Zoran M Pavlovic MD's picture Submitted by Zoran M Pavlovic MD December 10, 2023 - 1:39pm


Charting New Paths: The Impact of Executive Coaching on Leaders with Mild Anxiety and Depression Part 1   

Leadership is not merely a journey of guiding others but also an internal one, where leaders face their vulnerabilities, including mental health challenges. Executive coaching has become a supportive tool for leaders, addressing professional development and personal well-being. Central to this discourse is the proposition that executive coaching can be a significant non-clinical intervention for leaders exhibiting mild symptoms of depression and anxiety, subsequently enhancing their resilience and effectiveness. Subclinical depression and anxiety are not only shared in the general population but also among leaders in various organizational settings (Byrne et al., 2014). The subtlety of these symptoms means they can often go unnoticed or be underestimated in terms of their impact on an array of professional domains.

Numerous leadership research studies have shown the significant impact of depression and anxiety on leaders’ professional and private life domains:


  • Behavior: Mild depressive symptoms can lead to indecisiveness and avoidance behaviors, impacting leaders' ability to take action (Goetzel et al., 2018).
  • Leadership Style: Anxiety can shift leadership style towards being more controlling or avoidant, impacting team dynamics (Skakon et al., 2010).
  • Performance: A meta-analysis has shown that depression and anxiety are negatively correlated with workplace performance (Martin et al., 2013).
  • Work-Life Balance: Symptoms can disrupt the balance, as leaders may spend more time ruminating on work problems (Allen et al., 2014).
  • Leisure Time: Depressive symptoms are associated with reduced leisure satisfaction (Iwasaki, 2006).
  • Well-Being: Even mild symptoms can significantly lower overall well-being (WHO, 2017).
  • Self-Care: Symptoms often neglect self-care routines, impacting physical health (Sirois, 2015).
  • Self-Efficacy and Confidence: Depression and anxiety can erode self-efficacy, which is crucial for leadership confidence (Bandura, 1997).
  • Agility: These symptoms can dampen a leader's ability to respond quickly to change (Ulrich & Yeung, 2019).
  • Growth Mindset: Subclinical symptoms can hinder the development of a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006).
  • Self-and Other Compassion: Anxiety can diminish compassion towards oneself and others, which is vital for empathetic leadership (Gilbert, 2014).
  • Resilience: Resilience in leaders is negatively impacted by depression and anxiety (Smith et al., 2008).
  • Hardiness: Leadership hardiness can be compromised, affecting stress management (Maddi, 2006).
  • Mental Toughness: Mental toughness is vital for leaders, and depressive symptoms can weaken it (Clough et al., 2002).
  • Self-Discipline: Symptoms can undermine the self-discipline required for effective leadership (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).
  • Financial Health and Wellness: There is a relationship between mental health symptoms and decreased financial decision-making capability (Lerner et al., 2015).
  • Inner and External Harmony: Subclinical symptoms can disrupt inner peace and external relationships (Seligman, 2011).
  • Burnout: A high prevalence of burnout among leaders has been linked to depression and anxiety (Maslach et al., 2001).
  • Social Relationships: Anxiety can lead to withdrawal or conflict in relationships (Smith & Christakis, 2008).
  • Career Advancement: Psychological symptoms can impair networking and other activities essential for career progression (Heslin, 2005).
  • Turnover: Leaders with depressive symptoms may have higher turnover intentions (Griffeth et al., 2000).
  • Corporate Culture: Leadership mood can affect the emotional climate and culture of the organization (Goleman et al., 2009).
  • Psychological Safety at the Workplace: Anxiety can undermine a leader's ability to foster a psychologically safe environment (Edmondson, 1999).

This compilation of statistical data and research underlines the pervasive impact of even mild mental health symptoms on leaders' professional and personal lives. With its lesser stigma and developmental focus, coaching presents an effective method for addressing these challenges and fostering a thriving leadership culture.

The Critical Role of Executive Coaching

Executive coaching stands at the intersection of coaching and psychology. This unique positioning enables coaches to support leaders by promoting self-efficacy and coping strategies, improving engagement, and fostering a growth mindset (Grant et al., 2009; Dweck, 2006). The International Coach Federation (ICF) has established guidelines to navigate this interplay, ensuring that coaches operate within their competencies and refer clients to mental health professionals when necessary (Hullinger & DiGirolamo, 2018).

Empirical Support and Practical Implementation

Research supports the role of coaching in enhancing professional well-being (Theeboom et al., 2014). Leaders and organizations looking to implement executive coaching should select credentialed coaches experienced in executive challenges and establish clear coaching objectives.

Risks and Counterarguments

Despite the documented benefits, some risks exist, such as coaches overstepping into areas requiring clinical expertise or misdiagnosing mental health conditions (Bachkirova, 2011). Critics also suggest that without specific training, coaches could inadvertently do more harm than good (Grant, 2016). Awareness of these risks is crucial to maintaining the integrity of coaching.

Maximizing the Impact of Coaching

Coaching for leaders with mild depression or anxiety can be optimized through evidence-based practices and clear agreements regarding the scope of coaching (Green et al., 2006). Continuous professional development for coaches is also essential to keep abreast of the latest research and best practices.

The Advantages of Coaching Over Traditional Psychotherapy

Executive coaching offers advantages such as reduced stigma, accessibility, and a focus on strengths and performance. It is seen as a strategy for professional enhancement rather than a remedy for psychological issues, which can increase acceptance among leaders (Joo, 2005).  

In my coaching practice, I once had the privilege of working with a high-performing executive, whom we shall call John. He grappled with subclinical depressive and anxiety symptoms. Although John was successful by conventional standards, he often felt overwhelmed by stress and experienced persistent self-doubt and low mood. These symptoms were not severe enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis but significantly impacted his well-being and effectiveness as a leader.


Integrating Psychometric Assessments in John's Coaching Journey

When I began working with John, a leader experiencing subclinical depression and anxiety, the goal was to help him enhance his self-care practices. To facilitate this process, we incorporated several psychometric assessments.

John's Discovery of Strengths through VIA Survey

The VIA Strengths Survey (Niemiec, 2012) revealed that one of John's top strengths was the 'Love of Learning.' This insight proved crucial. We used this strength to kindle his interest in understanding mental well-being, gradually leading him to embrace self-care routines. The knowledge of his innate strengths provided by the VIA Survey helped him see self-care not as a chore but as an ongoing learning process, which he inherently enjoyed.

Self-Understanding with the 16 Personalities Test

The 16 Personalities test (Myers, 1980) identified John as an 'INFJ'—a type often driven by a strong sense of idealism and morality but also potentially susceptible to stress and burnout if not mindful. Understanding his personality type allowed John to acknowledge his natural tendencies towards perfectionism and set more realistic self-care goals. It also provided a framework for developing strategies to manage his workload in a way that was more aligned with his intrinsic personality.

Overcoming Inner Saboteurs

The Saboteur Assessment (Radu & Misu, 2023) helped John recognize his 'Hyper-Achiever' and 'Pleaser' saboteurs. These insights explained his tendency to prioritize work accomplishments over his health and his difficulty setting boundaries. With this understanding, we worked on strategies to quiet these saboteurs, enabling John to prioritize his well-being and set aside time for self-care without feeling guilty.

The Synergy of Assessments and Anecdotal Success

The combination of these assessments gave John a precise and personalized roadmap for his self-care journey. He began implementing small daily routines that aligned with his strengths, such as dedicating time each morning to reading about mental health, a practice aligning with his love of learning. He also practiced setting boundaries at work, which helped reduce his anxiety levels significantly. Through recognizing and managing his saboteurs, John was able to create a more balanced life and reported a marked decrease in his depressive and anxiety symptoms.             

By integrating these psychometric tools into our coaching sessions, John found a new way to approach his challenges, turning them into opportunities for growth. This holistic approach improved his self-care practices and positively impacted his professional performance and interactions with his followers.

The Pervasive Impact of Subclinical Symptoms on Leadership

Mild depression and anxiety can significantly impact various professional domains, from decision-making and leadership style, to work-life balance and self-care (Martin et al., 2013; Goetzel et al., 2018). Addressing these symptoms proactively is thus crucial for the well-being of both individual leaders and their organizations.   
In summary, executive coaching can be a strategic asset for leaders with mild depression and anxiety. A balanced approach, grounded in ethical practice and a commitment to professional development, allows coaches to support leaders effectively, contributing to their well-being and the organization's health.

Key Takeaways:


  1. Subclinical depression and anxiety can broadly impact professional capabilities, thus influencing decision-making, leadership styles, and overall organizational health.
  2. Executive coaching is often more accessible and less stigmatized than traditional psychotherapy, which may lead to greater acceptance and commitment from leaders.
  3. Coaching is beneficial for enhancing leadership efficacy as it provides leaders with coping strategies and promotes a growth mindset that can positively affect their work and personal life.
  4. Executive coaching can aid leaders with subclinical depression and anxiety by promoting resilience and personal well-being without being a substitute for clinical therapy.  
  5. ICF has established guidelines that maintain the distinction between coaching and psychotherapy, counseling, and therapy, ensuring ethical practices.


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