The 12 Steps of Executive Coaching: Part I

‘Hi, my name is Dan, and I’m a recovering control freak,’ said no one ever.

There isn’t a 12-step program for this particular character defect; however, having been introduced to the 12-step philosophy of recovery over three decades ago, then moving into the corporate world five years later, and now having been a coach for the last decade, I can see great parallels between the 12 steps of recovery and developing wisdom in leadership. With a few adjustments here and there, here’s how you can use the 12-step model to guide you in an executive coaching journey.


Traditional Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over [substance or behavior] and our lives had become unmanageable.

  • Executive Coaching Step 1: Admitting powerlessness over our own shortcomings and over other people

We commonly work with executives whose behaviors have led to company-sponsored coaching. Often these behaviors indicate adherence to a ‘command and control’ philosophy of leadership, such as an unwillingness to be vulnerable or personable with subordinates, or else a micro-managing style of leadership.

As such, our first step is always to have a ‘chemistry meeting’ with a potential coachee. This is not only for them to assess whether they want to work with us, but also for us to assess whether they would truly benefit from being coached. It is crucial to success first and foremost that the person recognizes and admits to an awareness of needing to strengthen or polish certain key managerial attributes.

It is during this initial meeting that we get around to asking, what’s your understanding of why we are here and how you’d benefit from working together? If the prospective coachee’s response is one of uncertainty, it’s a similar situation to a person arriving at a 12-step meeting at the behest of a court order, an authority figure, or an angry significant other. These folks typically don’t see anything wrong with their behaviors, and often refuse to entertain the need to change. Over the past decade, we’ve learned that potential coachees without awareness of why they need coaching are not likely to benefit from coaching, because they often are not yet willing to look at themselves, and lack the teachability necessary to make real change.


Traditional Step 2: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

  • Executive Coaching Step 2: Believing that 21st Century Leadership skills can help

Unlike the traditional second step, we do not ask coachees to have spiritual faith, but to rely on time-tested and scientifically supported techniques to improve gravitas, professional judgement, relationship development, and leadership skills.


Traditional Step 3: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to our higher power.

  • Executive Coaching Step 3: Deciding to relinquish ‘command and control’ to embrace 21st Century Leadership skills

We encourage coachees to try new behaviors and techniques to see for themselves how they can shift outcomes toward the positive. More than ten years of working with executives has given us a plethora of stories that demonstrate how controlling and demanding managerial styles backfire, and in today’s working world—where all professionals have many choices of where to take their talents—employee retention and development is more important than ever.


Traditional Step 4: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

  • Executive Coaching Step 4: Taking a professional inventory

Not coincidentally, after the initial chemistry meeting, if we decide to move forward, the next step is to conduct an inventory we call a 360-Degree Assessment, during which we interview ten to twenty of the coachee’s closest colleagues at all levels to identify what the coachee does well and what behaviors are moderately to majorly dysfunctional. This process typically reveals both behaviors to implement and to extinguish.


Traditional Step 5: We admitted to our higher power, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

  • Executive Coaching Step 5: Admitting to oneself, one’s coach, and another person the wrongs done

Similar to the traditional fifth step, we encourage accountability during this process of leadership evolution. Accountability strengthens humility muscles and raises emotional intelligence by encouraging professionals to maintain an attitude of curiosity, growth, and continuous improvement.


Traditional Step 6: We became ready to have our higher power remove all these defects of character.

  • Executive Coaching Step 6: Being ready to strengthen one’s management style with 21st Century Leadership skills

Our first recommendation for strengthening one’s leadership skills is not religious, although our conversations often lead to briefly touching on coachees’ spiritual outlooks, which typically range from devout Christian to atheist or a Zen-like perspective on the world. Coachees’ spiritual outlooks are worth briefly exploring, if only because they provide insight into coachees’ coping mechanisms and worldview.

Often the very behaviors that need to be addressed are tied to a tight grip on processes and how coachees think the organization should operate, without consideration for collaboration, relationships, or team building. Learning 21st Century Leadership skills helps professionals to value diversity of thought, new philosophies, and advancements in their field.

For this week: After reviewing the first half of the 12 Steps of Executive Coaching, can you identify what step you are on? What steps you need to go back and revisit? What steps you struggle to see how to even approach?

Navigating change and growth can be hard—that’s why most traditional 12-step programs include having a sponsor as a requirement. In the world of leadership development, that sponsor is often a coach or mentor. Stay tuned for our next installment, when we’ll explore the second half of the 12 Steps of Executive Coaching, and if you’re interested in having an executive coach, we’d love to talk to you! Call or email Dan today!