The Development Center

Leadership Development

Psychotherapy or Leadership Coaching?

A leader may sense that something is not right in his or her work life. This person may not have reached his or her full potential, or is in a role transition and the demands are more than imagined, or knows that others at the same level earn substantially more.

These leaders are clear that they want something to change but do not know the route to take. They may have tried changing on their own. However, with time it becomes apparent that to achieve the desired results serious work will be required.

A common opening statement is “I do not know if I need therapy or coaching?” Next, he or she begins to talk about a situation. Then says, “What do you think?”

I often respond “Just keep talking and we will decide together the most expedient way for you to get to the root causes. It may be therapy and it may be leadership coaching. I am quite sure that by the end of this exploratory meeting we will have clarity on how to proceed.”

I ask myself: does the person or the role need to be central to our work? If it is the person, psychotherapy would be most useful. If it is the role, then leadership coaching is called for.

The difficulty is that in some presenting problems either the person or the role could be the driver. Here are two examples:

A senior executive who is in a role transition is near burn-out. Is this because he drives himself hard in all parts of his life and never settles for “good enough?” Or that his new position demands taking a different leadership stance and he is still working in his old style?

Another example is of a bright and talented female executive. Her 360° assessment said she does not embrace herself as a leader. She knows that she has difficulty holding her rightful place in encounters. Does this come from being uncomfortable with her aggression? Or does she not understand the system well enough to create and take up an effective leadership role within it?

Each of these are complex issues. If the person is to be central to the work, depth psychotherapy is called for. However one’s role is still part of this. If focusing on one’s role would lend the best results, then leadership coaching is called for. However what the person brings to his or her work would still be included in this.

When we decide together if the person or the role is to be central to our work it becomes clear if psychotherapy or coaching is needed. Sometimes, depth psychotherapy is indicated since it addresses the root causes fairly quickly, is deep and broad, and has lasting results. At other times, leadership coaching will be most beneficial since it enables one to find one’s place and lead with authority within a particular system. Either choice — when the right one — can be life giving and freeing.

by Frances Unsell