You Need Leadership Development, Not Coaching


When it comes to leadership coaching, studies have demonstrated that regression into pre-coaching views is common. There is a really good reason why this is true. I believe that sharing the following might help you make a better decision regarding your own leadership development.

Let’s start by differentiating leadership training, leadership development, and leadership coaching.

Leadership Training

When someone goes to leadership training, they are usually concerned with the acquisition of new knowledge. The teacher is supposed to be a subject matter expert, and they help learners become more knowledgeable about the subject. It’s about learning something new and different in the hopes of being able to utilize the new information to great effect. This would be like going to the University for four years to get your degree.

Leadership Development

Leadership Development is about teaching the student leadership principles and applications and helping that student utilize and refine those new skills. The teacher is likely the one who spent years learning leadership at the university and is now helping others in the private sector. An analogy might be how the CPA is helping you personally but got their degree in accounting at the University.  

So if you’re seeking leadership development, you need a subject matter expert because a subject matter expert has a deeper understanding of leadership theorem and principles and can help you learn and improve them through a comprehensive program that they provide.  These programs will vary depending on the teacher and the expected outcome, but you will surely learn something new and be able to apply it.

Leadership Coaching

A coach is supposed to help refine and develop the skills that you have already learned. Essentially, a coach helps you to help yourself by drawing on what you already know. If you’re lucky, the coach will be a subject matter expert at coaching. However, it should be noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a subject matter expert on the topic being coached.

An analogy for this one might be someone with a marketing degree that works as a cashier at the local big box store. This person decided to work a seasonal job as a tax preparer and was given training that equates to about five credits hours. This is not a CPA, and you likely wouldn’t want to ask complex accounting or tax questions to this person.

Think About It

Have you ever wondered why so many leadership coaching programs toss a bunch of books at you and expect you to self-study your way into greatness? It’s because they probably don’t have a full understanding of what they are coaching in the first place, and they definitely don’t know how to teach it.

Have you ever wondered why a leadership development program lasts so much longer than a coaching session? It’s because leadership is a skill that must be honed by someone that understands how to hone them. You will also notice the difference between soft and hard skills. Furthermore, skills vary from person to person. This means that programs will often need to be customized. It takes years of education and experience to meet this need. The principles are complex, and the person developing the skills needs a deep understanding (if success is important). If it were as easy as reading a book, everyone would have read that book by now.

Have you ever wondered why some leadership pros go through years of leadership education and training and why leadership coaches might only have a couple of weeks or months? I want you to understand that your results will mirror the one you choose.

You have some decisions to make and some research to do. When it comes to leadership, there are a lot of coaches out there that profess subject matter expertise and rely solely on one approach. Don’t fall for it. The sad truth of the matter is that many times, they are subject matter experts in neither leadership nor coaching.

It Gets Personal

I was recently confronted by a leadership coach that was evidently unhappy that I was shedding so much light on the fact that too many in our industry are simply unqualified to teach leadership. I’m not sorry about that. There is a really big difference between a development program and a coaching program, and this difference is likely the reason why studies reveal that regression is common. For me, I don’t want anyone misrepresenting what I do or what I can provide.

The problem is actually widespread, though, and I suppose I understand why. Leadership development is a very respected discipline because there are some really great leadership pros out there. I’m sure that in many instances, we make it look a little easier than it really is. Unfortunately, when some decide that they want to get into leadership development, they also discover that the industry doesn’t really have oversight (it’s unregulated). You can just call yourself a leadership coach and hang a shingle. So in spite of the lack of leadership education, training, or experience, they open up a coaching firm, call themselves “trainers” and then regurgitate low-level soft-skill leadership ideas that they picked up along the way. It sounds crazy, but it happens a lot more than any of us would like to admit.  

Understand that it took me many years to learn what I have about leadership. And you know what? I’m still learning new things about it all of the time. I’m here to tell you that someone will not learn everything necessary to teach the actual science of leadership in a few weeks.

Consider this. It takes years of education for someone to be able to teach basic math to your kids or teach at your university. Is a leadership coach going to get everything they need to help you improve your life in a several-month-long course? Likely not! And would you want to adhere to the ideas given to you by someone who hasn’t invested the time to become a subject matter expert? I would hope not.

It gets worse. I’m in a few leadership groups on the internet. I recently stumbled onto a feed that I thought I might share to help further my point.

It started out as follows:

(Guy Says) – Hello all! I am new to the group and would love to network with leadership coaches. I plan to start a leadership development company. I would facilitate familiar material. For example, FranklinCovey. However, I don’t know where to start. Looking for tips and tricks.

(Girl Says) – I’m working to launch a leadership coaching business too. Similar but not totally your lane. Working with a coach right now. Would love to connect for future partnerships if I can be of service.

(Guy Says) Thanks for the comments. What kind of coach are you working with?

(Girl Says) I’m working with a marketing + business coach.

Wait, what? Let me state that both would later mention that they are currently taking on new clients. This is scary. Both of these people are supposed to be leadership coaches, but neither really knows what they are doing – and neither of them really has a strong handle on the material. What are the odds of success for their clients?

I told them to focus on what qualifies them and what sets them apart from their competition. As you can imagine, “I’ll keep that mind” was the reply because that truth would likely destroy their business before they even got started. So I decided to dig deeper to see for myself what qualified them and to see what set them apart from their competition. It wasn’t pretty!

The guy is just now starting his college degree at a less than reputable private, nonprofit, online university, and his degree is going to be in Marketing. But he’s also going to be a leadership coach at the same time because he thinks leadership development “would be cool”.

Let me just remind everyone that leadership coaching is not leadership development. Imagine for a moment what a failure on his part could turn into for those he attempts to help. The people he fails will be disappointed, and then they will likely bad-mouth the entire industry and, worse yet… believe that leadership development failed them when the truth of the matter is that HE (leadership coaching) failed them.

The girl in question has no leadership or coaching training whatsoever, and it seems her expertise and education come from a “manager who was a mentor in a program” that her company offered. Well, that and a few hours of listening to leadership podcasts aren’t enough to provide any kind of impactful or lasting results. This, too, will likely result in less-than-awesome outcomes for those she is coaching.

These examples go on and on. An even bigger problem that I see is that most people on the outside may not understand why this is such a big deal or know the difference enough to make an informed decision. I’m sure many will see things like “Certified Coach” along with a vague heading that resembles “Leadership Training” and just run with it – believing that their coach is a subject matter expert. They don’t know that a certified coach doesn’t really mean anything regarding leadership and that their leadership training likely consisted of a week-long course about the most basic of soft skill leadership principles, a few books, and hours of podcasts.

So let’s get back to the analogies. Do you take your taxes to your accounting professor at the local college? Of course not. You take them to a qualified CPA/Accountant. However, if your taxes are extremely simple, you might be able to get away with taking them to a tax preparer instead of spending the additional funds on the CPA. Let’s just hope they don’t mess up because that will be on you.

Well, leadership is very similar. You don’t need to go to the university yourself and learn everything that goes into leadership (the numerous theories and principles). Instead, you bring yourself to a qualified leadership development practitioner because they are trained to be able to help you achieve the success you need. Sure, you might be able to get away with going to a leadership coach… you just can’t really be sure about the outcome.

The sad truth is that the industry seems filled with people that don’t know what they are doing. My advice is simple. Don’t put your business or yourself in the hands of someone with anything less than clear expertise. It’s probably not going to end well if you do, and you will be throwing away a lot of money that could have been used more effectively by choosing a pro in the first place.   

Learn more. Check out my article titled “Can Leadership Development Really Work?