Organisational Complexity and Implications for Leadership and Coaching

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In some organisations coaching sometimes sits awkwardly in the Learning and Development function – being seen more as an “ad hoc” tool used by HR rather than a standard tool for training and development. However, a number of authors in the coaching arena, for example Tony Grant and Elaine Cox, point to very strong correlations between adult learning theory and coaching principles. In fact Tony Grant’s well accepted model of coaching is based strongly on Kolb’s experiential learning model and work by Olivero has demonstrated that training supported by coaching is far superior to training alone in attaining sustained behavioural change.

On of the areas in which coaching is commonly used in organisations is in the development and training of those in mid to senior organisational leadership roles, especially those new to their roles. In these cases, it quite normal for the individual to be assigned a coach or mentor and sent on leadership development courses. More often than not, the choice of leadership course, and the models underpinning it, is determined by the organisation – as are the choice of coach or mentor and the areas for coaching and mentoring.

I’ve always been curious as to how, and on what basis, leadership development programs are chosen. It is was with this in mind that I recently read “Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management – Meeting the Challenge of Complexity” by Ralph Stacey (2012)”. A mixture of science, philosophy, organisational psychology and social science, Stacey argues that the leadership and management models commonly used in organisations have not been proven to work and will not be proven to work. This is because the “if…..then” causality for these models to do what is claimed for them simply does not apply to human interaction, and it is human interaction – in the form of conversation and the meaning that is made in these conversations – that ultimately determines organisational performance. Further, expert leaders and managers must move past prescriptive tools and techniques and exercise practical judgement in the ambiguity and uncertainty of today’s organisations.

In previous works Stacey Stacey presents the conversation as the best analogue of complex processes. that occur in organisations. Conversations are creative and enlightening when:

  • they deal honestly with real issues
  • lead to new insights
  • are responsive to the environment
  • challenge one’s understanding and practice
  • they are iterative, not repetitive.
  • they are safe enough to enable 1-5 to take place.

Current leadership and management models cannot control organisational outcomes because they cannot control the conversations that occur in an organisation: It is the conversations that occur at the local level that ultimately construct the organisation. However, these models do allow for the organisational control of bodies and the activities of those bodies to a considerable degree i.e. where people are in the organisation and what physical activities they do. In this sense, Stacey argues that leadership and management models are simply the techniques of disciplinary power of surveillance, normalisation and examination. – to which leaders and managers are also subject. Leaders and managers have some limited ability to design rules, procedures and routines but they can never fully how they are taken up in local situations.

The expert leadership and management needed for the complexity of organisations takes the form of practical judgement. This pattern recognising capacity is developed through experience but can be enhanced and sustained by supervision and mentoring to develop skills like reflexive inquiry, wider and deeper communications skills, sensitivity to group dynamics, and an awareness of purpose, values and ethics.

The leadership model proposed by Cavanagh (2012) seems to align nicely with Stacey’s view of the requisite skills for leaders and managers to work effectively with the complexity of organisations. Cavanagh proposes a four factor model of the skills to work effectively as managers and/or leaders:

Perspective Taking Capacity – the ability to take multiple perspectives on what is happening

Mindfulness – the ability to stay calm in the face of stress and tension.

Purpose – they are going somewhere.

Positivity – they create positive “emotional spaces” and are able to bring out the best in others

I now find myself evaluating what difference the systemic approach advocated by Stacey and the Four Factor model proposed by Cavanagh will make to what I actually do as a coach.

The people I coach accomplish their work by engaging in conversations and making choices that reflect their ideologies. Coaching provides an opportunity for them to abstract from their experience to better understand what is going on within them and without them. My coaching in this context might better serve them by directing attention to what they are actually doing, rather than trying to apply prescriptive models. Noticing how I am showing up in certain coaching conversations and awareness of the systems I am in, and how they are impacting me before I start to try to understand the coachee’s systems, will be critical if I am to do this successfully.

Understanding the coaching relationship as a system into which I bring my individual ideologies, norms and values, and in which meaning is co-created, iterative and contextual, will encourage me to relate to clients by holding both our stories more lightly. However, I have always viewed coaching as an iterative process and feel the solution focused approach to coaching very much fosters an emergent rather than definitive approach to the coaching conversation. Socratic questioning, Self Determination Theory and Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment approaches are all part of my coaching armamentarium and well suited to encouraging self reflection, emphasising personal values and encouraging reflection on how these are manifested for the coachee, and in their interactions with others. There is plenty of evidence for this being a useful approach. The key difference moving forward will be how they inform me as to what is going within and without me as well as how they inform the coachee.

I have previously thought that a deeper understanding of self and others is not worth much unless it produces a new set of tools and techniques. My challenge as a coach is not to learn more techniques, skills and models but to develop my phronetic skills and learn to rely on practical wisdom and judgement. Practical judgement, based on an awareness of my own values and purpose, will guide me in  knowing when to hold conversations open and when to close them and increase my sensitivity to the dynamics in the coaching relationship.  This reflects the  inherent tension between coaching research and practice:  Whereas science highlights the search for objective, generalisable truths, practitioners are more interested in knowledge that is subjective and applicable to individuals. Engaging with this tension offers the possibility for contextually new and creative ways to improve my coaching.

In the interests of readability and space I have removed most of the references from this article. A fully referenced copy of the above article can be obtained by emailing me on

Organisational Complexity and Implications for Leadership and Coaching