Obsession with leadership slants training priorities


The cult of 'leadership' has hooked managers and executives to such an extent that they almost always opt for 'leadership development' when asked what kind of coaching or training they would prefer, even though they seldom know what it is they are asking for.

That's the message from a new survey on executive coaching carried out by Minnesota-based coaching firm CO2 Partners which found that six out of 10 executives believe that leadership training would be of most use to them.

In contrast, less than half (48 per cent) would look to improve their communication skills and only one in three want to boost their organisational and political abilities or even their job performance.

"Leadership is a captivating objective for most executives and managers," said Gary Cohen, president of C02 Partners.

"So individuals feel obligated to choose leadership development, even if they have no clear sense of what it's all about. Despite this lack of awareness, leadership ranks first on any survey of coaching needs."

But it is understandable that executives have an uncertain grasp of leadership coaching, Cohen argued.

"This is the most ill-defined segment of coaching, or training for that matter," he said. "To some degree, leadership is a component of any type of executive coaching intervention. On the other hand, there are so many different approaches and so little agreement on the core elements of leadership coaching."

Cohen, who coaches leaders of small to midsize enterprises, said leadership coaching begins with self-reflection.

"People usually start out wanting to be like a leader they already know and can identify with, when the focus really needs to be on how to be authentically you as a leader," he said.

"An honest assessment must be done, and then a custom plan can be formed."

For many individuals, on the other hand, their core issues are not related to leadership, and they would be better off with a different focus for their coaching, Cohen said.

"Sometimes a top executive will spend months seeking to improve his or her leadership skills, when they ought really to be improving job performance," he said.

"The desired coaching can be introspective, as well as highly focused on business issues and problem solving. A coach with perspective, if asked to provide leadership development, should also be willing to ask some clarifying questions to make sure he or she doesn't miss the trees in the forest."

Last week, controversial management professor Henry Mintzberg launched a broadside at the current obsession with the teaching of leadership, arguing that it has become "part of the syndrome of individuality" that is "undermining organisations".

Writing in the Financial Times, Prof Mintzberg said that while the intention may be to empower people, the effect is often to disempower them.

Prof Mintzberg, a strategy professor at McGill University in Montreal, also laid into "managers who sit on 'top', pronouncing their great visions, grand strategies and abstract performance standards".

"Does anyone want to work for a manager who lacks the qualities of leadership?...Well, how about a leader that doesn't practise management?"