Do You Know A Leader Who Is In Midlife Transition?

8th May by Wendy Robinson

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Do You Know A Leader Who Is In Midlife Transition?

I’ve been running a series of CPD Workshops for Executive Coaches in the first few months of this year.  One of the topics we worked on was entitled: Coaching Leaders through Midlife Transition.  This attracted a lot of interest, and all of the coaches – a wide diversity from Scotland and N Ireland – were hungry for information on this topic!

Let me share with you some of what we discussed.

  • This is a hot topic.  When we’re coaching managers and leaders in their mid to late 40’s and 50’s, we are likely to encounter issues of midlife transition
  • What is ‘midlife transition’?!  Well, it’s not what we tend to stereotype as a ‘midlife crisis’.  Because it’s not a crisis.  It’s a stage of growth in our lives.  If our coachee is asking deep questions of themselves, such as ‘What’s it all about?’, ‘What’s the point of me putting my all into my work?’ or ‘I’m not as driven by achievement (or money, or status, or the nature of my work) as I used to be…’ – then chances are, we’re on a midlife transition issue
  • This applies to us too as coaches!  Many of us are in a similar place, or had been in the last few years (indeed, was that why some of us became coaches?!)
  • So, how do we understand it?  And importantly, how do we help our coachees through it?
  • What is ‘Midlife Transition’?

    I put this question to the coaches in the workshops:  “When you think about aging, and midlife, what comes to mind?”

    Here are some of the first responses:

    • Slowing down, physically aging
    • Acceptance of a new reality – e.g. ‘I won’t make it to CEO after all’
    • Awareness of own mortality
    • Awareness of loss – parents, other people in one’s life, the loss of one’s dreams as well, perhaps the loss of wasted years

    There was also an acknowledgement of the upsides, and in some cases, a desire to emphasise the upsides, as we got into the discussion:

    • There can be more financial stability, which gives a form of freedom; there can be an urge to ‘give back’
    • Viewed as knowledgeable, older, senior and mature
    • Awareness of gains – grandchildren, nieces and nephews and the next generation
    • The opportunity to recalibrate life, based on experience and increased wisdom, and to find new purpose in life

    These responses reflect well the growing literature on this topic.  I have always been fascinated by theories of life stage development, having studied child development in my psychology degree, and read Gail Sheehy’s work in my late 20’s.  I also teach Adult Development theories on my coach training courses.  But this topic had felt like it needed a bit of updating!  I realised I could also bring the personal perspective, as I too had been asking big questions of myself of late. 

    I was greatly aided by my own supervisor, Edna Murdoch.  She too had been through a midlife transition, and was able to guide me and point me in the direction of research and writing on this topic.  I devoured James Hollis’s book: “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life” – great if you like Carl Jung (which I do).  Also, Joseph Campbell, and Israeli authors/consultants called Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg.  The whole area also fitted really neatly with William Bridges’ work on psychological transitions, and the corresponding research into ‘Type and Change’ (as in Myers Briggs Type Indicator). 

    Here are some quotes which describe midlife transition.  Firstly from Edna:

    “Mid-life is sometimes referred to as the second adolescence –
    a time to complete our development, to re-connect with our dreams,

    a time for transformation.”

    (Edna Murdoch)

    Carl Jung’s idea of individuation relates to midlife transition:

    “Individuation – the process of becoming your true self”

    (Carl Jung)

    Strenger & Ruttenberg conclude, from their research:

    “Midlife (is) …a very difficult period and one for which people are,
    on the whole, lamentably ill prepared.”

    (Strenger & Ruttenberg)

    And Campbell:

    “Midlife is when you reach the top of the ladder and find that
    it was against the wrong wall.”

    (Joseph Campbell) 

    - which can of course easily happen and to many of us, to the extent that we have never truly asked ‘what do I want to do with my life?’, ‘what is important to me?’, ‘how do I want to live my life?’

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  • The Good News

    Of course there are the downsides of aging, and as a physician once said “If you’re 50 and nothing hurts, you’re most likely dead!” (quoted by Strenger & Ruttenberg).  There are downsides not just for individuals, but for society and for organisations too.  AND, let’s consider the following:


    “People's conceptions of age are hopelessly out of touch with reality. Life expectancy today in the West is around 80 and continues to rise. This means that at 53 - the median age of people in the baby boom generation (those born from 1946 to 1964) - the average baby boomer will live another 30 years. Stop and think about that for a moment: Since few people enter the workforce until they have completed their education - usually when they are in their twenties - the average baby boomer has as many years of productivity ahead of her as she has behind her.”

    (Strenger & Ruttenberg)

    Retiring at 65 was only ever an arbitrary number.  It was first introduced in Germany in 1916 apparently.  But isn’t it interesting how it has prevailed as some kind of number, which signifies no longer being productive?  Our conceptions of age do indeed seem out of touch with reality, I believe. 

    Can we reframe this belief, to say “At age 53, I have as many productive years ahead of me as I have behind me” and help our coachees do likewise? What possibilities does this open up?!

    So, midlife gives us and our clients the opportunity to

    • Look at our values
    • Allow wisdom to guide us
    • Learn from loss and change
    • Move our life onto a much broader, richer foundation
    • Reconnect with joy and pleasure
    • Move from head to heart/soul living
    • Take time to discern the ‘right wall’

    (Edna Murdoch)

    To use Maslow’s terminology, we can move away from a focus on ‘deficiency motivations’ (such as needing food and shelter and security) to ‘growth motivations’ – such as the human need to realise our full potential. 

    How to Work with Midlife Transitions as a Coach

    The coaching space provides an excellent environment within which to explore midlife transition at a very personal, individual level.  Coaches can rest assured that they already have many skills with which to do this. 

    The outcomes for the coachees could be many and varied, I think it is helpful to open our minds to what could be.  For example:

    • Identification of a new vocation (literally, our ‘calling’) – which could be very different from our career
    • Changes to our existing working life, such as different responsibilities more in line with our values, our wisdom and our desire to ‘give back’ (and couldn’t some organisations really benefit from this?)
    • Greater involvement in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility)
    • Remodelling our out of work time e.g. rekindling a hobby/passion we had earlier in life, and doing it for the pure pleasure of doing it; or finding a new one
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    • The tools, approaches, models at our disposal include:

      • Working with Values
      • Creative expression and visioning exercises e.g. Journaling, drawing, deliberately setting out to ‘experience new experiences’
      • William Bridges’ Transitions and ‘MBTI and Change’ (Barger & Kirby)
      • Reading the literature (for ourselves and as a recommendation to clients with a Theoretical Learning Style) – such as Hollis, Jung, Campbell, Strenger, Bridges
      • Transactional Analysis (e.g. see ‘TA Tody’ by Stewart & Joines) – a great, practical guide to working with our limiting beliefs and decisions we made earlier in our lives, about how we were going to survive in the world and succeed.  Often worth a revisit and an updating, and midlife is the ideal time to do this!

      And finally

      I will finish with a quote from Strenger & Ruttenberg:

      “True transformation at midlife does not reside within us, waiting to emerge like the butterfly from the cocoon.  Self-actualisation is a work of art.  It must be achieved through effort and stamina and skill.  There is no period better suited to inner growth and development than midlife, when many people learn to listen to their inner selves.”

      The hard work will be done by our coachees, but as coaches, we can be such a positive, supportive, enabling presence. 

  • The AoEC offers coaching, triple-accredited coach training, and consulting to individuals and organisations worldwide looking to embrace positive change through empowering people. 
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      Author: Wendy Robinson BSc MSc Ch Psychol Accredited Coach (AC) Accredited Coaching Supervisor (CSA)


      Wendy is an Accredited Executive Coach (AC) and an Accredited Coaching Supervisor (with the Coaching Supervision Academy in London, with whom she gained her Diploma). Her original training was in Psychology and she has been a Chartered Occupational Psychologist since 1995. She has now been training executive coaches for around 10 years. She adores ‘all things coaching’ and sees it as a privilege, to be able to work alongside coaches of all experience levels, to support their learning and development. She heads up AoEC Ireland and N Ireland, and is Principal Consultant with Taylor Clarke, an OD and Leadership Development Consultancy based in Glasgow.

      She can be contacted for more information on working with leaders who are in midlife transition and can tailor CPD Workshops and Supervision for individual client organisations.  She will be running her CPD Workshops again later in 2018; get in touch if you would like to have your name on the mailer list.