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Why leadership coaching has outgrown GROW


    We had a great time last week working with business leaders, international consultants and HR professionals in developing their coaching skills.  Before people come on our workshops, the most common thing they ask is something like “I’ve already done some coach training – what’s so different about leadership coaching?”  The easy answer is “come and try it and find out” but there’s a longer answer too – something around the complexity of leadership, the impact leaders have, the need to engage effectively with, and deliver results through, others – for starters.

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    35 or more years ago I remember hearing Tim Gallwey speak  in London and going to a workshop led by him.  I remember us working in pairs practicing our listening skills.  He didn’t call it coaching then, but it was around the time he and Sir John Whitmore first worked together here in Europe.

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Today’s leadership is more complex and has more impact

The famous GROW model emerged from Whitmore’s great work – and was originally focused on coaching for performance.  Models like GROW supported us to deliver more: faster, cheaper, with less waste; while Gallwey exhorted us to explore our inner game.  That’s great.  We learned how to support others to do the same: to play the game, perform better and achieve great results.

There’s a reason why there’s a book published on leadership every 3 minutes and it’s because it’s such a complex and impactful topic in today’s world.  Yes goals still matter to the leader, but today it’s much more about leaders seeing around the corner and into the future, and building systems to maintain that direction, all at the same time.

We need our leaders to set the agenda, to see and prioritise issues, which also means choosing battles carefully and focus on winning the war, not getting bogged down in detail.

I actually spend a lot of my coaching time supporting leaders to do less, delegate more and invest more time in thinking, reflecting and feeling.  Because that’s the job we need them to do well.  We also need them to accept their responsibilities and handle the pressure they’re under –findings ways to fully enjoy their personal lives too.

Leadership is about enabling others to be successful

Over the years the role of leadership has shifted to having a huge impact on the organisation’s success.  It has a greater impact on team success too.  It requires the development of character traits, thinking qualities as well as the ability to influence, motivate and inspire colleagues and team members to deliver.

Yes, it’s still about delivering to the bottom line – but achieving that through others and doing it better as a result of leading and being a team player, than any one team member could alone.

Leaders need to access the resources the team needs to achieve their milestones, to influence the wider environment in order to access those resources, and to encourage the very attitude of resourcefulness itself which people need in order to succeed.  Many of our clients themselves use a coaching style of leadership to get the best from others

Leaders need to engage successfully with others

If leaders can only succeed by others being successful, then this increases the importance of engaging, effective relationships.  This is why, in the leadership development field, we talk about the importance of emotional intelligence and prioritise it in our workshops.

Relationships are never only one-way and leaders need effective feedback: constructive, supportive criticism which they can use to build upon and keep going – despite setbacks.  This is a vital role for a leadership coach to encourage emotional receptivity.

There’s still an inner game going on: it’s about finding and communicating the real you – which means getting in touch with your personal values as a leader and staying in touch with your authenticity.  This is the rudder of integrity, which steers leaders through complexity and helps them stay sane in the midst of so much uncertainty.

Leadership is about living your principles

I offer my clients some leadership principles to consider and apply:

  • Work in true partnership with others, building on the strengths of each others’ contribution, rather than trying to be the hero leader, going it alone
  • Start with an attitude of resourcefulness and a vision of what success looks like, searching for possibilities as you go
  • Suspend personal judgement; keep judging for wise decisions, by noticing and learning from what work of others.  As Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
  • Cultivate the value of humour and harness its benefits

These same principles form the basis of our leadership coach training, because those who set out to coach leaders have also to consider how they support them.  Coaches live in a paradox of appreciating the great complexity within which leaders operate, and supporting leaders to simplify that complexity.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Leaders in the coaching profession like Gallwey and Whitmore are giants.  I’m genuinely grateful for coaching models like GROW – because they strive for an essential simplicity – and leadership coaching is about supporting our clients to achieve simplicity too.

Albert Einstein said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

However leadership coaching isn’t a four-step (or any step) linear progression.  Leaders make a journey that requires a vision and clarity about the direction in which their organisation is heading.

They need resilience and the ability to support the team to deliver; at the same time has dealing with diversions and distractions and looping back to re-walk some of the steps.

Leadership coaching must embrace the complexity of what the leader and his or her team has to do.  It engages with the emotional tangles of success, frustration and every emotion in between.  Coaching supports the leader to grow their character–to be in touch with their inner selves, their values and their authentic and unique leadership style.   A thousand words could never do justice to the breadth and complexity of 21st century leadership.  What have I missed out about leadership that’s important to you?


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

8 thoughts on “Why leadership coaching has outgrown GROW

  1. Fab blog Helen 🙂

  2. Excellent points – Leadership is complex and continues to be organic in the way it changes to keep pace with ever emerging challenges.

  3. And always coach the person, not the problem – true of any coaching, but especially so when we work with leaders who have been successful doing things in a particular way – and now need to change

  4. Helen, I fully resonate with what you write. I believe that leaders can show their full potential only if and when they listen to their inner voice. Their inner voice goes back to the Aristotelian root causes of why and how they got up ther in the hierarchy. At those times they were positive humans, that’s why they climbed up the career ladder. “Noises” from all over the place, however, tend to permeate leaders’ everyday life and prevent them from listening to those inner voices. So, they lose sight of their ability to achieve more, create more, lead more…

    • Thanks Michalis – I love the idea of remembering why we were positive humans – how easy it is to forget in the day-to-day noise!

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