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Coaching and the Climate Crisis - time to take off the blinkers

08 August 2019 Anthony Eldridge-Rogers

We are in a defining period of modern history. Never before have we seen such change and it is only speeding up. This speeding up has both positive and negative potential depending on what you are looking at.

The one overarching issue that we are now beginning to see first hand the effects of, are a changing climate. We have known about it, argued about it, speculated about it, even scoffed at it. We have minimised, maximised, denied, cried, believed, not believed. Whatever our responses in the past matters no more for it has finally arrived in a slow motion that has suddenly speeded up so that now it looks like it is happening all too quickly.

We are now headed for changes that are certainly not going to be reversed. It is too late. London is likely to have the climate of Barcelona by 2050. And yes, you might want to argue that that might not be quite accurate and, so we don’t get bogged down in the details, let′s agree that the climate will change to some degree. Can we do that? 

Many of us are still stuck in the wood arguing about cause when in fact it is too late. This arguing is a psychological response designed in large part to protect us from the implications. Whatever the cause, all the signs are clear, we are in a process of change and we have to deal with it. We cannot halt it anymore than we can halt life itself.

This is an article about us as a tribe or professional grouping of humans who identify ourselves as coaches. It is a big term with a large roof and many are crowded under it. Frankly, over the years I have wondered how the word coach can apply to me and others who seem to be practicing in ways I hardly recognise as coaching. I have looked beyond the facade and behaviours and into the hearts of people and have found many big hearted caring humans who wish to help their fellows in myriads of ways. Well meaning people who want to find meaning and a living through assisting their fellow humans.  This desire to be of service demonstrated by my colleagues has been the reason that has made me want to describe myself as a coach.

But now we are at a turning point. For under this umbrella where we are gathered we have to ask ourselves some new, hard, questions. These questions arise from the fact that we coaches are not immune to the folly of humans generally. We can make mistakes, be blinded by greed, avoid the tough stuff. Not look after ourselves, eat badly, drink too much and consciously or unconsciously participate in destroying our home, the environment.  We are not better than our sisters and brothers who are not coaches. And in large, part of a significant proportion of the professional coaching field that has been captured by big business and the lure of 6-figure coaching businesses. 

As we gaze at the societies we live and coach in, it must surely have dawned on even the most myopic of us that coaching as a practice, and we as coaches, are long overdue an update in what we are doing and how we are working.

The times and circumstances we live in make a ‘business as usual’ belief system and approach frankly an embarrassment. 

We are on the edge of the whirlwind of evolution and change and we are being swept along and into that whirlwind like everyone else.

Our ethics are going to be tested like never before. 

We are being asked to consider topics like never before and we will not be able to find simple answers. We will have to place our own interests in a face off with reality. We will have to ask ourselves what systems we are supporting and face a realisation that we may be part of the problem we tell ourselves we are solving.

So, as the sun bakes us and the rains wash communities away the dawning in our coaching minds, what is happening is going to affect everything and everyone. Our parents, us, our children. No exceptions. We are all in this together.

The climate is changing. We are facing a shift in evolution and potentially a massive culling of the species. Are we humans to blame? Maybe. I have a personal opinion which says on balance of probabilities we have a large part in it. 

In systems coaching we deal with the interconnectedness of all things. We coach from that perspective. We understand organisations both large and small as interconnected and so we try to manage them as such. We know that a change somewhere in a system can yield results elsewhere. We tinker to see how unique systems work and try to learn from that tinkering.

That understanding seems to depart us in other circumstances where we start to kid ourselves that it ain′t so. We can do this easily because we don’t see the consequences of our actions which has been the consequence of globalisation and the reduction of localism. But consequences for every action are a certainty as everything is connected. There was a time when what we did in one place in the world did not seem to affect us directly. That distance from consequences allowed us to indulge our self interest without emotional cost. We close down a factory in Asia when we live in leafy Hampstead and we don’t have to live next to the human cost. But that game changed but we did not want to believe it.  We started changing systems elsewhere in the world with consequences that have now led back to all our front doors. And here they are.

When you coach a person you are coaching consequences that play out in the world. In people′s lives.

That′s a big thought. The problem is easier to see in executive coaching than in other parts of the coaching field. Let’s imagine a CEO of a large corporation, we will call him CEO X. An executive coach works with CEO X to help him steer the corporation into new markets, more sales, better products. The executive coach gets paid well. In this example imagine that the corporation is a healthcare company. They develop new ways to solve health problems for people. They have saved countless lives with their products. I bet if you were the executive coach to CEO X you would feel pretty happy to be working with this good guy. 

Then suppose the corporation of CEO X is an arms manufacturer. They make weapons that are efficient at destroying people and lives. They have a great tech department and they are very very good at improving weapons and their accuracy. They see the chaos in regions of the world as a great business opportunity. Our CEO X wants to get the company weapons into the hands of soldiers in these wars. WIth our executive coach  guidance and support he has been very successful and the company has made great progress. Now what? Easy ethical position?

But it is more complicated than this. Imagine you were an executive coach coaching the leadership team at Volkswagen in Germany a few years back. Imagine that in that team were the guys who put the fix in on the diesel emissions so that they could avoid the regulations. You did good helping them be better at their job.

So we got millions of tons of health damaging emissions into the atmosphere that would not have been there had these guys not run their scam. We could visit a funeral for one or two of people who prematurely died due to those emissions. 

Let′s keep going a bit further. In the last 25 years there has been an explosion of diseases like type 2 diabetes.

One of the greatest pollutions on the planet has been of the human body, perpetrated by junk food and agribusiness

Imagine you coach at McDonalds. You help the sales managers get their teams in shape to meet those sales targets. More sales, happier team. Successful coach. More sales are also more unhealthy people, more disease. But that is not all. Beef demand is related to the rainforest that is being slashed down every day, year after year. So what can we say? Nice one coach?

Exactly where is the line collusion in damage? We need to explore this now more than ever.

The compartmentalisation of coaching ethics cannot and ought not to last.

We do not have the luxury any more of looking the other way. We cannot avoid these hard conversations and thoughts. Well, we can of course. What I mean is we ought not to.

As a professional coach I have no more intention in coaching a client to be better at fulfilling his or her life role if that role is damaging to my fellow humans. Wanna sell more junk food? Don’t ask me to help. Want to sell more useless plastic stuff that will end up in fish that a human will eat? Nope, I don’t think so. Want to build your business off the backs of child labour or shattered landscapes? Nope, I am not going to assist you. I have a line and there it is.

But coaches are non judgmental, aren′t they? Isn′t that a professional best practice?

Sure. And it is also a screen to hide behind. We cannot exclude an ethical evaluation of a client′s life purpose because it′s complex, challenges us and is hard to do.

After all, to use a crass and emotive example, would you really agree to coach a person who’s stated aim was to expand their child labour business in Asia?

Well, I hear some of you possibly thinking, maybe if I worked with him or her as a coach I could change their trajectory and behaviour; convince them to treat the children better and so on.

Well, then that means you won’t be coaching them but trying to change them to your agenda. Completely outside of a professional coaching paradigm.

It is time we all got in front of a mirror and had a good stare. How are we going to navigate our way through this?

The problem has been one of not wanting to look.

I have spent almost 40 years working with people who are trying to get over addictions of one kind of another. One constant feature of how they manage the process of being in addiction is that they develop techniques for not wanting to see what is there right in front of them.

Then, one day, for a number of different reasons, they can see clearly. Some describe these moments of clarity as ‘A-ha’ moments. Those times when we move beyond seeing what we want to see, to what is also there.

In the case of addiction what can been seen and felt is a pain at the suffering both felt and caused. We suddenly see our part in the process of being lost to the consequences of who we are every day.

That can change the whole dynamic of addiction and lead to recovery. 

In the same way, if coaches come together and start to look at what we can see around us that we have may be minimised, denied or ignored, we will be able to find the path to being champions of what is possible in the midst of the climate and environmental crisis we now face.

Coaches have an enormous amount to contribute to the climate crisis. We can be coaches of the new future that is inevitably going to emerge.

I see a future set of best practices and ethics that speak to a unique and important role for coaches across multiple domains.  These best practices and ethical maps would help us not just be forces for supporting the fulfillment of the potential of individuals but as forces for leveraging those individuals to be change makers and solution finders.

I know many coaches who are navigating this way already, on instinct and an application of personal choice on who they will coach. You may be doing it too. 

To end then:

You may also be grieving and feeling anxious and scared. I have been.

I have a young family. They ask questions. They know what′s going on. We have been on youth strike for climate change marches. It has been tough to know what to say and how to say it. I have been lost for words.

I have struggled to stay present with people who think nothing is changing. That a big all powerful leader is going to just come along and fix it all up.

I try to follow some of the people in the world much better educated than me. People who are brilliant. Scientists, artists, writers, philosophers. The general view is the same. We have a chance at jumping into the changes that are taking place and doing what we can to put our strength, compassion and action into creating a bright and positive future. We can’t beat it but we can change and thrive with it.

I am optimistic. There is hope and we can find a path.

If you focus solely on the problem, you can miss the solution. I spend more time reading about, seeking out ideas and people and projects that are actively looking to find the solutions, than I do staring at the problems we are experiencing. I have been amazed at just what is going on out there. Stunning science and innovation that takes my breath away almost every week. There are projects and groups of people and companies we can all get behind and support. We can coach each other to have a change and community mindset.

The greatest threat to solving our current evolutionary and social challenges is our own psychology.

It is our response to the challenges that threaten success in meeting them and thriving through them. We need to take a journey that our education and social structures just have not supported. We need to support each other to make fast psychological adjustments that will free us from the most primed response in us that is driven by fear. That leads to blame, authoritarianism and negative competition. 

Helping people who would bring about that change and supporting people to accept and welcome that change is what my inner coach aims to do.

Some 10 years ago I decided to devote the rest of my life in working for this mission. To create a future of hope, life and possibility for all people. That meant tackling this evolutionary event that we are living in the middle of. This means doing something in the right direction and letting nothing get in the way.

I think that is a role for coaches and coaching.