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Sir John Whitmore - the father of business coaching

Empowerment Coaching Krakow Blog-Sir John Whitmore-Short-Biography

Sir John Whitmore died on April 28, 2017, at the age of 79. The legacy he has left behind in the fields of coaching, mentoring, leadership development, and organizational change is undoubtedly invaluable. The list of awards with which he was awarded during his lifetime is given at the end of this column.

He is the co-creator of the GROW coaching model (short for Goal, Reality, Options, Will), which has been recognized as the foundation of business coaching. He was the creator of the concept of Performance Coaching, which has forever entered the business world. He described the essence of his concepts in the book Coaching for Performance, which has become the bible of business coaching. To date, it has been published in over one million copies and translated into over 20 languages.

Sir John Whitmore's book has influenced my life as well. It was thanks to him and subsequent certification in the British organization Institute for Leadership & Management (ILM) that I started regular coaching practice.

Sir John Whitmore - short biography

Before we move on to Sir John's work and achievements, it is worth mentioning first his lordship ancestry, childhood, and what he himself put forward as a reason for participating in motor racing.

John Whitmore - childhood and youth

John inherited the title of Lord from his father. And as it happens in such British families, his childhood and youth looked "standard": a very good upbringing and the best schools (including Eton College and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst). Ahead of him, there was noble life in the class of British aristocracy.

And here's a surprise. At 21, Sir John "catches the car bug" and starts competing in the Le Mans 24 motor racing.

He himself explained it this way:

I did it because I did not love myself. I was insignificant in the shadow of my successful high-profile parents. Of course, I was quite unaware of this at the time. I needed to prove myself somehow, demonstrate that I could make something of myself.

Doesn't that sound like a good topic for a coaching contract these days?

Sir John has raced the Le Mans 24 Hours race five times. In 1959, when he drove one of the first Lotus Elite cars with Jim Clark, they took second place in their class. That same year, he also competed in the Silverstone May International race, making it to the front row of Stirling Moss, Colin Chapman, and Roy Salvadori. He took fifth place in the general classification and second in his class.

But he gained real fame when he was racing a Mini car. In 1961, he bought a well-worn rally Mini for £ 350, painted it green, and competed in the British Limousine Championship. Against all odds, he won!

It was only after this victory that Whitmore's mother told his father (who had six months to live) that their son had become a racing driver. Following his father's death in 1962, Sir John inherited the Orsett estate, the title of baronet, and became known as the "racing baronet," although he had always downplayed his aristocratic roots. Maybe because Orsett Hall didn't become the property of the Whitmore family until his grandfather's day - as an honorary debt in a high-stakes card game.

Four years later, in 1966, Sir John hung up his racing helmet, sold the family property to his friend Tony Morgan, and moved to Switzerland and later California. His competitive spirit has led him to race famous Hollywood actors on motorbikes. He competed with Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, and McQueen's stuntman Bud Ekins. All of this took place on the famous Mulholland Drive, which was little more than a dirt road at the time.

He also directed the film, and in private time shared an apartment with racing legends Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, and had many adventures with his friend Steve McQueen. And later on, he became a regular columnist for The Daily Telegraph's automotive column.

What is worth emphasizing as a summary of this period of life is his statement that he attributed successes and ideas on how others could achieve their goals in life to the desire to break with the assumptions and traps of the military and aristocratic environment in which he was born and raised.

In the future, Sir John will return to racing again. This was in 1990 when he was invited to drive the McLaren M8F Can-Am. He will run three times. He will be third in the first race, second in the second, and in the third race ... will win!

Sir John Whitmore - the story of "real" business

After leaving the world of motorsport, Sir John developed an interest in transpersonal psychology and its influence on themes of free will, intention, or responsibility. In 1970, he studied at the Esalen Institute in Slates Hot Springs, California, the birthplace of the human potential movement, and then trained with Harvard educator and tennis expert Timothy Gallwey, creator of the famous method of working with athletes called The Inner Game.

Gallwey's peculiar philosophy centered on the basic belief that the greatest obstacle to achieving a championship in sports was the negative thoughts going on in the athlete's mind. The work of the trainer was not meant to instruct in the traditional sense (thus complicating matters even more), but to help in getting rid of the clutter of the mind in the first place.

In 1979, Sir John returned to England and founded with several Gallwey-trained coaches The Inner Game affiliate. He created a tennis school as well as a ski school in the Alps, undaunted even by the fact that he once spent about five weeks in an artificially induced coma after a ski accident at 60 miles per hour. Initially, Sir John's team coached tennis players and skiers, but they quickly realized the value of the method for business leaders and managers.

John Whitmore created the GROW Coaching Model and the concept of Performance Coaching

Based on the sports coaching techniques developed by Tim Gallwey in The Inner Game, Sir John coined the term Performance Coaching to describe this self-directed learning process and to distinguish it from sports coaching. This is how the foundations of modern business coaching were born.

Gallwey wrote about him in his book:

John and I were friends and colleagues since we met in the 1970s. I was immediately impressed by his spirit and commitment to the fact that people, not systems, were the answer. He has always been a visionary and one to question that the status quo was good enough. John became a leader in the field of how coaching can change corporate culture in a way that could have a positive impact in the world. John started with himself and was not after name recognition but real changes in people’s lives. He considered himself the common man taking responsibility as he saw the need.”

In the early 1980s, Sir John joined forces with David Hemery and David Whitaker to form Performance Consultants. They were pioneers in the field of Performance Coaching, including leadership and management training programs. Performance Consultants has become a leading global provider of solutions in the areas of coaching, leadership development, and improving performance at work. Its list of leading clients includes companies such as British Airways, AstraZeneca, Deloitte, Barclays, Rolls-Royce, and Roche.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Sir John spent time developing methodologies, concepts, and techniques to improve organizational performance. He adapted The Inner Game theory to create a business training model called The GROW Model, which he popularized in the aforementioned book Coaching for Performance. Since its first release in 1992, this book has been recognized as a groundbreaking work and a #1 Bestseller in many categories: Management, Business Team Management Skills, Business Coaching, Mentoring Skills, and Human Resource Management. In addition to this groundbreaking book, he wrote 4 more.

I think it is a good time to quote one of Sir John's quotes now, showing his far-sighted gaze:

We must see people in terms of their future potential, not their past performance

The challenge for coaches - transpersonal coaching

And maybe that's why he challenged the coaches to play for a bigger game in the world. "Coaching is more than training," he explained, urging them to become more aware of wider changes happening around the world and taking responsibility for introducing these facts into the coaching conversation. To shake up traditional business thinking.

In addition to paving the way to transforming the business from within, Sir John has created Transpersonal Coach Training for experienced coaches so that they can base their work on deeply established values and, as a result, help their clients create deep and lasting change.

Quotes from Sir John Whitmore

In closing, let's stay with Sir John's thoughts, which I hope will be a great inspiration. After all, coaching is primarily to "force" reflection and expand awareness.

  • Coaching focuses on future possibilities, not past mistakes

  • Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance

  • We must take our responsibility, and help others to do the same; we don’t have all the answers but we can help others to find theirs

  • Whether we coach, advise, counsel, facilitate, or mentor, the effectiveness of what we do depends in large measure on our beliefs about human potential. The expressions “to get the best out of someone” and “your hidden potential” imply that more lies within the person waiting to be released

  • To get the best out of people, we have to believe the best is in there – but how do we know it is, how much is there, and how do we get it out?

Sir John Whitmore's Awards and Merits

  • In 1992, together with David Clutterbuck and 3 others, he founded one of the most famous coaching and mentoring organizations in the world, EMCC (short for European Mentoring & Coaching Council).

  • The British newspaper Independent named him the Best Business Coach

  • He was involved in the founding (2003) and development of the American ICF (International Coaching Federation), for which later, in 2007, he was awarded the ICF President's Award

  • In 2008 he received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Business Administration of the renowned University of East London (UEL) for his contribution to the development of the coaching profession

  • The International Association of Coaching (founded in the USA in 2003) recognized him in 2013 as the person with the greatest influence on the coaching profession in the world.


If you feel like it, you can listen to Sir John's life story told in his own words. That's 55 minutes of the live interview. I strongly encourage you to spend 2 minutes of your time watching the beginning of the story. I think these 2 minutes will make a difference.


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