Working with Vulnerability in Coaching


There is a growing realisation that businesses are putting themselves at risk by investing large amounts of power and responsibility in so-called ‘transformational leaders’. More and more books and articles are beginning to appear about the ‘intoxication of power’, the ‘dark side of transformational leadership’ and ‘leadership derailment’ in large corporations.

Added on 18 February 2016 by Erik de Haan


Recent accounting scandals at Toshiba and ethical breakdowns at Volkswagen exemplify the growing consensus that our focus on debt, greed and income inequality is unsustainable. But what do we do about this?

At the core of many instances of malfunctioning leadership is an ancient Greek phenomenon, hubris. Hubris literally means ‘outrage’ or ‘overstepping the mark’, and may be described as a sense of overbearing pride, defiance or presumption not justified by the circumstances or the perceptions of others. In ancient Greece this mostly meant overstepping the mark when it came to the Gods or the forces of nature – yet hubris also affected fellow mortals, when individuals abused or shamed others, thus challenging society’s norms. Hubris is not just the same as overconfidence, but contains an element of transgression: going beyond a natural boundary or authority structure. And the scandals and corruption we see today could all too well come under the banner of ‘corporate hubris’.

How does hubris arise?

Ordinary levels of confidence and resilience are essential qualities for developing a successful career. However, when an executive’s self-belief is reinforced by their success he or she can become unwilling or unable to hear contrary views, and even fail to acknowledge facts which might undermine their self-belief and self-image. This is the point at which they become a liability to themselves and their organisations.

Dr (Lord) David Owen, Chairman of the Daedalus Trust, who is also keynote speaker at our Relational Coaching Conference in June, is particularly interested in this topic, coming from the senior echelons of politics where some level of hubris is almost a requirement of the job. 

Lord Owen recognises that hubris has a serious shadow side, which if unconstrained can expose both the person concerned and those he or she is leading to serious danger. It can tip over into ‘hubris syndrome’ -  a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.

Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadth of vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirations and bold self-confidence — many of us might associate these qualities with our political leaders as much as our business leaders.  When these very same qualities are inverted, impetuosity, a refusal to take or listen to advice, impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail come to the fore. This can result in disastrous leadership and cause damage on a large scale. How many times have we seen it happen?

Working effectively with leaders suffering from hubris

Working with leaders with this problem can be difficult for coaches. Just as when we work with executive coaching clients who truly see ‘no issues’, getting these individuals to recognise there is a problem is the first step. We run the risk of alienating them when we confront them, but if we do not do so, we cannot provide what they need most. Our own tendency to hubris is also stroked by the very fact that such leaders choose to work with us, so it is important not to collude and enjoy being in their ‘circle of trust’. The challenge is to build and retain their trust while experimenting with "breaking the shell that encloses their understanding,” as organisation development consultant David Casey puts it.

For ancient Greeks the antidote to hubris was ‘sophrosyne’, which literally means healthy-mindedness. Humility, restraint, self-control and temperance were recommended, to bring us back from the abyss of hubris and give us the capability to reflect on our leadership.

I am convinced that it is possible to bring such ‘healthy-mindedness’ to top executives, but only by way of their (and my) vulnerability. I have noticed time and time again that hubris fizzles out, and seeps away, when a leader notices his or her own vulnerability or ‘shadow side’. This can happen through a fair challenge, a revealing piece of feedback, or a vulnerable self-disclosure from the coach. From such vulnerability, self-reflection can emerge, which can balance hubris further. Try it. It works.

At the Relational Coaching Conference on 13 June at Ashridge Erik de Haan will present exercises in longer-term vulnerability, using action research. Together with a group of successful MSc in Executive Coaching graduates, he will launch the second edition of the book, Behind Closed Doors, an action-research study into vulnerable moments in real life executive coaching relationships.