Where does your deep gladness meet your skills, so that you can more fully contribute to a better world? What is your ‘calling’, or life purpose? And what processes could help you find out?
These questions have been present in my mind for many years in my personal and professional life. Also, I have been hearing them quite a lot from many friends and colleagues working in societal change in fields such as sustainability and social entrepreneurship. As a way to address this perceived need in the world, a structured coaching journey has come into being, initiated by myself and a few participants who were willing to explore these questions.
Over the last years I have been privileged to be working with an incredible team in the field of leadership development of tomorrow’s sustainability leaders at MSLS (master in strategic leadership towards sustainability), and personal and professional experiences with leadership journeys and coaching relationships have coalesced around one coherent flow. This blog post outlines the philosophy, theoretical frames, and flow of a coaching journey that I have developed and run at MSLS over the last two years as an optional part of the learners’ leadership curriculum. I owe immense thanks to mentors from whom I learned so much and took inspiration – the full list of acknowledgements for ideas will be at the end of the blog post.
Before diving in, it is worth sharing a few key facts to get the overall idea of what it is in short.
Coaching journey in 200 words: What, who, when, where.
The coaching journey is a voluntary, part-time, 3 and a half months long journey that runs in the spring for the MSLS students in Karlskrona, Sweden, during their thesis time, from late February to early June. Participants willing to join have been invited to embark on a journey to sharpen their clarity on their vocation in their professional (and personal) life, after a short open-day session that outlines what it is. We define vocation as the ‘sweet spot’ that lies at the intersection of two elements: it is where you deep gladness meets your contribution to the world, and we set out to explore both elements and this unifying point using a structured process of reflections through readings, assignments, and live coaching sessions. Each year, three clusters were formed: the 2013 edition (the first) counted 18 participants from 11 countries, while the 2014 edition had 14 participants from 9 countries. Compared to the class size, that roughly equaled a third of the class choosing to attend. I have developed and had the privilege to run the journey as a coach and am in a process of scaling up, open to see what evolves next from it! (More at the end of the post).
So what is it, really? And what key ideas are holding it together? There is an underlying philosophy and some key assumptions upon which the coaching journey is based.
One is the assumption that many young adults in this post-modern world are exposed to an overwhelming flow of information capturing our attention, and stimulating our imagination and dreams. Many options in life seem attractive, seducing, and our energy could potentially go in so many different directions. I go with the assumption that clarity of intention is a catalyst for directing our ‘potential unspent energy’ and for effective, passionate, intentional work.
The journey is designed for people who are passionate about making a contribution to the world (MSLS students self-select as such category, in my experience) and who wish to sustain that passion while doing work that deeply fulfills their individual joy and happiness and honoring their unique gifts. We are born with unique gifts and talents, but many of our current structures and institutions ask us to merely “fit in” and be good citizens, students, family members. Whilst the socialized identity is a key building block and plays an essential role to make our social contracts continue, there is much more potential to get acquainted to our inner voice, towards a more self-authored life in which the individual can experience processes to discover more of her uniqueness in a safe container.
A safe container for truly ‘seeing’ the other person
In pedagogy and leadership development literature there is a lot of talk, and with good reason, about the importance of the safety of learning containers, hence there is an intention to create preconditions for such safety through sharing the learning objectives, the journey flow, and by setting up a space where we invite all participants within their clusters to deeply listen to one another, to commit to their own development as much as they commit to their peers’, and to authentically “see” the other person in their unique potential for life. This gift of seeing each other in generative ways is based on the Zulu word ‘Sawubona’, which means “we see you”, and implies that my past, my present self and my future potential for life see all of you (a plural you), comprised of your own past, your present self, and your highest potential for life.
Though being highly individual by definition, the journey relies heavily on this collective element of being part of a peer cluster whereby the participant effectively goes through the entire process along with an entire group, performing assignments together, debriefing, and peer coaching others as well. Necessity turned into a great unexpected gift, during the process of self-discovery an individual gains deeper insights from a constellation of people who offer their insights and can illuminate many blind spots and question assumptions, in a way that not even a seasoned coach could easily do.
To cite an old adage: All theories are wrong, some theories are useful. Quite a few theoretical backgrounds are informing this structured coaching process and help to provide readings, insights into assignments, and inform my approach to coaching.
First, we state clearly from the beginning that this is a coaching journey and differs in a few ways from therapy. I am assisted by standard definitions about coaching from the ICF (International Coach Federation), their core practices and code of ethics, which recommend types of listening, rules for setting the client/coach relation in the right tone, and offer models for goal-setting and vision building with the client. The ICF’s definitions also inform a key distinction between coaching and therapy, in that therapy is mostly focused on past events and aim to make sense of them in light of a client’s present situation, while coaching focuses on future goals and aspirations, and looks at present conditions (and a bit of past, too) in order to explore predicaments, roadblocks and resources to develop towards one’s goals.
Some neuroscience –not just because it sounds fancy, it is actually great stuff
At the foundation of this coaching approach positive psychology and neuroplasticity come to help providing strong and evidence based theories. Positive psychology is a necessary foundation especially informing the ideas of love for self, some science behind happiness, and Csikszentmihalyi‘s idea of flow, namely a state of bliss in which we are immersed when we are completely focused on an enjoyable and challenging task. It helps especially in uncovering the “deep gladness” part of the vocation. (And the copy-paste is vital to get his name right).
Neuroplasticity is a recent science backed by encouraging and strong evidence, positing that the brain can change itself and that an individual’s conscious direction of attention is the fundamental starting point to decide, moment by moment, where to focus our thoughts, and this holds the potential to either “give in” old neural circuits or to create new ones –nothing bad with walking down an old path per se, but the creation of new habits to a large extent necessitates the abandonment of old ones that are not serving us anymore. (I particularly liked this book). An important insight that this discipline is bringing is the primacy of focus, around which two assignments and some reading materials are based. The aim is to get to experience how our conscious attention is a causal factor in our inner world and dynamically impacting the world around us. If we were to believe in a deterministic approach (my thoughts are just a by-product of some weird brain chemistry) we could not honestly believe in any true goals setting, nor in any substantial change of old habits towards new ones.
Kegan is the man – but I mean, really
Broadly speaking, Neo-Piagetian psychological approaches are informing the coaching journey in at least two ways (though I must admit I am not an expert since this field is so vast). For one thing, the constructive development background applied to education suggests that adults create their own meanings, which points to the importance of letting people attribute their significance to events, draw their conclusions, and probe into their thinking processes with open ended questions as much as possible without leading or constraining into one direction over another; additionally, Kegan’s approach to adult development states that successive stages of psychological maturity happen when we are able to objectively analyze things that were previously taken for granted (the subject-object dynamic). In extreme summary, Kegan states that usually we cannot objectively see some of the thoughts and feelings that we are passively giving in to, as if it was an autopilot never questioned; when we start making these mental events part of our object of observation, we can progressively take ownership over them and make them become “object” (as opposed to being subject-to and passively written-by them).
Though it may sound very abstract and theoretical, in essence embracing the Neo-Piagetian approaches (Kegan et al) has very profound implications: believing that the meaning-making starts from the individual and cannot be forced upon others gives suggestions for how to ask powerful questions (very much in line with good coaching standards) by which a coach challenges assumptions and worldviews without providing an answer of their own. It may sound easy to agree with in principle, and it presents a beautiful challenge to do it moment by moment in coaching practices.
Theory U as a frame of reference
Last but equally important, we use Otto Scharmer’s Theory U as an overall architecture holding together and pacing the assignments: it gives us a sense of overall continuity and direction of the journey, informing both coach and participants about potential pitfalls along the path, and as a system of road signs to frame assignments and resources. Theory U has been developed by Otto Scharmer over more than 15 years as a process to design and facilitate deep transformations at all levels (individual, organizational, societal). We are more intentionally borrowing from Theory U three fundamental stages (or movements) of any process of transformation, which have been termed ‘sensing’, ‘presencing’ and ‘prototyping’. Sensing explores the current and past reality, Presencing aims to accesses the vocation itself through a deep connection, and Prototyping turns the vocation into actionable points, goals, and deadlines.
If this may sound like a lot of theories, beware that most of them are working in the background as frames that inform my work as a coach. Some theories are very lightly touched upon: Kegan’s developmental psychology is mostly informing my work without being shared with participants; others are more intentionally shared, such as Theory U which is very often mentioned to give a sense of where in the journey we are at.
Flow of the coaching journey, and pedagogical approach
You might want to get to know how it looks like in practice. As we started going through the three stages of the U journey, this section will explain with a bit more detail what happens through these various stages – also, I will share a bit of the pedagogical approach used as I learned a few things by walking through it. To start off this collective journey takes a certain initiation, a beginning which marks the importance of individual and collective intention before jumping on board together. At the very beginning, we start with an initial assessment (one-to-one session with just coach and participant) of personal aspirations and expectations from both ends. I found it extremely important as a way to clarify what type of commitment it takes and to envision best and less-than-optimal scenarios for this coaching journey. Only after that, the participants are asked to “find their groups” and we kick off with a session that intentionally aims at building the container with some preconditions for trust in their peers. The Sensing stage our coaching journey is focused on exploring without judgment our current predicament, our usual patterns, our personal history. Here readings on neuropsychology, happiness, and on the power of our attention come in to give theoretical background and potentially provoke some thoughts. I try to use tools for ‘objectifying’ some of the current trends and habits, so that they can be critically analyzed and to an extent authored more intentionally. The Presencing stage is dedicated to find that place of deep connection to our highest self and sharpen our clarity on what is our vocation in life. We explore deep gladness and contribution to the work through two separate assignments, and the vocation (which has been conceptualized as the sweet spot in between the two) is explored through an assignment of its own. Here the pedagogical approach is to truly get people out of their minds and into their bodies and hearts as much as possible, while still “using” the mind as an analytical instrument to make sense of the assignments afterwards. Behind this lies an important assumption, namely that the bottom of the U is best accessed through experiential means such as movement, emotion, and kinesthetic events – and mind will help to give words to the vocation only after our experiential events have happened, as a journaling tool. Once our vocation has come into form, Prototyping consists of first crystallizing such shape and then translating the dream of living our aspirational vocation into an action plan and measurable, achievable goals. Here we need to move up from a space of deep connection into a space of measurable goals and deadlines. I use various canvasses to first sharpen the vocation, and then to help draw and scribble brainstormed goals before prioritizing a handful of final goals which will constitute a learning commitment from all coaching journey participants. Sensing was beheld primarily by eyes and mind (exploring, observing); presencing was primarily experienced by the whole body (heart included); prototyping is mostly in the hands through brainstormed goals and priorities that will become an agreement to be shared with fellow participants of the peer cluster. During the last two weeks, in fact, we focus on closing the journey by sharing agreements on measurable short term goals that aim at providing an occasion for early action and for creating first successes. Our coaching container is then closed by agreements on how to keep in touch with one another and hold each other accountable on our progress – I found that such agreements worked well to create an impulse for circles of peer mentoring and peer support, which can be of fundamental value to keep nurturing our journey going forward.
My immense thanks to mentors from whom I have extensively drawn inspirations –some of them I have met in person, some of them are in the academic world of book I have read. Here below the people I have met to whom I owe such thanks.
Regina Rowland, who coached me over the period of a few months and inspired me to start this coaching journey as an offer to the world, based on many of her ideas and approaches;
Orland Bishop and his work at the ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation, from whom I learned the more pronounced spiritual component of the journey which stays in the background as my own frame of reference;
Ada auf de Strasse, from whom I learned about coaching approach and practices of the ICF approach: immensely helpful and practical!;
My current and previous coaching journey participants –we would have never learned this much hadn’t we been learning it together! It is always an honor to be serving your paths.
All mentors who have taught me so much about asking powerful questions, deeply inquiring into my own explorations, and all the leadership journeys I have experienced over the last few years: Warrior of the Heart with Toke Moeller, The Journey at Embercombe, the Art of Hosting community of practitioners, the Leadership Thread at MSLS and all my precious colleagues there. I realize the list could go on forever so I’ll just stop it here.
After two iterations of this coaching journey, it feels timely enough to share some of these ideas and theoretical approaches, for the sake of making this process visible to all those who could be potentially interested: you may be working in transformative education, in coaching, mentoring, or offering spaces for young adults (or any age, really) to explore more intentionally their passion in life. I personally feel that I have learned a lot (and still learning!) through this process. For example, one of the most fundamental things I have learned is the importance of personal grounding in practices of deep work, to keep myself (as a coach) in a constant work of monitoring, to keep my inner space ‘clean’ and under rigorous, compassionate, and loving scrutiny. There is a spiritual depth that you as a coach reaches (or are pushed to reach) when you hold a space for development for other human beings. It feels like everything is amplified and mirrored back, because you are asked to keep such a quality of attention and an inner clarity which will point to any blind spot in you. In this type of work the inner needs to support the outer, which is really fascinating and highly enriching.
If that sounds daunting, even worse is to consider that you as a coach will never be ‘ready enough’ to carry on such profound personal work, but experience taught me a fundamental lesson: as long as you commit to profound work, you can feel (and you are) ready to do the work. [Plus, the scale of the challenges in the world now calls not for perfect work, rather for our meaningful work period. Let’s get over this idea of needing more time and more clarity to start our meaningful work – we won’t get either of the two].
On that note, at this particular stage of the journey, the conditions seem ready enough for this coaching journey to evolve into its next stage of development.
I am sensing into what such next stage could be, and wish to stay very open to many possible options. For one thing, I feel energy about letting it go wherever it needs to go, be it by sharing as much as possible, be it training the trainers and building up competence. Another part of me wonders how this educational journey could be further expanded into existing or new programs as a part of a broader educational journey of transformative education –that is: which other programs other than MSLS could benefit from it? As I write this, a first prototype is being explored through a contract that I got with a program of social entrepreneurship to replicate a mini-version of the journey for their participants, which is quite exciting. Another version of this option of replicating the coaching journey would be to co-design new version of it, open to new streams of ideas, as part of a design of a school of transformational education. Feel free to take inspiration, and to get in touch if this in any way made sense and evoked ideas and possible dreams to apply it in a real-life scenario that would positively contribute.
What’s in it for you?
So a final appeal to all of you: Feel free to take as much as you want from these ideas and experiences, and get in touch if you are curious and want to bring some of this into form for an educational institution where this could add value to the participants’ personal journeys. It is really a type of work that is still forming and I am looking forward to explore possibilities of scaling it up if there is a perceived need in the world.
A bow to you all, and a final reminder: I have so much enthusiasm around this coaching journey because I work from the assumption that when people are more aligned with their own purpose they could be more effective at catalyzing such energy into the world – given they have an ember into their hearts itching for serving the greater good of humanity. This is something that we cannot know in advance and it is always a blind –how to make sure that our efforts to bring about transformational change (in this case from a very personal level) will be put at good use for the most universal aims of serving humanity and the planet? We never know, but we can cultivate preconditions to invite the right people and cultivate immense trust that such clarity will be seen as a service to humanity rather than an individual privilege. It is my belief and hope.
For the benefit of being more effective at serving the whole humankind in generative ways –