Whole Self, Whole System


Systemic Coaching and Constellations pioneer Edward Rowland introduces a powerful new ‘wide-angle lens’ approach to transforming challenges in organisations

We live in an uncertain, high-pressured world where the pace of change is faster than ever before. The pressures and anxieties that this vortex of change places on individuals, especially leaders, are unprecedented. Many leaders, behind closed doors, report feeling bewildered, impotent and overwhelmed at the scale and rate of disruptive change in our rapidly unfolding digital age, according to Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon in their hard-hitting report, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in the Digital Age (2016). From a series of 60 confidential, one-to-one interviews with top-level leaders from across the globe working in corporates, government, and the humanitarian sector, a sobering picture emerges. “The leadership skills of tomorrow are fundamentally different to the leadership skills of today”, the authors argue.

Yet simultaneously, we live in an increasingly globally connected world where the opportunities for technological change, entrepreneurialism and social action seem greater than ever. In this volatile but promising context, coaching has come to play an increasingly central role in the development of leadership, organisational excellence and personal performance, becoming a multi billion-dollar business.

The Limits of Individualism

While many useful coaching models have emerged to meet this growing demand, from my work in organisations over the last 20 years, I’ve witnessed the limits of conventional coaching models that focus on the client as an individual actor, thereby failing to consider the opportunities and challenges of the broader systemic context in which the client lives and works.

Such coaching models are typically limited to a more cognitive approach, often overlooking the wider range of “ways of knowing” available; they also tend to impose some form of organisation and discipline on what the coach and the client already know and so avoid tackling the questions – and discovering the deep truths – that most deeply influence the client and systems surrounding her. Accordingly these conventional approaches rarely truly realise the creative potential of the client or their business, and reduce the chance for breakthrough results.

A Systemic Approach

Experience has also taught me that achieving breakthrough coaching results requires skilfully navigating the client’s systemic context, and in doing so courageously stepping into the unknown. This journey requires experience, insight and practice in working systemically, and the strength and skill to hold the tensions and discomforts of that journey.

Working systemically requires recognising we are embedded in systems. Our businesses survive and thrive only because of their dependence on a wider ecosystem of customers and suppliers, as well as the planet herself. Systemic coaching coaches the individual client or team with the system in mind – exploring the part in the whole, and the whole in the part – so as to unlock the potential and performance of both.

This way of working changes the game of coaching, rendering each coaching encounter a systemic intervention in itself.

Seeing the Bigger Picture: Finding Solutions that Serve Everyone

So how does it do this?

Firstly, it sets up maps (“constellations”) of a question or challenge within its wider systemic context. This mapping of key elements in a system can be done in the following different ways:

  • ‘Tabletop style’, using figures or post-its in 1-1 settings to represent key elements.
  • Using floormarkers, a useful way to help individual clients step into their resources, blockers and potential solutions more fully.
  • Helping intact teams to create maps of their own system.
  • Using people to represent other systems as part of a group simulation.

Whatever the method used, these maps illuminate systems dynamics that might otherwise be hidden or invisible. For example, since the leaders and teams we coach are always part of a larger system, they can often act as ‘symptom-bearers’ for that larger system. When leaders or senior teams carry difficult patterns belonging to the whole system which aren’t being fully addressed by the Board or executive team above them, it can be very hard to see or understand such systems dynamics – and to resolve them – without a wider systemic perspective and method.

Secondly, Systemic Coaching and Constellations draws from a set of underlying principles that this particular way of seeing systems has revealed. It works with the understanding that organisations are purposeful living systems subject to a ‘hidden architecture’ of systemic ordering forces that powerfully influence the relationships and dynamics arising in them. If organisations can attune to this architecture, there is a basic alignment in which all members of a system feel at ease – leading to a flow of leadership, trust and purposeful action, which enables solutions to emerge for the benefit of the whole system.

Benefits to Leaders

The benefits of Systemic Coaching and Constellations include:

  • Simplifying complexity: the often overwhelming sense of complexity leaders and executives can experience handling critical business and leadership challenges is usually lifted.
  • Untangling patterns: hidden dynamics in the relationships between different parts of the system are revealed, enabling stuck patterns, misplaced loyalties and outdated allegiances to be addressed and resolved.
  • Enabling innovation: by giving people a clearer sense of the the whole and ways forward that strengthen the whole system, the potential for innovation and energy to achieve excellence can be unlocked.
  • Finding our place: helping leaders find their own place in the system leads to a greater sense of belonging and wellbeing, and improves performance

Benefits to Coaches

There are also many benefits to coaches of working in this way, including helping us find our own best place in the client system, in relation to both the client organisation and any individual or team we’re working with. If we’re too close to the system, we might be captured by it and get caught up in ‘parallel process’ or the unhelpful dynamics of the client system; we might also take on the work of the client. Yet if we’re too far away we will have little impact on the system, and may be perceived as being withdrawn or ineffectual by the client. We can of course be too close to one part of the system and too far away from another simultaneously, a frequent dynamic for team coaches.

Yet finding our ‘right place’ helps us feel we have our ‘ground’ and presence to do our best work. We have the confidence to challenge when appropriate, and can see our client and their wider system with a clear perspective, building a sense of trust and reliability.

A Stance for Leaders and Coaches

Setting up maps systemically builds our embodied knowing and presence. After decades of organisational and leadership development initiatives in his own businesses, Bill O’Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance, wrote that: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener”. The Theory U movement, developed by Otto Scharmer at MIT in the U.S., has called the lack of attention to our interiority and presence, the ‘blind spot’ of leadership and change.

Using our ‘Self’ as an instrument, we learn that knowledge about systems can be accessed as a ‘felt sense’, not just through the mind but directly in the body – in our feelings and intuition (‘Whole Self’). This expanded awareness deepens our capacity to ‘zoom back’ and take a birds-eye view, so we can see, and listen for, what the wider system is trying to tell us (‘Whole System’). For leaders and coaches, the more we can raise our inner game, the more we can raise our outer one.

In Closing

Calling on our newfound capacities for presence, seeing the system as a whole, and attuning to our own purpose and right place within our organisation’s system, we can feel relaxed and well-placed to do our best work. And the more we deepen these capacities, the more we can guide others and businesses to create the best future possibilities and evolutionary pathways needed to reach their full potential.

Founder of The Whole Partnership, a training company catalysing purpose-led leadership in organisations, Edward Rowland is a pioneer in Systemic Coaching and Constellations who has run programmes at many leading global organisations, including Boston Consulting Group, VISA Europe, Said Business School and numerous UK government departments. With a background as a barrister in creative industries and various psychological disciplines, he has over 17 years’ experience of helping leaders, teams and organisations unfold their unique potential and creativity.

For information on upcoming Systemic Coaching and Constellations trainings, including a 3-day introductory Essentials programme 6-8 February, visit: www.wholepartnership.com/programme/systemic-coaching-programmes/