Executive Coaching or Leadership Coaching?

Published by matt on

14th July 2016

A few months back at an APECS evening event, a discussion arose about whether Executive Coaching was still the best description of what members of APECS did, or whether Leadership Coaching might be a more dynamic moniker going forwards. The discussion revealed an interesting split in views; between those that value the exclusive nature of APECS, with an emphasis on coaching senior people in organisations (i.e. executives) and also value the relatively small and exclusive nature of APECS membership (keeping the benchmarks high and the process rigorous); and those that favour a more inclusive approach, both to who is coached in organisations (e.g. potential leaders are found throughout an organisation) and also to encouraging a broader base of membership for APECS (e.g. thousands of members, not just a couple of hundred). Someone commented that we might look back and see this as a point in time when the old S-curve (e.g. executive coaching) was superseded by the new S-curve (leadership coaching). History is littered with organisations and that don’t adapt or evolve with the nascent trend (for more on this S-curve thinking I highly recommend Charles Handy’s recently published ‘Second Curve’).  Needless to say, I think this is a discussion that needs to continue within APECS (a professional organisation I find of enormous value by the way, and encourage all leadership coaches to join!

In this post I want to explore some of the deeper meaning behind these terms and the wider theme of leadership.


adjective: executive

having the power to put plans, actions, or laws into effect. “an executive chairman”

noun: executive; plural noun: executives; noun: the executive

a person with senior managerial responsibility in a business organization.


noun: leadership

the action of leading a group of people or an organization. “different styles of leadership”

the state or position of being a leader. “the leadership of the party”

the leaders of an organization, country, etc. plural noun: leaderships

‘Executive’ seems to be about the exercise of power, making decisions and executing those decisions.  I tend to associate executive coaching with business coaching and mentoring, often ex-senior business people, acting as a role model, sounding board, confidant or career guide for current senior business people who are lonely at the top.  Although these are all roles I have played at various times as a coach, they are not for me what coaching is primarily about.

‘Leadership’ is more about leading people and the human dimension of what goes on in organisations, creating context, vision and developing people.  Executives are appointed, Leadership is a vocation. Anyone can make the choice to be a leader, you don’t need to be given permission and in its simplest form it starts with self-leadership. Altogether, there is much more dimensionality to the concept of leadership, a pliability that allows us to imbue it with meaning. For example, we can distinguish between the inner and outer dimensions of leadership as well as help leaders explore the relationship between their inner lives and their outer roles as leaders.  In our model of leadership agendas, we distinguish between the outer aspects of improving performance, adapting behaviour and leading change, alongside inner aspects of change and development, and the need to connect with purpose, meaning and values.  We distinguish between the outer crises that leaders need to deal with in their role and the inner crises which can arise for them at significant turning points in their lives.  All this rests within an environmental context of what is sometimes referred to by the acronym VUCA: increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  These four horsemen conspire to build pressure and stress for leaders within the organisational context of increasing performance expectations, always doing more for less.

What this all adds up to is not only an explanation of why leadership coaching is becoming increasingly important but also why leadership coaches need to be equipped to work with the whole person, helping the leader link between their inner and outer lives. Coaches need both a high degree of personal development as well as relevant psychological training that extends beyond conventional behavioural approaches. We describe psychosynthesis as a holistic depth and height psychology than encompasses working at all levels of consciousness and unconsciousness; lower or prepersonal, middle or personal and higher or transpersonal.  On our PGCPLC course (which starts again in September) we help coaches develop skills of how to work at each of these levels and an awareness of which level to work at, as well as when to shift between inner and outer focus with the leader.

On the subject of Leadership, it can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that we seem to have a national crisis of political leadership in the UK currently.  Whatever your views on Brexit, I can’t see any leaders who have come out of this debacle with much credit, and there now seems to be a wider issue of leadership deficit across the political spectrum (with the possible exception of Scotland). Politicians need as much help as organisational leaders in developing themselves (most could do with more emotional, social and ethical intelligence for example), navigating their inner crises and dealing with unexpected external crises, but how many currently use leadership coaches (as opposed to advisers or confidants)?  I suspect not many, even though I see quite a few coaches citing a specialisation in coaching politicians. I might try initiating a survey of MPs to find out more. For the first time I am seriously considering entering this arena – if you work with politicians, are drawn to our approach and would be interested in collaborating to apply it to political leadership coaching, please get in touch.

I rather liked David Brailsford’s comment the other day “…Britain has been brave enough to invest in sport and it’s paying dividends. We’re not brilliant at politics at the moment but we’re doing well in sport.”  This is certainly true in his sport cycling (and maybe tennis, cricket, rugby, athletics…), but less so in football (at the national level).  All these sports use performance coaching, psychologists and many other specialists these days in the pursuit of marginal gains, but it is interesting to notice how closely success seems to correlate to good leadership.  Brailsford himself is an excellent leadership role model, but there are leaders throughout the Sky cycling team and I’m sure in their back-up team too.  Interesting also to see how often Eddie Jones spoke of the need for ‘leaders on the pitch’ during England Rugby’s recent successful tour of Australia.

That’s all for now, I’m sure we will continue with some of this themes again soon

Best wishes, Aubyn

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