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Why coaching makes better leaders

Susy Roberts
|Nov 1|magazine17 min read

Susy Roberts, international executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, highlights why coaching makes better leaders.

There are few, if any, perfect all-rounders. Successful leaders share a series of traits – agility, resilience, positivity, the ability to influence. But the most important quality of a leader is recognizing your own limits and being willing to accept help. 

When we close ourselves off to external influences, we are limiting the realms of our knowledge to our own life experiences. Even the most travelled, read and learned among us can’t say with any honesty that we’ve reached the pinnacle of wisdom. Leaders, just like their teams, need to undergo continuous personal and professional development in order to remain at the peak of mental agility. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, education increases our ability to employ our own intelligence.

Leadership coaching allows us to reflect on our contributions to a business and its people. It allows us to celebrate our successes, examine areas which may need improvement and link personal growth objectives to improved business outcomes. Coaching doesn’t just make better leaders; it helps businesses to grow.  

A coaching culture improves performance

It’s a fact that leading by positive example gets the best results, and this is particularly relevant when it comes to coaching. The culture of an business should always filter down from the very top, and a leader who encourages a coaching culture will find themselves with a workforce that’s keen to learn.

A business can’t grow if its people are constantly pushed towards a rigid set of requirements. Traditional performance objectives that are measured year in year out may have no relevance to business goals that are updated every three months. What may be a perfectly reasonable target one day could be impossible the next, thanks to anything from external markets to internal software faults. Leaders need coaching to recognize that there are myriad factors that affect how an individual performs and what they can achieve, and then apply that to their ongoing performance.

Coaching helps leaders to connect people to the current objectives of the business and gives them the emotional intelligence to be able to adapt to individual circumstances. What are the goals of the business today? What are the goals of the individual? What issues are they facing in that moment? How can those issues be overcome? How can overcoming those issues be measured and rewarded? 

Learning is not a one-off, standalone exercise. It’s a continuous practice of doing, reflecting, improving, incorporating new ideas and techniques, and adapting to the changing environment. Coaching helps leaders to hone in on the issues that need attention, and guide their teams towards a resolution that will ultimately benefit the business.

Admitting you’re wrong turns negatives into positives

A leader who bullishly insists on implementing their own ideas despite negative performance or unpopular reactions can stifle growth or even bring about the end of a business. You can’t please all the people all the time and unpopular decisions for the good of the company are part and parcel of leadership. But knowing where to draw the line and admit something isn’t working requires a level of insight that not everyone possesses. 

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Entrepreneur James Routledge was close to burn-out when he admitted that he had been consumed by his tech start-up and put himself under impossible pressure to succeed. He wound up his business and battled mental and physical health problems before acknowledging he had made a mistake. James now runs Sanctus, which he describes as ‘like personal trainers for mental health’, with a focus on business and the workplace.

Coaching can help leaders to identify potential problem areas and fix them before they get out of control. An impartial observer who can help a leader to reflect, admit when things aren’t working and identify potential solutions can help keep a business and its leaders healthy and growing – not imploding under pressure.

Leaders are made, not born

In 2006, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance analyzed 16 major domains of expertise, including business. Researchers looked at various aspects of expertise including general and practical intelligence, differences in brain activity, self-regulated learning, deliberate practice, knowledge management and creativity. They showed -“consistently and overwhelmingly” according to one of the book’s authors in this Harvard Business Review article written at the time of the books’ original release - that experts are always made, not born. 

Warren Bennis was an authoritative voice on leadership coaching, and his book ‘On Becoming a Leader’ is widely considered essential reading for anyone in leadership. He agreed that leaders are made not born, saying: “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born - that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” He also noted that: “It is the capacity to develop and improve their skills that distinguishes leaders from followers.” 

It may be difficult to become a concert pianist if you’re not musically inclined, but the traits of a leader can be learned with regular, ongoing professional coaching. Leadership coaching isn’t a vanity exercise, or a once-yearly team away day. It’s an essential element of a healthy, functioning business that has the ability to thrive, grow and adapt to change.

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