It can be lonely at the top. That's why so many leaders seek out someone who can help them see things in a more objective light. In decades past, psychiatrists held this position -- but admitting to seeing a shrink can still carry some stigma in the C-suite. Likewise, the counsel gained from conversations with subordinates, or even peers, can be tinged with political agenda. It's for these reasons that the business of executive coaching has become such a significant staple of leadership development.

The huge increase in executive coaching has in some cases pushed out therapists who might have otherwise seen clients for similar reasons. At the same time, many counselors are getting their coaching license and moving into the traditional roles held by management consultants, mentors and executive coaches. In practice, both have a place, as they often contribute vastly different takes on the same situation.

So just who should you hire to soothe what ails you? The answer may depend on the source of your stress. I asked some business leaders and experts to weigh in on whom to see when, and for what.

Are you facing a company conflict, change or challenge?

If you're experiencing C-suite conflict or a lack of leadership influence or feeling challenged by company change, you might try hiring a leadership coach. According to The Human Capital Institute, as many as 60 percent of American companies are using the services of executive coaches. But is this one-on-one instruction a worthwhile investment or a waste of time?

"I had a coach for the better part of a decade, and his ability to give me feedback and hold me accountable made a huge difference in how I developed as a leader," says Brandon Black, coauthor of the new book Ego Free Leadership: Ending the Unconscious Habits that Hijack Your Business. "He was able to say things that others couldn't because he wasn't afraid of potential backlash," "It's critically important for leaders, to understand how they may be stalling innovation or creating unwanted dynamics and dysfunction," says Black.

A formal engagement with a qualified coach can lead to a series of dynamic, confidential conversations that produce very positive consequences. The engagement may be growth-oriented -- for example, helping an individual get up to speed quickly after a new promotion. Or it may be change-oriented, such as helping a high-potential individual retool their interpersonal skills so they are in a better position to be promoted.

One 2006 study from the Center for Creative Leadership found that of the 3,500 top executives surveyed, 88 percent said they highly value the mentor/coach relationship for career development. Among their top reasons for wanting a coach were.

  • Assistance with leadership skills development
  • Developing more vision for the company
  • Team building and managing change

Are you facing a profoundly personal problem, choice or crisis?

But what about the darker side of leadership coaching? Some people take a weekend coaching workshop and then hang out a shingle declaring their readiness to sit down and help you deal with your deepest leadership issues.

Many researchers and theorists have cautioned that executive coaching is not a panacea. One leading article by psychologist Steven Berglas in the "Harvard Business Review" cited examples of coaches who lacked proper clinical training and insight, and therefore misdiagnosed coaching clients, leading to bad outcomes.

For example, Berglas describes one client who was assigned a coach to work on her "assertiveness," when in fact she had deeper emotional and family issues that were impacting her performance and workplace relationships. The coaching that was focused on building her assertiveness was not helpful to her, and she subsequently sought the assistance of a psychotherapist.

In the final analysis, it may be your end-game goals that determine which way you go.

"Therapists are usually oriented around talking and going deeper with dialog. They are very effective at helping people identify patterns and get them from the past to the present," explains Lolly Daskal, author of the new book The Leadership Gap: What Gets between You and Your Greatness.

"Coaches, on the other hand, often have a different mentality. They are more about creating an awareness that leads to action. Most coaches focus on getting you from the present to the future," she says.

Whether you're looking to make peace with your past or invent your future, a sit-down with someone savvy may be just what the doctor ordered.

To learn more about your leadership gap, check out my podcast with author Lolly Daskal.

Published on: May 24, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.