“A Leader in Crisis”: Coaching with an Integral Lens

female executive - "A Leader in Crisis": Coaching with an Integral Lens

Leading successfully in today’s fast-paced, dynamic, and competitive work environment can be a daunting challenge. With expanding workloads, increased complexity, and growing demands from stakeholders, leaders need to develop not just “human capital,” or the ability to acquire needed technical skills, but “social capital,” or networked relationships among individuals that will enhance cooperation and resource exchange. Without this combination, leading can be a very isolating existence and the pressure of “going it alone” can be an immensely limiting perspective.

When a leader bumps up against a limiting perspective, or what transformative learning theorist Jack Mezirow called a “disorienting dilemma,” a process of change begins. That’s what an executive I’ll call “Laura” was experiencing when I first began my coaching relationship with her.

“A leader in crisis”

As vice president of a very successful marketing firm, Laura was a leader in crisis.

When I first met Laura, she had been accussed of poor leadership behavior and felt understandably embarrassed, hurt, and angry over these allegations. She was also feeling scared about needing to change.

For years, Laura had been a star-performer at the company. Her career there began with a job manning the front desk as a receptionist. Over the years, her quick mind, drive, and tenacious spirit helped her steadily progress to senior management. When I first met Laura, she had just finished working on a very high profile client file, which had brought the firm a great deal of revenue. She had also recently received an award from the head office in the U.K. acknowledging her exceptional leadership.

Laura worked hard and expected as much of herself as all those around her. Client satisfaction was a priority and she would do whatever it took to deliver results. People admired her deep industry experience, her sharp eye for details, and her ability to endear even the most demanding customers.

In her spare time, Laura was active in sports, competing in world-class triathlons, training for long and challenging cycling trips, and working out regularly at the gym. Laura’s pace at home was the same as in the workplace—always fast and characterized by strong self-discipline.

At the office, Laura was quick on her feet, full of ideas, and ready to execute plans. She didn’t have much patience for those who couldn’t keep up in conversation or who did not have the same standards of performance. While she could be extremely charming and engaging with clients and other senior leaders, she didn’t spend much time in the office with colleagues or direct reports. Business was business in her mind and she didn’t have a lot of time for socializing when there was work to be done.

Laura started to perceive that something was amiss when she noticed that her staff would often by-pass her and seek out another leader in the company for mentoring or assistance. She also discovered that some of the younger staffers—those in their 20s—had asked not to be put on projects that she was leading. There was also talk that people wanted to leave the firm because of her. Some colleagues were intimidated and uncomfortable in her presence and tried to avoid seeing her in the hallway. Eventually, this was brought to the attention of the managing partners of the firm and the alarm bell starting going off. Here was one of the top performers in the firm—one of its most prized executives—who was failing miserably in her role of leading others. If she did not make changes to her leadership behavior, talented junior employees would be leaving for the competition.

Ken Wilber’s integral theory

I examined Laura’s case using Ken Wilber’s integral theory, which pays attention to both external and internal aspects of leading as well as individual and collective experiences. Wilber designed an elegant model in which these different perspectives can co-exist without a requirement to forge them into shared understanding. It is a comprehensive, inclusive framework that provides a map for exploring the intricate territory of leadership. The model includes four different realities, or dimensions, which can be explored individually and then in relation to one another. The four realities offered by Wilber’s model are:

  1. The interior reality lived by a person, or the “I”. This is the side of a person that’s less visible to the external observer and includes his or her meaning and experiences, subjectivity, dreams and intrapersonal thoughts.
  2. The reality that is perceived externally, through the senses, technology, or a tool. This is the objective world of the individual “It” and includes organic matter as well as physical actions, and interpersonal behaviors.
  3. The concrete reality as a collective experience, which consists of institutions, systems, technologies, laws, rules, and management or leadership tools.
  4. The subjective, interior world from a collective perspective. This is the “We” realm of group consciousness comprised of values, norms, taboos, cultural elements, common language, signs, and shared meanings.

Examining Laura’s case through an integral lens

In examining Laura’s case from an integral perspective, I looked at all four realities offered in Wilber’s model.

There were several external signs indicating that something was not working in Laura’s leadership from the exterior-individual dimension. In the 360-interviews I conducted, colleague after colleague described Laura’s abrasive, domineering interpersonal behavior, which included yelling at people, slamming her fists on the table, and telling people they were stupid. An employee showed me a document where Laura had edited with a red pen almost all of the copy that she had written. I observed Laura in the office setting and noticed that, although she was always gracious with me, she would neglect to thank the receptionist who brought us water—a small signal of where she placed her social effort. I also noticed that she was always well-groomed and fit-looking, organized, and on time for meetings.

Focusing on the collective and externally-oriented dimension of leadership, I learned from my conversations with firm members that the organization placed client acquisition, retention, and satisfaction as the key priorities. Reward systems were linked to business development efforts and the ability to deliver a project within scope, on time, and on budget. There was little leadership development in the firm and senior staff members were expected to mentor the junior employees while carrying large client loads themselves. The organization structure was relatively flat, with the experienced professionals leading project teams on an ad hoc basis. Based on this project-based model, it appeared that employee engagement was to flow from the learning opportunity and creativity associated with the various client files.

When I focused on the concrete reality of the integral model, I found that the firm’s culture was very much one of delivering results. Those who got ahead were the employees who worked hardest and longest, and met the challenging deadlines. Productivity, efficiency, and reliability were clearly important values. Alpha energy drove an atmosphere of competition and an intense desire to win.

Paradoxically, the company was also a magnet for creative types, mostly younger professionals seeking career development opportunities. The hard-driving efforts of the company members had created opportunities to work with many interesting clients and the organization was reputed to be one of the best in the industry—a perception reflective of the company’s collective subjective interior on Wilber’s model. The high standards that they upheld meant that junior staffers would learn strong skills and, if they did well, could be promoted in the company. In some ways, Laura was for some of these employees an example of “the American dream”—she started out at the bottom of the company and, by her early thirties, had progressed to a senior leadership role.

Unfortunately, along the career passage to the executive team Laura did not receive any training in how to lead other people. She was extremely skilled in the technical part of her role and in the management of clients. However, she had also developed some bad habits in her interactions with fellow employees and had not been given feedback about the impact she was having.

In organizational theory, the “holding environment,” or context in which a leader operates, is an important consideration in examining the possibility of progression to another stage of development. As is suggested in this story, sometimes the culture of an organization can confirm (or disconfirm) a person’s current order of development. In many ways, Laura was the product of her fast-paced, task-oriented environment even though she was clearly operating in an extreme and dysfunctional way. At the same time, she was a leader in the firm and therefore in a position to potentially help shape a new cultural direction.

Coaching Laura: Transformative change takes shape

It appeared Laura was operating at a “dependent” level of development. More specifically, her behavior reflected the action logic of an “expert,” which can be troublesome in a management role because “experts” believe they are completely sure they’re right even when they’re wrong.

In coaching Laura, I thought it was important that she hear from her manager that her abrasive behavior would not be tolerated in the organization. As it turned out, when I began working with this client, her previous boss was just departing the firm and a new leader was assuming the role. With some coaching, this new person did take a stand with Laura about the imminent need for change. This was an arresting moment and helped Laura see that “what got her here would not get her there”—wherever “there” might be. In constructive-developmental terms, she bumped into a realization that her assumptions and ways of operating in the world were no longer working effectively. The boss expressed a willingness to provide support and encouraged Laura to use her strengths in new and different ways.

As a triathlete, Laura knew how to push herself as hard as she could go, sometimes to the point of numbness. Any anxiety about failing or making mistakes was overridden by pressing forward with the task at hand. Like many leaders, Laura tended to rely on her thoughts and wants (or actions) much more readily than her the emotions when faced with problem solving at work. And, often there would be collateral damage. Co-workers who worked too slowly or who did not catch on quickly were ridden over and demeaned. Hijacked by her own anxiety to perform, Laura did not even realize the threat she was to others, the hurt that she was causing, or the fear that she invoked. When learning about her negative impact in the 360 report provided after interviews with her colleagues, she was mortified, ashamed, and deeply disappointed in herself. As a person ever bent on doing things well, she was aghast to see how far she had fallen short as a leader.

As a coach, I saw that Laura cared deeply and felt truly badly that she had caused such angst for those around her. I was struck by her courageous determination to face the challenge  ahead and begin anew. She began the coaching process by thanking her colleagues for their candid feedback and apologizing for her behavior. Although she realized that many co-workers would not trust her anytime soon, she requested that they continue to provide her data about how she was progressing against her development goals.

I noticed that Laura’s goal orientation and tenacity—used constructively—could be an important asset to her seeking to be a different kind of leader. Her desire to succeed and her ability to set and reach a target were still there; she just needed to change the focus of her efforts, placing greater emphasis on people and leading others over accomplishment of tasks.

As part of the coaching process, Laura began to consciously slow down when things felt tense or warm in her body. She began taking time in the morning to be present and thoughtful about the day ahead. She would stop and contemplate how she would like to be experienced in a meeting with colleagues before opening the door. In interactions with others, she would pay attention to their reactions and the impact she was having. And, as she started to pay attention to her own moods and feelings, increasing her awareness of her inner state, she realized that she could choose her behaviors more carefully.

On the personal side of her life, Laura began to attend family counselling to address the relationship with her parents, which had long been strained. Near the end of the coaching process, she told me that she and her partner were considering having a baby. Life outside work was opening up in new ways.

In the office, Laura began to lead changes in her organization’s practices around leadership. At first, it was difficult for her to influence, as she was not respected for her skill in this dimension. However, over time, she encouraged the senior leadership team to examine and revisit its values, systems, and processes around people, inspiring a culture that would be more participative and supportive of employees.

Perhaps most importantly, through this process, Laura learned to live her whole life differently, more gently and more joyfully.

Reflections on leadership

As I reflected on this story, I was struck by the great value of bringing an integral lens to the process of coaching. Leading is a very complex, human endeavour and to help a leader develop requires a comprehensive approach that honors both the internal struggle that often accompanies leadership development as well as the external demands that of a leader’s environment. While leadership is very much a relational phenomenon, it is also one that calls for individual courage, wisdom, and consciousness.

The integral model with its interior and exterior elements, its collective and individual perspectives, and its depth in terms of levels of development within each dimension, offers a coach many different avenues through which to help a leader grow. And, as Laura’s story shows, this approach can bring health and well-being not only to the client, but to all those people whose lives he or she will touch.

Read other posts by Lynn Harrison

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