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Feel stuck, but not sure what to do about it? A coach might be able to help you, but what type of coach should you look for?’s FIT FOR PURPOSE blog series explores the main types of coaching out there to help you choose the best coach for your needs. 

What is a leadership coach?

While a life coach works with a broad array of topics related to many different areas of a client’s life, a leadership coach, as the name suggests, works directly with topics related to individual’s role as a leader. This could take many forms; a parent is a leader, a sports captain is a leader, a religious head is a leader, a military officer is a leader, the president of a country is a leader. But practically speaking most leadership coaching is commissioned by organizations, especially for-profit businesses. Within these enterprises leadership coaching can take place at many levels, from Board through executive levels, down through management, team leaders or supervisors, but most leadership coaching interventions are often long-term commitments that involve more than one person and a significant financial investment. As a result, most organization-funded leadership coaching takes place at senior levels, which is why executive coaching and leadership coaching are often used interchangeably.

A subtle stigma has historically been attached to leadership coaching due to its use by organizations to support or develop struggling leaders; many execs told they’ll be meeting with a coach have an instant reaction of, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ But this is slowly fading as businesses have recognized the true role of a leadership coach: to take a leader to the next level by unlocking her latent capacities in achieving higher performance and better outcomes.

Unlike life coaching, however, these outcomes are not measured according to the individual’s goals alone. In a leadership coaching program the objectives are a marriage of the personal and organizational, the business’s goals and the individual’s goals. There is a natural overlap of the two that creates a unique professional coaching expectation. As Marc Kahn argues in his book Coaching on the Axis, when a business is paying for one of its leaders to undergo developmental coaching, the leadership coach has two real clients: the person being coached and the business who employs him. For some leadership coaches this is a radical view, but it points to the broader perspective required of a leadership coach.

What should I look for when choosing a leadership coach?


A leadership coach does not necessarily need to have been an exec or senior manager in a business to have powerful impact. In fact, previous business experience can significantly color how a coach engages with a client, and such a coach needs to be especially careful of not falling into an ‘it-worked-for-me-so-it-will-work-for-you’ approach. At best, this is mentorship (see below), at worst it is prescriptive and limiting. The coach’s role is to see and unlock potential in the client – this does not require business leadership experience. Not surprisingly, however, some individuals and businesses want to see a coach with a solid business resume – they feel more comfortable working with someone who they believe understands the territory.

In either case, a leadership coach should at minimum have accreditation through a recognized coaching body, the gold standard of which is the International Coach Federation (ICF). ICF-credentialed coaches practice at one of three levels – Associate, Professional or Master – with rigorous training and professional requirements, such as hours coached, required to become certified at each level. Though additional leadership coaching certifications are offered by numerous professional bodies and training enterprises, these are in addition to, rather than in place of, an ICF accreditation.


Though leadership coaching is itself a niche, some leadership coaches specialize further. Some niches might include expatriates, non-profit organizations, men/women leaders, startup founders and entrepreneurs. Such a distinction might be useful to some clients.


Whether the coach is being hired by an individual or organization, a leadership coaching program usually requires a significant investment of time and resources. It is critical that the individual(s) and the business feel a good fit with the coach, and vice versa. All good coaches will request, or at least offer, a free introductory meeting to assess compatibility.


Does your potential coach only meet face-to-face, virtually, or both? With today’s technology you are able to choose your coach from anywhere in the world and connect online. This suits some leaders as it offers greater flexibility in scheduling, allowing them to continue coaching while they are travelling, or even in their out-of-office time – an important consideration for leaders working with sensitive topics that they do not feel comfortable discussing at work. However, if your organization prefers to see a coach in the room, search internet coaching platforms like for coaches in your area.

A leadership coach is not…

A consultant

A consultant is hired for their expertise in a specific field or area of business. They can be hired to work with individuals, teams or the organization as a whole, and are focused on diagnosing problems, fixing those problems or generally accelerating the achievement of business objectives. A leadership or executive coach isn’t necessarily hired for technical guidance – she works specifically with the unique makeup of the individual and the interface between that individual and the organization. Her skills lie in unlocking the leader’s unique developmental abilities, not in prescribing diagnoses and solutions.

A mentor

A mentor provides expert guidance and advice based on his experience in a specific field or area. If you’re needing guidance based on experience – someone who has walked the path you want to walk – then a mentor is what you’re looking for. A leadership coach does not necessarily have experience with your specific topic – he is equipped with the tools to help you overcome those unique challenges using your own resources.