Understanding Why Systemic Coaching is Essential for Effective Leadership

Sep 9, 2018

When infinity leaves the infinite the infinite still remains full.
Isa Vasya
Upanishad circa 3000 BCE

Think hologram when you think of a system. However you splice and dice a hologram it retains its core identity. So should a well-designed system.

When coaching is used as a leadership development intervention in a corporate organisation its approach needs to be systemic. Coaching should integrate individuals with teams in alignment with organisational goals and objectives. Only then would coaching individuals benefit the larger organisational needs.

Unfortunately, many organisations tend to use coaching as a label to reward executives rather than as a means to enhance organisational performance. Many HR executives who I talked to, while they may have tracked how the individual executive benefitted from coaching, did not relate coaching to organisational benefits.

Systemic coaching works with teams and its individuals with outcome that links desired outcome of both groups with the larger meta needs of the organisation, making the most cost and performance effective intervention.

Human Evolution

As humans evolved from freelancing cavemen into more domesticated tribes, they developed a sense of belonging sacrificing their individual autonomy for collective safety. As Maslow shows this need for survival, belonging and recognition turn back into individual safety and autonomy concerns. These in turn create conflict unless one moves up into a larger systemic perspective of self-actualization.

Ancient Eastern wisdom articulated the need for the individual self to be part of the larger Self, through actualization of the I-Quotient into a We-Quotient. John Dunne’s ‘no man is an island’ and Jung’s collective unconscious are modern interpretations of this truth. The rise from individual identification to collective awareness defines human evolution.

Systemic Theory

In organizations, polarity between individual autonomy and collective performance has been an existential dilemma. Only when we recognise that individual integrity can be sustained within a structured system can this polarity can be resolved.

Senge articulated this well in his 5 Disciplines integrating personal mastery into a shared vision through team learning and attitudinal shift. Schein’s model of individual beliefs evolving into organizational values and structural artifacts explains how this can happen in an organizational development context. Otto Scharmer in Theory U elaborates on the need for individual shift to create the climate of open mind, open heart and open will to allow integration of the individual with the collective.

Use of Self as a Organization Development/Gestalt concept has been applied in many fields of activity to apply intrapersonal insights to establish the interpersonal integration with Others and Environment in a System.

In simple terms, we need to accept that we are part of a larger consciousness that is systemic. We need to realize that unless we interact with the system for its larger benefit and also for benefit of others in the system without focusing exclusively on the ‘what’s in it for me’ syndrome, we regress and not evolve.

Limitations of Coaching

Most companies look at coaching as an individual effort. Over time coaching has shed its remedial negative connotation. Today executive leaders wear proudly the label of being coached. This leads to a problem of wanting to be exclusive. Coaching is no longer an organisational development initiative. It has become part of a reward and recognition structure.

Many coaches realize what I observed but are reluctant to talk about it for fear of losing assignments. A significant proportion of leaders successfully coached and transformed do not fit into the system any more. They are individually evolved and not systemically. As a result they regress or resign.

I ask those responsible for leadership development in companies whether they have metrics that establish the value of coaching in an organisational context. I am yet to find one. L&D and HR executives tend to evidence individual behavioural changes through stakeholder observation. What is far more important is to measure whether the organisation that sponsors coaching benefits. My studies show that individual coaching alone does not benefit the organisation.

Systemic Coaching

Individual leaders find it difficult to align with organisational vision when their lenses change through coaching. In my experiments I found that individuals when coached in teams found it far easier to align with teams and through teams with a collective organisational vision. This of course requires successful team building.

Organisations, however much some leaders may like to believe, do not sustain through inspiring stars or controlling czars. Both have expiry dates. Organisations thrive, grow and sustain when people collaborate as teams inspiring themselves through shared vision that in turn stems from a collective meta vision.

Systemic Coaching is a blend of individuals and teams. Teams do not form by themselves. Groups of people need to emotionally connect through shared experiences to form teams that provide psychological safety and common purpose.

Coacharya has developed processes to support Systemic leadership coaching. These have been applied in several companies over the last 6 years with evidenced results. In December 2018 Coacharya will present its experiences in its Leadership Conference at Bangalore.

If you are in some way responsible for leadership development in an organisation, do start measuring how any intervention used benefits the organisation that is paying for it, rather than merely individuals. When you reflect on your leadership experiences, you will realize that in every successful organisational endeavour individuals aligned with teams to maximize the system performance.

Ram Ramanathan, MCC
Ram Ramanathan, MCC


Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

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