Coaching and Eldering

By Jim Selman | Bio

In 1976, I was working with some government employees in Virginia trying to implement a new system for integrating human services—a kind of one-stop shop for all the various services offered at that time. I had just finished the est training the previous July and was overwhelmed with my own experience and the idea that a person could transform themselves and their relationship to everything. Until then, I had bought into the belief that people don’t really change in fundamental ways, that personalities are fairly fixed, and that it requires a major crisis to shift our perceptions of reality. It was during that period that I formulated the idea that there were things that could be managed or taught and other things that could not be managed or taught but that could be “coached”. The difference had to do with how we observe others and ourselves and how we relate to power and responsibility.

This was a time before the concept of organizational culture had appeared in the business lexicon. I don’t think I even heard the word ‘paradigm’ until about 1980 or so. Peter Drucker was about the only popular writer on the subject of management. This was a time when people thought in terms of careers spanning a lifetime and many even expected to work for one or perhaps two companies for life. Tom Peter’s landmark book, In Search of Excellence, which began the continuing wave of best-selling ‘how to’ business books, didn’t appear until 1982. [link to ]

The question I was asking in those days was, “Why is it so difficult to implement what most folks agree with and are even committed to make happen?” In the late ’70s, the answer was ‘resistance to change’. Culture and paradigms as explanations would come later. The question is still valid today. Companies spend billions of dollars trying to re-engineer, re-invent, transform and, lately, to just save their enterprises. The widening gap between what we can envision and where we are continues to grow. And, at the end of the day, it still comes down to people. We cannot transform a company unless and until we can transform ourselves.

Today there are many schools of organizational and ‘life’ coaching. Since I hosted the first international videoconference on the topic in 1987 and published the first article about coaching called “Coaching and the Art of Management”, the field has exploded to the point where it seems there are almost as many coaches as there are managers. The idea of coaching is an “idea whose time has come”. It is also, unfortunately, a field in danger of becoming so diluted and generic that it will become a meaningless buzzword and lose whatever potential it might have for empowering people to accomplish more than they think possible and more than they can accomplish by themselves.

Originally, my colleagues and I viewed coaching as an alternative paradigm to management, an alternative based in being able to transform the context in which people were working. In other words, we saw coaching as giving people an alternative way of observing—transforming their perception—and, thereby, opening up new possibilities and choices. This was technically called ‘ontological coaching’, meaning it was primarily focused on shifting someone’s Ground of Being (in effect, transforming their relationship to whatever game they were playing). In doing so, people were empowered and able to create unprecedented actions and, more often than not, to achieve breakthroughs in performance.

As these ideas and my experience have evolved over the past 30 years, I am now convinced that ‘coaching’ is an innate ability in all of us. It is the capacity to listen to others and what they want and then, in conversation with them, show them ways of accomplishing what they want. This is not about giving advice or knowing the answers, but a way of relating to others that brings out the best in them.

This background and my experience continue to grow as we focus on aging and the work of The Eldering Institute®. Our motto of “Wisdom in Action” is about empowering others of all ages. My definition of wisdom in action is:

“The ability to bring the best of our experience and what we’ve learned to others in a way that brings out the best in them.”

This wouldn’t be a bad definition of coaching as well.


© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.