A conversation with Neil Edwards, MPH, PCC, CPCC, NBC-HWC, ORSCC
For Neil Edwards, fulfillment in life and optimal performance can only emerge from a place of well-being. As a practicing coach, CRR Global faculty member and host of The Leadership Range podcast, Neil shares his experience and insights to help leaders become more relationally intelligent, positive, productive, and change agile. He incorporates spiritual warriorship in supporting leadership and advocating for a more inclusive world.
In his very early days working in physical and cardiac rehabilitation and health counseling, Neil realized the success or failure of his clients was tied to the systems around them. Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC™) was one of the first coaching modalities he drew on as he expanded his services from physical fitness and wellness training to a holistic support of leaders and larger systems.
In addition to holding a Master of Public Health degree from the University of South Carolina-Columbia and a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Physiology from Boise State University, Neil is a highly qualified coach. Along with his ORSCC credential, he is certified in Social+Emotional Intelligence, in Team Performance (CTPC), as a CoActive Coach (CPCC), and as a wellbeing coach (NBC-HWC).
In this conversation, Neil reveals how Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™) assists him in his work at the intersection between relationship, leadership, wellbeing and inclusion.
On what intrigues him
As far back as my memory goes, I recall having a deep observational curiosity about the dynamics between people - what makes us behave as we do, and what drives our interactions in either positive or negative ways. I've always had a belief that people want to do good. Nobody really wants to suffer. People want joy, happiness, connection, acceptance - they want all those sorts of things. Sometimes we don't know how to get it, or how to be it, and we may even do things that produce exactly the opposite.
I've always been fascinated by that. The question is how to produce fulfilling lives through the relationships we have, because we're always in some kind of relationship.
In my career, I've supported people’s development through rehabilitation, physical well-being or athletic performance, change management, actualization or some kind of connection work. I started out in physical fitness, wellness and cardiac rehabilitation. It expanded over time to a wider view that included how to create the conditions required for people to thrive and be well all around. I have done a lot of management consulting and change management work, helping people move from the reality of today to the reality of tomorrow while feeling whole, connected and engaged.
To describe my work broadly, I develop leaders. I support people and advocate for a more inclusive world - whether I'm doing strategic work in an organization, coaching an individual leader one-on-one as an executive coach, working with teams, or advancing a culture of belonging.
On when he's most on purpose
I’m truly on purpose when I'm acting in service of others who are marginalized or made to suffer unfairly as a result of that marginalization, and when I'm acting to dismantle those systems and structures that support this violation of human rights.
Oppression and marginalization destroy human dignity. That is something my soul just doesn't tolerate. My purpose is basically to be a catalyst that ignites fulfillment and worthiness for all humanity. It’s a positive way of fighting against suffering.
If he were to name his superpower
At my best I am able to create an environment where people feel safe to express themselves, or aspects of themselves they are afraid will be harmed. My ability is to stay calm and create a place that feels safe, and to do that in the context of conflict and areas that are edgy.
On what inspires him
I consider myself an athlete because of my younger years as a competitor. I was pretty active in a lot of sports. I always want to watch the Olympics - to see the athletes when they lose, when they win, when they break world records. There's something very human about great performances. I've experienced what it's like to push the body to its limits day-in and day-out, repeatedly, to just gain a quarter of an inch in distance or less than a 10th of a second in time. In the moment when you achieve it, there's a thrill that comes with the experience. It seems like such a tiny achievement, but such a tremendous amount of work had to go into it.
I get inspiration from amazing athletic performances and from precision performances like incredible music, artistry or innovation that blows your socks off. It shows us the impossible is possible.
Nature is pretty inspiring as well. We take ourselves so seriously, then we just realize how powerful life itself is. These things take us to our edges - the edges of humanity, the edges of life.
On spiritual warriorship
Over the span of my life, I've come to deepen my well and understanding of spirituality. We as humans find a channel to connect to something beyond us, that is greater than us and connects all of us. Many of us find some pathway, whether through religion or some other spiritual path. Where I'm at right now comes out of the evolution of that spiritual space that we might call spiritual warriorship. Ultimately, it boils down to coming from a place of love. Know thyself and love thyself, so that you can be in right relationship with yourself, others and the world around you. I believe it requires spiritual warriorship to do that.
On becoming a coach
I had a fitness and wellness business supporting individuals, a high-end, white glove service, and a notion of supporting the lowest common denominator for my clients. This guiding principle meant when a person came to us, we were going to support their whole family. I realized we needed more skills and tools that would call people into being their best selves. They couldn't be completely dependent on us, telling them what to do. It needed to come from them. I wanted to create an environment where they were active participants in their futures. That's when I learned about professional coaching as we know it today, versus the coaching I did way back when I was coaching in health and wellness. My original coach training was at the Co-Active Training Institute.
On the second day of my first coach training course, I saw a brochure describing ORSC. It was a clear illustration to me of what I had dreamed about, and I knew in that moment that was what I was going to do. It was an answer to a question and a revelation of imagery and concepts that I had in my head already.
What piqued his interest in ORSC
When I was in graduate school, I was doing one-on-one health and wellness coaching with individuals who were diagnosed or at high risk for various cardiovascular diseases. I found the individuals who had more success allowed me to coach their families. In order for them to change, the system that they lived in needed to change - spouse, partner, children, everything. I saw the data, and I saw the success of it.
That’s when I started thinking about whole systems. You're never really coaching just a single person. I thought - if we could do this at a family level, or in a neighborhood, a community, a city, a state or nation - then we could really change the world. How do you work with whole systems? I got lost in that, not knowing where to go. I started formulating things over many years, just working on my own with that notion in my head. When I saw that brochure, I knew exactly what I was looking at, and that it was for me.
On his favorite ORSC tools
ORSC has so many tools. I don't know if there's a favorite. For individuals, there’s the My Land visualization. I have a longtime client, screenwriter and author of books and short stories. I used that tool early to support getting beyond writer's block and expand creativity.
For organizations, given where we are right now in the world I would say Lands Work, Roles, and Secret Selves. In corporate America, whether you’re working with leaders or teams, there's so much energy around inclusivity, leadership and working across differences such as race and gender. The tools in that space are really effective in creating a context for people to model the kind of conversations they need to have, to visit another point of view without losing their own identity, blending with others, and creating something new that lets you move forward with what's better for everybody.
On what's lighting him up right now
One initiative I'm working on right now is through a non-profit organization called EthicalCoach, in partnership with the Justice Innovation Lab. The partnership is seeking to use data to identify potential racial bias in historical prosecutorial decisions. Part of the initiative involves inclusive leadership coaching focused on increasing awareness of potential racial biases among prosecutors. It’s about coaching attorneys in powerful positions around potential racial biases in their decision-making to effect outcomes for black people in their jurisdiction. The work really is intended to help address systemic and structural racism.
Over eighty percent of criminal cases and convictions and incarcerations happen at the local level through prosecutorial decision-making. Increasing awareness of racial bias at that level - creating the space and opportunity for lawyers to reflect on their own racial biases and perhaps influence how they make decisions in the legal system - it’s a big deal. I'm volunteering and co-leading that project and supporting a number of other coaches to do the same. It’s a combination of one-on-one executive coaching of these leaders and team coaching. The preliminary feedback we're seeing is increased openness and awareness, and a willingness to see things differently through the lens of others who are marginalized.
It's my purpose, doing work to dismantle systems that marginalize or oppress people. If I'm working against that adversary to create a more just, equitable and kind world, then that is my world work. That's what this is for me. I could be on a board of directors somewhere. I can donate, and I do that. But this is a direct, nearly front-line impact on whether or not a marginalized person is treated justly.
On his Living Corporate podcast
Living Corporate, a media platform with multiple podcasts, was created by Zachary Nunn. It's intended to elevate the voices of black and brown professionals in corporate America. It responds to questions that support black professionals who perhaps are first-generation black or African Americans in corporate spaces. They are learning to navigate it, really seeking out information and support in how to do it. They are not necessarily getting that mentorship or support in a predominantly white corporate space. It's a struggle. Zach invited me to do a podcast, and so I sit on that platform.
Coaching was born out of privilege to serve privilege, and it is framed in a very privileged way. Right now, the coaching profession is trying to do a lot of things to adjust that reality in how coach training is delivered, how coaching happens, and who has access to coaching. There are more and more black coaches and other coaches of color out there, but still comparatively few. Like in most other spaces, coaching in a corporate space can be a privilege associated with being white and having access to the relationships that get you work. Black and brown people don't have that. It's just the truth.
"The Leadership Range," which is the name of my podcast, is about all things - leadership, relationships and teams, wellbeing, and inclusion. It’s also intended to elevate the voices of black and brown coaches and people who support them. So far it's working out and I think there's a lot of room to grow.
With the social unrest in the United States, allyship as a verb has become popular lately. The problem I've had with allyship is that it has become a set of declarations. It is very performative. It’s being used in public relations and marketing, and in some ways is just propaganda. You [companies and people in the majority] need to say that you're an ally. If you say it enough times, people believe it.
The thing that's been missing for me around allyship is the relationship. That's really where I come from when I talk about it. Whether you have a corporation making declarations about what they're going to do to support antiracism or combat any form of oppression, or an individual, these things are usually happening in the absence of any relationship with the person they would want to ally. It just makes no sense.
By definition, an allyship requires a relationship to be in place and agreements to be made. What has happened now in the public discourse is you can just choose to be an ally and do what you want to do from a distant, privileged position. It's counterproductive. There is no accountability.
As ORSC practitioners, we know relationship is required. We know that agreements are required. We know that alignment is required around the culture you want to create in that relationship. What would make it thrive? How do you be with and work with each other when there's conflict or difference?
None of these declarations have any of that.
There's a patience that's required. Corporations need to make declarations and prove very quickly that they're on the right side of history, so they just pump money in and make big declarative statements.
This work requires more intentionality, patience and conversation. Who do we need to be in conversation? Where do we need to co-create? What we are going to do? How do you know what's needed? When you design an allyship, there is oppression and marginalization. You need to understand something about it. Where it comes from, why it exists and what agreements you're going to have in the relationship to dismantle the very thing that is creating the oppressive environment. If you really want to change things, that conversation needs to center around what you want the relationship to be. It needs to center around an acknowledgment that there is a power differential, where that power exists, and what the relationship expects around how that power is used. There's a rank differential also.
To have a real conversation, look at what is perceived or real in the relationship and what those differences are, because it's asymmetrical. Design around it. Have some expectations that are behavioral, that are observable, that are measurable, so that you can hold yourself accountable. If someone from a position of power, privilege and rank makes declarations and there are no accountabilities, and there's no measurement by those who are being oppressed and no co-agreements around that, it’s empty. It just maintains the status quo.
On making coaching truly inclusive
Collectively, training organizations are looking at how they train coaches, and ways to improve the inclusiveness of the language that's used and the thoughtfulness around what is actually possible.
A simple thing - you know, we coaches have clients dream about the life that they want. Some people in positions of greater privilege can actually do things and manifest that life with relative ease compared to others who are not near the apex of power, privilege and rank. That is an intersectional reality, whether it's gender, nationality, stature, race, anything like that. Coaching needs to address that better.
I think coach training organizations are starting to do that - looking at competencies of coaches and cultural competency, and what ought to be included in the markers to be a professional coach. Marketing and communicating to more diverse audiences to invite people to become trained coaches. Who is showing up as a coach educator is beginning to move. I'm a coach educator with CRR Global. I never had a black person in front of the room training me.
The system of referrals - this one's hard because it's personal, and a prototype bias shows up. Why give referrals to white coaches? Nothing against it. The question is who do you help by default?
Coaching is a profession where there is some expectation of higher consciousness. When we talk about diversity, inclusion, and particularly race, it's a very sensitive topic. Here's something that I notice, and I think it needs to change. It starts from the inside out, I can share this here because this is a coaching context, and this is the relationship systems context. Sometimes this notion of shame is brought up by the white majority when the conversation about race comes up and there's any implication that bias exists with the white majority.
It is gaslighting behavior, saying you shamed me - making shaming a verb and not recognizing that shame is something you feel. You may feel shame. That's not bad or good. What happens is that flop, this cartwheel, becomes a verb. You as a marginalized person did it to me. That is how power privilege and rank is used. It’s important for coaches to really examine when and where that happens.
There's inner work and personal reflection that would be useful in coaching, if coaches are going to be productive participants in shifting this narrative.
One non-profit organization called Coaching for Everyone, is designed to provide coach training and certification for black and indigenous people of color. They have a lot of traction, and I think that's wonderful. It provides economic access to great coach training which is cost-prohibitive for many.
A lot of coach organizations are taking a stance and and committing to being antiracist organizations. There is a lot of great work emerging.
On his heroes
My maternal grandmother and my mother are my heroes. They both faced a lot of adversity in their lives and relationships, and somehow they're both able to maintain an incredible commitment to their faith and their personal integrity while still being practical about life. They spent a lot of time understanding themselves, and they understand that there's some singular divine presence that binds all of us. They are both spiritual warriors. They inspire me and I'm humbled by them.
And Gandhi and Nelson Mandela because of the work that they did in their nations to really liberate their countries. Everybody knows what they did.
On showing up in antiracism work
I tend to give a lot of grace. I speak directly about what needs to happen, what I think is wrong, what I think is right. There's work happening that hopefully continues to move us to become a more just and kind society.
Listening or viewing
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