Odysseus the ‘resourceful client’? Human agency, coaching and change from Antiquity to the City, by Dr Nigel Spencer

Coaching encourages us to presume that the ‘client is resourceful’, and we have read a lot about our clients’ ability to define and achieve goals, driving change within themselves and, by implication, through the organizations or social contexts they inhabit. But are there limits to their ability to do this, and how much change can coaches and clients respectively achieve? In short, where do individuals reach the limits of their ability to influence their environment? And what are the implications for our effect on those we coach and for our ability to effect organizational levels of change?
Pondering the answers to such questions, I was drawn back to a model from my previous interdisciplinary academic field research in Aegean Greece and Turkey: examining group dynamics, how change happens through time and how we can detect it in the material culture left from the past. (It also prompted a thought about Odysseus, which I will come back to at the end.) One research model is that of Braudel[1], who focused on how to interpret the Mediterranean world in the Middle Ages and defined three timescales for analysing historical change and man’s impact:
Long-term ‘geographic time’ (géohistoire or the longue durée) – where change is imperceptibly slow compared to the human life-cycle, and human activity is ‘submerged… almost silent’. This is history on the scale where human influence on the landscape is almost irrelevant and unnoticeable.
A medium term scale of social history and the slow, perceptible rhythms of social evolution – economic systems, states, societies, civilizations and empires. At this scale, human agency becomes more noticeable in driving change, but mostly as a ‘collective’ where social groups may create and destroy, rise and fall.
Finally, the shortest timescale, microhistory (l’histoire événementielle), which moved more to the individual level of activity: a scale with ‘burning passions’, short-sighted, brief, rapid actions and decisions made without an awareness of the deeper realities of history drawn at the other timescales.
Braudel was subsequently critiqued as the model tended to neglect the impact of individual human agency, suggesting a rather deterministic environment. Later anthropologists argued that, as space is socially produced, the environment is constantly constructed and negotiated by the activities of individuals who, by implication, all influence social evolution and impact their environment. This body of scholarship very much returned the individual as a ‘resourceful client’ to the centre of the stage.
If we take this framework of timescales back into our coaching world, where some of us work as in-house stimuli to our organizations either as internal coaches or as procurers of external coaching resource, it made me reflect on what levels of change we are able to create.
Allow me to take Braudel’s last timescale first. In our firm over the last 5 years, we have definitely been successful agents for change at this briefest and most individual scale; through coaching, we have undoubtedly helped individuals be resourceful, motivated them to stay within the firm and move their careers in directions they would otherwise not have done, manage upwards more effectively with their line managers, restructure their teams, and achieve business benefits with their internal clients, driving some measure of change in the business units.
But can we detect our influence – or that of our coaching clients – at Braudel’s second timescale? Can we see any evidence that we might have made groups, business units, offices – or the firm itself – more ‘resourceful’ as entire entities?
On reflection, I would agree with all the business school research that, as a professional services firm, we can most effectively extend the ripples of ‘resourcefulness’ up to this second ‘group’ scale by choosing the right people to influence; in other words, the leaders of those business units or the firm itself. It has taken 5-6 years of patient work with this body to move to a place where coaching is now widespread in the firm internationally: senior leaders have said to their peers that they have a coach (and believe that others should have one too), and enough of the leaders have personally experienced the benefit of coaching that they have no hesitation in recommending it to others. In other words, there is significant ‘pull energy’ from the business unit leaders and different offices for coaching of their staff, because it is known to be an effective development tool, supporting specific business needs in their teams such as developing people to a new career stage or making them more effective in a senior role. But does that make those units, or the firm itself, more ‘resourceful’? Have we actually changed the firm?
I would like to think that the development of some key individuals through coaching has allowed them to maintain their strategic focus and to make good decisions at crucial times – thus, hopefully, leading to positive developments within their groups as a whole and perhaps even enhancing our firm’s trajectory. But this is where I feel that the ability to detect our human agency – and the ripples we have created – blurs with a number of other factors present in any changes effected at this scale.
While there is undoubtedly some clear human agency which is a sine qua non for driving change at this group/firm level – whether that be the personal influence and trust one builds internally to be allowed to deliver coaching solutions, or the individual excellence of the external coaching team – it is difficult to honestly claim that coaching in isolation has led to specific change at this group or firm level. We have been one factor, no more no less, although hopefully an important one and certainly one which would never have existed without us beginning the ‘journey’ towards a coaching culture in the firm 5-6 years ago.
And what of the broadest timescale? What of individual agency in the changes of the longue durée of the City? I suspect Braudel would dismissively tell me that my worldview is impossibly short. Despite the fact that there are clearly individual actions which have resulted in specific institutions failing or succeeding (Barings provides one obvious example), even the Great Depression, successive bull and bear markets and the Credit Crunch are mere strokes on a broader canvass whose patterns even Picasso would be utterly unable to discern. At this level, I think we inevitably move beyond the ability to perceive our individual agency.
Finally, I promised to come back to Odysseus; my reflection on him is simply that perspectives of writers from two very different ages speak in contrasting ways to his ‘resourcefulness’ – to the different scales of Braudel, and to the themes of business coaching. For Homer, the Odyssey’s author, Odysseus is like all the other heroes and mortals on his earth, swept along at the mercy of the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus . In that sense, he is a victim at one of Braudel’s grander scales, unaware of deeper realities and machinations, despite the – quite directive – coaching of Athena aimed at overcoming the gods queuing up to stop him reaching his homeland Ithaca.
Yet 2,500 years later, the brilliant poet Constantine Cavafy, in his poem Ithaca, painted a rather different picture that showed Odysseus as a more ‘resourceful client’ through the lens of Braudel’s shortest, individual scale. Cavafy’s message was that, as we all journey to our respective ‘Ithacas’, it is us alone who make our individual choices about which monsters we face, where we alight and which barriers we find in our way – because we would not have met them if we hadn’t chosen specific objectives or made different decisions along the way.
If we follow Cavafy’s version in a coaching framework, Whitmore [2] should be proud that Odysseus set his ‘dream goal’ of reaching home, and then individual ‘performance goals’ for how he got there. Gallwey [3] would, no doubt, see how our hero’s ‘Self 1’ tried to influence his decisions throughout his journey. Ibarra [4] would be pleased, I think, that Odysseus managed his career transitions by exploring all routes and identities – from husband and father, to war-hero in a foreign land, and back again – reinventing himself along the way, resetting his goals, and thereby proving the truth of T. S. Eliot’s comment that:
These two versions of a famous tale retell at different scales the same reality that I have experienced in my firm. At an individual level, the choice to change is definitely ours, and that of our ‘resourceful’ coaching clients. At a group level, we have been a contributing factor to change, even if the precise difference we have made blurs with other influences impacting on our firm’s daily Trojan Wars and Charybdis-like whirlpools. Beyond all this, we must accept there is a frame of reference well beyond our conception and influence where we are simply ephemeral, miniature actors playing out Scene One of a much longer drama that will continue well beyond our time.

[1] F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Volume I and Volume II) (London 1972)
[2] J. Whitmore, Coaching for performance (4th edition) (London 2009)
[3] W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis (London 1986)

Dr Nigel Spencer is Director of Learning and Development at Reed Smith LLP - EME, the international law firm headquartered in London.
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