I am a psychotherapist and a coach so this question comes to me quite often. Here is my attempt to clarify and share from my coaching practice.

The two terms leadership coaching and therapy are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they are distinct. Leadership therapy and coaching can happen one-on-one individually or in groups. While both deal with providing support to the person who seeks them, the goals that they accomplish vary.

The American Psychological Association defines Psychotherapy as a “collaborative treatment based on the relationship between an individual and a psychologist. A psychologist provides a supportive environment that allows patients to talk openly with someone who is objective, neutral, and non-judgmental”. 

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity, and leadership”.

The decision to approach a therapist or coach is a major one to make.  Often it is a difficult and confusing decision to make because many times one specialization overlaps with the others.  


When should one approach a therapist?

Psychotherapists are qualified mental health professionals who are trained to provide support through verbal communication and interaction.  They are perfect for providing rehabilitation services too. Therapists are trained in the use of psychological methods to help deal with psychological problems that a client may be facing.

A therapist can help with:

  • Providing support after a medical diagnosis such as depression, trauma, etc.
  • Examining the past behaviors to understand what is happening in the present.
  • Provides a safe space for those who need to process the details of their past and are unable to move forward towards the future.
  • Provides a supportive environment to those who have fallen into patterns related to coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, alcoholism, etc.
  • Breakdowns in life due to low self-esteem, relationship issues, grief, and psychosomatic ailments.

When is coaching the right option?

When we look at the successful people in the world be it in the field of sports, entertainment, business, politics, etc we notice that all these people were supported by knowledgeable and powerful coaches whenever it was required. 

Leadership coaching can be considered the right choice when any area of our life doesn’t seem to be working at its optimal best. For example, leaders approach me because they wish to show up with a better Executive Presence. Or it may be that they wish to create better influence with stakeholders. Sometimes they wish to work on their resilience or design a way forward for a new stage of their lives. 

Leadership coaching is right when 

  •  you feel ready to enter a fulfilling partnership, where the coach helps to tap into your power and potential.  
  • You believe you are willing to uncover and re-discover your latent strengths and talents that help you achieve your goals, both personal and professional.  
  • You feel ready to explore purpose and meaningfulness as an area of your life 
  • You feel ready for a coach to hold you accountable for actions and the transformative work you need to do to create the change you seek.   It could be that the work is about the inner self, honing your communication skills, bettering your  ability to delegate, or anger management 


Key differences in therapy VS coaching

  • Survival VS Growth

Leadership therapy engages in providing an environment where the client is learning to cope and deal with his/her present situation by taking a deep and elaborate look into the past.  The situation in the present is due to the events of the past. It may need examining so that dealing with the future is easier.

Leadership coaching too looks at the past, but the outcome here is to leverage it to suit the present. The approach is to have a growth mindset coupled with a learning objective. The idea is to draw on behavior patterns, and challenges and to learn to navigate these.  Coaching challenges our limited beliefs, bringing our hidden potential to the forefront. A strengths-based coaching approach especially considers supporting a leader to identify strengths, build on them and move from that place. 

Example: A leader who wishes for her voice to be heard much more will explore in coaching what beliefs and old patterns stop her from expressing herself. The question she brought to coaching was not about deep pain or trauma. It was about being more effectively in touch with her agency so she increasingly chose to say what she needed to say and saw herself grow from challenging her old patterns. In coaching it will be useful to explore the past where she lost voice and how it impacted the person she became so she could survive her environment. The focus is on updating her old ideas for the sake of the impact she wishes to now make. 

  • Interventions  VS Questions-based reflection

Both therapy and coaching have guidance for the client.  There is a stark difference in the basic approach. A therapist diagnoses the problem and creates a treatment plan. In sessions there is reflection and also at times therapeutic interventions. All of the interventions are often for working on the client’s past in order for healing to take place. 

A coach never tells a coachee what has to be done. Coaches enable a client’s thinking. They ask brilliant questions that guide the coachee to see the possibilities to get unstuck from a situation.  The ideas to move ahead and navigate situations all arise from the interactions that a coachee has with the coach.  Coaching is a full partnership in the truest sense.

Example: A client with anger issues needs a therapist if the issues are deep-seated and show up with rage or uncontrollable behaviors. However, a functional leader who is able to engage and reflect with a coach may benefit a lot from the questions that a coach asks. This questions based reflective approach may uncover a lot of the old beliefs on the expression of anger and provide options forward for the leader. 

  • Treatment VS Goal Oriented

Therapy is functional as it deals with the treatment of a mental illness or a psychological issue. The focus is on the client, but ultimately the motive is to heal the trauma, get the client functioning in as normal a way as much as possible, or for them to learn to cope with their problem without compromising on the present or the future.

Leadership coaching instead is often goal based.  The coachee works with a goal that can be achieved in the coaching sessions. Sometimes a leader may spend time defining a goal along with the support of a coach. The idea is to take a growth mindset approach and examine what changes would best serve a leader in their current role. Rarely is coaching just about being conversational or listening to a client speak. There is an emphasis on problem-solving as well as moving from insight to action.

Example: A leader with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia may require coaching more than therapy so as to uncover her stresses, her limiting beliefs, and her approach to self-management and self-care. The goal of such coaching may be resilience building and redesigning life in a way that suits the leader for the present. However, a leader who has a nervous breakdown will need therapy as well as anxiety medication and needs to be under the care of a psychiatrist, not a coach. Here treatment is relevant and important as the first step.

  • Understanding and healing VS Creating a Plan of Action

A successful therapy session ends with an understanding of the past trauma and the healing that arises from it.  Acceptance, and forgiving the self for the mistakes that might have happened or for the decisions made all form a part of the healing process.  It finally leads up to being open to the future and all its experiences without the shadow of the past falling on the future constantly.

Coaching helps to come up with a plan of action to achieve the goals that were stated at the beginning of the coaching journey.  A solid plan in place is the minimum requirement for any achievement.  Coaching supports this as a goal without an action plan serves no purpose. Masterful coaches support clients in planning and monitoring including surfacing ways in which a leader may sabotage success.

Example: A leader in one of my senior leadership programs approached me during the break and openly spoke about his sexual abuse as a young person.  This had developed into a victim mentality in him. He explained many transformational processes that he had been through over the last many years as he actively worked with his issue. I could work with him as a coach as he felt healed from the trauma to a big extent and had come to terms with his reactions to it. Now he needed to work on effective skills and methods to work with bullying behaviors at work. He wished to get more effective with feedback, and assertion of his position and role.  He needed to learn the language and attitude of challenge that was important in his new role. A plan of action was made in each session so he took insight forward into action. 

A practical look at how we work in each of these modes.

I have the privilege of knowing both these worlds closely. I have been a therapist for over 20 years and a coach for 15 years. Hence the added responsibility to function ethically in each role has been a place of many reflections and supervision. This was especially true early in my coaching role. These reflections helped me create clear boundaries for my work.  Below I illustrate an example of how a presenting issue will be handled by a therapist vs a coach.


Client Details: Vinod, 46 years old. A  senior leader in a multinational organization.

Vinod was a senior leader who led a large business of 5,000 people. He was referred to me as part of a regular coaching arrangement that his organization had for high potential leaders. As we began the coaching engagement Vinod shared his 360 degree feedback. The other feedback he had received over his performance conversations for the last 1 year. We identified several goals of which one was handling his anger and argumentative approach in conflicts. He explained that he especially did not do great with his boss. 

I illustrate how I worked with him in Coaching and also describe in the next part of this blog on how I may have worked with him if it was a therapeutic relationship instead of coaching.

Do watch out for part 2 to learn more about the differences between therapy and coaching!

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha, a Master certified Coach from ICF, is known for her programs and coaching methods that combine psychology with leadership practices. In her work, Sailaja draws from Psychology, Ontology, NLP and Spiritual frameworks as well as rich, real-world experiences.

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