Leadership coaching is not a quick fix for toxic leadership
‘A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.’ ― Machiavelli Niccolo, The Prince
Psychological evidence for coaching efficacy tells a nuanced and mixed story about when, how, and whether coaching lives up to its promise.
In this post I share a vignette which draws on research into the ‘dark side’ of personality in leadership, and on some of my own experiences of working with organizations. I highlight how the effectiveness of leadership or executive coaching and development is hugely dependent on context.
I am guessing that some of you have come across the occasional senior executive who has a toxic emotional impact in their organizations? Right now, you can't pick up a newspaper without reading stories about one form of toxic leadership or another.
It can be very hard to change the behaviour of leaders when this is also in some way reinforced tacitly by the whole system within which they exist. In this story, ‘John’ is the CEO of a subsidiary, within a group of companies. With the Group CEO’s sanction, the Group HR Director had sought several coaches to help this individual with his leadership effectiveness.
John would subtly humiliate people publicly. He could be aggressive towards well-meaning people when things did not go the way he wanted. Before COVID struck he would call people at their desks from his office and summon them to his room with a peremptory tone, when all he needed to do was get up and walk to their desks, only a few meters away from his office, to ask them for a conversation. The office-based people in his business reported a huge preference for permanent home working. This was probably because COVID created some respite from the pressures of the office - and from his overbearing presence.
John was good at attracting talented people to join the business. He would obfuscate to external candidates about the scope of the work they would be doing and exaggerate about possibilities for career development. Candidates would join, only to be disappointed by realities of the role they would perform. He would hire and fire people at will, whatever it meant for their them and their careers.
He would justify this in his mind with the premise that people are just 'human resources' to be deployed in the pursuit of audacious business goals, and as far he was concerned, performance was all that mattered. His very attractive compensation package was based entirely on performance.
John could be charming and highly persuasive when attempting to influence other senior people, or external stakeholders. Around the Group CEO, and Board members he was confident, calm, measured, considered, and professional. His expertise and contacts gained from his decades in industry, and razor-sharp intellect, were highly valued.
Some senior people took note of his duplicitous and political conduct and talked about it behind his back. It was clear to see that the rate of turnover was high in his team. John’s peers were invited to induction meetings with new joiners he had recruited, only to say goodbye only a few months later, on a regular basis. But the performance of his subsidiary was good - in truth because of its long-standing advantages within its market. John’s subsidiary was stable financially, a cash generator, and its performance was not the Board’s biggest headache. It was well known also that he had the trust of the Group CEO, with whom he had worked in another organization. She saw him as a confidante, and a friend.
Despite many attempts by executive coaches to help John change his leadership style, there was frankly little any of them could do to help someone whose habits were engrained, and were being tolerated and condoned by the organization. John believed very strongly that the way he led people was justified to get results. He would skillfully and temporarily moderate himself during coaching to demonstrate that he was responding, then return to his routine.
John believed that the coaches being sourced by HR were anyway out of their depth in their dealings with him. They did not grasp that the reality of his business and his sector was that it was not a place for the weak, pandemic or no pandemic. His experience told him that the people who thrived in his business had the hunger and stamina to cope with the demands of the job - like him. They would be the first people back in the office with him after COVID.
Nothing changed. The culture of the wider organization was increasingly also characterized by secrecy, hierarchy, internal competition, and power politics. The Group’s longer-term strategy were also being questioned externally, so the Group CEO was under pressure. Some investors were anxious about the company’s long-term competitiveness. There was little evidence of leadership appetite to change the culture given the performance pressure, even if there was plenty of rhetoric about shared values.
Looking at what other HR functions were doing about leadership, the HR team appointed a large training provider to provide virtual coaches on demand to all the leaders, and a leadership development programme would soon be underway. Jeff Gothelf, an innovation expert, and organization designer argues that it is important that HR functions do act as the architects and role models of a healthy and agile culture. However, HR needs to have an explicit mandate in the business, strong backing from the Board and a clear case for change.
Most critical, is that the executive leadership team, including the CEO, act as role models for the values the organization espouses, whether those reflect a need for integrity, agility, or other overarching themes. When these conditions are absent, generic coaching provision and leadership development orchestrated by HR can fall flat, especially those which do not directly confront specific sources of emotional toxicity and burnout.
It is better to be honest with a prospective client about the key dependencies within our work, and to seek at the very least to help the client manage these dependencies. In the case I described, the right thing to do is to ensure that the Group CEO is directly involved as a stakeholder in the coaching alliance, and to ensure up-front that the coaching process is adequately reinforced.
There may also need to be additional layers of diagnostic work and psychologically informed consultancy that address the health of the team, and go beyond coaching. Some companies and even entire sectors allow or even inadvertently help toxic leadership to thrive. As practitioners we are unlikely to influence the structure or cultural milieu of entire sectors. But we can raise awareness of the systemic causes of poor mental health.
Organizations need to address the quality of senior leadership within the context of the organization’s business realities, its structure, politics, incentives, and culture. Simplistic 'out-of-the-box' coaching solutions are efficient and can be a good foundation for corporate leadership development offerings. They are not a quick fix for complex human situations, or psychological health.
What do you think are the conditions in which the coaching of senior leaders is most likely to succeed?
See also -
Furtner, M. R., Maran, T., & Rauthmann, J. F. (2017). Dark leadership: The role of leaders' dark triad personality traits. In M. G. Clark & C. W. Gruber (Eds.), Annals of theoretical psychology: Vol. 15. Leader development deconstructed (p. 75–99). Springer International Publishing AG. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-64740-1_4
Gothelf, J. (2017). How HR can become agile (and why it needs to). Harvard Business Review, [online], June 2017. Available at https://hbr.org/2017/06/how-hr-can-become-agile-and-why-it-needs-to
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose