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A Developmental Perspective in Coaching

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Maslow developed the hierarchy of needs to accentuate the developmental nature of our wish to strive for more. Erikson taught us about the layers of identity we develop over the life course. Kegan drew our attention to understanding the implications of stages of adult development relative to individuation, while Gilligan focused attention on the gender differences in our developmental journey. Psychology teaches us a healthy respect for the power of the past when we are working to make changes, and the subfield of positive psychology illuminates areas of particular relevance to coaching in the leadership domains—including emotional intelligence, optimism, and engagement factors. Systems theory illuminates for us the power of homeostasis in a system of any size and the challenge we have as coaches to fully appreciate and work to uncover the natural underlying resistance to change. Charles Handy teaches us about the paradox involved in any change and the force at which change is hurling itself onto us as a culture today.

Learning theory includes the contributions of David Kolb, Chris Argyris, Malcolm Knowles and others, and this arena teaches us how learning – ranging from deep transformative learning to the smaller behavioral shifts – occurs and articulates the necessary ingredients that must be in place for learning to be optimal. As coaches, we know that learning is one of the most vital elements in developing, growing and changing during our adult years. Finally, philosophy always continues to be a source of wisdom, and contemporary postmodern work of Fernando Flores, Ken Wilbur and others builds on these philosophical roots while seeking to articulate an overarching theory of development that transcends all pre-existing conceptualizations combining the best of Eastern and Western thinking.

At the Hudson Institute we have continued to study developmental patterns in our adult journey and we’ve come to believe it’s time for a fundamental change of consciousness, from linear to cyclical notions of how life works at all levels of human systems. For decades, the field of adult development focused almost solely on a linear, age and stage approach to under- standing our adult journey; yet in today’s fast paced world, filled with fewer rules and social predictability, it’s not as relevant to map our development as individuals, leaders and organizations to ages, predictable stages, and the social constraints and social forces of the past.

At one time in history the sigmoid curve seemed to do a pretty good job of summing up the story of life as individuals and as businesses – we begin the journey slowly, experimenting, vacillating and wavering along the way; we wax and then we slow down and inevitably decline and diminish. Today it’s not quite that simple, and whether we turn to the well-known developmental and longitudinal work of Erik Erikson or the organizational life cycle articulated by Eric Flamholtz, this thoroughly predictable linear pattern we could ‘count on’ in the late-industrial age, is not as workable a blueprint for our development anymore. Life is literally changing too rapidly to hold on to a predictable map with a one way direction. As Hudson (1999a, p. 31) observes, “Ever since the industrial revolution, linear thinking has dominated our consciousness with its basic notions of progress, perfectionism, success, happiness, and planned change. A linear perspective portrays life as a series of advances from simple to complex, from lower to higher, and from good to better.”

Today, change happens at lightning speed within the individual system and the largest of organizations; our challenge is not just managing and surviving change, it’s learning to live with it, leverage it, and feel fully engaged and alive. As we orient our lives to this time in history, we need to shift away from a linear paradigm toward a cyclical one and shift our thinking from progress to process.

At the Hudson Institute we advocate a holistic model of development and change – one that encompasses and accounts for the context in which we live while simultaneously acknowledging our individual journey in life. Whether we are coaching a leader at the peak of her career or an early career person looking to define her own path, or a successful mid-career leader who is burned out and bored with the current scenario at hand, it’s essential that we, as coaches, understand the developmental terrain in all contexts.

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