Don’t hide behind: ‘the client wanted it’

A series of columns on our role in tackling the complicated economic, environmental and social challenges we face. It is a place to question, offer, share, explore, challenge, dissent, celebrate, reflect, learn and enjoy.

The poet David Whyte asked: “What are the questions that have no right to go away?”

At the end of World War II, a set of guidelines, the Nuremberg Principles, were created to determine what constitutes a war crime. One stands out: Principle IV – Superior Orders: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

From that point on, even in the stresses of war, it was no longer a legal defence to say: “I was told to do it”.

What has this got to do with us coaches and mentors? In the vast majority of situations, absolutely nothing at all – the issues we work on
are practical, positive, professional and generally good for all. Most people using coaching are good people, doing what they believe to be right.

But there are a small number of situations where the ripple-out of the conversations may not be so positive. Damage might be caused. Pain, manipulation or exploitation will be felt by others. Fears and insecurities will be fed.

Whether the ripple-out is small or large, all this meets us head-on in the principles of the ‘client’s agenda’ and ‘client as expert and guide’. However, just because the client wants something, doesn’t mean it is right for us to help make it happen.

We are sounding boards; we allow things to be seen from new perspectives. Indeed, many (often senior) clients will ask to be challenged.

So here’s the question that has no right to go away. Do we have a moral duty to air our concerns and provide challenge, even if not requested to, ensuring we are not complicit in actions that result in harm?

As Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader said: “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.”

It’s interesting to note that coach training does not put much emphasis on the coach saying ‘no’ or negotiating during contracting.

Now, it’s highly unlikely that a coach or mentor will ever end up in court. But we can’t help feeling that we will be judged by future generations. In fact, there’s an increasing sense that Baby Boomers are already being judged by the youth of today.

Peter Hawkins asked: “Where were all the coaches when the banks went down?”
We, as coaches can choose to be catalysts for a better future, or complicit in an unhealthy one.

What will we tell future generations? If what we are helping create is not good for them,
then saying: ‘The client wanted it’, will not be a good enough defence. 


Dr Alister Scott and Neil Scotton of The One Leadership Project are helping those leading their organisations to ‘Think Beyond’ and ‘Act as One’.