Leadership Development Coaching

CoachHub · 19 August 2022 · 8 min read

The difference between leader development and leadership development

First, let’s start by being clear about the difference between “leader development” and “leadership development.” Leader development is an integral part of leadership development. Close in name, different in application. Leadership development focuses on the external management of teams while leader development focuses on the internal and personal development of the individual leader. It focuses on challenging the internal mechanisms that allow people to become the best leaders they can be.

In the words of John Maxwell, a well renowned leadership expert, “your capacity to grow as a leader determines your capacity to lead” (Maxwell, 2018). Leader development is when you focus on your personal growth as a leader in order to lead others effectively. In this inward-facing journey, a leader can be challenged to think critically about their levels of:

  • Self-awareness
  • Leadership  style
  • Emotional intelligence
  • And so much more.

In addition to these basic personal development skills, the leader will also have to develop other leadership and people skills to inspire and motivate individuals to achieve results. In a study conducted by CCL on  leadership development programs, they discovered that 99% of the participants surveyed achieved success on their target goals related to leader development skills  such as:

  • Communication
  • Self-awareness
  • Implementing change.

These are skills leaders need to organise and motivate people to reach a shared goal. Good leaders also have strong interpersonal and communication skills. All of these skills can help build strong teams within a business and ensure projects and organisational goals are achieved.

Coaching aids in leader development

77% of leaders have reported interpersonal skills like empathy, collaboration, and emotional intelligence to be their biggest weakness despite being trained on them.  So, how does coaching help to enable leaders to develop, hone and exercise such abilities?

Coaches model interpersonal skills when coaching leaders so that when leaders are coached, they directly see, feel and experience these interpersonal skills and can exercise them in the workplace when interacting with others.

Why is it important to focus on leader development?

When a business commits to developing leaders, it can expect to gain a significant competitive advantage by: (CCL, 2017)

  • Improving the bottom line financial performance
  • Attracting, developing & retaining talent
  • Driving strategy execution
  • Increasing success when navigating change.

These are surely compelling reasons to focus on leadership growth. The benefits of focusing on leader development feeds directly into the bottom line of the business. Investing in leadership development will enable your leaders to execute your strategy and enable them to navigate the VUCA context organisations are operating in.

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Coaching influence leadership development

When personal or executive coaching emerged in the workplace in the late 80s and early 90s, managers were asked to manage the performance and satisfaction of their team members. Management training emphasised communication, interpersonal skills and coaching style. There was little professional coaching since coaching was almost always for the C-suite and coaches were only seen as a sounding board for top executives.

Below the executive leadership, many did use coaching for performance improvement; some saw it as soft and fluffy talking while others likened it to the high performance coaching in sports so it became a status symbol for talent and high potentials. The third generation of coaching research by Grant positions coaching not only for executives, but rather for all levels of careers as well as managers across the leadership spectrum. Coaching can influence leader development and support leaders post their training and development to help transfer knowledge and embed leadership skills.

De Rue and Myers, 2014, recommend that organisations should include coaching in their list of key elements of leadership development architecture that influences the leadership development process. A review of leaders coaching research concluded that leadership coaching has a positive effect on overall organisational outcomes e.g profitability and more specific outcomes such as leaders skills development and emotional status (Jones, Woods & Guillaume, 2016). “Coaching potentially offers a higher level of psychological safety than other leadership development practices” (De Rue and Myers, 2014,141)

Because coaching supports the development of the skills leaders need, it also supports leadership development as a process. Other leadership practices may offer leaders knowledge and skills that they need to lead; however, coaching offers a higher level of psychological safety for leaders and creates a “thinking environment” where they can be vulnerable and reflect on their development without judgement.

When organisations commission coaching for leadership development they often ask how coaching can support their leaders on different levels of learning. There are 3 levels of learning that coaching can support leaders’ development according to executive coaching research (Ennis, & Otto, etal, 2015).  The common request from organisations is around embedding leadership capabilities that align to their values or leadership competencies.

Three levels of learning

In the Executive coaching handbook edit by Ennis and Otto, 2015,  they identified three levels of how executive coaching contributes to how leaders learn in coaching.  The three levels are tactical problem solving, developing leadership capabilities and learning how to learn(Ennis, Otto, 2015). We will expound on these three levels of learning to further discuss how coaching can support leadership development:

1. Tactical problem solving action

Strategy is the action plan that takes the organisation where it wants to go. Tactics are the individual steps and actions that will get the organisation there. Tactical problem solving is the specific action teams take to implement the initiatives outlined in the strategy. Tactics are tied to the strategy. Using the goal-setting framework, coaching helps leaders to connect short-term tactics to long-term vision.

When leaders are coached they learn how to formulate goals which create actionable and time-bound tactics because coaches often use the SMART goal methodology to help leaders formulate these goals.  When leaders go through coaching, they are able to learn how to develop their tactical problem solving muscle as they formulate and implement action steps in between coaching sessions. This is a critical skill that enables leaders to cascade strategic organisational goals to team action plans.

How do leaders learn tactical problem solving through coaching?

During the coaching session, the coach acts as a sounding board to allow the leader to reflect, process and shift their perspective on different coaching goals. This process helps the leader to problem solve as the coach holds their thinking space. The leader not only processes their challenges but also formulates action steps they will implement on the job after the coaching session. Microlearning in between coaching sessions also empowers leaders to implement what they have discussed in coaching sessions. This could be in the form of videos, articles, and/or books to read. As leaders apply these activities, they are learning to apply what they learned on the job or in real life situations.

2. Developing leadership capabilities 

There are four key elements often used by organisations to develop leadership capabilities and to help leaders embed the organisational values leadership style: leadership style, leadership skills,  leadership behaviours, and capabilities. Let’s first define these areas in relation to leadership capabilities:

  • Leadership style refers to the overall way in which a person guides a group of followers.
  • Leadership skills are specific abilities that a person uses in different scenarios when exercising his/her leadership style.
  • Leadership behaviour is the traits and actions that make an individual effective as a leader. This behaviour is the process by which a person can guide, direct and influence the work of others to meet specific goals.
  • Leadership capabilities can be defined as new ways of thinking and acting that generalise to other situations and roles.

These actions and strategies can be learned to increase the effectiveness of those around them. As leaders are coached, they learn how to shift their perspective and develop new ways of thinking and acting that encompasses the other aspects of leadership.

3. Learning how to learn

The third level is an important and sometimes overlooked goal of coaching. The aim of this level of learning is to prevent leaders’ long-term dependency on the coach and to teach habits of learning and self-reflection that will last a lifetime. This enables the leader to keep developing ( Susan Ennis and Judy Otto, pg11, 2015, Executive Coaching Handbook).

Knowles, 1984 theory of andragogy confirms the link between coaching and adult learning theory. Knowles discussed six characteristics of adult learning that are thought to influence how they approach it (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2011). One of the characteristics of natural affinity with coaching principles is the need to know. Adults need to relate the content of their learning to real problems before undertaking to learn (Knowles, et, al., 2011) They need to recognise the need for learning.

How do leaders learn to learn through coaching?

Cox, Bachkirova, and Clutterbuck (2014; 149) explain how this need appeals to adults’ self-concept as independent learners and it is at the heart of coaching. In the coaching context the coachee always owns the agenda, meaning that coaching is very much aligned with this learning principle. This is just one example of how coaching aligns with learning principles and helps adults and leaders to learn.


Leadership coaching contributes significantly to leader development, to not only help leaders build critical people skills but also to learn how to learn for their own personal development and leadership skills. Organisations can benefit from making coaching accessible for all leaders across the leadership spectrum. Scaling leadership development is the optimal way to create new capabilities.  Jennifer Fickeler (2021) coined the lovely saying that organisations need to, “think of coaching as a glue in the leadership development process”. This concept answers the question asked in the introduction of this blog. If organisations want the content to stick and experience sustainable  behaviour change, coaching can be that glue that keeps things together.

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  1. Baldwin, T. & Ford, K. (1988), “Transfer Of Training: A Review And Directions For Future Research’, Personnel Psychology, Spring, Vol. 41 Issue 1, p63-105
  2. Maxwell, JC, (2018) Developing leader within you. 2.0. Haper Collins
  3. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioural change”. Psychological Review. 84 (2): 191–215
  4. Ennis,S & Otto, J et al, (2015), The Executive Coaching Handbook, principles and guidelines for a successful coaching partnership. Sixth edition, http://www.executivecoachingforum.com/
  5. Pappa, J.P, Jerman, J.(2015)  Transforming adults through coaching, new direction for adults and continuing education. John Wiley and Sons
  6. https://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/scaling-leadership-development-white-paper-ccl-center-for-creative-leadership-pdf.pdf )
  7. https://www.lhh.com/ca/en/organizations/article-listing/coaching-making-leadership-development-stick
  8. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/chriswestfall/2019/06/20/leadership-development-why-most-programs-dont-work/?sh=1db2451361de accessed 24.06.2022

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