What is a leadership coach?
According to the International Coaching Federation, the work of a leadership coach is:
“Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity, and leadership.”
This blend of personal and professional learning is the special sauce that makes coaching such an impactful experience. I love it.
My commitment to a coaching methodology comes out of my formal training in psychology, student development, and adult learning. We learn and grow best when we are able to approach our learning from a “whole person” perspective.
1. A leadership coach can help you see your blindspots.
A problem well defined is half solved. Unfortunately, we all have blindspots that inhibit us from seeing “the problem under the problem” in our leadership roles.
To be fair, leaders face multi-layered challenges. First, leaders face complicated logistical challenges. Second, leaders face challenges related to people. Human relationships, motivation, culture, strengths, and needs are complex. That’s why leaders need high levels of emotional intelligence. Third, good leadership requires us to effectively navigate and leverage power structures. These structures are informal and formal, and they exist inside and outside our teams. Therefore, a leader’s day to day life consists of completing tasks while managing relationships, and navigating power structures.
As we wrestle with these multi-layered leadership challenges, we inevitably come up against our own limitations. Regardless of our leadership style or expertise, we can fall into the trap of ineffective tactics.
The Arbinger Institute points out that leaders often fail to see the reality around themselves. When this happens, it’s like getting trapped in a box without knowing that you’re trapped in a box. Said another way, all leaders have blindspots in our life and work. But the good news is that there is an antidote to our blindspot. It’s called perspective.
However, by definition, we are unable to see our blindspots on our own. Therefore, we need outside help to gain perspective on our leadership challenges. This is where leadership coaching fits in.
Coaches are specialists at helping leaders with the foundational task of leadership: getting outside our limited perception.
Professional coaches use robust tools and processes to help leaders gain new insight and perspective about themselves, others, and the challenges they face.
2. Leadership platitudes and cookie cutter tactics aren't enough to meet major, adaptive challenges.
Unfortunately, there is a large industry of leadership and self-help books that offer silver bullet solutions and formulas. Let’s be honest. There’s a lot of bad and oversimplified advice out there.
For example, I recently sat through a workshop where the facilitator told us that pastors needed to have a specific personality type in order to grow their churches. This oversimplification came from the facilitator’s faulty and biased assumptions. He told us that successful church leaders had very specific and predictable behaviors. In fact, he went as far as to say that churches should screen and hire for this certain personality type. The implied message was that some people have the personality of a leader. If you don’t fit the mold, then you have to be someone else in order to lead effectively. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast offers a cautionary tale about the impact of narrow and unhealthy ideas of what it means to be an effective church leader.
Leadership coaching allows for more room at the leadership table. At its core, leadership is simply influence. Human personality, gifting, and culture is diverse. Effective leadership styles are also diverse. Leadership is not a personality trait, or a set of scripted behaviors. Mohammed Rei and Harriette Thurber Rasmussen point out in their new adaptive leadership book that leaders must navigate a multi-cultural world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges
Today, leaders increasingly face adaptive challenges, rather than technical challenges. It’s essential that we can tell the difference between these two kinds of challenges.
According to Heifitz, a technical challenge can be solved with existing knowledge. We can meet these challenges without changing our values, assumptions, or habits. In contrast, Heifitz explains that an adaptive challenge requires us to learn something new, and to unlearn or set aside existing habits, assumptions, behaviors, or values.
One of the main mistakes leaders make is to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge.
As a result, we fail to adapt to the new reality. This has been painfully on display in recent years as leaders and organizations try to engage the new “post-Covid” reality with “pre-Covid” assumptions.
A leadership coach can help you and your team uncover and examine your existing values, assumptions, and habits. The result: more effective engagement with the adaptive challenge you are leading through.
3. Personal development and professional development are linked.
It’s common for a leader to hire a coach because the leader wants help with a specific task or challenge. For example, a leader might want help reducing employee turnover, increasing sales, boosting team morale, or making a key career move.
These are great reasons to hire outside help. But professional coaches will tell you that coaching relationships tend to start with them coaching to a task. Usually, the relationship evolves to coaching the “thing under the thing,” where the coach begins to coach the person.
In other words, the presenting challenge is entangled in an urgent core underlying growth edge for the leader. Once a leader makes progress in personal growth, they are able to more effectively address their professional goals and challenges.
Whole person development.
This is why I refer to whole person development. Professional growth usually requires parallel personal growth.
For instance, the leader who wants to reduce employee turnover might discover that they need to establish better boundaries, release control to direct reports, or confront their own fear of rejection. Personal and professional issues are intertwined. When we resolve inner tension, our professional growth and success follows.
Personal growth edges are highly individualized. A professional coach can be invaluable in helping leaders to uncover these core issues, and how they relate to workplace challenges.
To reiterate what I wrote in a previous post, “Leadership development is a blend of personal and professional growth. Usually, becoming a more effective leader requires uncomfortable personal growth. We have to become a better human in order to effectively lead other humans.”
4. A roadmap provides clarity and direction.
Once you’ve discovered a critical issue and examined it from multiple angles, it’s time to define a goal and act. This is the essence of the coaching process: gaining insight and moving into structured action toward a defined goal. A roadmap keeps you on track when the road gets tough.
For example, as a career coach, leaders tell me that they know they want to change careers. But they’re stuck with how to change careers. I help leaders identify an action plan that empowers them to move forward. It’s cliche but true: every journey begins with a first step. A coach is there to troubleshoot and chart out new paths when you encounter inevitable roadblocks on your journey.
5. A leadership coach provides structured accountability and support.
Getting outside your comfort zone is…well….uncomfortable. Discovering the action step that you should or want to take is often easier than actually taking that action step. In the supportive environment of a coaching conversation, it’s clear to see what to do. In the “real world,” it’s harder to do. (If it was easy to do, you would have already done it). There’s no shame in this. It’s just reality for most of us.
But taking action is where your life story gets interesting! I call it moving from your comfort zone to your growth zone. Most growth happens outside your comfort zone. When we stay in our comfort zone too long, it can turn into a decay zone.
Accountability is a powerful motivator. Simple questions are powerful: Did you do what you said you would do? Why?
A coach provides the accountability and support you need to keep you from lapsing out of your growth zone and back into your comfort zone.
Getting outside your comfort zone means stepping into uncertainty and vulnerability. But that’s where the rewards are! Deep meaning, purpose, and satisfaction are in the growth zone. Thankfully, you don’t have to jump into the growth zone alone. An important part of my coaching practice includes helping leaders identify their support network. People in the growth zone need a healthy blend of challenge and support.
When you invest in structured accountability and support, you stack the deck in your favor.
Suddenly, that big growth goal doesn’t seem as scary or unattainable. To summarize, coaching helps you identify the “thing under the thing” affecting your life and leadership. This insight informs a concrete action plan and roadmap. Coaching offers professional encouragement, accountability, and support to help you “get there.”
Insight. Action. Growth.
Dr. Aaron Einfeld, PhD
Dr. Einfeld is a leadership coach, facilitator, and certified Birkman consultant. He’s served in various higher education leadership and student learning roles for 17 years. Dr. Einfeld’s passion and purpose is to embrace change, and to help others through transformational lifelong learning and discovery.