Third-Generation Leadership Coaching: Playing with the eFIRE Model and Mindset

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Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Malcolm Nicholson – iCN Journalist (UK).
The following is based on a conversation between Geoffrey Abbott, PhD, Director, Executive Coaching Programs, Graduate School of Business, Queensland University of Technology and the author.
In an increasingly VUCA world, there is a need for leadership that is fit-for-purpose and can work the adaptive space between what is and what needs to be for an organisation to survive and thrive. At the heart of the challenge is generating productive dialogue right across organisations that assist leaders to sense and to respond to internal and external shifts, the pace and magnitude of which are increasing. Trusting relationships are vital in fostering and supporting such conversations and integral to third generation coaching approaches.
eFIRE is a new approach with an energy centre of meaning and purpose and relationships, and a mindset that anchors practice and can contribute to the future development of leadership coaching.
Dr Abbott continued “eFIRE is set up for complexity – that is, for messes. It’s not so useful if you want lose weight or learn French. It’s for messy ‘wicked’ problems where no one really knows which way to go. It aims to gain clarity in complexity and allow participants in the mess to influence the system for positive benefits. Of course, in messes even what is a ‘positive benefit’ is up for dispute!”
Key characteristics of the model that provide its power include:

  • Assumes change is the norm in organisational life
  • Embraces the emergent and unexpected
  • Non-linear – moves back and forth through five elements, noting that VUCA worlds are non-linear, so the coaching model needs to accommodate this
  • Encourages a system and cultural view
  • Takes conversations to deeper levels
  • Works for single and multiple conversations
  • Energy sits in the middle – generated from meaning and purpose, values and relationships
  • Requires a mindset of curiosity and experimentation

“Most leadership coaching models we use in organisations come from life coaching or executive coaching where an outsider with a fresh set of eyes helps someone to enact change of some kind. eFIRE is informed by these models, but takes a perspective of the leader-coach. In using eFIRE, the leader has a point of view which in some cases trumps the point of view of the person being coached. This is the reality of organisational life. As Peter Drucker said, ‘The people with the power make the decisions.’ Paradoxically though, eFIRE hands power to the person being coached – giving control in order to gain it. The energy centre of eFIRE ignites organisational performance as well as positioning individuals for growth – within the context.” said Abbott.
“It also moves away from the idea that there’s one solution to a problem. With complex challenges, the approach is to have a variety of approaches and to seek connections between them and to go where there is traction in a spirit and practice of experimentation. However, there also needs to be an intentional action to ensure focus and progress.”
The eFIRE Model in Practice: The five phases depicted in the model are containers for questions and exploration generated by the context in mind.
Figure 1: The eFIRE Model
Energy from values, purpose and relationships
This fuels the model and provides for the injection of emotional authenticity. The art of leadership coaching is to engage in the conversation in ways that will sustain energy through the process. Human flourishing depends upon people having some higher order purpose. Through how they show up, the questions they ask, and the causes they pursue, leaders have enormous capacity to vary the energy that can ignite organisations – for better or for worse. In practice, if the leader coach notices a shift in energy in the conversation (including in themselves) this is a trigger for curiosity and exploration.
Frame for intention, creative tension and boundaries – with curiosity
Frame sets intention for the scope of the challenge – ‘intention’ is preferened to ‘goal’ to encourage a deeper and more exciting consideration of the issues involved. Coaching is invariably discusses an ideal state that differs from current reality. This is the opportunity for the leader to inspire the coachee to think about how things would be if they were moving towards an ‘ideal’ (at an individual, team or other level). The context of the individual, in the team, in the organisation, in the industry/society is considered and made relevant. Organisational and team strategies, targets and objectives are considered. A process is agreed for moving forward that includes boundaries that both limit and enable – to encourage a systems view.  The leader will use energy questions appropriate to the context.
Inquire through systemic exploration of multiple perspectives
Once a process and direction are understood through Framing, the parties engage in an emergent process of systematic inquiry. A systemic and cultural inquiry engages thinking about what other perspectives are at play in the issue at hand. It would normally start with the Leader exploring the way that the coachee sees the challenge.
Systems thinking methodologies might be used here, or other tools for expanding the perspectives in the conversation. This is where the expertise of the leader and coachee are vital – to bring in instruments, tools, methodologies etc. that are fit-for-purpose. A rich picture is often a good way to begin the probing in this phase. Following a conversation, the coachee might decide to talk to other people and undertake a separate process of inquiry before returning to a new discussion. The leader may have a perspective which is offered as late as possible in the conversation (noting that organisational rules, policies and procedures may determine elements of the inquiry).
Reflect on Exciting Possibilities: using strengths and resources
This phase is concerned with stepping back to reflect on the outcome of the inquiry and working with energy to generate ideas on what could be possible – generating a strength-based change process. The leader calls the discussion back to the systemic and cultural nature of the inquiry. The coachee is challenged to think holistically as he or she engages with the detail of designing possible ways to progress. There are no limits placed here. The leader assists the coachee in finding areas of high and low energy that might inform later decisions about where to place emphasis. The emphasis is on using strengths and resources to address issues, problems, gaps, etc. Energy would typically be higher in this phase. If not, there may be a shift back to earlier stages after some energy inquiry.
Experiment and Execute for maximum impact through intentional action
This phase is when some choices are made about taking action that matches intention. The assumption is that action taken because of systemic inquiry and reflection is likely to have a positive impact – of some kind. An action plan is devised by the coachee that maximises the possibility that positive change will occur toward the ideal state. Note that in complex organisational situations, there are rarely any approaches that offer 100% success so multiple ‘safe-fail’ approaches is often the best strategy. The mode is about experimentation and execution. A monitoring system is embedded in the plan. The approach here is to create a story moving forward – not just an action plan. The story will have interrelationships and nuances that provide some intrigue and uncertainty – though with a strong narrative.
The eFIRE approach also requires leaders to coach from a mindset that will generate productive dialogue and not lead to formulaic approaches that leave conversations on the surface. The elements required are: Growth mindset, Reflective practice, Open, Pragmatic and Paradoxical, Ethical, Relational: (GROPER)
In conclusion, third-generation leadership coaching requires engagement with the idea that everyone in and around an organisation is a relevant actor in the play of organisational and societal sustainability. I’ve proposed that the successful utilisation of third-generation leadership coaching as a strategy for navigating VUCA challenges requires organisational actors to (1) have sound coaching competencies as per accepted industry standards, (2) be conversant with a range of interrelated bodies of knowledge that inform the way that hyper-complexity impacts organisational life, and (3) have an appropriate model and mindset for operationalising the knowledge and skills that they have. The eFIRE approach encapsulates these elements.
About Malcolm Nicholson
Malcolm Nicholson is the owner and Coaching Director for Aspecture, and has worked successfully with a wide range of senior business people for over 17 years, enabling them to improve business results through transformational changes. To find out how he can help your organisation contact him at or on +44 1932 267597.
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