Leadership Development and Executive Coaching: Not the Same Thing

Lately I’ve been struck by the frequency with which the fast-growing field of executive coaching, and leadership development are mentioned in the same breath. They are sometimes used interchangeably and synonymously. But they are not the same.
While coaching is increasingly proving itself to be a highly effective method for helping executives grow, it should be clearly stated that coaching does not automatically improve their leadership ability or performance. To achieve that, a context around proven leadership behaviours needs to be introduced by the coach or the sponsoring organization.
Some coaches have bridled when I mentioned this to them. In coaching, the client is believed to be “creative, resourceful and whole”, and coach training institutes (ICF, CTI, Alder) rightfully insist that the coach’s role is to help the client identify, set and follow their own learning agenda.
But in leadership development, there is a subtle yet critical difference. In a direct coaching relationship, the client decides they would like help in some growth aspect of their life, and engages a coach to that end. Two partners; the client’s agenda.
In leadership development, it is usually a sponsoring organization that initiates and pays for the executive coaching program, and they usually do so with a specific aim to developing the leadership skills of participants. In such cases, either the organization’s own leadership competencies, or those provided by the coach must become the context within which the coaching takes place. It is only within that context that the client can introduce their own agenda.
Why? Consider this example. Let’s say I’m a senior manager and I take an EQ assessment that indicates I need to improve my emotional self-awareness. The coach works with me to gain understanding and new insights around that topic, and does so within the context of my management duties of planning, budgeting, organizing, coordinating and controlling my people and resources. Things go well, and I improve. Do I become a more effective person? Absolutely. A more effective manager? Probably. A better leader? Unlikely.
Leadership involves setting a vision, which implies change; challenging the status quo. Aligning and inspiring people. Growth in emotional self- awareness definitely will help one be a better leader, but only if one first understands what leadership is all about. The truth is that a growing body of research has shown that leadership competencies are very different from those of management. Both are absolutely necessary, but nonetheless, very different.
There are many highly capable coaches who are skilled in helping clients move to a new level of awareness. This is always beneficial in any context. Yet often these same coaches have no idea of the differences between leadership and management, and have not even heard of Warren Bennis, John W. Gardner, Kouzes and Posner, Jim Collins and the like.
If your organization has a crystal-clear understanding of leadership, and well-defined competencies for your leaders to develop, then a good coach without a background in leadership can still be effective. Just ensure they work within the context of your leadership competencies.
Better yet, if you want to maximize the depth and effectiveness of a leadership coaching experience for your people, select coaches who have a deep grounding in leadership development to complement their coaching offerings.
Doing so will result in transformational change at a faster pace than might otherwise be the case. Stronger leaders in less time.

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