Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

When Life Happens – It is Still Leadership Development: An Overview of Career Coaching/Mentoring Needs

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hard questions 2Life Happens and Not Always with Kindness

“I feel lost,” the words belied a crisis.  This is a guy who has charged through is career successfully running over barriers, obstacles and inherited mistakes with fun, gusto and obnoxious jubilation. He is contagious, obvious, loud and a lover of people.

“I don’t know where I am going, my life seems shrouded with a cloud” he continued.  His lament stems from a series of losses he has recently experienced. He is my age (we are approaching our 40th high school reunion). He owns a thriving business he intends to give his sons and has a clear succession plan.  The big loss that anchors his grief and redefinition of himself is a back injury that prohibits him from playing basketball and being as active as he has been. Activity has been central to his ability to stay emotionally centered and to work through stress.  He struggles with some of the decisions his children have made. He struggles with redefining his marriage through the emergence of empty nest. He is surprised that these things have affected him at all.

“Listen,” I responded after a moment of taking in the full weight of his situation, “this may not be of too much comfort but what you describe is a normal process in development for men and women our age.”

We sat in silence for a long moment after that.  Then he finally spoke, “Well Ray, it is comforting.”  The conversation meandered after that as we reflected on the reality of being baby boomers. Baby boomers now face the full brunt of life.  Suicide rates among boomers shot up between 1999 and 2010 with the highest increases among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 percent to 30 per 100,000.  The suicide rate among women in their early 60s rose by nearly 60 percent.[1]  Why?  Barry Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Pennsylvania makes this observation.

“There was an illusion of choice — where people thought they’d be able to re-create themselves again and again,” he said. “These people feel a greater sense of disappointment because their expectations of leading glorious lives didn’t come to fruition.”[2]

Like my friend many boomers face loss and face the prospect of finding a new sense of purpose or falling endlessly into despair.  This is an important leadership issue. The need for experienced leaders to mentor emerging generations is often touted. However, these experienced leaders often feel displaced and under used or under valued. I remember a leadership coach once reminded me to prepare for the fact that I would have to redefine myself six to eight times during my career because of the changing social demographic and rapid technological shift. I thought he had fallen prey to hyperbole when he said this in the mid 1980s.  Now I think he was being conservative.  The need to redefine myself arose not only because technology shifted but also because my expectations about what I would accomplish in life fell short. There are multiple forces at work that force a reassessment of self. Now more than ever leadership development needs an exercise of intimacy like that between my friend and I described above. What does this mean for organizations?

Is Your Organization a Safe Place?

Can an organization be a platform for healthy, deliberate and open development of people?  The question is not derived solely from my theology which presumes and expects an answer in the affirmative.  It derives from experience that often finds organizational leaders lacking attentiveness to personal development.  Keagan’s assessment and synthesis on meaning making and development in human experience captures how people experience organizations;

Some head and definers of organizations would probably agree that their institutions are not particularly well suited to the development of the capacity for genuine intimacy in adulthood.  I image they would also be relatively unperturbed in this self-assessment, feeling that the workplace is not intended to serve such a function.  Possibly they might even feel that intimacy flies in the very face of the smooth exercises of the organization…If the notion that most workplaces are not well suited to the development of genuine intimacy is unperturbing to those who shape them, perhaps the notion that the workplace works against a person’s growth in general might be more so.[3]

I posit that the development of genuine intimacy is the center of organizational interaction and is a prerequisite to manifest personal development of any type.  The absence of intimacy is often at the center of employee complaints and disengagement at every level of the organization.  By intimacy I mean a sense of sharing who I am with another without fear of loosing or devaluing a sense of self. I mean a mutually beneficial discovery of uniqueness and similarity, of shared existence and meaning. My conversations in coaching and research persistently orbit intimacy which has a sense of value, personal recognition and a clear contribution.  These concerns are not framed by people as a demand for organizational role. They are framed from the context of a desire for appreciation and interpersonal interaction that can help make sense out of a sometimes senseless world.

Because of my background in pastoral ministry I am often reminded that a congregation possesses a different kind of organizational charter and characteristic from a business.  I find this assertion is duplicitous and contradictory.  Organizations of any kind are people working and living together. While congregations do have a different organizational charter they do not differ at all from businesses in the fact they involve people.

The reality is that every organization lives in a polarity of being a structure and an organism.  This reality points to a need for rethinking development as a out working of intimacy even more than program or training. Think for a moment about your own professional development and I bet you will think of a mentor with whom you shared many intimate encounters – some uncomfortable as your self view or assumptions were pointedly challenged.  The point is that every organization needs to deliberately develop its sense of being an organism as well as being an organization if it is to consistently thrive. (See Table 1)

Table 1: A Polarity of Expectations for Organizational Interaction

Interaction as an Organism
(the personal experience & expectation)
Interaction as an Organization
(the public entity & expectation)
Mutual Responsible
Spontaneous Structured
Respectful Efficient
Open Defined
Intimate Regulated, safe
Developmental Professional
Spiritual Reliable
Vibrant Disciplined
Forgiving Arbitrating
Loving Differentiating

The polarity of expectations outlined in Table 1 however are not mutually exclusive in themselves they are a complimentary set of characteristics that live symbiotically within a healthy or safe organizational system.  The two sets of characteristics in Table 1 must coexist in order to experience a healthy structure and consistent developmental outcomes.

So how does this impact the discussion leadership development or of helping boomers rethink their role? The way people work in their daily existence already bifurcate the personal and the public and continues exerting a perceptual influence into the experience of the organization as a tension between the spiritual and the practical or the personal and the public or the valuable and the measurable.  A person’s public experience in the organization limits behavior deemed more appropriate to the private or the personal. As a result intimacy suffers atrophy in interpersonal interactions.

Further, if we view interaction with organizational life from a developmental perspective, then it may best be described as a consistent renegotiation of the public and private perceptions that roughly equate to the dynamic interaction and renegotiation that occurs in developing people between subject and object.  That is people grow through a continuously more complex understanding of themselves uniquely and their identity relative to their integration with or relationship to others.

This means that how an individual perceives the organization, specifically the relationship between the organization as organism and the organization as structure is a function of the process of their internal negotiation between self and others.  Individual perceptions of the value and meaning of organizational relationships evolve through various stages of understanding that essentially shift from vilifying the organization to reassert the self and then to a reintegration of the self as a member of the organization.

If stage development theories can applied to describe the relationship people have to organizations and how they perceive organizations then such theories may show (1) expected times of rejection or withdrawal from organizational life and (2) the point at which development has stalled and embedded itself in a view of organization and self that is no longer functional for the person.  If the latter is true then the tensions involved may explain the personal trauma and eventual social disengagement that results in isolation and disillusionment of they type described above among boomers like my friend.

Understanding Stage Development Helps Negotiate New Life Experience

Three different perspectives, each of which uses a form of stage development as either an overt explanation of human behavior and development or as an assumed model which influenced perspectives on leadership development within an organizational environment are helpful in thinking about establishing intimacy in organizations.

Erickson’s Psychosocial Development.  Making sense out of unexpected situations, the unknown in human experience, is part of what a stage development model attempts.  By looking at usual human development Erikson identified favorable and unfavorable outcomes to developmental challenges that show the relative success of an individual in adjusting to a new sense of self along the development continuum.  The unfavorable outcomes of Erikson’s Stage Theory of “Physchosocial Crises” illustrate the need for breaking down negative choices in favor of positive ones. [4]  Erikson views the life cycle of development, from cradle to grave, as passing through eight stages.  Each stage brings new social experiences and new crises — which, if surmounted successfully, lead to constant growth and a steadily enriched personality.  The potential for an unfavorable outcome in any stage illustrates the impact and potential for the person to adopt mis-beliefs as true.  The use of Erikson’s model in the context of developing people in organizations recognizes that concepts defining intimacy, meaning and relevance are often rooted in personal and familial interactions. People interpose these interactions onto the organization and not the other way around.  People define respect, meaning, friendship etc., first by personal experience and not by theological or strategic reflection.  As a result personal reflection is strongly influenced by familial experience both past and present.

A leadership development perspective.  J. Robert Clinton’s work on leadership emergence attempted to offer a theological insight into how a Christian leader develops in light of God’s historical working.  By investigating the growth patterns evident in leaders Clinton posits a series of stages in spiritual development or maturity and identifies processes that show God’s formation activity in the life of the leader.[5]  While Clinton did not have Erikson in mind in the development of his model (he approached his work from a theological and not a psychological foundation) there are parallels in Clinton’s outcomes to the goals inherent in Erikson’s favorable outcomes.  The use of Clinton’s model seeks to define how God’s activity may interact to the familial and social influences an individual brings to organizational participation that at times produces dissonance to personal perspective.  However the dissonance that results from an engagement with God’s actual activity serves to further the individual’s growth as a person hence it may reflect social and workplace developmental dynamics.

A mentoring perspective.  Kathy Kram’s work on mentoring in the work place identifies developmental tasks associated with successive career stages.[6]   These are particularly helpful in identifying the workplace mentoring needed to ensure healthy development.  First, the workplace is the primary culture in which values and identity are often shaped.  Second, activities in social groups is a subset of workplace activity for the majority of people and either benefits or defeats developmental outcomes.  The average person approaches the organization from the context of their social grid learned not the values of the workplace perse.  By social grid I mean the meaning making and interpretive clues that cause help an individual define meaning, significance and relationship.  This heightens the need for rethinking the development of intimacy in organizations as a means of helping individuals engage their real selves in workplace relationships.

The following tables synthesize these three views and suggest directions organizations can take to make sure their talent develops without being derailed by what life throws at them.

Table 2: The Adolescent Engagement

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals
as Defined by Clinton
Transition Years Surrender where the person or the would-be leader aspires to spend a lifetime that counts for God.
Adolescence
Identity versus confusion Seeing oneself as a unique and integrated person Confusion over who and what one really is Ministry perspective.Flexibility and openness to new ideas.Kindling a sense of destiny and identity that encapsulates a sense of personal value and missionBroadening through exposure to others.Owning and developing personal convictions from the Scriptures.

Guidance, decision-making and input are tested one against the other to find a balance.

Pre Career — Wheeler Competence: In what ways can my life demonstrate a role competence?  Experimentation with social roles and interpersonal roles that provide foundational experience for defining the basis of personal competence.Identify: What abilities and strengths make me unique, give me a reason to contribute or to participate in groups actively?  What aspirations emerge from these early experiences?Commitment: How does involvement and commitment threaten my sense of identity or advance it?  What does it mean to be involved and committed?  How is involvement and commitment differentiated from enmeshment and being taken for granted or being taken advantage of i.e., a loss of personal value?Advancement: Can I advance?  Can I advance without compromising a sense of self and my important values?Relationships:  Can I establish relationships of reciprocity, respect and trust?

Family Role Definition: Who am I within a family unit?  Is familial identify and social identity mutually exclusive or complimentary?  What defines a satisfying personal life?  What kind of lifestyle do I want to establish?

Self/Family Conflict: Do I have an identity independent of family identity?

Table 3: Early Adulthood

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals
as Defined by Clinton
Entering Adulthood Discovery that competence (ministry) flows from being and not doing.
Intimacy versus isolation Development of interdependent, accountable friendships that confirm a sense of personal purpose and meaning. Loss of personal confidence and tendency to insulate from meaningful personal friendships. Demonstrate the character of God.Understand the purposes of God.Experience the faithfulness of God.Know the power of God.See the sovereignty of God.

Form Christ-like character.

Early Career — Kram Competence: Can I be effective in the managerial/professional role?  Can I be effective in the role of spouse and/or parent?Identify: Who am I as a manager/professional?  What are my skills and aspirations?Commitment: How involved and committed to the organization do I want to become?  Or do I want to seriously explore other options?Advancement: Do I want to advance?  Can I advance without compromising important values?Relationships:  How can I establish effective relationships with peers and supervisors?

Family Role Definition: How can I establish a satisfying personal life?  What kind of lifestyle do I want to establish?

Work/Family Conflict: How can I effectively manage work and family commitments?  How can I spend time with my family without jeopardizing my career advancement?

Table 4: Middle Age

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals
as Defined by Clinton
Generativity versus self-absorption Concern for family and society in general Concern only for self — one’s own well-being and prosperity Recognize that God’s guidance comes through establishing ministry priorities by discerning one’s gifts.A clear vision for the people of God.Clear reflection of the character of God.Maximization of the growth process and investment in the gifts and abilities of others.Consistent defeat of the strategies of the enemy.

Joy of relationship (with God and with others)

Middle Career — Kram Competence: How do I compare with my peers, with my subordinates, and with my own standards and expectations?Identify: Who am I now that I am no longer a novice?  What does it mean to be a “senior” adult?Commitment:  Do I still want to invest as heavily in my career as I did in previous years?  What can I commit myself to if the goal of advancement no longer exists?Advancement:  Will I have the opportunity to advance?  How can I feel productive if I am going to advance further?Relationships: How can I work effectively with whom I am in direct competition?  How can I work effectively with subordinates who may surpass me?

Family Role Definition: What is my role in the family now that my children are grown?

Work/Family Conflict: How can I make up for the time away from my family when I was launching my career as a novice?

Table 5: Aging Years

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals
as Defined by Clinton
Integrity versus despair A sense of integrity and fulfillment; willingness to face death Dissatisfaction with life; despair over the prospect of death Extended influence through reflection on life lessons, acquired skills, insights and relationships.
Late Career — Kram Competence: Can I be effective in a more consultative and less central role, still having influence as the time to leave the organization gets closer?Identify: What will I leave behind of value that will symbolize my contributions during my career?  Who am I apart from a manager/professional and how will it feel to be without that role?Commitment:  What can I commit myself to outside of my career that will provide meaning and a sense of involvement?  How can I let go of my involvement in my work role after so many years?Advancement: Given that my next move is likely to be out of the organization, how do I feel about my final level of advancement?  Am I satisfied with what I have achieved?Relationships: How can I maintain positive relationships with my boss, peers and subordinates as I get ready to disengage from this setting?  Can I continue to mentor and sponsor as my career ends?  What will happen to significant work relationships when I leave?

Family Role Definition: What will my role in the family be when I am no longer involved in a career?  How will my significant relationships with spouse and/or children change?

Work/Family Conflict: Will family and leisure activities suffice, or will I want to begin a new career?

Conclusion – We Need Leaders Who Exercise Intimacy

Many of the organizations and congregations I work with have yet to accept the significance of building intimate relationships that also leverage what is known about human development. Congregations tend to reject these models as “secular” and unrelated to church growth.  Businesses tend to reject these models as a distraction from efficiency and profit generation.  However, it is time for leaders to reconsider such stands.  Building a safe environment in which intimacy contributes to development is not an option it is an imperative to organizational health, relevance and profit (growth).

Use the models above to help your leaders or team members or colleagues define their experience in the context of a developmental process. This recognition sets the stage for people to exercise the power of personal choice.  The fact is that whether one emerges from crisis healthy or as a victim is not dependent on the circumstance they face but the way they decide to respond to that circumstance. These models help show both the choices available and outcomes that are reasonable to expect.

So what about the friend I talked about above?  Like other leaders he is working through his experience in three different phases.

Retrospection. My friend started here. As we talked I asked questions that helped him define his pathos and the trigger event or crisis.  He had to honestly face his own bitterness and resentment and choose to believe something good might result if he looked and choose for forgive the people who contributed to his angst.  Theologically we talk about being broken i.e., recognizing that we do not exist independently but interdependently. In a theological sense it is this stage that help people find their need for God – which often rises out of the wreckage of their own self-absorption.

Future shift. As we moved together through his choice to see his situation from a new perspective (the developmental stages helped with this) and as he chose to forgive those who had hurt him along the way an internal shift from depression to hope emerged.  He saw a potential for something other than disaster and disappointment. He began making plans on how to exercise the future he now sees as possible. Theology describes this as hope. An encounter with the ability and presence of God offers a different view-point to life and a sense of meaning where meaning was lost.

Decision making.  Finally he decided to act on his new perspectives versus remaining a passive victim. He is not done processing his loss yet however, he is on the right track. We will probably traverse this ground a couple more times before the new course is set. Again theologically we call this repentance i.e., a change of course.

I am confident my friend will emerge from his Mid-life crisis with a renewed sense of purpose and a larger idea of what his contribution is in the lives of those around him. My confidence comes from my own experience wrestling with the same kinds of issues.  I have good friends with whom I can share my experience in intimate detail. Further, I have begun to reassess how I relate to others at the various places I work – I am committed to building intimate relationships (read honest, vulnerable, loving and safe) in every environment.  I see the profoundly positive impact this commitment has on others across every generation and on me. How about you?  Will you lead your organization to be a safe place?


[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert Kegan. The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Harvard: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 248.

[4] Jerome Kagan and Ernest Havemann, ed.s.  Psychology: An Introduction 4th ed.  (San Diego: Harcout Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980), 505.

[5] Clinton, J. Robert.  The Making of a Leader.  Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988.

[6] Kram, Kathy E.  Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. New York: University Press of America, 1988.

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Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

One thought on “When Life Happens – It is Still Leadership Development: An Overview of Career Coaching/Mentoring Needs

  1. Looking forward to reading this on my vacation!I have been thinking a bit about this. Are you familiar with Jim Wilder and life model? Craig Hill’s Ancient Paths? A friend recently mentioned those to me in a conversation on this topic…

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