As aspiring individuals and coaches alike, we are often inherently biased towards short term outcomes. Maybe as a coach, you’re looking ahead at six sessions where you are committed to quickly impacting your client’s life. Or, perhaps you’ve committed to six months to making some more substantive changes in your professional context and are eager to see the results. Or maybe the challenges you’re grappling with are changes that will inherently take you the next two years of concerted efforts to generate.
Regardless, in each of the above examples the propensity for short-term planning can be seen dominating the horizon of our aspirations. And when our horizon is too small, it affects how we think, feel, and act as we engage with those aspirations.
While short-term achievements are important for mobilizing resources in order to generate new behaviors, they rarely effectively foster development into the more rare and significant aptitudes found in more integrated stages of adult development. Many of us learn short-term planning in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. And no matter how fancy or sophisticated we may believe our short-term endeavors to be, employing this short-term planning circuitry inherently rests upon the neurological foundations of our youth— NOT our yet-to-be-enacted larger maturities as adults that can lead us collectively into a better tomorrow.
The reason this matters, especially in the realm of coaching, is that one of the ways developmental coaching can help people grow is by picking up and then operating on broader long-term contexts. Most adults need scaffolding here. While we all should continue to participate with our own short-term outcomes, we need to resist the gravitational pull to conform to these smaller contexts. This is especially true for developmental coaches, who may be tempted to promise and fixate on achieving “developmental shifts” in their clients within the short time horizons of a coaching engagement (something which is, for the most part, not probable). If we don’t manage our attention effectively—that is to say if we don’t leave the day-to-day contexts and constructs of our lives and gain a larger view of the broader features of our life—we can easily find the totality of our intentions and the subsequent actions that follow bound up in relatively small considerations. As developmental coaches, our roles are inherently married to expanding the contexts and constructs of our client’s lives beyond the habitual and the known.
Again, while being efficient in achieving short-term aims is a good skill we should retain, we must go beyond that in order to foster our own and our client’s ability to construct new rulers of value that operate on ever larger contexts and constructs. If we do not, we will find much of our time and attention coaching our clients to achieve outcomes that are less significant. This is especially true when those outcomes are being measured by our client’s yet-to-mature aptitudes for value. As such, a fundamental prerequisite for masterful developmental coaching involves invoking and operating on long-term contexts.
I define anything up two years as short term. Three years is a middle ground transition between short- and long-term objectives. Long-term initiatives unfold over the course of a minimum of four years. And from there, I break up long-term initiatives into four different categories. Four to five years is the first and easiest; beyond that I tend to focus on changes over the next decade.
When I’m working with leaders in organizational contexts I’m often planting seeds to think about and plan for the next 20-50 years. For many of my clients, this time frame envelops the majority of the rest of their lives. Inherent in this third category includes actively thinking about and planning for one’s own death and the ability to actively and whole-heartedly participate with that which matters most in life. Lastly, and most difficult, is to work with the next 100 to 1000 years and longer. This of course allows multi-generational vantage points to infuse your heart, mind and day-to-day actions.
For those of us working with ourselves and our clients developmentally, we must be able to grow in our abilities to conceive of and then sustainably act on long-term initiatives. For those interested in the more integrative dimensions of adult development we must at least be able to sustainably invest ourselves in focused action over many decades. And not just any action, but the most important actions that are intimately connected to the ultimate gestures of service binding our hearts to our lives.
The cornerstore of this capacity rests on our honest confrontation with our own mortality, and the finitude of all that we love in this world. In order to do this we need the ability to actively and openly confront our deaths. Maturity is grown through the conscious work of reckoning with, and then taking responsibility for, our lives within the context of our passing, and situating our actions within this frame of ultimate significance.
If we cannot measure our lives from our finality, then we will remain fundamentally distracted in the lesser purposes of what it means to be who we are. The more intimate you can become with the reality of your own approaching death, the more clear you will become on the overarching mission of your life. When you participate with this unique life-force in full recognition of what it is—a fleeting, and quickly passing opportunity—your goals and the aspirations that guide your life become fundamentally more rewarding, devastating and valuable. And if you are to be a support to your clients in doing this, then you must first be living your own mission with this profound and sincere orientation.
From this place, the practice and skill of goal setting, and the relative value of our short-term goals is radically reorganized by the urgency of our mortality. Or, looked at another way, if we don’t take seriously the reality of our own passing, we won’t ever be able to grapple with the true meaning of value and actually bind ourselves to the pursuit of those most meaningful and valuable goals—for our own lives, and for the lives of generations to follow us.
When we turn our attention to developmental coaching, embodied mastery requires that we participate in the advanced curriculum of adulthood, in which our confrontation with mortality is a pivotal and critical step. Through this maturation, we gain the ability to bring the more full intents of our lives into intimate contact with our current contexts. This is how we develop the skill to seamlessly marry these two often divorced contours of life; intention and action, purpose and goal. On the one hand, we have our penetrating insight into the meaning of our lives. These orientations reveal our more sincere aspirations and intentions. And then there are the day-to-day contexts to grapple with. For many of us these are two very different parts of life. But for our more evolved selves these are one and the same. The whole of your life is a tapestry through which your mission takes shape and, over time, weaves the story of how you are living the question of what it means to live fully and well within the context of your own short life.
Now, not all of our clients are ready to explicitly enact this radical confrontation with themselves and their lives. But as a developmental coach, your position is never agnostic. Either you are implicitly seeding the possibility of this fruition in the future, or you are merely watering the existing person as they know themselves today, including their mission-annihilating choice to turn away from the reality of death and attempt to live as if it were not, in some actual sense, true. Personally I find it more rewarding to be watering the seeds of a humanity that can re-envision itself into a more beautiful, powerful and ethical species. But more importantly perhaps, I believe it is the best possible choice that we can make when we find ourselves in the privileged position of being invited to help another person to grow and develop.
I encourage you to find out what you are implicitly nurturing in yourself, and in your clients’ lives. And I encourage you to commit to going beyond the the short-term contexts of your life or your client’s lives. Our world and our shared future depend upon it.
Rob McNamara is a faculty member of the Integral Facilitator Certificate program, a Leadership Coach and author of The Elegant Self. A leading expert on adult development and human performance, his coaching services help individuals increase their scope of influence where it matters most personally and professionally.