What Is Leadership Coaching (Incl. Certification Options)

Leadership coachingCan coaching change your life?

When Justin started working at Facebook, he learned he was “rubbing people the wrong way” (Rosenstein & Schwartz, 2019).

His manager Yishan polled Justin’s colleagues, who said he was not listening to feedback, sharing credit, or emphasizing “we” over “me.” Yishan decided to commit to helping Justin overcome these obstacles.

Yishan met with Justin every week, asking probing questions and having him write essays on major themes from feedback. Such activities guided Justin toward improving workplace relationships and performance.

After six months, Yishan polled the same colleagues about Justin. His colleagues said Justin was now “a completely different person” and a better colleague.

Justin called this “a major turning point in my life, fundamentally changing the way I relate to others and even myself.”

What Justin experienced was his manager as a coach: a supportive and questioning guide who helped him improve his relationships and performance on the job.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help your clients realize their unique potential and create a life that feels energizing and authentic.

What Is Leadership Coaching? A Definition

Leadership coaching has a two-fold meaning: it refers to working with the leaders of an organization to help them maximize their abilities and lead their teams well, and it also refers to a leadership style (see below) that executives use when working with their teams.

These two meanings come together in organizations where the leaders are coached and also use a coaching style with their own teams, resulting in a culture of coaching throughout the organization.

The leadership coaching model emphasizes active listening rather than lecturing, asking the right questions rather than providing answers, and presenting leaders and teams with various options rather than giving directions. This model of coaching is designed to help leaders and their teams maximize organizational resources to pursue goals they set themselves.

Leadership coaching is typically less directive than the “command and control” management style that previously pervaded the business/organizational world (Ibarra & Scoular, 2019).

Leadership Coaching vs. Leadership Coaching Style

Leadership coaching styleLeadership coaching is a broad category under which various coaching styles can be grouped.

In an article in Harvard Business Review on leadership coaching, Ibarra and Scoular (2019) use a two-by-two matrix to describe basic leadership coaching styles:

Styles of coaching
More info put in 1. Directive 4. Situational
Less info put in 2. Laissez-faire 3. Nondirective
Less energy pulled out More energy pulled out

Directive coaching

In this matrix, a “directive” form of coaching (close to the “command and control” management of earlier times) mostly involves telling team members what to do and monitoring their progress toward set organizational goals. This is a form of coaching in which “more info is put in,” as indicated by the above matrix’s Y-axis.

However, per the X-axis, this form of leadership has the potential disadvantage of having “less energy being pulled out” (i.e., less motivation or initiative being pulled from the persons being led since they are not given any latitude in carrying out tasks).

Laissez-faire coaching

Directive coaching has its time and place. At other times, a more “laissez-faire” coaching style might be used. When the people under you have already been instructed in what to do and are doing it well without further input, it is probably best to leave them alone.

In a laissez-faire coaching style, you give people less ongoing information, and there is also “less energy pulled out” from them, as you are leaving them on auto-pilot.

Nondirective coaching

The “nondirective” coaching style is built on listening and questioning without being judgmental. Little information is given to teams, as you are not so much telling them things as posing questions that help them find their own answers.

Simultaneously, this form of coaching pulls more energy from teams, as they get inspired by seeking their own solutions and making progress by their own efforts.

Situational coaching

Finally, there is “situational” coaching, which Ibarra and Scoular (2019) call the “sweet spot” in their coaching matrix. In this form, coaches seek to maintain a fine balance between being directive and nondirective, alternating between the two in varying degrees depending on the situation’s needs.

Overall, situational coaching provides significant information but also tends to pull more energy from teams, as members know they can be called on at any moment to clarify their own problems and seek their own solutions.

Ibarra and Scoular state that all managers should become especially well versed in situational coaching, as it is most adaptive to the rapidly changing conditions often present in today’s organizations. These rapidly changing conditions sometimes call for being more directive, and sometimes less.

The Benefits of Leadership Coaching

A review of leadership coaching research in organizations (Jones, Woods, & Guillaume, 2016) concluded that leadership coaching has a positive effect on overall organizational outcomes (e.g., profitability) and more specific outcomes such as leaders’ skill development and emotional status.

The following are five key benefits of leadership coaching (Insala, 2019):

1. Empowerment

Coaching is said to empower leaders to do their best work. The best coaches become intimately familiar with their coachees’ strengths and weaknesses and help them leverage their strengths to overcome obstacles to their goals.

Supportive and reflective sessions with the coach on progress toward goals are also meant to be motivating and thus empowering.

2. New insight

Coaching is said to bring new insight into various problems a leader might be facing. Questions and discussions can highlight deeper problems and help the leader overcome problems in depth.

3. Free thinking

Coaching is meant to broaden thinking styles and encourage greater flexibility in thinking by asking questions that prompt the leader to see other perspectives on an issue.

Flexible or free thinking is increasingly important for business/organizational leaders, given today’s rapid changes in technology, social media/messaging, and consumer trends.

4. Enhanced performance

Coaching that targets a leader’s weak points produces significant improvements in both attitude and ability. These abilities include the capacity to work with difficult or withdrawn team members and get the most from their talents.

5. Improved communication

Coaches help leaders develop maximum clarity in their messaging. They note any weak points in a leader’s communication style and have them practice ways to overcome those weaknesses.

10 Coaching Questions for Leadership Development

Coaching questionsAsking the right coaching questions is key to being an effective leadership coach.

The following basic questions are representative of those often asked by leadership coaches (Rosen, 2011).

  1. What is the chief outcome you and your team are trying to achieve at this time?
  2. What resources do you have that could be most useful in achieving this outcome?
  3. What obstacles have you encountered in achieving this outcome?
  4. Have you encountered such obstacles in the past, in similar situations?
  5. If so, how did you try to overcome the obstacle(s)? What worked, and what did not?
  6. What is the first thing you need to do (action item #1) to achieve your desired outcome?
  7. Who do you need to communicate with to get this project moving?
  8. What will you say, exactly, and what do you think the other person(s) will say in this first conversation about the project?
  9. How can I, as a coach, best support you going forward?
  10. When would it make sense for you and me to reconnect to check progress toward your outcome?

7 Coaching Skills for Leaders

Leadership coaching is designed to help leaders develop coaching skills of their own and to ensure a coaching culture within an organization.

Key skills to develop include:

  1. Clarifying goals
    Coaches can and should help leaders clarify the goals of an organization or project and help leaders get buy-in from their teams in pursuing these goals.
  2. Being empathic
    Practicing empathy by imagining what the other person is experiencing can be considered a prerequisite for leadership. Empathy builds trust (Forbes Coaches Council, 2016), and teams who trust you will be more open to suggestions, even when they are difficult to hear.
  3. Being supportive
    Coaching is most effective when it is supportive rather than domineering or punitive. Coaches should seek opportunities to clearly demonstrate support, such as by attending meetings, offering praise for success, and encouraging teams to persist despite any failures.
  4. Asking the right questions
    Coaching in organizational contexts is often Socratic in method (Neenan, 2008). It asks challenging questions so that leaders and teams can arrive at their own answers, solve their own problems, and reach their own goals.
  5. Clarifying the problem
    As Charles Kettering, inventor and head of research at General Motors said, “A problem well-stated is half-solved” (Levy, 2020). Coaches help leaders state problems in the clearest and most actionable terms, thereby facilitating solutions.
  6. Creating options
    Coaching is less about telling people what to do and more about helping clarify the options or avenues they have for reaching their goals.
  7. Initiating a collaborative plan
    Once options are discussed, leaders should be coached to settle on a plan of action toward overall organizational or project goals. They should also be encouraged to seek input as appropriate from their teams in formulating and initiating plans.

4 Strategies and Techniques for Leadership Coaching, Including Examples

Leadership goal settingPractical application of leadership coaching is something worthwhile to experience.

These stategies and examples brings the concept closer to home.

1. Help set clear goals

This is a matter of overall organizational strategy.

Goal setting should include a sequence of action items and deadlines for stages to completion.

Examples of strategy:

To roll out a new product line, develop the steps to complete the manufacturing process for x number of products and set deadlines for each stage of completion, from manufacturing to advertising to distribution.

2. Active listening

The coach uses the fundamental coaching technique of active listening to understand others’ thinking and build trust. Trust is needed as it indicates that the coach will listen, understand, and make the most of the information provided.

Examples of technique:

Make eye contact with those you are working with so they know you are paying attention to them. Take notes about what they are telling you. State what they are saying back in your own words so they know you understand and have thought about it.

3. Supportive feedback

Provide feedback in positive, supportive terms, emphasizing what others have done well, offering specific reasons why x might not be working, and discussing options for addressing any pitfalls.

Examples of technique:

I really like what you did here, softening the colors to fit better with the color scheme of our broader product line. You’ve not yet solved the issue of how best to waterproof the product, though I appreciate the clear efforts you made. Let’s discuss some waterproofing options.”

4. Recognize accomplishments

Even small steps, well executed, can be celebrated as accomplishments. Recognizing accomplishments can go a long way to improving others’ self-confidence and continued motivation. Praise should be specific so they know precisely what they did right and duplicate such efforts in the future (Wroblewski, 2018).

Example of technique:

I like what you’ve done in this first series of professional development seminars for the teams. You’ve made the classes brief but full of useful information. People’s retention of the information will be about 50% better than previously because you use memorable illustrations and charts when you present.”

A Look at Business Leadership Coaching

Julie Deardorff (2016) commented on the emergence of business leadership coaching over the previous decade:

Once mainly found on the sidelines of athletic fields, coaches are flourishing in the business world, helping people overcome mental, physical, and emotional hurdles and creating a more fulfilling workplace.

Ibarra and Scoular (2019) further specified how leadership coaching in organizations differs from previous management styles. They note that the style best characterized as “command and control” worked well for managers in the business world until perhaps one decade ago.

Then, accelerating changes in the business environment, due in part to increased globalization and social media use, made the old “command and control” management model less useful.

In a more complex and rapidly changing world, leaders cannot always “know it all” and impart their fixed knowledge to team members as receptacles. Therefore, a new leadership model has evolved that emphasizes listening, asking questions, and clarifying options, rather than simply giving commands.

Under this newer model, leaders and their teams maximize their knowledge base by allowing various members to do their own research and bring it back to teams. While some information is still put into teams, more energy can also be pulled out, as goals and the action steps toward them are more of a collaborative effort, in which all stakeholders have an investment.

Leadership Coaching Certifications, Courses, and Programs

Leadership coaching coursesThe International Coaching Federation (ICF) offers coaching certificates at three levels (Associate, Professional, and Master), based on hours of coaching documented and ICF assessments.

This organization also certifies training programs for executive coaching.

The Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy offers organizational and leadership coaching certificates based on a four-course/12-month learning program designed to be part on-campus, part online.

The Rutgers University Continuing Studies program offers a certificate in Leadership Coaching for Organizational Performance, based on 132 hours over 12 in-class sessions. The ICF certifies this program.

Babson College has offered a Coaching for Leadership and Teamwork Program for undergraduates for the past 20 years. Much of the instruction is one-on-one and provided by trained volunteers from various business backgrounds.

This related article discussing 20 coaching courses also mentions online opportunities.

Online Training Opportunities

The Harvard Extension School, Professional Development division offers leadership coaching courses and certification online.

Georgetown University offers an Executive Certificate in Leadership Coaching, based on an eight-course, eight-month program that will be mostly online. The ICF certifies this program.

5 Best Leadership Coaching Books

Learn more about leadership coaching with these highly recommended reads.

1. The Leader Who Had No Title: A Modern Fable on Real Success in Business and in Life – Robin Sharma (2010)

The Leader Who Had No Title

Robin Sharma brings his unique perspectives on coaching, leadership, and realizing one’s potential to this highly readable and inspiring book.

Prospective readers should note that this book emphasizes personal or life coaching, as much if not more than business/organizational coaching.

Available on Amazon.

2. Coaching for Leadership: Writings on Leadership from the World’s Greatest Coaches – Marshall Goldsmith, Laurence S. Lyons, and Sarah McArthur (2012)

Coaching for Leadership

This book includes information on research-based coaching practices.

Writings by many well-known leadership coaches are included as well.

Available on Amazon.


3. Innovations in Leadership Coaching: Research and Practice – Terry, H. Hildebrandt, Francine Campone, Kathy Norwood, and Erek J. Ostrowski (2020)

Innovations in Leadership Coaching

This book emphasizes research-based aspects of leadership coaching.

It also clarifies how research findings can be best applied to business settings.

Available on Amazon.


4. The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching: 50 Top Executive Coaches Reveal Their Secrets – Howard Morgan, Phil Harkins, and Marshall Goldsmith (2004)

The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching

This book includes essays by 50 established coaches.

It also includes a review of research findings and best practices for leadership coaching.

Available on Amazon.



5. The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Coaching and Mentoring – Jonathan Passmore, David Patterson, and Teresa Freire (2013)

The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook

This book contains quick-reference summaries of research into the efficacy of leadership coaching and coaching psychology.

This book will benefit organizational psychologists and leadership coaches alike.

Available on Amazon.


Inspirational Leadership Coaching Quotes

Our chief want in life is someone who will make us do what we can.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The goal of coaching is the goal of good management: to make the most of an organization’s valuable resources.

Harvard Business Review

Everyone needs a coach. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a basketball player, a tennis player, a gymnast or a bridge player.

Bill Gates

Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It’s helping them to learn rather than teaching them.

Tim Gallwey

The best coaches really care about people. They have a sincere interest in people.

Byron and Catherine Pulsifer

Probably my best quality as a coach is I ask a lot of questions and let the person come up with the answers.

Phil Dixon

What I learned is that if a coach lacks sufficient persistence, he will be unable to complete the critical task of finding growth opportunities out of adversity.

Seth Davis

Coaching deals with the ‘how’: how you move from where you are and make change. It’s action-oriented and concerned with the present and future, not the past.

Shape Magazine

I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum potential.

Bob Nardelli

For more inspiring quotes, read our related article with 54 inspiring coaching quotes.

A Take-Home Message

Leadership coaching is designed to improve on the traditional “command and control” model of organizational management. It is effective in helping leaders improve their relationships and performance in organizations.

This type of coaching is particularly suited to today’s rapidly changing and complex organizational environments, where no one leader can “know it all.” Still, every leader can benefit from empowering team members to clarify problems and innovate solutions.

There is a growing body of research showing that leadership coaching infused throughout an organization can be a real difference-maker in assuring that organizations maximize their resources and achieve their most valued goals.

If you want to make a difference in your team or organization, it is worth exploring the many options to obtain leadership coaching certification.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.


  • Deardorff, J. (2016, November 18). Leadership coaching gains popularity in business world. Retrieved October 6, 2020, from https://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/news-center/news/2016/11/leadership-coaching-gains-popularity-in-business-world.html
  • Forbes Coaches Council (2016, May 12). 10 coaching skills every leader should master. Forbes. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2016/05/12/10-coaching-skills-every-leader-should-master/
  • Goldsmith, M., Lyons, L. S., & McArthur, S. (2012). Coaching for leadership: Writings on leadership from the world’s greatest coaches. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Hildebrandt. T. H., Campone, F., Norwood, K., & Ostrowski, E. J. (Eds.) (2020). Innovations in leadership coaching: Research and practice. Santa Barbara, CA: Fielding University Press.
  • Ibarra, H., & Scoular, A. (2019). The leader as coach. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach
  • Insala (2019, February 5). Why is leadership coaching important? Retrieved October 1, 2020, from https://www.insala.com/blog/why-is-leadership-coaching-important-the-5-key-benefits
  • Jones, R. J., Woods, S. A., & Guillaume, Y. R. F. (2016). The effectiveness of workplace coaching: A meta-analysis of learning and performance outcomes from coaching. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 89(2), 249–277.
  • Levy, M. (2020). A problem well-stated is half-solved. Levy Innovation. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from http://www.levyinnovation.com/a-problem-well-stated-is-half-solved/
  • Morgan, H., Harkins, P., & Goldsmith, M. (2004). The art and practice of leadership coaching: 50 top executive coaches reveal their secrets. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  • Neenan, M. (2008). Using Socratic questioning in coaching. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 27(4), 249–264.
  • Passmore, J., Peterson, D., & Freire, T. (Eds.) (2013). The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of the psychology of coaching and mentoring (Wiley-Blackwell handbooks in organizational psychology). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Rosen, K. (2011). Ten coaching questions that work in any conversation. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from http://keithrosen.com/2011/11/10-coaching-questions-that-work-in-any-conversation/
  • Rosenstein, J., & Schwartz, C. (2019). How to coach teammates: A key responsibility of effective leaders. Wavelength. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://wavelength.asana.com/coaching-workplace-why-examples/
  • Sharma, R. (2010). The leader who had no title: A modern fable on real success in business and in life. New York, NY: Free Press.
  • Wroblewski, M. T. (2018). Strategies and techniques for teaching and coaching. Chron. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from https://smallbusiness.chron.com/strategies-techniques-mentoring-coaching-23317.html


What our readers think

  1. Joseph Tackie

    Steps and institutions to develop career in leadership coaching?

    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Joseph,

      A good first step is to take a look at the training options provided by the ICF (they provide a series of steps on this webpage). That way, you can find a certified training option that will be recognized globally.

      – Nicole | Community Manager


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