Overcoming a deficit perception of leader development

Dr Elaine Cox and Dr Mike McLaughlin assess if coaching can address the deficit model commonly used for leadership capability in order to provide more holistic development, delivering not only skills, but also bravery

Traditional leadership development takes a variety of forms and is supported by a multiplicity of theories, all aimed at enhancing leadership capability (Hanson, 2013). It appears, however, that each of these theories is promoting the idea of doing things differently in relation to leadership initiatives, such as leading change, transformation or inspiring people.

At first glance, this makes sense and indeed there is good reason to insist that some leaders need to do things differently. However, in this article we want to highlight research that suggests that this ‘corrective’ approach is only one part of the developmental mix.

In order to capture the essence of these theories, we begin by summarising some of them through the lens of leading change:

  • Relational leadership considers change in relation to the dynamic of relationships. Leaders need cognitive and practical skills to break down the distinctions between leader and followers in order for mutuality to flourish. They need to shift the role they play from leader to team member, allowing the relationships created to produce the leadership decisions.
  • Situational leadership sees change in relation to meeting the needs of the situation. Leaders need to change and flex their style to meet follower maturity needs.
  • Servant leadership implies leaders need the ability to generate the best environment for their followers and to think about how best they can serve the needs and culture of the organisation.
  • Ethical leadership requires leaders to consider changing their approach or culture of the organisation and be aware of the consequences of action based on espoused ethical values.
  • Authentic leadership links change with the leader’s capacity to be authentic, which is often linked to values and purpose.


However benign these theories sound, each tends to harbour an inherent deficit model where, in their application to the real world, the focus is on specific lack of skill or competence by the leader (Turnbull James and Collins, 2008). This emphasis on lack is disseminated through leadership development programmes.

Turnbull James and Collins have argued that development interventions for leaders need to be designed differently, with a focus beyond individual capabilities and, we would suggest, beyond immediate organisational needs. A more holistic approach is advocated, one that embraces the wider systemic and cultural context in which leaders are connected as well as addressing individual development needs.

Turnbull James and Collins (2008) are of the view that equating leadership with the leader focuses leadership development on the deficits that individuals have and opportunities for them to correct those deficits. They consider there are limitations to this ‘deficit’ approach, since “fixing problem areas or adding new pre-determined competences” (2008, p20) shifts the focus to specific learning objectives, which may, in turn, stifle developmental aims.

So the leadership theories often become simply a veneer applied over existing behaviours and approaches, in the hope that some uptake of their situational, authentic, ethical, relational or servant ideas is achieved.

Leadership coaching, on the other hand, is a form of leader development that works on two levels: yes, it uses immediate leadership concerns to support behavioural and skill development, but it also develops leaders according to individual strengths and self-knowledge.

Leadership qualities and capabilities are built on a foundation of self-awareness with organisational understanding. Thus, as well as spotlighting specific attributes or competence advancements, with a coaching approach, there is an integral focus on the kind of leader development that Day et al (2012) suggest is missing from traditional leader education programmes.

Unfortunately, the deficit way of thinking still affects the way coaching is perceived by leaders. Research conducted by Stanford Graduate School of Business (2013) found nearly two-thirds of CEOs and almost a half of executives did not receive executive coaching or leadership advice from outside coaches or consultants.

Paradoxically, nearly all those surveyed said they would enjoy the experience of coaching to enhance their development. So, it is interesting to consider why CEOs and other senior leaders say they like coaching, but fail to seek it. The reason appears to lie in a misunderstanding about what leaders think they need and what they think coaching can offer.

According to LaBier (2013): “most omit or misconstrue the core coaching element that CEOs need to grow their skills and effectiveness: Increased self-awareness, honest self-knowledge, about one’s motives, personality capacities and values. The consequences of this absence play out in ways that diminish the relevance of coaching in the eyes of most senior leaders”.

Thus, many CEOs still see coaching as remedial, filling gaps in skill or ability, rather than as something that promotes vital courage and high performance. They cling to the traditional deficit model of leadership development transmitted through their business school education and training organisations.

The situation is similar in the UK, but as the CIPD recommends: “focusing on both poor and good performance is a good way to ensure that coaching is not seen as a remedial intervention or a talent path for the gifted, but as a key intervention” (CIPD, 2012, p14).

These results reflect leaders’ perceptions, but they also reveal the failure of coaching, and/or wider society, to highlight that most successful leadership is accomplished through self-awareness and understanding of motivation, values and decision-making.

To illustrate the point, consider how much more effective leaders might be were they, in adopting a relational leadership approach, not merely to calculate how best to step away from being the ‘leader’ and become a ‘team member’ at the optimum time and in most effectively, but also to feel extremely comfortable doing so, with inherent confidence, bravery, resilience and good humour.

We propose that especially in the context of current leadership concerns, coaching adds a more far-reaching approach to leader development, one that even exploits the possibility of a braver approach to leadership (McLaughlin and Cox, 2015).

  • Elaine Cox is director of Coaching and Mentoring Programmes at Oxford Brookes University and is the author of Coaching Understood (London: Sage, 2012). She also edits the open access, peer-reviewed International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring
  • Mike McLaughlin works as a coach and consultant, specialising in leadership development. He recently completed his doctorate in coaching and mentoring at Oxford Brookes University


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