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3 May 2022


How can leadership coaching improve both?

This month, as I thought about Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) and its relationship with coaching, I realised I have yet to have a client with a coaching objective to explore improving diversity and inclusion at work.

Why is that?

Is it because: 

  • Other coaching objectives take precedence over D&I?
  • D&I is not seen as a topic for coaching?
  • We see D&I as more of an organisational than individual objective?
  • Or because when coaching improves leadership behaviours it improves D&I as well?

I hope it’s the last one; that we recognise that being a better leader is likely to impact culture and in doing so will improve the working environment for all. 

In reality, I suspect all of the above (and other factors) play into why D&I doesn’t appear more often in client coaching objectives. However, on reflection, I think there is a case to be made for how improving leadership behaviours, through coaching, improves D&I.

D&I is in part about policies and procedures, but these will not work if the culture and the leaders who set that culture are not themselves inclusive.

Successful leadership styles are changing to be more empathetic and inclusive. The pandemic has seen a real need for leaders to deliver on these behaviours. As organisations step up to be more sustainable and demonstrate the part they play in the environment and wider society, they will need leaders who are strong in these areas.

Coaching can help in the development of these more empathetic and inclusive leadership styles.

When working with clients on developing their leadership style, I often ask them to read an article as pre-work before the coaching and to come to the session ready to share their reflections on the article. 

One of my favourite articles on this is Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? ( It proposes that “We all know that leaders need vision and energy. But to be inspirational, leaders need four other qualities. Probably not what you’d expect, these qualities can be honed by almost anyone willing to dig deeply into their true selves.”

The four unexpected qualities that inspirational leaders share are:

  • By exposing some vulnerability, they reveal their approachability and humanity
  • Their ability to collect and interpret soft data helps them know just when and how to act
  • Inspirational leaders empathize passionately - and realistically - with people, and they care intensely about the work employees do
  • They capitalize on what’s unique about themselves.

The article was published in October 2000 and yet I believe the qualities it identifies are as relevant today, if not more so than they were then. 

When exploring the four qualities with clients, we look at: 

  • What they feel is the vulnerability they may choose to share to show that they are human (this is usually the toughest one of the four to identify)
  • How well they interpret soft data - their ability to read the room
  • How well they empathise and who they struggle to empathise with and why
  • What is unique about them, and what strength or real value they bring that they should play on.

What strikes me looking at the four qualities of inspirational leaders is that they also drive inclusive leadership, as they are so focused on understanding differences and including others.

It’s a very powerful piece of self-reflection for a leader to assess how they show up and how they want to show up going forwards. 

It is also a powerful way of getting leaders to think about others once they have thought about themselves and how they want to re-set their awareness of others in light of their own experience. This is an opportunity for a leader to open their eyes to be more D&I aware and think about the vulnerability and uniqueness of others and the value that brings, and to be empathetic in supporting everyone and how to read the room for signs of dissatisfaction where this may not be happening.

As I reflected further on how coaching develops more inclusive leaders, I thought about some other classic coaching objectives that help facilitate a more D&I aware mindset:

  • Developing self-awareness and being more self-reflective, which can be valuable to assess how we behave, how we treat others and how we see ourselves and what we might need to change
  • 360 stakeholder feedback, hearing from others (usually anonymously) regarding our strengths and development areas and what we are going to do about them
  • Developing listening skills
  • Using structured approaches to exploring the development of direct reports, which increases the likelihood of fair consideration being given to all, rather than unconscious bias playing out
  • Exploring safe spaces at work, where people feel comfortable talking freely.

Coaching can also play a part in developing underrepresented employees who often experience unique challenges in the workplace. Coaching can help them navigate these challenges.

On reflection, I believe leadership coaching can play a key role in “holding up the mirror” and asking how well am I showing up in my responsibility towards Diversity and Inclusion and what am I going to do about it?

As always, it would be great to hear any thoughts or questions this topic raises.

From the author:

As coaching is not an advice-giving service, these blogs are not written with the intention of proposing solutions to common leadership challenges. Instead, they are thought pieces with the aim of prompting the reader to think more deeply about the topic and reflect on whether it warrants further exploration, with or without a coach.

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