How can executive coaching support sustainability?

Leaders are increasingly called to tackle complex, ambiguous and uncertain problems – and no issue is more challenging than humanity’s sustainability in the face of climate change, dwindling natural resources and massive social upheaval.

Coaching provides a space in which leaders can test and stretch their thinking, take longer time frames into account, and reflect on important questions about meaning and purpose. So coaching would seem an ideal vehicle to help leaders tackle complex issues like sustainability. Yet leaders, even in organisations with an explicit environmental remit, rarely, if ever bring sustainability into a coaching conversation. Instead they are far more likely to focus on their individual and team performance, or at best consider an organisation-wide perspective.

Why is this?

For a start, many business leaders are almost overwhelmed by immediate, pressing problems. In the face of such stress, it’s natural to take a narrow focus. Few have roles that include an explicit brief on sustainability, although one might argue that every senior leader needs to look at the context within which their business exists and consider its long term viability. Additionally, adult-development theory (see e.g, Susan Cook-Greuter, Bill Torbert, Bill Joiner) suggests that leaders grow over time into a greater capacity to take into account multiple perspectives and longer time frames.  So perhaps relatively few leaders have reached a level of maturity that supports curiosity about complex challenges with long term implications but little immediate pain.

Likewise when executive coaches are asked about their role in supporting sustainability, most refer to their client’s personal resilience to fulfil a leadership role and maintain a healthy personal life. The idea that coaches might support their clients to engage with a bigger definition of sustainability, relating to the health of the planet, tends to be viewed with wariness. Typically coaches fear that introducing sustainability into the agenda will hijack the coaching process and not respect the client’s agenda. To do so would therefore constitute a breach of coaching ethics.

Is there a way forward?

I believe there are several things that can help executive coaching ethically support sustainability.

Coaches who view sustainability as an important issue and are willing to include it within a coaching agenda, need to be more willing to name their interest “up-front” and hold this as an explicit part of their coaching. This would signal to a prospective client an important aspect of the coach’s ethical stance, and create an opportunity to explore the relevance of sustainability during the initial chemistry and contracting phase.

Another option is to broaden the coaching context to go beyond its traditional focus on the client being the individual leader and his or her organisation.  By asking questions that invite a leader to take increasing perspectives into account it is possible, and ethical, to help a leader appreciate their impact on an ever increasing range of stakeholders.  The ultimate stakeholder might even be construed as the health of the planet!  Although this may sound unrealistic, many companies are already using the triple bottom line to guide their corporate strategy. The three ‘bottom lines’ are economic/financial, environmental and social.

Our responsibility as coaches or leaders

Whatever our role in organisational life, whether executive coach or leader, it’s all too easy to get stuck trying to solve short-term problems. And there are times when it is right and proper to have such a focus. Yet I argue that both coaches and leaders have a responsibility too, to lift our heads above the immediate, often self-focused concerns of business life, and bring our collective talents to bear on the big, complex and messy challenges that will impact not just us, but many many others around the world for generations to come.

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