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  • Neville Powles

Leadership And Ontological Coaching in a Traditional Educational Environment

By Neville Powles

Neville Powles is the Principal of a large secondary college in a regional centre in the state of Victoria, Australia. In this article he shares his thoughts on the professional value he has gained from completing the Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching last year. While Neville is commenting on ontological applications in an educational setting, his thoughts have relevance for different aspects of leadership in any environment.

Two of the major challenges I continually face in my work are:

  1. Fostering learning so that the school is a genuine educational environment.

  2. Changing the culture - the way things are done within the organisation (school) or to be more specific, to change the way the individuals within the school go about their work.

What better environment could there be to focus on an ontological approach to life and becoming the best we can?

What I have learned by applying the principles and skills of Ontological Coaching in my work is that it provides an effective framework upon which to build a learning community by ensuring people are engaged in the appropriate types of conversations The quality of the conversations we have are influential in building or creating the relationships we have and this in turn impacts on the performance and productivity of those we lead. In many ways conversations are the oxygen on which we survive.

What is the essence of the framework Ontology provided me as a leader?

We often hear the terms coach and coaching as the way to build capacity in our staff. In summary, through my studies I have developed a framework through which to build capacity in those with whom I work. I made a significant shift from being the person who is expected to solve problems when they “come through the door” to using coaching to provide my staff with avenues to articulate and use their own ideas to develop potential solutions they didn’t realise they had. An integral part of this is supporting them develop the confidence to implement their solutions and being on hand to offer assistance if required. This builds capacity and as capacity builds there is less reliance on the leader to be the solver of all problems. These same people have greater capacity and so feel better about themselves as they become more resourceful for themselves. They are then able to care for themselves better and it is likely they will also be more resourceful for others – those with whom they work and those they teach.

What learning supported me to make the shift to leader as coach?

I came to understand myself better in all three domains of language, emotions and body. My habit of ignoring and at times suppressing my emotions was not the most resourceful way I could be and lead. Recognising my moods and emotions, living in these, learning how to change them if they were not serving me and others well has been a major shift for me and the way I am. I have learnt there is fundamentally a better way to be and unquestioningly this has been, and continues to be, life changing!

Through the course I came to realise that in addition to being logical and analytical there is a place for using my intuition - my gut feelings. I now have a more open and balanced approach to responding to people and issues. I am more appreciative that each person has their own truth and their truth is as valid as mine.

I am a much better observer of others, recognising their moods, building better relationships, making more efficient and effective requests, making and managing commitments. I have been able to coach individuals, helping them to clarify sources of unhelpful moods and emotions and assisted them to learn there are better ways to be and to adopt those better ways. I came to fully appreciate the saying “the right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation”.

How has my behaviour shifted as the school leader?

I realised that I was not gaining the most that I could from my conversations, and I could see that was also the case in many conversations between staff members. I learned to apply the power of moods and body to be fully present when others speak I could see that all too often I did not listen carefully to others and I was doing them a disservice. Greater satisfaction comes from knowing we have been listened to.

I came to acknowledge that recognising and shifting my own moods and emotions developing the ability to assess the likely moods of others was of great assistance in preparing the emotional ground for constructive conversations. In short, we became more resourceful for each other.

I have come to trust myself more and be more intuitive in my approach when speaking to different groups in the school community. I now speak without the “crutch” of fully prepared scripts and base my presentations on a few key words. The result is a more personalised outcome that flows and adapts to spontaneous triggers and moments of creativity. I feel people get much more of me as a human being now.

I have identified instances where I have made mistakes and used staff meetings to acknowledge these mistakes, identified them as learning opportunities and made public declarations in an endeavour to do things better and differently, acknowledging that I am a learner and I am enlisting full staff support in my endeavours to improve.

I have taken my new understandings of how it is necessary to change individual behaviours in order to change cultures to staff and identified the importance of each individual reflecting on their own way of doing things and the need to do things differently in order for the collective culture to change. A capacity to change demonstrates the ability to learn. For example, if we as a school are to improve the litter problem then it takes each individual to change what they are doing or what they are not doing in order to improve the situation.

I have coached groups of staff who have been in conflict with each other for many years and no effort had been made to resolve their grievances with each other. I met with them, explicitly declared this was their problem and only they can solve it. I made it clear that as their leader I could assist but it was up to them. The ensuring conversation was productive and helpful in encouraging new ways of working with each other. After many years of ignoring the conflicts there was an appreciation that the unhelpful issues were acknowledged and there was an expectation the status quo was unacceptable and that changes were required. This is non-trivial part of facilitating cultural change.

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