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Models are good. But you are better.

"I challenge you to not use any coaching tools in your next conversation." It's 2011, I'm still working at Accenture, and I'm preparing for my certification as a coach with the ICF. My mentor-coach and I have just listened to one of my coaching sessions, and this is her feedback. Now listen with your own instruments. With your own ears, eyes, body, and everything that is involved in listening. You are the instrument. Her challenge wasn't about the coaching tools themselves that I used, which were and still are fine and occasionally serve their purpose. What it was about is that every leadership model, every coaching tool, is a simplified representation of a complex reality, and that I don't need it as a crutch. People, organizations, and situations are more complex than a model. Can I receive the other person without having the fixed structure of a model in my mind?

In addition to my personal development, there are two broader developments at play.

Models are useful until they aren't.

On LinkedIn, I increasingly read that certain leadership models have been proven not to work. Think of the Tuckman team development model or Blanchard's situational leadership model, for example. The fact that these models don't work is not surprising. Models provide language and interpretation and assist in dialogue, but they always represent a simplified version of a complex reality. What is surprising, however, are the reactions to this news. People are shocked, asking what model should replace them and how they should structure their leadership training.

Leadership is not what it was 20 years ago

Society is undergoing accelerated change and sometimes feels like a pressure cooker. We live in a time where we label everything as a crisis, and these crises follow each other rapidly. Millennials work differently than boomers, society and the workplace are more diverse, remote work is also appealing, and the Metaverse is working on creating a completely virtual world. Leadership is no longer solely about the strong white man, and new leadership books no longer come from CEOs but from sociologists, anthropologists, (neuro)psychologists, and business experts.

Over the past 20 years, more research has been conducted on how people collaborate, how they respond to leadership, and what kind of leaders people want to be. These books are not based on the experiences and anecdotes of an individual but on research that has taken years to complete. Research shows that we are wired to connect with each other and that our hearts are just as important as our minds. It explores what happens in our brains and behavior when we feel safe or unsafe. It highlights that charisma is attractive but often overrated and that empathy is important but that ultimately, it's about taking responsibility.

There is not 1 single definition, model, hero or school of leadership

At Amazon, you can find more than 60,000 books on leadership. That's quite a lot. What does this number tell us? It tells us that there is no single, unified understanding of leadership. There is no one definition, one model, one hero, or one school of thought. In our diverse society, we need a diversity of leaders. Leaders who can use leadership models when they are useful but, above all, leaders who are willing to show up themselves. Leaders who can stand in the midst of the complexity of the ever-changing currents of change because they can trust themselves as instruments. Leaders for whom the inevitable bumps, scrapes, and scratches are part of their story. That's what leadership development is about today. It's about you, not the models you master.


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