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Leadership coaching for systemic impact

Written by: Ben Gibbs
7 min read
Ben Gibbs, Integrity Coaching; Restart-Ed, UK

Leadership is not an individual act

Leadership coaching is now firmly established as an effective way to support an individual’s professional and personal development and to help leaders reflect on the complexities of their role. Through a carefully managed process of dialogue, the coachee is helped to explore how their own identity and characteristics ‘show up’ at work and, with the coach, to co-create new ways of thinking, being and doing. The idea is that the leader can return to their role with fresh perspectives on its challenges and a willingness to change any behaviours identified as potentially problematic (Bluckert, 2006).

Arguably, this focus on the individual is one of the reasons for the success of coaching. After all, leading others can be a lonely and altruistic role with limited opportunities for guided self-reflection and ‘me time’. But it is also increasingly recognised as a shortcoming too, which limits the potential for coaching to bring about sustainable systemic and organisational change. At the heart of this critique is a realisation that ‘the exercise of leadership is not an individual act… the complexity, interconnectedness and transparency of today’s organisations means that no individual can get much accomplished alone’ (Soske and Conger, 2010, p. 242). The coaching profession is catching up with this shift in thinking, and this is explored below in relation to schools, but it is important to briefly explore how we got here.

A world of ‘exquisite interconnectedness’

The practice of coaching as it is currently formulated was forged in the era of individualism that dominated Western cultures in the second half of the 20th century, and which encouraged us to view the self as a ‘project’ (Giddens, 1991) and life as something to be ‘lived subjectively’ through experience (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005, p. 2). This shift also influenced the concept of leadership and, during the 1960s, the predominant discourse shifted from that of leader as ‘controller’ (with a focus on efficiency, productivity and ‘human resources’) to leader as ‘therapist’. This was a ‘people-focused, emotionally literate leadership [in which] the underpinning ethos is that to run an organisation successfully… it’s the psychological, relational and emotional that are important’ (Western, 2019, p. 195).

These therapist leaders required therapist coaches and so, drawing on the traditions of psychotherapy, counselling and, more recently, the happiness and positive psychology movements, coaching has been commissioned as a way of either repairing an individual’s ‘wounded self’ or realising the potential of the ‘celebrated self’ (Western, 2012, pp. 3–8).

In this paradigm, the focal point for a coach’s work is located in the client, and their role is to apply tools and interventions that enable their client’s individual development. Thus (Kilburg, 2000, p. 65):

‘Executive coaching is defined as a helping relationship formed between a client who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organisation and a consultant who uses a wide variety of behavioural techniques and methods to assist the client to achieve a mutually identified set of goals to improve his or her professional performance and personal satisfaction.’

For Hawkins and Turner, however, things are changing again: ‘Coaching is slowly waking up to a[nother] fundamental paradigm shift… in science, philosophy, religion, psychology, organisational science and leadership development’ (2020, p. 22), which draws our attention outwards from the individual and onto the wider system in which they are a ‘nested’ part (Wheatley, 2006, p. 158):

‘Our zeitgeist is a new (and ancient) awareness that we participate in a world of exquisite interconnectedness. We are learning to see systems rather than isolated parts and players. We can see the webs of interconnections that weave the world together.’

Helping school leaders to think systemically

For Western, ‘thoughtful leaders realise that change has to happen in light of this new zeitgeist or their organisations will ossify and die; [but] at the same time the immediate pressures driven by short-term demands mean they often turn a blind eye to this knowledge and continue with their heads in the sand’ (Western, 2012, p. 197). And yet there’s something about the ‘business’ of schools and school leadership – the importance of the task, the complex relational character of a multi-generational system and the eccentric psychodynamics of teaching and learning – that seems to make systems thinking all the more important.

For Schechter and Shaked, ‘schools that merely produce “more of the same” education (the assembly-line metaphor) will not satisfy the need to address the challenges and complexities that will face students in the future’ (2019, p. 249). They continue: ‘[a] systemic approach can provide deeper insights into various events and phenomena, thus helping to avoid a reductionist and simplistic standpoint, which unduly simplifies organisational complexities, interrelationships and connectivity.’ (p. 250) They conclude: ‘[T]he answer to the question of how schools may become places of transformation lies in systems thinking.’ (p. 256)

For Eddy-Spicer and James (2019), it’s vital for school leaders to adopt a ‘boundary perspective’, considering the interrelationships between the parts of their organisation and between the school and its wider eco-system. They suggest that thinking about how mental, social and physical boundaries regulate both internal interaction and the nature of exchange across the organisational threshold is vital for organisational decision-making, especially considering the ‘technological changes affecting schools, organisational change driven by reform agendas, and the increasingly complex responsibilities of schools’ (p. 244).

For Bibby (2011) and Youell (2006), the inherent relational complexity in the teaching and learning process itself requires a form of leadership that is alive to the psychodynamics at play in the system, which drove Freud to consider education ‘an impossible profession’. After all, the core task of schools is to manage learning, and to learn is to change. Change is complex because it is inherently emotional, stirring up anxieties in everyone involved. In seeking to manage these emotions, schools create routines, rituals and structures and embed these in practice. As leadership is often about changing (or breaking) these containing structures and thereby unleashing a powerful unconscious response, it is a highly charged role, and one that is the focus of a good deal of projected emotion from the system (Bibby, 2011).

Whether helping a leader to acknowledge and accept the complexity of their organisation, or to perceive what’s happening at the boundaries in and around their system, or to understand the systemic drivers of the unconscious and irrational behaviours that result from their actions, systemic leadership coaching has a key role in school improvement.

So what does it look like in practice? A brief vignette:

A primary school had appointed a new headteacher to join and lead an established SLT. She was the fourth school leader with whom they had worked in two years. The head commissioned team coaching to help build trust and develop ways of working that might enable innovation and continuous improvement. The coach worked with them to consider how differently each of them conceived each other’s roles and the organisation, and facilitated work discussion groups in which they reflected on one another’s deep concerns. Together, they identified a tendency to see the other adults in the system as children, and to therefore seek simplistic solutions for what were, in reality, complex ‘adult’ challenges. The team were then encouraged to turn outwards and consider what this new understanding meant for their leadership of the wider staff team and the school’s relationship with its community of parents.

The systemic coach works in a way that (a) supports the leader to better understand their own role and needs, (b) locates them in the wider organisational system, and (c) helps them to understand both the complexity of that system and how they interact with it as a result of their own character, experience and expectations. The aim of the work is to help leaders to think systemically and in terms of the interdependence and relatedness that characterise their system. It is to help identify how power and influence flows through the organisation and how their capacity to influence change depends on their understanding of the connections that comprise the very fabric of their schools.

A coach working in this systemic mode maintains a concurrent focus on the system and the individual – what Bion called a ‘binocular vision’ (Symington and Symington, 1996). They draw attention to the impact of the leader’s activity both inside and outside of their own consciousness, and inside and outside of their own organisational system, into the wider ecology beyond a school’s boundaries. The emphasis is on the moral, ethical, social, political and environmental impact of their leadership, as its influence ripples out to the wider world both in the short term and also over the longer term, as the young people whom they influence move on from school and into life, enacting what they have learned over time. And what could be more important than that?


Integrity Coaching and Restart-Ed offer chargeable services linked to coaching and professional development.


Bibby T (2011) Education: An ‘Impossible Profession’? Oxford: Routledge.

Bluckert P (2006) Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching. Maidenhead: OUP.

Eddy-Spicer DH and James C (2019) Boundary perspectives on schools as organisations. In: Connolly M, Eddy-Spicer, DH, James C et al. (eds) The SAGE Handbook of School Organisation. London: SAGE, pp. 228–248.

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Schechter C and Shaked H (2019) Systems thinking in school organisation. In: Connolly M, Eddy-Spicer, DH, James C et al. (eds) The SAGE Handbook of School Organisation. London: SAGE, pp. 249–266.

Soske TL and Conger J (2010) The shifting paradigm of executive leadership development: Moving the focus to the impact of the collective. In: Bunker KA, Hall DT and Kram KE (eds) Extraordinary Leadership: Addressing the Gaps in Senior Executive Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 239–270.

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Wheatley M (2006) Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: Berret Koehler.

Youell B (2016) The Learning Relationship: Psychoanalytic Thinking in Education. London: Karnac.

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