When Big Systems Fail, Coaches Energize the Small

Artful coaching grows for a good reason.

Posted Oct 19, 2019

"Few of us have the greatness to bend history itself, but all of us have an opportunity to change a small portion of events… It is from numberless acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped."  —Robert Kennedy (engraved on his tombstone in Arlington Cemetery, delivered to the African National Congress in his anti-apartheid tour in 1963.)

The Crisis in Leadership continues. Impeachment proceedings are the latest sign, but only the latest. For several decades we have watched public confidence in our institutions sink to the lowest of percentages. Not just Congress, but business, schools, church leadership, and on and on. We may be in a cynical time, but we are also signaling as a collective, as a culture, the sometimes bitter and disillusioned and scary end of the old way of our grandparents, two generations ago, pre-Vietnam/Watergate. That way held that most of us considered our institutions as worthy of trust because they would guide us in useful directions, even if we had doubts about this law, or that policy, or an individual elected official. (As one small and typical example, my father voted against Eisenhower but was honored to serve in his government.)

That outside-in way of thinking seems naïve and antiquated now, as we have already had a generation-plus for whom second opinions from doctors are standard (I remember when that was new) and who we end up often voting for the lesser of two evils. But the big institutions hang on or grow, and still have to be dealt with—many are employed there, but millions more are getting Social Security checks or consuming goods offered by business behemoths. And new institutional giants have emerged to both use and contend with, like the big technology companies, that invite us and force us to change. 

So what are we to supposed to do now, with the old order crumbling? Or as the old question asks, How then, shall we live?

 John P Schuster
Source: John P Schuster

No one knows for sure, but I have come to think that rise and spread of the coaching profession to which I have been an active contributor for two plus decades in my own business and as a teacher/facilitator at Columbia University and the Hudson Institute of Coaching has something to offer at this crossroads. As I watch the 20-plus-year expansion of the coaching world, I ask regularly how is it that coaching keeps growing and growing: Is it just that we have more money to naval gaze? I think not. Coaching is answering a real need for people facing complex and unprecedented change.

And then I re-read an essay by my mentor, Frederic Hudson, the founder of the Hudson Institute of Coaching in Santa Barbara, now ably lead by his partner and widow Pamela McLean. Here is what he had to say in 1995, almost 25 years ago but oh, so relevant today. ("Eight Reasons Why We Need a Profession of Coaches NOW!" May 1995)

The more the world around us is in flux, the more we as individuals must be certain about what matters, how we spend or time, who we are connected to, and where we are going. When the macrosystems are out of sync, the microsystems rise in importance to provide direction and meaning for our lives…. the leaders of microsystem empowerment (I call) “coaches” – mature persons of any age and background who are comfortable and effective in the dissolving environments of their time. The highest call of coaches today is to become guides to the culture, to grow strong persons, committed families, honest work places, and determined governments, from the grass roots up. This is no easy task and the beginning will be small, slow, and largely invisible.

There are a great many persons with exemplary qualifications to coach the culture toward a livable future. Coaches are a major resource as facilitators of transitions in persons, families, organizations, and social settings. They model the future because they are willing to invent it, design it, and insist on it. As for change, they see change as an asset for getting the job done, not a cramp in the tummy.

Frederic was not the only coaching pioneer who saw the social change link to coaching. Laura Whitworth, co-founder of the Coach Training Institute and also no longer with us, once declared: “Coaching is bigger than coaching.”

In posts ahead I will say more about the wisdom, coaching, and community-building connections that are needed and happening now. Coaching is not the only new development helping to give birth to the new era, for which we are all responsible. It is, however, one of the visible and promising ones because of its wide reach, providing ample opportunities for the courage and belief that Robert Kennedy named.

In the meantime, friends, strap in: The end of the old will not be an easy ride.