"Having an ‘Anthropocene’ mindset: Fits between coaching and planet, people & prosperity (sustainability)" by Geoffrey Ahern (Guest)


Today’s era is called the ‘Anthropocene’[1] because humans have an increasingly significant influence on the Earth. The Anthropocene and its 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDG’s) have by now become the general setting for companies’ commercial success.

The prospects for worldwide sustainability have reached the more hopeful point, compared to previous widespread denial, of cultural acknowledgement. Even a fund based on prodigious fossil fuel wealth, the Rockefeller Family Fund derived from Standard Oil, is accusing this company’s largest direct descendant, ExxonMobil, of trying to deceive policymakers and the public about the realities of climate change.[2] The next (very big) step is effective action.

Yet coaching and sustainability, despite what they can offer each other, at present are two distinct client services. The market for sustainability enabling seems to be being taken up by consultants in packaged silos, with what coaching could add being largely left out.

Alongside this, sustainability itself is in silos

  • Professionals in companies have specific accountabilities
  • NGOs campaign on particular issues
  • Academics publish within outmoded disciplinary divisions and methodological constraints

In this situation the attempt to make overall sense through linking coaching and sustainability is very important if one believes, as I do, that vision accompanies truly effective action.

What matters even more than the actual sense made by different people is having a culture of big picture sense-making and self-revising discussion about it. This is what the non-didactic approach of coaching individuals encourages.

Executive coaching and sustainability have been parallel track vocations for me.

As I believe that both have significant similarities and where not are complementary, I am motivated to suggest how as mindsets coaching and sustainability could fit together: the subject of this blog-article.

By ‘mindset’ I mean underlying and established assumptions about what matters most. Mindsets in sustainability (especially) and to some extent coaching are often taken for granted, and indeed the outlooks one hardly knows one has tend to carry most influence of all. Such in-depth areas may not be easy to pinpoint, but should be examined nevertheless, because there can be no fit between coaching and sustainability services unless, demonstrably, the ‘gut-feel’ is either mutually right or comes right.

This blog-article outlines sustainability mindsets through five clusters:

  1. Sustainability and science
  2. Sustainability and whole population perspectives
  3. Sustainability and the long-term
  4. Sustainability and narratives/mythologies
  5. Sustainability and systems thinking

Within each cluster the fit with coaching is explored. For clusters 1, 2 & 4 the significance seems to be mainly that sustainability and coaching are different but potentially complementary. For clusters 3 & 5 there appear to be considerable similarities; coaching and sustainability may have more in common than they realise in the face of business-as-usual. Because of these compatibilities, whether through complementary differences or similarities, encounter between coaching and sustainability mindsets could result in combined delivery impacts.

My vocational journeying to date

About twenty years ago I started the adventure of delivering executive coaching.  My only real doubt then was that coaching might not be an entirely liberating influence towards an inclusive prosperity: might it also through effective work with individuals ‘psych up’ dysfunctional larger-scale operations?

I had promised myself that if this seemed to be unduly the case I would ‘listen’. A turning point came eight years ago after a long period of exclusively doing executive coaching, including five years employed by a London consultancy.

Working by this time independently, I began assimilating diverse sustainability perspectives. This arose through sustainability consulting with multinational companies, sometimes alongside wildlife campaigners, helping a business school set up a sustainability-oriented MBA, co-founding a sustainability leadership group, and undertaking university sustainability tutoring online to small groups of executives worldwide doing work-based doctorates.

Increasingly environmental warnings and global inequities had become hard for me to ignore in my corporate work. Furthermore coaching – including my own – had not picked up on the systemic issues underlying the financial crisis.

Also, pushing from the back of my mind to the front, was previous experience from the 1980s. I had published findings then from participant observation and sociological research with an ecologically-oriented global movement. I had been absorbed by matters like social movements, just what kind of knowledge science gives, and differences between the major cultural worldviews (indeed the sociological term ‘worldview’ could be used instead of the more social-psychological perspective of ‘mindset’ chosen for this context).

During this journeying as an executive coach towards sustainability a big question I postponed for a long time was how, if at all, coaching and sustainability could come together.

I parked it because answers depended on finding out enough about sustainability first of all; for sustainability as practised in companies was not at all the same as the ecological affinities in the movement I had researched those years back. I knew – and know now – of no one who synthesises executive coaching with a full range of sustainability practitioner issues, but from about three years ago spoke about the possibility. Then I was invited to pilot a 12-15 hour coaching/sustainability course in central London. This took place last summer over six sessions with participants who mixed executive coaching and sustainability expertise.  

What matters to sustainability practitioners the most? Interpreting mindset fits between sustainability and coaching

The following mindset interpretations are offered as a starting point for discussion and further developments.

1. Sustainability and science

Sustainability context. Scientific research is central to the fierce disputes about sustainability’s credibility. For example, those who dispute that climate change is mainly human-caused use scientific credentials and these in turn are attacked (rightly or wrongly) for misinterpreting the science. Without scientific backing on issues such as the hypothesis of biodiversity loss or fresh water shortages the case for action disappears. Science is also the basis for validity criticisms of corporate environmental measurement systems such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The assumption is that we find objectivity through null hypotheses, measurement, statistical analysis etc. Ian McEwen’s environmental novel Solar, in contrasting science and revelation in a health context, makes an analogous point by asking ‘Who was going to submit to a vaccine designed by a priest?’[3]

Fit with coaching. Compared to the above, coaching’s mindset seems to legitimise its pattern-making with clients through non-scientific means, such as the intuitive fit with one or more axiomatic approaches (Rogerian, psychodynamic, existentialist etc). The fact that statistical reasoning is also actually being deployed may be ignored. For example, in external examining involving coaching MA dissertations I noticed how those who stated that their approach was entirely qualitative not quantitative would often justify reaching conclusion X by stating something quantitative like: ‘as many as eight out of ten of the interviewees did X’!

Our culture has been described as having an arts/science split. In the recent formative past of the post-modernist cultural climate it was against the flow to make any claims for objectivity. Though coaches quite often bring in the planet  through something like Performance Consultants International’s[4]  ‘sustainability is at the core of what we do’, such statements rarely seem to be aware of scientific summaries for the public such as the nine planetary boundaries of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Impact. The overwhelming impact is ethical. If scientific findings about the likely adverse consequences of business-as-usual to life in the planet are valid, do coaches’ ethical guidelines require these threats (for example, by a polluting client company) to be given as much prominence as would be given to a threat to an individual life? In order to start answering this critical question coaching culture needs to consider the nature of science, because so many sustainability issues are to do with probabilities, large numbers of abstract people, the validity of research etc.

What’s next?  Coaching, through taking science more on board, could mediate by acknowledging how the qualitative and quantitative cannot be entirely separated.

Indeed the wisdom of coaching could contribute much to the contextualising of sustainability science. Values are involved in hypothesis formation and in the communication and implementation of findings.

Avoiding subjectivity can be hard even in making sense-based measurements. I recall a scientist telling me how looking at a temperature gauge accurately is no casual matter, that to ‘see’ a measurement a heightened self-checking state is required. The science validating sustainability, not to be naïve, has to be conceived as taking into account the subjective aspects of our perceptions (i.e. as a subtle realism which is post-Kantian and cognisant of the psychology of perception).

2. Sustainability and whole population perspectives

Sustainability context. Those influenced by the core sustainability science, ecology, tend to think in terms of whole populations, i.e. in collective terms. Thus in relation to species they focus on overall survival, for example of giraffes throughout Africa.

Fit with coaching. The individualistic basis for human rights espoused by many (though by no means all) contemporary sustainability advocates comes immediately from ‘people first’ NGO values (such as Oxfam’s) and is irrelevant in terms of the science of ecology; indeed individual rights are even seen by some ecologists as hindering human survival. In contrast, valuing the individual is the soul of coaching. For coaching, this extends to all people, while some strands in ‘ecology’ as a social movement prioritise an ethnic, regional or other group. However coaching’s client boundaries, unlike ecology’s, are typically fixed around humanity only.

Impact. Professional ecology’s ‘clients’, because they extend beyond human life, are different from coaching’s clients. Ecology has very often embraced animals, planetary inclusiveness and, among some spiritually-minded adherents, pantheism (something like Shakespeare’s ‘sermons in stones’). Indeed dark green environmentalists think that humans should have no ethical privilege, the test of this being that humans should at least sometimes lose out compared to the ecosystem as a whole. Many would extend rights to the planet itself, for example Polly Higgins’ campaigns for an international law against ecocide. Questions even arise over whether ‘humanoid’ artificial intelligence should have ethical standing.

Where those espousing ecology identify first of all with a human population which is ethnic or regional, this is obviously discriminatory. A major example is the 1930s ‘Blood and Soil’ thinking of Walter Darré, who was Minister of Agriculture in the Third Reich. There is fertile ground also for such intra-human splits today. Thus the author Nilanjana Roy in describing the recent turn towards the right says she has found it hard to stay polite to a childhood friend ‘who now expresses hate towards Muslims and Dalits’.[5] Industrially-caused environmental stresses may aggravate pre-existing cultural fault-lines, making it more likely that adjacent peoples will conflict: for example over water control, or as a result of mass immigration to Europe from desertification.

What’s next? Here again there’s complementary potential. Should coaching be so exclusively oriented to human beings? It has the option of extending the essentialism of seeing humans as intrinsically special to valuing overall relationships including animals, habitat and the planet as a whole. After all coaches often oppose essentialist absolutes in other situations such as human gender differences.

Also coaching should contribute its identification with individual liberty for all humans. This has its roots primarily in Western culture, as expressed in much of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Globally this is now in the context of the neo-Confucianism of China, of its large diaspora as in Indonesia and of Islam. In their distinctive ways these cultures, like ecology, tend to be collective in outlook.

3. Sustainability and the long-term

Sustainability context. People who think in a scientific, whole population way are likely to add geological time units to those of business-as-usual.  Sustainability consultants tend first of all to present their services in terms of alignments with business-as-usual. Introducing sustainability has some useful short-term benefits such as cutting waste and intelligently using regulation. But many other sustainability approaches, such as stakeholder thinking, CR (Corporate Responsibility), creating shared value, society-wide governance by multi-national corporations, are strategically ambiguous: for sustainability protagonists they are Trojan horses, for others they are latently business-as-usual. And by the end of the day at least, and probably well before, in order to be credible in terms of ecology, corporate short-termism must be addressed as a sustainability gap.

Fit with coaching. Coaching has much in common. It has to deliver in the here-and-now at the same time as working with behavioural and other patterns which bear on the longer-term. Doing both together successfully is part of the magic of the intervention.

Impact. In the case of both sustainability consultants and executive coaches I have noticed very few if any agitating against immediate profits and so cutting off the commercial bough on which they are sitting. But both share the need to create long-term thinking in client delivery, though this can be problematic: for example, a coach recently shared the problem of whether the sustainability of oil was on the agenda in his coaching of an oil company board member.

What’s next? Acknowledgment of the broad affinity between coaching’s and sustainability’s long-term approaches could add to the credibility and advance framing of each. 

4. Sustainability and narratives/mythologies

Sustainability context. People tend to justify long-term goals by more than dry science: underlying meanings come into play. Sustainability is certainly no exception!

Sustainability narratives may sometimes be re-combinations of ancient themes. Hence ‘mythology’, in the old sense of not necessarily untrue, may better describe them than the media-saturated ‘narrative’ (or the modish term ‘imaginary’). In a nutshell for now, the main sustainability narratives/mythologies I am aware of are:

  • Western apocalypse, which is millennia-old, reconstituted in the immanent form of environmental dread/utopia. This unhelpfully either frightens or hopes excessively, so its cultural construction and psychological projection roots should be exposed.
  • ‘Back to nature’. As lived out simplicity (within Schumacher College for example) it provides an essential model. If its unitive assumptions are differentiated it can be made more pertinent to the necessities within which companies and their stakeholders have their being.
  • Geological fatalism.  This is an ‘inevitable (so long as it doesn’t get educated, North Atlantic me or my family)’ approach which agrees with the science behind environmental warnings but extends Darwinian evolution into identifying with the supposed unalterability of business-as-usual. Underlying feelings of despair may be being denied.
  • Eco-modernism. A ‘technology will see us through’ identification, eco-modernism is short on roots and so avoids distinguishing between technical fixes and ethical development. But it brings valuable insights into the many-sided nature of ‘nature’.
  • A development of consciousness inner path in which ecological awareness is placed at an advanced ‘stage’. This type of vision has cultural antecedents (gnosis, de Chardin for example) which underlie aspects of both some sustainability and some coaching. Its danger is deluded spiritual elitism; its motivational benefits include a sense of salvation through insight. 

Fit with coaching. Yet again, there seems to be complementary potential. Coaching’s own narratives, though diverse − cognitive, Rogerian, psychodynamic etc − tend to be based within the individual as a unit, or ‘in here’, and so could bring insight into personal factors (such as projection) influencing the choice of sustainability narratives and mythologies located in a large-scale ‘out there’.

Impact. Narratives and mythologies implicit within sustainability often have weak signals but powerful consequences. Where they are dysfunctional or non-integrated they can sabotage the public’s perception of the case for sustainability.

What’s next? A coaching approach could help these sustainability narratives and mythologies become more conscious, synthesised and constructive. If combined explicitly, they could contribute powerfully towards creating living organisations. In business models selection needs to enhance what matters most to the particular company including its stakeholders: i.e. ‘materiality’.

5. Sustainability and systems thinking

Sustainability context. To be effective sustainability professionals need to make recommendations for the future. This means they have to conceive how the planet’s many different populations – such as giraffes and humans − interact dynamically over time.  This holism in examining factors in their entirety, using transdisciplinary approaches, gives rise to systems thinking. Big systems questions of the utmost practical importance are posed in sustainability scenario-building: for example, how companies might avoid plundering nature and instead resiliently pass on equivalent value.[6]

The concept of emergence is central to systems thinking, scarily for example in modelling for climate change tipping points. The term ‘emergence’ salutes the qualitative difference when one state makes a leap into another, as when the mineral world in our evolutionary past somehow gave rise to vegetation.  Vegetation ‘emerged’ because its life makes it qualitatively more than the inertness of minerals even though it is dependent on them for its existence. Imaginative, almost magical, acceptance seems to be how our limited minds can conceive of such qualitative leaps.

Fit with coaching. The process of systems thinking in sustainability has something in common with holistic interpretations offered by coaches. The latter connect different factors together through overarching sense-making. For example, linking the way a client reacted to me in the here-and-now, what he said about the closed nature of his reports, his description of his teenage son being highly rebellious and what he told me about the authoritarianism of his father, led me, in the role of coach, to make the intuitive leap of hypothesising from these different dimensions (transference, present contexts and the past) that he had a deep-seated need to control. This coaching method of joining together disparate pieces of evidence into greater wholes has analogies with the leap characteristic of ‘emergence’. Indeed, systemic thinking is explicitly included in some coaching: for example, the socio-technical approach.

Impact. Recent articles in the Harvard Business Review[7], following the usual route from academia to commerce via business schools, have put complex adaptive systems and emergence, difficult though these concepts are, in front of hectic CEOs. Systems thinking enables corporate policy-makers to think about sustainability more effectively, for example to get their heads around probabilities in predictability.

What’s next? Again, acknowledgment of these process similarities between coaching and sustainability could, through joining forces, further enable companies to generate greater ecological and social resilience in the face of discontinuous change.  

Should coaching in the Anthropocene link with sustainability?

Accusations that ExxonMobil deceived the public over climate change were suggested at the start of this blog-article to be emblematic of a new cultural stage of acknowledgement of sustainability. Hypocrisy once uncovered can be seen as the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

Thus ExxonMobil itself is said to have always kept a clear eye on the scientific reality of carbon dioxide causing climate change when making business decisions, regardless of its alleged campaign since about 1990 to confuse policymakers and the public on this very subject[8].

During the past 20-30 years there seems to have been a polarisation. On the one hand sustainability has been buttressed by scientific credibility in the minds of educated elites worldwide (indeed without this the Paris Climate Change agreement just over a year ago could not have happened). On the other hand corporate practice has fallen far short while ‘greenwash’ (PR sustainability falsehood) has proliferated. Even the most impressively sustainable multinational, Unilever, is constrained by the overall North Atlantic shareholder culture of business-as-usual and short-termism. Hope and cynicism have become increasingly juxtaposed.

Technological fixes alone without mindset change may well help solve many problems. For example, alternative energy developments (as with solar sources) may make ExxonMobil’s and other oil company’s fossil fuel reserves become ‘stranded’: i.e. valueless. China is making a huge investment in sustainable technology.

But the dynamic, systemic nature of planet-people-and-prosperity issues such as biodiversity loss, fresh water wars, ocean acidification, immigration from sea level rises, unneighbourly geo-engineering, suggests that mindset change going well beyond compliance with regulation cannot be avoided forever. Coaching skills at least are needed to enable executives to make transformational big picture sense and relate this to their own roles and motivations. Thus coaching as a profession seems likely to become less split off from the overarching ethical precepts of the Anthropocene.

Meanwhile there is also potential work. Combinations of coaching with sustainability could be needed by the increasing numbers of those corporately accountable for the complexities of sustainability: for example, for harmonising pressures on supply chain costs with social as well as environmental requirements, for going beyond compliance in risk management to a culture of integrity, for inclusive anticipation in sustainability reputation handling.

As a first step, how easy is it for coaches to identify within their practices a relatively painless, cost-free action (however small) which brings their coaching professionally closer to sustainability?

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

[1] See for example Purdy, J. (2015), After Nature. A Politics for the Anthropocene, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
[2] Kaiser, D. and Wasserman, L. (2016), ‘The Rockefeller family fund vs. Exxon’, The New York Review of Books,  Part 1, LXIII,19: 31-35. December 8 - December 21; Part 2, LXIII, 20, December22,2016 - January 18, 2017.
[3] McEwen, I. (2010:32), Solar. London: Cape
[4] www.performanceconsultants.com/About Us/Our Values and Vision
[5] Roy, N. (2016), ‘How to stay friends across the political divide’, FT Weekend, ‘Life & Arts’: 18, 19 November/20 November.
[6] Collier, P. (2010a), The Plundered Planet, London: Penguin
[7] Reeves, M., Levin, S. and Ueda, E. (2016), ‘The biology of corporate survival’, HBR, Jan-Feb: 47-55. See also other articles in this issue.
ss[8] See note 2.