Blog: Learning Curve

Move Fast and Break Things: Had Enough, Yet!?

“Move Fast and Break Things,” coined by innovation guru and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, has become the ideology for disruptive innovation.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and PayPal and a venture capitalist, endorses it in his new book Blitzscaling. For Hoffman, “blitzscaling” (or moving fast and breaking things) involves releasing beta versions of products, then fixing and financing them as you grow—with an emphasis on scaling fast and first—to achieve first-mover advantage.

Go Big or Go Home

First-mover advantage confers many benefits on innovators who win rights to new territory and define the rules, roles, and routes. Gaining this edge creates markets beyond market share, and it does so in the image of those arriving first.

Those who have arrived are BIG: Facebook has defined social media; Google, the search engine; Amazon, online shopping; and Airbnb and Uber, room- and ride-sharing. Together, they’ve defined a “gig economy,” the realization of the Break Things ideology.

From Hoffman’s perspective, speed trumps accuracy, and whatever breaks can be the next avenue to innovation—until it’s not!

Breaking Fast, Breaking Bad

Recent effects of the Break Things ideology were addressed in a 2017 book by Jonathan Taplin: Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Taplin’s basic thesis is that Silicon Valley increasingly resembles “some kind of nightmarish children’s playground, populated by overgrown babies with no idea of the consequences of their actions.”

We’re going to be living with the aftermath of this ideology for years to come.

  1. Take Google-owned YouTube. Numerous times last year, it was found to be distributing and promoting disturbing videos to children. YouTube repeatedly vowed to address the problem, and it repeatedly failed.
  2. Then there’s Google’s recently acknowledged security hole in its Google+ social network and its admission that it had fired 48 people for sexual harassment over the last two years. 
  3. Facebook chucked any notion that it had privacy and security standards. Lapses include the Russia-linked 2016 election manipulation and the recent hacking that exposed the personal information of 30 million users, part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What’s worse, this rolling disaster has begun unraveling our social cohesion, undermining the company’s mission to strengthen social bonds. Breaking things means demolishing democratic and civic norms. Facebook’s response: they cannot police their own platform because they’ve grown too big, too fast.
  4. Twitter grew fast as a news feed, without the editors or regulation to ensure quality. Because it is so widely dispersed among nations, societies, and cultures, it cannot monitor posts, regulate bots, or manage its platform. Twitter lagged behind Apple, YouTube, and Facebook in banning Alex Jones of Infowars. It responded only after criticism from users mounted and journalists presented evidence of its failure to enforce its own terms of use. Twitter’s response was akin to Facebook’s: We’ve grown too big to monitor our platform.
  5. In addition to Uber’s numerous scandals, both Uber and Lyft have been sanctioned for flouting local laws and local sensibilities in their rush to seize local markets. This also spawned mini-violators such as scooter rental companies Lime and Bird (scooters have ended up blocking sidewalks and entryways, causing an uproar among non-scooter-using citizens.) Uber and Lyft not only broke ordinances that arguably protected the entrenched taxi industry, but they also contributed to increased traffic and massively depressed the wages of taxi drivers.
  6. Airbnb began breaking rental markets. A recent report by David Wachsmuth, a professor of urban planning at McGill University, examines what home-sharing is doing to New York City, presaging what other cities might expect. Airbnb raised rents that removed housing from the rental market and supercharged gentrification while discriminating against guests and hosts of color. Commercial operators transformed Airbnb from a way to help homeowners occasionally rent out an extra room into a purveyor of creepy, makeshift hotels.

A Broken Ideology

The Break Things ideology finds us scaling incompetence and only becoming competent when necessary, on the customer’s dime. This narrow strategy may work in Silicon Valley, where upgrading code is commonplace or where start-ups need to secure venture capital to go public in 24 months, but this impulsive mindset has real costs that we’ll be paying for a long time to come.

Facebook’s motto is no longer “Move Fast and Break Things,” but the results of that mentality are baked in. What Facebook didn’t realize is that moving fast can break things other than software code—it can undermine society and democratic norms.

View this 60 minutes clip — Brain Hacking (or, if international, this article) on how Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked, as examined by a former Google product manager.

As we’ve seen repeatedly, when you’re moving fast, you don’t have any time for reflection or to listen, learn, and gain perspective. You don’t have time to think about what exactly you might be breaking or the larger social consequences of what you’re doing.

Additionally, there’s even less time for public officials or the rest of society to catch up and monitor these occurrences.

The danger and consequences of the Break Things ideology reach well beyond Facebook, because the mentality was adopted everywhere and is still being promoted. The assumptions woven into our imagination have reinvented how we view business, success, public good, and leadership.

View of Business

The downside of scaling has spiraled into a focus on short-term thinking and win-at-all-costs tactics. This mindset conflates opportunism with opportunities. The former reacts impulsively to market conditions for advantage; the latter supports long-term growth, focusing on sustainable values. Think Zynga (whose board Hoffman served on) vs. Apple.

Steve Jobs’ return to Apple as interim CEO (1997) and his position as permanent CEO (2000) came with hard-fought wisdom. The pioneer of “insane products” shifted to creating a sustainable organizational culture as the source of innovation.

Paradoxically, it was that shift to sustainability that produced a string of insane products: the iMac in 1998, which reenergized Apple’s sagging PC market, as well as the iPod (2001), iTunes (2001), iPhone (2007), Apple TV (2007/11), App Store (2008), and iPad (2010) before Jobs’ death in 2011.


View of Success

Scaling itself isn’t a negative practice, but to what end should it be implemented?

Impulsive scaling that disrupts for the purpose of being bigger, faster, and first encourages short-term thinking and opportunism. Opportunism often looks like opportunity, but our loss of focus finds us spread extremely thin in our desire to gain advantage.

Consider Facebook’s recent psy-ops methods to delay, deny and deflect in the wake of its recent scandals. The New York Times revealed that both Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg claimed to be so preoccupied that they knew little about Facebook’s political machinations:

Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.

Ironically, one of Sandberg’s “personal projects” is her Lean In book and curated cottage industry, which claim to empower women even while she’s overseeing a company that is disempowering democracy and dismantling personal privacy standards.

Scaling can also be intentional, focusing first on values in an organic manner. In this sense, leaders transcend opportunism.

Warby Parker is a great example of intentional scaling, leading with its mission statement. Since launching in 2010, Warby Parker’s founders stayed true to their roots by offering designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, all while leading the way for socially conscious businesses. They haven’t launched a shoe line, and they don’t sell handbags. They just do one thing, and they do it extremely well.

View of Public Good

The Break Things ideology reduces business values to an algorithm of codes and transactions, stripping it of social or moral responsibility. Business now teaches us to leverage any advantage for a narrow group of winners.

Regarding this void, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter posits that “disruptive innovations won’t produce a better society unless we work to contain their harms and spread their benefits”(“America Needs to Align Technology with a Public Purpose”).

The issues at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, and Uber are due to their singular focus: cheap, on-demand services and goods. This kind of focus blinds us to the enduring costs to workers, society, or the public good.

Consider the glee with which Elon Musk revealed that humans must merge with machines to overcome the “existential threat” of artificial intelligence to make “everyone hyper-smart” (Axios). Musk’s suggestion reveals the tradeoff—public-good wisdom for market-driven smarts. His market-driven solution invites another problem: more ethical oversight.

High-level competency combined with a deep moral center once limited access to new technologies. Now, a low bar for entry cultivates blindness, enabling access to technology before any ethos ripens. All change is declared progress (disruption is key) without seeking any wisdom. We valorize smart over wise and the next big thing over the right thing.

Consider nuclear or cloning technology: we weighed both earnestly before releasing them into the marketplace. Employing the Break Things mentality certainly would have had disastrous consequences for society. A review of Oppenheimer’s thoughts on the A-Bomb is a useful lesson, as he reflected, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

We need a new ethos.

As Ash Carter puts it, “We ourselves—not only market forces—should bend the arc of change toward human good.”

View of Leadership

The Break Things mentality, emboldened by Silicon Valley’s bro culture, reduces leadership to being first and fastest. Missing in this market-driven equation is social responsibility.

Indeed, Silicon Valley has had two decades to mold our notions of leadership. Its versions idolize a brand that sounds more like sex than leadership: we start firm, pound hard, flip fast, and cash out.

Consider the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Twitter, Lyft, and Tesla; former CEOs at Uber, Zynga, and Instagram; and others endorsing the Break Things ideology. Beyond gender or sex, this bro culture honors an impulsive and opportunistic attitude that shapes our values, leadership, and success in business.

Here’s the rub. Even when we include more women in boardrooms, the message is clear: buck up, walk tall, and lean in. Our recipe for getting ahead: be tough like a man. We may tame it, but it remains our primary business DNA. It’s baked into our American ideals about who we are.

Zebras and Unicorns

For a sense of our testosterone-laden business models, read Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break by Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz, and Aniyia Williams. The authors call these models an urgent problem:

In this game, far more than money is at stake. When [venture capital] firms prize time on site over truth, a lucky few may profit, but civil society suffers. When shareholder return trumps collective well-being, democracy itself is threatened. The reality is that business models breed behavior, and at scale, that behavior can lead to far-reaching, sometimes destructive outcomes.

It’s been two decades since our seduction by technology and disruptive change. We are maturing to understand some of technology’s societal impact; the evidence thus far ought to give us pause. There are no quick solutions, but can we venture beyond the Move Fast, Break Things ideology?

Brandel et al, believe that it’s time to develop “alternative business models to the startup status quo has become a central moral challenge of our time. These alternative models will balance profit and purpose, champion democracy, and put a premium on sharing power and resources. Companies that create a more just and responsible society will hear, help, and heal the customers and communities they serve.”

I offer two additional resources that might offer some perspective:

Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy by Jonathan Taplin (2017)

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas (2018)

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Distinguishing Compassion from Sympathy and Empathy

Being of service often requires a deep connection to human experiences. Ever notice how we live with the words that describe such experiences? Of late, I’ve observed words such as sympathy, empathy, or compassion employed to describe political leaders in certain situations. Usually, terms are bandied about by commentators or casual observers, so I let them pass.

But as professionals in the human experience, I find it critical for coaches, counselors, educators, and even consultants to more critically observe what each situation requires. Do we see a need to show sorrow, to relate to another’s experience, or to reduce suffering?

To explore this territory, I will begin with sympathy, then explore empathy, and finally distinguish compassion from both. Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek word pathos, which means “suffering, feeling.”

Pity and Sympathy

To develop sympathy, first, let’s explore pity, which can often be confused for sympathy.

Pity is a feeling of sadness or commiseration for someone who is either worse off than you or is worse off than some normative standard, which is why you can pity yourself.

Very few people want to be pitied, yet at times we do just that—or we pity ourselves. When you listen to someone’s suffering and respond with “poor you,” you have just pitied them.

Sympathy entered the English language in the mid-1500s and became used to convey feelings of regret or sorrow for someone else who is experiencing hardship. We often see this in messages of support and sorrow for others in a time of need (e.g., “my sympathies”). You feel bad for them and express sorrow, but you can’t personally relate.

The World of Empathy

Introduced in the late 1800s, the word empathy has come to refer to the capacity to imagine oneself in a situation with another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. This reflects either an emotional or cognitive empathy, described as follows.

Emotional empathy consists of three separate components. To quote Sara D. Hodges and Michael D. Myers from the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology:

  • “The first [component] is feeling the same emotion as another person . . .
  • The second component, personal distress, refers to feelings of distress in response to perceiving another’s plight . . .
  • The third emotional component, feeling with another person, is the one most frequently associated with the study of empathy in psychology.”

Cognitive empathy is also known as “empathic accuracy.” Hodges and Myers discuss it as “having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels.”

Cognitive empathy is more like a skill that is developed to better understand another’s perspective, such as their attitudes, worldview, or ideas. We have found a strong correlation between listening skills and the ability to access this form of empathy.

Unlike sympathy, empathy isn’t just used for unpleasant feelings. You can empathize with someone’s happiness, too.

This leads us to compassion.


When researching this blog, I found compassion often used to describe pity, sympathy, and even both types of empathy. This reveals our confusion about compassion, which can be traced to an unclear definition.

Fundamentally, compassion is composed of com (together with) and passion (to suffer).

Tapping into 2,600 years of Buddhist wisdom, we can deepen our understanding of the practice of compassion —“to suffer with”— from a more common psychological view that tends to sound much like empathy and sympathy.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh views compassion as “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.” According to Hanh, “we [must] practice mindfulness, deep listening, and deep looking” to develop compassion.

Thus, we associate compassion with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object, in the self or in others.

With sympathy, I feel for your hardship; with empathy, I share your emotions. With compassion, I can share your suffering and elevate it into a universal “common humanity” and transcending experience.

The relationship to suffering begins with understanding the truth—or true nature—of one’s own suffering or the suffering of another. This requires three elements: self-compassion, common humanity, and mindfulness.

1 – Self-compassion

If we are unable to be with our own suffering, we cannot be with another’s. This requires an awareness that discerns between being judgmental and being kind. Self-compassion invites us to be gracious, warm, and caring toward ourselves when we fail, suffer, or become disappointed.

The practice begins with becoming aware of our own suffering, expectations, and imperfections without judging them as negative thoughts about ourselves.

Author and researcher Kristen Neff, Ph.D. Neff suggests that “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.”

Neff has also distinguished Self-Compassion from Self-pity, Self-indulgent and Self-esteem, and she offers a special piece on Why Women Need Fierce Self-Compassion.

2 – Common Humanity

Kristen Neff beautifully describes this notion of common humanity, distinguishing it from self-pity.

“While self-pity says ‘poor me,’ self-compassion recognizes suffering is part of the shared human experience. The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain that you feel in difficult times. The triggers are different, the circumstances are different, the degree of pain is different, but the basic experience is the same.”

3 – Mindfulness

Understanding common humanity and practicing self-compassion requires our willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity with mindful awareness.

Mindfulness is a non-reactive awareness that cultivates a receptive mind to observe thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. This openness also loosens the grip that thoughts have on us and our ability to reify those thoughts. See our blog on Mental Hygiene.


Idiot Compassion.

Often, the compassionate thing to do may not seem empathetic and may lack sympathy. Additionally, honesty without compassion can be cruelty. The issue is whether we are willing to view the source of suffering or not. If we bypass this examination, we lean toward “idiot compassion,” a term I first encountered through the writings of Tibetan Buddhist and author, Pema Chodron.

Idiot compassion refers to enabling—i.e., the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.

Chodron exposes the danger in this:

“instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison—at the very least, you don’t take it away from them. This, she says, is not compassion at all. It’s selfishness, as you’re more concerned with your own feelings than attending to your friend’s actual needs.”

This phenomenon is due to our inability to experience our own suffering, which also induces us to avoid the suffering of others. We commit a compassion bypass by acting nice, enabling deeds, or simply overlooking items that require our attention. In this sense, we actually increase suffering rather than relieving it.

Philosopher Ken Wilber states this well:

“Real compassion includes wisdom and so it makes judgments of care and concern; it says some things are good, and some things are bad, and I will choose to act only on those things that are informed by wisdom and care.”

Compassion Fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is defined as “the indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals” (accumulative effect of absorbing trauma or suffering).

Much of this definition relies on a faulty understanding of compassion as an outward phenomenon.

“Compassion fatigue” speaks to a dimension of burnout; I see this more akin to “empathy fatigue.” Without the wisdom required in compassion, empathy and open-hearted care often find us relating to others’ emotions without sufficient boundaries. We become overwhelmed, merge the self with others, or become swept up in the needs of others.

Recall the three elements of compassion from above:  self-compassion, common humanity, and mindfulness. In this regard, we are also adding something else—practice. Compassion is more than a definition or description of a concept. These three interdependent parts must act as a system of practices to ensure that compassion has a built-in self-regulation. If we are practicing compassion, not idiot compassion, then we are first practicing self-compassion.

The term compassion fatigue eliminates the wisdom necessary for compassion. It reduces compassion to a feeling (not a condition with practice) and dismisses the fundamental aspect of self-compassion, which is necessary to understand and be with our own suffering.

In Sum: Compassion is a Practice

As professionals, we offer interventions to support others. Consider each situation you encounter and the care you might render. Then, observe the need and discern the understanding of those involved.

Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and author of the course Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). Jinpa posits that compassion is a four-step process, which I’ve paraphrased slightly:

  • Awareness of the true nature of suffering.
  • Sensitive concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  • A wish to see that suffering relieved.
  • Wise responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

Compassion is a practice that involves Eastern wisdom and includes Western notions of feelings, thoughts, and emotions. We transcend suffering with practice to realize our common humanity. With practice, we learn to tend to our own suffering to relieve the suffering of others.

Additional blog posts on this topic: Mental Hygiene: The Overlooked Capacity, Part 1, and Mindfulness Minus Wisdom: Moving to Materialism; and, the workbook, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Growth of Coaching Spawns Critical Differences

When working with coaches and executives, I am often asked about differences in types of coaching, such as life coaching, executive coaching, and leadership development. Are these just branding gimmicks to charge higher fees? Do these require different training? How do I know which one I need?

Until recently, the field of coaching didn’t vary too much. What was clear was that coaching operated outside the conventional medical model, which views the client as an ill patient with a diagnosis in need of treatment or symptom relief.

While coaching acknowledged some serious mental illnesses that benefit from clinical psychology or skillful psychotherapy, it offered relief for others. It worked with many people that were lumped together, labeled, and treated for what were really “problems in living”—situations or circumstances that did not need a diagnosis or assume a pathology.

This was a healthy turn that informed the revolution of coaching, and so, life coaching emerged.

The history and evolution of coaching in the last two decades—as a method, product, and service—has mirrored the evolution of change and has produced different roles and expectations.

A Brief History…

According to coaching historian Vikki Brock, “in the 1990s when coaching gained popularity and media attention, we [saw] the rise of training programs and professional associations serving the coaching community.”

Much of Brock’s research speaks to three waves of coaching: prior to 1995, from 1995 to 2010, and after 2010. As she says:

coach training schools grew from 2 in 1990 to 8 in 1995, to 164 in 2004. Professional coach associations grew from 0 in 1990 to 12 in 2004, with annual coaching conferences growing from 0 to 16 by 2003. The whole concept of coaching culture came into being about that time and by 2004 was a term commonly used in business.

Brock’s view of this evolution is based on the consolidation of the market, increased competition, dissemination by the mainstream media, and the emergence of schools, associations, and standards.

I find her three waves to coincide with shifts in how the coaching field focused its efforts and impact. Each focus seemed to trail Brock’s waves by about five years.

  1. Life coaching, in the late 1980s and 1990s, peaking at about 2000 (following Brock’s first wave). It focused primarily on the methodology for increasing results in several domains of human life.
  2. Performance coaching emerged around 2000, marking Brock’s second wave. It focused primarily on productivity; much of this framed as business or executive coaching.
  3. Leadership development (or leadership coaching) emerged in 2015 to deal with disruptive change. At this point, the primary reason that organizations or businesses hired a coach was to cultivate the mindset of a leader to distribute leadership and develop a leadership culture throughout an organization.

As we close 2018, this shift will continue. Research from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) has revealed this trend (see graph below and “Specialty” table later in the blog).

Life Coaching

  • Focus: Implement a healthy design for various domains of life.
  • Training: Coaching model and method.
  • Expectation: Increase competency in a specific domain of life.

Life Coaching applied the powerful model and methodology to a domain of life, such as career, wellness, relationship, small business, etc. Instead of learning a body of concepts via formal education, coaches train in and practice a body of distinctions, delivered to expand perceptions and open possibilities for new action.

According to Fernando Flores, distinctions are not names of objects or definitions of terms. “They distinguish something or make it stand out from everything else and to bring it to our attention.” These subtleties of language, when internalized, cause a shift in a belief, behavior, value or attitude.

In this view, a coach adopts the model and learns the methodology to hold clients accountable to realizing different views and results for that domain of life.

Unlike the medical model or other problem-solving interventions, life coaching began with the premise that people have the answers and that the coach’s role is to help them overcome internal resistances and interferences. Life coaching sought to place inquiries about personal growth into a context of healthy life design, rather than a problem-solving context that diagnosed pathologies. It offered an option for those who had nowhere to turn but therapists, seminars, or self-help books.

As a craft or profession, coaching also required that coaches become coachable—that they operate from this model, not just issue concepts, knowledge, or advice. This required adopting a view that focused on the future and implementing practices and personal mastery that deepened listening, and surfaced critical questions to develop a high level of commitment, action, and accountability.

In short, coaches are trained to embody the coaching model and methodology.

Executive Coaching

  • Focus: Goal-oriented, skills-based approach to enhance performance.
  • Training: Coaching model and method, plus business knowledge, skillsets, and competencies as well as training in assessment tools.
  • Expectation: Integrate skills or expand competencies to increase performance.

After the turn of the century, coaching intersected with the central professional demands: to enhance performance in the face of change. The model and methodology supported more than strategies for life design—they supported peak performance. Performance coaching emerged to help coaches identify and develop clients’ strengths.

Through deep listening, challenging questions, critical feedback, and guidance, performance coaches revealed hidden potential and then worked with clients on practices to sustain it.

Also called business or performance coaching, the term executive coaching soon emerged to help senior managers, leaders, and directors learn to expand skills and competencies that improved their performance.

Developed in 1979, the GROW Model (Goal, Reality, Options, Will, or Wrap-up or Way forward) became one of the most influential methods for executive and performance coaching to engage problem-solving and goal-setting. The model was first published in Coaching for Performance by John Whitmore in 1992.

Another important difference with executive coaching required additional knowledge, and training in assessments, such as 360-degree surveys and personality typologies as well as data analysis and business systems.

Coaches also became proficient in competencies that manifested in roles (as listed below). The coach dances between these roles and additional knowledge competencies and as applied in a business or organizational context.

Leadership Development

  • Focus: Increase capacity to cope with the business and the human impact of change.
  • Training: Coaching model and method, plus additional multi-disciplinary approach to expand mindsets, specifically for leadership and leading change.
  • Expectation: Develop awareness and practices to cultivate or transform the conditions for leadership and learning beyond current perceptions.

Newer to the field of coaching, leadership development had emerged by 2015 as a primary method to cope with change, especially for those responsible for leading an organization (C-Suite) and cultivating leadership in others.

Essentially, the nature of change today—its pace, uncertainty, and complexity—has focused development efforts and resources on creating the conditions for leadership.

Based on my research and experience, this level of coaching moves beyond a focus on assessments, skillsets and competencies and takes responsibility for developing a mindset—that of a leader.

This level of coaching involves more education from a multi-disciplinary approach (see below under “Leadership Development”) to increase self-awareness and deepen listening.

Leadership development balances “coaching” with a focus on “development.” It includes some of the direction offered by life coaching, some of the roles offered by executive coaching with an emphasis on increasing capacity to cope with the human facets and impact of change.

Fundamentally, however, leadership coaching and development deal with all the human aspects of disruptive change, unpredictable future, and learning to learn (often involving a lot of unlearning). It supports leaders in the face of unpredictable change, increased complexity, and the ambiguity and uncertainty experienced by the self.

Coaching Executives and Leaders

Emerging research finds leadership development moving inward away from content, such as skills and knowledge, and toward context, such as self-awareness, listening, and empathy.

The assessment company Korn Ferry has engaged some research on the differences between mid-level-manager coaching, executive coaching, and leadership development coaching.

They define “leadership as driving innovation and adaptation at relentless speeds [to] sustain a core enduring vision to keep their organizations focused.”

What’s implied in their definition is the need to cultivate learning (innovation) and cope with change and complexity (adaptation at relentless speeds). This requires creating a context from a deeper level of personal mastery.

In a 2015 survey, Korn Ferry identified top competencies for mid-level managers, executives (vice-presidents and directors), and leadership (C-Suite), as follows.

For mid-level managers that require executive coaching: 1) interpersonal relationships, listening skills, and empathy; 2) influence; 3) communication skills; 4) self-awareness; and 5) delegation and empowerment.

For Executives that require a mix of leadership development and executive coaching: 1) interpersonal relationships, listening skills, and empathy; 2) influence; 3) self-awareness; 4) communication skills; and 5) motivation and engagement.

For Leaders (C-Suite) that require leadership development: 1) self-awareness; 2) interpersonal relationships, listening skills, and empathy; 3) influence; 4) leading during times of change; and 5) communication skills.

One obvious trend is that the competency of self-awareness increases in importance as one expands their level of responsibility in an organization. This is followed by and informs one’s listening, empathy, and influence.

The Executive Coach: Six Roles

The following core coaching competencies by the Association for Coaching illustrate some key areas of knowledge, skills, and practices for executive coaching. Most of these involve horizontal development: improving skills or clarifying roles as distinguished by Robert Dilts in a speech at the 2003 ICF European Conference in Italy.

I’ve revised these six roles to match today’s conditions:

  1. Performance. Through enhancing practice, improving process, or expanding perspective, coaches support someone to learn in order to improve their performance. This often entails supporting, showing, giving feedback, encouraging, and distinguishing new perspectives or practices.
  2. Guiding and Supporting. This is the process of directing another person along their path. Coaches provide a supportive environment from which to question perceptions and assumptions without unnecessary distractions or interferences from the outside.
  3. Teaching. This relates to supporting people to expand capabilities with an emphasis on learning. It focuses on expanding the capacity for learning by questioning mental models and assumptions.
  4. Mentoring. A teacher instructs while a coach provides specific feedback to help a person learn or grow. Mentors, on the other hand, guide us to discover our own unconscious competencies and strengthen beliefs and values, often by example.
  5. Sponsorship or Developing Potential. This involves creating a context in which others can act, grow, and excel. It supports constructing identity and core values and awakening potential within others. It involves the commitment to the unfolding of something that is already within a person or group that has not yet manifested to its fullest capacity.
  6. Awakening. This extends beyond coaching, teaching, mentoring, and sponsorship to include the levels of vision, mission, and purpose. The catalyst here connects people with their own missions and visions, and thus, the coach needs to know his/her own vision, mission, and purpose.
coaching types table

Click to Enlarge

The Leadership Development Coach: Six Disciplines

The biggest difference between executive coaching and leadership development (which can be part of executive coaching) is the shift from roles that build skill-sets to disciplines that develop mindsets. This difference supports the shift from developing skillsets or focusing on content to expanding mindsets or awareness of context.

Increasing leadership capacity (mindsets) or vertical development entails tapping into a mix of disciplines. This often requires the coach to be knowledgeable about business systems, the nature of the human condition, and the function of change in the business and its impact on humans.

These are some of the disciplines and foci at this level of coaching:

  1. Psychological Understanding. Focus on emotional intelligence to expand trust and self-awareness that cultivates and demonstrates empathy.
  2. Communications Understanding. Focus on deep listening to give and receive feedback that enhances collaboration.
  3. Business Management. Focus on strategic thinking to develop the shared vision that guides change.
  4. Learning Principles. Focus on developing potential and appreciative inquiry to expand possibility and foster team learning.
  5. Systems Thinking. Focus on observations, insights, and inquiries to question and construct perspectives, worldviews, and mental models.
  6. Personal Mastery. Focus on self-discovery and contemplative practices to cultivate intentional practice and generate commitment in any situation.

Which Way Forward?

Retaining a coach today may be one of the most important single investments in one’s career. Taking the time to clearly distinguish your needs offers a good first step.

If your issues involve a transition in life or a new design for living that entails new strategies or direction, a life coach may offer great support.

If you’re looking to improve content or learning skills—optimizing skills or competencies, increasing performance in an area of responsibility or management, managing complexity, or creating new work strategies—then an executive coach may fit your needs best.

If your work involves creating or altering contexts—any aspect of leading change through uncertainty or ambiguity, cultivating learning cultures or team learning, expanding perceptions, or letting go of outmoded systems, views, or assumptions—then you may find a leadership development coach to be the most effective.

This article complements an earlier White Paper: What is Coaching? Why Retain a Coach? which distinguishes coaching from other human intervention professions. 

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 “In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.”


Coaching Services | Leadership Development | Contemplative Practices | First-Person Learning & Design | Resourcing Services | Assessments