What is Leadership Coaching?

Updated: May 31


Two women talking in a modern looking office

Happy International Coaching Week!

Coaching is a well-known, yet confusing topic because of the breadth of it. It includes many theories, models, and definitions. In celebration of the ICF International Coaching Week, I want to focus on the form of coaching that I’m most passionate about – Leadership Coaching!

The most effective way to answer the question, "What is leadership coaching?’ is to start with discussing leadership then coaching. I will break down the definitions and even more importantly, what actions or behaviors are indicative of each.


So much of what many people think of regarding leadership and coaching is based on a person being born with the ability. “She’s a natural leader.” “He was born to coach.” “They’ve been a leader all their life.”


These statements lead us to believe that a person’s journey in leadership or coaching required no effort, training, or work. This is simply not true! Even if a person can more easily perform the behaviors of a coach or a leader, it takes commitment and work to become effective or “great” at both.


Let’s start with leadership.


Leadership


I’ve been to multiple workshops and attended many training sessions on leadership. One exercise I participated in helped me realize there’s not a singular definition of leadership. If you were to list the ten best characteristics or attributes of a leader and compared it to another person's list, the likelihood of having even just three of the same as the other is slim.


To define leadership, let’s begin with a look at how leadership is defined by some of my favorite experts and thought-leaders.

“Leadership is Influence, Nothing More, Nothing Less.” ~ John C. Maxwell


“A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential. Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It's about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage.” ~ Brené Brown


“The only definition of a Leader is someone who has followers.” ~ Peter Drucker


What’s clear in all definitions it that a person’s title has little to do with the skill of leadership. What’s also clear is there is a level of influence that must exist to be a leader. Leadership is best defined when we view it behaviorally.


When a client asks me how to be a good or effective leader, I frequently point them to the research shared in The Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. They have created a checklist of the top 20 attributes of leaders called the Characteristics of Admired Leaders (CAL). After over 3 decades and hundreds of thousands of CALs completed, 4 Characteristics are continually at the top:

  • Honest

  • Competent

  • Inspiring

  • Forward-Looking

If you were to ask me what to work on to be a “great leader," I would tell you to prioritize work around the characteristics that are most admired, those that will increase your influence.

In my work with Social+Emotional Intelligence, we have 13 competencies that are focused on becoming more aware of others’ emotions and managing relationships with others. Outside of “Competent” on the list above, all the characteristics listed are directly related to your level of Social+Emotional Intelligence. Improving your skill in those behaviors that rely on your Emotional Intelligence is key to becoming an effective leader.


Now let’s look at coaching.


Coaching


As with leadership, you can find countless definitions of coaching. If you search “coaching” on Google, you get more than 3 BILLION hits. Narrowing our focus to professional coaching, let’s look at a few widely accepted descriptions I utilize.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as, "partnering in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires a person to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.”

The Institute for Social+Emotional Intelligence® (ISEI) defines the Coaching and Mentoring Competency as, “sensing other people’s potential and developmental needs and bolstering their abilities."


The Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC) states that, “Coaching, at its very best, is about helping people make profound and lasting shifts in their lives by pushing them to dig deeper so they can unlock their true potential."


How do coaches help you “dig deeper," “unlock your potential,” and “bolster your abilities?" They are highly effective in asking you questions, listening, and guiding your self-discovery. Coaching is about creating space with the focus on the coachee. Coaching is relational, not a transaction. It’s a process, not a moment in time.


Coaching isn’t a “one-size fits all." Coaching programs can further narrow the focus of coaching work to a specific area of your professional or personal life, but your experience and the work is unique to your situation, goals, or desires.


This collaborative work is more easily accomplished in one-to-one coaching, however, a group that has a common goal and members with common interests and desires maybe effective as well.


Ultimately, coaching works when the coachee is fully committed to the process before, during and in between sessions.


Leadership Coaching


Now that we have defined both leadership and coaching, let’s look at what leadership coaching is. Coaching in the context of leadership is professional and targeted at helping the coachee develop the more “human” or emotionally intelligent aspects of leading: