Coaching Leaders: A Systems Approach

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    Guest Submission by Steven Ober, EdD

    Leaders live and work in complex systems. In fact, we all do. These systems include our organizations, our teams, our families, our communities, and our larger society.

    In today’s world, it is incumbent on those of us who coach leaders to deepen and broaden our ability to coach from a systemic perspective—to understand our client leader as an individual human system working and living in larger systems. How a leader proceeds in those systems, and how those systems operate, can have a huge impact on her ability to achieve her goals.

    This article presents an overview of Coaching from a systems perspective:

    • Definition What is a “system”?
    • Why coaching from a systems perspective is critical in today’s world.
    • What systemic coaching includes.
    • How you can, on a practical level, coach systemically.
    • Learning Opportunities that can help you broaden and deepen your systemic capability.


    A system is a whole made up of interdependent, interacting parts. Changes in one of the parts create changes in one or more of the others. All of the parts are interconnected. Examples of systems include: You as a human being, your coaching client as a human system, the system that consists of you and your client interacting, the client’s organization and marketplace, and/or all of the above taken together.

    Why is it important to coach from a systemic perspective?

    There are two fundamental reasons that a systemic approach is critical to effective leadership coaching:

    1. We are, in fact, systems living in larger systems. As human beings we know we are part of a whole natural system. We are all interconnected. A systems perspective gives us access to the fullness of this interconnection. Systems thinking is a powerful way to understand ourselves, one another, and our world.
    2. The systems in which our clients live and work have a significant impact on their ability to achieve desired results. To serve them best, we need to help client leaders see how the forces in their internal and external systems influence their ability to create what they want and what they can do in their system to increase their success rate. If, as coaches, we do not take into account these broader and deeper systemic forces, we are ignoring huge areas of their lives, areas with forces that can greatly impede, or powerfully support their work as leaders.

    What does coaching from a systems perspective include?

    Coaching most broadly and deeply (coaching systemically) means being aware of three worlds and how they interplay to produce outcomes:

    1. The Face-to Face-World—our interactions with our client, and their face-to-face interactions with other key people.
    2. The Larger External World, for example our client’s organization, their business, their customers, and their marketplace.
    3. The Deeper Internal World: How/what our client leaders think and feel, their mental models/underlying assumptions, their deeper beliefs, and in some cases, their deep story.

    Systemic coaching is about helping our clients “see” the key variables from these three worlds, how they interact, how they help or get in the way, and what our client leader can do to change the system in favor of their leadership vision and desired results.

    A leadership coach also needs to have a deep understanding of his own internal and external worlds and how they play out in coaching relationships.

    How, on a practical, can you coach from a systems perspective?

    1. Approach each phase your coaching work with the client’s (and your own) systems in mind. In each phase—entry, contracting, data collection, goal setting, action planning, and supporting implementation–ask, and help the client ask, “What are the key systemic variables we need to be paying attention to here?” For example, coaching from a systems perspective means having an understanding of the system around your client and how it may impact her. If you don’t have that information, you probably need to structure your assessment so that you gather some of it.
    2. Use your client’s goal as your entry point. Focus your systemic thinking on helping your client achieve her coaching goal rather on than on a broad analysis of the entire system. Focus on her goal and how her internal, external, and face- to-face systems influence her ability to achieve it. Help your client set his goals, create his action plans, and implement those plans in ways that take into account key systemic forces at play.
    3. Learn and use systemic tools in your coaching. There are many good tools out there that help us work with systems—for example, influence diagrams, causal loops, systems archetypes, the Butterfly model of Complex Human Systems, Jay Forrester’s systems dynamics out of MIT, and David Kantor’s Structural Dynamics.
    4. Help your client leader look for leverage. Nobody can take on everything. Work to identify the key systemic forces he can focus on to have the most impact.
    5. Always learn. Integrate and synthesize your systemic understanding and approaches through practice, practice, practice, combined with reflection, reflection, reflection.

    Learning opportunity

    Consider enrolling in an exciting new program, Coaching from a Systems Perspective. How do we increase our capacity for seeing and understanding systemic connections? How can we become more effective in dealing with the complexities of the systems in which we, and our clients, live and work? This three-day course, designed for practicing coaches, offers a basic grounding in modern systems theory and provides specific tools for seeing and understanding systems. We practice these during the program through a sequence of mutual coaching sessions. Participants consistently report that the program experience has taken their coaching work to a new and deeper level.


    Coaching from a Systems Perspective was developed by a group of senior coaches from the Coaching Community of Practice, Society for Organizational Learning. We call ourselves Systems Perspectives, LLC. You will find an overview of the program, dates, locations, and a contact person for each offering on our website: Upon completion of the program, 29 ICF CCEUs are available.

    If you want to talk more about systemic coaching, how it can enhance your practice, and you can use it to help client leaders, feel free to contact me:

    Steven P. Ober EdD
    Office: 508.882.1025 Mobile: 978.590.4219