The Complexities of modern Leadership
Demand A New Coaching Approach

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The Complexities of modern Leadership Demand A New Coaching Approach.

by Dr Darren Stevens

Over the years, a variety of coaching methodologies have been introduced, each suggesting an incremental improvement in the coaching effectiveness for the client. In 1st Generation Coaching (1990-1999), the main focus was on performance management, compelling others to change and coping with ‘difficult’ employees. It was a more command and control approach, coaching to specific rankings/ratings, which might have worked for some leaders.

From a Leadership perspective, in 2nd Generation Coaching (2000 – 2010), we deal with possibilities, rather than transactions, and the main focus was on driving change whilst maintaining authority and hierarchy in order to change others. This was accomplished by standard one-to-one coaching conversations to obtain specific predetermined goals for the client – what does their organisational future look like? It was a more prescriptive ‘how to coach’ model and change was seen as linear, and to be controlled, which helped some leaders understand their outcomes.


Coaching isn't a process. It's time we stopped teaching it as if it were.

Then came 3rd Generation Coaching, led by Reinhard Stettler (2014) whose main focus was attraction not coercion, modelling change behaviours in order to shift individual and organisational mindsets. 3rd Generation focused on putting principles into practice to ensure change in both individual and system thinking. This seemed more Leadership-focused.

3rd Generation coaching showed how organisations over the years have shifted their attention from managing performance to building the skills and talents of their employees by creating a culture of quality conversations where employees are coached to balance work and life challenges.

This approach also argued for simplicity. It provided coaching that was supported by qualitative evidence-based research, and was in line with the client’s values, language and cultural narratives. You can see how this would appeal to some leaders in a modern business environment.

However, in today's more complex, connected globalised business environment, the existing coaching methods are not enough if we are to tease out the future capacity of the leader’s decision-making capabilities in order to prepare them for the complexities that lie ahead.

We must therefore ask ourselves: from a coaching perspective, what would better-serve the Leaders of tomorrow?

If 1st Generation and 2nd Generation were structure-oriented, and 3rd Generation is process-oriented, what is the lowest common denominator that demands a new approach?

If we are to be the coach of the future, What we need to do is tease out how Leaders construct their thinking in the moment in order to understand what is the difference that makes the difference in their Leadership Thinking Style, and then show them how to reconstruct it from a position of Intention, Awareness, Choice and Response.
What we need is:

A Developmentally Different Way of Measuring Leaders

In 2020, Dr Darren Stevens developed a new framework for measuring an adult’s level of cognitive development. In other words, how capable are we of “joining the dots”?
He demonstrated in this new framework – called Constructed Development Theory – that a client’s world is a product of their unconscious construction based around the use of fifty Cognitive Intentions. These CI’s are essentially shortcuts in our thinking, and are either within, or without awareness. He showed that it is our level of awareness of our use of all 50 that is key to our capacity to think, as adults.

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For example, a Leader’s capacity to make long term decisions can be measured by comparing their use of four Cognitive Intentions. Where a leader is required to make decisions that will have ramifications 20 years down the line, they will need to have awareness of their long-term/ short-term split. Elliott Jaques called this their ‘span of discretion’.

The facets of Leadership Excellence become measurable when you take into account the other 49 unconscious Cognitive Intentions, then the full picture of a Leader’s Thinking Style emerges.

In 3rd Generation coaching, it was suggested that the best we can do is to allow the things we hear our clients say, or the things they do, influence the way we think as coaches in the coaching relationship. However, with sufficiently high Dynamic Intelligence, the coach can choose to be influenced or not, in the moment. This is a different Intention entirely. When observing the coaching relationship from a Vertical Developmental perspective, the client’s language is key to their construction of self, and a high DI coach will hear their limiting patterns in their client’s language, from which a developed coach will discern the client’s construction of self.

In order to differentiate the new Constructed Developmental approach to coaching, this framework is called:

Next Level Coaching

Often, coaches assume that they can coach anyone. They assume their certificate qualifies them to step into the fray at the highest levels because they have a few tools, procedures and ideas in their coaching toolkit. This is because they are often taught that the problem they are trying to solve is a problem the client is aware of, and thus needs help to overcome.

However, in CDT terms, the client very rarely understands the problem. This is because the problem is always a problem of construction, not of utility or agency, as is often thought.

What this means in theoretical terms is that an individual’s construction of the problem is determined by their level of Dynamic Intelligence. However, this level also acts as the limiting factors in their construction method. A person with low Dynamic Intelligence will construct a particular problem very differently to a person with high DI. In Leadership terms, this means that a more complex leader will not even notice the problem a low complex leader worries about as their constructions of the perceived problem will be completely different.

How they construct their problem in accordance with CDT is by use of the four pillars: Intention, Awareness, Choice and ResponseTM. The greater our Awareness of our Intention in the moment, the greater our capacity to Respond.

This Intention and Choice is measured using a bespoke tool called the Awareness Quotient (AQ).

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What's the difference that Makes the Difference?

The first major difference between conventional coaching and Next Level Coaching is the Intention of the coach. As mentioned, when one is aware that the problem is constructed, the coach is free to investigate the construction of the client’s thinking in order to understand how they have limited their thinking around their problem.

The MCO (More Complex Other) listens for how the client constructs their thinking in the moment in order to offer this construction in feedback. If the coach is focused on the content rather than the process of structuring the client’s thinking, then the relationship is not developmental for the client, as this suggests that the coach and the client are at the same AQ Level. Often, traditional coaches get lost in the dialogue as they focus on uncovering values and beliefs. Once we realise that these are also constructions, and thus abstractions, we can focus on the construction of them instead. The Intention, Awareness, Choice and Response around them.

The second major difference with Next Level Coaching, is that the Coach understands that all the problems the client presents, are problems of construction. There is some limited perspective, or habituated pattern of construction that is holding the client’s Awareness and Choice back. It is the Coach's role to uncover the limitation on behalf of the client, not to fix their problem, per se.

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The third differentiator between conventional coaching and Next Level Coaching is that in Constructed Development Theory, we know that empathy (social-emotional complexity) is a low-level mode of connecting, and as such, no one grows when only empathy is in the frame. Standard coaching becomes problematic when it suggests: “each tries to understand the dialogue partner on his or her own terms”. This not possible for the Coach who lives at a lower AQ level than their client. This becomes even more pronounced when the client is a leader within a large organisation, as the lower level coach cannot see the high level patterns needed by the CEO to run his organisation at the highest level. Thus, Next Level Coaching offers a more ethical framework for coaching.

The MCO supports the client in uncovering and experiencing what is within Awareness in the present moment as an ever-deepening and unfolding embodiment of the fifty Cognitive Intentions. As this occurs, a Leader uncovers their innate AQ level, they become more resourceful (Choice), and they express more creativity (Response) in skilfully navigating the complexities they encounter whilst leading.

As new Choices arise from increased balance between Cognitive Intentions, the MCO helps the client relate to them in such away as the Leader recognises their greater choice in their construction of their thinking. This translates to the Awareness that the problem the Leader initially brought with them can be constructed in a new, higher DI way, and thus the problem construction has changed.

When leading an organisation, the problems encountered every day are not really problems. Those that demand a leader to stop, reflect on their construction of self, and present as an issue of Dynamic Intelligence are the ones that can only be solved from a Next Level Coaching perspective. Anything else is lower level…


To summarise, from a Next Level Coaching perspective, the problem we are trying to solve is: how is the Leader’s habituated Thinking Style impacting their construction of and ability to solve their problem?

We are listening for the client’s unconscious Intention, level of Awareness, resultant limited Choices and finally how they might Respond. A new framework that goes beyond all existing systems!

In order to coach the highest-level Leaders, we need the highest-level coaching framework: Next Level Coaching!

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