Leadership Coaching has become very popular around the world and is growing rapidly in Southeast Asia (where I recently lived). The International Coaching Federation principles and typical coaches are “coachee” centered – meaning the person being coached will primarily drive the agenda and his or her privacy is protected. These are very important aspects in the vast majority of coaching engagements because they are necessary to build trust between the coach and coachee.
What about a situation where the coachee is having very negative effect on those around him? The Harvard Business Review case study below outlines a situation where executive coaching actually made a narcissistic leader even worse. In this case the coaching helped the destructive leader cover up dishonest and hurtful behaviours. This temporary improvement allowed the person to get a promotion – which only gave the leader more power to damage others and the overall organisation.
In the spirit of full disclosure, both the author of the HBR case and I are psychologists. We share the bias towards using coaches with a background in psychology. This is especially the case when getting coaching for a leader demonstrating destructive behaviours. For non-psychologists, it is very difficult to identify narcissism. (See my other articles and posts about destructive leadership elsewhere on this site.) These individuals are very charming and deceptive. I have spent many years studying dangerous leaders in the workplace and worked on a team to help develop tools to identify individuals with narcissistic and other dangerous personality traits.
In my own coaching experience, I assessed and coached a President in a financial services company who clearly demonstrated narcissistic behaviours. When I challenged him on these behaviours, he became confrontational and attempted to challenge the results with the corporate human resources staff. He had been able to charm and deceive his own internal coach, his managers, and many peers. However, he systematically discredited and eliminated anyone who stood in his way. He used bullying, manipulation, sexual harassment, and many other tactics to get his way. He had risen to a very senior position to lead a major business unit. Luckily, corporate human resources took my assessment of this individual at face value and began to more closely monitor his behaviours as well as question his ability to take on larger roles – with the ability to do more harm.
Leadership assessment and executive coaching can do a great deal of good. However, please think carefully when choosing a coach – ensure the coach’s skills match the situation and the coachee’s needs. Make sure that your coaching program does more good than harm!
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