Coaching Through the Lens of Philosophy, Written by Frank Ferrante

It’s January, a new year, a time of renewal, of resolutions, of looking back to leap forward (January, named after the mythological Janus, Roman god of beginnings, ends and transitions).

A time for change, when the motivation for change is at its peak, but we all know about February and March, when the steam runs out and we fall back into the lull of life and forget the lure of change.

So, how do we maintain the January momentum, and progress along the road less traveled? With a little help from our friends – our coaches.

Scrooge had three; the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. All were introduced by his former business partner, Marley; yes, it’s good to have a catalyst, and you’re lucky if you have a manager who cares about you and gives you real feedback – tells you what you need to hear instead of what you would like to hear, and helps provide the proper resources for your development.

And the coaches – they really didn’t tell Scrooge anything, but they did show him everything, everything about his life, his performance, first as a young man with a boundless appetite to learn and grow, unencumbered by the vanities of false idols and the dulling affects of corrosive cynicism.

Then the ghost of Christmas present, where we see the adult, mature Scrooge, so occupied by what he does that he forgets why, and falls into the trap of alienation. Good at his craft but unable to connect with his fellow man – friend to none, hostile to all: A severe case of emotional Un-Intelligence.

And finally the future, where Scrooge is shown the likely consequences of his behavior and although lamenting “but I’m too old to change,” finally does, and becomes the man of his youth, but now coupled with the wisdom and compassion of old age.

Dickens work is a change formula and morality tale for all, and it also is a metaphor for coaching.

So, how does meaningful change occur, how is it sustained, how do we benefit from our coaches, how do we find them, how do we avoid over-reliance on them, how do we become them for others – this is the journey we will be taking, together, with a little help from our friends – we’re just beginning, it’s January.

The key lesson here, one is never too old to change (both chronologically, and in the broader sense of repeated complacency and its resultant evil, mediocrity – the true enemy of potential and productivity) is a timeless one and worth revisiting not just during the holiday season, but at each season (or quarterly, to use a more business-friendly term).

Popular culture, especially the cinema, abounds in coaching lessons. Movies can be great coaches and there are many to choose from – but two in particular have a staying power (they are shown year after year signaling that they are more than just entertainment). These two movies provide insight – career and life lessons worthy of any great coach.

Let’s paint this picture: you are managing multiple priorities, facing numerous and seemingly intractable problems – each a potential landmine that could derail your career and livelihood – and you are trying to grow professionally. But there is not enough time in the day to devote to that growth and when you attend development courses your mind isn’t there. You have delegated tasks to others and they have let you down. You feel so down that you dread the next day and wonder if it’s all worth it.

Meet George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) in Frank Capra’s movie classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” (given the above picture, a seemingly odd title… at first). So, given all his travails, George is now staring into the abyss (on a bridge, the river below) and feeling a life wasted, wishing to end it all, and thinking it would be better to have never lived! Enter Clarence, guardian angel, aka coach, who grants his wish – not to end, but to have never been born, and see the world through that lens.

Well, you know the rest, he sees the world would be much worse in his absence – it would be a desolate place of broken dreams and lost promises. Upon his return to the living, George can see the lives he has impacted and changed for the better, the family and friends who care for him, the business he has nurtured, and the difference he has made.

He has now gone beyond the small stuff to the bigger picture and the coaching lesson is clear – each of us have an effect on each other and can make a difference – especially leaders, and keeping that in mind every day sets the moral compass. So, what difference do you want to make? What kind of reputation do you want? Write it down and do it!

The second movie I wanted to look at is the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz,” ostensibly a children’s movie but in reality an “everyman” movie. So the questions: where do I go to find what I need, who can tell me what to do, where is the easy fix, who is the know-all and be-all I need to speak to, how can I be more like who I’m not? Well, all you have to do is ask the expert of experts, the best and brightest, the guru of gurus, the great and magnificent Oz! (And, unfortunately, too many of us have one).

Yet the lesson of the movie is the exact opposite – the only Oz you need is the one already within you, the true Oz (coach) points to what you already know, and helps you find the courage to take it home; helps you to be self-reliant, confident and proactive, to fear no one and respect everyone.

These movies are but a small sample of coaches – coaches can also be found in songs, poems, art and simple encounters with a friend, colleague or neighbor. Recognizing life’s coaches is about looking at these encounters through the lens of learning – for in the final analysis, life has as much beauty as horror, as much joy as pain, as much reason to carry on as to give up. And in the middle of all this is us, and the coaches we find and the choices we make.

And those coaches are everywhere!

Research

  1.  *2013 Executive Coaching Survey, Stanford Graduate School of Business. The Executive Coach Survey, Evidence & Interaction, Ninth Annual Report, 2014 Sherpa Coaching.