• Leadership

Coaching for Effective Leadership

Hult Ashridge’s Erik de Haan discusses leadership shadows, derailment, and the positive impact of executive coaching

Friday 29 May 2020


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In the midst of a global economic downturn the world is relying on business—and business leaders—to forge a path up and out. A path to renewed growth, and a path back to business offering solutions to the many and varied challenges we were (and still are) facing prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a sense there is an opportunity now for a fresh start—one that can take account of the lessons we have learnt in recent years about the psychology and make-up of effective leadership. And, I would also suggest, about the immense value of truly effective executive coaching.

Primary among these lessons is an understanding that leaders cannot afford to leave their personality and their emotions back at home. A leader in the 21st century must develop authentic human connection between their true selves and their team. Yet at the same time, leadership manifestly involves an act of separation—the leader being set apart from the led. The act of leading a team involves pushing the 'follower' instinct within ourselves firmly to the background, and bringing the strong-willed, single-minded and bold decision maker to the fore.

The Leadership Shadow

This is part of a phenomenon Anthony Kasozi and I describe in our book The Leadership Shadow. As a leader we hide or keep in the shadow, not only our follower tendencies, but also other darker and ambivalent sides of our nature—aspects that only we and maybe our partners or children are aware of. Under the stress, challenge and intense scrutiny of leading in today’s highly complex business environment, these darker qualities can emerge from the shadows, spilling over into unhelpful drivers that can lead to personal derailment. And as we have all too frequently seen, leadership derailment has often found to be at the root of high-profile business catastrophes, from the VW emissions scandal to the Boeing 737 Max debacle.

As a consequence of the act of separation involved in leading others, the leadership shadow is both inevitable and inescapable. However, once accepted and understood it can be reintegrated and even harnessed for good. It certainly does not have to lead to an outcome of derailment—with its costly implications for the organization, as well as the individual. Leaders need to develop the capability to handle the stresses and risks of leadership in a rapidly changing world, to operate ethically and effectively, and not to cause damage within their teams and companies, as their leadership shadows might induce them to do.

Coaching for Effectiveness

It is important to understand that success and effectiveness as a leader are not one and the same thing. A leader’s success is often determined by his or her superiors—those that offer support or decide promotion. Research shows that general intelligence influences success as does social networking and the ability to connect upward in an organization. By contrast, effectiveness is most readily influenced from below. An effective leader is by definition someone who gets more out of their team. Research shows that this entails being open and receptive to upward feedback and having the emotional intelligence to connect with staff and involve them in decision making.

A focus on leadership effectiveness, rather than success, will produce leaders that are geared towards enhancing organizational effectiveness—and addressing the leadership shadow is a key part of this.

If we consider the dark side—and all leaders have one—there are many traits that left uncontrolled can lead to derailment, and to leaders that are sociopathic, narcissistic, over-excitable, passive-aggressive, disengaged, obsessive, eccentric, dependent, histrionic, or just overly cautious. Late-career senior leaders can also suffer from an unhealthy excess of power, where they are deferred to unquestioningly when decisions are taken.  

This is where quality executive coaching has a vital role to play. Individual one-to-one coaching and even group coaching can help leaders come to terms with the small element of potential derailment that is contained in every leadership shadow. My own recent work has demonstrated coaching effectiveness through the eyes of senior managers, their coaches, and their line managers alike (De Haan et al., 2019), as compared with the scores for our randomized control group.

Instructively, the research revealed that executive coaching had a significant positive effect on two key aspects of personality: ‘prudence’ and ‘excitability’. These results seem to indicate that quality coaching can have an important calming, balancing, and responsibility-enhancing effect on personality. Prudence strengthening discipline and responsibility; and controlling excitability reducing mood swings, overdrive and emotional volatility.

I firmly believe that the only answer now for leaders, charged with the responsibility of steering their teams and organizations through the current Covid-19 crisis, and navigating the difficult times that lie ahead, is to rebalance, reflect, and re-emerge stronger and more resilient than before. And this is what truly effective executive coaching can and should be setting out to do.

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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