Greater ecological awareness is prompting a discussion among coaches regarding how their work contributes to planetary sustainability. As a result, a growing number of coaches are shifting their practices to prioritize planetary health.
Some coaches feel conflicted about supporting business models that harm the natural environment
Coaches are creating new business models and communities to support planetary health
New thinking in coaching ethics and practice can help generate positive changes for coaching clients
Coaches grapple with client needs and personal ethics
As a profession, coaches are undecided about their role in addressing climate topics. To respect client autonomy and avoid unnecessary politicization, some coaches leave the topic untouched unless prompted by clients. However, emerging practices in eco-coaching, sustainability coaching, and corporate social responsibility coaching signal growing client interest in ecologically conscious coaching models. Wisdom Weaver Dr. Jonathan Passmore explains in the context of professional coaching, “coaching helps individuals and organizations perform effectively.” However, this relationship can produce unexpected consequences because “in many instances, the businesses we work with are themselves destroying our natural world.”
Speaking on the challenges coaches face when they want to address environmental degradation caused by corporations, Wisdom Weaver Eve Turner shares, “I know coaches who have stopped doing certain assignments because business, as usual, has failed people and the more-than-human world.” On the other end of the spectrum, coaches are working to enhance environmental awareness among their clients while balancing client autonomy. Jonathan posits that the disastrous effects of climate change mean coaches “have an ethical obligation, as we have around gender and racial inequality. It’s a difficult practice to encourage people to take an ecological perspective on their actions. We cannot stop people from being racist or sexist, but we can hold the mirror up. We can’t stop people destroying the planet, but we can hold the mirror up and encourage them to think about how people might view their behavior.”
Looking at the long-term impact of professional coaching, Jonathan explains that by supporting unsustainable business growth, “what we end up doing is not standing by watching the fire burn, but we’re throwing extra logs onto the fire. Our contribution to ecological destruction as coaches is an active one because much of the work that we do in organizations is to grow individual capabilities for performance in an organizational context, where the organizational agenda is to increase profitability, increase sales, and thus ultimately increase consumerism.” Grappling with the relationship between coaching and planetary health, Eve asks, “as coaches, how are we shifting the status quo? The truth is that there are a lot of people who are burying their heads in the sand, not wanting to look up. In the way that we work, we may simply be condoning or even colluding with systems that are not working and systems that are toxic to the planet and people. However, what we (coaches) do, we need to do through dialogue and love, not talking at people. We know that scientific facts aren’t enough. We need to make a heart connection, such as considering what it means to be a good ancestor.”
Coaches are collaborating to deepen their ecological awareness
The professional discussion around environmental responsibility and coaching is relatively new. In 2020, five leading coaching, coaching psychology, and supervision bodies issued a Joint Global Statement on Climate Change. Among the commitments in the global statement, signatories agreed to raise awareness among members and deepen thinking and research on the role of coaches and mentors in supporting society’s transformation through their client’s work. Since May 2020, an additional six bodies have signed the Joint Global Statement. The Joint Global Statement Group continues to hold events for coaches and mentors from all the professional coaching bodies to explore climate-related topics.
Coaches are also collectively elevating climate issues through collaborations like the Climate Coaching Alliance, Coaching Climate Action Day, and the Network of Climate Coaches. Part of raising awareness involves an openness to conversations about climate change, including how personal values and behaviors shape the way coaches approach climate topics Wisdom Weaver Dr. Josie McLean shares how these discussions can sometimes be painful or overwhelming for coaches, “many of us want to remain ignorant because we don’t know what to do with it. We don’t want to talk about it, but we must talk about it, and we must feel those emotions.” The Climate Coaching Alliance works to address this fear by providing open, free, and non-judgmental spaces for coaches to deepen their ecological awareness. The group offers hundreds of free events annually, with conversations spanning geographies, languages, and interests. The Climate Coaching Alliance, which started in 2019 with three members, has grown to over 3,000 members in its first three years.
“For coaches to see positive change through the organizations and people we serve, we need to start with ourselves. We need to consider our own personal relationship with the environment before we consider it in our coaching practices.”
Taking professional collaboration a step further, Wisdom Weaver Marilyn Friedmann asks how coaches can work together to amplify ecologically responsible business transformation. “If we are a collective of coaches, how do we take our collective capacity and try to edge more towards influencing change?” Jonathan echoes that coaches can “take on social action in supporting and coaching ecologically minded organizations. This is the choice of individual coaches, and it’s in the same way that coaches might support environmental charities.”
Transforming coaching practice to support planetary health
The demand for greater environmental accountability in business is an entry point for coaches who want to support planetary health through their work. In her coaching practice, Josie notices, “a growing number of sustainability practitioners who are looking for a trusted thinking partner, a coach.” Sustainability coaches and corporate social responsibility coaches often work with organizational leaders to create strategies around environmental responsibility as part of their leadership development. However, systemic coaching practitioners like Josie work with groups, teams, and organizations to provoke awareness of the surrounding culture and context to help catalyze transformation. Her research in organizational change challenges the assumption that organizations composed of humans operate like machines. Instead, her work is based on living systems and grounded in the field of living systems (complexity) as applied to social systems.
“It is very difficult for coaches to be campaigners. I don’t think that is our role, but we can encourage people to take a long-term perspective.”
As a leading thinker in systemic coaching, Wisdom Weaver Dr. Peter Hawkins describes himself as a “passionate evangelist for radically shifting the paradigms that coaching is based on.” He argues that some coaching “is making the world worse, not better because we’re reinforcing a self-centered, egoistic, individualistic way of thinking and being in the world.” He continues, “We can’t just add ecological, climate-conscious coaching as another skill set on top of an unreformed paradigm. We have to all really look at our ways of thinking, doing, and being. That requires us to look at the paradigms we are operating under.”
Part of challenging the paradigms means examining the goals of coach training and continued education. Early coaching research with sustainability startups and student sustainability programs indicate that coaching can support sustainability practitioners similar to how coaches support organizational leadership. However, coaching research and accrediting bodies may need to explore if current frameworks and competency models apply to community and systemic-level change. Peter concludes, “[the International Coaching Federation] traditionally focused on what coaches need to learn, and they haven’t focused on what the coaches need to unlearn to get to the next level…to really shift coaches, to be able to impact the climate ecology. We can’t solve those problems with the thinking that created them.”
Coaching professionals can support climate-responsive coaching practice by:
- Joining peer learning groups or enrolling in continued education to deepen their understanding of environmental topics
- Participating in research to examine the impact of ecological and climate-conscious coaching models
- Volunteering pro-bono or reduced-cost services to environmental entrepreneurs, non-profits, and other underserved community groups
Transformational Questions for the Future of Coaching and Planetary Ecology:
- As a coach, what matters the most to you when it comes to planetary health? Why is that?
- What does it mean for an individual, team, organization, or community to be ecologically aware?
- What is the role of coaches in supporting planetary health?
- In what ways can coaches reveal and challenge planet-harming paradigms in business and culture?
- How can coaching approaches be expanded to facilitate community dialogue and support underrepresented voices?
Coaching Empowers People
Charly Cox is a coach, author, and coaching innovator. Her book, Climate Change Coaching, was the first book to tackle professional coaching and climate change and has expanded into a business with nine dedicated coaches. Before becoming a coach, however, Charly did not have a background in environmental topics. When Charly started her coaching practice, she wanted to help clients better their communities. However, it was not until she became a mother, that Charly started thinking about planetary health. With a desire to leave a healthy world for her daughter, she sought out experts in the field and connected with likeminded coaches.
As Charly deepened her understanding of climate change and planetary health, she realized that coaches do not need to be experts in sustainability to be effective. Instead, coaching tools can help clients explore their relationship to the planet and find ways to strengthen their sustainability goals. In 2016, she co-founded Climate Change Coaches with the mission to “spark imagination and possibility around climate change and equip people to lead and inspire action that changes systems.” The team at Climate Change Coaches works with entrepreneurs, business leaders, and organizations to support sustainability strategies, including net-zero and green economy. They also provide resources and training to individual and organizational coaches as part of an ICF-accredited training program. For coaches who may feel uncomfortable discussing climate-related topics, Charly uses her story to demonstrate how coaches can support planetary health through their practice.