How Coaches Matter

Today’s blog is inspired by an article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson: “Why the Age of American Progress Ended.”

Thompson’s thesis is that, while we worship eureka moments that lead to inventions, those inventions, on their own, don’t change the world. Change depends on whether and how those inventions are implemented, that is, made available to the rest of us. The light bulb and the telephone have no value if people can’t get them.

Thompson illustrated his point with the story of the smallpox vaccine. Smallpox was no small matter. It killed millions of people every year for centuries.

Enter Edward Jenner, who, after a eureka idea, experimented with inoculating one boy against smallpox. It worked! But . . .

“Consider the actual scale of Edward Jenner’s accomplishment the day he pricked James Phipps in 1796. Exactly one person had been vaccinated in a world of roughly 1 billion people, leaving 99.9999999 percent of the human population unaffected. When a good idea is born, or when the first prototype of an invention is created, we should celebrate its potential to change the world. But progress is as much about implementation as it is about invention. The way individuals and institutions take an idea from one to 1 billion is the story of how the world really changes.”

Emotional intelligence had its own eureka moment. In 1980, Reuven Bar-On, Ph.D., was a research psychologist at the University of Texas Medical School at Galveston. One day, walking across campus, it dawned on him: “Everyone on our faculty is really smart, but only some are really successful. What makes the difference?”

In this case, the eureka moment was a great observation/question. To bring EQ to the world, a lot more was needed. To answer his question, Bar-On went on a seventeen year research journey that identified sixteen skills that differentiate high performers from those with high IQ alone. In so doing, Bar-On developed the Emotional Quotient Inventory (now the EQ-I 2.0).

But the test wasn’t enough either. This is where implementation comes in. It started with Steve Stein, Ph.D., president of MHS, a psychological test publisher in Toronto. Stein saw the vast potential that several other test publishers had missed. He published the original test in 1997, and his company has been implementing enthusiastically every since.

I became an implementer as well. Steve’s company and I worked closely together to create the EQ Leader Program, the first comprehensive program to build EQ skills in leaders. Originally published by MHS in 2006, the updated (2020) program is now available here.  It has been used by coaches worldwide to implement Bar-On’s eureka discovery. The program gives coaches concrete ways to take cohorts of leaders through a process that guides their EQ development, creating increases in successful leadership across entire organizations. You can also purchase the exercises for the sixteen skills separately.

The EQ story illustrates how coaches matter. As a coach, you are in a position to apply the discoveries that pioneering behavioral scientists make. If you don’t, those discoveries will sit in dusty dissertations and journals, doing little good for humanity.

People need what you know. It is your responsibility to make your knowledge about people, and how to lead people, available to those who need that information. In the final analysis, that is pretty much everyone. It isn’t just leaders who benefit from your work. The followers of everyone you successfully coach are beneficiaries as well. As a holder of this knowledge, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to your clients, their followers, and their organizations, to help them integrate life lessons often otherwise unavailable.

What if Jenner’s smallpox vaccine had been left unimplemented? You and I might not be here today. It might have been our own ancestors who got “taken out” by smallpox. Thank goodness someone found ways to get the smallpox vaccine into the world! Let’s do the same with our behavioral insights.

We hope you enjoyed the holidays. We did, including taking a break. Now we’re ready for the new year, and we look forward to sharing our thoughts about coaching with you. Thank you for your interest.

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