As Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries highlights in his book, “The Leader on the Couch,” the most effective leadership coaches “draw heavily on psychotherapeutic frameworks and skills” in that both leadership coaching and psychotherapy deal with behaviour, emotions and thoughts. The key to leadership is self-awareness and for this to occur, it often means a journey beyond the obvious. For example, there might need to be a discussion of blind spots, defensive reactions, faulty or distorted thinking, mis-interpretation of events and situations, game-playing or agendas. Irrespective of the depth to which the leadership coach and client are willing to go, the coach must be able to recognise the pitfalls and signs that could derail the coaching process and be able to respond accordingly.

Secondly, the leadership coach needs to have more than just an understanding of the dynamics of the individual, but needs to know about organisational behaviour and have a ‘business head.’ Being able to recognise problems in executive leadership, negative or toxic cultures, dysfunctional teams and poor decision-making goes well beyond the individual person.

Finally, although experience is a firm teacher, experience alone is not enough. It is important to know for instance, where the leadership coach obtained their qualifications not only in human behaviour, but in management and organisationalbehaviour.  More particularly, where they might have obtained their coaching qualifications, and was it for example, from an accredited training institute such as those recommended by the International Coach Federation (ICF).

Core Competencies

Work by Brotman and Colleagues

However, based on anecdotal and experiential data, Brotman L.E. et al (“Executive Coaching: The need for standards of excellence,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 1998, 50 (1), 40-46) suggests that the core competencies for executive coaches are as follows:

  1. Approachable: puts others at ease; warm, pleasant, and gracious; sensitive two, and patient with the interpersonal anxieties of others; builds rapport well; and is a good listener.
  2. Associates comfortably with top management: deals well with senior executives; understands the thinking patterns of top executives; uses business acumen and pattern language; and develops appropriate methods.
  3. Compassion: authentically cares about people; concerned about their life issues; available and ready to help; offers empathy when needed.
  4. Creativity: develops innovative and distinctive ideas; effortlessly connects problem issues into distinctive action plans.
  5. Client focused: able to meet the desires of the client; and develops trusting and respectful effective client relationships.
  6. Integrity and trust: trustworthy; confidant; can speak the truth in a diplomatic and supportive manner.
  7. Intellectual horsepower: is smart, intellectual, and capable; functions well in an analytical setting.
  8. Interpersonal savvy (relates well to all people): develops rapport, actively listens, builds trusting and respectful relationships.
  9. Powerful listening: uses active listening; fully hears the client; reiterates client’s opinions despite disagreement.
  10. Deals with paradox: able to be fully present with the client; uses a strong empathic approach when needed; self-confident yet humble.
  11. Politically savvy: diplomatic; uses sensitivity in an organisational setting; strategically plans and thinks; identifies corporate politics as a necessary function and adapts well to it.
  12. Self-knowledge: self identifies personal strengths and weaknesses; learns from past mistakes; accepts criticism and feedback; is not defensive.


Work by Stern and Colleagues

In their 2012 handbook, “The Executive Coaching Handbook,” Lew Stern and his colleagues (see assert that leadership coaches need the following:

  1. Four knowledge bases,
  2. Six areas of Coaching tasks and skills,
  3. Nine underlying personal attributes and abilities.

Let’s take each in turn.

Four Knowledge Bases

1. Psychological Knowledge

This is really about having an understanding of human behavior, thoughts, and feelings.

This includes for example, personality theories, models of human motivation, models of adult learning, models of career development, work-life balance, stress management techniques, models of emotional intelligence, models and methods of 360° feedback,models of personal and leadership style (eg., MBTI & DISC), clinical diagnoses and how they play out in the workplace (eg., narcissism), and conflict resolution and mediation.

2. Business Acumen

Business knowledge is critical in being able to understand the goals and work context of coachees including the organisation itself as well as those in the organisation.

For example, this includes an understanding of business practices and concepts, financial concepts, the strategic planning process, current information technologies, global capitalisation and global firms, the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit businesses, the key leadership roles in an organization (eg., COO, CFO, CEO, Board Chair), knowledge of current business issues, events and trends, management principles and processes, and human resource management.

3. Organisational Knowledge

It is important for executive and leadership coaches to understand organisational structures systems, processes, and how to assess all of these elements of the organisation in which the coachee works.

This includes an understanding of basic organisational structures, the impact and role of organisational cultures and sub cultures, the phases of team development and the characteristics of an effective team leadership, models of leadership, leadership development programs and processes, the nature and role of organisational politics, power and influence, organisational change management theories and practices, and the processes of executive talent management and succession planning.

4. Coaching Knowledge

Leadership coaches need to have specific knowledge of theory, research, and practice in the developing field of leadership coaching.

This in turn, would include executive coaching models and theories, the definitions of coaching and executive coach, the distinction between executive and other models of coaching, and understandingthe guidelines for practising the different phases leadership coaching conducted by the coach (eg., managing confidentiality, pre-coaching activities, contracting, assessment, goal setting, coaching, and transitioning to long-term development).

Six Coaching Tasks & Skills

The leadership coaching process can be divided into six phases each of which the coach needs to go to perform effectively.

Without going into detail, these six phases include the following

  1. Building and maintaining coaching relationships
  2. Contracting
  3. Assessment
  4. Development planning
  5. Facilitating development and change
  6. Ending formal coaching and transitioning to long-term development

Nine Personal Attributes & Abilities

These personal characteristics underlie the very fabric of coaching in that who the coach is as a person is a primary basis on which the coaching relationship rests. 

Stern and his colleagues suggest that the following nine categories of attributes may be more likely to contribute to effective coaching:

  1. Mature self-confidence
  2. Positive energy
  3. Assertiveness
  4. Interpersonal sensitivity
  5. Openness and flexibility
  6. Goal orientation
  7. Partnering and influence
  8. Continuous learning and development
  9. Integrity

Work by Morgan and Colleagues

In the book edited by Howard Morgan, Phil Harkins and Marshall Goldsmith titled, “The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching: 50 TopExecutive Coaches Reveal their Secrets” (2005), the authors suggest that there are three core areas of expertise, namely, Technical Skills, Experience and Background, and what they call Coaching Attributes.

Let’s take each in turn.

Technical Skills

A best practice coach is able to:

  • Set the stage for the coaching engagement by establishing ground rules, reporting lines, confidentiality and trust.
  • Assess the current situation fully and accurately.
  • Achieve alignment and agreement (with the coachee, client, and key stakeholders) around critical needs and achievable objectives.
  • Develop and execute an approach that will lead to a successful outcome.
  • Recognise emerging problems and opportunities in advance and adjust the plan accordingly.
  • Provide follow-up, to whatever degree necessary, to ensure sustainability.

Experience and background

A best practice coach is able to:

  • A good working knowledge of the industry and the kind of organisation for which the client is working.
  • A deep understanding of the coachee’s level within the organisation and the associated pressures, responsibilities and relationships.
  • A keen knowledge of where his or her expertise starts and stops, and how that will match the client’s needs.
  • The insight to judge whether the client is serious about working toward the kind of change, development, or direction the coach is able to drive.
  • The ability and resolve to assess personal fit and to go forward, or part ways accordingly.
  • The structure and discipline to manage the coaching relationship for the needs of the individual, whether the individual fully recognises those needs or not.
  • The ability to distill a great deal of information while recognising important patterns and uncovering key nuggets.
  • The ability to distinguish between matters of short-term urgency and long-term significance.
  • The ethics to maintain strict personal and business confidentiality.

Coaching Attributes

A best practice coach is able to:

  • Put the coachee’s needs ahead of his or her own ego.
  • Listen with nuance and sensitivity.
  • Established the highest levels of trust, openness an personal connection.
  • Ask probing questions that draw forth information the coat she could never have arrived at independently, despite superior knowledge and experience.
  • Understand the Kochi’s relationships with the insight of a participant-observer.
  • Make intuitive leaps that will lead the coachee to new levels of performance.
  • Judge actions or words to determine whether development is occurring at the appropriate rate and in the correct direction.
  • Manage the coaching dynamic to the ever-shifting mood, attitude, and will of the coachee.
  • Back away from an area or direction that is not in the coachee’s best interest to pursue or one that he or she is highly resistant to working on.
  • Change the coachee’sbehaviour gradually, but steadily, even in the coach’s absence.
  • Push the coachee to new levels without putting him or her in a position that would lead to compromise or embarrassment, or that would otherwise decrease the desire and willingness to change.
  • Create an independent capability in the coachee by building his or her strengths, instead of building reliance on the coach.


Overall, there is a general consistency across the literature that effective leadership coaches need to have a number of core competencies which includes in the first part the character of who they are as individuals, followed by coaching skills and expertise, along with organisational and political savvy, together with business acumen and knowledge.

Click here to contact Dr. Cross if you would like to discuss further.

Leaders and Managers as Coaches

There are now a number of executive coaching training institutes and…