In the midst of the pandemic, leadership coach, Mark McMordie co-created Coaching through Covid, pro-bono aid for key workers. It was an act of compassionate leadership, whose success has left him humbled
Wisdom and compassion: apart from his family and close friends, these are what matter most to leadership coach, mindfulness teacher and CEO of the Conscious Leader, Mark McMordie.
“Given the times we live in, both feel more important than ever,” says McMordie, who works with CEOs and leaders to develop more inclusive and enquiry-based leadership to bring about organisational innovation and transformation.
“Whether it be global warming, Covid-19 or the next big wave of disruption heading our way, wisdom and compassion will go a long way in helping us navigate complexity and transform our world in whatever way it needs to. Our survival as a species may very well depend on it. So I guess I’m in service of that – conscious compassionate leadership,” says McMordie, who teaches on the MSc in Coaching & Behavioural Change at Henley Business School.
McMordie trained as a mindfulness teacher at Bangor University’s Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, as well as with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which delivers mindfulness training at Google.
It was compassion that prompted McMordie, in response to distressing images of overwhelmed doctors on the frontline as the pandemic first gripped northern Italy, to share a post on LinkedIn last March (2020). The post invited other coaches to join him in offering pro-bono services to key healthcare workers.
“[The post] was a piece of authentic communication, [offering] to be of service to those on the frontline. You might say it started from a place of servant leadership. Another way of saying it is that it was a compassionate response, compassionate leadership.”
His invitation gave birth to pro-bono key worker coaching initiative Coaching through Covid (CtC), co-founded with Lindsay Wittenberg, Carole Osterweil and Liz Hall. Although he balks at the word when I ask him what he’s proud of, CtC is right up there, even more so than Mindfulness for Coaches, the book he co-authored with Michael Chaskalson (Chaskalson & McMordie, 2017):
“Writing the book with Michael was a labour of love, and I am proud of it. If moving into coaching was a vocation, it felt like writing the book was a calling. But Coaching through Covid has superseded the book.
“It’s one thing to write about mindfulness and compassion, another thing to catalyse and enable a large-scale compassionate response in the midst of a pandemic. I didn’t plan that, it just happened. And I was lucky to have kind souls around me to help that happen.
“Proud is the wrong word, actually, just humbled. By everyone who has given their time and energy to support those on the frontline. The programme has been based on deploying some of the most experienced coaches in the UK – coaches who really get the ‘systemic eclectic’ approach. It’s been moving to see so many offer the simplest but most profound thing that anybody can offer in the midst of the crisis – an unconditional ear.
“At its simplest we’ve described the approach as: Be present, be with and hold space. Hold space for what? For whatever’s waiting to emerge.
“As [David Clutterbuck’s] coaching maturity model suggests, showing up in this simple way is deeply enabling for others and early evaluation data suggests that it’s transforming the lived experience of those receiving coaching through CtC.
“And we’ve been fortunate [at CtC] to have some of the most experienced supervisors in the UK modelling that and offering the same approach in reflective practice groups [for CtC coaches].”
CtC’s supervisors include, or have included, Eve Turner, Simon Cavicchia, Helen- Jane Ridgeway, Benita Treanor, Emma Donaldson-Feilder Graham Lee, Louise Sheppard, and Mike Munro-Turner.
“[The group reflective practice] seems to have deepened the safety of the container that is CtC, alongside things like providing Compassion Cultivation Training [for CtC coaches] through the [US-based] Compassion Institute.”
It was McMordie who first approached the Compassion Institute, where he’d previously participated in a Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) programme. As a result, a pro-bono six-week Compassion at Work: Preventing Burnout in Healthcare programme was delivered in May 2020 for clinicians at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, where CtC first piloted its coaching service in the anaesthetics department. And in July 2020, a Compassion Institute teacher offered a pro-bono eight-week CCT programme to CtC coaches, with another launching this month [January 2021].
“So I’m most proud of Coaching through Covid but not an ego-led pride. Humility. Awe in what has emerged and unfolded, and happy to have played a part in helping that to happen.
At one point around 330 coaches were actively coaching, and to date [December 2020], more than 1,000 coaching sessions have been delivered to more than 400 key workers in around 44 trusts. The initiative is very much fulfilling its purpose. It has delivered to key workers impacted directly by the pandemic, free high-quality professional inclusive coaching and other timely, demand-led services to help them find meaning, learning and growth from their experiences, attend to their own wellbeing and deliver sustainable care to those they serve.
Other CtC initiatives for coaches have included ‘trauma pods’ offered by Helen-Jane Ridgeway, supporting CtC coaches who may come across trauma in their CtC clients, and what is hoped to be the first of a series of diversity and inclusion webinars for CtC coaches, offered by Jackee Holder and Jenny Garrett. A webinar on ‘joy’ was also held for CtC coaches.
Thanks again to McMordie, CtC partnered with Professor Amy Edmondson’s the Fearless Organization, to ensure it attends to psychological safety as a key enabler of team effectiveness, innovation and sustainable growth.
“I think it accounts for how we managed to mobilise so much in such a short space of time and the impact the programme is having.
“Our weekly team practice at CtC is a very simple one. Mindfulness/compassion practice. Checking-in and attuning to one another and the wider system. And then practising enquiry to access our collective intelligence on whatever was arising in the field. Simple but effective when, as Carole Osterweil [CtC co-founder] would say, you’re ‘walking in fog’.”
In addition, he says, “I feel very blessed that the CtC team was one of the first in the UK to be able to measure and track levels of psychological safety on the programme using the Psychological Safety Index.”
Psychological safety is a cornerstone of McMordie’s work in a range of settings. He wrote an article on the topic for Coaching at Work (McMordie, 2019), presented at the UK International Coach Federation’s 2019 conference on ‘Mindfulness, psychological safety and innovation’, and on the same topic at the Association for Coaching (AC)’s 8th international conference in 2020, with the Institute of Coaching (IoC). It was one of the themes explored at the annual Coaching at Work conference by the CtC team, including McMordie (see news, page 12).
Since “stepping back but not away” from CtC, Mark continues to work with the Fearless Organization: “I’m excited to be working with [this organisation] to increase psychological safety, collaboration and innovation in boardrooms, teams and organisations across the UK and globally. It feels very timely and needed.”
Adaptive leadership and healing
“From the beginning, CtC was one huge experiment in adaptive leadership”, says McMordie.
“The thing that inspired me most at the beginning of CtC was the idea of creating a healing organisation capable of transforming the lived experience of those on the frontline through something very simple – unconditional, generative listening. What’s clear from initial evaluation data is that participants in CtC seem to be processing their experience of Covid-19 quite differently to many who are not receiving this kind of support and in stark contrast to headlines about PTSD, depression and burnout.
“Time will tell as to whether CtC does represent a blueprint for a healing organisation or not. But I feel very confident we’ve been living and delivering on our purpose.
“Of course much of what we have been doing on CtC isn’t new. Professor Michael West has been advocating and teaching compassionate, inclusive leadership in the NHS for years. So in some respects CtC could be considered a homage to Michael’s work. In many ways, every time a CtC coach shows up to coach, they may be modelling compassionate coaching and helping embed this approach through leaders experiencing its effects first hand.
“I do wonder if we created a Teal (Laloux, 2014) organisation with CtC. It certainly felt very different to anything I’ve ever experienced before and that seems to be consistent with many people’s experience on the programme.”
Before getting into coaching, McMordie worked in various HR roles, mainly talent, leadership and organisation development, predominantly in the financial services and retail sectors.
His Masters degree was in Human Resources Development: “Very early on, before I started my corporate career, there was already a statement of intention: if we take out the word ‘resource’, we might just say ‘human development’.”
In the late 90s and early 2000s, in some of those HR and OD roles, when he was putting together panels of professional coaches to support talent and OD agendas, he thought, “What are these weird and wonderful beings who are professional executive coaches?”
At a conference, he met coach, Cheryl Richardson, the first president of the International Coach Federation – “she really impacted me”.
“There were also people like [coach] Sol Davidson who, when I was working in NatWest, was doing some amazing things in some of the regions. It was like, what are they doing? How are they achieving these results?”
A “real nerd around emotional intelligence”, McMordie designed a leadership development programme based on Daniel Goleman’s work in this arena, then read Goleman’s book, Destructive Emotions, which led him to go to India for a year.
“The book is the recounting of the early meetings between Western scientists and HH the Dalai Lama, pointing to the early research with brain imaging technology showing Tibetan lamas could control the emotional control centres of the brain at will. I thought, if I’m going to learn about this stuff, I can’t think of a better place to be than Dharamshala [in India, where the Dalai Lama is based].
After returning: “I wanted to combine my interest in emotional intelligence and mindfulness…[but] I thought how on earth do I apply that in the corporate setting? At that time, nobody seemed to be teaching mindfulness in organisations.”
He found his way to John Leary-Joyce and the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC).
“The AoEC was the place where present moment attention seemed to have an application in transformational work in the corporate environment, through Gestalt coaching.”
Along with a number of HR directors at Arcadia group, where he worked at that time, he trained with the AoEC, coaching members of the talent pipeline across Arcadia. He then left to join Coachmatch (now Wondrous) as director of coaching.
“I’m grateful to Trudi Ryan and Angela Rutterford-Adams [from what was Coachmatch] for giving me that particular break to make coaching my full-time vocation.”
Were there any surprises when he transitioned from one side of coaching to the other?
“I think the surprise was the variability within the coaching marketplace in terms of some organisations being very sophisticated buyers of coaching, and others, not. And some organisations with a big appetite to develop their own internal capability around coaching, and others, not. So the range of it really. And finding that fascinating, and meeting clients where they were.
“And one of the benefits of working at [what was] Coachmatch was the diversity: seeing that coaches of all shapes and sizes might all have a place with clients. The thing is to attune to the client and coach.
“One interesting thing for me was the continued narrative and assumption, particularly among what I’d say are less sophisticated buyers of coaching, that you need industry experience or have come from that sector to be effective. Which I get on one level, but I think it’s more related to the coach’s capacity to attune to the context that they’re going into.
“For me there’s a real danger that either coaches get drawn into mentoring or that if they’re part of the system and sector already, they may already be part of the problem, rather than the solution. When we bring in fresh perspectives from other sectors and other places, this can healthily bring in colliding perspectives that really help to shift and change the organisational sector. I enjoyed seeing more sophisticated buyers being more open-minded about the kind of coaches who might actually transform their organisation.
“In my early foundational years of coaching, I was influenced by Sir John Whitmore, Myles Downey and Max Landsberg. The training with AoEC really opened my eyes to Fritz Perls and Carl Rogers. Working with present-moment attention and a person-centred approach still sits at the heart of my practice today but it wasn’t until that more formal training that it started to really enter my awareness and become more integrated.
“And then there was Nancy Kline (founder of Time to Think)! Perhaps as with all life-changing events, there’s a clear sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’. That’s certainly the case with Nancy. On the second day of my training with her I remember telling her that I thought she was a complete original genius, and I still stand by that. If I’m honest I was slightly in awe of her.
“It’s one thing to be inspired by greats from the past like Rogers and Perls, but quite another to see such a deep embodiment of unconditional positive regard right in front of my eyes, showing me how. That’s what Nancy represented. She transformed my practice in two ways. First, she introduced me to the practice of generative attention, and for someone with a background in mindfulness, that was revelatory. I thought, oh, that sounds a lot like mindful attention, we’re just focusing it on another person and letting it do its work.
“The second was being on the end of her generative attention in a Thinking Partnership (the term for Time to Think structured interactions) as I was thinking and feeling my way into the thing that was just waiting to pop for me, my deepest aspiration at the time.”
This aspiration was to reach out to very experienced mindfulness teacher Michael Chaskalson, which led to the co-authored book.
“I wanted to make a contribution to the coaching community and be of service to other coaches starting to make connections between coaching and mindfulness. It was always intended to be an experiential guidebook – to invite and support coaches into developing a regular mindfulness practice. To become more conscious in doing so and to bring this into their coaching work.
“Both Nancy and Michael deeply embody the same thing that lies at the heart of the book – transformational presence.
“I’m grateful to Erik de Haan for writing the foreword – his relational approach resonates deeply, particularly his observation from the field of psychotherapy that it’s not the particular approach that accounts for the greatest variance in outcomes, but the quality of the relationship and the way the coach/therapist shows up.”
“And as I sit here now, at this stage in my development, David Clutterbuck’s coaching maturity model and the systemic eclectic approach resonate deeply with how I coach now. I love the way he summarises this: ‘are we both relaxed enough to allow the issue and the solution to emerge in whatever way they will?’ You could say, ‘am I mindfully present enough just to allow that?’ and ‘do I need to apply any techniques or processes at all? If I do, what does the client context tell me about how to select from the wide choice available to me?’
“It’s about saying, I’m fully present with the client, it may be just enough to simply stay present with the client, but if stuff comes in that may be of service to the client, then I’ll bring it in. But my sense is that at its purest, it’s unconditional presence that supports and enables the client to do whatever they need to do at the moment.”
What might coaches need to let go of to get to this point, albeit not an end point?
“Let go of doing. Embrace being, and being with the client. Dan Siegel talks about the causal link between presence, attunement and transformational resonance. So can I drop the busyness of my mind, can I drop striving, can I stop trying to get the client somewhere, can I just be with the client, wherever they are in this moment? Attune to what’s going on for them. Deep empathy, and from that, can we access transformational resonance where they’re touching into what authentically needs to happen for them next?
“But, like Nancy says, in those moments, I’m completely important, and I’m completely irrelevant. There’s a presence that is enabling something, but it’s not trying to get the coachee somewhere, or to do this. So, yes, be present, be with, hold space. Hold space for enquiry into what do I need right now to grow as a leader and be better at serving and enabling those I’m leading.
“I have a number of valued relationships that inform and inspire me. I’m particularly enjoying my relationship with Amy Edmondson’s Fearless Organization. I’m also excited about working with Harthill Consulting.
“Something I shared in Mindfulness for Coaches and the presentation I gave at the AC/IoC conference last year , is what I see as the importance of what some refer to as ‘vertical’ leadership development.
“Harthill’s founder David Rooke’s seminal HBR article with William Torbert’s (Rooke & Torbert, 2005) points to how organisations need more ‘Strategists’ and ‘Alchemists’ to help transform themselves and the world. Given my passion for developing more conscious leaders, it’s no surprise that I found my way to Harthill’s door. The Leadership Development Profile at the heart of Harthill’s IP is the most widely used vertical leadership development profile globally. It provides a reliable map for any leader wanting to increase their capacity to navigate complexity or enable transformational change. The shorthand way of putting that, as David puts it, is [developing] leadership with wisdom.”
In terms of scaling Harthill’s work, McMordie says, “What will it mean for more leaders to explore their own stage of ego development, stages of consciousness, and translating that into practical applications in terms of their everyday leadership? It’s helping leaders go on a journey of becoming more conscious, and in the process, helping organisations become more conscious, too. And we certainly need that right now.”
His vision for leaders and for coaches, reflected in the co-authored book, is for more to find their way to developing a regular mindfulness and compassion practice.
“Why? Because all the evidence seems to point to the fact that when we have that, we’re likely to have more conscious and compassionate coaches and leaders, and that this enables more conscious organisations to emerge – a shift towards Teal.
“It’s more reality than vision, as it’s shown in the neuroscience.
“Research from Barbara Fredrickson suggests that certain regular mental training has significant effects on positive emotions and vagal tone, and over time this shows up as ‘positivity resonance’. Research from Stephen Porges also suggests that vagal tone matters in terms of the neuroception of safety. And as Dan Siegel suggests, the more you practise mindfulness and compassion, the more this shifts from state to trait through what he describes as a process of neural integration.
“All of this matters if you want to show up with a quality of presence that invites deep attunement and transformational resonance. And that brings us full circle to Clutterbuck’s later-stage coaches, to Carl Rogers and Nancy Kline.”
Nancy Kline puts it another way, wondering what new levels of superb we might reach if we could become expert at generating this kind of attention, this silence, he says.
“I think we’re at a very interesting stage in our development as human beings, where mindfulness and compassion are becoming more and more mainstream. And as that starts to take hold and embed, I think we’re about to find out what it means for more coaches to hold space for others to move into deeper awareness, become more conscious and lead from that place. That fills me full of hope.”
Identity and loves
Who is McMordie?
“When I was a boy, I enjoyed being captain of a very successful football team. I look back at that, and I might say I enjoyed being the heroic leader. These days, life just feels more about being of service to, and enabling, others. Even doing this interview feels a little weird. I don’t really like being in the limelight. But I do feel it’s important to show up – not to hide away, particularly at this time.
“I’ve started not to really experience myself with a fixed sense of self any more. I see myself as more fluid – ‘in process’, like we all are. Of course, like everyone, there are habitual ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing the world but I’m enjoying playing with these and discovering new things about myself and the world every day. It’s like coming back to being a small child in terms of the awe, the playfulness, the discovery.
“What are the loves of my life? Certainly my wife and my children (pictured, page 33) are right at the top; they give me so much joy every day.
“The other loves of my life have been the integration of mindfulness/compassion with coaching.
“And without a doubt, two people who have influenced me most over the last 20 years are HH The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh (whose calligraphy is featured on page 32). I took vows with both of those astonishing beings and as I get older, they’re anchors to aspire to grow into day by day.
“They both teach from the most powerful place anyone can teach from, an embodied place. They are what they teach. Another name for HH Dalai Lama is Kundun, which I think translates as presence. He is. And Thich Nhat Hanh is also. What are they presence of? There could be many answers to that, but I’d like to think of it simply as love.
“Maybe that’s why I resonate so much with the Fearless Organization, because at the end of the day, there are lots of human emotions but when you boil it down to the most basic ones, it’s a choice between fear or love. Do I choose fear, or do I choose love? I choose love.
- M Chaskalson and M McMordie, Mindfulness for Coaches: An experiential guide, Routledge, 2018
- F Laloux, Reinventing Organisations, Nelson Parker, 2014
- M McMordie, ‘Be safe, be free’, in Coaching at Work, July/August 2019 https://www.coaching-at-work.com/2019/07/07/be-safe-be-free/
- D Rooke and W R Torbert, ‘Seven transformations of leadership’, in Harvard Business Review, 83(4), 66-76, April 2005