The journey from head to heart
"Organisational life is complex and multi-layered, with overlapping stakeholders. In fact, I would suggest that organisational systems are far more complex than family systems" This is the view of coach and author John Whittington, who goes onto describe how leaders can benefit from systemic coaching.

On behalf of Äripäev, journalist and long time translator Katre Scott-Hopkins set out to inquire how one coach works with executives. John will be speaking at Äripäev's Leadership Conference "Coaching 2021 Turning Point" on May 25th.

John Whittington
Hello John and thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. My first question to you, John, would be: what are the topics that leaders come to you with?

In the very general sense, they usually come with a sense of stuckness of some kind. When you look at stuckness, it's very tempting to try and find solutions to that immediately, and there is a long line of coaches and consultants who will be willing to do that. But the systemic perspective is slightly different. First of all, we invite clients to stand in the difficulty, just as it is, so they can really see the 'what is' about their stuckness and in a larger frame.

Leaders also often come towards coaching because there's a conflict in the team, or a conflict in the whole system. Sometimes that conflict appears to be irresolvable, because the source of the conflict is impossible to identify. In this case it is most often something that has happened in the system that leaves later members entangled.

For example, a leader says, "Our Finance Director always leaves after 18 months and we've had five in the last three years – what's going on?" – that sort of pattern. It is in this way that people get caught in different kinds of repeating patterns of conflict, but also other patterns.

So, from a systemic perspective, I'm always interested in the deep patterns and hidden dynamics in an organisational system. That's where this work really has a big impact.

What topics can and what can't be addressed with the systemic approach to coaching?

Perhaps if I just say something first about what 'systemic' means.

For example, it is easy to think of ourselves just as individuals – in fact a lot of contemporary thinking and coaching almost encourages that. But the truth of life, and life at work, is that we all belong in systems – in relationship systems.

Systemic coaching is about working with an awareness of the dynamics held in relationship systems. And those dynamics are held in the field of the system, because all relationship systems, organisational, families and social systems – they generate a field, a bit like a flock of birds – there's a field of information held in that flock and that field is influenced by universal organising forces that work in the service of wholeness.

So, systemic means really 'looking at the whole' and working in service of the whole. That's what the organising principles are attempting to do – bring systems into internal coherence so that flow can be restored. So, when clients come with a disturbance in their field, which they might describe as 'stuckness', or 'difficulty with leadership' or 'team dynamics', then you can be fairly sure that the systemic principles that maintain wholeness and flow have been in some way violated or ignored.

Modern life and life in business in particular is full of artificial hierarchies. As the author of "Sapiens" Yuval Noa Harari says – he uses a phrase which I like – 'imagined hierarchies'. That phrase speaks to how we think organisational life should be. Our imagination is usually expressed in what we call an organisational chart. But an organisational chart actually gives very little information, or real insight into how the organisation actually works: where the power is and isn't and where the tensions are, and why the things aren't flowing.

Systemic constellation create a map - a three-dimensional representational expression of the system. The effect is like when you are at the seaside and the tide goes out - you can see the underlying structure, the geology under the geography.

Organisational life is so complex and so multi-layered and with overlapping stakeholders. In fact, I would suggest that organisational systems are far more complex than family systems.

Really? I wouldn't have thought that!

A family system is a relatively simple structure. Sure, there are often more primary emotions in the field and family constellations are a nuanced and finely balanced thing to facilitate, but an organisational system, particularly if it's full of people with unresolved family dynamics, is actually often a far more complex system than a family.

When I'm teaching systemic coaching at Practitioner level, I always say that what we're trying to do here is actually more complex than facilitating a family constellation. In a family you've got parents and children and then they grow up and have children and you've got more children … OK, it's never quite that simple, I know! But the things that happen are fairly predictable. We see very many similar patterns across multiple families. They are complex and tender and can easily get caught in painful patterns, but even so they are still less complex than an organisational system.

In an organisation, you've got mergers and acquisitions, you've got large amounts of money – or a shortage of money - you've got social-system dynamics that influence the organisational systems, you have customers, business partners, bankers, shareholders, people who have left in very difficult ways, leaders with little understanding of human relationship systems, teams, people in pain, people who love their work, people who are burning out to belong, people leaving and more people joining - so, a very complex web, with multiple sub-systems within it and all in constant motion.

And in that light, if we come back to the question, are there any issues that cannot be addressed at a systemic constellation?

Well, some things are linear, and they just need a delivery plan. However, because everything takes place within the context of a system or the relational system that we call 'a team', a systemic perspective can be very useful. Most especially perhaps when the linear, rational plans don't work or the 'KPI's are not met but everyone has been working hard. Then a systemic approach can be very useful in trying to illuminate what's got stuck. I would say that I haven't found anything that doesn't benefit from some kind of systemic mapping.

A constellation is a facilitated process, but the first stage of every constellation is the creation of the map of 'what is'. And because organisational leaders are trying to talk about problems – which keeps them in their head - this is usually a refreshing change, because it allows them to look at the problem, not just talk about it.

So, it's moving from a coaching conversation to a coaching constellation, if you like.

So, it's not therapy?

No. But it is an attempt to restore flow, resource and coherence in individuals and teams within an organisation. And whilst I never use the word 'therapy' my clients often do, I notice. For example, they sometimes say 'That was really therapeutic!' and then, later, they sometimes say 'What was that?!' And I reply, "Well, it's called a constellation." And that is probably the only time I would use that word – when explaining what a very natural mapping process is called.

You talked a bit about the nature of problems that leaders bring to you. Has this focus changed over the past year?

Do you know, the short answer is – not really. Obviously, the pandemic has changed things and we've moved to remote working. And it's made some of the basics of communication in organisations and other systems more difficult.

In another way, actually, systemic coaching with constellations have found their place in organisational life, because you can facilitate mapping and constellations very effectively online with individuals, teams and large groups. Bring them together on one visual plane from all over the world to look at issues together. And I think the issues that people bring are unchanged. What's happened is that there's a layer over the top of them, which is the social-system trauma, the viral pandemic.

However, that has its place in helping people understand what we mean by interconnectedness in systems, about fields and hidden dynamics. If you want a demonstration of systemic dynamics spreading fast, you've got one right in front of you. It's the virus, it is a systemic dynamic that began with the violation of boundaries between the animal world and the human world and has spread into something uncontrollably complicated that keeps multiplying itself and changing and repeating the pattern of that replication. Just the same as an organisational trauma. So that's a rather useful metaphor in some way.

I've never thought about the virus in that way. Now, moving on, are there any particular topics, John, that you would recommend leaders to think before they meet you? Is any kind of preparation required, would they benefit from doing some prep before they meet you?

Just a bit of yoga or tai-chi would be good. The more leaders are in their body, the more they can tune it to the field of the systems they lead.

This is somatic work, somatic systemic coaching, that encourages access to embodied, implicit information, not the kind we keep in our left hemispheres, in our heads. I try encouraging my clients not to think about what they're going to say or prepare anything at all before we have a session. The same on the trainings and in my constellation workshops. Just show up and be who you are and see what surfaces in you and your 'felt sense', your body. The body keeps the score as Bessel van der Kolk famously said in his book of that name.

We can all tune into it and see what really needs attention, it doesn't take long to trust embodied information once you allow yourself to include all the centres of intelligence we have – head, heart and gut.

What you describe is very different from what I've heard from most coaches. It could be quite painful too, I suppose, when people meet with something they don't expect to meet – isn't that part of a constellation?

Not in that way. The impact you're looking for is flow and coherence in the system. And you can't get that without creating safety and returning dignity to people. So, it's a very dignified and respectful way of working. But yes, it's much-much less about the coach than in many other ways of coaching, and much-much more about the client and the system. This is them tuning into what's true for them and working from that place.

What's the difference between teambuilding and group coaching?

Is that your question?!

No, it was given to me!

That sounds like it, yes. What does it actually mean?

Well, almost everybody knows what teambuilding exercises are and feel like – let's spend a weekend together and do some teambuilding work. But the people I've met, don't seem to be using the word 'systemic' as much as I would like to hear when they talk with you, for instance, or about you. Somehow, they only use the term 'coaching'. So, teambuilding and organisational constellations – is there any difference between these two approaches?

Yes, certainly. Systemic coaching can be used for teambuilding, but the method and the outcomes would be rather different. Systemic coaching is about supporting flow in the system, rather than the motivational or goal-orientated work. We're looking at the hidden hierarchies and the underlying rules of belonging in the team, and the true purpose of the team, to build the team as a resourced and coherent system.

They're both useful approaches, but one without the other may not endure. If you do the classical teambuilding work, everybody will feel great for 24 hrs, possibly a week. What I'm interested in, is supporting lasting transformational change - although I always think that sounds a bit grandiose - but if you work in the level of the system, the hidden dynamics in the team and their relationships to other teams and the larger systems that they occupy, you're going to have a much more enduring impact than a classical 'team away day'.

Having said that, if you do systemic work first and follow it up with classical team coaching and group coaching, that can then have a much longer lasting effect, because you've attended to the engine and the oil, not just the wheels and the steering wheel.

I visited your webpage this morning, but sadly had no time to get deep into the nuts and bolts, so would you tell me, what is Life Love Leadership?

OK, yes. So, I established three different organisations ten years ago, all of which are nourished and supported by systemic constellations and the original family constellations work. There's coachingconstellations.com, which is a training company. We train experienced coaches in systemic coaching all over the world, there are 14 members of the teaching team spread in 8 different countries, and we offer a comprehensive learning journey from 'Fundamentals' to 'Practitioner' online and in-person.

Then there's BusinessConstellations.com, which is a gateway into the systemic approach for corporates and leaders; for bringing systemic consulting and coaching into clients' organisations. Then there is LifeLoveLeadership.com. I like to write about those three things from a systemic perspective. Life. Love. Leadership.

So, the big existential questions connected to life itself, love and intimate relationships, parenting, partnerships and children. Then leadership, by which I really mean finding your inner authority as an individual leader. The wholeness of yourself, your inner authority to lead yourself then others.

I'm facilitating a constellation workshop tomorrow for example on our relationship with food and eating. And I offer one on money and another on the 'joinings, belongings and leavings', which is a key area of focus for anybody interested in systems.

I love to facilitate what you might call classical family constellations under the Life Love Leadership banner too.

This is my passion project and as I slowly step back from Coaching Constellations and leave it in the very good hands of the teaching team, Life Love Leadership is emerging for me to focus my systemic work through writing and bespoke workshops.

Well, John, I think that's all from me. It was a pleasure.

Likewise. Thank you, Katre.

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