India is the engine of massive global economic activity and leaders in India are experiencing challenging times—truncated business cycles, digital transformation, young millennial workforce, greater demand for all-round consistent performance, and a VUCA world. Delivering against breakthrough expectations at extraordinary stress levels, the leadership in India is in dire need of coaching.

The historical backdrop

Strangely, coaching in corporate India has traditionally had a stigmatised connotation despite the Indian tradition of the ‘Guru-Shishya Parampara’ which perhaps defines the oldest coaching approach in the world.

The Gurus (wise seers, rishis) were sought after by powerful kings as borne out in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Dharamshastras, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The shishyas or disciples received, besides other insights, the opening of eyes to self-awareness and self-realisation. The greatest coach Krishna transformed the mentee Arjuna on the battlefield while delivering invaluable life lessons on subjects ranging from personal to professional finally culminating into the 700-word Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita.

Coaching stood institutionalised in ancient India with Rajgurus being sought by the kings both personally and as an important member having a vantage view different from those of the cabinet. All top kings benefited from the wise counsel of coaches besides their formal cabinet.

Coaching in the modern world

A more globalising world with the sharper and talented new workforce is throwing up unforeseen challenges where the leaders could surely benefit from the wisdom of a trusted coach.

Smart organisations in India are playing an active role in getting their top executives coached by experts so as to align the individual strengths with the organisational long-term accelerated growth. The endorsement by the organisations underscores the importance of the need for executive coaching for high potential leaders.

Perhaps it is owing to the strong patriarchal system of India that leaders in India are even more lonely and isolated than leaders universally. The need for executive leadership coaching in India is therefore noticeable with leaders signing up in their individual personal capacity too. A welcome change indeed.

The supply side is dominated by ex-CEOs as also HR professionals, psychologists and sometimes self-styled coaches. Skilled coaches with contextual India understanding, of course, do better.

The East-West approaches

According to a Zen Master story, a martial arts student approached and declared to the teacher his desire to learn the code. “How long would it take?” The teacher replied: “Ten years.”

The student, a bit impatient remarked: “But I want to master it faster than that, I will work very hard, practise ten or more hours a day if necessary. How long would it then take?” The teacher replied: “Twenty years.”

Real learning is transformative and it changes subjects as people, deep inside their hearts and minds. The reason why the Pali word ‘Citta’—which translates as heart or mind—is so important in considering a Buddhist approach to learning.

Such an approach combines the modern ‘cognitive’—the knowledge and intellectual perspective with the ‘affective’—the emotional and attitudinal engagement. No such contradiction exists in Buddhist thinking which is holistic and complete.

Logic, mind, and reason have predominance over emotions in western thinking since the European Enlightenment. The Western method of coaching mostly follows models based on proven theories in psychology, psychotherapy, behavioural sciences, and more. The western model is typically a question-answer model where the questions are asked by the coach and the protege tries to find the answers. “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts,” as famously expounded by Harry S Truman.

The Buddha was perhaps the original post-modernist whose teachings placed optimum emphasis on both the heart and the mind, thereby laying the foundation for an integrated and holistic perspective.

The Indian executive mindset is comfortable with the idea of duality and looks at the world as shades of grey unlike a western binary view derived from a formal contractual relationship based on logical questioning. The coaching that works therefore in India is one that understands and incorporates a nurturing and empathy-driven style. Active listening and yet dispassionate non-judgmental observation as a witness (Sakshi Bhav). A mentee-centered approach characterises the Indian coaching style as classically different from the western model.

Learning is a stance. It’s a way of professional being. Leaders must be learners to make a difference.

Successful coaches realise that they need to continuously keep changing lenses to perspectivise: the subject’s lens, an objective by-stander lens and that of a trusted resource. Mindfulness, listening, and objective analysis all help.

Leadership coaching is most definitely an art that requires skill, contextual understanding, empathy, practice and delivery for effective transformation and transition.

Views are personal.

Piyush Sharma, executive-in-residence at ISB and at UCLA, is a global CEO coach and a c-suite + start-up advisor. Marshall Goldsmith, business educator and coach, is a world-renowned leadership thinker.

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