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Jamie Lawrence

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Book Review: Mindful Leadership Coaching by Manfred FR Kets de Vries

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Title: Mindful Leadership Coaching: Using Mindfulness to Develop Leaders and Transform Teams
Author: Manfred Kets de Vries
ISBN: 978-1137382320

This book was reviewed by David Evans of Burn Bridge Associates.

In a world where coaching seems to be on an ever-increasing popularity curve, it is a real pleasure to read a book that tackles the subject in such depth. The author – an INSEAD Professor with an awesome academic track record – confronts head-on some thorny issues on the subject: the sub-title ‘Journeys into the Interior’ indicates the book’s intended direction of travel and it does not disappoint.

It is a book of two halves: the first deals with a number of psychotherapeutic themes as they might relate to leadership coaching; the second covers a number of topics directly associated with the coaching experience. Lest this might sound a little ‘heavy’, allow me to reassure you that this is a remarkably readable book, punctuated frequently with anecdotes and case-studies. Indeed, the introduction contains a great story about Freud’s coaching of the composer Mahler which serves to summarise succinctly what the book is really about.

Kets de Vries has written this book, it seems, because he sees a number of increasingly-critical issues facing leadership and coaching. Leaders are under pressure to become or remain “strategically agile” and this – combined with the imperative to accentuate the interpersonal rather more than the technical skills-set – requires expert help from experienced coaches. Furthermore, the author senses a quality-deficit amongst many coaches, arising from a lack of real psychological insight. This is heightened by the ethical dilemmas that coaches might face, and the growth in the need for coaches to be able to operate effectively across cultures.

He sees coaches as being able to help to bring the human dimension back into organisations – he has apparently “seen too many organisations that resemble gulags.” (p13). He therefore talks about our inner theatre – the quality of our interpersonal relationships – and about the value of appreciating the complexities of the human mind. Thus, being able to deploy clinical insights in the coaching process will release rationales for behaviour patterns and enable coaches and their clients to move forward in a productive spirit. After all, he asserts, what’s going on below the surface determines our everyday actions.

He touches on mindfulness and the relationship between nature and nurture  as the reader goes – in chapters 1 -5 – on a psychotherapeutic journey which covers several conditions that we may have adopted from experiences from our early years. Helpfully supported by a number of self-help short questionnaires and check-lists, these chapters deal with some deep issues that many coaches might not recognise, which raises a question about the risks of books such as this. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing: the ethical dilemmas of creeping into deep psychological issues relating to a client’s past are self-evident. The difficulty for a coach of extricating him/herself from such a place can only be imagined.

 Kets de Vries discusses issues like attachment patterns, humility, self-awareness (and its potentially-dangerous extreme of obsessive rumination), forgiveness, victim-syndrome, rescuing and emotional sense-making; amongst others. He particularly focuses on SOB leaders – seductive operational bullies and the linkages to psychopathy, with useful discussion about the importance of well-being in the workplace. In this respect there are strong connections to several other works – e.g.. Hogan’s Dark Side personal trait inventory and the recent book “The Fulfilling Workplace” (Ronald J Burke & Cary L Cooper).

Chapters 6-8 deal with certain aspects of coaching, with the benefit of the material from the earlier chapters. Chapter 6 looks at group coaching and the value of self-awareness, empathy and rapport as a coach: it uses a case-study approach to demonstrate how group coaching can integrate some of the psychotherapy concepts (“the clinical paradigm”). Chapter 7 picks up on the importance of ‘play’ and its role in coaching: play is a critical development activity for us in growing up, and it is possible for our development to be enhanced long into adulthood through play. Chapter 8 looks at ‘tipping points’ in coaching and outlines a four-stage progression – preparation, incubation, illumination and verification.

Kets de Vries has extensive experience in the fields of coaching and psychotherapy, and it shows strongly in this book. It is well-written and its key points well illustrated through anecdote. The connection between the psychotherapy half of the book and the coaching section is not, in my view, as well constructed as it could be. However, I was caught up in the science and story-telling, if a little unnerved by some of the impacts described of people with poor psychological stability.

It does worry me, slightly, that this knowledge in the wrong hands could create a toxic or even dangerous coach, and I view this book as an introduction for those wishing to pursue a genuine interest in coaching into a deeper psychotherapeutic role, following the appropriate training and experience.

Perhaps you just need to read it and then make up your own mind!

Reviewer rating: 4 out of 5

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence
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