Leadership Development for the Bold

Where are you orienting from?

It’s 2001 and I’m standing on an elevated ridge in the White Mountains of Maine in the United States. My map is laid out in front of me on a flat rock, and with compass in hand I’m triangulating our group’s location. We are about to immerse our team into a thick deciduous forest for about 15 miles. The orienting calculations we make now have everything to do with our success of getting to our extraction point before we run out of food and fuel. It’s these fine measurements here on this ridge that will allow us to be successful later on. And with the right understanding of our location right now, we can calibrate each bearing, shoot from tree to tree, and plot an accurate course through the forest.


Fast forward, and today the terrain of exploration has shifted from that deciduous forest to the complex and beautiful landscape of my clients’ inner worlds. While mountaineering, coaching and leading all appear different enough on the surface, they all present similar challenges. One of the biggest similarities is the need to have an accurate understanding of where we are orienting from. Whether we are leading a team through the wilderness, leading an organization through challenging times, or scaffolding clients to achieve the most meaningful changes in their lives, our orienting reference points inform where we can ultimately go together.

To effectively move forward, we need to understand our present locations. To make progress we need to know where we are advancing from. And to expand or develop new abilities we need to understand what skills are already available.

Understanding our own developmental orientations is key for effectively navigating our lives, and it is critically important for coaches, because development is always powerfully influencing every facet of our lives. Within the territory of coaching, our developmental orientation is a prerequisite for how we coach our clients. And our understanding of our clients’ development is the foundation that our coaching is built on.

As a way to begin, try glimpsing into the complexity of your own development.

Now you’ll notice, I asked you to glimpse into the complexity of your development. I didn’t ask you about complicated developmental ideas. And I didn’t ask you to pin-point yourself on a developmental scale.

Many of us who are part of the conversation about development today make the mistake of too quickly classifying ourselves developmentally. In doing so, we miss complexity and instead engage with facets of ourselves that are complicated. Instead of relating from and with ourselves as fluid, dynamic and changing, we presume ourselves to be static and fixed, albeit complicated, human beings.

Many of us learned a developmental theory and tagged ourselves at a particular stage. Or we took an assessment delivering us a tidy developmental location that we’ve kept in mind ever since. It is true that rigorous developmental thinking must be grounded in sound research and robust models. However, all too often once we get a whiff of how to locate ourselves and others, we are off to the races cataloging and classifying the rest of the people, groups, teams, organizations, cultures and countries around us. It doesn’t take long before we believe we can see the entire world developmentally.

As a starting point, this can be a good thing; however, we must go further—especially if we’re interested in fulfilling our potential as coaches.

To go one step further, focus your attention into yourself. Get curious about yourself as a dynamic set of living developmental processes—not a location. Abide in the mysterious, profound and often humbling developmental nuances of who and what you are. Surprise yourself. Discover yourself anew, even in the everyday contours you enact day-in and day-out. Your investigations into your own living developments can up-level what you provide interpersonally with your coaching clients.

This is because masterful developmental coaching requires us to advance and evolve our relationship to development. We must penetrate the more static abstract ideas of development and get into relationship with the fluid, changing and living contours of development. Our view must go beyond fixed and firm developmental locations and participate with ongoing developmental processes. This breaks us free from the more abstract and conceptually rarefied developmental distinctions some of us get trapped in. When we do this, instead of the neat and conceptually tidy realm of development, we discover a mysterious living ecosystem with multilayered expressions of development in processes of ongoing change.

In the mastery end of developmental coaching spectrum, we no longer understand ourselves as inhabiting one location developmentally. Instead we are perceiving and participating with the living, uncertain, and dynamic variability of development. Skillfully operating on our client’s developmental complexity means that we’re able to see, hear, feel and think about developmental movements as they occur in real time—both in ourselves and our clients. We are attuned to experience our multiplicities, and theirs—which is to say, we experience how we’re inhabiting multiple developmental locations or aptitudes in every moment.

Put simply, you discover that you are not singular. You are plural. And this plurality becomes a living quality that guides how you relate with the complexity of your clients and yourself.

Developmental coaching at the mastery level has outgrown the comfort of static, firm and consistent ideas about ourselves and our clients. And this is what makes it masterful—it holds a higher resolution view (more accurate) perception of our clients as complex, living developmental processes.

To do this we as coaches must inhabit our own dynamism. Doing so is itself a participatory act of development that yolks us towards more complex aptitudes that we, our clients, and our world may very well need. Inhabiting our own mysterious dynamism we attain a more adequate vantage point on the immediate surrounding terrain of ourselves and our clients. With these more accurate perceptions, we can orient more effectively, understand what’s realistic and possible. We are more creative, and we are more fluid. This leads to more ingenious design, better planning, more robust strategies, and more vibrant and diverse expression of ourselves and the people around us. All of which ultimately supports better outcomes—not merely better tactical and strategic outcomes, but aesthetically enriching and ethically robust advances. All this goodness can flow organically from our intimate enactments with our own vibrant developmental processes.

So, as you finish this blog post, peer in. Where are you orienting from? How about now? Where are you headed right now? What are you in this moment? And, what capabilities are you enacting? If you look closely you’ll see all these are in flux, and that’s a good finding.

Rob McNamara is a faculty member of the Integral Facilitator Certificate program, a Leadership Coach and author of The Elegant Self. A leading expert on adult development and human performance, his coaching services help individuals increase their scope of influence where it matters most personally and professionally.

Join Rob for a 12-week advanced Developmental Coaching Mastermind, starting on October 5th, 2017. This is a rare opportunity for 15 coaches to be part of advanced professional coach training with Rob, where you will grow and refine your mastery as a coach, as well as focus on how you can provide rigorous, grounded and accurate developmental coaching with your clients. Click here for information and to register for the program.  
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Thinking Differently About Our Development Can Facilitate Better Outcomes

For those of us interested in adult development, too often we tend to focus on stages.  In particular, we zoom in on those higher, more complex and seductive forms of maturity that presumably are waiting for us to discover their beauty, added power and desired relief. They reside “up there” in the heights of our preferred hierarchies.


Once we begin to understand development, it is easy to idealize its higher reaches. These idealizations piggyback on long histories and torrid love affairs with our deep-seated assumptions.

Our unexamined assumptions can lead us to believe that less developed equals less capable. Being less developed means we are more challenged by life’s demands;  more developed must be ‘better’.

While many of us shy away from value judgements on personal worth, our developmental assumptions—grounded in science or otherwise—find their way back into our everyday decisions. These assumptions and judgements thrive in the decisions we make about who we love, who we hire or work with, and who we surround ourselves with socially.

Implicit inside these assumptions about development is that we can be located at a specific stage of development. Thinking this way can fix us into less flexible versions of ourselves. Our ideas of who we are and where we are going can quickly lose dynamism as we idealize our gifts and focus on who we should become.

From there, an obsession with “being better” can easily consume our attention and energy. Some of us focus on deficiencies instead of strengths and talents, further fixating our self-concepts as being inadequate.

These narrow perspectives on ourselves (and each other) create an unfortunate consequence of understanding adult development. Valorizing the stages “above” where we pin ourselves and others can produce a tendency to declare ourselves to be more developed than we actually are. . We quietly ignore an inadequacy beneath the facades of confidence, instead structuring our narratives around our brightness, intelligence and assumed complexity.

On the flip side, we may be overly harsh with ourselves. No matter where we are and what we are able to accomplish, we are never good enough. We ‘need’ more development. Regardless of the emotional tone and focus of our narratives, the source of both types of distortion is our assumptions, which narrow what we are willing to experience.

The antidote to this ‘vertical pursu-itis’ is to look instead at what we call developmental range. This is different from our “center of gravity”, an abstracted normative range in which you (or others) tend to show up developmentally, but which moves us away from the specificity of our aliveness in any given moment.

Developmental range instead steers us towards specific contexts, particular behaviors and distinct skills. Instead of generalized abstractions, developmental range focuses on the immediacy of our developmental complexity in response to environmental and contextual surrounds from moment to moment. The concept of developmental range focuses us on the dynamic, relational quality of our skills and behaviors.

For those of us seeking to support more advanced competencies within  ourselves, our clients, or others that have developmental nuance and rigor, I advocate for the intimate study of reality as it is discovered in the here and now. As Freud proposed, let us abandon the fantasies of who we are for ever more intimate confrontations with reality.

If you are thinking of yourself, your clients, partner, colleagues, or family as individuals who abide in a particular stage of development, I encourage you to instead consider the realities illuminating diverse developmental ranges. Developmental complexities—and the rest of the gestalt of our identities—are always being formed and co-constructed with the dynamism of our surroundings. Once we stop enacting a dimension of ourselves, this complexity dissolves in service of enacting what is now present and center in ever-changing experiences.

This view into our micro-developmental processes invites us into more attuned understandings of how to work developmentally with ourselves as well as our clients, teams, organizations and others. While developmental range can help us hug the more intimate contours of our moment-to- moment experiences, it also helps us include the more conceptual developmental insights, which of course also hold their own partial truths.

Amidst our explorations into developmental diversity in action as immediacy, we may find a freedom from the developmental aspiration to grow up. Then we can participate with the full range of development that is available to us in any given moment.  In this way, we may become more elegant in growing “down” into refining our developmental foundations as well as “up” into our higher possibilities.

Rob McNamara
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self
Faculty & Coach, Integral Facilitator Certificate Program

Join Rob McNamara for a 12-week advanced Developmental Coaching Mastermind, starting October 2017. This is a rare opportunity for 15 coaches to be part of advanced professional coach training with Rob, where you will grow and refine your mastery as a coach, as well as focus on how you can provide rigorous, grounded and accurate developmental coaching with your clients. Click here for information and to register for the program.

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