Our current crises (pandemic, financial, climate, warfare) are mostly man-made – arising from greed, narcissism and fear among leaders. We know, for example, that on the whole, mankind has the resources to feed and vaccinate the world, to allow biodiversity to increase and to reverse the impact of climate change – but this calls for joint strategies and joint action, both of which are hard to achieve in the face of the many forces driving us apart and making us compete with each other for the same scarce resources. In other words, current leadership approaches do not necessarily result in the best solutions for resolving crises - and many individuals, who are not the best leaders, end up in leadership roles.
Executive coaches clearly care deeply about these global issues – and as professional ‘helpers’, there is a temptation for them to feel they have to ‘stand up and be counted’, and to try and use their personal and professional power to influence these challenges. But, getting over-involved or trying to do the client’s work for them can overstep a boundary: if coaches move into advocacy or become too ‘hands on’, they risk becoming less effective as coaches
I believe leadership coaches can still help, at least in these two distinct ways:
The first: through coaching. Where coaches have a key role to play is in nurturing reflection - helping leaders take a step back. Coaches can reflect deeply alongside leaders about the roots of crises and the mentality underpinning their challenges, whilst encouraging the emergence of healthier values. Leadership cannot be ‘fixed’ in the way that processes can, but coaches can work with leaders in transformative ways, providing a relationship where bad leadership can be observed and given space to shift to healthier, more sustainable approaches. This is where coaches can play a unique and important role: witnessing the mindset that underpins our current crises, being sensitive to the greed and hubris that are at stake – and calling them out.
Secondly, leadership coaches can help by imparting their knowledge about good leadership. I have learned over the years to make a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘successful’ leadership. There are many successful leaders who lead empires with up to a million employees, but the amount of ‘goodness’ that they bring is often debated, and retrospectively critiqued. We know from reliable estimates that less than 50 per cent of leaders would get the predicate ‘good enough’ from within their own team, provided free polls can be taken which are trusted to be anonymous.
So, what is ‘good’ leadership and what is ‘successful leadership’?
Successful leadership is easiest to define and recognise. It is the influence or rank of the position that a leader has achieved. The higher the position, the more leadership they can exert and therefore the more ‘successful’ leadership. Leaders in larger institutions generally become more successful as they can convince the layer above them to take them on, i.e., to promote or elect them for a vacancy.
Good leadership on the other hand can be defined by contributions to the process of making an organisation more effective, more competitive, more sustainable, or more strategic. Good leaders help others to become more effective as a team or organisation. Good leadership consists mostly of organising upwards feedback, i.e., taking on board as many views as possible so that the organisation can make use of the ‘wisdom of crowds’. Good leaders are able to facilitate a dynamic ebb and flow of such information, i.e. by encouraging feedback and motivation in the team. They welcome varying views including dissident and critical voices, which they summarise into a broadly shared sense of direction, which in turn helps them to give meaning and purpose to the work of the team. We can see this process work in all implementations of leadership, including during wars and stressful transitions.
Coaches can make an important contribution in balancing leadership success with effectiveness, i.e. growing the amount of ‘good’ leadership coming from a ‘successful’ leader. Coaches can remind a successful leader – either someone who has just made a promotion or a leader who is long in post and therefore suffers a higher risk of hubris and overreach – of the essence of good leadership. Coaches can enquire whether leaders are listening and implementing the views and advice of their team, so as to return to more prudent and stable leadership contributions. In fact, in some of our own research we have found that coaching can have a small but significant calming, balancing and responsibility-enhancing effect on the personality of leaders (see De Haan et al, 2019).
Erik de Haan is director of the Ashridge Centre for Coaching at Hult International Business School and professor of organisation development at VU University, Amsterdam