1/18 – Who benefits from vertical development in Russia today?

Feature Articles / January-February 2016

Anastasia Nekrasova and Irina Smirnova

Anastasia Nekrasova

Anastasia Nekrasova


Irina Smirnova

An expanded individual: an end or a means?

Coaching in Russia is a relatively new field. Although in its cradle, developmental coaching awakes curiosity – it seems to have powers to transform people and systems. How do those coaches use this power? Who benefits from the transformations they induce?

This article arose from observing a pattern within the coaching practice in Russia: we coaches seem to be more comfortable working with clients outside their organisational context. At best, we settle with behind-the-scenes coaching and assume that a well-coached client will find ways to deal with her environment accordingly. At times, it feels like we avoid it altogether. Now, why do we do that?

There is a number of valid explanations to the patterns. Some have to do with the state of development of the coaching field as such, in Russia. Others with the present-day state of minds of our clients – managers and leaders. All of it seen through the developmental perspective, makes the questions above really relevant.

These reflections are written in the time when Russia’s economic system is highly politicized, larger state-owned companies experience the economic sanctions imposed by the EU and US, smaller companies fight for existence and civil society organisations are less than active. Russia is involved in wars and conflicts, and how it all ends is more unclear than ever before. The common perception within the coaching community seems to be that one should not expect or aim at any system-level changes, instead focus on what is accessible – individual development – and maybe the impact will somehow, someday spill over on organisation.

By no means do we want to depreciate the pioneering work that Russian developmental coaches do with their clients. They teach them to take holistic approaches to own development; they facilitate personal transformations in many areas of life. Seen in a longer-term perspective, the assumption might be correct – sooner or later, the environment will respond and adjust to advancing consciousness of its inhabitants.

Now, this is rather an exception – most of today’s organisations and institutions seem to be unworthy of their people. And, how long can we wait until the effect shows?

Maybe, the questions we should ask ourselves are:

What impact does our coaching actually produce when we limit our efforts to facilitating individual transformations?
Does developmental coaching have a role to play in transforming our client’s organizations and the society at large?

By writing this article we hope to initiate discussion within the coaching community about the impact our developmental work has or could have, on individuals and organisations in Russia today. Several topics seem to emerge from the developmental coaching practice:

  • Development of individuals towards self-authoring mindsets (Individualist and Strategist[1]) often puts them at disadvantage in their highly conventional and overly political workplaces, and “better” workplace alternatives are close to zero in today’s Russia. What options are available to individuals who realize that they have hopelessly outgrown their organizations, and what are implications of their choice of action?
  • Increase in vertical capacity of individual clients almost never translates into qualitative
    changes in their companies and organisations, with rare exceptions of some few small owner-managed companies. How can we increase the impact of integral / developmental work we do with individual executives, so that it starts to reflect in the development of their organizations?
  • Capacity development work, however little, happens in the domains of individual and, to some extent, of business. None of it has so far come to benefit non-for-profit and civil society organisations while they are truly important in any society. How can we harness the heightened management and leadership capacity that individuals acquire as a result of their development work, for the benefit of a system larger than themselves?

These issues are certainly not unique in the developmental perspective – rather, they are essential to the developmental dynamics of individuals and societies. However, we would like to highlight these issues in the context of developmental challenges of the Russian society today, and get Russian developmental coaches reflect over the role their coaching could play in transforming businesses, organisations, institutions and the society at large.

Maybe it is time we became more conscious of our usefulness, and more purposeful and proactive in making positive shifts happen on the systems level.

Russia: Coaching

Being a relatively recent phenomenon, the concept of coaching is rather vague in the minds of ordinary Russians, and easily confused with consulting, teaching and mentoring. A coach is not yet perceived as a ‘real profession’ – neither in the eyes of the general public not in the eyes of law. In fact, only about 50% of coaches in Russia actually call themselves coaches. [2]

The ICF Russia Chapter is working hard to close the gap by training and certifying coaches. However, coaching (business coaching and executive coaching included) is still far away from boardroom and strategy work as such. A corporate contract is a rare bird in coaching practice in Russia.

Leadership coaching in Russia is in its cradle. The word “leadership” tends to have a negative connotation as a word of “corporate bullshit”, to an extent that even coaches are hesitant to use it. Concepts like “integral”, “vertical”, “conscious”, “sustainable” and “developmental” are still alien words that have no full-volume counterparts in the Russian language. We have a long and exciting journey ahead of us!

While corporate coaching is off the map, other coaching applications are gaining momentum – creative and inspiration coaching, personal and career coaching, spiritual coaching, parental coaching, life coaching and now developmental, or vertical, coaching. Russians are thirsty for personal development. Potentially, we are witnessing a new Renaissance where every human being believes she is potent and able to create any reality she chooses to create. Working as a developmental coach brings enormous satisfaction – seeing a human being develop and transcend her self – and you are a part of it!

To pour some rain on parade, some of us start to reflect over what happens next – when the client is back to her desk and hits the organisational or societal, limits that she personally “transcended”. Let us have a brief look at the developmental dynamics around our clients. This is when “the game of centres-of-gravity” plays out for real!

It especially accentuates in times of crisis and political turmoil – today, the Russian society is experiencing just that. Choices and behaviours of individuals as human beings, executives and business owners, should be seen against that background.

Russia: Context at a glance

The country has entangled itself in a number of regional and global conflicts – the recent ones in Syria and Ukraine. Its economic life is to a significant extent defined by the international sanctions and its own counter-sanctions. Small and medium sized businesses, traditionally underestimated by the state and now totally left on their own devise, are now balancing on the brink of disappearance. Effectively, all “non-core budgets” are cut down to zero, development plans are put on ice indefinitely – survival is on top of the agenda.

Sadly, there is less and less incentive for enterprising individuals to take risks and engage in business activities now that the country-related risks are so high, and the economic space so tight. As an economic category, the middle class in Russia, small and rather fragile as it has been, now faces serious survival issues.  Meanwhile, it is the middle class that is supposed to be the backbone of business and entrepreneurship, and a large source of employment in any economy. At present, even the consuming power of the middle class is severely undermined.

The mental and intellectual climate inside the country is another factor affecting our clients’ prospects and choices. As known, the current political leadership enjoys a wide support of masses, resulting, among other thing, from the annexation of the Crimea. Restauration of the former glory after what is regarded as “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” – the fall of the Soviet Union – is the explicit goal of the state. Big, strong, self-sufficient, a power impossible to ignore or disrespect – a powerful vision!

Back to the future, would many of our clients say. Most of them – executives at top positions – can see the effects of that political leadership in more than this one perspective. However, questioning, or worse, opposing this powerful stream is not likely to do any good to anyone. Somehow, on the genetic level, we Russians all know this.

So where are we developmentally? In the colours of Spiral Dynamics, the political leadership seems to be back in the purple-red, the overwhelming part of the population in the red-blue with rudimental beige, the business is bleeding good orange, and a very pale civil society barely exists. All signs of green are morally (and some, legally) outlawed. Yellow is in disguise. And never before has the generation gap felt like a chasm.

What do you do when you’ve hit the ceiling?

Ironically, a constrained individual experiences a strong urge to grow and develop. Amidst the toxic and distressing reality, she looks for her True Self in order to survive. More and more people seek developmental coaches for facilitating their personal integration work and transition towards self-authored paradigms.

What we actually do, using the Cook-Greuter/Torbert-language, is helping an individual leave the Achiever-paradigm and enter the Individualist-paradigm. In the developmental perspective, this process tends to be releasing and rewarding to both the coach and the coachee.

In a way, it is even addictive. It reinforces our assumption – if we put all your efforts into individuals their environments will adjust. Well, do they adjust? What actually happens to those Individualists as

they come to back to their environments and workplaces where no coaches are welcome or willing to go?

We have seen five “base scenarios” with our Russian clients who, with or without our help, have hit the ceiling and ended up in the Individualist-trap. In the general economic and political context we described above (more about it further below) the choice comes with a high cost – to themselves AND to their systems.

Some (about 20 percent of our client population) explore possibilities for an own business (1). Her business interest and potential is still “on”, however, her current company’s products, services, culture or systems are perceived as outdated, substandard or even immoral. Unfortunately, only few of this type succeeds in starting a business – everyone cannot be an entrepreneur.  Even fewer manage to make it profitable quickly enough to be able to let go if the old unsatisfying job. Most of these brave people want to become “conscious entrepreneurs” and “do well by doing good”. Few succeed – and that despite the unsupporting business and consumer environment. Most of them give up. It comes with a blow to their ego, too – the star-executive-identity is outplayed by the failure-businessman. More work for us coaches to help her heal.

Scenario (2) is staying in the current job and trying to survive. In the client-language it sounds “please help me find balance between what I am and what they want from me”. If we work with an early or solid Achiever, there is more room for a coach – we can help him “fix it” as long as he does not question the existing space. If it is “too late” and the client’s Self rejects this existing space, there is not much a coach can do – that is, if we operate on our main assumption of “not going there”. Sooner or later (and that depends on how long the poor thing perseveres) he gets squeezed out of the organisation. In the meantime, his motivation and productivity are so low that he can hardly be called an asset.

Scenario (3) is withdrawing without leave. This one is available only to tops and owners – those who can “afford it” due to his private wealth and unquestionable formal position. “Downshifting” is getting common among this category of clients. They leave for Goa, spend time in ashrams and collect the world’s wisdom travelling. Coaching such persons can be a treat for a coach – such a client is highly perceptive and the coach does not need to work as hard. It is a rather new phenomenon, so there is no evidence of how strong an asset these people become for the company upon return – many haven’t returned yet.

Scenario (4) is staying and attempting transformation. Late Individualists and Early Strategists, so few that we can name them all, decide to stay and try to do something about it. They have one thing in common – they are unafraid and disburdened of status. Colleagues call them “Desperados” or “Don Quixotes”. Having made a tough ascension in the company, they are now potent and capable. That is if they are allowed to work at their discretion – their “natural enemy” is often their shareholders who in terms of ego development, are at much earlier stages. A good developmental coach can be a great support to the client here – as what he often needs most is a safe and friendly developmental environment, a community of people like himself.

Scenario (5) is extremely rare, the client decides to leave his business altogether and engage in community life. Personal wealth, welfare and a known name, is a prerequisite here. The reason why so few even consider a shift like this, is that it almost automatically means that one has to engage in politics. Politics is a dirty word in Russia, well-deserved. The total distrust to politicians and civil servants (many Russians do not even know the difference) is a strong mental barrier to overcome. Political power is known to corrupt, and very few of us are immune. Many rich businessmen want to do good, “to pay back” to their societies. They engage in charity projects, however, we see no major impact on development of industries or civil society. We have seen no engagement of developmental coaches or integrally informed consultants on this territory in Russia.

A scenario that happens more and more often, is that potent individuals leave Russia altogether. Finding no support, feeling inadequate, not being able to find a job matching their development level, they emigrate and settle down elsewhere. As one famous Russian politician put it: “If we don’t fix the economic prerequisites for the Russian middle class within the next coming year and a half, they will all leave, and we here will be left with oligarchs and huge state owned corporations”.

Let us look at the bigger picture – the politicized Russian society – from the developmental perspective. It might stimulate our thinking into how we can better serve this world in the shape it is now.

Russia: The developmental perspective

The developmental path of Russia as a state, a country, a nation and a society is by all means an exciting object to study.

We have come across the interesting work of Dr. Elke Fein, a social and political scientist at the Universities of Freiburg (Germany) and Basel (Switzerland). For over 20 years Dr. Fein has been personally and academically preoccupied with political and cultural developments in Russia. Her special study interest is Russia’s way of relating to its Soviet past after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In her paper, Elke Fein proposes an integrally informed account of political and cultural change in post-Soviet Russia using an adult developmental theory perspective. Dr. Fein uses numerous theories and models to explore the topic. In this article, we chose to highlight the findings expressed in the language of the framework outlined by Susanne Cook-Greuter who builds on Jane Loevinger’s work on ego development[3].

We decided to give a brief account of Dr. Fein’s findings and appreciate the opportunity to include her work in this writing, as it might have escaped our attention back in 2010. We hope this will challenge our colleagues to expand their scope of perspectives in order to be able to facilitate a larger impact.

Dr. Elke Fein: Adult Development Theory and Political Analysis of Russia

Reflecting on the process of regime transformation in post-Soviet Russia one is struck by what in many respects looks like a move “backwards”, towards illiberalism and authoritarianism. Even though democratic institutions are in place, they seem to function according to non-democratic logics.

Elke Fein claims that Russian politics are still to a significant extent determined by the after-effects of the largely non-digested, multi-dimensional crisis of sense-making (dislocation) connected to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, influencing many aspects of socioeconomic, political, and cultural life.

Dislocations are inherently chances for transformation, development and cultural growth. Re-appropriation – i.e. processing, reflexively evaluating and integrating the experiences on a next level of learning, development, and being – allows to use these chances. However, unless a distance is taken and re-appropriation occurs, the memory and the logics of “old” reasoning and interpretation will continue to determine thinking and action as the only available construction of the real. The deeper a traumatic or the more radical a dislocative experience, the more time, psychic energy, and strength it takes to go through the process of transformation, de-identification, and critical re-appropriation.

Dr. Fein discusses to what extent the three non-digested aspects of this dislocation (collapse of the Soviet state, ideology, and system of political power) are still influential with regard to the three central issues on the social and political agenda of post-Soviet Russia: international status, national identity, and political power/democratic rule.

Neither of these dislocations has so far been resolved and re-appropriated in a transformative manner. Rather, self-protective logics of reasoning and action (as conceived by S. Cook-Greuter, or Opportunist, by W. Torbert) have come to function as a strategy to avoid a messy confrontation with the after-effects of these dislocations.

Dr. Fein gives a brief account of developmental dynamics in the Soviet Union, followed by a more detailed outline of how self-protective logics are at work and functioning in various areas of Russian politics. Reading the examples of events that we know of and remember, through the lens of adult developmental, becomes an insightful journey. It helps to grasp the much broader context in which our clients and their systems are embedded. It is an indispensable perspective for us to assume if we are to support major transformations in Russia.

We shall not retell the stories Dr. Fein analyses, but try to present a high-level overview of how the “design” of the Soviet regime, seemingly modern and universalist, have translated into the actual history of the country and its people, that by many is perceived as obvious regress.

The Soviet regime made appeal to modern, universalist values such as social and political justice, equality, and solidarity, and because of that was admired as a moral ideal by an impressive number of western intellectuals. However, it was organized quite hierarchically – it was an absolutistic regime ruled by truth and dogma. While combatting traditional Russia’s Orthodox culture, it replaced it with a new tradition, communist orthodoxy. So even though the Bolshevik leaders were promoting universalist values and huge modernization projects, they cracked down on opponents with such brutality that clearly indicates that they were not operating from world-centric values themselves. It was an ideological dictatorship, or, in the case of Stalinism, simply a dictatorship of pure personal power. Even though the Bolshevik project did change in character during the second half of Soviet history, it never allowed for “enlightened criticism” and basic freedoms in political culture and consciousness.

Later, by the 1970s and 80s, the Communist Party’s monopoly of truth began to lose its legitimacy. The regime failed to meet its own claims vis-à-vis its population. Instead of social and political justice, the country had experienced extended periods of terror and repressions, instead of equality and solidarity, a deep social gap between the political elite and ordinary citizens, and stagnation in many fields instead of the promised high standard of living.

At the same time, the cultural and political models of modern western countries had already begun to transcend modernity with post-modern values and cultural practices, and were increasingly perceived as economically and politically superior and therefore as attractive alternatives. This is where the gap between “east and west” became noticeable.

During the 1990s, the majority of the population experienced chaos in politics, social and economic degradation, in result of which ideas like democracy, freedom, and market economy were strongly delegitimized. This made it easier for political actors to declare these ideas to be western inventions, foreign and hostile to Russia.

For the first few years of the Yeltsin era, there was a certain consensus with regard to modern or even postmodern values like peaceful conflict resolution, banning state ideologies, and promoting individual rights and freedoms. Many hoped that Russia might take the path of liberal and democratic transformation. However, these values were not rooted firmly enough and lower level mental habits and continuities regained power over the formal liberal and democratic institutions introduced by the first Russian president. Without a broader basis of conscientious or individualist consciousness supporting them, it is no surprise that social and political institutions eventually re-adapted to the (less complex) centre of gravity of public consciousness and political discourse. Concerning present-day Russia, social scientists and politicians therefore almost in unison speak of a return to previous modes and habits of rule.

This also becomes visible in a strong tendency to make others responsible for problems and conflicts while escaping debates about Russia’s own shortcomings and mistakes (clearly observed in the Georgian conflict and now in the Ukrainian one). Russia’s foreign politics seems to perceive and construct the world solely through the lens of Russian needs and wishes instead of taking more complex perspectives, accepting own weaknesses or showing empathy.

There is no room for a more self-critical attitude, for admitting past mistakes and trespasses and eventually coming to terms with them – in other words, for critical re-appropriation and emotional integration of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its imperial relation towards neighbouring states. According to Cook-Greuter, due to hurt feelings of security or to unconfronted angst and trauma, the self-protective identity is usually too weak to allow a more differentiated behaviour.

From a developmental perspective, the answer to why new meaning-making paradigms never take root in Russia, is clear. As integral perspectives stress, in order for higher levels to be maintained, the enduring contributions of the earlier stages must be in place and functioning. Modern (i.e., individualistic, rational, multiplistic) and postmodern (i.e., reflexive, relativistic, pluralist, and post-materialistic) value structures cannot be adopted like an ideology, but have to develop in a process of transcending and integrating all previous, less complex levels of thinking, existence, and motivation. In the course of history where new formations were compelled to destroy the preceding ones “to the root”, the developmental path gets badly distorted.

Dr. Fein summarizes that the “regression” of the dominant action logic of Russian politics to a self-protective level is, on the one hand, a reaction to Russia’s failure to reach and materialize a mature and “healthy” traditionalism in the Soviet Union (which wanted to achieve socialist modernity not by transcending but by destroying pre-Soviet traditions). On the other hand, self-protection is also a strategy of the current regime to avoid critical self-reflection, putting into question dear habits and privileges, and taking over responsibility for past mistakes and crimes committed in the name of the Soviet regime. Unfortunately, this also means avoiding a more thorough and integrative cultural and political transformation.

While the regime currently in place seems to enjoy the support of large sections of the population, preferring stability and prosperity to liberty and democracy, the question still arises what all those interested in Russia eventually moving upward on the scale of development could do to encourage and support this.

What’s in it for us?

We consider Dr. Fein’s work important for two reasons. First, it outlines a larger developmental context – that of contemporary Russia – for us to become aware of the conditioning patterns of a higher level of complexity than the ones we contextually assume when working with our clients. This external perspective on our system is developmentally valuable for us coaches – being embedded in it makes it difficult for us Russians in Russia, to see it properly.

Second, equipped with this larger perspective, a developmental coach can become a powerful asset to the client involved in larger societal transformations. Clients with a later-stage centre of gravity are often in need of an inquiry partner who can help her use her advanced capabilities for producing a larger-scale impact. Most of developmental coaches are themselves “later-stage people” and hope that an opportunity arises for them to participate in really meaningful transformations.

So what can we do?

We might want to start with reflecting on the main assumption of coaching as such – do not come uninvited, follow the client’s inquiry. In coaching, it is the client who sets the agenda, and the coach provides perspectives. The question is: are we prepared to be there when the expanded individual hits the larger perspective that he is not invited into?

Coaching is to induce action that moves the client from the present state to the desired state. What if achieving his desired state is not possible within the present limits of the system?

The question suddenly comes back to ourselves: how big is my world? What is the territory I am prepared to walk as a developmental coach?

Essentially, coaching presupposes one-on-one interaction with the client, although we see contexts where small-group coaching is successful. However, even in group settings the focus of intervention is mostly individuals or the “space between them”. We know how to induce the upper-quadrants shifts – expand mental models and consequently, behaviours and choices of the individuals we coach. We assume that this is where we should be and we do it well.

The question is: are we prepared to help our clients to work on the lower – collective – quadrants? How many later-stage Russian clients of ours have the potential for leading organisational transformations, but feel helpless in the face of the opportunistic system they are “doomed” to live in?

Paraphrasing the politician above: “If we stay with our main assumption and do not engage in fixing the structures and cultures of the system, what are we left with?”

One might say that it is not a coach’s task – to challenge and change systems. A coach is the enabler, a resource to our hero. Well, maybe it is time we challenge this idea. Robert Kegan said: “Some people want to put Christ back into Christmas; I want to put development back into leadership development.” Talking about impact of developmental coaching we need to put much more attention to “development” than “coaching”.

The overwhelming majority of developmental coaches in the post-Soviet space are integrally informed, late-stage people with great transformation potential. Let us work on expanding systems, not only individuals. Well, we probably won’t be called ‘coaches’ anymore, so what? Probably, we won’t be able to call our efforts ‘business’ anymore, who knows?

We need to start caring about our system, find energy and courage to work on it. We can expand our impact area by, for instance, putting efforts into creating support systems for conscious business in our country. An example can be creating Sustainable Business Labs for companies in Ukraine that some of us are actively involved in as we speak.

Investing our knowledge and energy in creating meaningful environments for Individualists and Strategists who feel uncomfortable and inable in their organisations, is another way to engage. Cross-sectoral action inquiry groups is a good form for that. Disillusioned ‘Don Quixotes” and “downshifters” will certainly appreciate such environments, and might actually return to their organisations and transform them.

We can do good work on the system that does not know its best, without making revolutions or starting battles we can’t win. Let us take a good, integral look at the system and assume a larger responsibility for it. After all, we are not alone.

Anastasia Nekrasova, Intelligent Mindsets, Stockholm-Moscow-Kiev

Irina Smirnova, Coach Institute, St. Petersburg- Moscow

December, 11, 2015

About the Authors

 Anastasia Nekrasova, Intelligent Mindsets, Sweden

MSc in linguistics and pedagogy from Arkhangelsk Pomor University in Russia

MBA in general management at Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden

Anastasia’s professional interest lie in sphere of international business development and business education. She started her own consultancy in Russia back in late 1990s, Runa Business Support, that assisted many Nordic companies in their internationalisation efforts in Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic countries. Since 2010, Anastasia has been exploring ways to apply integral and adult development theories in the domains of business and leadership. Besides, she explores how cultural intelligence (CQ) supports the development of transformation capacity of individuals and organisations.

Anastasia: “I strongly believe that God created each of us in his image and likeness, that is, gave us creative power to become whatever version of ourselves we choose to become. I see my part in helping people and businesses unfold in a conscious manner. An eternal learner myself, I work for spreading the powerful knowledge about the integral and adult development, to all who want or need to grow. That is why I translated the Harthill Leadership Development Profile (The LDP) into Russian back in 2012. Since then, I have established collaborations with other integral and developmental consultants in the Russian-speaking space. Especially now, in times of turbulence and crises in my thee home countries—Russia, Ukraine and Sweden—we can bring extremely useful integral perspectives into growing sustainable societies and companies.”

Anastasia is mainly based in Stockholm, Sweden.

Contact email: anastasia@intelligentmindsets.com

Intelligent Mindsets


Irina Smirnova

Coaching consultant of the Moscow branch of St. Petersburg Coach Institute; facilitator of organizational development sessions; lecturer at the PwC Academy.

“Main requests that I come across are the requests for development, transition, support of businesspeople and top managers in the conditions of uncertainty and turbulence (that have both internal causes such as psychological crises and external causes such as economy and politics). These are the topics that interest me; I believe them to be very important for leaders, their teams and companies today. We entered a situation where our knowledge base has stopped working. You can only rely upon yourself. So, you should be ready for changes and fluctuations.

For the past several years I have relied upon the integral approach and the framework of vertical development of leaders, both in my personal growth and in supporting individual clients and teams. At the moment I believe these directions to be the most complete and effective.”

Contact email: smirnova@coachinstitute.ru

Coach Institute



[1] As defined by S. Cook-Greuter and B. Torbert

[2] Coaching Market Survey, Russia, Julia Chukhno, 2012, ICF Russia Chapter

[3] Cook-Greuter, S. (2007). Ego development: Nine levels of increasing embrace.

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