Title: The Reflecting Glass. Professional Coaching for Leadership Development
Authors: Lucy West and Mike Milan
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My motivation for getting stuck into this book was jolted by the words on the back cover: "Leadership is currently one of the most hotly discussed topics in business. This is the first book that both identifies the characteristics of successful leadership and shows how these qualities can be developed." Bold claims; very bold claims indeed. A wave of excitement and depression washed over me as I read them. My excitement, as a rabid hooverer of coaching frameworks, stemmed from the prospect of being granted a glimpse of the Holy Grail: the ingredients of the leadership cake, and also how to bake it. However, as part of a leadership development consultancy, I allowed depression and envy to dilute the excitement before I was at risk of getting carried away. If someone’s cracked leadership, I thought, the rest of us are surely doomed and will need to find something else with which to tempt the punters.
As if this were too thin in ambition, the book also "surveys the field of executive coaching, including: its origins; the theoretical framework underpinning it; the forms it can take; the value it adds". And a comprehensive and useful survey it is too! But in my view this is more of a sideshow than the main event.
So, getting back to the Holy Grail, what are the characteristics of successful leadership and how can these qualities be developed? In one sense the authors finish the job when they set out their stall in the introduction. M.W. McCall Jr is quoted from an article in Harvard Business Review: "in a world of rapid change, the real measure of leadership is the ability to acquire needed new skills as the situation changes." I take this to mean that the key leadership quality is the appetite for dynamic learning. Bringing this form of learning into being requires leaders to participate in interactions that enable: "integrating thinking and strategy with intuition and feeling in a process of occupying his or her role creatively, intelligently and authentically."
If this represents the ingredients of the cake, what about the baking part? How does it all happen? Once more, the basic answer is covered in the introduction, in the form of a discipline labelled ‘Development Coaching’: "the creation of a structure in which the individual can stand back from his or her context, learn through a process of reviewing that context, and his or her performance within it, and then act on that learning. This process becomes successful as a result of certain conditions offered and maintained by the coach. Perhaps the most important condition offered by the coach is that of providing accurate and authentic reflection of thinking and feeling…."
Development coaching, and its roots in other disciplines and beliefs, is explored and detailed in other sections of the book. Case studies provide extra opportunities to get to grips with the principles on offer. Development coaching seems therefore to rest on the art and science of establishing and maintaining a dynamic, experimental, living and unfolding interaction. Which, in my version of the universe, makes learning the key skill of the coach also. So, in contrast to my doom-laden predictions, it seems that the future is bright; coaching is learning, and learning is leading. Being a coach and being a leader present pretty much the same challenges. The recipes outlined, I think, are valid, and offer plenty of opportunity for coaches and leaders who are willing to invest in learning.
In summary: a thoughtful, provocative and risky proposition, one that will demand commitment, effort, experience and practice to implement. And a welcome alternative to theory-based blah, blah, blah.
Castleton Partners Limited