It’s 2001 and I’m standing on an elevated ridge in the White Mountains of Maine in the United States. My map is laid out in front of me on a flat rock, and with compass in hand I’m triangulating our group’s location. We are about to immerse our team into a thick deciduous forest for about 15 miles. The orienting calculations we make now have everything to do with our success of getting to our extraction point before we run out of food and fuel. It’s these fine measurements here on this ridge that will allow us to be successful later on. And with the right understanding of our location right now, we can calibrate each bearing, shoot from tree to tree, and plot an accurate course through the forest.
Fast forward, and today the terrain of exploration has shifted from that deciduous forest to the complex and beautiful landscape of my clients’ inner worlds. While mountaineering, coaching and leading all appear different enough on the surface, they all present similar challenges. One of the biggest similarities is the need to have an accurate understanding of where we are orienting from. Whether we are leading a team through the wilderness, leading an organization through challenging times, or scaffolding clients to achieve the most meaningful changes in their lives, our orienting reference points inform where we can ultimately go together.
To effectively move forward, we need to understand our present locations. To make progress we need to know where we are advancing from. And to expand or develop new abilities we need to understand what skills are already available.
Understanding our own developmental orientations is key for effectively navigating our lives, and it is critically important for coaches, because development is always powerfully influencing every facet of our lives. Within the territory of coaching, our developmental orientation is a prerequisite for how we coach our clients. And our understanding of our clients’ development is the foundation that our coaching is built on.
As a way to begin, try glimpsing into the complexity of your own development.
Now you’ll notice, I asked you to glimpse into the complexity of your development. I didn’t ask you about complicated developmental ideas. And I didn’t ask you to pin-point yourself on a developmental scale.
Many of us who are part of the conversation about development today make the mistake of too quickly classifying ourselves developmentally. In doing so, we miss complexity and instead engage with facets of ourselves that are complicated. Instead of relating from and with ourselves as fluid, dynamic and changing, we presume ourselves to be static and fixed, albeit complicated, human beings.
Many of us learned a developmental theory and tagged ourselves at a particular stage. Or we took an assessment delivering us a tidy developmental location that we’ve kept in mind ever since. It is true that rigorous developmental thinking must be grounded in sound research and robust models. However, all too often once we get a whiff of how to locate ourselves and others, we are off to the races cataloging and classifying the rest of the people, groups, teams, organizations, cultures and countries around us. It doesn’t take long before we believe we can see the entire world developmentally.
As a starting point, this can be a good thing; however, we must go further—especially if we’re interested in fulfilling our potential as coaches.
To go one step further, focus your attention into yourself. Get curious about yourself as a dynamic set of living developmental processes—not a location. Abide in the mysterious, profound and often humbling developmental nuances of who and what you are. Surprise yourself. Discover yourself anew, even in the everyday contours you enact day-in and day-out. Your investigations into your own living developments can up-level what you provide interpersonally with your coaching clients.
This is because masterful developmental coaching requires us to advance and evolve our relationship to development. We must penetrate the more static abstract ideas of development and get into relationship with the fluid, changing and living contours of development. Our view must go beyond fixed and firm developmental locations and participate with ongoing developmental processes. This breaks us free from the more abstract and conceptually rarefied developmental distinctions some of us get trapped in. When we do this, instead of the neat and conceptually tidy realm of development, we discover a mysterious living ecosystem with multilayered expressions of development in processes of ongoing change.
In the mastery end of developmental coaching spectrum, we no longer understand ourselves as inhabiting one location developmentally. Instead we are perceiving and participating with the living, uncertain, and dynamic variability of development. Skillfully operating on our client’s developmental complexity means that we’re able to see, hear, feel and think about developmental movements as they occur in real time—both in ourselves and our clients. We are attuned to experience our multiplicities, and theirs—which is to say, we experience how we’re inhabiting multiple developmental locations or aptitudes in every moment.
Put simply, you discover that you are not singular. You are plural. And this plurality becomes a living quality that guides how you relate with the complexity of your clients and yourself.
Developmental coaching at the mastery level has outgrown the comfort of static, firm and consistent ideas about ourselves and our clients. And this is what makes it masterful—it holds a higher resolution view (more accurate) perception of our clients as complex, living developmental processes.
To do this we as coaches must inhabit our own dynamism. Doing so is itself a participatory act of development that yolks us towards more complex aptitudes that we, our clients, and our world may very well need. Inhabiting our own mysterious dynamism we attain a more adequate vantage point on the immediate surrounding terrain of ourselves and our clients. With these more accurate perceptions, we can orient more effectively, understand what’s realistic and possible. We are more creative, and we are more fluid. This leads to more ingenious design, better planning, more robust strategies, and more vibrant and diverse expression of ourselves and the people around us. All of which ultimately supports better outcomes—not merely better tactical and strategic outcomes, but aesthetically enriching and ethically robust advances. All this goodness can flow organically from our intimate enactments with our own vibrant developmental processes.
So, as you finish this blog post, peer in. Where are you orienting from? How about now? Where are you headed right now? What are you in this moment? And, what capabilities are you enacting? If you look closely you’ll see all these are in flux, and that’s a good finding.
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.