Coaching contradictions

28th November by Mark Powell

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Leadership changes and doesn’t change. Yes, contradictions are alive everywhere. What does shift, almost week to week, is the context and nature of the contradictions that leaders face into. The dynamics of a system doesn’t change, but the system(s) demanding attention does.

So organisational leaders now find themselves facing into some new realities. It would be a mistake to treat these as old patterns, and it would also be a mistake to ignore the wisdom of the past.

Some of the new contradictions are:

  • Technology or human centred
  • Project or people focused teams
  • Wellbeing or efficiency
  • Diversity of lived experience, or cohesion of style

And then some of the old and potentially repeating contradictions are:

  • Being bold or conservative in the face of uncertainty
  • Being employee or client centric
  • Focusing on revenue or cost
  • Narrowing back to core business, or expanding to new services

The smart leaders are getting skilled at detecting and holding contradictions rather than being drawn in to make choices. They are getting skilled at being in the grey zone where tomorrow’s answer may be different to today's. They are getting skilled at being systemic thinkers and replacing the strategy vs execution contradiction, with being able to attend to both micro and macro systems, and to the dance between improving human lives at work, and accelerating the smart adoption of tech.

Seeing contradictions and their systemic nature is core to leadership and increasingly important. It is something we grow more familiar with through adopting a coaching approach. Through coaching we look for the bold amidst the bland, or the character strength that lies just below the frustration, and the shadow that lurks behind the shine. Being trained in coaching brings an awareness of not just the whole person but also the roles people play, often unconsciously, in bigger teams and groups. A coaching approach helps us to step back and see the counterbalance that contradictions can offer. It also helps us get a glimpse of how the outer world can be a mirror for our inner processing.

For example imagine a leader facing into issues around who can she really deeply trust in her team. And the reality that she hasn't got time to not trust. There is an urgency to strategic execution. So a contradiction is apparent (at least to her) – she can’t trust and yet needs to trust.

It is tempting to see resolution by making a choice between a number of options:

  • Not really trusting anyone and taking charge herself of most of the execution
  • Making quick and forceful structural changes and bringing into her team one or two people she (believes) can be really trusted.
  • Outsourcing to external consultants to take the lead on a couple of the projects and anchoring these with tight contractual “deliver or else” terms

Making choices like these might be the way forward.

However, there is an opportunity here to step back and consider what other ways this contradiction could be handled without making an “either or” choice. A coach would be of enormous support there. The coach may explore:

  • Shifting the attention to the positive qualities of the team when engaged in strategic execution, and focus on how best to bring these alive
  • What the leader is doing or not doing to feed the patterns of distrust? If so, what small mindset shift might she adopt as a way forward?
  • If trust is a repeating pattern from the leader’s past constantly drawn into the future? And how can she start trusting herself more?

A good coach will help her hold the contradiction and explore shifting this pattern of paradox, rather than necessarily forcing an either-or choice.

Core to quality leadership is holding contradictions and coaching builds this muscle.