As more people experience anxiety from a polycrisis of intersecting societal disruptions, some even anticipate societal collapse, while the unfortunate have already been experiencing breakdowns in their own societies. In such circumstances it can be normal to look to people in senior positions to solve the problems. Conversely, if we currently hold a senior position, it can be normal to look to ourselves to have the answers and offer reassurance. But just because it is ‘normal’ does not mean it is logical. Research on leadership has identified our human propensity to over emphasize the importance of senior role holders when we think times are tough (or when things are fantastic, but never when things seem just ordinary). Aggrandizing the importance of supposedly good or bad people at the top of a hierarchy is itself a reason for such widespread bad leadership – something that Richard Little and I discussed in a chapter in a book that asked why there are so many bad leaders. Instead, we can all take more time to understand systems of social organizing and help people to collaborate for positive outcomes. With the right support, senior leaders can help, not hinder, that process. Where might such support come from? Most senior executives are coached. Indeed, coaching is not only a large business sector, but potentially highly influential in how senior leaders better grapple with the developing polycrisis and spreading breakdowns of systems in societies. In a recent seminar I gave on the opportunity for coaches to make a difference, hosted by the Climate Coaching Alliance, I was joined by coaches Katie Carr and Matthew Painton. They specialize in supporting people who are seeking to integrate their awareness of likely or unfolding societal collapse. I am delighted Matthew will be discussing these topics in a Deep Adaptation Q&A later this month. Ahead of that, below he shares his thoughts on how coaches can respond to the current situation. Over to Matthew…
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Let’s face it, coaching and (non-clinical) therapy are privileged modalities – it requires disposable time and income to undergo elective processes of self-improvement. Generally, it is people who are already doing relatively well, or who have high expectations of themselves and of life who tend to engage expert, non-clinical, support and attention. But we could also say that every human being on earth, without exception, deserves to be seen, to be encouraged, to have wise and dedicated allies, to be ‘brought-on’, and to have close attention from someone with faith in their wholeness and potential, who will help them cope and develop into maturity in this complex and challenging world. In an ideal world, sustained and skillful attention from someone who is competent and dedicated to our well-being, as coach, mentor, counsellor, therapist, elder or tutor would be freely available on demand. But in this market-driven world such attention has become an artificially scarce commodity.
Decades of neo-liberal assault and institutional capture have pretty much succeeded in making a market out of all aspects of social life, a market which relentlessly concentrates global wealth and well-being. So the bottom line is that coaching, therapy and self-development modalities, as well as the roles of ‘client’ and ‘practitioner’ all exist within, and are shaped by the prevailing market dynamics.
The prevailing market-paradigm is deeply grounded in the concept and model of the autonomous, rational individual. In other words, therapeutic and developmental modalities and the business models that professionalise and deliver them, have been developed and optimised over time, within a paradigm that ideologically and economically foregrounds the individual. The individual is seen as both the author of their own mal-adaptive behaviours and the agent of well-being, progress, development, leadership and change. By focusing on the individual, these modalities background ‘reality’, so that social norms are assumed to be an eternal and inevitable given. But in fact, reality is an invisible and ever-changing web of inter-being – the social and ecological systems and relationships that give rise to and sustain the appearance of ‘self-actualising individuals’. Therapeutic and developmental tools and processes aimed at individual progress and well-being, work really well in the prevailing paradigm, for people that can afford it, and they are optimised and marketed to deliver tangible benefits to the individual, which are worth paying for. And if the client is not paying for the coaching or therapy, if it is the state or an organisation footing the bill, then there will certainly be overt or covert expectation of ‘benefits to the system’ in the contract, which constrain and define the limits, boundaries and relevant topics of the process.
So, in the prevailing paradigm, practitioner and client are both highly incentivised to collude in the presumption that the ‘state of reality itself’ is not the relevant and primary topic of concern. It is the individual’s orientation within reality and their response to it that is the exclusive topic of concern. The practitioner and/or the client may each have private concerns about our social systems, but they are habitually left at the door, since their consideration is unlikely to deliver tangible benefits to the individual (or organisation) that would be worth paying for. There is also a strong ethical presumption for practitioners that the client is ‘entitled’ to feel good and to be in ignorance or denial about the unfolding planetary-scale cataclysm, a presumption which is clearly against everyone’s best interest.
Until very recently there has been no discernible ‘market’ for anything other than narrowly self-focused therapy and personal development. But things are changing very quickly. The planet-sized elephant in the room is becoming ever more apparent to everyone, urgently demanding novel practices, processes, competencies, and outcomes – and business models to deliver them – that foreground the dire state of reality and enable collective responses over self-actualisation, and which very large numbers of people can afford and disseminate.
The emergence of novel and distinct forms of ‘larger-than-me reality distress’, such as eco-grief and climate-anxiety, change everything and require a whole new ‘psychology of the self’. These perfectly legitimate types of distress do not originate in the individual and cannot be solved by the individual, they are inherently relational, systemic and transpersonal issues which threaten to overwhelm the self and the reality in which the self exists. These transpersonal forms of distress call our attention to domains of being that are larger and more foundational to reality than the individual, and to qualities of distress and systemic dysfunction that the individual cannot easily metabolise, change or hope to withstand. Larger-than-me reality distress calls our attention to things that are inherently overwhelming, threatening and unsolvable – to the actually occurring, planetary-scale disaster which is only ever going to get worse.
What if the very fabric and structure of reality itself, the eco-social, civilisational systems in which we are immersed and are obliged to enact, start to appear incoherent, irrational, unstable and delusional, and a legitimate cause of existential anxiety, perpetual outrage and threat arousal? And what if it becomes increasingly apparent that the privileges, entitlement and expectations of homo-colossus, the very norms by which we come to know and sustain ourselves, are causal to the meta-crisis? Then, as practitioners we find ourselves in the unprecedented position of therapeutically and developmentally managing a contraction of life expectations, autonomy, freedom and unrestrained self-actualisation against the likelihood of perpetually disrupted and terrifying futures that none of us actually want to arrive in. What do coaching and therapy look like in these circumstances? What do ‘progress’ and ‘self-realisation’ and ‘growth’ look like, and what are the tangible benefits and the optimal outcomes – that people might pay for – when anticipating and living into a future that will be far worse than the present?
One relatively easy possibility, especially for coaching, is the ‘hero’s path’ – self actualising as climate or eco-hero, social justice warrior, change leader or off-grid home-steader for example. However, these ‘planet-saving’ archetypes still foreground and elevate the individual, rather than the community of being, as the primary locus of response to the meta-crisis. As practitioners, if we are disposed to explore ‘reality’ and our practice through the prisms of planetary meta-crisis, collapse, deep ecology and deep adaptation, the foregrounding of the self-actualising, heroic individual starts to become ever-more problematic. Heroic, salvation responses are still ‘homo-colossus’, albeit in a noble guise. As psychologists, therapists, facilitators and coaches what’s really needed are the skills to foster anti-fragile, co-operative, resilient and regenerative communities. Communities that can hope to withstand what’s coming, based in the transpersonal reality of ‘interbeing’, the greater reality which homo-colossus is habitually dissociated from.
There are some great initiatives. The Climate Psychology Alliance’s ‘Through the Door’ initiative literally takes therapeutic practice out of the consulting room and into the community at large, boldly urging us ‘to stop gazing at the mirror’s reflection and instead look through the window at the world outside’. They speak of micro-interventions and ‘therapy for the commons’, outside of the privileged practice room. The Deep Adaptation Facilitators develop and disseminate practices such as Deep Listening and Deep Relating, which are aimed at enabling ‘new ways of being together’ for people that are suffering larger-than-me reality distress. Both initiatives rely heavily upon voluntary service and the gift economy.
The Deep Adaptation Guides was set up with three main aims;
- As a community of practice for collapse-aware practitioners from a wide range of therapeutic and developmental modalities to find support and to come together to co-adapt their practices.
- To enable clients in need to find collapse-aware practitioners so that they do not need to justify or tone down their reality distress and can make critical and wise life-decisions grounded in the reality and needs of the metacrisis [or metadisaster].
- To enable practitioners to publicly ‘set out their stall’ and make a living as collapse-aware professionals, so that they do not only have to gift or volunteer their skills, or offer them ‘on the side’ of their main, ‘business as usual’ practice and can afford to offer what’s really needed.
Aside from these and other notable exceptions, the mainstream ‘industries’ of coaching, counselling and therapy are just as much in denial as every other sector of society, and market forces (or perverse incentives) continue to play a constraining and defining role in what’s demanded and what seems possible. As the planetary meta-crisis continues to accelerate we can expect to see tsunamis of anxiety, distress, polarisation, trauma, conflict, cognitive dissonance, denial, and reactionary, narrowly self-serving, individualistic responses which accelerate the meta-crisis. We need heroes far less than we need coherent and adaptive communities which can pull together in order to withstand what is coming, and a psychology which foregrounds the many lost skills of interbeing, a psychology which might be described by a translation from the African wisdom tradition of ‘Ubuntu’ – ‘I am, because we are’.
As coaches, it is time to stop colluding with our own, and with our client’s denial about the scope, scale, avoidability and speed of the planetary disaster. It is not in our own or our clients’ best interests to be in avoidance, distraction or wishful thinking about large-scale reality; planetary reality has an urgent agenda that needs to be enfranchised in every space. We need to use and disseminate our skills far beyond the privileged spaces we may be more accustomed to. Otherwise, we are only serving people who are more highly privileged by the status-quo. This may look less like one-to-one work and more like group and community work. And finally, we need to focus on finding ways to offer ‘tangible benefits’ which are not directed towards self-development, leadership, progress, success, and well-being, but which serve resilience, co-regulation of distress, collaboration and regenerative community coherence.
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Please consider bringing your questions for Matthew later this month. If interested in this topic, I recommend engaging in the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn. The title post-heroic is one I chose, as it relates to a concept within leadership studies that relates to some of the ideas in this blog. Some of my past writings on Deep Adaptation leadership may be of interest:
Leadership for Deep Adaptation.
The Creativity and Agency of Collapse-Anticipation.
Deep Adaptation is Up to You as Founder Transitions.
How to lead in the face of societal disruption.
Leading in a time of dying – notes for talk at ILA 2020.
My introductory lecture on leadership may also be of interest:
I also recommend the chapter on leadership in the Deep Adaptation book, by internationally renowned leadership expert Jonathan Gosling.