Friday 30 July 2021

Artificial Authenticity

Authenticity is a bit like motherhood and apple pie. One can't exactly be against it. Much of the literature on leadership talks about the importance of authenticity, and I think that is right. It is quite clear that people are unlikely to trust and follow a leader who is duplicitous, and inconsistent in words and actions.*  

But I think that the issue of authenticity bears some scrutiny. To take a simple, domestic, example, there are times when my wife (to whom I have been happily married for nearly forty years) can press my buttons, as it were, with such uncanny accuracy that I would gladly biff her on the head with a frying pan.**

Yet I don't. Would it be more authentic to do so, if that is what I am truly feeling at that moment?  I don't think so.  And the reason I don't think so is that we are complex beings, and our true self (our authentic self) is not merely the expression of the transient emotions that we experience at a moment in time. 

So what is authentic behaviour in that context?  I think it is about aligning our behaviour with our best version of ourself. The reason I don't biff Jane with a frying pan (or at least, one of the reasons) is that it is not true to who I am striving to be, or to become.  And by consistently not biffing her with a frying pan for forty years, I have now so developed my character, that I think I can fairly say that I am a non-violent husband, and I think that is a good thing - and indeed an authentic thing - for me to be. 

However, in a sense that authenticity is artificial: it is a learned behaviour - a discipline to refrain from acting on my immediate, and doubtless authentic, emotional response.

But where I think it differs from a problematic inauthenticity lies in the realm of intention. I am genuinely, and consistently, trying to be a loving husband. It is when that genuine and consistent intention is lacking, that someone's behaviour is more likely to be inauthentic in the problematic way.  And the problem with that understanding is that we cannot see another person's intention; we can only deduce it.

However, for myself, I can be clear: it is not inauthentic to aspire to be better than I am; indeed that is, for me, an essential part of becoming ever more authentic.

* I leave aside the rather extraordinary state of our political systems from this discussion...

** Hyperbole, but I'm sure you recognise what I am describing.


With thanks to  Slava,  Aleksandra Tanasiienko, and Sammy Williams for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 23 July 2021

The Temptation to Complacency

I had a supervision session booked with my excellent supervisor, Ann Bowen-Jones.  I use Ann specifically to supervise my work as a supervisor, and have other supervisory arrangements for my coaching. That is very deliberate, to make sure that my supervision is subject to regular oversight and reflection, and doesn't take second place, as it were, to my coaching in supervisory conversations.   So, as I say, I had a session booked; and as we talk regularly, and due to the way the diary fell, I had only conducted one supervision since our previous meeting. Moreover, that supervision had gone well: I had helped the coach I was working with to think more perceptively about the issue under discussion, to gain some insights, decide what to do, and generate some useful actions.  All in all, I was feeling pretty complacent about it.

But that raised the question of what to discuss at supervision with Ann. We could have looked more broadly at my supervision practice framework, but we have spent some time on that recently, and somehow that didn't feel the most productive thing to do. So I mentioned that I had only supervised once since we last spoke, that it had gone well, and that might be worth reviewing.

For my coaching clients, I rarely think that reviewing successes is a waste of time or self-indulgent (unless that is all that they want to do, ever...). But for myself, it felt different.

And yet this proved to be a very rich session indeed. And it wasn't because it is valuable to affirm strengths and build on them (though there was an element of that) but simply because there was so much more to think about than I had realised. Ann's skillful listening and questioning helped me to identify that there was something I was uneasy about, regarding my client's practice, and then to identify what that was and what I wanted to do about it. 

In turn, that led to consideration of my reflective practice after the session: why had I not identified that unease until now?

We also identified two or three other lines of enquiry, as it were, to explore with my client, none of which I had arrived at in my post-session review with myself. 

And I think that in least in part, that was a result of a certain complacency after the session. It had gone well; the client had made significant progress, and had been very appreciative of my supervision. And in that context, it was just too easy to engage in my private review of the session from a rather self-satisfied stance.   

I think I am not alone in this: that I learn well from my disasters; but my triumphs?... I should pay more heed to wisdom of Kipling, and treat those two imposters just the same.

Friday 16 July 2021

No, I'm not a tour guide...

The journey as a metaphor for coaching (or supervision, come to that) is a bit of a cliché. But that's for a reason: it is a very good metaphor. 

But in conversation with Jan, during our final supervision (about which I have already blogged) we developed an interesting twist. We were discussing our reluctance to be seen as the experts who know all the answers (and there's a good and grounded reason for that reluctance: we don't). Yet time and again, people seem to want and expect that, whether explicitly, or implicitly. Many seem to think that we start out with a plan for all of the coaching sessions.

But we are not tour guides. We do not know where the coaching journey will take us. We cannot lead you along a pre-defined path to 'better leadership' or whatever the objective is; visiting the important landmarks along the way in an orderly fashion (If it's Friday, this must be Emotional Intelligence...)

Rather, we are co-explorers. We don't know where we will be going. We don't know what we will encounter. But we are experienced explorers: we can read the terrain, we can use a compass, we have some good maps; so although we can't describe the journey in advance, we do bring value to the process.

And because I like to explore a metaphor, that opened up some further interesting insights. 

In terms of maps, it raised the interesting question of whose map do we use: ours or the coachees'? And the answer, I think, is both.  It is the coachees' world that we are exploring, so clearly their maps are essential. But in terms of the coaching journey we, as coaches, have maps built from our years of experience, so they too may come into play.  Indeed, they may be different types of maps: a coachee's map might be a very precise, detailed, local depiction of the terrain; the coach's might be more schematic, like a London tube map: this line is likely to connect these points...  Or it may be a larger systemic map, or it may be a map that says at the edge 'Here be dragons!' That is, there are places (eg psychotherapeutic territory) where I as a coach would be the wrong guide, and would risk exposing my coachee to danger.

I reached a similar conclusion about compasses, which are an obvious metaphor for the values and principles, or ethics, that guide our decision making. Clearly the coach's values are core to the coach's decision making; but equally clearly, I don't leave my ethics at the door. Like all professions, coaching has a code of ethics to which I subscribe; and my own values also inform my work.

And then, the landscape itself... What sort of journey are we on? Are we hacking through the jungle undergrowth, desperate to survive? Are we out in my beloved Lake District to gain perspective and stretch ourselves? Are we on a pilgrimage?

Thinking of walking in the Lakes also made me reflect on the right preparation. I would not take someone up Scafell without the right kit; so how well do I encourage clients to equip themselves for the coaching journey. I think I could do better here.

So, a very rich metaphor.  And as I was discussing this with another colleague and regular Thinking Partner, the excellent Helen Hatton, she pointed out that it wasn't so much a question of whose map or compass we might choose to use at any point in the journey, as raising awareness with our coachees that there are several available, and that we may usefully learn from many of them.

And one of the practical implications of this metaphor is that it helps clarify expectations with potential clients. For if they want someone to lead them by the hand and tell them where they should go and what they should do, I am not the coach for them.  But if they want someone to join in their exploration, then I am enthusiastic and have some skills to enrich the journey.


With thanks to Mukuko StudioJulentto PhotographyAli Kazal and LOGAN WEAVER for sharing their photography on Unsplash

Friday 9 July 2021

In my end is my beginning...

This week I had my final supervision session with Jan, with whom I have had a peer- co-supervisory relationship, focused on our respective coaching work, for six years.  It was, as ever, a very rich and fruitful session, and I reached some conclusions about questions that had been live for me for some time, about my coaching identity and my coaching philosophy, which felt particularly timely in a final session. And naturally, we included a retrospective, looking at what we had learned together, and how we had worked together.

That was all very positive; we were both able to identify for ourselves and each other, significant learning and development over the years, arising from our work together; and that included, of course, our supervisory, as well as our coaching, skills.  In part that was because we had both undertaken supervisory training a few years back, so had been particularly attending to that - reading the literature, discussing with colleagues at workshops, and so on. We wrote a blog post on some of our reflections on that learning on the CSP blog, here.

And as I wrote up my notes for the session for the last time, I went back to my notes from our very first session, back in 2015.  And guess what, some of the issues that were alive then have only just been resolved; and some that reared their head in this final session, and felt new, were also foreshadowed in that very first session. 

We shall not cease from exploration. 
And the end of all our exploring.  
Will be to arrive where we started. 
And know the place for the first time.  

T S Eliot knew a thing or two, didn't he...