Dancing with Resistance: A lesson from my first year as a coach by Robbie Swale (guest)

This is a piece written for and about coaching, covering the incredibly powerful topic of Resistance. Resistance is a part of almost all the work I do with clients, and for me personally almost all the work I do to build my business.


The first year of anything is an incredibly rich learning opportunity.

When I reflect now on my first year as a coach, there are so many lessons I learnt. But above all - above the importance of working with great coaches who have my back, above having a supportive community around me, above learning more and more about business development and enrolling clients - was the importance of dancing with my Resistance.

I'm struck, day by day, that my work stands on the shoulders of so many giants. I have a vision board with pictures of many of them, and one of the huge privileges of the modern world is the easy access to the books, videos, podcasts and blogs of so many people of great wisdom. And on the topic of Resistance, I feel particularly privileged.

For my birthday, not long before I first started training as a coach, but before I knew I was going to train, my brother gave me two books, and those books have had a huge impact on my coaching and my coaching business, dealing as they do with the ever-present challenge of our Resistance.

What is Resistance?

Steven Pressfield, as my brother, Ewan Townhead, a writer and coach, poetically puts in his own writing on the subject, is St George in the battle with the dragon of Resistance. In his book, The War of Art, Pressfield dissects and exposes Resistance in all its glory, including – near the beginning – these wonderful sentences:

'There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't and the secret is this: it's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.'


'Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.'

Resistance is everything that stops you taking those steps towards the life you really want to live. It's the little instinct that takes you to Facebook instead of the work you know you should be doing; it's what leaves the gym membership unused, the paint set in the cupboard and the guitar unplayed; it's what keeps the idea for a new business in your head and not out in the world. It's those words, which you tell yourself, which can stop you doing pretty much anything: "I'm not ready."

I'm getting some Resistance right now, as I write this piece. Here's what it's saying 'Have you planned this piece enough? Is it really going to be useful to other coaches? Are you sure it's not just a vanity exercise for you? Shouldn't you change it more so it gets you more clients? You aren't going to finish it before you need to leave for your meeting, so you might as well stop now.' You see, Resistance is devious. It knows exactly what to say and do to get you to stop. It will tie you in knots to prevent you from taking the steps you need to take, the steps towards the unlived life within you.

Resistance for coaches

In the War of Art there is a list of Resistance's Greatest Hits (you can read it on Steven Pressfield's website in an excerpt from the book). I read a list of the topics that I, and I believe other coaches, are faced with from our clients in every session. But I also read it like a list of the challenges that are faced by coaches themselves: 'the pursuit of a calling', 'the launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise', 'any program of spiritual enhancement', 'education of every kind', 'an enterprise or endeavor whose aim is to help others', 'the taking of any principled stand'. These are all on the list, and from my experience apply to any coach starting their practice. And the chapter ends with this quote:

'In other words, any act which disdains short-term gratification in favor of long-term growth, health or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any act of these types will elicit Resistance.'

Whether you like it or not, Resistance is on my journey with me, and will be with you, too, on your journey to the unlived life you want.

So what can we do about it?


The first step is awareness. I regularly share the online excerpt from the War of Art with clients as a way to bring the language of Resistance into our sessions: this gets it out in the open, it names it. Resistance is there, or at least it is if you are trying to do any of the things on Pressfield's list (and pretty much all clients and all coaches are). And, as marketing guru, general font of wisdom and big Pressfield fan Seth Godin says (his book, The Icarus Deception, was the second book Ewan gave me), Resistance will always be there. As Seth puts beautifully, if you can't get rid of it, you just have to learn to dance with it. 

Dancing with Resistance

You may be thinking – perhaps this is your Resistance – 'If it's not going away, and it's trying to stop me getting the things I deeply want, then surely everything is hopeless.' Luckily, everything is not hopeless. More Pressfield:

'Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel towards pursuing it.'

You can use your Resistance, your fear, as Seth Godin also says, as a compass. You can follow it to what you really want. And if you're feeling it - maybe it's doing its self-doubt bit, 'Am I really a writer?' 'Am I really a coach?' - you're on the right track. So, how does the dance go?

As any professional dancer knows, it starts with discipline, with practice. Pressfield calls this 'turning pro'. We already know how to be a professional, we've all done it at some point or other. It's how we behaved in the jobs we didn't like, the ones which weren't our calling or our heart's desire. We turned up, whatever, and we stayed all day. We don't take it too lightly, but we don't take it too seriously. We get better at it. We have a sense of humour. We accept payment.

And most importantly, any dance involves steps. In the dance with Resistance, these are small steps, but – as with dancing – at some point you have to start. Here's one last beautiful quote from Steven Pressfield:

'Our inspiration is always there, but it's at the moment when we commit to something and make the start that we let inspiration in.'

It feels impossible: procrastinating all day, scared, miserable. And yet. And yet. Finally taking that step, no matter how small, you get that feeling. Everyone reading will recognise it. If you're a coach, it's the little buzz of sending the scary email requesting a referral, or updating your LinkedIn profile to say 'coach' for the first time, or actually approaching the building where you will meet your first paid client. If you aren't, you'll know it from submitting an application for the job you want, emailing the person you want to have coffee with to talk about something that's important to you. Or getting the paint set out of the cupboard and finally putting brush to canvas.

That's inspiration. But it’s not done. Another step needs to be taken. It can be as small as you like, as long as you take it. And after that, take another. And another.

Resistance for Coaches and my tips for dancing with it...

Here is the voice of Resistance, speaking to Robbie the Coach, and to the lovely and wonderful coaches I know.

“I haven't done enough coaching to work with clients.”
“I need to finish my website before I start talking to people about my coaching.”
“I need to learn more about coaching before I'm ready to charge.”
“Who would pay me to coach them? I've only coached people for free so far.”
“I'm not ready to talk about my coaching business until I've worked out my niche.”
“I can't coach this person, what do I know about their work?”
“No one will ever pay me for this. It's rude to even ask.”
“I'm not worth this.”
“It will never work.”
“I'm really scared.”

Read them back, look for the ones that resonate with you, or the ones which you've heard people you know say. Or the similar sentences that your Resistance is saying to you. Look out for the language of Resistance, words like 'enough', 'not ready', 'when it's finished', 'more'.

We all have that voice. Coaching, for most people, is a calling and a dream. It is getting paid to work with people, making a difference, using all those skills which you took for granted but you have found out are special in you. Changing lives, and changing your life. And as a calling and a dream it is so vulnerable to Resistance.

Here are my top three tips to help guide you through the minefield of Resistance as you grow your coaching business. There are plenty more, and I'd love to hear from anyone who has great tips, or great struggles with Resistance.

  1. Become aware of Resistance. Maybe this article is all you need. Maybe you also need to read my brother's blog, or the pages on Steven Pressfield's website, or maybe you need to buy yourself The War of Art and The Icarus Deception (or get a family member to give them to you for a forthcoming birthday!). But whatever it takes, make sure you're aware. Make sure you're looking for it.
  2. Get a coach. When you're talking about coaching to people, it's almost certain you say something like 'the thing that sets it apart from mentoring, and counselling, and therapy, is that it's always forward looking'. And in that forward momentum is the next small step, which lets the inspiration in. Whoever your coach is, they will help you take those steps, and in those steps you will start to beat Resistance. I've been lucky to work with two amazing coaches, Mike Toller and Joel Monk, and both have guided me wonderfully through my Resistance.
  3. Launch early. Nothing is ever ready. Ever. Steve Chandler and Rich Litvin say, in their awesome book, The Prosperous Coach: 'Don't wait for 100% readiness. It will never come. When you are 80% ready, go for it.' But 80% is too much. Launch as soon as you can. You can tweak your website tomorrow if you see a problem, or add another page next week, but get it online today. You can tweak your invitation email next time you send it, but send it to someone today. You can coach your next client after you've been on that training course, but you can make a difference to this client right now. And if you aren't, you're not just damaging yourself and your business, you're not helping everyone you could be helping. You can do it. And once you take those steps, maybe the website doesn't need proof reading a fourteenth time, and maybe the email doesn't need to be perfected again, and maybe you will change the life of this person, right here, right now.

Go on. Start. Go out there. Take some steps. Change some lives.

First published, and adapted for the good coach, on Linkedin.

To connect with Robbie Swale


I am a career and leadership coach. I work with clients to help them to find their path and be extraordinary as they walk it. I have led a varied career in the private, public and charity sectors, including five years of working in arts and culture, as a venue manager and then subsequently in training, career and leadership development. Alongside my coaching work - for my coaching business and for other organisations like Coachingpartner and the Coaching School - I write a regular blog on LinkedIn and occasional longer posts.

Read and find out more at www.robbieswalecoaching.com, https://www.linkedin.com/in/robbieswale/ or www.twitter.com/robbieswale.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? by Seth Godin
The Prosperous Coach: Increase Income and Impact for You and Your Clients by Steve Chandler and Rich Litvin

Devising the best Business Brand for Coaching Practice by Lisa Haydon (guest)

A brand is not just a logo, it’s the overall experience you give to customers and audience.
Your brand expresses the value you provide. It’s you!  - Amy Locurto

I chose the profession of coaching because I want to help others and am passionate about making a difference. I believe I bring experience, insights, and training to my work. I and my fellow coaches want to be the best for our clients and to do great work. Organizations and professionals who have worked with coaches can attest to the impact coaching has had on them. Coaching is a viable and growing professional services business that bears proven impact to executives and businesses.

Consumers of professional services easily pay for lawyers, accountants, and consultants, and yet I find the conversation of paying for coaching isn’t always the same negotiation. The price, or deemed value, can be wide-ranging. Is this fact a result of the coach or the client? Coaches can be uncomfortable determining their value and being definitive in what their financial value is. The market will tell us if there’s a business model so I attribute this challenge to the mindset of coaches.

The awkwardness of coaching fees

As a recently launched full-time coach, I am now focused on making my coaching services a business. For years I’ve done coaching for free and saw it as part of my personal brand. Now coaching is my profession and how I earn my living. I have comfortably negotiated a coaching engagement as a client, but now as the coach negotiating the fees, I spend time considering how to package and price the fees for the client. I cringe slightly as I send a proposed contract that includes a fee. Why does the fees part of the coaching contract continue to feel uncomfortable?

Defining coaching value

Early in my coaching career, I was introduced to a successful coach with similar professional experience as mine. We had a great introductory conversation and promised to stay in touch. She closed our conversation with, “When you start pricing your services, call me for a discussion.” And I did. She asked me what I saw my coaching value as and what that should be worth. She challenged me on that definition of value for one of my areas of specialization, business development coaching. Her words stick with me in every pricing conversation, and it still hasn’t begun to feel any easier. I’ve spent years setting and negotiating pricing for services, yet when I set pricing for myself, there’s a discomfort. Without the business advice of my fellow coach, I may likely have undervalued my services.

Adopting your business mindset            

Coaches are watching the adoption of coaching and the profession’s growth with keen interest (check out: An Insider’s Guide to Coaching & Leadership Development). We are professional practitioners that have skills and experience that the market needs and wants. We are in the business of helping. We do add value and value comes with a cost. I believe our opportunity is to reconcile the helping part of our business and the business part of coaching services. Both the helping services and the business model must co-exist.

Chris Guillebeau’s book, The $100 Startup, outlines the concept of creating your business well. One of the elements he positions is the concept of finding and leveraging convergence. Convergence represents the intersection of your passion and what others care about. Your business is in the intersecting space of these two business fundamentals. Know what your convergence is, define it as your business and price your services accordingly.

As I grow my business and leverage my professional business development expertise, my business becomes more defined. Despite all my experience, business acumen and learnings, there’s that little voice in my head that continues to analyze whether I’ve got the fee for service right. As I work on my own coaching business development, ensuring a business mindset is a critical success factor. Below I’ve captured key things I believe need to exist to have a successful coaching business. At the heart of a coach’s success is the mindset of seeing the delivery of their coaching services as a viable and vibrant business.

The business mindset

Here’s my take on the core elements to be aware of and master for a successful business mindset and coaching business:

  • Clearly define your products and services
  • Establish trust and credibility to provide your services
  • Maintain and invest in professional branding
  • Define your business differentiators well
  • Understand why clients buy your services
  • Know your addressable market, i.e. geography and target client
  • Develop a business plan
  • Set financial goals, review them, and make them a priority
  • Have a business advisor. This person may or may not be a coach, and should they be a coach, they must have a successful coaching business
  • Know client needs, know your value, and know the fees the market will bear
  • Stay attuned to client and market trends
  • Most importantly, have confidence in all of the above

The coach I met many months ago who began to influence my own mindset on the business of coaching recommended the book, The Prosperous Coach. This book appeals to my business mindset and aligns with how I need to look at the business of coaching. My now go-to reference coaching business book continues to shape how I think about my coaching business and how I make it a business.

Being a growth mindset CEO

Many of us operate as ‘solopreneurs,’ and it’s our personal brand that bears a high correlation to our coaching success. As the CEO for a high growth business, what can and do you need to do to capture your and your business’ full potential? Invest time in your business and your business strategy. Take time to consider what the potential is for you in a profession that is entering into a growth mode, and  set the action plan for building a highly successful coaching practice.

To connect with Lisa

Lisa W. Haydon is a Certified Executive Coach and the owner of Pivotal Coaching. Through Pivotal Coaching, she focuses on enabling companies and professionals to realize growth, transformation and strategic goals. Key areas of client services include leadership development and business development executive coaching. The Pivotal Coaching relationship incorporates programs, methodology and outcome measurements that guide targeted development for growth and results. Lisa brings to her work with clients nearly 30-years corporate experience in coaching, leadership, strategy, teaming, clients, change, revenue growth, and helping people succeed.

Don’t risk just trusting your intuition – get to know it! by Jeremy Ridge

1. The importance of intuition to Coaching Practice

For me, Intuition is a term that has real value for referring to our most important asset – our big bank of stored experience, and potential knowledge, we have acquired throughout life’s experiences.

Unfortunately, we still don’t quite understand how it works – exactly.

Likewise, for me, Intuition is central to Coaching:

  • It is the process that enables us to operate at the speed needed in the behaviours that enable the coaching relationship to work.
  • It is a useful lens for looking at what the coaching task is about – helping someone else find the space and process to get to know themselves better - this often means enabling them to understand what appears intuitively for them.
  • It is a powerful source of learning, about coaching itself, about the way to show up in any coaching process – what happened, and how/why exactly, and what can be learned from it – i.e. researching yourself as a coach.

I want to focus here on the last one of these three areas, above.

Intuition is also something that still draws little attention

In a world where being ‘evidence based’ always requires producing evidence that enables others to travel the same path of experience – the reproducible knowledge as a result of established scientific methods in the social sciences and humanities is still primitive. Consequently, this often limits research to what current scientific method can measure.

And we still seem to lack a methodology for evidencing intuition. So, I thought I’d share my ‘on-going’ research of how I consider how intuition works for me in relation to coaching, in particular.

After all, intuition is not necessarily always fully right. The experiences that have produced it may not have been representative of what is involved in a new situation. And it can be tempting to want to believe something rather than still test it!

To date, there have been several pieces shared on the good coach in which each of the coaching practitioners have, in their own way, acknowledged and tackled this conundrum about intuition. For example,

  • Luis San Martin (4.10.2017) celebrates being intuitive as a means for accessing the unconscious, but also leaves the exploration of this because there is part of intuition “that will always remain hidden”
  • Claire Sheldon (5.2.2017) similarly tackles intuition directly. Intuition is all about knowing-without-knowing-how; but then also goes on to warn how “I know too that my intuition isn’t always right. I can confuse it with my values, prejudices and beliefs.” Claire then goes on to explore how to get intuition right. In Coaching this hinged in particularly on establishing what Claire refers to as trust, and then permission, in the relationship as a basis for being able to bring her intuition into it.

Intuition keeps on coming up as important to coaching, yet still difficult to tie down and this is what I want to report on.

2. What can be learned from Other wider views about the idea of Intuition

As always, there are the shoulders of others to stand on in considering most matters.

A wikipedia summary [1] is quite comprehensive about the origin, and definition of the term, and its core meaning. The word intuition is described here, in the way it was originally used to mean to consider, in its original sense of careful attention. This is a meaning that attracts me (for e.g. “Attention!”: what really makes coaching work … or not!).

There are also a range of other meanings in how others use the meaning of intuition. For example, something that is best left as utterly invisible, and so intangible, that it defies explanation; and therefore not to be taken too seriously.  Even just plain ignore it!

There are a lot of people who say things like trust your gut instinct … of course I can take these words as useful metaphors. I am not sure the gut is where experience gets processed; and I am not convinced instinct is the same as intuition either!

For me intuition is something important by itself.

For me, Intuition is like compressed knowledge – stored like a zip file – for efficiency and space saving – which we can use even without opening it up to see how it arrived at what it knows. But it is also important to check it out, to open up the file.

I see a useful differentiation between the different approaches to this intuition idea.  I have summarised, below, the typical range of these views into three different levels:

2.1. The tightly closed view
2.2. The ‘reflective’ perspective – open but limited in ways to get to know it
2.3. How to get to know it – sorting out the evidence trails of experience

2.1. The tightly closed view

At one level, intuition is viewed as irrelevant to knowledge. For example, some comments I overheard recently were:

“Like so many other words grappling with explanations for human behavior, intuition is beautifully vague and open to all sorts of interpretation. It simply gets used in the sense of ‘gut feeling’, contrasting it with considered, rational decision making.”

Reference to this term ‘gut feeling’ is a common way of linking intuition to being some form of visceral/body like sensation. There is no brain involved in it.

This viewpoint is often very dismissive as being something not worth paying attention to as it is – by definition, almost, impossible to understand. It is some sort of random act that is unprovable, unpredictable, and also unreliable.

2.2. The ‘reflective’ perspective

I have also come across progressively higher and higher levels of appreciation – where there are attempts to try and engage with this tough idea. For example, Cholle (2011) shares his expert view about Intuition, and how it’s used for in Psychology Today as follows:

“… Instinct and Intuition, as I define it, is this:

• Instinct is our innate inclination toward a particular behaviour (as opposed to a learned response). (there is still a question about what is not a learned response. Is breathing learned or instinct, for example. )
• A gut feeling—or a hunch—is a sensation that appears quickly in consciousness (noticeable enough to be acted on if one chooses to) without us being fully aware of the underlying reasons for its occurrence.
• Intuition is a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.

So, here, intuition is more than just visceral – and shows up as some sort of consciousness – ironically linked to something referred to as non-conscious. At least in the sense that it is difficult to see/observe it in the sense/way that much of knowledge currently needs to be seen, for example through a form of analytical reasoning.

The author then goes further:

              “…. studies now show that only 20 percent of the brain's gray matter is dedicated              to conscious thoughts, while 80 percent is dedicated to nonconscious thoughts.”

And then,

“… But let's not stop there. Here are three ways to listen to that internal voice and allow its guidance into your everyday life:

1 - Keep a journal. Writing your thoughts and feelings down on paper—even if you "think" you have little to say—helps the nonconscious mind open up.
2 - Turn off Your Inner Critic. ……….. listen without judgment. Allow the inner dialogues to happen without
fear or ridicule.
3 - Find a Solitary Place. A place where you can allow emotions to flow freely …….

This approach would appear to reflect the preoccupation in the current coaching world with the term Reflection as some method of creating a space to simply capture this intuition, but without being very specific about how that space can always produce results.

2.3. How to get to know intuition – sorting out the evidence trails

The next level that’s bringing closer together how intuition works, whilst still at a very high level (particularly when it relates to the brain), is through the retrospective linking and sorting out of relevant evidence trails that led to intuitive reactions.  A piece of work reported by Hodgkinson et al (2008) [3] reports an important example of the way that intuition can be researched and produce the more tangible understanding of how it works

“… intuition is the result of the way our brains store, process and retrieve information on a subconscious level and so is a real psychological phenomenon which needs further study to help us harness its potential.

Yet science has historically ridiculed the concept of intuition, putting it in the same box as parapsy‐chology, phrenology and other ‘pseudoscientific’ practices.

Intuition is the brain drawing on past experiences and external cues to make a decision – but one that happens so fast the reaction is at a non- conscious level. All we’re aware of is a general feeling that some‐ thing is right or wrong.

The article cites the recorded case of a Formula One driver who braked sharply when nearing a hairpin bend without knowing why – and as a result avoided hitting a pile-up of cars on the track ahead, undoubtedly saving his life.

“… The driver couldn’t explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race. The driver underwent forensic analysis afterwards, where he was shown a video to mentally re-live the event. In hindsight he realised that the crowd, which would have normally been cheering him on, wasn’t looking at him coming up to the bend but was looking the other way in a static, frozen way. That was the cue. He didn’t consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time.

The article is less informative about the exact process of forensic analysis, however. But this does at least suggest forming greater some awareness about intuition, and how it works, is possible.

The perspective provided by these three samples, summarises, for me, the views available about intuition and provides some useful understanding about my own perspective. The tightly closed view may need more than mere evidence to open it up, ironically.  If people have locked themselves into a limited form of evidence it leaves them with a substantial learning curve in order to access intuition for themselves. Reflection (and associated terms such as ‘reflexivity') suggest some openness to the idea, but reflection by itself, about just yourself even, can risk effectively living in a vacuum, and risks being unhelpful. There needs to be something that informs reflection. And that is often what can be missing.

3. Researching one’s own intuition: my Stop the clock approach!

Rather like in Coaching, itself, I have found that the way to make progress with Intuition is often a matter for what works for each individual, rather than taking one approach that will work for everybody.

I even took research seriously when I completed a Doctorate on the way to make sense of everything that flows from intuition in Coaching [4]. Even then, this research had to be kept simple, to fit the academic agenda.

3.1. How I understand my way of researching my intuition.

The simplest description about what works for me, is best described as I see it as taking time to ‘stop the clock!’

Experience is about reactions and responses. And these build over time. I barely think consciously about ‘crossing the road’. It happens automatically – from the intuitive accumulation of doing it many times.

However, with some of the areas of life’s experience it is important to understand just where I have got to, which involves having a context, and how I got there. 

  • ‘Stopping the clock’ is my way of being able to find the time to investigate experience.
  • ‘Stopping the clock’ means I am able to choose to not have to carry on with events as they happen.
  • Then, the process is about taking the trouble and effort to re-wind, and re-play just what event is linked with what in any set of experiences around a particular theme.
  • And then, unravelling these chains of events, and interactions between them. 

‘Stopping the clock’ is simply about events, and re-call of them – with the major event being just one’s own reaction – but also linking reactions between separate people.

Considering the intuition involved in saying HELLO: For example, even saying hello to someone happens so fast that processing all the data available in a second or two is less than feasible in a reproducible way. You can hardly say ‘stop the clock’, I want to consider the infinite range of word and body (and clothes!) and other context configurations that are appropriate; as well as look in the manual for the appropriate interpretation and response in the circumstances. This is also assuming I have obtained the objective perception about what the other person has produced as initiating my assumption that hello is appropriate … maybe one day!

All of this information flashes through the cognitive channels with scant (‘cognitive‘) awareness, and results in a choice, and then action – in half a second …. And then there is the next event etc. etc. etc.

‘Stopping the clock’ can only realistically happen afterwards. So many processes are taking place, and I have learned to build conscious awareness about them. This has to be done without all the data that may be relevant. Such as full data about what caused the reactions in response to my saying hello. Another big intangible is also information about the context that has already created expectations even before saying hello etc. There is also the added complexity that perception of the hello moment has probably not been perfect, on either side.

I have worked hard to build the ability to zoom in on events, in detail, as I recall them. I have learned to run them in slow motion, quite visually. I can separate the events down to the wide range that happens in a second, as well as zooming in on the micro behaviour of the extent to which a frown was forming or a smile flickering.

This all depends on where my attention ‘camera’ was focused.  There is still plenty I don’t focus on, or hold in the film memory. So, I have to hold, and build, my attention with lots of practice. The trick is to replay / stop / repeat the play / use slow motion i.e. ‘stopping the clock’ and investigating a small sample.

3.2. Unpacking the intuitive processes involved in the hello process of ‘settling down’ or ‘ checking in ‘ before a meeting starts

My equivalent of the racing driver story is how forensic analysis can be used to unpack compressed events that just happen as an intuitive process in the hello process at the start of a meeting. This is a normal part of team coaching.

This set of events is often described by participants as some sort of simple settling down process, or checking in, even before the meeting proper starts. Yet, this is where the real exchanges, and contracting, is going on that often amounts to the real meeting itself.

An example: Using video replay of events and playback of meetings in team coaching.

The task: Creating a short (30 to 40 minute ) one off, neutral, task for a small sub group to go off and work on – which is recorded and then reviewed with both this group, and the rest of the team. A neutral task refers to a task where there is no natural, technical, authority for what is involved. The review process, afterwards, enables that opportunity to stop the clock; and even review frame by frame, capturing details of events, and their effects on others.

The review often focusses on key questions such as,

  • When did the meeting actually start? Settling down to the work space (e.g. arrange of seating around the table) involved and other initial banter is not seen as part of the meeting proper – until someone typically suggests ‘shall we begin’.
  • How best to enable the awareness that participants can typically bring to the interpretation of events apparently unrelated to the task, and rarely ever discussed as part of the meeting proper, such as where people sit – such as in the centre of the work space, or at the edges, or corners.
  • Creating conditions where participants often disguised and hidden, more personal agendas can be disclosed and shared constructively.

It often results in the conclusion, during the detailed review afterwards, that the meeting was over before it started!

Formally writing up this whole process, and illustrating the evidence, is quite a task, of course. Even several minutes of settling down, when viewed frame by frame, and person by person, amounts to a bulk of evidencing that is not common in my experience of research into these sorts of matters. But I am often amazed at how observant and articulate people can be about these invisible, and rarely stated causes behind what happens.

The importance of this shared degree of insight and understanding gives me confidence in how the invisible processes often referred to as intuitive can be unraveled.

4. Conclusions and next steps

Putting words to this phenomenon of Intuition has been helpful to me.

  1. It helps to sharpen the focus I use, to make the best use of my intuition, and the need to keep on engaging and doing it – like keeping physical muscles healthy and strong.
  2. It has also helped me to map the gap that can exist between those who are avowedly just not interested in learning and managing this amazing resource of intuition. There are still many resources we have not made the best use of yet – but at least we have learned the earth is best not seen as flat.
  3. It also helps me in linking to others who are excited by the idea but who are still developing their perspectives on how best to engage with intuition.

As Steve Jobs commented, “….  intuition is more powerful than intellect!!” [5]

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

1   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intuition
2  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-intuitive-compass/201108/what-is-intuition-and-how-do-we-use-it#
3  https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080305144210.htm
4  The Development and Operation of the Effective Interpersonal Relationship Skills relevant to Career Development Problems from Staff Assessment at an Industrial Research Laboratory, Jeremy Ridge (1975) https://www.the-goodcoach.academy/
5 https://kismatandkarma.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/power-of-intuition-what-steve-jobs-learned-in-india/


Unique Ladders of Sustainability – Coaching Company Leaders in the Anthropocene by Geoffrey Ahern

The ultimate step of transforming business into conscious sustainability competence is the Holy Grail of the ‘Anthropocene’: i.e. our era in which humans have an increasingly significant influence on the Earth. Yet as sustainability gathers pace much of business-as-usual seems to be moving in the opposite direction by becoming increasingly split off from value. Voters see with dismay how remuneration committees are in the pockets of boards, emissions tests are fraudulent, insurance sales spurious and so on.

Given this stand-off much ostensible company sustainability is hollow. There’s a diversity of sustainability complexity with overlapping, confusing acronyms (GRI, CR, CSR, TBL, ISO14001 and so on). Analysing it for rhetoric may seem like a Gunfight at the OK Corral shoot-out, but the resulting overview assists those, like coaches, servicing leaders for good.

From experience of working with, and observing, sustainability leadership, I suggest here that each organisation has its unique ladder of awareness as it climbs towards sustainability. Commonly found rungs include:

  • ‘Greenwash’ – i.e. false but fair-seeming sustainability claims: though deceptive, greenwash at least admits the legitimacy of sustainability, and in time may become a hostage to fortune
  • Alignments between business-as-usual and sustainability (e.g. cutting out waste); alignments are easy win-win
  • Strategic ambiguity: formulas like ‘creating shared value’ (‘CSV’) often fake cohesion between opposed business-as-usual and sustainability interests, yet yoke them together officially enough to avoid overt conflict
  • The dark side: sustainability can be abused because it muddies the waters of accountability. Despite this the shareholder-only mindset is being transcended
  • Making sustainability an indispensable part of the company’s policy and strategy. This long step towards full conscious incompetence requires new eyes to acknowledge the emptiness of the company’s sustainability to date

Great sustainability leadership, my focus, provides new vision supportively at the right corporate moment, freeing organisations to move further ahead on the journey from unconscious to conscious incompetence. Because true sustainability values are close to those of coaching and other responsible business services, providing know-how about how these values are being obfuscated could be a professional opportunity as the Anthropocene gathers pace.

What would it take for companies to make the further step still (the Holy Grail one) of moving from full conscious incompetence towards conscious competence? I suggest that conscious competence would entail the mobilisation of a critical mass of stakeholders, broadly defined. In relation to this, in the article/blog to come in this invited series, I explore sustainability stories. The present blog follows on from the previous ones on individual freedom’s exclusion from ecology (the good coach, May 18), and on the ethical consequences for coaching of environmental science (March 20).

Rungs on the ladder of awareness.

Experience points to the uniqueness of each company’s sustainability challenge, though of course there are also common sectoral, national and transnational factors. Thus the hierarchy of awareness suggested by the ‘rungs’ that follow here is illustrative only – each company needs to find its own special way.

False but Fair-Seeming Greenwash

Hollow sustainability manifests especially in greenwash. For example, incorrect natural fibre claims in clothing; ‘clean coal’; and ‘environmentally responsible’ bottled water.[1] Greenwashing is, of course, so common because of end-user pressures, like those for cheap clothing with rapid fashion turnarounds. As a result, external costs (such as pollution) by emerging market suppliers may not be followed up through the supply chain.

Yet greenwash is an advance from being unabashedly unsustainable because its pretension to new-found virtue is vulnerable to exposure as bogus. Completely unconscious incompetence, in contrast, ignores sustainability altogether.

Alignments between business-as-usual and sustainability

Alignments between short-term profits and sustainability create real sustainability outcomes (unlike greenwash). But they are only partial solutions which do not go beyond compliance; thus no company can ignore enforceable regulation or reputation loss, and cutting out waste is a profits win-win.

Sustainability gains often accompany technologically-driven change:

  • Innovation in corporate products can produce major sustainability efficiencies; thus storing solar energy could turn fossil fuels into stranded assets 
  • Sustainable innovations in markets can sell recent inventions; for example, the high volume of Africa’s low margin consumers transacting business through mobile phones (this is thought to save energy use overall).

Sustainability vision aligned with commercial motivation may seem to go beyond the basics of legal compliance by combining the two in a single name like ‘Eco-Advantage’; but by itself this does not change corporate culture. To the extent that sustainability thinking is cordoned off into corporate niches −  which may be deliberately held in readiness for landscape or other transformational market change −  it is skin-deep.[2]

The fake sustainability of strategic ambiguity

Strategic ambiguity can be an advance from alignment because it brings in a wide-ranging sustainability vision − maybe by combining environmental and people issues − and purports to integrate it creatively with business-as-usual. But under the surface strategic ambiguity is a ‘structural fudge’.

Structural fudge is often necessary for internal coherence given the closeness of the unsustainable, business-as-usual starting point. How far coaches or people developers delve behind such strategic ambiguity may depend on the sustainability maturity of the corporation and individual client (in much the same way coaches make or withhold psychological interpretations depending on the extent of client self-knowledge). Strategic ambiguity about sustainability may represent a split between (or cognitive dissonance within) stakeholders, employees, executives etc.[3]

Within the following much-vaunted, overlapping contexts there is frequent strategic ambiguity about sustainability:

  • Stakeholders. This term, which arose in the 1980s, recognises that the social and environmental effect of companies extends beyond shareholders to employees, customers, the supply chain, those affected by pollution, the public in general. Yet companies traditionally owe the highest standard of care (a ‘fiduciary’ duty) to their shareholders only.

    There is a fudge problem in our new Anthropocene circumstances, in which we all need to take responsibility together for the care of the planet, because the solution of extending the same duty of care to all affected stakeholders is held to be too radical. Instead there have been equivocations, for example the influential advocacy about twenty-five years ago that already existing common morality would suffice and could be brought more fully into profit maximisation (the financial crisis of 2008 has shown up such complacency!)[4]
  • Creating shared value (‘CSV’). This is about redefining the purpose of the corporation in terms of a claimed higher form of capitalism. CSV is said to focus on the interdependence of business and society, to reconceive products and markets, to redefine productivity in the value chain, and to build supportive industry clusters and create pre-competitive frameworks. But it has been criticised for underlying greenwashing, ignoring social need, giving a purely efficiency-oriented answer to the normative issue of sustainability, and for not questioning the sanctity of corporate self-interest.

    CSV can be a stepping stone from business-as-usual towards conscious sustainability incompetence; for instance Nestlé, which has been much criticised for non-sustainability, orients itself in terms of creating shared value.[5]
  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  ‘Davos’, a media-saturated word, creates widespread ambivalence. We all know that CEOs of multinationals ritually converge on the World Economic Forum in this posh Swiss resort to talk (among other matters) about commerce’s unintended consequences, like poverty and global warming. Lamentably, says the founder, Klaus Schwab, a great many business leaders are not engaged. Thus ‘Davos’ is an ambiguous facade. Yet its air-miles are justified in that CEOs through their very attendance are legitimating corporate social responsibility, including the big idea that companies themselves are global citizens with duties.[6]
  • Collaborating interorganisationally. Umbrella bodies like the Forest Stewardship Council comprise stakeholder groups for environmental, social and economically viable management of the world’s resources. Though they are rooted in business-as-usual, these inter-corporate platforms also stake out a moral legitimacy which goes beyond narrow self-interest, and which has the potential to emerge into society-wide governance.[7]

Dark side abuse of sustainability

The possibility of employee abuse of power increases once the traditional tightly drawn focus on shareholder interests is loosened and coordinating the interests of a wide range of stakeholders takes over.

At its most obvious, the dark side of self-interested executive behaviour ends up in financial corruption, as in the case of Enron in 2001. Less obviously, the dark (or grey?) side occurs when employee self-interest fails to rise to the sustainability occasion. Thus companies fall short in opportunities for multi-stakeholder conversations between businesses, governments and citizens: for example, for securing whole system, catchment level approaches to improving water quality; or for making living wages precompetitive; or for ensuring that one sustainability goal is not undermined by another.[8]

Making sustainability an indispensable part of the company’s policy and strategy

The sham of strategic ambiguity needs to be transcended for the sake of achieving full conscious incompetence. Acknowledging –  at the right moment – the company’s sustainability performance as incompetent can thus be highly meaningful, a major employee achievement. Unilever’s sustainability vision and Marks and Spencer’s green Plan A lead the field because they define big gaps between full sustainability and current practice.

  • ‘Sustainable development’ has long (since its origins in the Brundtland Report 1987) been strategically ambiguous. It has a noble destination, the achievement of combined intra- and inter-generational environmental justice, but has not got on the right road because it has yoked the incompatible horses of environmental justice and profits together as equals. This has been accompanied by a tradition of research with a dismal – and inconclusively answered – question: whether sustainability leads to increased profits (assuming it does not, continued pollution is still not an option given risks like global warming). But today there are hopeful signs that research is moving on from this backwards-facing question to a new stage of acknowledging tensions and paradoxes.[9]

Once enough sustainability infrastructure is in place, the gaps between strategic ambiguity and full sustainability may be addressed:

  • Sustainability can reduce profits, at least in the short-term, for example by adding the costs of engaging with stakeholders when drilling for gas
  • Sustainability has to negotiate commercial landscapes which lock in market failure: for example there have been systemic reasons for the UK’s refrigeration industry’s continued use of HFCs even though they are 7,000 times more atmospherically toxic than carbon dioxide
  • Sustainability encourages imitation of best industry practice – but this can reduce competitive advantage for individual companies
  • The more sustainability meets obligations to future generations by lowering discount rates, the more it adds to present costs

Thus corporate sustainability – through greenwash, alignments, strategic ambiguity, the dark side – is often hollow, and the beneath-the-radar corporate chat which says so rumbles the rhetoric. 

Getting to the stage of corporately acknowledging this vacant sustainability space opens up the opportunity to mobilise such folk wisdom credibly. Coaching, particularly team coaching, could be invaluable for this.

Developing stakeholder relationships

After fully acknowledging sustainability incompetence, what then for leadership? How can capitalist multinational companies advance towards the end stage of conscious sustainability competence? This sustainable state will pay the price of ceaseless wakefulness because unconscious competence, the model for a sustainable pre-scientific society, is too dangerous for our technologically dynamic Anthropocene era.

As the company, perhaps assisted by coaches, climbs the ladder of awareness towards sustainability, the leadership problem increasingly becomes focused on the outside: market failure, landscape lock-in, and investors’ pursuit of immediate profits above all else. These factors explain the vagueness of later stages in models for big companies to achieve sustainability: examples can’t be found!

Moving towards conscious sustainability competence requires much more than a living company: i.e. a human community that keeps awareness of its identity alive through being sensitive to the surrounding world and testing new ideas while being financially prudent.

  • No longer in the West is there a Protestant ethic – though there may be an Islamic one – which can legitimise the social welfare legacies of businesses. In the profits culture of late capitalism quoted companies are acutely vulnerable to venture capitalism and asset-stripping, as in US Kraft’s takeover of UK Cadburys in 2010

Yet systemic change towards sustainability is occurring. It makes itself felt through the influence of myriads of internal/external connections involving employees, contractors, competitors, consumers, suppliers, governments and other stakeholders:

  • Out of the blue, as when a board member is questioned about melting icecaps by a grandchild being shaped by the nursery school curriculum (today’s ‘what did you do during the War, Daddy?’ question)
  • Predictably, as in employment – companies like Nestlé need to recruit the ablest from environmentally concerned up-and-coming generations

In an overall context of incremental change towards sustainability, the company may yet sometimes have to react by leaping, or otherwise risk losing the initiative:

  • Businesses may face a sustainability priority paradox in which they have to genuinely prioritise sustainability in order to survive commercially. For e.g. when BP ceased to be ‘Beyond Petroleum’, BP risked its position in the non-fossil fuel long-term of sustainable energy. The sustainability priority paradox resembles alignment, but in reverse because sustainability is no longer subordinate to profits.
  • Otherwise businesses moving towards the green economy seems to be incremental (unlike Marxism’s previous great challenge to capitalism through all-or-nothing political revolution). Full sustainability challenges existing business-as-usual with gradual but radical reform through separating development from the absurdities of GDP-defined growth, and through advocating convergence and per capita GDP contraction in the most flagrantly resource-consuming world economies.

Furthering the tendency for companies to develop their stakeholder relationships is surely a crucial part of the leadership answer once sustainability incompetence is fully acknowledged. The next article/blog examines motivating stakeholder stories, narratives and mythologies which have not yet been considered in the sustainability discussion. [10]

Over many years I’ve seen how indispensable coaching can be for personal and group vision-formation. I wonder how this experience can best be brought into the development of companies’ sustainability visions.

To connect with Geoffrey Ahern:

Geoffrey Ahern is experienced in executive coaching and sustainability. APECS accredited and working independently for the past decade, he has been a Fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter and before that was employed for five years as an executive coach by Coutts Consulting Group.

After 2008 he carried out multinational corporate consultation on sustainability in association with the World Wildlife Fund/IUCN and became an Honorary Lecturer in sustainability at the University of Liverpool’s Management School. He has published widely including a second edition of the book of his PhD (LSE 1981) on an ecologically-oriented global movement.

Email: geoffrey@geoffreyahernconsulting.com.
Website: geoffreyahernconsulting.com

References and Footnotes
[1] (2010) www.businesspundit.com/the-top-25-greenwashed-products-in-america.
[2] Schaltegger, S, Hansen, E., Ludeke-Freund, F. (2015), ‘Business models for sustainability: Origins, present research, and future avenues’, Organization & Environment, 29(1):1-8; Esty, D. and Winston, A. (2009), Green to gold. How smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage, Hoboken NJ: John Wiley: 21; Geels, F. and Schot, J. (2007), ‘Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways’, Research Policy 36: 399-417.
[3] Wexler, M. (2009), ‘Strategic ambiguity in emergent coalitions: the triple bottom line’; Corporate Communications: An International Journal 14(1): 62-77.
[4] Goodpaster, K. (1991), ‘Business ethics and stakeholder analysis’, Business Ethics Quarterly, 1(1): 53-73; Ghoshal, S. (2005), ‘Bad management theories are destroying good management practices’, Academy of Management Learning and Education, 491): 75-91.
[5] Porter, M. and Kramer, M. (2011), ‘Creating Shared Value’, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb: 63-77, and (2006), ‘Strategy and society: the link between competitive advantage and corporate societal responsibility’, Harvard Business Review, 84(12): 78-92; Crane, A., Palazzo, G., Spence, L. (2014), ‘Contesting the value of creating shared value’, California Management Review 56(2): 130-153; www.nestle.com/csv.
[6] Schwab, K. (2008), ‘Global corporate citizenship: Working with governments and civil society’, Foreign Affairs, 87(1): 107-118.
[7] Scherer, A. and Palazzo, G. (2010), ‘The new political role of business in a globalized world: A review of a new perspective on CSR and its implications for the firm, governance and democracy’, Journal of Management Studies, 48(4): 899-931; Brammer, S., Jackson, G. and Matten, D. (2012), ‘Corporate societal responsibility and institutional theory: new perspectives on private governance’, Socio-Economic Review, 10: 3-28.
[8] Cennamo, C., Berrone, P. and Gomez-Majia, L. (2009), ‘Does stakeholder management have a dark side?’, Journal of Business Ethics, 89(4): 491-507; andWalker, P. (2017), ‘Peace, justice and corporate strategy’, The Environmentalist (May): 26-28.
[9] Gao, J. and Bansal, P. (2013), ‘Instrumental and integrative logics in business sustainability’, Journal of Business Ethics 112: 241-255; Van der Byl , C.and Slawinski, N. (2015), ‘Embracing tensions in corporate sustainability: A review of research from win-wins and trade-offs to paradoxes and beyond’, Organization & Environment, 28(1): 54-79; Hahn, T., Pinkse, J. Preuss, L.. (2015), ‘Tensions in corporate sustainability: Towards an integrative framework’, Journal of Business Ethics 127: 297-316.
[10] De Geuss, A (1997), ‘The living company’, Harvard Business Review, 75 (Mar-Apr): 52-59; Santana, A. (2012), ‘Three elements of stakeholder legitimacy’, Journal of Business Ethics, 105(2): 257-265.