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The Challenges Facing Contemporary Professional Coaches and Their Clients

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The Global Challenge of Super Criticality

Something must change if we are to re-conceptualize the multiple threats we now confront as citizens of an increasingly complex, unpredictable and turbulent world (Bergquist and Mura, 2005). Thomas Friedman (2005, 2008) offers us the image of a world that is flat; I would add to this an image offered by David Smick (2008) of a world that is curved, with everybody turning back on themselves. Both Friedman and Smick’s worlds are in need of major repair and require significant learning and an abundance of wisdom. How do we learn in the midst of chaos and a constantly changing agenda? How does a 21st Century leader (such as Robert or Susan) learn when constantly faced with new imperatives and constantly-popping up emergencies?

Ronald Heifetz (1998) wrote a wonderful book more than a decade ago about “leadership without easy answers.” The worlds being portrayed by both Robert and Susan do not readily yield easy answers. Perhaps that is why they have asked me to be their coach. Together we can look for answers that are likely to be subtle and that must be frequently adjusted (or even abandoned). The worlds in which Robert and Susan live and work fit into the category called “complex.” They live in worlds that are poised on the edge of chaos. This state of super-criticality (Gladwell’s “tipping point”) is one in which learning is not easily engaged. Everything can change in a moment, so that what we have learned painfully during the past year (or month or even day) must suddenly be discarded or at least revised. How does one learn rapidly? “Just-in-time-learning” is not just a spinoff from the digital systems that can now convey knowledge very rapidly and in easily accessible modes. This type of learning has become a necessity in our curved-and-threatening world—and this type of learning is enhanced when a leader is accompanied by a professional coach.

New Knowledge and a New Epistemology

When I was an undergraduate major in psychology, everything centered on the work of Clark Hull’s model of human behavior and the other major camp in American behaviorism, led by B. F. Skinner. I happened to be at Harvard University during the “cognitive revolution” when eminent psychologists like Jerome Bruner were finally being taken seriously by all psychologists and Noam Chomsky was using the anomaly (Kuhn, 1962) called “language” to minimize the credibility of Skinnerian behaviorism. The cognitive revolution and more recently the neurobiological revolution (often coupled with the cognitive revolution) have forced us to rethink the way in which we think about the processes of learning and, in turn, the way in which we think about our acquisition of knowledge (epistemology). We are now more knowledgeable about the nature of knowledge.

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