Soundings: King’s counsel

Should executive coaches think of themselves as filling the same role Merlin did with King Arthur?

Should executive coaches think of themselves as filling the same role Merlin did with King Arthur? Charles E. Smith would insist on it.


As an executive coach, I’m often asked, “What really makes a difference in creating results-focused organizational behaviour?” Regrettably, few top managers accept the reality that improving their own personal effectiveness is the essential platform for organizational breakthrough. Significant personal change scares most executives. Furthermore, suggesting that they must undergo personal change before they can hope to change their organization implies that they have been inadequate both as a person and as a business leader.

Nonetheless, fundamental and sustained improvement in a business is always a function of fundamental change in the leader’s point of view about what is possible. Over time, I’ve come to believe that executive coaches should work in the same style as the mythical Merlin. You may recall that Merlin was King Arthur’s mentor and teacher; and, in some versions of the tale, Arthur (as Merlin’s pupil) was not fully confident that he could make Britain better. The young Arthur didn’t fully trust his own leadership skills. But Merlin pushed, cajoled, prodded and persevered – and that’s the point. Merlin is a metaphor for the power of any coach to commit totally to another’s success for the sake of an ambitious, worthwhile purpose.

The Merlin approach, however, requires that a coach impose a set of rules on the executive and his top team. These 14 Merlin Rules are not guidelines, which only suggest behaviour. They are rules that must be followed in order to focus an executive’s energy on not only becoming more effective personally but also expanding that new effectiveness by building a breakthrough organization. No executive can follow only the rules he’s comfortable with. Here’s the complete set:

  • Implement uncharacteristic structures to produce uncharacteristic results. I have asked top executives and their teams to commit 12 days over six months to education and team-building meetings. This seems like an impossible commitment at first, but it’s essential for executives to change their norms or change is simply impossible.
  • Commit to an extraordinary outcome. Early on, I ask each top executive to demand of each team member a personal commitment to achieve an extraordinary goal – say, for example, to generate £18 million in additional company sales within six months. Once wedded to such a goal, transformational change becomes something that the executives desire, as opposed to something they resist.

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