The Art of Strengths Coaching

P is for The Pioneering Approach

They are many ways to do pioneering work. One approach is for a person to pursue a specific activity they feel passionately about where they can do superb work. They also perceive things in a certain way. They have a vision of how things could be and want to achieve this picture of success.

A person may aim to explore new ideas, invent products or make creative breakthroughs. They may aim to make new rules, do pacesetting work, build successful prototypes, create a new paradigm or do another activity.

They may aim to do pioneering work in education, philosophy, psychology, science, medicine or business. They may aim to do so in sports, music, the arts, media, architecture, conflict resolution, societies or other fields.

They feel driven to do such stimulating work. Following their chosen rhythm and daily disciplines, they maintain high professional standards. Sometimes this involves doing creative problem solving. Such times can be testing but also exhilarating.

Pioneers aim to achieve their definition of positive results. Some choose to go a step further and pass on their knowledge to other people. They publish their research, make models, produce success stories, mentor students or use another media.

They want to share knowledge and help others succeed. Feeling they have finished properly, this can lead to a sense of peace. This feeling can last for a long time or for only a few minutes. Many pioneers then begin to feel restless and want to pursue the next stimulating adventure.

Looking back, can you think of a person who you believe did pioneering work? What did they do to do such work, stay persistent and overcome setbacks? What happened as a result of them doing pioneering work?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a person who you believe did pioneering work. 

Describe the specific things that you believe they did to do such work. 

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of doing the pioneering work.

Passion 

Pioneers often focus on a specific activity they feel passionately about where they have the ability to do superb work. Feeling in their element when doing the activity, they feel at ease and yet able to excel.

Such workers take their work seriously but also have a sense of play. They love to learn and play with ideas. This frees them to explore scenarios and find solutions.

Creative people retain this quality throughout their lives. Play powers our imagination and help us to move forwards. As George Bernard Shaw wrote:

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Pioneers pursue a passion in which they feel alive and able to do fine work. They then go through a process of absorption, adventure and achievement.

They may experience this feeling when solving a specific problem, climbing a mountain, mentoring people, navigating a new land and making maps or doing another activity. They love to make sense of what they have learned and pass on this knowledge to people.

Such people are self-motivated and self-disciplined. Enjoying the journey as well as reaching the goal, they put in the work necessary to develop their craft. This means that sometimes they have the ability to make complicated things look simple.

Richard Feynman, the professor of physics, urged his students to focus on what they loved to do and what they did best. Pursuing this route can take us into different dimensions. He explained this approach in the following way.

Looking at your own life, can you think of a passion you want to pursue where you may be able to do superb work? You may feel passionately about encouraging people, educating students, writing inspiring articles, designing gardens or doing another activity.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to complete the following sentence.

Passion

The specific activity I feel passionately about
where I may have the ability to do superb work is:

*

Perception

Pioneers have a different kind of perception. They have the ability to see patterns and extrapolate what may happen in the future. They have a vision of how things could be and want to achieve this picture of success.

Such people are able to see the destination quickly. When entering the situation in which they excel, they quickly see the potential picture of success. They go A, B … and then leap to … Z.

The architect walks onto a site and visualises the finished house. The innovator sees how a piece of technology can transform the world. The gifted mediator imagines a potential win-win solution for people who are stuck in a conflict.

Some people go beyond the Z. They go onto the second alphabet. Some people go even further. They go into another dimension and onto the third alphabet in their chosen field.

Such people can be inspiring but challenging to work with. One Chief Operating Officer explained this in the following way.

“Our leader is a real visionary. He sees the future and is years ahead of everybody.

“It is as if he is actually there. He can see, feel and experience what is happening. He can also describe the steps that have been taken to get to this place.  

“Whilst a visionary, he can explain some aspects of the journey in great detail. He describes the steps to take and how to overcome challenges. On other occasions, however, he gets exasperated with people who throw in objections.  

“He simply says: ‘We can solve that,’ and goes on to explain the vision. Many people find him inspiring, whilst other want more detail and get frustrated.

“My job is to act as a translator. It is to clarify how we can keep running the business whilst also working towards his long term vision.”

Pioneers sometimes see how to improve things in a transactional way, sometimes in a transformational way. Sometimes they visualise things in a totally different way and imagine an approach they can produce a paradigm shift.

Thomas Kuhn popularised the term paradigm shift in his 1962 article on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He explained how breakthroughs in science sometimes come from seeing the world in a different way.

The example that is often quoted is the Earth once being considered the centre of the universe. Seeing that it actually revolves around the Sun enabled people to see reality in a different way.

People have different strengths. They also perceive the world in different ways. They may be systems thinkers, specialists or systems thinkers within their specialism.

Pioneers are often systems thinkers in their chosen field. They see: a) How things are connected; b) How things can be connected to achieve the potential picture of success.

Such people go beyond their own Eureka Moment. They set out on the route of doing work that is effective, excellent and then extraordinary.

They feel compelled to translate their perception into reality and achieve their picture of success. Buckminster Fuller expressed this view in the following way.

Pioneering Work

Different people do pioneering work in different ways. Friedrich Froebel created the Kindergarten. Maria Montessori developed a new approach to helping children to learn. Abraham Maslow helped to give birth to Humanistic Psychology.

Cicely Saunders helped to found the modern hospice movement by creating St. Christopher’s. Mahatma Gandhi showed how non-violence could bring about change. Anita Roddick showed how it was possible to build an ethical business.

David Attenborough inspired many people with his early work on wildlife films. Dick Fosbury changed high jumping with the Fosbury Flop. Frank Lloyd Wright had a profound influence on architecture.

Pioneers sometimes show how people can be creative with limited resources. Forced to operate within certain parameters, they make full use of their imagination and ingenuity to do remarkable work. Let’s look at two people who took this approach.

Maria Montessori qualified as a doctor but then wanted to work as a teacher. Finding it difficult to get a role in the educational system, she was offered the opportunity to educate children in a mental hospital.

Able to work as she wished, Maria created what became known as the Montessori Method. This produced remarkable results and inspired many other educators to help children to develop. Here are some of the things she said about education.

Anita Roddick was a pioneer in other ways. She acted as a role model for people who wanted to build ethical and successful businesses. Whilst it was important that The Body Shop was profitable, she also talked about different definitions of success.

She may have come across as an idealist, but Anita was remarkably savvy. She learned the ‘can do’ attitude from her Italian parents. They ran an American-style Diner café in Littlehampton, Sussex, during the 1950s.

Opening the café at 5.00 am to cater for the fishermen’s breakfast, they kept serving throughout the day until the last customer was satisfied. Anita served in the café from an early age and felt what it was like to handle money.

Gilly Mckay and Alison Cork take up the story in their book The Body Shop. They say that Anita’s apprenticeship proved invaluable when starting her first shop in Brighton in 1976. Here are some quotes from Anita that are in their book.

“When I opened the doors, I was not thinking about changing the world. I simply had to take £1000 in the first week to feed the baby and pay the bills.” 

Anita had learned, however, to provide good service that attracted and retained customers. Believing that retail is theatre, she tried to create a good atmosphere in the shop.

“With £4000 borrowed from the bank I could only afford to spend £700 on products. But the 20 products we formulated looked pretty pathetic all standing on one shelf. So to make the shop look busy and full I produced them in five sizes of bottles. 

“I couldn’t afford fancy packaging so I bought the cheapest bottles available and the labels were handwritten.  

“We painted the ceiling of our tiny shop green to cover the damp patches and put garden fencing on the walls to stop rain splashing the products.  

“The first day we opened was a Saturday and we took £100. The other retailers in the street were laying odds of 10-1 against our surviving six months, but we were on our way.”

Pioneers like Anita often do superb work by being creative with limited resources or within certain borders. They are then forced to use their imagination to achieve their goals.

Some people prefer to start with a blank piece of paper and lots of resources. This sounds alluring, but it can lead to paralysis. A person may find it takes a long time to decide what they actually want to create on the blank piece of paper.

Many people prefer to start with the equivalent of borders around the piece of paper. They then enjoy being creative within these limits. The borders they are given may include:

The results they aim to deliver;

The resources available for delivering the results;

The time limits within which they must deliver the results.

Karen Hough described this approach in an article she wrote called Creative Constraint: Why Tighter Boundaries Propel Greater Results. Below is an extract from the article.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but boundaries can actually boost creativity. Think about procrastination — deadlines are often the single factor that ensures projects get done. As Dave Gray commented on his blog:

“Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.”

When there are no boundaries, the possibilities may seem too large. That’s why some of the greatest art and innovation has come from a situation of constraint.

Pioneers often build on their strengths and make use of their personalities. Many peak performers, for example, have OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Discipline rather than Disorder. They focus on how to use this aspect of their personality rather than let it use them.

People who are labelled as different sometimes demonstrate the ability to see things from a different angle. They may considered as introverted, highly sensitive, dyslexic, having synaesthesia or being slow learners at school.

Such people sometimes develop certain strategies to survive. These strategies may be different from those needed to succeed by going a conventional route. On the other hand, developing such skills can enable them to thrive in other fields.

Creative people do not subscribe to the cliché of ‘thinking outside the box’, because they do not actually see a box. They start from their destination and work backwards. Clarifying the real results they want to achieve, they then find creative ways to reach their goals.

Such people use many methods for seeing things from another angle. One approach is for them to ask: ‘What if …?’ questions. Here are some of the obvious examples.

‘What If …’

“What if we saw the challenge we face as an opportunity rather than as a problem? What could be the potential opportunities? How could we build on these opportunities and achieve success?” 

“What if we saw our smallness as a company as a strength when competing against bigger companies? How could we build on this strength? How could we use it to give great service to clients and help them to achieve success?”

What if we tried to solve conflicts between different parties by focusing on what they have in common? How could we build on the areas of agreement? How could we then build confidence by getting some quick successes?” 

“What if we enabled people with autism to use this as a strength? How could these qualities be of benefit to companies?” 

The final set of questions were asked by Thorkil Sonne, who founded the Specialist People Foundation. This aims to create one million jobs globally for people with autism.

Such people often have outstanding memories, a remarkable eye for detail and do repetitive tasks with enthusiasm. These skills can be valuable for companies that specialise in developing technology. Using a Dandelion as it symbol, here is an excerpt from the organisation’s website.

Problem Solving

Pioneers keep following their principles towards achieving their goals. They are persistent and, when appropriate, patient. They also use their chosen approach to finding solutions to challenges.

Arie de Geus, the author of The Living Company, found that great workers have what he called a memory of the future. Looking ahead, they explore scenarios in the activities they find fascinating. They use their imagination to take the following steps.

They explore both the positive and challenging scenarios;

They explore how to create and capitalise on the positive scenarios;

They also explore how to prevent or, if necessary, manage the challenging scenarios;

They explore the best ways forwards for improving the chances of creating future success.

Such workers find this homework helps them as events unfold. They may have anticipated the actual scenario and are able to implement their chosen strategy.

Even if the unexpected happens, they will have rehearsed strategies for dealing with many scenarios. They can build on aspects of the strategies that may work in the situation whilst also adding other elements. This gives them an advantage over others who may not have rehearsed properly.

Pioneers are good at reading reality when pursuing their chosen activity. This enables them to see what is actually happening and, when appropriate, select their chosen strategy for finding solutions.

Different people use different names for seeing what is happening in a situation. Some call it scanning; some call it taking pictures; some call it using their personal radar; some call it having a sixth sense; some call it strategic intuition.

Arsene Wenger, the former football manager, described how great players are continually scanning to see what is happening on the field. Below are extracts from a talk he gave that was published on the website Training Ground Guru.

Top players have
radar in their heads

Arsene Wenger says a top player has a ‘head like a radar’ and that more work needs to be done on perception and decision making at young ages.

“I came to the conclusion that it is about getting as much information as possible before (getting) the ball. I call that scanning. 

“I try to see what happens to a player in the 10 seconds before he gets the ball, how many times he takes information and the quality of information he takes. It depends on the position.

“What is interesting is that very good players scan six to eight times in the 10 seconds before getting the ball and normal ones three to four times. That is a major step for improvement.

“However, more important – you have to analyse the quality of perception and decision making.  

“My challenge is to get my players to know which the best choice is and make the optimal decision every time they get the ball. 

“The player has to scan and decide. When he has decided he has to make the best possible solution. This means a compromise between risk and the progress of the ball.”

The scanning approach mirrors a quality described by Al Siebert, who wrote The Survivor Personality in the 1980s. He saw this ability in paratroopers who had survived difficult situations. Here is an excerpt from his book.

During our training I noticed that combat survivors have a type of personal radar always on scan. Anything that happens, or any noise draws a quick, brief look. They have a relaxed awareness. 

I began to realise it wasn’t just luck or fate that these were the few who came back alive. Something about them as people had tipped the scales in their favour.

Al saw a link between survivors and peak performers in different fields. Such people demonstrate the following qualities.

Radar 

They have good radar in the activity where they excel. They see patterns quickly and seem to know what will happen before it happens. Such radar often springs from a natural talent, but it increases as people develop.  

Repertoire 

They have a wide repertoire of tools – knowledge, strategies and skills – in the activity where they excel. They continue to add to their repertoire as they gather more experience and wisdom.

Results 

They use their radar to gather information. They then reach into their repertoire and select the appropriate strategy to work towards the desired results.

Great retailers, for example, seem able to anticipate future trends. They also have an intuitive feeling for selling. Walking into a store, they can immediately point out several things that can be done improve the business.

Ellen MacArthur, the round-the-world yachtswoman, talked about reading the waves to anticipate future sailing conditions. She then worked out the strategy for reaching her destination.

Peak performers find their radar gives them the time and space to use their repertoire of talents to deliver great results. Wayne Gretzky, the ice hockey player, is often quoted as saying that he scored so many goals because:

“I skate to the part of the rink where the puck will appear.”

What happens when people use their radar? Entering the situation in which they excel, they feel alive and alert. Employing their antennae, they rapidly gather information about the following things.

They quickly see patterns;

They see the potential picture of success;

They see how to pursue the best strategy for achieving the picture of success.

People often have good radar in some activities but not in others. Some recognise this and, when appropriate, work with other people who can complement their strengths. They then stand a greater chance of delivering success.

Continuing to be creative

Different people choose different ways to stay fresh and find solutions to challenges. Whatever route they take, however, they often aim to get the right blend of fun, freedom and fulfilment.

Many pioneers prefer to work alone or run their own businesses. They believe that innovation often takes place away from the institution. One person expressed this in the following way.

“I spent years working inside organisations trying to persuade people to change. But I was battling against the nature of systems theory.

“Systems move towards homeostasis – the drive to return to their present state. Sometimes this can be good, because it creates stability. But sometimes it can be dangerous, because it can be a question of develop or die.  

“Systems sometimes drive out the creativity they need to survive. So I found other ways to develop new ideas.”

Innovators who are employed by organisations often find ways to create some kind of distance. This may be a physical distance – such as working at home or in their own laboratory. Or it may be a psychological distance – such as doing things differently.

Gordon Mackenzie was somebody who did creative work within an organisations. He described how to do this in his book Orbiting The Giant Hairball: A corporate fool’s guide to surviving with grace.

He spent 30 years working for the Hallmark Card Company. During this time he managed to orbit successfully around what he called the hairball of organisational bureaucracy.

Gordon encouraged people to continue to dare, explore and be pioneers during their lives. One chapter in his book consists of just one sentence:

“Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s licence.”

He believed that every person is an artist but the process of suppressing this spirit starts early. During his working career Gordon often spent whole days in elementary schools and asked each group of children the same question. Starting the day in the kindergarten class, he asked:

“Who here is an artist?”

Everybody in the room put their hands up. Many wanted to show their paintings or other creative work they had done. The first grade class responded in a similar way, though with a little more caution.

Gordon continued to ask the question as he worked through the grades. By the end of the day few young people raised their hands. Something had happened to the spark within.

How can a person continue to be an artist? Some people choose to express their talents by being freelancers. Others go into organisations and try to change them from the centre.

Both routes are options, said Gordon, but there is also another route. This is to contribute by orbiting around the centre rather than by allowing it to cramp your creativity. He explained this in the following way.

Orbiting is vibrancy. Orbiting is manifesting your originality. It’s pushing the boundaries of ingrained corporate patterns.  

It’s striking a relationship with the corporation so that you can benefit from what it offers – its physical, intellectual, and philosophical resources – without being sucked in by its gravitational pull.

It’s a symbiotic relationship: without the hairball, the orbiter would spiral into space; without the orbiter’s creativity and originality, the hairball would be a mass of nothing.

Certainly it is vital to fulfil your obligations to the organisation that pays your wages. At the same time, however, it is important to express your creativity. Gordon explained this in the following way.

Everyone has a masterpiece within them from birth.  

When we are young, society draws pale blue lines, as if your life were a paint-by-numbers kit.  

The message is: If you stay in the lines your life will be a masterpiece. That’s a lie. You have to constantly battle to be nobody but yourself.

What is the biggest obstacle to creativity? Attachment to outcome.

 As soon as you become attached to a specific outcome, you feel compelled to control and manipulate what you’re doing and in the process you shut yourself off to other possibilities.

Creativity is not just about succeeding. It’s about experimenting and discovering.

Gordon urged people to continue gaining enriching experiences. The final sentences of his book are these.

If you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it. Only you.

Positive Results

Pioneers aim to follow their principles, perform superb work and find solutions to challenges. They then do their best to achieve their picture of success.

Sometimes this can lead to them experiencing a sense of peace, but this is not always the case. Some people immediately want to move on to the next venture.

Pacesetters, for example, have a different kind of psychology. They aim to take the lead, maintain the lead and extend the lead. They often act as pioneers by making the new rules for the game.

Michael Murphy describes how some people do this in the book he wrote with Rhea White called In The Zone. In it they look at transcendent experiences in sports, the arts and other fields.

They describe how Mikhail Baryshnikov aimed to take ballet into another dimension. They do this by using the following quote from Herbert Saal, the ballet reporter.

The most exquisitely chilling weapon in the arsenal of this complete dancer was his ballon, his ability to ascend in the air and stay there, defying gravity, especially in the double tour en l’air, in which the male dancer revolves two full times before landing.  

The Stuttgart Ballet’s Richard Cragun can turn three times in a blur of motion. But Baryshnikov did it in slow motion. And it was unbelievable.  

He blasted off with the hesitation and majesty of a spaceship. He turned – once, twice – and every thread on his costume was plainly visible as he soared high above the audience like an astronaut looking back at earth.

The authors describe a similar phenomenon happening in team sports. They quote Bill Russell, who played for the Boston Celtics, describing how the basketball team produced magic in games.

Bill explains how the process would start with three or four of the team’s top players acting as a catalyst. He continues in the following way.

Pioneers love to keep exploring but this takes energy. They recognise that they can only lead for a certain length of time. Others will catch up by copying the ideas and maybe implementing these more effectively. How to tackle this challenge?

Some people move on to tackling other fascinating challenges. They then repeat the process of doing pioneering work in a particular field. They continue to enjoy going through the process of absorption, adventure and achievement.

Some choose to take another route, however, and pass on their knowledge to other people. Let’s explore how it is possible to make this happen.

Passing on knowledge 

Great workers sometimes want to go beyond doing fine work and share what they have learned with other people. Different people do this in different ways. They choose to do this through coaching, mentoring, teaching, making films, writing or using another media.

Imagine that you want to take this step in your own way. One approach is to start by focusing on the What, Why, Who, How and When. It is to work through the following themes.

The What

What is the knowledge you want to pass on? This may depend on the project or other activity you have been pursuing. You may have learned lessons from gardening, counselling, building houses, managing crises, coding, leading teams, solving particular problems or whatever.

The Why

Why would you like to pass on this knowledge? What would be the benefits for people? What are the practical tools they could take away and use in their daily lives and work? How could these things help them to succeed?

The Who

Who would you like to reach with the knowledge? Would they be young people, budding entrepreneurs, athletes, leaders, scientists, social entrepreneurs, therapists or other people? What would be the characteristics of these people?

The How

How would you like to share your knowledge with people? Different people prefer different methods for sharing know how. A person may prefer, for example:

To act a positive model and show what good looks like on a daily basis by, for example, running a business;

To act as a mentor, coach or trusted advisor;

To run teaching sessions, seminars, workshops or other forms of education;

To write articles, create websites, write blogs, produce learning materials, make videos, make television programmes or whatever.

The When

When do you want to share the ideas with people? What would be your preferred setting? Would you like to run a seminar, produce a blog, run a coaching session or whatever? When do you want to start on the journey and get a quick success?

Imagine that you have found a way to pass on your knowledge and help others to succeed. This can lead to feeling that you have finished properly. It can also lead to another feeling.

Peace 

Pioneers love to achieve their picture of success. They love to finish a project, see a recovered patient leave hospital, publish an account of their adventure, sell their start-up business or complete another activity. Most of all, they love to feel that they have done their personal best.

Finishing properly can lead to them enjoying a sense of peace. Sometimes this feeling can last for a long time, sometimes for only ten seconds. However long the feeling lasts, it can give them a positive memory for life.

Pioneers rest for a while and reflect on what they have learned. Some experience post-purpose syndrome. They felt so alive when pursuing a goal but now feel empty. They want to find the next stimulating project.

Different people manage this challenge in different ways. Some take the following steps.

They give themselves permission to rest, reflect and then begin looking ahead; 

They follow a structure each day and do things that give them positive energy; 

They explore things they find stimulating and sometimes translate these into doing a satisfying project that provides a sense of purpose.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Can you think of a piece of pioneering work you would like to do in the future?

Don’t get too worried about the word pioneering. You may simply want to do a piece of creative work, find solutions to a challenge or build something new.

You may want to take this step when encouraging a person, running a workshop, producing an article or doing another activity. You may wish to do so when acting in your role as a parent, educator, sports coach, mentor, leader or in another role.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a piece of pioneering work you would like to do in the future.

Describe the specific things you can do to do this piece of work. 

Describe the specific benefits – both for other people and for yourself – of doing this piece of pioneering work.

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