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shift your ego to lego

On September 28, the Institute of Coaching opened our annual Coaching in Leadership & Healthcare conference. I spent a few moments exploring the future of coaching, focusing on transformational change. This is an important topic: today's age of accelerating external change is calling coaches to help themselves and others change faster than ever before. Here is some of what I shared.

Opportunities for transformational change are not hard to find: they turn up in moments invaded by uncomfortable emotions, such as worry, frustration, or disappointment, These moments offer a message, as taught by Harvard adult development psychologist Bob Kegan:

The demands of the moment exceed my capacities. I am “ in over my head.”

Then comes an invitation to make a choice:

I can reduce the demands or I can grow my capacities - I can choose transformational change.

The journey to grow is mapped out by Bob Kegan, Lisa Lahey and colleagues in "subject-object" theory. The journey from subject to object is a natural process of growth that happens continuously over a lifetime. You could describe it as the evolution of consciousness. The shift to objectivity can be spurred by a good night's sleep or a getaway. Often these shifts are elusive.

Here's how it works. Stressful emotions step in to control your mind; the emotion is a puppeteer and your mind is the puppet. You have the option to step up and make a shift to seeing the stress more objectively:

The stress is a part of the mind, not all of it. I can detach a little, navigate around it and get on track. I can become the puppeteer so that the stress becomes the puppet.

When you shift from puppet (subject to or controlled by the stress) to puppeteer (stress is the object you can control), you make a transformational change. Usually we need help (from coaches or other insightful souls) as it's hard to notice what controls us, to see our blind spots. If you proactively seek growth, rather then wait for situations to force change, you are engaged in self-transformation.

Moments that invite self-transformation can be described as growth edges. When you choose to outgrow what controls you, you are stepping up to a growth edge, an opportunity to transform. This is not an easy place to be: it's uncomfortable, awkward, not calm and graceful. It's hard to be objective. It’s also not obvious how to grow, to access new insights and shifts and transcend the growth edge.

This is how we coaches earn our keep, helping people see a struggle as a growth edge. Through artful and generative conversations, using coaching tools, insights emerge during sessions as well as outside of sessions. Coaches help people outgrow what hijacks their objectivity to bring more calm and better performance.

We coaches outgrow many growth edges in the process of becoming coaches – learning to set aside our own interests and judgments so that clients have clean space in which to roam and discover their own insights. While this is not an easy shift for new coaches, the rewards of empowering clients to grow is worth the investment.

Now for the punch line.

The universal growth edge of our times is what you could describe as the shift from ego to lego.

Our egos signal opportunities for growth when they show up in two common states - psychiatrist Dan Siegel describes them as rigidity and chaos. The rigid state has a hard edge, wanting to be in control, wanting things to go your way, wanting to be right or better than others. In this rigid state we are resistant to change. The other state feels like a downward spiral, feeling anxious, worried, overwhelmed or down. This chaotic state depletes our resources to change. Most of us would like to soften our hard edges and get off our downward spirals.

The big shift we are offered is to be lego instead of ego – instead of being the sun in the center of your system, as lego you see yourself as part of a system.

As lego you focus on how best to make a contribution, not being in control. You see that there are many lego pieces to help. Collaboration brings an upward spiral. You can be agile– different legos, different identities or roles for different situations.

Going from ego to lego is akin to an adult development leap that takes decades and is a stretch for everyone – moving from the self-authoring ego to self-transforming lego. It's worth the effort: as lego you can keep up with accelerating change.

This is the growth opportunity for our times. And we don’t have decades to get there. The future of coaching then?

Coaches are leaders and models in self-transformation We step up to our growth edges – the hard edges and the distressed ones. We trust that the shifts, insights and wisdom will arrive, just as the sun is always behind the clouds. We help others make transformational changes faster than ever before. We live, coach, lead, and thrive on the growth edge.

That’s the future of coaching.

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