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What a gay coach can offer straight leaders: compassion, objectivity and an opportunity to “come out"

Graig G Howe

As a gay coach, I chose not to position myself as a coach exclusively to other LGBTQI+ individuals. Frustrated by many a poor leadership experience in my career in finance, I chose to try and improve this environment. I chose to bring my energy, passion, and care to bear on another group with significant challenges: leaders.

Six years on, I have had the honor and privilege to work with more than 500 leaders from over 45 countries around the world. I am not under any illusion that the battle for better leadership is won. Whilst there have been some positive trends, more balanced representation at board level has a long way still to go. The measurement of success still tends to focus too narrowly on profit, rather than the positive impact an organization can have on the societies in which they operate.

In this environment, I am intrigued by how my "gay" experience of the world supports me in working with so many straight leaders through my coaching. What equips me to achieve successful outcomes with such a diverse range of individuals?

By tapping into my experience of being in a minority group, I connect wholeheartedly with others. Theodore Roosevelt said, "Comparison is the thief of joy." I believe it. There tends to be an image or combination of attributes that we believe represents the ideal. Yet this is often an image that does not represent how most of us look, feel, or identify. Recognizing how challenging being "other" can feel, I know compassion is essential.

In my role as coach, it is my role to bring greater objectivity, revealing blind spots and perception gaps. The stereotypical leader tends to be directive, fast paced, and more interested in task than relationship. So many role models portray this style that it has become perceived as being the prerequisite for success as a senior leader. As such, many leaders feel pressured to conform to this image as they progress through the ranks during their career. They suppress their true nature and preferences, rather than risk standing out. The outcome of this can be entire leadership teams that are similar stylistically and at serious risk of group think.

I share honestly, challenge with kindness, and help the leader to map out a way forwards.
Leadership is demanding and can be overwhelming. In coaching, many leaders share information that they have never revealed before. Creating a safe space for the leader to slow down, be truly seen and heard without judgement, enables a shift deep within them. I also know that leaders can be somewhat isolated the more senior they become within their organization. By dint of the power they hold over others, subordinates tend to withhold real challenges and instead say what they believe the leader wants to hear.

For me, most important of all is to encourage greater diversity in the truest sense of the word. That means diversity as it relates to identity, cognition, personality, and style. Every leader is unique in calling upon their particular rich diversity of knowledge, skill, and experience. Allowing this difference to shine out, rather than suppressing it, is key to creating a broader range of leadership role models. There is no one way, there is your way.

As there is no stigma attached to leadership, to "come out" may seem less relevant as a metaphor for leaders. Yet I believe this choice in what leaders reveal to whom and when is just as applicable. Each person must define their core values and/or behaviors  Through clarifying the anchors against which they will self-evaluate, leaders build accountability around their intentions. Choices become conscious, success measurable. By defining what their own version of leadership looks like, each leader then has only the small task of honoring it. There the real work begins. 

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Wednesday, 04 August 2021

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