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Coaching Difficult Leaders

In recent years coaching has become a much sought-after expertise. Coaching is a practice that grew out of psychotherapy and clinical psychiatric practice. The goal of coaching is to assist others to come to a better place in their life or career. Many coaches work with the top levels of management and senior executives, but increasingly coaches are found at all levels of an organization. To be successful, coaches need to master seven key competencies.


Leadership coaches require certain competencies to be successful. These competencies can make the difference between successful coaching relationships or disastrous engagements. Mastery of these skills might also relate directly to whether the consultant is retained in future engagements. Some of the most important competencies are:


One competency would be what we might call prescribing. Prescribing involves the ability to give advice and recommendations to a client, as well as direction. In prescribing the coach takes responsibility for directing the learning experience. This involves assuming some level of responsibility for the coaching goals, the methods utilized in the learning process, the overall design, and possible solutions during the experience. The coach also assumes responsibility for the process of learning and the assessment of the learning as the experience progresses.

Prescribing can be an important competency firstly because the coach needs to possess enough confidence to act as the expert or authority in guiding the client towards a desired outcome. Some clients may not want to make the necessary changes, or not know how to proceed. While autonomy on the part of the learner is desirable, the ability to exercise authority over the learning process, and to provide recommendations give the coach some teeth and provides a level of respect in the coaching relationship. This in turn may help the coach to be perceived as a reliable authority.


Informing can also be an important coaching competency. Informing is the ability to give information and knowledge to the client. The information might be technical, business, organizational, or professional knowledge. The information might also be feedback about the coaching process, or consequences for a particular action. Informing can be important for setting the pace and expectations of the coaching and providing additional information of which that the client was not aware.


A third important competency is the ability to confront. Confronting a client involves challenging held assumptions. This competency is important because when done well it will assist the client to become more aware of their own behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. Confrontation allows the coach to help the client gain a deeper awareness of something that the coach believes is important to the learning of the client. Greater self-awareness will also enable the leader to become more influential in their leadership tasks.


Releasing is a competency that is considered to be a cathartic intervention. This competency assists the client to release tension and come to terms with the emotions that may be blocking their progress. The coach assists the client to come to identify and come to terms with the emotions they are experiencing that are holding them back from progressing towards the goals of the coaching.


Closely related to confronting is a fifth competency, which is called exploring. Exploring is a method of intervention that assists the learner to a journey of self-discovery. Exploring leads to self-directed learning, which always creates a greater learning experience in adults. The client begins to take ownership of their own learning, move to solve their own problems, and facilitates the coach acting as a guide.


Supporting is a final competency that works to build the clients self-efficacy and self-respect. The coach offers support, appreciation, and praise where appropriate, while expressing confidence in the client. This practice is accomplished by a level of transparency and self-disclosure and works to inspire the client to push harder towards the goals of the coaching interaction.


It’s worth mentioning communication as an additional competency. While communication is involved in many of the other competencies, the lack of an ability to communicate effectively will sabotage the coach’s relationships. Communication involves more than relaying information; effective communication involves active listening. Even the most angry and resistant of clients will soften if they feel listened to. The coach should repeat what the client is communicating to them until it is understood in a way that puts the client at ease.

Difficult Leaders

Constructive leadership focuses on accomplishing the organizational mission and goals, as well as on the welfare of employees. For teams to operate effectively leaders must integrate human factors such as integrity, respect, justice, honor and sincerity into their leadership. Team members will place their respect and trust in leadership that genuinely looks after their interests and work to accomplish the teams mission.

Destructive leadership is a systematic and repeated behavior that undermines the interest of the organization by sabotaging mission, goals, resources, tasks and motivation. Destructive leadership can involve acts of physical force or passive acts, such as neglecting employee or team welfare. Many different types of leadership can fall under the category of destructive leadership, the worst of which are often categorized as toxic leadership. Toxic leadership styles can reveal a risky level of incompetence in the organization. Three pervasive types of toxic leadership include the narcissist, the emotionally disconnected leader, and the manic-depressive.

The Narcissistic Leader

The narcissistic leader is most often found in the top levels of leadership. All people have narcissistic characteristics, but when the level of narcissism leads to fantasies regarding a hyper-inflated sense of self-worth it can be dangerous. Narcissists are selfish and inconsiderate, they demand an inordinate amount of attention, pursue power at all costs, and feel entitled. Narcissists are focused on their own greatness, with little or no regard for the organization. Narcissists can be identified by how they treat others, and the reactions of their team. Every conversation and action are designed to draw attention to the narcissist. These leaders divide others into either friend or foe, with foes being anyone who does not agree with them. Independent thinkers and conflict are not tolerated by the narcissist.

Narcissists have a delicate sense of self, based on childhood insecurities, and any approach should take care not to upset them. The first goal must be to build the narcissist’s self-esteem upon firm foundations. Empathy can be shown initially to build trust. Because a narcissist has a deep need to please author