What kinds of skills do coaches need to raise the quality of leadership engagement? What kind of behaviours do leaders need to foster positive connections with employees? These are familiar questions for coaches who focus on leadership development, but perhaps there is a particular focus that is increasingly significant – coaches who understand stages of adult consciousness as a critical component of leadership development. I believe that never has there been quite such urgency to find credible direction for leaders in an era of unprecedented turbulence and unpredictable outcomes. An insight into stages of adult consciousness development helps us know what range of complexity, of perspective-taking, is possible for our coaches as aspiring leaders. But first – a caveat: we as coaches need to have at least an informed sense of our own stage of consciousness development, as well as our own dedicated ongoing self-work. Let me put these conjectures in a particular context.


A few months ago, the CEO of a design company expressed his coaching goal as his intention to transform the culture of his company to ‘teal’ (a term derived from Ken Wilber’s colour-coded stages of human consciousness development, ‘teal’ being about the highest emergent level of human consciousness). My client, Bryan, was referring to the capacity for teams to work together effectively without conventional organizational structures. A  teal organisation is characterized by its people having moved beyond the need for typical hierarchical corporate structures in order to function efficiently. A teal organisation, as described by Frederic Laloux (2014) in his book Reinventing Organisations, differs from conventional corporate structures as it does not have rigid hierarchical roles with teams who answer to managers, who in turn do all the decision-making for how to meet strategic goals. The architecture of a teal organisation consists, instead, of interlocking circles of evolving roles, aligned around a common purpose, where decision-making is distributed throughout the organisation and any employee can make any decision as long as they have sought the input of all those who might be affected. Consistent with Bryan’s values and his passion as a leader in creativity, in a teal company diversity is prized and people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work in contrast to suppressing those parts of themselves that do not fit a defined corporate culture.  


(Are you aware of any organisations that you have worked with in South Africa that operate effectively with all the above conditions? Just asking…) 


The capacity for self-management was particularly appealing to Bryan as a transformative goal. He was frustrated, he said, with the resistance of teams and team leaders to embrace a healthy autonomy, though he claimed to invite them to do so. The amount of unproductive time spend in meetings was adding to his frustration, not to mention the moribund state of his ExCo. ‘These are people I’ve known for many years and consider my friends; we’ve achieved great things together. But now that the company has grown so rapidly, somehow we’ve lost that ease with one another; we’re polite rather than friends – we’re just not connecting.’  At meeting after meeting, the ExCo argued over process improvements, intended to increase productivity and profits – but among the fifteen members, no single approach was ever jointly decided upon – so nothing changed. Bryan believed that if coaching could help him and help his ExCo transform his company culture to ‘teal’, their present stuckness would dissolve and the company would re-ignite with energized productivity.  


At the first workshop to share Bryan’s vision, the ExCo agreed in principle that this transformation of the company culture and way of working was desirable – but how to initiate this in practice?  The challenge with Bryan’s vision is that transformation into a teal organisation is a way of being, a set of unconditional behaviours that are essential to be in place before anyone gets to even think about process improvements. It is a shift in the level  and range of conscious awareness that evolves over the course of a life.  This meant in Bryan’s ExCo that fifteen individuals needed not only to conceive of these requisite behaviours (cognitive awareness), but also would need to have similar levels of access to the experiential, felt sense of what it takes to live fully in this way of being, moment to moment (emotional, spiritual and interpersonal intelligence). 


Neuroscience, especially research in the area of psychoneuroimmunology, is providing bundles of evidence for the fact that we are truly connected and affect one another every single day, that we influence our own immune functioning by how we feel and what we believe. What does this have to do with leadership, coaching and stages of consciousness development?  Everything! Authors like Dan Siegel (Mind, Aware), Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Immunity to Change), Amanda Blake (Your Body is Your Brain), Bruce Lipton (The Biology of Belief) and Bessel Van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score) to name very few on this growing list of researchers,  give irrefutable evidence that the one critical capacity that stands between a potentially harmful knee-jerk reaction and a considered healthy response is – mindfulness, constant reflective practice.


A huge amount of work in incremental steps has to be undertaken before employees and their managers can recreate themselves as ‘teams of interlocking circles of evolving roles’. In the first place, it takes discipline  – not a word that initially sprang to mind in Bryan’s teams when employees were reveling in the thought of abolishing hierarchical levels of reporting. And in ExCo, members started to resist the notion of not having clear dominant role to play, with teams who expect them as leaders to come up with the answers,  whose job it is to do all the decision-making. As one person said, “What will I have left to do? What will I be paid for?” 


In spite of their specific title, like CFO or COO, leaders often play multiple roles – mentor, subject expert, creative thinker, courageous decision-maker, problem-solver, negotiator.  A key area of development in coaching for this kind of transformed organisation is developing leaders to have strong coaching competencies. In a company of several teams and their leaders, where decision-making is distributed throughout the company, the role of the executive leader is likely to be more taxing initially than before. They need to ensure that all members of a team have a mutually nominated leader – and this team leadership role may be only for the duration of a particular project before the mantle is passed on to the next most appropriate person to head up a particular project. They need to be the role-players in how members in a team communicate with one another, how each person is both expected to and given time to participate in decision-making. The leader’s role in the decision-making process is anything but hands-off (as some ExCo members feared). Neither should it be autocratic. Their role is to have the wisdom and self-control to foster good decision-making practices in their teams: who was consulted to source accurate skills information, about the state of the budget and spending limits, about others who may be affected by the decision. Ultimately the executive leader’s role, in line with the best of coaching, is to ask the good open questions that lead people to think well for themselves – and live with decisions that they perhaps would not have made themselves but which they realise will not sink the ship. 


While there was immense enthusiasm aligned around a common purpose, the most perilous part of this transformational journey is the first few months. The first step of the journey is a commitment for each to practice behaviours and attitudes would enable each member to hear one another differently, to deeply listen without letting judgement get in the way. It is a practice that, over time, steadily raises emotional intelligence, by placing a mindfulness buffer between knee-jerk reactions and impulsive interruptions, and a considered response.  


Under stress, people default to more familiar directive behaviours that may be destructive to emergent trust in the new ‘rules of the game’. 


The main challenge in working with Bryan’s people across the board, in my view, has been the unevenness of emotional maturity – a key marker of accelerated consciousness development is the ability to hold multiple perspectives, be open to ideas that differ wildly from one’s own and to manage one’s emotions. It does not follow that senior manager or team leader who is brilliant technically will be capable of great emotional maturity than a younger less experienced member of staff.  The theories and texts of researchers into stages of adult development (Ken Wilber, Lawrence Kohlberg, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Robert Kegan, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, for example) are readily available, however these can be complex to assimilate and it is difficult to know how to translate descriptors of stages of adult development into simple every-day life, to convert theory into accessible practice. Authors like Jennifer Garvey-Berger (Changing on the Job) and Tatiana Bachirova (Developmental Coaching) have done just this – they offer practical guidelines on how to recognize and work with simplified key levels of development – and there are other great resources to be found online, like articles by Barret Brown, Nick Petri and from the Centre for Creative Leadership. 


In 1974 Clare Graves published a paper entitled, Human Nature Prepares for a Momentous Leap. It is uncannily prescient given the current global Coronavirus crisis:  he writes that his research “indicates that man is learning that values and ways of living which were good for him at one period in his development are no longer good because of the changed condition of his existence. He is recognizing that the old values are no longer appropriate, but he has not yet understood the new.” My hope for us coaches who work to develop leaders-as-coach is that we help one another and our clients step into the emergent new world with connectedness, generosity of spirit and a deep desire to bring about the conditions of human relationship that make us all thrive.


1. Not his real name.


23rd March 2020

Dorrian Aiken

For Coaching Journal April 2020