An Unlikely Coach?

J.D. Salinger, noted reclusive yet renowned author of The Catcher in the Rye, died earlier this month. A client of mine recently called to my attention a quote from Holden Caulfied, Salinger’s famous character in the book.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big. I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

I have to admit, it has been decades since I read The Catcher in the Rye, so when my client called this excerpt to my attention, and then said: ‘this is sorta what you have done for me;’ it got me thinking. Is this what executive coaching really is? Are we just catching people from running off a cliff?

Maybe it feels that way to clients. And yes, I absolutely do believe there are times when we do serve as a ‘catcher;’  if nothing but a catcher of emotions, desires, concerns, dreams, strategies, and objectives in a safe environment. There are many other purposes and benefits to executive coaching, as our world is discovering.

In this blog post, I want to explore what I personally think is one of the most important roles we play as executive coaches – the ‘objective mirror holder.’

Yes, I am one of those believers that all answers are already within you. We are simply clouded by learned behaviors, pressured expectations, golden handcuffs, and ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ records which play over and over in our heads. And from my perspective, this leads to the lack of alignment within an individual, to their job, their company, to their strengths, their values, their real desires … the list is long.

Over the past few years, I have had countless conversations with senior executives around the world and one comment is almost invariably raised: ‘I am (or we are) simply out of ‘alignment.’ This, of course, opens Pandora’s Box as to ‘what exactly is out of alignment?’

There is the rub.

Frankly, I have yet to meet an executive who does not remember what they had dreams to be, become, and contribute. Somewhere, many lost the direct plot and they became immersed in a game of political power, equity plays, penis envy and more. When the financial dependency was no longer even a remote worry they continued to play the game for their self-admitted pride and achievement oriented personality. This opens the opportunity to explore the ‘what if’ discussion.

  • What would you do for free?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you value? Are they the same values as your company and the individuals with whom you work?
  • How much money are you trying to make? Why?
  • What do you really love to do? Why?
  • How can you move in that direction?
  • How will you know once you ‘get there’? How will you know you have reached ‘it’?
  • If you got ‘it’….what would you have?
  • What is really holding you back?

On the other side of the coin, some have achieved their every dream and objective and truly love what they do – the thrill of competition, winning, achieving, recognition, and notoriety. They love building teams, contributing to the GNP, to society, and just doing what they feel they do best. Wow! That is a cool situation!

Point being: often misalignment is not within the individual – they know who they are and what they want! Misalignment may be with the company for which they work. Or it could be the industry in which they are associated. This may come down to value incongruence or passions not in sync (or aligned). When this is the case the coaching digs deeper to ask the questions:

  1. Given what you really want to be and do – what keeps you here doing this?
  2. What if you were to contribute in the manner in which you love – in an environment which shares similar values and priorities?

Again, those answers are certainly within the individual we are simply asking provocative questions to reveal the answers which lie within.

So, was Holden Caulfield an example of an ‘unlikely coach’ in ‘catching those before they run off the cliff?’ Maybe.  I will have to go read The Catcher in the Rye again. Yet, what I do know is that we in the coaching profession do our best to hold the mirror, ask hard questions, and stimulate thought, self-observation, and action to help our clients stop themselves from running off the cliff.

In homage to J.D.Salinger, who interestingly, if you read his small collection of works closes his own loop many times:

“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened. Many, many men have been just as troubled as you are right now. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as some day, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.”

That is how it is. We listen, learn, reveal, explore, and transform. Individually and collectively – that is evolution and growth.