Numerous times every year, I’m asked what it’s like to be a leadership coach.
The questions come from leaders of all stripes, but also from those considering leadership coaching as a career.
With so many people asking, I decided it was time to devote an entire column to that subject for all to consider.
I am tempted to say it’s a tough job being a leadership coach—lots of airports, lots of listening, lots of weighty conversations— but it has its lighter moments.
My clients carry heavy loads of responsibility. Our sessions can be deep and serious. Even so, it’s not unusual for them to evoke my laughter. Sometimes their humor is intentional, but they’re actually most hilarious when they’re being serious, which is most of the time.
For example, a CEO who runs a chain of dry cleaning businesses told me his wife refers to the business as his mistress. I found that pretty funny, so I asked him what it was like to hear a comparison like that. With surprising nonchalance, he said, “Distraction is what makes our marriage work. Plus, I clean all the bedspreads.”
I didn’t probe any further.
Occasionally, leaders earnestly utter sentences that make no sense, and we both have a laugh:
“A rolling stone is better than two in a bush, you get me?”
“One thing I can’t stand is a liar, a cheater and a thief.”
“Stop pulling on me for every little thing. What do I look like, a slot machine?”
Setting aside the humor, it’s an inexplicable privilege to coach the bright, caring people who lead the firms and organizations that my colleagues and I serve.
For the most part, those leaders are open-minded, hungry to grow, and humble enough to realize they don’t have all the answers. The best among them know how to ask for help.
I have come to realize that coaching leaders is really not about coaching and not about leadership per se. It’s bigger than that.
Leadership coaching is really about accompanying motivated individuals as they seek to manage the challenges of life with poise and wisdom.
Rather than coaching others from a position of superior knowledge, my job is to help high-level leaders reclaim their humanity. What does that mean?
It means inviting them to drop their pretenses, accept themselves for being “merely human,” and take responsibility for their part in any problem.
It means challenging superficial assumptions that weaken leadership.
It means asking them penetrating questions that no one else will ask, such as:
“What have been the defining moments in your life?”
“Can you give me a recent example of when you avoided courage?”
“Which relationships, both personal and work-related, are in need of repair or attention?
“In the world of your important relationships, what scares you the most?”
You might be thinking, “Why would leaders put themselves through that kind of intense coaching?”
Here are some reasons, taken directly from our client testimonials:
“I’m just a lot less anxious than I was two years ago.”
“It’s freeing to focus on my part of the problem.”
“I thought leadership was about teaching my direct reports and letting them know I’ll always be there for them. I found out it’s more about managing my own anxiety, and helping others become confident decision-makers.”
“This past year, I discovered how to truly connect with people instead of always thinking about impressing them and getting their approval.”
People outside this profession sometimes assume leadership coaches are either hucksters or geniuses. I’m a business owner myself, I get it. But neither assumption is on the mark. Just like my clients, I’m a person who’s trying to do the best I can, managing the challenges in my own life, and committed to equal, open, honest relationships with my family, friends, team and clients.
I don’t make promises to change people.
I don’t tell people what they need.
And I don’t judge people because of their mistakes.
For me, the toughest part of coaching leaders is striking a balance between trusting myself and doubting myself. While I seek to trust my years of learning and my own best judgment, I also want to be aware of my limitations, including how much I don’t know.
I have discovered that it’s not possible for me to lead someone to a place where I’ve never been. I have no doubt that knowing oneself is the key qualification for coaching others.
The responsibility to become more self-aware includes a willingness to do the hard work of managing my own reactivity, and defining what I want, need, will do and won’t do. That hard work includes learning my own lessons in life, such as the value of adversity or the unfavorable consequences of my biases. My own struggles—and the bumps and bruises that come with them—improve my ability to help my clients.
In the end, the role of the leadership coach is to stimulate positive change.
For me, it’s the opportunity to “influence influencers,” to be a part of someone’s life at a critical juncture, to contribute to another’s progress in a marriage or in a workplace, or to turn the head of a leader by speaking the unspeakable – these are the moments that bring meaning and satisfaction.
John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].