“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
For me, one of the best places to begin exploring coaching to develop great leaders, particularly if you’re somewhat new to leadership development or even coaching, is simply to start with your own life experience. Find times in your own life—in work or frankly in any life activity—when you’ve had those in positions of power lead in ways which inspired you and others to want to follow them. Who functioned in ways which supported those around them to grow themselves and also feel empowered. Because right there’s where you begin your own process of exploring what great leadership looks like, how it impacts on others and what the behavior creates in results.
Certainly many leadership coaches emerge from their own role as leaders, passing on their baton. Others may come to it fresh from one of the many well-known business schools, each with their own particular flavor of leadership and how it can be most successfully enacted. While there’s much to be said for having walked the walk yourself and industry specific education, seeing that coaching is the art of helping others to find their own answers, is it then important that a great leadership coach has been a high-level leader or come through a top business school themselves?
The simple answer here is: no!
What is important is that one has a) great coaching chops and training (of course!), and b) some degree of direct experience of leaders and leadership styles and how they impact on teams, organizations and others. Whether through teachers, managers, girl guide pack leaders or presidents of global corporations and countries the same principles play out in much the same way and we’ve all experienced some version of these throughout our lives. Certainly educating yourself—courses, books etc.—are also important, yet nothing will replace your own direct experience in the field of life itself.
If this sounds as though I’m saying having experience as a leader is of lesser or no value, I’m not. Yet sadly, as we all know the world is not exactly stacked with great leaders, and therefore there is a very real danger of simply passing on one’s own faults in the field. I’ve worked under many leaders by now, some who’ve loved to trumpet how they graduated from wold famous business schools or have years of C-suite experience and maybe even a whole alphabet of impressive letters following their names, yet many of them I would never wish to emulate nor would I recommend them to others as a role model. Nonetheless, I undoubtedly gained a great deal of learning from them, even if that was to go the direct opposite way to their rather toxic styles and behaviors.
All too often the best lessons we might learn are by reverse engineering the most optimal actions and behaviors from the many examples of toxic and terrible ones!
What could be some qualities we next level coaches might help a next level leader to develop?
In Nadar’s quote above a key one that leaps out to me is that of humility. That leadership not about centralized command and control—do as I say—but instead requires one to be humble. Without this one cannot hear, understand or empathize; important feedback and data are simply missed as is harnessing collective intelligence and creativity. Leadership is about inspiring, supporting, listening, collaborating and learning oneself, even giving room for others to fail occasionally, all in service of empowering others to learn to lead, not merely setting oneself up as El Supremo to whom all must bow and obey.
With the disastrous impacts of war playing out in Ukraine as I write, we’re all getting to witness a vastly larger force failing at least partly as a result (as we’re being told by Western experts) of that old top down and arrogant leadership strategy against a far more diversified locally-empowered model of leadership with a leader who appears to seamlessly blend qualities of humility, humanity and care with integrity, courage and a willingness to be alongside and listen to those he leads.
Without humility we are unteachable. And if we cannot learn and take feedback, particularly as leaders, we cannot grow, develop greater mastery and respond accurately to real world situations, and eventually the entire system around us equally suffers. Any system that remains closed to feedback is unable to respond appropriately to its environment and is not only unable to grow, it is by it’s nature subject to entropy—to inevitably degrade over time. It loses its integrity!
And how does one develop qualities such as humility, compassion, empathy, emotional intelligence, wisdom, integrity and the many others needed to be a truly great leader? I’ll write more on this shortly as this and other components inform the leadership development program my colleague Charlotte and I are soon to launch but all are innate to us even if untrained and undeveloped. Our approach is fundamentally to help find the seeds that already lie within us all including within those yet-to-be leaders or leaders who want to truly grow.
While there are already models which speak to this “undeveloped seeds” theory such as strengths identification and development, our model turns to the fascinating area of Multiplicity which is gaining significant traction in areas of psychological and therapeutic work. This holds the reality that persona is not some kind of fixed thing but shifts in relationship to context and environment. How one shows up in different roles and scenarios is quite different. Many of the most popular leadership development models use some form of personality assessment as a baseline yet that baseline is formed out of only one version—the one that showed up to the test. Right here’s the reason most personality tests so beloved by HR Departments are simply not fit for purpose with the multifaceted dynamic reality of a human self. We have a far more effective way which helps leaders leverage their dormant or unexposed innate potentials rather than trying to build from the ground up or, even worse, overlook them entirely.
How do I know this leadership model works? A VP of Media Services at a leading Fortune 100 company with whom I’d worked and who implemented the principles wrote me,
“The results … are: team commitment that transcends the work itself and the organization; individuals bringing their whole self fully online every day; a world where all feel free to uncover every rock, think from a world of possibility, test and learn to grow every day…”
If this all sounds a little unspecific they also wrote that while they were forced to cut the team by 40% at the same time they created double digit revenue growth, exponential increase in client campaigns and significant reductions in implementation errors all alongside increases in employees satisfaction and engagement.
The other “next level” work is training in how to skillfully bring implicit intelligence into powerful and effective decision-making. Cognitive science currently tells us that our explicit system (the one we consciously engage to make decisions via rational analysis) while enormously powerful is, in fact, only 5% of the processing power of the human mind. How would it be then if one could integrate the other 95% as a leader and decision-maker? Pretty awesome I’d say, and that is another part of the puzzle which we believe needs to be addressed in order to create truly next level leaders who are able to respond to the increasing demands of our current fragmented yet equally always-on and rapidly changing business environments, markets and world itself.
So how does one become a next level Leadership Coach?
1. Firstly, you must ensure that the leader or leader-to-be you work with is ready, willing and able to engage with the kind of work necessary. Are they open to truly learn? If you don’t have this agreed, then little will eventuate despite your best efforts.
2. Become a great coach, meaning: get good professional training and then get some experience under your belt. While having resources, skills, hacks and learning to hand will be helpful, masterful coaching is what integrates any of them into a clients way of being. It’s also the key to supporting leaders to locate their own as-yet-unseen inner strengths and developing them. Now these “next level” skills are not generally found in most regular coach training yet they are what we offer in the Emergent Coach Training. Accessing implicit intelligence, developing embodied qualities of empathy and emotional intelligence etc. ask for a rather unique developmental approach.
3. Draw from personal experience. Yes, take courses, read books and so on but make sure to reflect on your own experiences. Learning from these ensures that you have direct experience to draw from and to share.
4. Trust that your client has innate capability and resourcefulness even if they’re not yet evident, developed or if they don’t yet believe they do. That’s where great coaching is vital. There will naturally be skills to be learned, acquired and practiced, all of which you can support, but don’t short circuit their creativity and resourcefulness by doing their thinking for them. That’s not coaching nor is it really helpful for anyone’s development.
Clearly much more can be said on this rather rich topic and I’ll certainly be posting more on it going forward so stay in touch!