Doug Silsbee provides thought leadership and pragmatic guidance for coaches. Doug helps us learn the territory of working with our own habits. With rich distinctions for observing ourselves in action, we can skillfully navigate the coaching conversation in order to open real opportunities for substantive change. Capturing the essence of what coaching can be, Silsbee has given us an incredibly valuable and integrated framework that will have significant impact on our field for years to come.Author, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts
Doug Silsbee was a pre-eminent author and thought leader in the fields of Presence-Based Coaching, leadership development, and resilience.
Doug’s ground-breaking work integrates deep pragmatic experience in organization and leader development on five continents with mindfulness, interpersonal neurobiology, somatics, and developmental psychology. Two books, The Mindful Coach and Presence-Based Coaching, are the basis for a leading edge coach certification program, accredited by the International Coach Federation (ICF).
Doug’s third book, Presence-Based Leadership, seamlessly weaves fields as disparate as complexity, leadership, and adult development theory into a deep exploration of how leaders can bring the fullness of their humanity to the most intractable challenges they face.
Doug was a Master Somatic Coach with the prestigious Strozzi Institute. He was a sought-after speaker for ICF and other international conferences, and taught at the Brookings Institution, UCLA Executive Education, Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership, George Mason University, and the Federal Executive Institute.
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.
In somatic work, we sometimes visualize that we have a massive dragon tail extending back behind us, following us wherever we go. Sounds silly… yet this metaphorical tail represents every experience we’ve ever had. It’s a representation of our history as it lives in us.
We can learn to experience our own history as a felt sense of fundamental sufficiency. We can directly experience that our whole life has contributed to make us ready for whatever we face now. In our work, clients learn this, not as an intellectual idea, but as a felt sense and a means for accessing leadership presence in high stakes situations.
The following is a sampling of the range of life experiences that have shaped me and which influence the possibilities that I see for myself and others. They are my dragon tail. (You have your own, of course… what’s in yours? How has your history perfectly prepared you for what you’re facing now?)
I offer this list because the life experience of a coach or a teacher directly enriches what he has to offer to others. It also serves as an example of an exercise that anyone can benefit from doing. Last, people who work well with me are more likely to be interested in what’s on this list than in a list of all the clients I’ve worked with over the years.
So, here’s a sampling:
- Building a beautiful timber frame house with hand-crafted joinery, pegged together in one day in an old-fashioned house-raising with sixty people, a bluegrass band, and a keg of beer.
- Consulting to the President and Cabinet of Nicaragua.
- Pulling two adolescent kids out of school to travel in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand for three months, including swimming with dolphins, sea kayaking, ice climbing, staying with hill tribe villagers in Thailand, visiting HIV orphanages, etc.
- Teaching coaching skills in programs offered by CTI, Hudson Institute, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Irish Management Institute, the University of Virginia, and the Federal Executive Institute.
- Serving as Arctic wilderness guide for a geology research expedition in Greenland.
- Living as a commitment to being present and supportive of my wife Walker as she suffers from a rare and very difficult neurological condition.
- Living in a tiny cabin in the woods with my future wife, six year old daughter and no electricity, water, or outhouse.
- Speaking frequently at major conferences for OD Network, International Association of Facilitators, and International Coach Federation.
- Baptizing a young Quechua girl in Peru as our goddaughter, and staying in relationship over a quarter of a century and counting.
- Investing consistently over many years in learning with some of the best teachers in the change world, and being coached by five top notch coaches in “ my own work.”
- Photographing a wide range of nature and human subjects.
- Working as a uranium exploration geologist for Phelps Dodge in Wyoming and Colorado.
- Teaching ninth grade and high school courses in earth science, physical science, and photography.
- Reflecting and journaling extensively about my life.
- Consulting and teaching in Fortune 100 companies as well as non-profits and educational systems.
- Authoring, and publishing through Wiley, two unique and influential books that people consistently find inspiring and helpful.
- Participating in a home funeral process for the best friend of my younger daughter, killed in a car crash at age 21.
- Doing every aspect of building a house with my own hands, including electrical, plumbing, carpentry, and masonry.
- Writing haiku and poems in other forms.
- Providing countless foot massages in the darkest hours of the night to settle the nervous system of a suffering wife.
- Studying ballroom dancing as a somatic partner practice.
- Becoming carbon neutral, including installing solar electric panels on our retreat center’s roof and matching guest carbon offset donations to support a grassroots reforestation program in Kenya.
- Designing an ICF-approved coach training program that has drawn participants from as far away as China, Australia, Kenya, Argentina, and Spain.
- Practicing (at least a little!) kung fu, tang soo do, tai chi, chi gong, and aikido.
- Starting a publishing company, and managing the design, publication, and marketing of the original edition of The Mindful Coach.
- Leading students in caving, bicycling, rock-climbing, and parachuting in a high school outdoor program
- Collaborating in varying roles with my wife in building or renovating nine houses and countless other building projects.
- Becoming certified as Professional Coach by New Ventures West, Master Somatic Coach by Strozzi Institute, and Professional Certified Coach by ICF.
- Organizing a week-long dog-sledding trip for my 50th birthday in northern Minnesota.
- Wood-working with furniture, turned bowls, and beautiful architectural details in our home.
- Going on a poetry-writing retreat with my accomplished poet mother.
- Fixing countless little broken things that involve problem-solving.
- Teaching 60+ public, cross-cultural, addictions, corporate, and international courses for Outward Bound.
- Scoring two “hat tricks” as a 50 year old hockey player against much younger and stronger players.
- Developing a long term lease arrangement with an independent organic grower to supply the retreat center and tailgate markets with fresh produce.
- Designing and directing two international semester-long, college credit courses at Outward Bound.
- Trading extensive life stories, no sordid details omitted, with my father in two consecutive all-night conversations at the beach.
- Paddling on the second ever canoe descent of a very rugged 250 mile “unrunnable” wilderness river in Labrador.
- Consulting to the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation on a $3M grant process to Outward Bound National.
- Designing and teaching a 16 day training program in experiential facilitation for Latin American faculty members at Central American Institute of Business Administration.
- Being baptized as an adult Episcopalian, and practicing extensively in Quaker, Buddhist, Open Heart, Native American and agnostic/humanist traditions. Experimenting with countless other spiritual practices.
- Traveling to all 50 states, and over 30 countries.
- Removing the engine and transmission from one 1967 VW bug and installing them in another.
- Being lovingly married to my first and only wife for well over a quarter of a century, and knowing, deeply, what is meant by “richer and poorer, sickness and health, better and worse….”
- Raising three kids who, having survived their teenage years (!!!) are now successfully finding their way in the world
- Teaching in Peru, Mexico, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, England, and other countries.
- Serving as the world’s greatest grandfather (according to Miles, who calls me Granddad’n!)
- Climbing, solo, the highest peak in Montana, and an 18,000 foot unnamed peak in Peru. Climbing the Grand Teton twice by different routes, a glacier route on Mt. Rainier, a rock route on Mt. Stuart, etc.
- Coaching many senior leaders to significant changes in their professional and personal lives.
- Founding multiple successful businesses, including Silsbee and Associates, Blue Ridge Consulting Group, Transformation Associates, Ivy River Press, Bend of Ivy Lodge, and Presence-Based Coaching.
- Making sufficient income to support my family well for four decades.
- Consulting and training in Spanish in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
- Going on world class family vacations: Belize, California, Rockies, Costa Rica, Martha’s Vineyard, Thailand, Baja California, etc.
- Buying 63 acre farm with wife Walker, and renovating the tobacco barn into the highly successful carbon neutral retreat center Bend of Ivy Lodge.
- Sea-kayaking on 4 to 12 day trips in Greenland, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and Alaska.
- Consulting for ten years with the Carolinas Region of American Red Cross, as they became the consistent best region out of 37 nationally on volume, profitability, and quality measures.
- Developing and teaching a new manager development program to Taiwanese engineers.
- Traveling with wife and elderly father cross-country skiing and wolf-watching in January in Yellowstone, on safari in Africa, visiting whales in Baja, etc.