The Mystery of Coaching Mastery - Part 2

The Emergence of the Professional Coach

In my last article, The Essence of Coaching, I asserted that the experience of coaching has been alive for millennia and that an essential aspect of coaching is wonder. Coaching has long lived in dialogues with teachers, friends, spiritual leaders, artists, philosophers, the oceans, the stars and even our internal voices. I concluded that, if this is true, coaching couldn’t be the sole province of the professional coach.

In 1995 I was part of a group, lead by my mentor Thomas Leonard, which founded the International Coach Federation. At that point in time, coaching as a concept and as a profession was in its infancy. We were used to the common verbal exchange:

What do you do?

I’m a coach.

Oh really, what sport?

Our hope was to legitimize the profession by creating standards, credentials, and a code of ethics that would make it easier to spread the word about coaching, increase our perceived value in the world and protect us from legal actions based on the common misconception that we were charlatans: advisors and pseudo-therapists who lacked real knowledge and education.

From the very beginning there were many questions about who a professional coach is and who gets to call themselves a professional coach. As it stands now, even though anyone can legally call himself or herself a professional coach, some dedicated individuals in the ICF went beyond the mere definition of coaching and took the lead in defining the core competencies of the profession. As the merit of these competencies took hold, coaching schools began to align with them and today they form the backbone of the credentialing process for a professional coach. As coaching became increasingly international in scope, a growing number of countries and cultures where professional bona fides are required adopted the ICF standards and these coaching competencies became even more widely embraced and more deeply rooted in the culture of professional coaching.

Then what is a professional coach? And why has the role emerged in the world at this time in history? I wonder.

Like the computer programmer, the behavioral economist, or the social media consultant, the role of the professional coach is in fact a job description that has been recently invented. Not only has it been invented, WE INVENTED IT! And, as the inventors, we have had the ability to shape it, improve it, and distinguish it from all other professions. How cool is that?

Who is a professional coach?

Building on the definition of coaching I created, here’s my effort at defining the role of the professional coach:

A professional coach is someone who professes that she or he is a qualified/ethical practitioner consistently capable of engaging in thought-provoking and creative dialogues that inspire people to expand the limits of their thinking, being, and doing (TBD) in order to support more wonderful lives and a more wonderful world.

 Although, it may be possible for anyone to receive coaching from anyone at any time, professional coaches profess that they can deliver the promise of the coaching experience on a consistent basis. In addition, professional coaches have the chutzpah to claim that this experience is of such value that clients ought to pay for the privilege. And, miracle of miracles, the market has proven to value what the professional coach has to offer. There are now thousands of professional coaches around the world who make part or all of their living by fulfilling this promise.

It is important to recognize that this particular promise is more than just a marketing statement; it has profound implications that are both outward and inward facing.

As an outward manifestation it describes the core of the business relationship. Just as the implied promise of a restaurant is to meet the needs of its customers when they are hungry for food, the coach promises to meet the clients’ needs when they are hungry to think more clearly and creatively, to be powerful and authentic versions of themselves, and to take actions that build the lives they want personally and for the world around them.

Turned inward this promise creates an obvious, but powerful question that professional coaches can consistently use to true both their own actions and ways of being:

Am I consistently engaged in thought-provoking and creative dialogues that inspire people to expand the limits of their thinking, being, and doing (TBD) to support more wonderful lives and a more wonderful world?

As the role of the professional coach has taken hold, there has been a proliferation of coaching schools, coaching theories, and coaching organizations that have, in good conscience, attempted to elevate the profession. As a result the profession has achieved a certain amount of complexity and a mini economy with a growing number of people who have a stake in continuing that level of complexity. Just as the accounting profession has a stake in the continuation of complex tax codes and attorneys have a stake in maintaining the mumbo jumbo of legalese are we, with all our good intentions, running the danger of doing something similar?  At a time when coaching can be a powerful tool throughout the world, do we want coaching to be overly complex, overly expensive, and largely available to only the elite on the planet. Why is it that in the last twenty-five years, I’ve observed too many bright, caring, and creative coaching students get bogged down in fears and doubts related to whether they are doing coaching correctly; even whether what they are doing is coaching at all?

Just as medical professionals true to the age old Hippocratic urging “to do good or to do no harm,” the professional coach might do well to have a simple principle like this that can serve as a similar guide:

Am I consistently engaged in thought-provoking and creative dialogues that inspire people to expand the limits of their thinking, being, and doing (TBD) to support more wonderful lives and a more wonderful world?

My hope is that a question like this could provide a way to pursue coaching development and eventually mastery that is not encumbered by fear, too many limiting beliefs, or too many rules about what you can and can’t do when you call yourself a professional coach.

The Qualifications of a Professional Coach

Anyone can claim to be a professional coach. The qualified professional coach has proof points to accompany the promise. Training, testimonials, accomplishments, credentials and an ethical code are all recognized as ways to prove to a doubting public that we can deliver on our professed value.

One qualification that is not often used in marketing statements and almost never used in professional associations is love.

I am not referring to romance, but rather a willing, enthusiastic embrace of “what is.” It is of critical importance that coaching conversations come from love and focus on love: love of ideas, language, stories, work, self-expression, creativity and more.

As I was recently preparing to lead a workshop for graduates of a recognized coach-training program, I was cautioned that too much attention to this notion of love might alienate the professionals in the room. I understand that professionals are generally thought of as people who are worthy of respect, highly skilled, well paid, and who comport themselves with a certain decorum. Unpolished, under skilled, unpaid, want-to-be's are called amateurs.

How strange that many have adopted this distinction when “amateur” is the only word in the English language that is derived from the Latin word “amare:” to love.

So I assert, for your consideration, that the master coach needs to be both a professional and an amateur.

 This is not some claim I am making because I came of age in the 1960s. Love is critical to professional coaches being able to deliver on their promise because our clients have brains?

Yes, brains; those complex, multi-purpose organs that allow us to think, move, have emotions, and even dream; they allow us to learn, play, create, remember and assign meaning; and they have sophisticated survival mechanisms that keep our heart and lungs doing their jobs while alerting us to perceived threats with chemical reactions.

People, much more informed of current thinking in neuroscience than I am, tell me that, when the brain is experiencing a threat, all available energy is channeled to its protective mechanisms. That means that, when in a state of fear or stress, the parts of the brain that we use for growth, learning, and expansion are generally not available. In those situations, we rely on what we know… or think we know.

The primitive fight, flight, or freeze reactions generated by our autonomic nervous system may have been helpful to our ancestors trying to survive in the wilds. But when emergency room doctors, fire fighters, and front line military personnel experience the rush of adrenaline that comes in the course of performing their duties, they can’t afford to be impulsive, freeze or run away. In order to operate in these stressful situations they need to be assiduously retrained to override their primitive guidance systems and think clearly in the moment.

We might not be operating on the front lines of life and death situations, but all of us have fear mechanisms that are easily triggered by more subtle situations that we encounter every day. And in similar ways we rely on our past training (the things we know, or think we know) to protect ourselves.

A friend who was recently traveling in Europe observed an American woman in a restaurant say to the waiter, “Bring me a cheeseburger.” Evidently there was no cheeseburger on the menu. When she saw that the waiter didn’t understand, the woman, who only spoke English, instinctively used her go-to strategy to make sure that he did. She repeated, “Bring me a cheeseburger!” Only this time she said it in a much louder voice.

It is easy to ridicule this ugly American’s behavior, but that would be missing the point. The reality is that, when any of us have our protective mechanisms triggered, our brains instinctively access some old solution that may or may not be the best response to our current situation.

 These experiences of perceived threat are ubiquitous. They include fears associated with what we don’t understand (ignorance), fears associated with unmet needs or expectations (loss), and fears associated with physical threats or revealing personal secrets (vulnerability). Even when these perceived threats are not life threatening, our protective mechanisms are still aroused and we use our old, habitual solutions in attempts to keep us safe.

Some of these old solutions may be quite efficient and benign. But other adaptations may be quite costly: lying to ourselves and others, seeking power or giving up power, pushing others away, or forming systems of limiting beliefs. Imagine any of the great problems that exist in the world, and you are likely to find the source in at least one of these adaptations to fear.

Professional coaches implicitly profess to be able to engage the brain of a person in ways that allow for expansion. Simply put, coaches are able to avoid stimulating the brain’s protective mechanisms while engaging brain functions that include learning and creativity.

And the most honest, transparent way to do that is through love. This is one way to distinguish the coaching profession from all others. Although love can enhance the practice of medicine, law, or accounting, it is not a prerequisite for any of these professions to deliver on their promises.   I am clear that the masterful coaching I’ve received has been from people who were both professional and amateur.

I am reminded of a person I consider a master coach: author, teacher, and symphony orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander. Maestro Zander is well over six feet tall with an enormous wingspan and a large expressive face. When his protective mechanism is engaged by something he experiences as a disappointment or a frustration, he, with a blend of love and wonder, throws his long arms out into space and declares, “How fascinating!” I imagine his brain responds much differently to that behavior than it would to a tirade against the world or the “stupid people” around him.

So I’m going to take the liberty of expanding my view on the essence of coaching from simply “wonder” to “love and wonder.”

It seems to me that a growing number of people in the world are no longer satisfied with old, habitual solutions to fear. They long to express themselves fully, to see their lives as purposeful, and to experience fulfillment, not just safety. Is that one of the reasons that coaching has emerged as a profession in the 21st century?

The Emergence of the Professional Coach

Perhaps by trying to understand why coaching resonates at this time in history and in so many places around the globe, we’ll be able to discover some insight into coaching mastery. I’m sure there will be several dissertations written on this topic in years to come. But until all the academics have weighed in, I’m going to take a shot.

My theory is that, in many cultures where the professional coach has emerged, we are experiencing a confluence of at least four relevant and significant trends:

  • An unprecedented and rapidly increasing rate of technological change
  • An explosion of connectedness coupled with an epidemic of loneliness
  • An increase in the value we place on authenticity
  • A paradox between planetary abundance and the real threat of the extinction of our species

Let me attempt to make the connection between these trends and the emergence of the professional coach.

  • We are living with an unprecedented and rapidly increasing rate of technological change. Never before in history has the rate of change been so rapid; in fact the pace is picking up. Core products, services, and strategies of many companies, even industries, can become obsolete in a matter of years. Innovation drives huge segments of our economy. Ironically, even though technology has freed us from certain tasks, people are working harder and harder to do their present jobs while dealing with the adaptions, learning, and fear associated with constant change. Because things move so quickly we must be able to expand our TBD quickly just to keep up.   We need a way to stop, unhook, and reflect; an approach to engaging the most expansive parts of our being; something that a professional coach can provide.
  • We are living with an explosion of connectedness coupled with an epidemic of loneliness. Never before in history have we been more “linked in” to news and information. We email, we text, we tweet, we Skype, and we Instagram. We are kept in the loop with round the clock news and social media. Yet all of the connectedness we derive from these technologies has not resulted in relationships that are deeply connected. A study in 2006 published in the American Sociological Reviewreported more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted that the number of “socially isolated” Americans has doubled since 1985. Professional coaches can provide the kind of listening and connection that many people need. (In the next article in this series, The Coaching Relationship, I’ll make a case for this being one of the most important things a coach can offer.)
  • We are living with an increase in the value we place on authenticity. Never before in history have we been in a position to see so many individual and cultural differences as assets and not threats. It is no longer a painful necessity to view our uniqueness as heretical, sick, or fodder for humiliation. And yet cultural prejudices survive. The professional coach is someone who supports and celebrates the unique self-expression of every individual and is a champion for his or her success.
  • We are living with a paradox between abundance and the threat of extinction. Never before in history has so much of the world’s population had their basic survival needs met. A significant percentage of the population is able to occupy itself with the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: love and belonging, esteem, and even self-actualization are all coaching themes. At the same time, the very survival of great swaths of our bio system are threatened. Increases in population, climate change, energy needs, scarcity of clean water, and weapons of mass destruction are all part of our current reality. At a time when many people in the world are living with famine, drought, disease, and the horrifying realities of war, there is a growing urgency for those on the planet who enjoy abundance to expand their TBD so that all the humans, plants, and animals on earth can survive and thrive. Professional coaches are playing an ever-expanding role in support of these initiatives.

And so I believe that, given the stress, gravity, and opportunities of these trends, we’ve come to a time in history when being able to expand our TBD is no longer optional. The role of the professional/amateur coach has emerged now because it is addressing critical needs.

The focus of this piece has been on the individual role of the professional coach. But to focus solely on the coach is to miss something rather important. Coaching is a relationship and, I believe, it is the relationship itself that holds the most promise for us as individuals and as a global society.

Next – The Coaching Relationship