Santa Claus Phenomenon: The hidden magic of coaching & leading

It’s not until you’re a grown up that you realise Christmas doesn’t just ‘happen’. That magical day was pulled together by the incredibly stressed adults in your family. ~ Rosie Waterland in this post about Christmas

Sometimes in adult life we engineer magic. With glee we secretly make the miraculous and enchanting happen for others.

As parents, we realise how engineered the magic of Christmas is. We kind of know it when we discover that our parents are really Santa, but it’s not until we create Santa for our own children that we appreciate the hard work that goes into it.

All the preamble, that constant constructing of stories of Santa and reindeer and the intricate goings-on of Christmas Eve. Answering questions about store Santas and how Santa gets into the house and where the reindeer park the sleigh. Stealthy gift shopping, gift assembling and gift wrapping. On Christmas Eve there’s waiting until the children are definitely asleep and then assembling the gifts, artfully nibbling a cookie, enthusiastically chomping a carrot, dusting snowy footprints to the tree (and then closing the pet out so they don’t ruin the footprints overnight). This is magic that requires long term planning and strategic operation. 

Then: Christmas morning! Children wake. Santa’s magic comes alive. The Santa narrative seems not only possible, but real and wonderful. The children shower gratitude on the mysterious and benevolent figure of Santa. There are joyous cries of, “Thank you, Santa!” and “Santa got me exactly what I wanted!” How they glow with appreciation for the jolly red fellow and his generosity. Somehow he knew exactly what they needed at this point in their lives.

Of course, I do all of this because I enjoy the looks of amazement on my children’s faces and the thought that they feel part of something fantastical. But sometimes, as a parent, I secretly think, ‘It was us! It’s us you should be thanking!’ In these moments, I want my children to realise that all that joy is down to my husband and I. We contrived and concocted this whole thing. Of course I don’t ruin the magic. I encourage their belief and enjoy their wonder (they are currently 4 and 5). But part of me still sometimes wants recognition for all the hard work of being Santa and providing the magic.

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

There are two professional roles where I think this Santa Claus Phenomenon (no, it’s not a thing; I just made it up) plays out in professional life: the coach and the leader. It’s not that these roles are magical, but both have a sense of hard work going on behind the scenes, potentially without recognition from the recipient. Like the parents acting as Santa, both roles require the person to provide others with what they most need in that moment.

Coaching is hard cognitive work. In this post, I used the metaphor of the duck to describe the coaching experience; the duck’s legs paddle manically below the surface while above the water, all seems serene. So the coach works hard, but in order to be effective, this work needs to be imperceptible to the coachee. In fact, in order to best serve the coachee, the work of the coach needs to draw out and draw on the coach’s inner resources, so that they shine brightly. The coach is the hidden passageway or the mirror to self.

Similarly, a leader who empowers their staff can sometimes feel like the unsung hero. This kind of leadership is the subtle and invisible kind. Stepping back so others can step forward. Subtly coaching and nudging and encouraging and scaffolding. This isn’t brave sword-wielding white-knight stuff, the celebrated charismatic leader on the public stage. It’s about believing in and nurturing others’ capacities, in sometimes imperceptible ways. It is hard work with plenty of setting up and engineering for successes, but it’s done quietly in the background and sometimes no one sees this leader’s careful preparation and toil.

How do coaches who want to build the internal resources of their coachees, and leaders who aim to build their organisations by developing their people, interact with the Santa Claus Phenomenon? How do coaches and leaders celebrate or measure their wins? One way in a coaching conversation is in the responses to the question at the end in which the coach asks something like “How has your thinking shifted from the beginning of the conversation to now?” Leaders can know their own impacts by tracking the progress of their teams and individuals. But perhaps in both cases, others won’t notice the impacts, or the careful steps the leader conducted to get there.

I’ve written a paper for the Heroism Science conference that explores the idea of the less-visible leader. The leader who empowers. The coach who helps develop the coachee’s self-efficacy through layered and complex, but barely visible, practice. I wonder how this kind of leadership plays out in reality. Is the knowledge of one’s own impact enough? What happens when others don’t recognise that a coach or leader is engineering the magic? What if, from outside, it seems like the coach or leader isn’t doing anything? Is that as it should be–the noble but unseen work of coaching and leadership–or is it problematic?

Reflecting on education Twitter chats

How to tune the voices on the airwaves?

How to tune the voices on the airwaves?

Chats can fall prey to … a lack of meaningful connections (with people or ideas), superficial conversations, and a lack of some sort of closure.

If mismanaged, preplanned chats can sometimes feel contrived. Better planned and executed, they might have the feel of a productive town hall meeting.

But like a town hall meeting, people can shout, speak without actually having conversations, or be lost in a crowd. You leave such a meeting asking yourself what just happened or if anything useful took place.

Sometimes the best conversations are the ones that are neither fast or slow. They are spontaneous and come from a place of honesty or concern.

Dr Ashley Tan in his September 2014 blog post

In the education world of Twitter, hashtag chats are ubiquitous and, for many, an important way to connect with other educators. I’ve talked before about how Twitter is a kind of writing and thinking practice, helping me to distil and crystallise my thinking. I participate in Twitter chats for a few reasons. In these forums, people interested in things I’m interested in are likely to be on the airwaves at the same time; I can find a tribe of sorts. I can connect with new and familiar voices in the Twitterverse.

Many chats are scheduled weekly, and happen over the course of an hour, with either one question, or more usually, a series of questions scheduled throughout the hour. There are also ‘slow chats’ which pose one question and allow those from different time zones to engage in discussion across a day or a week. I approach different chats in different ways. Sometimes I immerse myself in the chat. Sometimes I dip in and out. Sometimes I end up in a side chat having tangential conversations with people whose thinking is coalescing with mine in that moment.

You can find a schedule of the global range of education Twitter hashtag chats here.

As Greg Ashman notes in his post today, Twitter chats can connect us with fellow geeks, even when we’re feeling isolated in our own contexts. He also points out that chats often don’t allow participants to engage in the assumptions underlying their questions. In a chat we were both lightly engaged in today, there were, for instance, attempts by some participants to explore the situated, nuanced nature of the topic. There didn’t seem to me to be a clear understanding of what participants meant by the topic, or why or in what ways they felt it was important. At times it felt like people putting sticky notes up on a wall; comments were being placed alongside each other, but they were disparate and not based in the same conversation or on a foundation of common understanding.

I’d agree that often chats deal with complex concepts and unclarified terms, and sometimes they can descend into a superficial cacophony of noise where people are talking but not listening, learning or questioning. Sometimes when I have questioned the use of a term or the premise of a chat question, I’ve been engaged with by others, but I’ve also been ignored or dismissed.

Sometimes, Twitter chats can produce an echo chamber of like-minded people high-fiving each other. In some ways, this feels good, as Twitter is a place many find solidarity and support. In my participation in the PhD Twitter community, it is often moral support that I’ve sought out in times of academic struggle or isolation. But while dissent is hard in 140 characters – and can easily come across as abrasive or attacking, rather than gently provocative or inquiringly questioning – I hope for robust, rather than cursory or jargonistic, discussion from educators. Yet difficult in 140 characters.

Personally, I’ve found a solution of sorts in this blog. I use it to expand my thinking and explain it to others in more depth than even a series of tweets would allow. Blogging opens up the education conversations we have, widening and deepening debate. We can disagree more gracefully if we have more words in which to do it. I’ve really enjoyed those times in which I’ve been engaged in a conversation with other bloggers, as we build on and respond to each other.

More recently, I’ve experienced Twitter chats from the organiser side. A couple of months ago, Chris Munro, Corinne Campbell, Jon Andrews and I launched the monthly #educoachOC chat, one intended to start a conversation around coaching in education at an Oceanic-friendly timezone. My co-moderators are educators I initially met on Twitter, and now our common interests have developed into this collaboration.

After collaborating using tools such as email, Google docs, Voxer, Twitter messaging and Trillo, we planned our approach and our questions for the first chat. We also launched a blog as a home base; we wanted to make our approach clear and our thinking explicit.

The #educoachOC team learned a lot from our first chat. We reflected on how we found the chat as moderators, how we felt the conversation went between participants, and also used a Google survey to allow participants to give us feedback. In that first go, we had too many questions, which left it feeling a little disjointed at times as people jumped off interesting threads of conversation to answer the next question. One participant said they felt as though they had been coached through the chat; that we had modelled coaching through our questioning and format. One said that most contributors were pulling in the same direction and that it would be interesting if opponents of the approach challenged one another. A major reflection from that first chat was around the clarity of terms. We found participants were all talking about coaching, but seemed to have different understandings of what that meant.

In our second chat, we reduced the amount of questions and focused the chat around clarifying the group’s understanding of coaching. We were keen to build a shared understanding amongst this online community. We prefaced the chat with a blog post outlining the contestations and confusions, and some useful resources. It worked better, we reflected, and we’ll continue to collaborate and refine our approach and format. In that second chat (there’s only been two so far), we were trending in Australia, at the same time as #qanda. While we certainly didn’t intend to be a trending hashtag, that was a reflection of the level of discussion and participants’ engagement in the topic and with each other. It felt much more like a conversation which allowed us to deeply explore a topic and some of its complexities.

I think the education Twitter community does wonderful, exciting things, including through Twitter chats, in which I am immersed. But I do think we can be reflective and critical about how we run these chats, how we participate in them and how we use other media such as blogs, podcasts, Periscope and Voxer to take our conversations further, deeper and towards rigorous and elegant debate.

Coaching fields forever #educoach #twistedpair

strawberry fields forever

strawberry fields forever

Today’s blog post is a response to two blogging challenges: the #educoach October blog challenge and the #twistedpair blog challenge set by Steve Wheeler, in which a blog post needs to blend two disparate things. I’ve decided to pair coaching (something of my journey as/to coach here) and picking strawberries. (Although now that I look back on Steve’s challenge, he asks us to pair people or characters, not things; still, I hope this counts as a strange duo.)

So how is coaching like strawberry picking?

Today I took my two young children to pick strawberries. After a week of working relentlessly on my PhDdeep in the thesis cave where it’s dark and solitary, and with a sprained ankleit was so good to get out into the sunshine and the dirt. 

The first rows were dry and over picked; there wasn’t much to find. We fossicked and looked, but our box remained sparsely populated. It wasn’t until we walked further afield that we found bushes that were greener, bushier and more bountiful. Even then, it wasn’t until we crouched, paid attention to a particular plant, and looked deeply into its foliage, that we found the glossiest and juiciest strawberries, protected by shade and unseen by others who had trudged by without stopping to examine that plant and explore its blossoms, leaves and unseen-from-the-outside fruit.

This reminds me of coaching, which requires us to approach a person, the coachee, uncertain of what we might find or where we might find it.  We cannot assume where they are at, or where the conversation is going to go. In order to uncover and bring to the surface thinking which they haven’t previously accessed—not to mention the a-ha moment, or ‘cognitive shift’ as it’s called in Cognitive Coaching—we need to be present, pay attention, and expertly use questioning to reveal those glossy, or rotten, unsurfaced thoughts which help that person to take their own reflection, practice or dilemma to the next level.

by @debsnet

part of our haul

Not only that, but as I picked the strawberries this morning, and later washed and sorted them this afternoon, I noticed their snowflake-like idiosyncrasies. Each was recognisably a strawberry, but each was a slightly different shape, colour and texture, with a stalk which bent a different way, or seeds which sat differently against its skin. Some were under-ripe, some had just begun to turn, and others were at the apex of their strawberry-eating life: red, shiny, firm and glorious. Each coachee is an individual, and they are in a different place each time we meet with them. So while a coach might apply a coaching conversation map or set of tools to all coachees, each relationship and each conversation will look different, shaped by its person, time and place.

Combining two very different things seems a disruptive way to approach a topic. I’m interested in how we might bring new understandings to familiar concepts or practices by attempting a twisted pairing. I’ve written before about research and Wicked, the musical, and my PhD as a sculpture or birthday cake. I’m wondering what else I might uncover about myself as coach through analogy or metaphor.

by @debsnet

strawberry blossom in the sunshine; perfect potential