all major indicators of a narcissistically driven person. They are likely to be present somewhere in every boardroom.
Narcissistic behaviour occurs when we use achievement to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. Many of us have a touch of this, but what we are looking at here, is a more marked version of it – one which is costly for the coachee, is not in their awareness and which keeps them out of balance. By the very nature of Narcissism, it is often successful people who exhibit this kind of behaviour: entrepreneurs, performers, leaders, presidents and prime ministers too. The narcissistically driven person is a super efficient, powerful, sometimes charismatic, perfectionist who runs their ship like clockwork. They are often the most dedicated person in the building. Healthy leaders will be experienced as well rounded, efficient and approachable individuals in whose presence others relax and flourish. On the other hand, leaders who are narcissistically driven, will be efficient perfectionists whose ‘blindness’ may leave you gasping – ‘How did he not understand the consequences of that….?’ ‘How did she not see how that directive affected the whole team?’ We have only to pick up a newspaper to witness this level of blindness and incompetence. Sadly, these are often the dedicated people about whom much gossip circulates in an organisation. Narcissism is accompanied by perfectionism, grandiosity, and an unusual degree of involvement with self, to the detriment of other relationships. It can include an easy manipulation of others – the director who has established a great company, but who is often at odds with staff or board members, may be like this – or she can be charismatic and unwittingly entwine others in the coils of her dysfunction; loyal team members may be stretched to the limit trying to compensate for the pressure that the narcissistically wounded person puts on themselves and those around them – ‘ We can’t keep up with her!’ Coaching this person can be a quagmire and Coaching Supervision needs to be intelligent, courageous and informed.
The ‘injury’ referred to above, is a ‘deep wound to the real self’, which has occurred, probably as a daily experience, early in childhood. Sometimes for the dedicated, high achieving women and men that we work with, being successful was the only way of pleasing Daddy/Mummy – who in turn, may have endured exactly the same pressure from a parent. We have all heard of a coachee who was not praised for coming second in exams – even when they had gained a 97% pass! Nothing was good enough. The result is:
a. little sense of self worth
b. a limited range of true self expression
c. a much larger range of firmly held expectations of self
d. highly developed compensatory false self.
Little sense of self worth
‘The narcissist does not connect well, feels little and finds it hard to love’. (Johnson). Since the narcissist has not been loved enough, they find it difficult to experience natural feelings of self worth. So, loving and enjoying others can also be difficult. Finding it hard to communicate and to trust the exchange with others, is not only experienced in personal relationships, but can be seen in dealing with members of the boardroom or team. EQ will be low, particularly in the context of the relationship with self. In the narcissistically wounded person, the true self has not been encouraged or developed sufficiently and so they tend to relate in a slightly false way – perhaps they come over as ‘too much’ for example. They dare not show who they think they really are. Their responses to organisational dynamics will tend to be rigid, judgmental, unaware, unconsidered and perhaps bullying – an indication of the obvious lack in interpersonal and communication skills. Coaching is this context will have to prioritise the developmental needs of the client and the Coach Supervisor must be competent to support work in this area.
A limited range of true self-expression.
In the narcissistic structure, “the child learns to forego the pleasures of the real self in exchange for the power and control realized by the will…..in this scenario, the child cuts himself off from a real sensory based experience of self…..and the self begins to be experienced, not as the organismic whole that it is, with the needs and pleasures it has. The child makes the inevitable tragic decision of choosing power over pleasure……..here is a person who, however glamorous and successful s/he may appear, is bereft in his internal experiences.’ (Johnson) The coach may easily be seduced by the apparent power, success and charisma of their coachee; the Coach Supervisor needs to be able to see the full picture so that coaching can be genuinely enabling and not collusive. The coachee may need encouragement to re-connect with self – with the internal experience of being present and alive, being strong and being joyful. Only then, will they be able to connect with others in a more relaxed and open way; only then will they be able to deal in a balanced, mature way with the inevitable difficulties of business or professional life.
A much larger range of firmly held expectations of self
How many successful business people or performers do we know who ‘have it all’ and are clearly unhappy with their level of achievement? And, even more sadly, how many of them think that the way to feeling ok about themselves, lies in re-doubling their efforts, pushing higher, increasing their bank balances – and in hiring the innocent coach to support them! So many coaches face exactly this scenario, since we work every day with ‘successful’ leaders. These disabling expectations can be dangerous to health and to colleagues; coaches need to distinguish between healthy expectations and those that are narcissistically driven. It can be tough work penetrating the ‘false self’ that requires such immense effort and dedication. It is worth pointing out here, that the Coach Supervisor needs to be checking the original coaching contract, so that the coach is sure that they have professional permission to work with deep levels of personal development in order that the coachee can change the roots of disabling behaviour. This may mean that original goals and time frames may need to be revised.
A highly developed compensatory false self
‘For the narcissist, it is more important to look good and think well of oneself than it is to feel good.’(Johnson). Think of the leader who is almost too well turned out and who exhibits ungrounded elation, euphoria and excessive pride in perfectionism/achievement – these are the indicators that a person is living some way from himself or herself. All of these compensations are evidence of the adaptations that were necessary to survive in an insufficiently supportive environment. They were originally designed to maintain contact with significant others, to attract a measure of love/approval and to experience at least some sense of self. Knowledge about how this false self is constructed in the personality and how it expresses itself in working life, can guide the Coach Supervisor and Coach. They can thenenable the client to rebalance, through grounding awareness of self in truth, seeking out a real picture of their environment, using bodily experience to edge toward feeling alive, encouraging healthy contact with others, and through accepting lots of genuine endorsement from the Coach.
Tasks for the Coach Supervisor and Coach
1. Be informed about Narcissism – look for clusters of indicating behaviours
2. Recognise and identify the possibility of narcissistic behaviour
3. Help the coach to have the courage to clarify with coachee, the true motivations behind say, an insistent desire for success/achievement, in spite of the presence of considerable imbalance/dysfunction etc.
4. Enable the coachee to acknowledge dissatisfaction in feelings, relationships etc.
5. Give the coachee some ‘cognitive holding’ – he needs to understand the simple psychological underpinnings of his behaviour.
6. Give absolute support to realistic assessment of coachee’s abilities, resources, limits, vulnerabilities – be a true mirror, have a true coaching conversation.
7. Support discovery and growth of the real person behind the title – eg through expression of innate gifts: the CEO might allow herself to learn to sing, play the guitar, bath children and experience a very different kind of achievement.
8. Access real feelings – eg those of fear, humiliation etc. This may be the first time that a coachee can share in a true way, what is really going on inside. Being heard in a simple way, with compassion, can gradually bring the coachee into contact with real self and other.
9. Encourage coachee to refuse to sacrifice feelings of well being in pursuit of compensatory activities.
10. Support the ability to ‘feel’, in whatever contexts this occurs. For instance, the boss might now begin to understand how his decisions hurt staff or are affecting members of the team – he begins to have systemic awareness – it’s not only cognitive; it requires the imaginative insight which is available only if we can access true feelings.
11. Support the coach to encourage the ‘real human being’ who needs genuine connection and endorsement.
12. Encourage the coach to own up to his or her own imperfections with coachee– modelling. The Coach Supervisor too, needs to model a truth in the relationship with their supervisee.
13. Encourage the coachee to experience life bodily – get in a boat, dance again, climb a mountain, play with the kids/dog, go hang gliding, get magnificent massages. The experience of body energy and pleasure counters much of the inner stiffness of the narcissist and helps to bring them into life.
14. Teach and encourage the coachee to ‘self soothe’ – what activities brings peace, stability, quiet pleasure, deep satisfaction, healthy distraction from pressure? What enables the coachee to accept her lack of perfection and not continue the dynamic of unduly criticising herself`?
Coach Supervisors and Coaches
Coach Supervisors and Coaches need to know about Narcissism because there are certain types of coachee whose very drive for more/bigger/ better, is a symptom of unresolved Narcissism. Mobilising our coachees towards change and achievement is, of course, exactly what coaches are required to do. When we are able to distinguish between the coachee who is healthily driving forwards and the one who is simply driven, we can avoid colluding with them in a way that can increase their inner stresses and keep them dysfunctional. At times, this mild dysfunction can become dangerous – witness the Senior Executive whose home life and general well being are in significant disarray, and who nevertheless wants to push ahead with demanding goals. In this context, a coach might be looking at addictiveness, potential burnout, partnership problems and major symptoms of stress. As Coach Supervisors, we are sometimes under pressure from coaches who want to know – now – how to get such a coachee to reach their targets. A coach may not have explored with the coachee the roots of their driven behaviours and if this is so, it will be hard for the coach to take seriously the cost to the coachee of just keeping on, keeping on. The inevitable presence of parallel process may mean that the coach might be colluding in the coachee’s dilemma and even replicating it. Supervisors need to increase the coach’s understanding, to educate them about the key features of Narcissism and explore with them, how these features may be playing out in their coachee’s behaviour.
Character Styles Stephen Johnson 1994
The Reflecting Glass Lucy West and Mike Milan 2001
Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching Peter Bluckert. 2006
Chip Conley is a New York Times best-selling author and long-time hospitality executive who renewed himself in midlife by collaborating with the Millennial co-founders of Airbnb to create the world’s largest global hospitality brand.
Here Are The 5 New Words/Terms I Learned in Midlife That Revived Me
A wailing siren and a soft, reassuring hand. That is all I remember from my ambulance trip in suburban St. Louis on August 19, 2008. My heart had stopped just as the paramedic team arrived right after my giving a speech. “Break a leg,” is what they tell you before going on stage. Well, I’d broken my ankle a month earlier, had a serious bacterial infection in my leg, and was on strong antibiotics (as it turned out, the heart failure was likely an allergic reaction to the medication). What the heck was I doing on stage half a continent away from home in my condition?! While my memories of that day are opaque, I can still see in my mind’s eye the dream-like image that was swirling around my brain when I awoke in the Emergency Room: thick, sweet, fragrant oil dripping down a set of beautiful, dark wooden stairs in slow motion – I believe this was my experience of “seeing the light” when death was at my doorstep.
For most of the previous five years my internal weather report had been much like a cold summer day in San Francisco; I had lived with a persistent fog bank shadowing me from the sun. Most of the obstacles I’d faced – from near corporate and personal bankruptcy, to the painful end of a relationship, to a flurry of friends committing suicide, to a family member unjustly going to prison – would rank high on the conventional list of top stressors in one’s life. But, much of my stressful evolution during this time was below the surface. Many of you know what I mean.
I can’t describe San Francisco’s weather or my own internal conditions in just a word or two. There are microclimates that mean it can be both foggy and warm within the “49 miles surrounded by reality” that we call San Francisco – just like there were quite varied emotional states I experienced during my lowest point of my life, from age 45-49. With my new lease on life after this heart failure at age 47, which I saw as a kind of divine intervention, I started to explore why I felt so bewildered and full of angst. This led me to writing my last book Emotional Equations (2012), but it also introduced me to a series of words and terms that every person entering their forties should be taught. So, excuse me for sounding like Professor Conley, but here are some of my lingo lessons of the past ten years, some of which is covered in my book Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder avaiable now.
1.“The U-Curve of Happiness”
In his laudable new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch writes, “Younger people consistently and markedly overestimated how satisfied they would be five years later, while older people underestimated future satisfaction. So youth is a period of perpetual disappointment, and older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise. What’s more, (the researcher) found that in between those two periods, during middle age, people experienced a sort of double whammy: satisfaction with life was declining (that’s the U-curve, which manifested itself clearly), but expectations were also by then declining (in fact, they were declining even faster than satisfaction itself). In other words, middle-aged people tend to feel both disappointed and pessimistic, a recipe for misery.”
For those of you my age (turning 58 this Halloween), wouldn’t you have appreciated a road marker around age 35 alerting you that this was one helluva U-curve around the corner? Here’s the good news: across virtually all cultures, this is a real and universal phenomenon. So, just like we anticipate the end of a great film or the 4th quarter of a sporting match, we can know that the best is yet to come.
Middlescence (noun) pronounced “middle-essence”: “A transitional period, between the ages of about 45 and 65, marked by an increased desire to find or create greater meaning in one’s life. Often accompanied by physical, social, and economic changes, it is a turning point from which adults continue to develop and grow. A life stage created by increased longevity patterns in the 21st century.”
Adolescence as we know it, didn’t exist as a word until psychologist G. Stanley Hall wrote a book in 1904 with that name. In adolescence, we experience a major transition (puberty) in who we are and how we see the world. But, in midlife, our bodies are changing as well: hair is gray, thinning or gone, eyesight changes, wrinkles appear, women complete menopause, and men experience andropause hormonal changes. Our bodies are emerging out of the core of adulthood and into something else. A relatively new word, “middlescence,” is growing in popularity as the corollary to adolescence. And, yet, during adolescence we have all kinds of rituals and societal guidance to help young people through this transitional time of life (think bar/bat mitzvahs, quinceaneras, etc..). Where was my guidance counselor at age 45?
We buy property and liability insurance for our homes, but we – especially men – don’t consider investing in “emotional insurance” pre-forties to help us through this time of major change, much of which is kept in “quiet desperation” locked inside ourselves. The challenges you feel in this stage of life don’t have to be a shameful secret. For those who want to read more about this, I’d recommend gerontologist Barbara Waxman’s quick read, The Middlescence Manifesto.
Midlife is a relatively new phenomenon in historical terms given that U.S. residents added thirty years of longevity during the 20th century (moving from 47 to 77 years of age). We’ve historically thought of midlife as 45-65, but given how many people in their mid-thirties start feeling irrelevant and many others will work till their mid-seventies, midlife may now be 35-75 years old. This period is made all the more challenging by the fact that between one’s wedding and their funeral, there aren’t many positive midlife rituals so we’re left to suffer through transitions in family, career, and physical and emotional health without much social structure to support the “midlife marathon.” Anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff describes how aside from retirement and funerals as the “crude markers for start beginning and end of old age,” we really have no punctuation in midlife. It’s just one damn, run-on sentence.
As kids, many of us learn about the beautifully-transformative process by which a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. The caterpillar, in early adulthood, feeds on all kinds of leafy resources to prepare itself for the chrysalis of midlife when it will hang upside down, spin itself a silky cocoon, and then digest itself dissolving its own tissues, and come out the other side as a colorful flying insect. But, if you were to open the cocoon mid-morphosis, it would be a gooey mess. Welcome to your midlife. The idea of liminality was introduced into the field of anthropology in 1909 by Arnold Van Gennep who described rites of passage, such as coming of age rituals, as having the following three-part structure: separation, liminal period, and re-assimilation. When you’re in a liminal state, you’re in between two stages. Professor Herminia Ibarra (her book Working Identity is worth a read) suggests many of us attach much of our sense of identity to our work, so it’s natural that a certain ambiguity and disorientation can occur when we’re in transition – especially when we stray off our career path. Based upon what we know of what’s to come, I believe this diagram (created with some of our midlife students at our Modern Elder Academy in Baja) more aptly describes our life stages. So don’t fret the goo, there’s a coming emergence that will help you to fly. Oddly, when you turn this diagram on its side, it resembles a butterfly.
4. “Midlife Atrium.”
In her 2010 book, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, Mary Catherine Bateson suggests we build our years of increased longevity the way that we might build a new room addition onto our home. She writes, “Adding a room to a house is likely to change the way all the rooms are used. Mid-career renewal is potentially a more dramatic change. Rather than building something on at the back, we are moving the walls and creating an atrium in the center. The atrium is filled with fresh air and sunlight, and it presents an opportunity for reflection on all the rooms that open off of it.” In other words, the increased longevity we may have compared to our parents or grandparents doesn’t necessarily mean an extra ten years occurring at the end of our life. Rather, it means we have an extra decade, or atrium, in our midlife. Maybe this will inspire you to create an architectural blueprint for a midlife atrium, complete with a variety of choices of how to spend those extra midlife years (this is what we do at the Modern Elder Academy). Maybe you want to launch an “encore career” (another term I wasn’t familiar with)? Maybe this is the time when we begin to evaluate our lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness? Maybe it’s time for presence to overrule performance and recognize that just maybe, that “midlife crisis” is truly an “awakening”? Philosopher William Irvine suggests, “People are unhappy in large part because they are confused about what is valuable.” An atrium in midlife offers us the space to gain clarity.
5. “Modern Elder”
Power is cascading to the young faster than ever before due to our increasing reliance on technology and, yet, many of these young digital leaders are expected to miraculously embody the relationship wisdoms we elders have had decades to learn. It’s time to liberate the word “elder” from “elderly.” This won’t be the first time a demographic group has reclaimed a word. “Yankee,” “black,” and “queer” also used to be derogatory terms, so let’s reclaim “elder” but in a more modern way. Own the word, it gives you power. For me, I was a “Modern Elder” at age 52 joining Airbnb in 2013, twice the age of the average employee and mentoring the CEO, who was 21 years younger than me, but I also reported to him. I coined the word “mentern” to describe what it means to be a mentor and an intern at the same time, as “mutual mentoring” was what I’ve learned in my five and a half years at Airbnb where I’m cast in a role that is part-sage, part-student. I learn DQ (digital intelligence) from those younger than me and they may learn a little EQ (emotional intelligence) from me.
Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge workers” a year before I was born to describe the future of work. I believe it’s time to retire than phrase since knowledge is stored in our computers. Today dawns the era of the “wisdom worker.” Thirty years ago, Ken Dychtwald (who coined that term) wrote that companies will seek “mature men and women who will be retained and whose compensation will be based not on the number of hours they work but on their experience, contacts and wisdom.” Indeed, wisdom has always been pro-social, something a society wants more of.
There you have it: five little-known words or terms that can help you navigate midlife. Lastly, let me give a huge thank you to all of you who responded to my inquiry about the words that renewed you in midlife. Here were some of your words: surrender, humility, patience, legacy and impact, intention, intimacy, grace, recess and reset, gratitude, “transcend accomplishment addition” (one of my favorites), ENOUGH!, community, contentment, resilience, presence, evolve, curiosity, mindful, reflection, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, potential, transformation, and the dreaded “mortgage” which I’d never realized was French for “dead pledge.”
Author Jonathan Rauch suggests, “If you wanted to design a society that exacerbated midlife misery and squandered the potential of later adulthood, you might deliver education in a single lump during the first two decades of life, load work into the middle decades, and then herd healthy, happy and highly skilled older adults into idleness. In other words, you would do more or less what we have been doing for the past century or so.” It’s time for us to break the chains that bind us and to popularize new language that renews us. I hope you found this little lesson in midlife lingo to be enlightening. I look forward to hanging out with you in our midlife atrium.
Today’s literature is replete with myth-busting advice for the next generation of women leaders.
Several development themes are emerging such as: the need to behave more confidently; the fact that you may be stuck at your current organisational level because you are “too good” at every detail of your current job. Another common problem is that women expect others to notice and reward their excellent contributions and often fail to claim their own achievements, as this is viewed as “too self-serving”. Two other common themes for female leadership development are: the need to let go of perfectionism; and to stop our collective habit of putting ourselves last. This theme “women eat last” has amazed me in its constancy over the last number of years; within all levels of society.
In the early part of this century, surprising though this may be to younger women, successful females did not mention any challenges outside work. This was certainly true in the financial services industry, where I was a Senior Leader. It was a case of ‘turn up and put on your professional mask’ no matter what was happening. Even talking about your dependents was a sign of weakness. We “ambitious women” pushed ourselves to get back to work as soon as possible after having babies. Doing otherwise was an indulgence and was interpreted as a ‘lack of ambition.’ Part-time working, as a female, was the death-knell for your career. Sadly, talking to women leaders in male-dominated industries today, some outdated expectations persist in Ireland.
As an executive and top team coach for over 25 years, what I am now witnessing on the ground is the emergence of a new type of confident, female leadership. Female leaders that are admired and are considered “rising stars” in corporations are bringing their authentic selves to work. Women leaders are realising that innate power comes from “being who you are”. The biggest shift I notice is that it’s now acceptable to talk about your children and other responsibilities outside work.
Many successful female leaders that I coach are letting go of the need to be “Super-Woman” as they have found that this “super-balanced life” (on all fronts) is unattainable and unrealistic; and it’s not good role-modelling for the next generation of women leaders. Women are realising that we can have it all; just not all at the same time. I help women leaders make conscious choices about what they are saying “yes” to and “no” to in their everyday lives. The results are often surprising to the women themselves! As Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Women leaders have a core and natural strength that they can leverage in the workplace: Empathy. Women leaders have long known that “Human beings come to work, not human doings.” The more that any leader can show vulnerability, the more connected others feel to that leader. This is true of both male and female leaders. Dr. Brene Brown, author and professor at the University of Houston, has written extensively on this topic and is well worth checking out.
By contrast, a topic I often need to explore with male leaders (executives) is how to connect more deeply with their colleagues. Some leaders have been promoted because of their technical competency and excellence at executing tasks. Now, overnight, they are expected to develop emotional intelligence at work. This can be very challenging for some leaders…. particularly if it’s later in their career. These leaders can learn a lot from connected, authentic female leaders in their organisations (sometimes referred to as reverse mentoring).
As a nation, we know that women are underrepresented in top jobs. This has given rise to many positive interventions such as the 30% Club. In my work with top teams, many of the leaders are male. Organisations have yet to catch up with the assertion that women are the new global growth engine. Really?
Is it any surprise that the women who have made it to the top can suffer from ‘impostor syndrome?’ They question themselves continually: “Do I really deserve to be here? Do I have something useful to say? Do I sound silly?” They will tend to hold back and not voice their opinions until they are 100% sure that they are right. They must learn to operate with 80% certainty and to project confident body language in the Boardroom, at minimum, to survive.
I truly believe that the key to leadership and organisational success in the workplace today is through authenticity, flexibility and learning agility. Women leaders have natural strengths in all these competencies, when they have the confidence to be themselves. Women and men need to get over the gender stereotypes such as: “Bossy Female” – “Token Female” – “Too Emotional” to name but a few (Forbes). It is a no-win situation if we all get caught up with these labels.
The only road forward is to be an authentic leader and live in line with your own core values. This is the compass that will help you achieve success in your own terms.
Amanda Cahir-O’Donnell is Founder and Managing Director of TIO Consulting Ltd.
“We Deliver Positive Change in Leaders, Teams and Organisations.”