How sustainability leadership is redefining individual liberty: a new context for executive coaching by Geoffrey Ahern

Championing both individual liberty − as we do in coaching − and the sustainability vision are in conflict in the world today. There are signs that they could move ahead together, but that this would require a radical redefinition of what it means to be free!


Individual liberty, the signature of the Western way of life, is presupposed when we

  • make the coaching contract,
  • promise confidentiality,
  • follow the individual client’s agenda and
  • promise a safe space within which to engage fully.

The employee is coached within the particular company’s right to conduct business as it chooses.

In contrast, sustainability’s frame of reference is that of whole entities, not the freedom of individuals. The whole planet is in consideration when it comes to climate change, biodiversity loss, phosphorus and nitrogen flows, deforestation and other human breaches of environmental boundaries. Whole populations are considered: e.g. giraffes as a whole, not this or that one. Many ecologists apply this thinking to humans also.

Sustainability’s whole entity approach coincides with the totalitarian thinking, often neo-Confucian, of much of economically emerging Asia. Enabled digitally, sustainability within totalitarianism – in which there is no independent justice − is creating influential new ways of being: e.g. renewable energy education for Chinese young people. A global sustainability epoch, essential though it is for our planetary future, could enforce an authoritarian social vision which goes too far through curbing individual liberty unnecessarily.

Meanwhile the liberty of the individual is being fundamentally rethought, both in ceding and adding to freedoms, so that it becomes compatible with sustainability. Skilfully handled, this situation seems to me to be an opportunity for coaching, or for some near-relation, in new market conditions.

This article/blog examines the context of these developments. It suggests that what is happening now is a dance between three critical factors (the main headings to follow):

  • Business-as-usual, supported by the liberty of the individual, pragmatically resisting sustainability
  • The whole entity sustainability leadership vision becoming more energised
  • Redefinitions of liberty outlining ways it and the whole entity sustainability leadership vision can move ahead together

My own view is that the future will not be worth living in unless it’s both sustainable at the planetary level and supportive of individual liberty as redefined.

I write this after many years of being professionally engaged with sustainability and executive coaching. Having An ‘Anthropocene’ Mindset: Fits Between Coaching And Planet, People & Prosperity (Sustainability) This is the concluding (sixth) article/blog and draws together the previous ones.

Business-as-usual, supported by the liberty of the individual, is pragmatically resisting sustainability

We do much as coaches to free clients from self-sabotage; but at the level of the contract with the company, to what extent does our intervention have the outcome of unwinding the resistance to sustainability, as contrasted with enabling companies to make profits without regard to sustainability (‘business-as-usual’)? Like everyone else, we can place our contribution somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes of single-minded sustainability leadership and unrelenting resistance to it.

Resistance is embedded in the commercial juggernaut of short-term profits with institutional pressures for immediate dividends and executive pay packages to match. Thus there are:

Professions of alignment. It’s a public relations necessity to appear to be on the side of bequeathing a better planet to the baby in the pram:

  • In 2015 the delivery of the international Paris climate agreement and the new 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was transformational
  • Last year 225 global institutional investors controlling assets worth $26.3tn started pressurising 100 of the world’s more carbon intensive companies to do more about climate change [1]

Jargon-ridden ambiguities and compromises. Companies – and we coaches who are paid by them – face finding a way between foolhardiness and cowardice when it comes to the ethics of sustainability. The prudent middle ground usually doesn’t go far enough but it’s still worth having. It manifests in the ambiguities of sustainability compromise jargon. The jargon functions as an unofficial strategic ambiguity which allows both pro sustainability forces and the resistance to be presented as fully aligned.

The resistance is often obvious:

  • Nestlé uses the sustainability formula of ‘creating shared value’ but has been attacked for unethical promotion of its baby milk
  • Fake sustainability also combines with genuineness within other widely used formulas or systems like ‘CSR’ or corporate social responsibility and ‘GRI’ (the Global Reporting Initiative), which experts say is largely window-dressing
  • ‘Stakeholders’ is a useful concept but they are not owed a high duty of care
  • ‘Resilience’ and the word ‘sustainability’ itself are frequently used to support short-term, unsustainable profits

Dark and grey areas. The resistance involves denial, disavowal, coordinated untruthfulness, the dark side. Unique Ladders Of Sustainability – Coaching Company Leaders In The Anthropocene There’s denial in institutionalised consumerism and ideologically committed think-tanks. It may be ‘disavowal’,[2] i.e. entrenched denial. Or it may be deliberately disingenuous:

  • Some of the same ‘scientists’ who persisted in implying that tobacco isn’t harmful (the campaign basis was ‘doubt is our product’) went on to spread doubt about the very different subject of global warming. Oil producer ExxonMobil has been accused of spending USD2.9m on misinformation about climate change[3]

There’s also a dark – or grey – side to multi-corporate collaboration: e.g. in not paying a living wage (this could be achieved by companies agreeing together to make a living wage pre-competitive).

The whole entity sustainability leadership vision is becoming more energised

As the resistance of business-as-usual builds up, sustainability’s contrasting whole entity leadership vision is more likely to become more energised. I aim in this section to identify major aspects of its energising.

Sustainability’s concern with the planet as a whole. Superficially, sustainability can come across as touchy-feely only, a sentimental legitimacy of the moment spurred on by particular concerns like the plastics contaminating the ocean food chain (recently displayed by David Attenborough in Blue Planet II).

But sustainability is much more systemic and inter-connected than this. A click or so brings onto the screen an overwhelming scientific consensus that, as specified in the introduction, there are several grave and urgent threats to the Earth: e.g. the visual Nine Planetary Boundaries model; the IPCC report summary Moving on from the science the highly influential Oxfam eradication of poverty model focuses on whole entity social solutions.

It is characteristic of the planetary system that the sustainability task is about risk management not certainties. It’s a holistic picture with climate change ‘tipping points’, emergence and inevitable unpredictability.

From China to Europe, and maybe also in the Americas, environmental and social market failures are making the case for recasting profit-making so that it is underpinned by whole planet purposes. This resonates especially with younger consumers and employees and links back to last century’s history of ecology as a social movement. It has had more affinity with whole entity visions than with liberty at the level of the individual.  

History also teaches us to be wary of ‘us’ and ‘them’ polarising within whole entity visions. The elitist eugenics thinking of a century ago illustrates how ecology can be applied to prioritise some populations at the expense of others. Thankfully, since the genocide of the 1930s and 1940s, ‘ecology’ in the West (so far and with many exceptions) has tended to be much more insistently associated than before with the values of non-discriminatory universalism. “How We Can Balance Individual Freedom with ‘Ecology’ and Planetary Sustainability in Coaching

A further caveat: practising holistic sustainability vision measurably doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals become more ethical, thus rip offs can still be rife, rather like having spiritual sin alongside monastic rituals.

So far we have looked at the commercial resistance to sustainability and I have started describing the whole entity sustainability vision. These two, as I shall suggest later, are in a dance with redefinitions of individual liberty.

Humans shaping Earth (the ‘Anthropocene’). Moving on from sustainability’s concern with the planet as a whole, its energising deepens through the recent recognition that post-industrial humans have been unwittingly shaping the Earth. Geologists have accordingly given our epoch a new name, the ‘Anthropocene’: i.e. the new human-caused epoch. This scientific discovery is shocking: in Antiquity it would have been sacrilegious to suggest that Gaia the Earth Goddess could be affected by mere human behaviour.

A few path-finding multinationals have chosen to take their share of responsibility for the Anthropocene by deliberately breaking through the inherited mental taboo about perceiving Gaia’s fragility. For example:

  • Marks and Spencers has its sustainability Plan A: ‘there’s no Plan B’
  • Unilever motivates consumers through making sustainability easy, desirable, rewarding, a habit and ‘my world’ (e.g. giving the children a better future).

A ‘good’ (as it is called) Anthropocene will coordinate commercial success, human betterment and planetary health through low pollution technology in a circular economy which is inspired by nature (i.e.‘biomimicry’). A bad Anthropocene will see business-as-usual avoiding climate change until, too late, geo-engineering projects (lucrative for contractors) redistribute the problem: e.g. producing unwanted droughts in undeveloped countries.

Making the Anthropocene sustainable requires a collective approach: thinking globally while acting locally and, as portrayed in deep ecology (e.g. Arne Naess), protecting all the life-forms of the planet. Some (e.g. Thomas Berry) go on to propose biocracy.

Individual liberty may struggle.

The more business-as-usual resists, the more urgent and energised sustainability is likely to become, with the individual potentially squeezed out.

Explicitness, dynamism and the precautionary principle. The explicitness and dynamism of the precautionary principle energises the whole entity sustainability leadership vision further still.

The precautionary principle (that is, the version chosen here) asks if a proposed innovation would be better, or less bad, than not having it. It is supported by ethicists’ revival of regard for principle-based motivation and behaviour. [Integrating Coaching Ethics for the Anthropocene: ‘Gutfeel’ and 'On Principle' Coaching Approaches to Sustainability]

The precautionary principle above is dynamic because it does not aim to restore some arbitrarily imagined golden or past age, but instead attempts to pass on equivalent value. An example is the inability of organic farming to feed Africa (there’s not enough land), and the resulting need for innovation in food productivity.

The enchantment of the sustainability leadership vision. Enchantment can add a thrilling extra dimension to the already energised whole entity sustainability leadership vision.

Nature, the planet and the galaxy are displayed on screen as awe-inspiring. It takes daring-do to get close enough to convey their fascination, wonder and dread, whether this is actual as in hero(ine)s swimming with sharks, or through virtual or special effects as in sci-fi (e.g. Doctor Who).

In contemporary folklore, how we construct our planetary future is widely felt to be enchanted in:

  • Environmental dooms and utopias with short time-scales which have piggy-backed onto the traditional thought-forms of heaven, hell, physical resurrection and final judgment (heaven or hell), i.e. the myth of apocalypse: these have been energised by three and more millennia of Western − including Marxist and pre-Christian − history
  • Urban back-to-nature yearnings rooted in the newly sublime landscape visions created by the Romantics in response to smoke-stacks, factories and industrialisation
  • Development of consciousness progress myths which culminate in a planetary or ecological stage: these have antecedents in spiritual religion and gnosis

Narratives without enchantment about our future on the planet can come across as pointless narcissism. They include geological fatalism −  ‘humanity is done for but I’m alright’ − and the technological fix −  ‘science-led innovation alone will get us off the hook’. [Building Companies’ Sustainability Stories: A Role for Coaching]

Conceiving the sustainability leadership vision (or task) in itself[4] as enchanted[5] acknowledges that its energies emerge from within all world cultures. An alternative possible descriptor, ‘charismatic’, is strongly associated with a single culture (Christianity); also it has recently been much applied to ego-led business-as-usual leadership.[6] Both ‘enchantment’ and ‘charisma’ bring in the qualities of fascination, dread, wonder and awe[7] and thus add thrill to purpose.[8] 

Redefinitions of liberty outline ways it and the whole entity sustainability leadership vision can move ahead together

The longer companies resist sustainability, the stronger the coming planetary crisis, the more energised the whole entity sustainability leadership vision, and the more brutal its likely mass replacement appeal. The past tells us that utopias become dictatorships.

As I started at the beginning of this piece, coaching has a special interest because its process assumes the liberty of the individual. I believe that the ultimate sanction of independently applied law underpins the safety we guarantee clients as executive coaches. Even so I’ve had pressure put on me to disclose confidential client information. That I wasn’t dismissed, despite my refusal to comply with this pressure (put on me for commercial purposes) by the most powerful person in the consultancy involved, I put down to how the attempted confidentiality breach would have played out in a lawcourt.

How in the future can we avoid having myriads of situations like this, but with the liberty of the individual breached? Assuming that the health of populations as a whole is the supreme law, liberty should not be in conflict with sustainability. Losing some current liberties which contradict sustainability could legitimate not getting sucked into totalitarian control. Meanwhile new liberties could be gained. How We Can Balance Individual Freedom with ‘Ecology’ and Planetary Sustainability in Coaching

Possible sustainability-related closures of liberty include:

  • A recasting towards sustainability duties and a crime of ecocide
  • Convergence towards global non-discriminatory universalism to avoid the population proposed for ecological advantage being unduly nationally, racially, religiously or geographically defined or otherwise exclusive (this opens up liberty for the disadvantaged through reducing it for others)
  • Sufficient surveillance with safeguards to counter terrorism given the increasingly asymmetrical lone wolf capability afforded by technological development

Alignment with sustainability may mean radical change towards a more principle-based, less consumerist and more personally open (less shockable and blackmailable) society.

There are also opportunities for significant liberty gains:

Possible sustainability-related extensions to individual liberty include:

  • Relative freedom from the yoke of corruption (said to be the biggest obstacle to sustainability) through increased transparency
  • The reduction of excessive dependency and modern slavery through more representative participation in supply chains and within multi-national companies

Even more radical are proposals to protect both animals and future robots on the grounds that they are (or will be) sentient and individual, and maybe self-aware:

  • In cases of cruelty to animals, environmental ethicists criticise the fixing of ethics so that institutionalised industrial abuse cannot lose
  • Many in Silicon Valley think that future robots will be self-aware and autonomous and lawyers already discuss their rights

Many also say, myself included, that it would be liberating if businesses renounced the one-sided Frankenstein cult of technological dynamism for its own sake only, and instead integrated it into a whole-life precautionary dynamism.

The proposals to recast liberty outlined in this final section could provide a new context for us all.  The further and faster companies implement sustainability, the less likely they are to energise totalitarian sustainability leadership to the detriment of appropriately redefined individual liberty.

To connect with Geoffrey Ahern


[1] John Plender (2017), ‘Investors are demanding corporate action on climate change’, Financial Times, 16 December/17 December, p.11.
[2] Weintrobe, S. (2013), ‘Introduction’ in (S. Weintrobe ed.) Engaging with Climate Change. Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London: Routledge; Jacques, P., Dunlap, R. & Freeman, M. (2015), ‘The organisation of denial: conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism’, Environmental Politics 17(3): 349-385.
[3] Abrams, M. (2009), ‘The Discover interview Robert Proctor’, Discover, 30(1):1; Bedford, D. (2010), ‘Agnotology as a teaching tool: learning climate change by studying misinformation’, Journal of Geography, 109:160; Hansen, J (2009), Storms of my grandchildren. The truth about the coming catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, London: Bloomsbury:15; Ward, B. (2006), Email to Esso UK Ltd, Policy Communication, The Royal Society, London.
[4] Applying a suggestion in Jermier, J. (1993), ‘Introduction – Charismatic leadership: Neo-Weberian perspectives’, Leadership Quarterly 4(3/4): 217-233.
[5] Roszac, T. (1973), Where the Wasteland Ends, New York: Doubleday.
[6] Other leadership theories − distributed, situational and so on – can be applied in addition if they also fit (adaptive theory seems particularly appropriate for sustainability but has shot itself in the foot through its commitment in practice to business-as-usual: see for example, the assumptions in Heifetz, R., Grashow A., Linsky M., (2009),The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World,  Boston: Harvard Business Press).
[7] I.e. the ‘numinous’: see Otto, R. (1950), The Idea of the Holy, trans. John Harvey, London: OUP.
[8] Kempster, S., Jackson, M. Conroy, M. (2011), ‘Leadership as purpose: Exploring the role of purpose on leadership practice’, Leadership 7(3): 317-334.

What is this rhythm thing and what does it have to do with coaching? By Simon Darnton

In my first piece about rhythm being an untapped dimension in coaching and one that, for me, was born out of a domain full of speed and risk, it follows that what I do in coaching has to do with rhythm. I help my clients to find better rhythms, of course, but what about me? And:

 Photo by David Henrichs on  Unsplash

Photo by David Henrichs on Unsplash

  • What does this mean?
  • What is my relationship to these rhythms? And;
  • Where does the knowledge come from to make use of it in coaching?

I wanted to explore how rhythm as a fundamental quality of human nature emerges in the coaching context.

So it feels like I need to explore what rhythm is, starting from a place where I know it so well.

What is this rhythm thing?

Previously I described how I work with some clients who are entirely open to hurting themselves, sometimes quite seriously, in their professional pursuits (and personal ones too) - this includes motorcycle and mountain bike racing but also other high risk sports. For many of them, their profession is also their heart of desire; or as close to as you can probably get.

One of the first questions that seems to come to mind for those not familiar with this world is: “How can someone have a heartfelt desire to do something that might actually kill them if they make even the slightest mistake?”

I don't try to answer that one anymore as I have a blind spot; I can't enlighten you any more than they can as to why this is. That's because I've done these things too and although I've backed off a bit now (not entirely by choice but due to an illness with lasting effects), I still do some dangerous things from time to time, too.

I need to.

I must.

I simply have to.

Otherwise I just don't feel complete.

A recent experience where I crashed my mountain bike was a poignant focussing moment for writing this piece. While I was mid-descent, about to complete a jump with my bike, my rhythm said: “WRONG.” To cut a long story short, I wasn’t listening. It hurt. And even after 4 months now, I have trouble using one of my thumbs properly, and it still hurts every day (this is relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things, mind you).

So what would drive someone to, in the misconceived world of health psychology, do something that is so abnormal; to knowledgeably do something one could call self-harming? Are these people, me included, just a load of loons?

A drawing tide

Well, there is a quality of experience in all this that is, for want of a better word, spiritual. It whisks you away into another dimension. A paraplegic rider I worked with told me it's the only place in his world where his disability dissolves and he finds himself whole again.

In this experience, there is something like a kernel or core that centers you. It keeps you driven, gives you direction. But not in a blustering way. This is what I describe as ‘a central stability of sorts’.

But if only it was as simple as that.

There's a curious sense of direction and purpose, taking you with the tide. It's a tide that allows you to ride the rough, and to deal with the unexpected.

In this place, things come to you, that perhaps you never would have thought of, to do something, in response to something that presents itself and you're navigating a situation with waves of a knowledge you probably didn't know you had. It feels right and it leads you through the maze.

These things come to you even when it gets hairy, you slide the bike way too much, or come round a corner to find a bike lying there in your trajectory and the flags haven't come out yet. In motorcycle racing we'd call this a 'moment.'

And we'd somehow made it through that one.

Rescued it.

No way would you do that if you'd thought about it.

When I work with world-class competitors and I talk of rhythm, they know immediately what I'm talking about. You can see it in their eyes, but more immediately in their bodies.

When these racers compete they say they find a good rhythm, yet they also know that this rhythm is not fixed. They can't afford to settle into it. For example, in motocross (MX) or downhill mountain biking (DH) the course can change minute by minute. In MX, parts of the track can be destroyed in the space of a lap under some conditions. In DH, the natural courses will be completely different on Sunday's final race run compared to the previous Thursday's track walk. This is not to mention the randomness of 30 other riders fighting for the same space in MX or more than 100 riders doing several runs of the course in DH! These racers know that the rhythm isn't like just riding the peak or sinking into the trough, but something that connects them to an ever changing environment.

Even on a tarmac race circuit it changes on a continuous basis as the race progresses. The racers feel and respond to this input.

You might assume that I'm only talking about something relevant to athletes, but I’m curious that I don’t find entrepreneurs all that different either. They have their ups and downs. It's brutal. It's painful and potentially damaging, at least emotionally and psychologically. Perhaps they're also loons?

Yet, in very much the same way, if they're asked why they do what they do, in spite of the pain and the turmoil, there's a something they just have to do, to follow. They're drawn by some kind of force within them.

As with the racers and athletes, they have a central stability of sorts that guides them. A tide or current draws them along, if you like.

And as Chris Robson says:

You have to keep experimenting because you haven’t found your natural rhythm yet.’ (Confessions of an Entrepreneur, p115)

So in my words, their companies need to hum in a way that provides direction and still be flexible, agile, and adaptable. They never know where the business is actually going to end up, regardless of plans or dreams. To succeed, their rhythm must somehow be in sync with the market.

All the entrepreneurs I’ve met (and worked with) have a certain vibe about them.

A rhythm just like any other rhythm then...!

Context is king

The truth of the matter is that their contexts are completely different.

Lets face it, the entrepreneur faces less real risk. By that I mean they’re not going to hit a tree or tumble through the air at over 100mph after their bike spat them off. They’re not facing the same traumatic impact. The nature of the experience is less condensed. It burns less fiercely, shall we say, than a weekend culminating in a 45 minute race, or a 4.5 minute final run down the side of a mountain. But it still burns...incessantly. And I think those entrepreneurs who do burn out have lost their connection with natural cycles of ups and downs and they try to stoke the fire to burn constantly bright.

The risks born by the entrepreneur are, however, wider, more varied and diverse.  They play a bigger, more complex and ambiguous field. I’d venture to say the ego takes a more significant beating.

But unfortunately, in the contexts of coaching, psychology and business, it’s too easy to focus on the individual and their traits; they’re so much more than that which is so often overlooked.

Context changes the rhythm.

The rhythm I experienced racing a motorcycle is different to mountain biking, which is different to that of my Tai Chi practise and its meditations. It's also different to that of coaching.

My ability to find a good rhythm in those context varies too! When racing a motorcycle it was inconsistent. My ability to find rhythm within Tai Chi is almost consistent now (even if the rhythm changes every time I practise) but then I've been searching for rhythm there for nearly 15 years.

I can't explain why my rhythm is so different between contexts, and I wondered whether anyone else could.

There were a small number of top motorcycle racers that I found who said to me that you had to approach each race as something 'completely new,' 'different,' 'not the same.' You never knew what was going to unfold.

Each race circuit is a different context and each time you race the same circuit, the rhythm is also different.

One motorcycle racer I coached had a moment in our coaching when this made total sense for him. His realisation that racing is a world of unknown allowed him to start each race as a blank sheet, a new horizon. This was the catalyst he needed to achieve his first ever race win, followed by winning several championships.

Something clears the mind to invite the influence of context.

This opens the door to rhythm but there was more. More that wasn't normally connected to the rhythm.

Unlocking the secrets

In most extreme sports, the athletes spend a vast amount of time getting to know their environment. This is one of the strategies they use to mitigate risks. They know, of course, that getting to know the environment where they need to perform is going to help their performance.

One of the world's greatest motorcycle racers, Valentino Rossi, described track walks as a process of unlocking the secrets of the circuit.

Knowing the circuit helps to find rhythm.

Riders who are developing themselves to move up the ranks have often asked me why some racers do well at some circuits while they perform poorly at others. This is about how they relate to the circuit and whether they've managed to unlock the secrets they need to figure that circuit out. Sometimes they never do. Even the best in the world.

So rhythm does not sit somewhere inside the mind, it's also out there. In the world.

Now all the theories and conceptualisations I've come across that are of Western origin gloss over the context and miss the out-there-ness too.

Rhythm isn't just a line of numbers drawing out a graph, it's alive, it's kicking, it's full of life. It's stable, it has a significance about it that is at once substantial, even tangible. It is also fluid, infinitely malleable, adaptable according to context as well as our intentions. There's a resonance between internal and external, blending together to produce smooth, fluid, and beautiful action, thinking and feeling.

The whole person in relation to their environment.

Rhythm is ecological.

At once accepting, analytical and critical

It is not so surprising, perhaps, that the top players in their field are incredibly analytical - even while they're involved in their pursuit.

They're not just constantly solving problems because they have to, they’re more like searching for opportunities for action.

They're critical of what they're doing, how they did. A search for perfection never quite reached, nor will it ever be. It's a critique that helps them to achieve. To refine what they're doing and to improve. This is a constant and unobtrusive stream. It's part of the game. It's part of the draw. It's part of finding a good rhythm.

It's a form of pure, natural, unadulterated, active inquiry.

They're also completely accepting. Especially of where they're at and the situation. In dangerous circumstances that's all you can do. That's where you are, there's no changing that. But there is always a path, or multiple potential pathways and these need to be considered in some light. In the moment. Decisions made. Critical decisions.

Seeing things, and being in them, for what they are gives them a certain perspective. They see things differently, which sets them apart. They have the freedom to try things, to play; acting apart.

Rhythm is missing in the coaching research

Rhythm can be found everywhere. I’d even go as far as to suggest that rhythm imbues all parts of human function -individual and social alike. In ancient Chinese philosophy, for example, this is one of the central pillars of the cosmos: Yin/Yang, the waxing and waning of the moon.

In Chinese 5-phase Theory, rhythm is an explicit characteristic in how we bring ourselves to the world, how we achieve what we achieve. How we connect with others and our environment. It represents what is valuable to us and creates that stability of sorts - a tide that draws us along.

In this philosophy, our rhythm is a mutual exchange between us and our world, which is, in and of itself a rhythm. Breathing is the simplest example.

In other areas of psychology, particularly that researching extreme sports participation, the focus is largely on aspects like fear, motivation and other abstract phenomena of the experience, but rarely the nature of rhythm even if it is mentioned a lot by participants (except perhaps Brymer & Gray who refer to it as dancing with nature). Unfortunately the research often glosses over context. However, jumping off a cliff to do a BASE jump is different from navigating a path up a rock face to complete a challenging climb. There is rhythm to each, but it's different, as is the nature of the experience. Climbing a challenging cliff is a more complex activity than jumping off one, even if both require high levels of skill. The same criticism largely goes for the psychology of 'Flow' as conceptualised by Csikszentmihályi, colleagues and the positive psychology movement. I am not a proponent of the ‘Flow’ concept.

In neuroscience I find Co-ordination Dynamics to be a fascinating space for exploring rhythm. Recent advances in neuroscience resonate well with the experience of rhythm and how it enhances function. For example, in Dynamic Coordination in the Brain: From Neurons to Mind (2010):

'The universe is lawful but unpredictable. Regularities make life possible, but unpredictability requires it to be flexible, so, biological systems must combine reliability with flexibility. Neural activity must reliably convey sensory information, cognitive contents, and motor commands, but it must do so flexibly and creatively if it is to generate novel but useful percepts, thoughts, and actions in novel circumstances. Neural activity, however, is widely distributed, which suggests that activity is dynamically coordinated so as to produce coherent patterns of macroscopic activity that are adapted to the current context, without corrupting the information that is transmitted by the local signals.'

In the same book, Engel et al., go on to state:

'A key concept for understanding dynamic coordination in complex systems is self-organization. Self-organization refers to the spontaneous formation of patterns and pattern change in systems that are open to exchanges of information with the environment and whose elements adapt to the very patterns of behavior they create. Inevitably, when interacting elements form a coupled system with the environment, coordinated patterns of behavior arise.'

Lovely but still somewhat abstract…so I would like to get a bit more grounded with this.

In my next piece, I'm going to explore, through a single, focussed experience, how rhythm ties these things together:

  • the temporal: going beyond just being in the moment to creating a meaningful adhesion of past, present and future;
  • how the analytical plays beyond reason;
  • how it informs an emergent learning and grow, both in the present and through post experience reflection.

To connect with Simon Darnton

Brymer & Gray (2009) Dancing with nature: Rhythm and harmony in extreme sport participation. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 9(2). pp. 135-149.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Classics.
von der Malsburg C., Phillips W. A.,  Singer W. (2010) Dynamic Coordination in the Brain From Neurons to Mind. MIT Press.
Robson, C (2013) Confessions of an Entrepreneur: The Highs and Lows of Starting-Up. Pearson Business (Epub).

Making sense of how the detail of behaviour works in Coaching – and forming greater awareness of this most important frontier for progress in Coaching by Jeremy Ridge

Part 1: Introduction


I still find important gaps between my awareness of what actual Coaching practice involves, and what standards, or level of understanding, I believe is needed, that I can use to keep my awareness high about what matters in my practice.  

I will refer, here, to some direction towards the sort of standards that work best for me. The important focus I look for is one that helps to appreciate the ‘explosion’ of detail about behaviour data available in any living second in any Coaching Dialogue.

  • This behaviour may be at the level of both verbal and non verbal; and each behaviour may have ambiguities to be interpreted, and understood.  
  • And then, as well, each behaviour moves at a massive pace … second by second.

Continuing exercise of awareness, about my own behaviours, as well as the important interpretation of others’ behaviours are really key to my continuing best practice.

I may readily believe in how I practice, but it would also be useful to know where I stand in relation to what others do. Standards are one of the concepts that is often used to find such common perspectives.

1.1. I believe that behaviour is the fundamental focus, and evidence, to work with

As I see it, there are some fundamentals to Coaching, or what coaching may yet evolve into, that will last for ever,

  1. It is about behaviour, and
  2. Its interpretation by either of the two people involved.

What causes the behaviours that take place is central. But, until Coaches take their brain scanning machines into the session with them, and as long as people are not exercising choice, the only way to understand the sequences of causes, and effects, is through interpreting behaviours, and how they interact with each other, that is readily available as data.

This task of ‘code breaking’ of the meaning displayed by the immediate behaviours will always be there. And, the outcome of Coaching is eventually also about the behaviour of the Coachee – outside of the Coaching dialogue.

1.2. Continuing limitations in research and understanding of behaviour

The sophistication of human behaviour still stifles research into it. This is more to do with the limitations of traditional research, than the fundamental impossibility of doing it.

For example, there is still use of this term ‘chemistry meetings’ in Coaching, which reflects the poverty of consensus on what is going on in these initial coaching meetings. We have no agreed Coaching terms, or standards, for what is acknowledged as a central feature of practice in coaching. And so, it’s simpler to use a technically defined term as a metaphor from another field of knowledge as a way to get across how this complexity is inherent but still too challenging to define!

1.3. The challenges of using Behaviour as information

At any one moment, even in a single second of events, between two people there are a mass of variables all interacting.

  • Coaching is an interaction between just two people. It is more than words, given the physical proximity, and the display of all manner of other forms of nonverbal information.
  • It is also even more complex, because perception may be formed as much by prior information than current behaviours in that immediate moment. For example, another person’s previous experience in relation to the term coaching! What I think about how I behave is irrelevant. It is what is perceived by the other person that will matter.

1.4. Where is ‘best practice’ in making sense of the detail of behaviour up to? 

There is a huge list of all manner of frameworks and models [see the plethora shared in academia and consulting].  As summed up in a Wikipedia article [1] on psychotherapy alone.

“There are hundreds of psychotherapy approaches or schools of thought. By 1980 there were more than 250; by 1996 more than 450; and at the start of the 21st century there were over a thousand different named psychotherapies.”

Psychotherapy has had some opportunities to be a more studied field of practice, than Coaching, as it does deal with problems, due to repetitive, ( i.e. stable, ) albeit dysfunctional, forms of behaviours which make them easier to study.

Taking some opportunity to review the various, and immense, fields of learning relevant to coaching, helps to form a view about the understanding of this sophistication that makes most sense for me.

For example, my period of Doctoral study [2] was an important opportunity for enabling a thorough review on an interdisciplinary basis, rather than being locked in to one field in particular that reduces it to what can be simply measured. This then enabled me to carry out research that demonstrates the possibilities for achieving a basis for mapping out this understanding of the real complexities involved.

My post doctoral work continued as further investigation of setting up practice in the professional sense. The good coach has become that context that gives me, and other practitioners, the opportunity to work towards the rigour of reporting on this.

Part 2: Two cases to illustrate the nature, and importance of why this detail of behaviour matter

I hold two recent case examples that illustrate the issue in practical terms.

2.1. Case 1: Understanding the detail of behaviour is not (yet) an area Coaches lead in.

A private conversation was held recently with some leaders of a major (executive) coaching initiative in a Division of a major organisation. This was a combined initiative between internal as well as external executive coaches, and was being lead and co-ordinated by an internal Senior team of executive coaches

The Coaches involved in the initiative were talking about how to deal with a real surprise that they had come across.  Towards the conclusion of the initial cycle of the executive coaching programme that the coaches had initiated and resourced, they were faced with how to report on progress achieved. They had had real difficulty with knowing how to report on this, especially in a manner that would convince senior management of the added value of the initiative.

After a while, they took the courage to actually raise their difficulty with the Head of the Division, directly. They were then quite surprised to hear from the Director concerned that the Director had already carried out the evaluation for themselves; and they were very impressed by the progress they had found.

The question was raised – how did you find this? And the Director answered that they regularly work with, talk to, and observe people in the Division concerned, as a natural way of working. The Director had noticed many small, but significant, changes in patterns of behaviour amongst individuals receiving coaching. Of course, these changes were nearly always very small, even almost invisible, adjustments to on-going behaviours of the people concerned, but the Director was confident that this sort of progress, they themselves had noticed, was highly significant and very important to making an important contribution to overall results in many important ways. (more detail about this was offered – but, apparently, it was not requested by the Coaches involved!)

The Director was even able to give clear and specific evidence of a large number of quite small behavioural events that they considered very significant, from a wide range of people. The Director had not asked the people concerned for this evidence. They had taken it from observation during normal working.

I was able to pick up with the Director about the sort of detailed behaviours involved, and their context, more easily than trying to talk at this level with the other coaches who showed some lack of confidence about engaging in such detail about behaviours.

2.2 Case 2: Limitations around the leading edge in the field

Recently a colleague shared a personal experience with me. They had a very well established Practice in executive coaching. This person had recently been failed in an application for ‘accreditation/credentialing’ with one of the current coaching bodies. The cause of the failure stemmed from what was called a “real play” exercise (where a real person brings a real problem for a short opportunity for a coach to demonstrate their coaching.)

The reasons given for the result were to do with the coach having failed to give the observers the evidence they were looking for.

Outside the session, independently, and unknown to the observers, the real play volunteer came up to the coach / applicant, and thanked them for the session, saying “that was the most effective and useful 15 minutes coaching they have had on the issue from anyone, ever.”

Yet they had been failed by the ‘system’ – specifically for this exercise. Yet this coach was also able to well evidence a very successful, and long established Practice.

The executive coach concerned went on to explain to me …. “I know what I did was probably invisible to the observers. They just didn't notice the way I smiled, kept sincere eye contact and nodded as the coachee told their story. I used their words back to them. I didn't need to use coaching words as I could see that my attention to their words convinced them of my sincerity, and depth of appreciation in my understanding of them. It’s about the timing of nods and smiles; and the calibration of them in line with the coachee’s own caution and readiness, I got this right, and their reflection just took them further, without my overt and obvious direction.”

The coach went on to say “Thank goodness there are clients who appreciate the sophistication of what is involved ...that starts from evidence of outputs, rather than idealistic but superficial frameworks of inputs without reference to the major variable of how to interpret where the coachee is starting from, and how the coach can most effectively support progress. Thank you for enabling me to even tell this story. No one else has, They are all telling me what I should do, but which I have difficulty in getting to work.”

The levels of effectiveness achieved by the behaviours involved in this real play were so high, they had been apparently completely invisible to the nominated experts / observers.

2.3. Other examples where appreciation of the detail of behaviour can be shared

I do find that there can seem to be greater appreciation of the detail of behaviour among many people who are not necessarily experts.

  • Peer group conversation among experienced people – NB who may not be calling themselves coaches
  • Sharing observations with colleagues, ( and others who may be directly involved ) when the experience is shared. Eg working as a team in team coaching – yes, where the coaches are working as a team, with a client team, and so have common access to the detail.
  • Appreciating that depth of detail at the level of behaviours:
  • that integrates both the non-verbal and verbal communications into meaningful words
  • that captures the complexities of each moment alongside the broader context and 
  • is that higher level of awareness of practice that I’m looking to maintain.

Evidence from experience based on outcomes from the real end users of coaching, has informed me that this is what is required to be both effective and efficient.

Evidence, to me, continues to fall short, however, in much of current academic, and other coaching literature, about what are really meaningful examples of best practice for how behaviour works in Coaching.  However there is one line of work that I have found to hold important prospects of starting a basis for the research and understanding required.

Part 3. The research outline that I find explains most of the behaviours that matter in Coaching

3.1. The importance of a research approach in forming shared knowledge

An important benefit of scientific approaches to research are being able to stand on the shoulders of other people’s learning, without having always to start from scratch. It is what makes our human society so rich.

The research approach, that has helped me the most has been extensively compiled by Robert Carkhuff [3].  This is a deliberate attempt to be integrative in a field that has still some considerable scope for being more integrative, than inventive. In particular, it provides some important technical language, ( and definition, ) for the detail that matters most about the behaviours that matter in Coaching.

I will summarise Carkuff’s research schema, and reach some examples of how I consider it was intended to continue the work as a basis for more extensive appreciation of this elusive detail of events taking place between people in this sort of coaching context. The research involved is not the final solution. But it is an important step along the road.

3.2. Where this research sits in the overall schema of our understanding, to date - The humanistic ‘school!’

I am still curious how the term humanistic is seen as a school, implying it is something of a limited approach only considered as important by some people – and not by others.

A useful summary of schools – in contemporary Psychology is highlighted in [4]. This is a useful summary of how the wider field of Psychology, as the study of behaviour, and its causes, shows how research methodology constraints may still determine what a school is based on, rather than the practical scale of the issues involved. What gets studied is limited by what can be measured; and the methodologies of measurement can become more important than the relevance to practical opportunities to appreciate how behaviour works in something as living and dynamic as what Coaching aims to address.

Research into the humanistic approach followed the writings of Carl Rogers, in particular [4]. This approach is often referred to more as a form of philosophy because it lacks methodology. However, it is the recognition of the vision, rather than the proof, that appears to still catch the mood in Coaching.

For example, the Director in Case 1 was able to be fully articulate about their learning – in their own language - but you need to understand their language to research it. People tend to have their own definitions of words they use.

3.3. Robert Carkhuff’s lead towards an integrative approach

Carkhuff’s work was a compilation of research, and it went as far as it could go at that time. Even so, it resulted in identification of a range of key factors that appealed to me for my own experience, as well as my more formal research in this area.

The approach lead to a detailed framework of the major, priority, behaviours, and their interaction. (N.B. The general term ‘helping ‘ was still in use at the time of the research. The adaptation of the term Coaching was still to emerge)

This framework opens up access to the detail of the hidden gateways about how another person can open the gates in their interaction with another person, towards what Coaching aims to achieve, and how to leverage that elusive ‘transformational’ dialogue with detailed appreciation and understanding of what behaviours are involved.

Most importantly, this framework helped me start to put all the data about my practice, and even formal research, into a form that started to explain what was otherwise done intuitively.

It has also left a number of questions requiring further attention.

3.4. The Carkhuff research framework

The Carkhuff research framework is about the appreciation of the eight major areas of behaviour involved [5] that are each distinct types of behaviour that are all needed for the interaction to grow which is fundamental in coaching. Out of the eight behaviours only one focusses on the Coachee; and the other seven for the Coach.

It was acknowleged that each type of behaviour is still more of a category, than explicit description. But there are some behaviours that matter more than others, and it is important to appreciate this. Each type of behaviour is also described very simply using a scale format – meaning to have more of and less of it.

The complexity of behaviour, and its measurement in this context is made even more complex because behaviour is measured more by how it is perceived, than its intention. Hence whether a behaviour had an effect can only be measured by the reaction of the other person.

3.4.1    The Coachee Behaviour

The primary driver is the behaviour of the Coachee that matters, which is termed SELF EXPLORATION. In effect this is a term that refers to the Coachee’s tendency to value having effective support for their continued learning.

3.4.2    The Coach behaviours

This is relevant to the support of the process are categorised into two sets. The behaviours that matter at first are described as facilitative. When the foundations have been created, the later behaviours move to an emphasis on action oriented.



            Action Oriented:


These terms are open to very different forms of usage. For example, confrontation is about behaviours that enable the coachee to confront themselves (for example, suddenly realising the assumptions they may have been making about a matter, that were worth checking) not for the coach to be confronting.

The first four facilitative behaviours are part of a critical initial process. This is an important foundation, and psychological contract building process – like building trust – that is required before the Coachee builds their confidence in disclosing their intimate details relevant to the use of more action oriented dimensions involved in specificity, confrontation and action orientation

The work provides detailed examination of how these processes often work in relation to each other. However, despite the considerable detail in the way the material is written up in (1) and (2), there are still quite a lot of opportunities to consider developing the framework further and in more detail that aligns with Carkhuff’s original intention for doing this research.

The reality of practice brings these details into awareness on a regular basis; and in turn informs and adds extra insights into the how the detail works, or not.

Part Four: How Practice needs this framework to make sense of events, and how Practice can generate further stages of understanding of how the framework operates.

If we take the structure of the Carkhuff findings there are a number of important focus points that need to be continued both in research, as well as helping to stimulate and guide my attention to reviewing Practice.

First:  The challenge is greatest when trying to understand the most appropriate way of behaving with Coaching’s prime target audience – Individuals who are healthy and effective already.

Dealing with healthy people is a real dilemma for research. This is still almost a forgotten major issue. It is still too complex for available methodologies. We can achieve some statistical groupings around some sort of stimulus. But it is still a challenge to deal with the one, rather than large sample groups.

Second:   The importance that coaching starts with the behaviour of the other person, and then lead from this. It is about what is perceived, and how it was received, not just what was intended.

Third: The term self-exploration was used as a generic term for a complexity we are still exploring with many other terms. For example, learning has been a major area of study for Psychology. Yet it is scarcely referred to in Coaching.

Fourth:   the overall process: facilitative to action oriented. Why is facilitation so important? What invisible factors are so important here?

Fifth:  The complexity of ‘re-visiting’ by the coachee .

The whole process is not a simple linear one. People always introduce behaviours throughout that can aim to go back, to check, or build even further, on some of the facilitative behaviours they are looking for from the Coach

It could be called trust building – one of those concepts that everyone agrees is key – but again – so difficult to research.

Sixth:  At any one moment of behaviour, the Coach has to also keep the context of the whole relationship in mind.

For example, people often revisit different phases of the dialogue – as they build their own concentration around it.

Seventh:  How do the different components of behaviour involved function separately

For example, self-disclosure is a particularly intriguing form of behaviour to explain in greater detail.

Eighth:  How to go beyond a simple scale – where next? - particularly in terms of significance of the outcomes.  A scale simplifies the idea, but there is a great deal more that can be possible in the identification, and measurement of significance. How do different sequences of behaviour matter, in relation to the whole?

Ninth: How to integrate the factor of ‘perceived scale’ by the coachee, rather than ‘intended’ function of the behaviour used by the Coach.  How to interpret the Coachee’s framework for making their perceptions of behaviours by the Coach? For example, a smile may intend good will, but it may be perceived so very differently.

And this is only a short list of the further opportunities for building more insight into this whole area! As well as making sense of the detail of my practice.   I look forward to the chance to move beyond being able to have such further dialogues with peers, colleagues and - even ordinary friends

Part 5. Conclusions and Next Steps

It has been very valuable to find expression for making sense of the areas that are of such importance in keeping my own practice sharp. I can feel like one of those athletes who have to keep on training, even when previous performance suggests they are already performing well.

The potential value of an Integrative framework for all the differences in approaches in the Coaching Field remains important.

The difficulty with a framework such as mentioned here is that it it is still likely to be too complex for the levels of interest many people would have for the subject. After all it is easier just to get on with doing it – intuitively – rather than painting the abstract picture of how and why it was all happening in the way it happened …

The next steps, involved, for myself, is to celebrate the space created by the good coach for others to paint their picture of how it makes sense to them.

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

References and Foot notes
2 Ridge, J. (1975) The Development and Operation of the Effective Interpersonal Relationship Skills relevant to Career Development Problems from Staff Assessment at an Industrial Research Laboratory, PhD, The University of Aston (Available to download)
3 Helping and Human Relations: A Primer for Lay and Professional Helpers, Vol. 1: Selection and Training (v. 1) Robert R. Carkhuff ISBN 10: 0030812143 / ISBN13:  9780030812149  Published by Thomson Learning, 1969; Helping and Human Relations: v. 2 (Helping & Human Relations) Robert R. Carkhuff ISBN 10: 0030812151 / ISBN 13: 9780030812156 Published by Thomson Learning, 1969
5 Full detail can be accessed through original works reported by Robert Carkhuff, (1) and (2) , (or, access to my Doctoral thesis (3))