Coaching is wisdom practice
Wisdom is a coaching practice

North Yorkshire Co-Coaching Forum 21 June 2021


In the ancient traditions, wisdom is often seen as the foremost of virtues and aspirations (philosophy is formed from the root word philo – love – sophia – wisdom)

My own interest in wisdom as a relevant concept for study in organisational and leadership work really started about a decade ago. Doing research for my PhD I was exploring different issues around ethics and how organisations seem to drive us rather than serve us. Pursuing different lines of inquiry I started to notice a stream of writing on organisational and leadership wisdom (which started in the late 1990s). And a more detailed study with leaaders and OD practitioners led to a framework which I’ll share in a few minutes and make some links with coaching.

Despite the fact that study of wisdom has fallen away since the ancients ‘wisdom remains a compelling notion’ (Osbeck and Robinson, 2005).

And I was very struck at the end of last year with the concluding words of David Attenbrorough’s book A Life on our Planet and the challenge of climate change

‘If we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom’

How do we define wisdom?

Reflection: What words describe wisdom for you?

Quite often people ask me to define wisdom and I rather resist this. I have personally grown to regard wisdom more as an orientation, an attention rather than a fixed notion – though I have tried to find my own way into some characteristics of it.

However I offer a couple of definitions from ancient and modern philosophers now which I think get to the essence of wisdom

‘a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods’ (Aristotle)

‘capacity and the active desire to realise what is of value in life, for oneself and others’ (Maxwell)

These capture the inner and outer dimensions of wisdom, the reflection and action. It isn’t simply thinking wise thoughts – it’s about taking wise action. And within this there is a focus on ‘human goods’, ‘value’- but not just for ourselves but for others too (and with David Attenborough in mind we might also include the planet). So there is a strong ethical and moral imperative in wisdom…

Reflection: How do these definitions sit with you? What really matters in your coaching?

There is an increasing body of literature on organisational wisdom and some on its development – though I don’t think this has reached the mainstream – and I’m interested in why that might be? One hypothesis might be that it feels a bit too philosophical – modernity prefers data and certainty. Another might be that it is challenging! And has implications for us individually and collectively – facing up to how we may not be wise…

But let’s just dig into this link between wisdom and coaching – and see what’s being said about it.

At a basic level it seems to me that many of the foundational aims and practices of coaching hold much wisdom. (I’ve used the words good faith because I think most coaches try to do these things…)The relationship of trust (we might say love), focus on growth, seeking what matters to the coachee, supporting them to realise that… through practices involving care, attention, listening, creativity, challenge, integrity. All this seems like wisdom…

Reflection: Think of a recent example when you felt that there was wisdom in your coaching …what was going on…. from the perspective of you and your coachee?

Going a bit deeper into explicit explorations of wisdom in relation to coaching there are some books devoted to a wisdom perspective – and there are references to wisdom in more general books on coaching. Here I take a few examples from the literature – including the framework from my own research. And it may be worth noting that there is quite a strong lean to leaders in these models/ideas

  • Richard Kilburg – argues (from Aristotle earlier) that wisdom is a key virtue for leaders and desperately needed amidst the challenges of our age; so he sees the role of the developer/coach as enabling the cultivation of the virtue of wisdom
  • John Whitmore’s ‘Coaching for Performance’ has a closing chapter on transpersonal psychology where argues that as we develop our coaching practice in a spirit of service we find ourselves on top of wisdom questions – where is the meaning in this work, where am I going? what really matters? Like Kilburg he worries that we need more wisdom in our world!
  • Simon Western’s rich exploration in ‘Coaching and Mentoring’ proposes a model of coaching discourses where the leadership coach is focussed on wisdom: ‘to link individual belief and values and company ethics’
  • From my research with leaders and developers on wisdom in practice a framework emerged with characteristics of wisdom which I think may be able to help us as we think about what we all need to do well for wisdom

Within the framework of wisdom

charactersistics there are three ‘inner’ ones – our knowing – and three outer ones – our doing. And here are the definitions which I hope explain more depth.

Inner ‘knowing’ characteristics

ConsciousnessKnowing from multiple intelligences: intellectual, emotional, experiential, moral, spiritual. Balanced with humility about the limits of this knowing. Present, open, listening, taking in information, reflective, learning.
ConsciencePurpose is to serve the common good operating ethically and with integrity. Humane values guide choices. Personal fulfilment and the fulfilment of others is intertwined.
ContextRecognising complexity and multiple perspectives in the organisation and more widely. Attentive and attuned to what is happening over time. Adapting to circumstances. Creative and flexible.

Outer ‘doing’ characteristics

CollaborationValuing and accessing the wisdom held across peoples. Individuals hold their own wisdom and collective wisdom emerges through listening and dialogue, in an environment of trust and openness.
CompassionConscience enacted through generosity, kindness, fostering development and growth and knowing and valuing diverse strengths. Humane action. Care for all, by all.
CourageHaving the courage to embody wisdom. Courage and risk are finely balanced, finding an appropriate place between fearfulness and fearlessness.

So I guess Kilburg, Whitmore, Western, this framework are all bringing attention to cultivating wisdom in our coaching – whatever the presenting challenge or issue. We are helping coachees see more clearly, focus on what really matters and the ethical dliemmas we all face in a complex world, work in community with kindness and move forward with hope.

So I wonder if hearing all of these ideas you might be saying YES – that’s what we do as coaches at our best. We already have wisdom!

Well I want to say that too – and I also know that it is quite hard to do all of it!!

Cultivating wisdom in our coaching

You might then ask what are the practical implications for my coaching – and I am going to invite you to go into pairs for a few minutes.

And as we do this a few final provocations from me.

  • First – What are the practices we might need to do more of to better cultivate wisdom? I said earlier I think there are loads of very wise practices we can use (for example Nancy Kline ‘Tine to Think’ which we’re about to use seems to me a brilliant approach as Simon Western observes ‘her focus on silence and creating space, rather than chasing goals from the outset, is refreshing). But are there areas to build – for example how we work on the bigger ethical dilemmas of what is good for both self and others….is this given enough attention in our coach development?
  • Second – As noted above how does wisdom link with a core model like GROW – which is very goal directed. How can we (and our coachees) hold the tension of uncertainty and the allowance of time which wisdom seems to demand. How does this sit with individual and organisational pressure for action, outcomes, results…?
  • Third our use of self – How do we hold our own attention on wisdom. How do we model it? What does this call from us?

Reflection in pairs: For the last few minutes I wonder if we might now go into thinking pairs with the following question in mind. Just listening to each other; three minutes each way; no interruption; silence is fine!

How does a wisdom lens challenge me in my coaching practice?


Gaukroger, J. E. (2016). Organisational Wisdom what is the contribution of the organisational development practitioner? PhD thesis

Kilburg, R, R. (2006). Executive Wisdom. Coaching and the Emergence of Virtuous Leaders. Washington: American Psychological Association

Maxwell, N. (2014). How universities can help create a wiser world: the urgent need for an academic revolution. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

McKeon, R. (2001). Ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Modern Library Paperback Edition. New York: The Random House Publishing Group.

Osbeck, L. M., and Robinson, D.N. (2005). Philosophical theories of wisdom. In Sternberg, R. J., and Jordan, J. J. (Eds). A Handbook of Wisdom Psychological Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Western, S. (2012). Coaching and Mentoring. A critical text. London: Sage. Whatmore, J. (1992). Coaching for Performance. London: Nicholas Brearley