THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT: SIR JOHN WHITMORE

“Feisty, outspoken, passionate, wise, fatherly, generous, caring, open.”
Neil Scotton remembers an extraordinary man who changed his life

Sir John Whitmore is dead. That’s the news I’ve just woken up to. By the time you read this it will be slightly old news. But I sense my heart will still be saddened.

My first meeting with Sir John was in 2008. Introduced to us by John Blakey, Sir John was keynoting our UK ICF ‘Making a Difference’ conference. The title says it all. It was a subject Sir John was clearly passionate about. In a pre-meeting at the venue Sir John and I got into an argument. The parlance these days is ‘robust’. The subject was what we care deeply about and how that shows up in our coaching. I was affirming that ‘it’s the client’s agenda’ and that we shouldn’t have one and the coach’s journey is about letting go. John’s position was that we’re human, of course we have an agenda, and we should know what it is and live it.

The conversation got loud. We may have been shouting – I’m not sure. But I do remember my colleagues being shocked as Sir John and I traded blows. What on earth was I doing haranguing our honoured guest, the writer of the world’s biggest selling book on coaching (and a person vital to the success of the venture)?

What they perhaps didn’t notice was the glint in Sir John’s eye. He was loving it. The fight was a clean one – it was only the ideas being knocked about. We relished in putting our firmly held ‘truths’ to the test. It reminded me of when I was a very young boy, playing ‘bears’ with my father on the living room floor – an activity inevitably ending with me on my back being tickled to death. The outcome was pretty much the same with Sir John, though it took me a little longer to really, fully ‘get it’. The ripple out for me was enormous. This column is, in part, a legacy of that conversation.

A little while later I bumped into Sir John at an Association for Coaching event. He was, again, keynoting, and his spot was a little later in the day. “I want a word with you,” he said. “Oh”, I thought.

With slight trepidation I went with him to a quiet part of the coffee lounge. What then unfolded was the most extraordinary conversation. He launched into what was, in essence, “Am I going to talk about what I really want to say, or shall I keep to the script?” The key word was ‘spirituality’. He spoke with complete candour about the inner forces at play within him. He recounted personal experiences that transformed his way of understanding the world and our relationship with it.

Part of me was awestruck. Part of me was bewilderingly honoured. And very quickly all of me was simply in the dance with him. At the end he shared some personal feedback to me that I wrote down and remains in a Filofax thing my desk to this day. Later, he stood up at the podium and let rip.

Sir John went on to proclaim such outspoken views such as vowing never again to work with an organisation unless it was truly committed to making things better in the world. He shared his thoughts and views with thousands, and the range of responses was extraordinary.

So there, for me, is Sir John. Feisty, outspoken, passionate, wise, fatherly, generous, caring, open. Inspiring. Completely ‘beyond self’. An extraordinary man. He rocked the coaching world from the start and continued to rock it. His legacy lives though everyone whose life he touched. My eyes shine again today. This time, it’s tears. This man changed my life. I’ll miss him.

 

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