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If your ego supersedes your responsibility to serve

This year has seen considerable growth in the personal coaching industry. Some reports state that there are some 53,000 folks in the business, which straddles a broad swath of topics ranging from wellness to leadership to life coaching.

All well and good. I’m a fan of good coaching, and I believe the industry has a role. I’ve used them frequently. Because of that I’ve also had some negative experiences with people who had no business in the industry. This year, as folks have been forced to stay at home, legions of people also decided that coaching was a great alternative to whatever they were doing before, and suddenly hung out the expert shingle.

Needing money, kindly, is not a good reason to decide to get into coaching.

Your ability to be a good coach begins with self-awareness. You begin by having done the deep work.

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From the article:

To understand oneself, one’s coaching style, and how it is perceived and received by employees, is a critical first step to becoming a valuable and effective coach.

That, by definition, probably knocks out about three-quarters or more of the current stable of coaches. Self-awareness takes hard damned work, a lifetime of it. Not too many people are particularly self-aware, and those who become coaches do so for some unfortunate reasons. As in, self-aggrandizement. That they don’t realize this is their motivation, as opposed to the genuine desire to serve, is part of the problem. They’re not aware.

If you and I are overly self-centric, we can’t serve.

Coaching, then, becomes an easy default because it’s popular, lots of folks want to hire one, so hell, let’s jump on the band wagon. However, that it pays and can pay big are not the reasons to go into coaching, albeit that’s one reason it’s so popular. It’s also why there are so many very poor coaches.

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Two examples to illustrate my point:

Some years ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I hired a young woman as a business coach. After a positive initial period, we began to struggle. She was trained in the Tony Robbins coaching method. Interestingly, I didn’t know that she was a Robbins coach until late into our connection, which not only would have been helpful for my decision-making process but would have shed light on why we were struggling. She had terrible difficulty being able to adapt to someone who not only doesn’t much respect Robbins, but whose version of success doesn’t necessarily mean monetary gain. In my case, the VA strictly limits what I can earn because of the law. This bothered her greatly, for she took it personally that my income didn’t soar as a result of her work. She chafed under these conditions and ended up firing me as a client. Not only did she lie when she did it (I’m going to back away from my coaching practice…um, no, she backed away from ME, which is her perfect right, but the dishonesty was telling) but she also didn’t tell me her reasons.

Being honest, if you’re going to be a coach, comes in pretty high on the list, at least in my playbook. That takes courage. For there is great learning when you and I get fired by a provider. The reasons are highly instructive to both parties. If there is a lie, both parties lose.

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If you cannot be honest, clear and fair to your clients, you cannot be a coach. She was rigid, feeling the need to adhere far too strictly to her Robbins format, and unable to allow for the variety of her clients’ situations to dictate the nature of the relationship. That kind of rigidity is neither admirable nor helpful to a client. That speaks far more to her need to force people to fit Robbins’ coaching model than being willing, as a true coach does, to find ways where those methods could be adapted, or outright discarded.

She wasn’t a good role model. Coaches need to be able to set an example for their clients. They don’t have to be perfect, but they do need to be able to walk their talk, which includes the willingness to be wrong, be vulnerable and be transparent. Again those take self-awareness, hard work and humility.

The second example of this came up for me this week. I read an article by a woman who penned a piece for an Over Fifty women’s website. She was talking about how she had climbed Kilimanjaro at 61.

Okay. So did I, at 60. I read her piece to see what points she might make.

While I am a huge fan of anyone’s willingness to take on such a big Hairy Ass Goal, here’s where her story falls down for me:

  1. She bragged about how she left everyone else behind. Her story emphasized how quickly she was going up the mountain. Okay, sweet pea, here’s the problem: this is how people die. Altitude sickness is horribly unpredictable, and can affect elite athletes (Martina Navritalova and the NFL’s Ray Lewis, for example) at any point. To brag about how fast you went up the mountain is a massive red flag about one’s irresponsibility not only to themselves but also to the group’s safety. Others might want to try to keep up, to their serious detriment.
  2. She spent a lot of time talking about she had to have a guide sent with just her because she was moving so fast. This came across as bragging to prove she wasn’t sixty. It also demonstrated how her reckless behavior split the guide team to have to accommodate her. Not only is this supremely selfish, by damaging the integrity of the climbing team she is putting others at risk. That’s poor judgement. If she had such strong feelings about doing this her way she should have gone up with a team just for herself, which people do all the time. At least that way her actions wouldn’t endanger other climbers. It costs more, but at least that way others aren’t endangered.

For high altitude hiking advice please see:

3. Behaving this way on the flanks of the mountain demonstrated a serious lack of judgment and consideration of others in what comes across as an attempt to be able to prove that she wasn’t the big six-oh. The reason I say that is her choice of wording in her story. The problem with this approach is that it will likely inspire others to do the same thing on their climb, in other words, try to run up the mountain when that is the single best way to end up being brought down on a stretcher. That this didn’t happen to this woman is pure luck of the draw. She isn’t special. She is, in my opinion, stupid, in that way that heedless folks can careen through life and cause damage to others in their need to prove a point about how special they are.

4. All this also indicates that this person didn’t bother to do her due diligence before the climb. Not only did she apparently not do adequate research, if she did, then she ignored safety altogether. Again, this is hugely irresponsible.

5. She made a claim that very few people ever make the summit. Not only is that utterly untrue, this claim makes a mockery of the tens of thousands of folks who do indeed climb Kilimanjaro successfully every year. The way she worded the article makes it sound as though only a tiny number of folks make it. Nope. Fifty to sixty thousand every year. Granted, about a third don’t make it for various reasons, but to couch this attempt in this way disregards the fact that Kili is Grand Central Station for tourist climbers every year (but for Covid-19). This is disingenuous as well as dishonest, and again points to how much this is about her ego.

With respect, these aren’t characteristics I want in a coach. This person has written a book about her Big Kili Climb and what that means about goal setting. Okay, fine. The problem is that at no point in the article does she demonstrate that she is capable of taking the team into account with her actions. She doesn’t take other climbers into account, either, which means she cares ONLY about herself. Those value sets don’t align with mine, as someone who works in the adventure travel industry, and who sees this kind of dangerous self-centeredness all too often.

You could legitimately argue that for some folks, she’s probably perfect. But she’s not self-aware.

When a coach is too busy positioning themselves at the center of the Known Universe, there is no room for you, the client. The way these people treat others is a pretty good indicator of their priorities: they come first, they have to be right, which leaves little room for you to become the better version of yourself.

In too many cases, the coach ends up trying to remake you and me in their image, not into the best WE can be on OUR terms.

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Earlier this year I read a story by Medium writer Jon Krakauer about a superb climber who had died on Everest. The story was about how driven the guy was to prove himself. He’d already had a history of endangering others on Everest, which had been described in a best-selling book to which he took bitter issue.

From the article:

it was incredibly irresponsible for Anatoli to climb without gas. No matter how strong you are, you are right at your limit when you climb Everest without oxygen. You aren’t in a position to help your clients. Anatoli is dissembling when he says the reason he went down is that Scott sent him down to make tea. There were Sherpas waiting at the South Col to make tea. The only place an Everest guide should be is either with his clients or right behind them, breathing bottled oxygen, ready to provide assistance. (author bolded)

The man in questi, Anatoli, said this (which perfectly proves the point):

I wish with all my power there were other opportunities for me to make a living…. It is too late for me to find another way to finance my personal objectives; yet it is with great reservation that I work to bring inexperienced men and women into this world [of dangerous high-altitude mountaineering]. (author bolded)

At one point later on he’d taken some Indonesian Army officers up Everest- people who had no training, skills or expertise, mind you, but money. Again, this is how people die. He refused to use oxygen and died of altitude sickness on the way down.

What the woman who climbed Kilimanjaro doesn’t seem to either respect or understand is that if a world-class climber can die of altitude sickness, then she might want to model the kind of personal responsibility that helps others be safe. That is of course the whole point. What you model, what you demonstrate, teaches your clients.

My industry, the adventure travel world, is full of folks who have Big Names, and who offer guiding services. As often is the case, those Big Names draw people who want to hang out with them as bragging rights. A Big Name doesn’t in any way, shape or form mean Big Competence, team awareness, leadership or coaching skills. More often it means Big Ego. That Big Ego enjoys the hell out of a collection of fawning, adoring fans, but has no clue how to move those folks, each with a unique set of personal challenges, through the rigors of the Big Adventure. They spend far too much time trying to force those people to Be Like Me, when that’s patently impossible.

This is precisely the appeal of the Tony Robbins camp. The emphasis seems solely on material gain as opposed to finding joy, which my Medium buddy and transformational coach Rosenna Bakari talks about. Amassing fortune and living joyfully are not the same thing.

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These days I still work with two coaches. I picked Dr. Bakari because of her track record, and because she is client-centric, and deeply self-aware. While I understand that choosing a coach can be difficult work, I might offer that doing your due diligence before signing up for a package might go a long way towards helping you secure the kind of terrific talent which will help you reach your best self.

Are you considering becoming a coach?

If so, please see this article:

Before You Become a Coach: Seven Serious Questions to Ask Yourself
Are you wondering if you should become a coach? Here are 7 serious questions you should ask yourself.

While this may seem obvious, it doesn’t appear to be if the onslaught of brand new “expert” coaches is any indication. You need to know how to run a business. Most folks who are trying to become coaches have no clue. If you can’t sell, if you can’t run an office, coaching isn’t for you. It’s like anything else entrepreneurial. It takes a lot more than just interest or need. It takes skills.

Above all, coaching is about deep listening. Bakari’s strength, and one of the reasons she’s both my friend and ally is that she understands first, that coaching requires that she not accept the burden of her clients’ work. Second, that real success is when they don’t need her any more.

“You should not have to rely on me to be successful,” Dr. Bakari said in an interview this morning. “A true coach empowers their clients.” Real coaching success means developing and releasing better prepared adults out into the world.

If you gauge your success by how badly your clients cling to you, you’re part of their problem, not the cure.

When their success (e.g., no longer requiring your services) is your success, then perhaps you’re going to be a good coach.

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