Coaching leaders for humility, but no quick fixes

In a couple of sessions recently at WBECS (World Business and Executive Coach Summit), attendees were invited to think about coaching leaders out of their arrogance towards greater intellectual humility, as well as the pros and cons of giving advice. In an effort to prevent Zoom fatigue, both presenters used various creative techniques to keep the sessions dynamic and engaging.

Jennifer Paylor, from IBM’s executive coaching team, impressively combined film clips, live interviews with colleagues, and a presentation of her new leading-with-humility model, soon to be published in a book on the subject. Lamenting “the abundance of arrogance” among business leaders, Jennifer emphasised the hurdle of even getting them in front of a coach. “It takes a lot of humility just to work with a coach”, she correctly remarked.

As we’ve heard on many occasions elsewhere, she challenged traditional understandings of leadership, urging leaders to evolve from a know-it-all position to an open, inclusive learn-it-all mindset and set of behaviours. Only in this way can organisations today manage uncertainty and complexity effectively. Unfortunately, there was no mention of how such a shift is achieved in the coaching work itself.

In the later session, Michael Bungay Stanier charmingly dispensed with technical wizardry, opting instead for questions on cards and allowing plenty of space and time for the sharing of thoughts and ideas in the chatbox. While the advice topic may seem elementary for experienced coaches, it was nevertheless relevant, I found. The lively exchange proved a valuable reminder of the pitfalls of doing the thinking work for clients, especially those avoiding taking responsibility, and the dangers of colluding and rescuing. After all, many of us in these tough times might be yearning for quick fixes and easy answers from knowledgeable experts.

There seems to be much work still to be done to raise awareness about the benefits and broader purpose of developmental coaching and how it differs from other learning interventions, such as consulting, training and mentoring. The two sessions made me wonder how both executives and employees alike could be better educated and enlightened, and the potential role of HR.

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