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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 authority figures, it is important for the coach to establish themselves as an authority. Once this level of trust is established, the coach can make suggestions that will be more readily received. The narcissists competitiveness and ambition can also be used to motivate them. By taking the time to build confidence, the narcissist will eventually become more willing to share the limelight. However, since narcissists tend to regress, follow up will be essential to ensure continued progress.

The Emotionally Disconnected Leader

The emotionally disconnected leader is literally-minded, show little imagination, and are generally inept at describing or recognizing emotion. The psychological term for an emotionally disconnected person is alexithymia, which means that they have no words for emotions. This type of leader is literal-minded. They display little or no imagination and are unable to recognize emotional cues in other people. They perceive emotions and dangerous and uncontrollable forces. Emotionally disconnected leaders find it difficult to motivate their followers, as they tend to have poor communication skills, discourage creativity and innovation, and don’t have the ability to get the best out of others.

Coaching the emotionally disconnected leaders can be undertaken in a more direct manner than the narcissist. The first step is to assist the leader to solve an immediate problem and help them to be more effective in the day-to-day work environment. Assisting the leader to work with people on a level that gives room to emotional displays can help to make them a more influential and impactful leader. From there the coach can help the leader to identify and articulate their own emotions, rather than internalizing them. Reflective self-observation can be a very effective technique for a leader to take an honest look at themselves. Once the leader realizes that they are an emotional creature themselves, everyone on their team benefits.

The Manic-Depressive Leader

A third type of leader is the manic-depressive. Manic depression is more accurately called bipolar disorder, and comes in a spectrum of intensities, but even mild forms of the ailment can alienate family and peers, and ruin careers. There is no emotional middle ground with the manic-depressive personality, and those around them tend to feel as if they are always attempting to extinguish emotional fires.

Manic depression can be a serious mood disorder and is generally treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. However, manic depressives generally are not receptive to therapy. Consequently, the best way to coach a manic depressive is to confront them with the reality of their relationships. Helping them to understand how their behavior is affecting those around them. This approach can include interviewing family members and colleagues. Generally, once a manic depressive is confronted and given the tools and time to deal with reality, changes can be made effectively. Ongoing support will be needed to ensure that the client does not revert to prior patterns of behavior.

Influence of Leadership Style

Difficult or toxic leadership styles are generally about power and control. Autocratic leaders seem to be especially driven by power. Different types of difficult leaders approach the desire and pursuit of power in different ways. Some will exercise power through fear, while others will attempt to maintain an illusion of power by using the latest buzzwords that are appropriate to their organization. Close minded leaders do not like to be challenged, which then stifles innovation.

Challenging or toxic leadership can have a direct impact on organizational effectiveness. Toxic leadership can cause employees to flee the organization. When a significant number of employees leave an organization, high turnover costs are incurred, a loss of expertise and effectiveness are realized, and the potential to lose customers is increased exponentially. Employees are compelled to take on greater workloads, which increases employees stress, and in turn can result in greater mistakes made in the work performed. The risk is that high turnover will begin to become a wildfire that is almost impossible to extinguish.

Toxic leaders will generally handle challenges with a withdrawn or autocratic style. Employees will not be involved in the decision-making progress, and communication with teams will not be perceived as important or necessary. With limited input decision quality will decrease, and frustration among teams will increase. Without intervention difficult leaders will not improve, and conditions will gradually get worse. Difficult leaders have the potential of destroying an otherwise healthy organization.

The methodology for working with difficult leaders would vary dependent upon the leader being worked with. A first step would be to assess the leader for which coaching services are to be provided. This can include interviews and conversations with the leaders, their peers, subordinates, and when necessary, their family. Once the leadership type or pathology is identified a strategy can be formulated.

Coaching difficult leaders can be an emotional roller coaster for the coach. For this reason, it is important for the coach to be strategic it their approach. Some common goals for all leaders would be to increase the focus on the organization above the self, learning to make strategy decisions that include all stakeholders, and evaluating results with the leadership teams in ways that are honest, open, and objective. Difficult leaders would also require work that lessened any negative self-talk, increased sensitivity to others and overall emotional intelligence, and forming relationships that are not only transactional in nature. Follow up would also be an important part of the coaching strategy, with a genuine interest in the success and well being of all clients a permeating priority.

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