1. Audio interview with Joel Monk, of Coaches Rising.
Listen as we explore together the reciprocal nature of the commitments we make in the world and the underlying stream of our own development, the nature of presence, and practices for working with our attachments and aversions to achieve real and lasting change.
2. Audio interview with Kate Ebner, of Georgetown University and the Nebo Group.
New Ways of Reading the World: Doug and Kate examine how meeting your current challenges help you discover how to move beyond overwhelm to create personal strategies that help you tolerate the the dissonance of meeting big challenges and instead thrive in complexity.A delightful exploratory conversation between Doug and Kate Ebner about presence, leadership resilience, and evolution. This show aired August 15, 2016, on Kate’s #1 ranked radio show Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life.
3. The following interview was produced specifically for this website.
Q: Hi, Doug. Thanks for taking the time to talk!
Doug: My pleasure!
Q: You had a career, for many years, consulting to industry, non-profits and government on building high performance cultures. How did you end up as an author and leadership coach?
Doug: Consulting worked great for me for many years. I enjoyed the work a lot, and at times it was deeply satisfying and we saw really significant change.
And also, my energy was spent working in systems that said that they wanted to change, but didn’t have the willingness to do what change requires. Consulting and travel were heady, but also frustrating when good people were stymied by the politics of the system, or by top leaders that only wanted others to change while retaining inordinate amounts of control.
I came to believe that engaging key leaders in transforming their own perspectives and embodying new and behaviors needed to precede engaging the rest of the system. Or, at least, that’s where my contribution lay. I still do some organizational work, but only when I’m also working with the top executive.
Q: You mentioned that your clients often struggle with life balance issues. Is your own life balanced? How do you work at this?
Doug: Balance has been an issue for me for most of my adult life. In part, the intensity and stress of the world is reflected in all of us. But, I also bring my own personal issues to the balance challenge. I’ve sometimes viewed myself as the sum of my achievements. Work was how I derived my sense of self. My professional life felt validating in a way that the messiness of home life sometimes didn’t. I’m not proud of it, but my work, and my work identity, became too compelling and I sometimes used work to avoid tensions at home. We had some difficult times.
I’ve had to work hard at discovering what’s most important. And, letting go of the illusion that fulfillment is solely based on achievement. Balanced? Perhaps, though integrated is I think a a better word. I live in a great place, have a wonderful wife, grown kids and grandkids, my work is deeply satisfying. I pay attention to what I care about.
And, yet I still feel out of control at times. At 62, I’m definitely a work in progress! Consistent daily practices, and framing my life as an opportunity for self-discovery, rather than a series of goals to be accomplished, really helps.
Q: What gets you excited as a speaker and a teacher and developer of coaches?
Doug: I love articulating the work, which continues to evolve. And, the work, and the community around this work changes me too. It is clear to me that our Presence-Based Coaching work is vital and alive and emergent. For me, and those who I work closely with, this body of work is an organic response to what the world is asking of us. We see that in the room. People come from all over the world to learn with us, and the work is transformative. I get super excited to see how people take our work extend it into major systems, in corporations, in government, in education, and in grassroots social change.
Q: What is most satisfying in your work with individual leaders? What is difficult?
Doug: The most exciting times, for me, are those moments when a client reflects on her day and realizes that she has changed. Sometimes people notice having responded in a creative new way to some very thorny situation. Effortlessly! The new response seemed totally normal, but “normal” had shifted as the person came to embody new capabilities It happens frequently, and it’s startling and wonderful!
It’s difficult when clients struggle with follow-through, and feel stuck in the complexity and overwhelm of their situation. Of course, this is common, as most professional leaders I know are facing enormous resource, personal and strategic challenges. Facing this reality of course creates a developmental opening…. it shows us something valuable about their response to their context. But, it’s still difficult! I want growth to be easy and sometimes it just isn’t.
Q: What breakthroughs have you experienced as you’ve developed this body of work? How did they come about?
Doug: There have been lots. Here’s an early one… I’d been coaching for about 8 years, and was teaching my own coaching model, when I began to write The Mindful Coach. Part way into the project, I began studying under James Flaherty and Sarita Chawla. In the Integral Coaching work that James developed, engaging the body is an essential part of a whole approach to coaching, and…. well, I’d left the body out of my model completely! In my book, words including “mind” or “mindful” appear 408 times. “Body” appears 16 times! It was a great wake-up call, and in the past dozen years, I’ve discovered that the body always holds the key to real and sustainable change. That’s a big one.
Another is seeing how leaders respond to complex and even overwhelming leadership situations. We create all kinds of stories about how difficult things are. Our bodies constrict and tighten. We internalize this stress. Yet, by learning to work directly with our own nervous systems to access resourceful states, we become more resilient and able to stay centered and effective no matter what’s going on around us. The sister nuclear plant to Fukushima Daichi arguably was saved from a similar meltdown by extraordinary leadership under impossible conditions. Yet, most of the current complexity literature is primarily focused on external strategies, rather than these kinds of inner moves that reconnect us to our innate capacities.
Q: You talk about “mindfulness,” and in your book, you identify yourself as a practicing Buddhist. Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?
Doug: I do. I also consider myself a Quaker, a Christian and a skeptic! I’m a scientist and experimenter by disposition, and deeply interested in any perspective that broadens how I see, and experience, the world we live in. There are many frameworks for understanding life and for guiding how we can respond to our context with greater creativity and aliveness. And, no framework is complete, no matter how seductive.
Q: Are you concerned that being “out of the closet” as a Buddhist might cause your work to be perceived in the corporate world as “spiritual” or “woo-woo?”
Doug: I used to be, but not any more. First, I am less and less concerned with what people think of me. Second, anybody that would be scared off by the fact that I meditate is probably someone with whom I wouldn’t be a good fit anyway. Being “out of the closet” is a screening method that saves us both time. Third, the ability to observe ourselves as we respond to life is absolutely essential to change. You can read Goleman or Senge or Cashman, and discover that the leading corporate gurus are talking about the same territory. Basically, we humans desperately want authenticity, connection, and meaning. Now matter how we earn our paycheck. Our leadership coaching work, rooted in mindfulness, delivers on this. Every time.
Q: What life experiences do you consider most relevant to your coaching?
Doug: All of it. I’ve been blessed with a hunger to live deeply for my 62 years and counting. As a consultant and coach, I’ve worked intimately with CEO’s, entrepreneurs, managers at all levels, and a head of state. I’ve been a geologist, a teacher, a builder, an adventurer, an explorer of cultures. I’ve taught in thirteen countries on four continents, and created multiple successful businesses and a failure or two. I’ve been married for over 30 years to my wife Walker, who is an astoundingly committed learner and a creative powerhouse. Anytime I might have become complacent, she’d change the game! Together, we raised three children, traveled, built houses and businesses, and experienced both major successes and wrenching losses.
All this adds up to a huge amount of creation and change. I have paid close attention to the process, and learned something of the territory of change through direct experience. I am immensely curious about the human condition, and what enables or blocks people in creating change in their lives.
Q: Tell me about writing your first book.
Doug: It was an amazing experience. I had no idea that I knew a book’s worth of “stuff,” and had never really thought seriously about writing one. A colleague suggested that my coaching model should be a book. It was a like a bolt of lightning. Two days later I sat down and in ten minutes I had a table of contents. In that moment, I absolutely knew it was going to happen. It was a huge challenge to write a book, and I had no idea what I was getting into. Still, once I saw the table of contents, I never questioned whether I would finish it. It was a transformational leap.
Q: What are your beliefs about human development?
Doug: Well, that’s a big question, especially when we’re almost out of time! Will you settle for the short answer?
Q: I suppose I’ll have to!
Doug: Developing ourselves is what everything else is for. Most busy professionals suffer because they confuse the ends and the means. Work, career, professional opportunities, conventionally defined success… those aren’t the end. But we live as if they were all-important. And, we suffer because there’s some hole inside us that we’re trying to fill with often senseless activity that can never fill it.
Here’s a different view. Work, career, and all that life dishes out are a means. They’re the practice field on which we learn to become competent, fulfilled, and liberated. Without the challenges of marriage and work and kids and all the messiness of life, we’d be bored. We wouldn’t have nearly as many humbling challenges to our egos, each of which provides an opportunity to wake up to our real possibilities. This isn’t New Age, it’s a simple shift in perspective. If you view all the complexity and chaos as a practice opportunity instead of as an adversary to overcome, it gets a lot lighter.
Q: Last question. Where do you see yourself going over the next few years?
Doug: I see myself continuing what I’m doing. Coaching a very small number of senior leaders who are serious about developing themselves and being of service. Training coaches, both here in the North Carolina mountains, and other locations around the US and overseas. Developing and extending our Presence-Based models to leaders facing extraordinary complexity in business, non-profits, and environmental and social change sectors. Doing my practices and investing in my own learning. Traveling in our little Airstream trailer named Hobbes, and spending time with my wife and kids and grandkids, and doing occasional outrageous wilderness adventures in search of my lost youth. It’s a pretty good recipe!