"Integrating Coaching Ethics For The Anthropocene: ‘Gutfeel’ And 'On Principle' Coaching Approaches To Sustainability" By Geoffrey Ahern (Guest)

Published in 'the good coach' (Guest)

March 20, 2017 Geoffrey Ahern

As part of a small team about two years ago I explored some UK coaches’ reactions to sustainability science, and did so again in London last summer when piloting a 12-15 hours sustainability course with participants who mixed executive coaching and sustainability expertise. There seemed to be ambivalence towards sustainability in our novel ‘Anthropocene’ era in which humans have an increasingly significant influence on the Earth.




In the team we concluded that the coaches we encountered (not representatively selected) were concerned that

  • Introducing sustainability into the agenda would hijack the coaching process
  • They would fall into the trap of being prescriptive
  • Different considerations apply at organisational and corporate levels compared to what we do to be sustainable individually

These reservations link in with the wider experience of seasoned environmental campaigners. They have found it difficult to connect the science behind Earth research to everyday gutfeel. This seems to be because the science is highly specialised and drily expressed, and is involved with likelihoods not certainties (probabilities which are put into abstract numbers not painted in vivid pictures). Yet the impact of the scientists’ findings is overwhelmingly ethical and of the utmost importance for long-term human survival given that behavioural principles about preserving the planet follow urgently from them.

Coaching in the light of sustainability science

Over the past eight years I have had parallel occupational tracks: both executive coaching and sustainability (consulting, ‘one planet’ MBA co-creation, co-founding a sustainability group, university teaching of sustainability). Now I am asking whether there is a basis for greater collaboration between coaching and sustainability.

This blog-article looks at how the principles following from sustainability science findings can be further integrated with coaches’ gutfeel. It draws on the distinction between ‘gutfeel’ (including intuitive wisdom) and ‘on principle’ approaches in contemporary Western ethical theory.

  • I summarise sustainability science and its fit with coaching
  • Then I consider the further integration of sustainability science principles into coaching ethics in terms of advance framing, permission from task and having finance as sustainability’s ultimate language

The blog follows on from the one I published in the good coach on January 11 this year.

The ‘gutfeel’/’on principle’ contrast in relation to sustainability science

In many life and death situations gutfeel ethics integrate well with ‘on principle’ ones[1]. But it seems that preserving the planet is different because of the nerdish nature of science:

  • Recently US President Donald Trump was, via visual media, in-your-face to billions when displaying his signature for the reviving of the tar-sands Keystone XL oil pipeline[2]. His ‘gutfeel’ truth-is-what-I-say-it-is style is charismatic. In comparison the truth-maze (or validity) issues of peer-reviewed scientific publications on the greenhouse-intensive nature of tar-sands oil are intellectual and complicated.

It’s challenging to internalise the abstract principles implicit in probabilities from Earth research on outcomes relating to the biosphere, climate change, fresh water shortages and so on:

  • The gutfeel of coaches, unlike Donald Trump’s, may well be generally favourable to sustainability
  • But this often seems to be without having an accurate overview of the science
  • Yet the risk management specifics of environmental science’s probability predictions for billions already and about to be born have a very big impact on mankind’s ethics, including coaching ones

Sustainability context

How can laypeople including coaches get an overview of sustainability science which is as valid as possible? The answer is – by clicking the mouse a few times, so long as you know where to go.

A very useful, inclusive planetary model comes from Stockholm University (the Stockholm Resilience Centre). It makes informed estimates to identify a safe space for humanity and life http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html.

  • Out of the nine interacting boundaries constructed, biosphere integrity and climate change are considered to be at the core. Biosphere integrity, given that species are becoming extinct at a rate 100-1000 more than what could be considered natural, is currently estimated to be high risk, whereas climate change is still in the zone of uncertainty (increasing risk)

Tipping points from one state into another cannot be predicted and outside the safe zones are increasingly likely.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (‘IPCC’s) 2013-14 Report http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/ is also authoritative. Vast resources have gone into this risk analysis. The report assessed more than 30,000 scientific papers and had more than 830 core authors and 2000 expert reviewers from over 80 countries. Its summarising text was approved line by line by 194 countries[3].

  • It is 95-100% likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed global warming since the mid 20th century, and without major behavioural change global temperature increase by the end of the 21st century is 66-100% more likely than not to exceed 2° C (RCP4.5, 6.0)

All this is at the planetary level – so what does it have to do with coaching in companies? Stakeholder pressure and governmental regulation increasingly involve companies in sustainability measurement and implementation processes. Coaching can help with the buy-in to and application of environmental systems such as TNS, GRI and ISO14001, and with jogging alongside sustainability role holders belonging to bodies like IEMA http://www.IEMA.net.

What matters here is focusing on the things that count, not the things that can be counted.[4] For example in one project to draw up an environmental proposal for the board, after having waited until near the end of the deadline for a key technical report, it was not helpful to receive rows of figures which lacked any meaningful context-setting!

Finding the fit with coaching

Coaching’s main emphasis, whether relating to individuals or groups, is on inner worlds or on being ‘in here’. This empathic quality contrasts with the ‘out there’ quantification from sustainability science’s measurement of the sense-world and its numerical procedures like the formation of null hypotheses, predictions of experimental results etc.

Coaches find validation through supervision, CPD or MAs to apply axiomatic systems of thought: Rogerian, psychodymamic, cognitive and so on. The validity of sustainability science is established through observation-based peer-review.

These two different ways of being link to the ‘gutfeel’/’on principle’ sustainability ethics distinction made earlier. How can they fit together? First, what is meant by ‘science’ needs to be clarified and differences acknowledged:

  • The big difference between experimenting in the natural world and being systematic in the humanities/arts can be masked because in the English-speaking world the same word ‘science’ is used to describe both, unlike in German which has two different words (Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften). Some ‘gutfeelers’ may think that coaching is already applying science and so there’s no pressing need to think about validity as applied in specialisms such as climate science and ecology. Closer to home, though, their practice might be different: if their child’s life was threatened by illness most would surely use science-based medicine rather than faith healing if they had to choose between the two.

The above assumes that the world is knowable objectively:

  • In a post-modern cosmos all may seem to flow with no chance of deriving any non-subjective, sense-based knowledge through the trickery of our perceptions (though coaches may support sustainability on other grounds such as moral or aesthetic ones). Probably some coaches would on philosophical grounds reject the very possibility of objective scientific research on the environment; if so, of course, it’s consistent for them to ignore it

Gutfeel and ‘on principle’ ethics can fit further together through coaches becoming aware of the many opportunities to bring environmental research closer to their practices. The impossibility as a layperson of understanding specialist publications need not prevent the application of critical principles more generally.

I recall not having the specialist background to continue reading the research of a scientist[5] of vouched-for integrity and standing who disputed global warming. Even so, we laypeople are often in a position to make risk assessments: for example, we can be shrewd when it comes to discovering whether or not the great majority of climate specialists support the hypothesis of global warming. We can be in a position to make informed judgements about matters adjacent to science such as the disinformation allegations (relating to carbon emissions) made against Exxon[6]. After being present at a climate debate (under Chatham House confidentiality rules) between a prominent politician who denies climate change and a professor of climate mathematics, I had no doubt as to which of the two’s arguments came across as more considerable.

Many coaches have a science background, some even in sustainability science, or are keen science followers. Maybe there’s enough of a mix in coaching culture for science-derived ‘on principle’ approaches to sustainability to interact beneficially with gutfeel ones.

Integrating sustainability science’s ethical impact when coaching in companies

Taking responsibility is at the heart of sustainability science’s impact. The impact for coaching is affected by what mix practitioners have of the two main ethical stances, gutfeel and principled, in typical corporate contexts. Denying one or the other does not make sense given their strong roots.

  • In terms of recent Western ethical theory, gutfeel approaches link in with the strong post World War 2 revival of Aristotelian practical wisdom (phronesis), with emotivism, and also, in using challenging interaction to move presenting client problems on creatively, with existentialism.
  • Modern ‘on principle’ ethics include developments from both Kant’s treating others always as an end and never as a means only and, alternatively, from Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism involving happiness consequences with everyone’s counting the same.

These standpoints need to come together in practice.

Advance framing to the client: ‘on principle’ and gutfeel ethical approaches

It makes precautionary sense for coaches to explicitly frame sustainability in advance of the coaching. Indeed last year the converse was necessary for me: because my website frames me as involved with sustainability, where the client’s presenting situation had nothing to do with the subject, I made it clear beforehand that I did not anticipate bringing it up and did not do so. But what is the ethical situation if there has been no prior explicit mention of ‘sustainability’ (or a synonym), but just the usual general mention of the ethical boundary of the coaching being something like not doing harm to others? Ethical codes for coaches and others stress that doing harm (‘non-maleficience’) should be avoided and that where possible good should be done (‘beneficience’).

From the ‘on principle’ point of view we should be as responsibly alert about the planet as we are about business-as-usual; about client carbon emissions, for example, as we are about safety breaches on an oilrig. This is because mainstream environmental science demonstrates overwhelmingly that without sustainability there is a huge risk to life globally.

But when coming from the gutfeel point of view the coaching focus is more likely to be immediately local:

  • Unlike the planet in some future time, the oilrig is here-and-now
  • Unlike billions of people including the unborn, you can see the employees and subcontractors on the rig and form images of their actual children
  • Unlike the complicated percentage certainty ranges given for global risk scenarios, you can be more-or-less sure that without adequate health and safety the oilrig will lose lives

‘When one dies it is a tragedy; when a million die, it is a statistic’, as has been said by one expert on impact (Joseph Stalin).

Thus there is a dilemma over whether interpretation should be from the ‘on principle’ or the gutfeel point of view or, as suggested here, a mix of both. Assumptions reflecting circular thinking do not get us out of the dilemma:

  • For example, coaches say that coaching starts from the client’s agenda, and that to bring sustainability up is to steer it covertly: it’s to pretend to be a coach while presenting as a sustainability consultant. But the reasoning behind this is circular if there’s exclusively a gutfeel interpretation of what constitutes the client agenda and no ‘on principle’ thinking blended in. Given humanity’s survival on the planet is at stake, preventing harm to others through sustainability could on principle be seen as belonging to the presenting agenda

The objection above about starting from the client’s agenda can also ignore how the coaching process steers the client covertly. Its advance framing to the client is not absolute, for if the felt experience of the journey influenced by the coach really could be entirely disclosed beforehand (and of course it can’t), the added value of journeying would be done in advance, thus pre-delivering the coaching at the framing stage. Given that inevitably there’s a lack of full prior disclosure about the processes of the coaching to come, it is questionable whether prior disclosure to the client about bringing up the awesome subject of our survival on Earth must be fuller than this.

There may also be an assumption that needs to be challenged.  This is that the coaching process itself is, to a considerable extent, an exception to the prior disclosure rules. It may be deeply felt that coaching happens in all cultures and so implicitly we all know about it, therefore its processes do not require the same degree of advance explanation to the client as is required for external agendas like sustainability. But coaching as practised today is not culturally universal. I remember how as recently as three decades ago an unusual London consultant was said to have broken new client delivery ground by doing a lot of paid, externally supplied ‘mentoring’ as it was termed; later this was re-labelled as the (then new-fangled) ‘coaching’. The ‘universal’ belief about coaching ignores how much contemporary Western culture has shaped and framed it into particularity.

Interpreting permission from task to bring up sustainability in coaching

As each client is unique, permission to bring up sustainability through following the client’s personal discourse cannot easily be typecast. But business roles are more readily put into categories. They seem to vary in the degree of permission they can be deemed to give to the coach to raise the subject of sustainability.

In the case of sustainability specialist clients, the permission from task is likely to be strong.

Permission may also be present when coaching Board members: i.e. where the buck stops. At this level and in this context, a utilitarian kind of ‘on principle’ approach might be particularly appropriate given the prominence of sustainability legislation based on the planetary rules we should adopt in the best interests of the maximum number.

But does permission from task apply widely to all multinational and other corporate executives? Principle-based ethicists might see task as giving sufficient permission because sustainability is prescribed by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN and, where material, is likely to be specified in formal job descriptions.

What about gutfeel ones? Given corporate goals of profitability through effectiveness, the SDGs are likely to be lip-service only so, for gutfeel coaching approaches, bringing up sustainability science without pre-contractual framing may seem like false pretences. But such lip-service is itself a dilemma for gutfeel coaching ethics because it raises questions about freedom and choice.

  • If SDGs are formally stated to be part of the job when this is not so in practice, there may be a hypocritical and perhaps illegal workplace practice with which the coaching complies. The business-as-usual context may be screening out the possibility of sustainability arising in a gutfeel way from the client’s drama. Thus there may not be the freedom or authenticity for Aristotelian wisdom or other non-principle-based ethics to apply[7]

The unsatisfactory situation above may be behind many of the calls for business ethics to be based on the ‘on principle’ approach of treating sustainability as an end in itself and not just as a means for profiting more effectively over time.

An implementation twist for coaches: the organisational language of sustainability links in with that of finance

Financial language is extended to include sustainability. This is not restricted to companies; even a trustee owned park seeks funding through monetarising its carbon sequestration and its contributions to reducing health, education and well-being budgets, to lowering emissions through installing cycle paths etc.

Sustainability science’s quantification of the planet – also of people in the aggregate, as in totalling numbers of refugees – matches that of accountancy. The single bottom line of conventional accounting is extended to the ‘triple bottom line’ (or ‘TBL’) of abstract calculations involving planet, people and prosperity (to some greens this is an abhorrent slipping into the skin of a materialist dragon).

It is vital that sustainability values are separately asserted so that they are intrinsically valuable and not reduced as ends in themselves through association with finance. This is obviously the case where sustainability cannot be even approximately quantified in monetary terms (for instance, biodiversity is invaluable). But, despite the real dangers, unless sustainability is also given some financial expression it is difficult to see how emissions, pollution etc can be checked in time. For a long time already the single bottom line of traditional accounting has included qualitative factors such as ‘goodwill’ which by using conventions provide a focus whereby the underlying realities can be probed.

Expressing sustainability ethics in terms of money gives rise to the distinctive post-industrial state of being (as Goethe put it) both Dives and Lazarus at the same time. Contemporary ambivalence of this sort is something that coaches help clients integrate.

What’s next?

Comparing (as above) the characteristics of gutfeel and principle-based ethics in different corporate situations is a high level integrative process. Though sustainability ethics should not be legitimised through financial considerations alone, money is also a necessary lowest common factor attempt at integration.

Monetarising sustainability is probably the quickest route for the norms of planetary survival to be internalised by commerce, the immediate decision-maker on our planetary fate. New norms including legal sanctions have grown from financial accounting; definitions of behaviour related to fraud and greed have developed and become more differentiated.  Money itself started as an abstraction from barter but is now seen as real, a matter for strong feelings. It is as buyers that we have the biggest influence on the Anthropocene. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that through accountancy the abstract ethical principles derived from sustainability science will also become internalised and so ‘gutfeel’ in time.

I wonder what most coaches think is the proper relationship between human survival on Earth and coaching ethics.

Geoffrey Ahern


Geoffrey Ahern is experienced in executive coaching and sustainability. APECS accredited and working independently for the past decade, he has been a Fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter and before that was employed for five years as an executive coach by Coutts Consulting Group.

After 2008 he carried out multinational corporate consultation on sustainability in association with the World Wildlife Fund/IUCN and became an Honorary Lecturer in sustainability at the University of Liverpool’s Management School. He has published widely including a second edition of the book of his PhD (LSE 1981) on an ecologically-oriented global movement.

Email: geoffrey@geoffreyahernconsulting.com.
Website: geoffreyahernconsulting.com

[1] See for example Poon, J. and Hoxley, M. (2010), ‘Use of moral theory to analyse the ethical codes of built environment professional organisations…’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 2(3): 260-275.
[2] Holland, S. and Volcovici, V. (2017), ‘Trump clears way for controversial oil pipelines’, www,reuters.com/article/us-usa-trup-pipeline-idUSKBN15820N, 25 January.
[3] Scot, D., Hall, M. & Gossling, S. (2016), ‘A review of the IPCC Fifth Assessment and implications for tourism sector climate resilience and decarbonization’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 24(1): 10.
[4] Vanclay, F. (2004), ‘The triple bottom line and impact assessment: How do TBL, EIA, SEA and EMS relate to each other?’, Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 6(3):266.
[5] Taylor, P. (2009), Chill. A reassessment of global warming theory, Forest Row: Clairview.
[6] `See for example Ward, B (2006), Email to Esso UK Ltd, Policy Communication, The Royal Society, and reference 2 in my first the good coach blog (Jan 11 2017).
[7] See also MacIntyre, A. (2007), After Virtue, 3rd ed. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press: 25-27.

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