For the last 20 years, there has been exponential growth in the number of leadership coaches in corporations and political organizations. The job of leadership coaches is to work with leaders to help them think through leadership and organizational issues and to hold leaders accountable to their commitments. They ask challenging and provocative questions that leaders have to answer. That is the basis of the agreement.
I believe that the best coaches are those who are able to create the conditions necessary to engage leaders, primarily through conversation, in the type of searching and self-questioning that I call "critical self-reflection" (CSR). The ability to engage in CSR is linked to the leader's self-realization and to the deeply felt commitment to a compelling vision.
While this is an art and skill that is developed over time, there is a body of knowledge that coaches can draw on to help leaders examine themselves - the area of transformative adult learning theory. Leadership coaches should become familiar with the definition of CSR, understand the seven variations that are particularly relevant to the coaching situation, and learn proven ways to stimulate this form of introspective and self-analytical thought.
When people talk about reflection, self-reflective consciousness, reflexivity, or other variations of the "reflection" concept, there is an uncritically accepted connotation of goodness. But how are we to know if something is good if we lack a clear definition? In my research, I have defined CSR in a very specific way, based on the focus of one's attention and the quality of consciousness.
As such, CSR is defined as that form of thinking in which the focus of our attention is inward, on some aspect of ourselves, such as our thoughts, emotions, language, or behavior. In addition, the quality of consciousness is questioning or critical in nature and includes the consideration of alternatives.
When coaches understand this definition, they can recognize when leaders are focusing outward, thereby deflecting away from themselves, or when they are not being self-questioning or critical. They can then bring leaders back to CSR by asking questions that provoke self-examination. Effective coaches act as mirrors, and they challenge leaders to do the difficult work of looking within. It is work that requires focus, empathy, and an understanding of cognitive processes.
Variations of critical self-reflection
While CSR is defined as an inward focus of attention on self, with a questioning and critical quality of consciousness, there are ways to distinguish different variations of CSR, and this deeper level of insight will be very useful for a leadership coach. These variations include CSR on
- the past
- the future
- social and economic context of thought patterns
- use of language
- awareness of emotions
The past: CSR on our socialization and early life experience. When we critically examine our socialization and early life experience, we begin to see how many of our ideas and norms were influenced by these experiences. In this form of CSR, we dig into the past to try to determine the source of some of our current ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving. This includes looking at what our parents and families were like, and examining our youth and adolescence to assess the influence of teachers, coaches, ministers, exposure to the media, or involvement in clubs that influenced our formation as individuals. In other words, we look at the factors of socialization.
An excellent technique to stimulate this type of CSR is creating an assumption grid. First, create a list of influences from the past down the left vertical column of a spreadsheet. Then, across the top row, write out some concepts, such as communication, authority, power, and leadership. Next, think about out how each influence dealt with the concept, and ask yourself what you may have internalized from the influence. In the leadership coaching context, the coach can help a leader see that there are aspects of socialization that may be influencing leadership behavior, and, by consequence, the effective functioning of the organization. Assumption grids are an excellent way to focus in on underlying assumptions about aspects of leadership.
CSR on the future. One of the keys to CSR on the future is our capacity to imagine where we are going. In this sense, we look through a window into an imaginary future and consider alternatives for who we want to be and what we want for our families or organizations. Some scholars have names for this way of thinking. Stanley Cavell of Harvard University called CSR on the future a "conversation of nextness," and Maxine Greene of Columbia University called this type of future-oriented CSR the "consideration of what if worlds" and saw works of imagination such as art and literature as catalysts for this type of reflective thought.
Reading is an excellent way to stimulate future-oriented CSR. Fiction draws on our powers of imagination and allows us to experiment vicariously with new scenarios; nonfiction gives us new ideas to consider for ourselves and the organization.
Other techniques include variations on the idea of future invention, which utilizes the imagination. Visualization and mind maps help us stand in the future and ask ourselves what we see. Leadership coaches can create a future orientation for the leader to reflect on goals, wishes, dreams, wants, roles, new experiences, images of self in the future, and a vision for the organization.
CSR on the impact of sociocultural forces on self. This third variation of CSR looks at the relationship between our context, milieu or environment, and ourselves. What are the prevalent social, cultural, historic, and economic forces of our time and place, and what effect do these forces have on our lives and our organizations? This variation of CSR is very similar to what sociologist C. Wright Mills called the "sociological imagination" - the quality of mind needed to grasp the relationship and interplay between outside sociocultural forces and the autobiographical self.
An excellent way to foster this type of CSR is through reading trends books, such as Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave and John Naisbitt's Megatrends. Leadership coaches can use the ideas from these books as a catalyst for one-on-one work or for focus groups with the leadership team. Another way to foster CSR on social context is to use scholars such as economists, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, or trends experts. Bring them in for a day to share their knowledge and ideas. Coaches and leaders can then have a conversation about the personal or organizational influence of social forces and economic trends.
CSR on thinking and reasoning patterns. CSR on our thought processes is another form of metacognition - thinking about our own thinking. In this variation, one examines reasoning patterns and thinking habits. We look at how we consider evidence in the formation of opinions and decision making. CSR of this type also helps us understand cognitive defenses such as rigid thinking, blaming, and avoiding responsibility for decisions. People who are self-aware of their thinking skills can hold strong opinions, yet they retain the right to change their minds in light of better evidence.
This is one of the easiest forms of CSR to teach, but a very difficult one to master. For example, one can immediately improve their understanding of logic by learning a few of the logical fallacies such as red herrings, slippery slopes, faulty appeals to authority, personalizing the argument, and begging the question. However, it takes discipline to practice and integrate these skills in our lives and work. Again, a leadership coach can hold a mirror up and challenge leaders to pay attention to thinking and reasoning patterns. As a person develops skills in CSR she learns to watch her own mind and to guard against negative thinking and unfounded opinions.
CSR on language and the meaning of words. We engage in CSR on language when we begin to see how most aspects of our communication are governed by rules that we didn't invent. This variation of CSR looks at our use of language in interpersonal relations, our use of definitive words such as "all," "none," or "never," and our use of attributions. CSR on language also examines how we tend to use abstractions such as freedom, democracy, or agency without clearly understanding or defining what we mean, and it includes our awareness of what we don't talk about and helps us understand why.
Leadership coaches have a huge role to play in this area and need to be anthropologists of language. They need to listen to how their clients engage in communication and then feed back the rules and patterns they follow. An example of this variation is when a coach asks a leader, "You earlier told someone that you requested the report by Friday. What is the difference between a request and a demand?" These types of questions are designed to provoke the leader into a semantic evaluation of what is meant by a particular word or concept. Leadership coaches have a very important role in helping leaders deconstruct their use of language and communication.
CSR on emotions. How many of us actually have enough self-awareness of our own emotions to be able to understand and regulate them? This gets to the idea of the next variation of CSR - our awareness of, understanding of, and ability to control our emotions. This form of CSR is similar to what psychologist Howard Gardner calls intrapersonal intelligence, and it has a strong parallel to what the Dalai Lama calls analytical meditation.
Leadership coaches can help leaders reflect on their emotions and learn how emotions affect behavior. If one wants to gain a more advanced understanding of emotions, there are excellent resources such as books and online information. Tom Watson Jr. tells an interesting story about how he learned to deal with frustration and control. As the leader of IBM, he had tremendous power and authority over others. At home, however, his own wife and children would not listen to him. He realized that home has a context different than that of work, and he had to adjust accordingly.
CSR on behavior. CSR on behavior is a good place to start developing self-awareness because behavior is visible and provides a benchmark to assess deeper assumptions. Each of us internalizes a personal culture that has three levels. Level one is our material culture that dictates what we wear, our use of tools, and behavior. Level two covers our relationships, language, and espoused beliefs, and the third level is our core values and assumptions. When we engage in CSR on behavior, we want to get at the assumptions that underlie surface level behavior.
One effective technique that leadership coaches can use to help leaders understand the assumptions that underlie behavior is to examine contradictions. First, the leader has to keep a record of behaviors that are contradictory or confusing. For example, if a leader espouses empowerment but spends his time overmanaging or doing someone else's job, he needs to assess what the behavior says about himself and his assumptions about others. Both the leader and the coach can keep a list of these contradictory or confusing behaviors and then dig deeper to the underlying core assumptions.
We are attached to our standard way of doing things because it is familiar and gives us comfort and a sense of security. CSR is a means to raise awareness and to question and critically examine our perceptions, values, beliefs, norms, hopes, dreams, emotions, roles, modes of communication, and assumptions. This is tough work because our self-concept is invested in taken-for-granted ways of being.
Leadership coaches seek to create the conditions for leaders to rise above the familiar groove long enough to engage in CSR. They can benefit by using ideas from transformative adult learning theory and CSR to inform their practice. When we critically examine our socialization and early life experience, we begin to see how many of our ideas and norms were influenced by these experiences. In other words, we look at the factors of socialization.
Leadership coaches need to be aware that in fostering CSR, they are practicing confidence in the human capacity to choose freely. With the help of leadership coaches, leaders gain perspective on the familiar while encountering alternative ways to view self and one's role as a leader. T+D