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James Pritchard was born in South Oxfordshire. He joined the Oxford Brookes Business School in 2013 and his thesis title is 'Coaching for Mindful Action'.
I went to school in Oxford, so was aware of Oxford Brookes from a young age. It was the Oxford Polytechnic at that stage and so I have watched it grow in status and reputation.
The International Centre for Coaching and Mentoring Studies has a worldwide reputation and I was aware of the excellent work being done here through my professional life as a coach. I also had friends who worked in the Business School and so had plenty of inside knowledge!
My career has been varied. I qualified as an engineer and completed a PhD in engineering, exploring the properties of carbon materials used in experimental aircraft brakes (primarily Concorde and the Harrier Jump Jet). These brakes have evolved over the years and are now even available in some high performance road cars. From there I had a career in the oil industry, starting in engineering jobs, building and maintaining cross-country oil pipelines, but rapidly moving into strategy and then the testing of lubricants. Through this work, I became aware of the importance of working relationships and teamwork that could make or break a project, even if the individuals were first class. I developed an interest in coaching and had a coach myself (quite radical then!). After a couple of years working with a coach, I left Exxon and set up a business providing executive coaching and consultancy. Five years ago, I went full circle and returned to employment. Most of the week I work as a Civil Servant, developing and leading the coaching and mentoring offer for 450,000 Civil Servants across the world. Although my research work is part-time, it benefits from the access and experience I gain through my civil service work and vice-versa.
In many ways the research environment is familiar, but compared to my engineering research, the topic is ‘softer’ so requires a very different methodological approach from the hard, quantitative science I was used to. This has been a challenge to long-held belief systems and is generally a healthy process that re-calibrates my view of the world. The other challenge is in balancing priorities between my research, my day job, other part-time yoga teaching work and family life. Support from my supervisory team, Professor Tatiana Bachkirova and Dr Karen Handley, has been fantastic, through my rather odd working pattern. I have also very much appreciated library staff, who always seem happy to answer questions about the intricacies of EndNote.
As well as working as an executive coach for 25 years, I have been teaching Iyengar Yoga for over a decade. For much of that time, I have been struck by the connections between yoga, coaching and leadership. This research explores the application of yoga practice in coaching leaders, in order to help them be more mindful in their actions. Yoga is an integrated system, where the various aspects of practice; postures, breathing, stillness and meditation are interrelated and supported by the underlying structural laws and rules for life outlined in the early texts on yoga.
Yoga practice is a means of self-exploration – a set of tools or methodology for observing our inner workings and increasing our understanding of where our thoughts come from, the nature of mind and consciousness and the consequences of our actions in the world. The physical postures of yoga offer us an opportunity for challenging ourselves; creating a circumscribed event where we can explore the action and reaction within us and how that enables or inhibits a particular result in the outer world of the physical body. This helps us understand how our actions as leaders translate to the wider world.
Most of us have experienced, in ourselves or in others, the frustration of rushing round in circles creating activity, where a pause to think or to listen might have been more helpful. The mindfulness brought by yoga practice, together with the opportunity to be challenged and reflect through coaching, can bring a different quality to leadership. In this way, yoga is a form of action enquiry into the nature of our leadership. The microcosm of the self and the need to differentiate motion from action reflects the leader’s question of how to take transformative action rather than simply expend energy through motion. In this way it avoids us either acting without thinking, or being frozen into inactivity, through over-thinking.
The approach to the research is to introduce some simple yoga practice into my coaching sessions with senior leaders. The clients who collaborated in this research also completed some home practice and kept a reflective journal of their experiences. Leading on from this first stage, the second stage of research, underway at the moment, brings in experienced coaches who I have instructed in using the simple yoga protocols as part of coaching sessions with their own clients. Different styles of yoga posture are said to influence the consciousness in different ways, so a tailored programme can help each individual client to see their situation more clearly.
My working schedule means that I can seldom come to events and meet with other students, but I really appreciate the opportunity when I can. The range of research topics and personal backgrounds are varied, but the passion each student brings to their work is common. I find each conversation brings something unexpected and teaches me something new.
The research methods summer school was a great opportunity to spend time with other students and share ideas and experiences, as well as a discipline in expressing ideas to an intelligent audience, from very different backgrounds. This is great practice in concisely expressing the essence of your work.
This project is a vehicle for my learning in the next few years and an opportunity to explore yoga philosophy and practice and its application to today’s challenges. This is endlessly fascinating and I can see the work becoming a more central part of my working life as I withdraw from employment. For the moment I am more than fully occupied in completing the research.