What is Leadership Coaching?

Coaching is a fast growing and increasingly widely accepted professional activity, both within organisations as executive, leadership or management coaching and within society in general as life coaching.

Yet coaching is in the early stage of development as a professional practice and discipline, without well defined boundaries and with an immature knowledge base. Coaching is currently many different things to different people, and the scope of what we call leadership coaching is a relatively specialised part of this. For this reason it is important to create some distinctions between what we are engaged in and all coaching.

There is naturally an on-going battle for the high ground in terms of defining, developing and governing the profession, with different national and international bodies offering accreditation standards and structures for coaches. Everyone with an interest in the subject will tend give their own definition of coaching and their view of what constitutes good professional practice.

Rather than creating our own professional code of practice, we have closely aligned ourselves to APECS and adhere to their Ethical Guidelines. APECS are a natural partner for us, as they represent the mature and serious minded end of the coaching market, and their philosophy of personal and professional development is similar to ours.

Rather than attempting to create a water-tight definition which can limit the scope of coaching unnecessarily, we prefer to highlight some key principles that are also shared by others

So what do we mean by coaching? It is…

  • a supportive, enabling and empowering relationship and activity that honours the autonomy, resourcefulness, creativity and responsibility of the client
  • is goal, future or outcome oriented in purpose, and yet can include working with the client in the domains of past, present or future
  • is usually a one-to-one relationship and activity between a coach and a coaching client, which takes place within a contextof confidentiality and trust
  • is appropriate for anyone who is what the psychological profession calls a ‘healthy neurotic’and is not suffering from serious psychopathological conditions
  • can encompass the inner and outer dimensions of people’s lives and work; the personal and the practical aspects of business; psychological and behavioural perspectives; physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels ofthe clients experience

and leadership coaching…

  • takes place within an organisational context involving multiple clients, usually this means a coaching sponsor as well as individual coaching clients
  • focuses on leadership as a calling and orientation rather than as a formal role – we can all be leaders to some extent within our roles in work or life in general
  • can involve working with individuals and teams as part of an organisational system
  • can encompass multiple agendas and issues, including those of performance, behaviour, change, development, purpose, meaning and crisis

There are some key situational principles that are also important to be aware of. The nature and scope of the work that is possible in leadership coaching is determined by three things; the professional capability and personal capacity of the coach; the development, openness and availability of the client; and the nature of the needs and issues they bring. Different coaches can work at a greater or lesser level of depth, involving emotional, personal and psychological issues and material depending upon their training, skills and experience.

Attempting to draw an arbitrary line between coaching and therapy in terms of the human content or territory that can be involved (e.g. ‘therapy deals with emotions and the past’) is unhelpful and muddle-headed– the difference between coaching and therapy is primarily about the context, purpose and method of the work. However, at the same time, the coach must only work in territory within which they are competent and confident. This includes being attuned to reading their client and their openness and availability to working at different levels. Coaching works best when there is some self-awareness to work with and a willingness to learn through the coaching relationship. The agenda that clients bring is also critical, although the coach must be aware that more fundamental issues may lie beneath presenting issues and seek to uncover these.

Finally, the match between coach and client is also important. Typically coaches work best with coachees for whom they are grounded in the stage of development that the coachee is evolving towards (for example, using the Leadership Development Framework, a coach centred at Achiever is a good fit with a coachee centred in Expert but who’s goals imply a shift towards Achiever). Obviously this is tricky territory and assessing someone’s development is a complex art at best, but it is also relatively easy to sense when a mismatch between coach and client exists.