PhD in Business and Organizational Management

Does having a BIG heart & HUGE desire to help & your personal BLESSING make you the coach your clients need?

A sponsored post by Christian Mickelsen retrieved from LinkedIn’s social media platform on 18 June 2020 prompts me in my capacity as an executive coach and coaching researcher to reflect “What happens to coaching if we fail to assume professional responsibility?”

The LinkedIn post verbatim:

“Many people think you need to be officially ‘anointed’ to become a coach by getting a certification or degree.

Like you need someone else’s permission or blessing to achieve ‘YOUR’ goals and dreams (crazy, right?).

Unfortunately, this idea is common in the coaching industry.

And it holds a lot of people back from making the impact they want to make in the world with their blessing. 

The truth is coaching is a $1 BILLION industry according to Forbes.

In fact, it’s the 2nd fastest growing industry behind I.T. according to the National Post. 

And most people get started because they have a big heart and a huge desire to help people.

So forget the idea that you need some special certification to become a coach. 

You just don’t.”

There is some truth in Christian Mickelsen’s proposition that in its essence, coaching can involve just two people in a conversation about reaching goals, learning and change. As such, we may well see coaching as a ‘simple’ helping intervention without any ‘special certification to become a coach’ attached to it. 

However, coaching is found to be complex too (Turner & Passmore, 2018). More than two decades of coaching research indicate that coaching can involve conversations that go beyond reaching a goal. In most cases, coaching includes successfully dealing with complex issues of (a) coaches’ and clients’ identity and morality, (b) clients’ and coaches’ personal, professional and ethical dilemmas, (c) intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts, (d) performance increase in moments of crisis, to name but just a few aspects. 

Against this background, it is timely to address three key questions:

  1. How do ‘self-anointed’ coaches take decisions in complex conversations in which they are presented with issues that press against the boundaries of their ‘big heart’, ‘huge desire to help’ and their ‘blessing’ for clients? 
  2. How do ‘self-anointed’ coaches self-manage in complex conversations without having in-depth knowledge and understanding of the psychological aspects of the coach-client relationship as a significant driver of outcomes for clients? 
  3. How can clients and client organizations trust ‘self-anointed’ coaches that lack awareness for the ethical dilemmas of their motivation to do coaching: the ‘big heart’, ‘huge desire to help’ and ‘the impact they want to make in the world with their blessing’?

Before answering the three questions above, let’s explore the state of play of coaching as a profession and why professional responsibility matters as well as how it relates to certifications and accreditations in coaching. 

Professional responsibility in coaching 

Professional responsibility in its essence means “being a professional with a particular level of consciousness of the effect of one’s behavior” (Brennan & Wildflower, 2014: 432). In counselling and psychotherapy, professionalism is about professional ethics, which is a set of values that dictate an ethical conduct and constitute “an integral part of professional identity” (Bond, 2015: 45). 

As coaching is not regulated industry or an established profession yet, it is not surprising that coaches like Christian Mickelsen see no value in coaches’ assuming responsibility for a solid coaching training and continuous further development in serving their clients. They even go as far as to invest money in sponsoring an ad that speaks up against coaching as a profession. Just, like in the animated movie ‘Ratatouille’, where the garbage boy will be aided by the rat to prepare the award-winning Falstaff dish, the credo being ‘Anyone can cook.’, in coaching too, we have no independent regulatory body that sets and monitors the standards of professionalism in coaching. 

Given today’s state of play in coaching, anyone can embark on the coaching practice even without any relevant competences, academic or professional credentials or formal guidelines for ethical behavior. This can be detrimental to the credibility of coaching as a practice. 

What coaches lose without a solid coaching training and certification 

OR: What may happen if we fail to achieve the status of a true profession (Bennett, 2006)?

Without a coherent body of knowledge grounded in evidence-based competences and ethical standards (Grant and Cavanagh, 2004) we remain no more than a money-making service industry. Without a solid evidence-base through research, practice, profound training and further development measures for coaches we cannot advance the coaching profession as a whole. If we fail to advance coaching as a profession, coaches risk losing their:

  • Credibility with clients and client organizations,
  • Opportunities to develop their personal and professional maturity as a prerequisite for professionalism in any discipline,
  • Competitive edge as ‘anyone can coach’ while client organizations are becoming more and more informed about the qualification standards that make a difference in coaching effectiveness.

Therefore, if we were to establish a valid discipline (Drake, 2008) coaches need to be receive and be willing to undergo thorough high-quality coaching education to assume professional responsibility for how we are mindful with our practice, our clients and the coaching community as a whole. Getting certified as a coach means assuming responsibility for our practice as a discipline based on a set of uniform standards as regards competences and codes of ethics, as well as a solid evidence base, all of which form the raison d’être of any widely accepted professional industry. Indeed, the most elaborately developed profession is medicine. That is why medicine has influenced the development of other relevant professions’ ethical standards of practice, most notably those of counselling and psychotherapy. 

In effect, the certification approach is common practice in widely accepted professional disciplines like psychotherapy and counselling. Without a therapeutic license, therapists are not permitted to treat patients. Owning a license is nothing to do with patients’ not being permitted or blessed by the psychotherapy profession to achieve their goals or work on their clinical issues. It is to do with therapists’ commitment to their ethos of due care and diligence when working with patients.  

Of course, the debate who ought to regulate coaching is one that still awaits serious consideration (Iordanou & Williams, 2017). The situation is aggravated by the fact that there are too many credentialing institutes and many more pseudo-credentialing mills without the theme of professional ethics featuring anywhere on their training agenda. However, these issues are for another time and another article. 

Currently, all professional coaching bodies (ICF, EMCC, AC, APECS, etc.) have similarities in their ethical standards in their approach to professionalizing coaching. Indeed, there is a degree of consistency in the ethical principles that underpin coaching practice across all professional coaching bodies (Brennan & Wildflower, 2014), the most common of which are 

  • Do no harm
  • Duty of care
  • Know your limits
  • Respect the interest of clients
  • Respect the law

Yet, eventually, it is a coach’s moral standard or ethical stance that makes the difference in how professionalism plays out in coaching engagements – it is up to the coach that might or might not feel persuaded to practice coaching in line with professional guidelines. 

Unfortunately, this ‘self-anointed’ freedom will lead to confusion as to who is a qualified coach and who not. The issue is, and Christian Mickelsen is certainly right, that certification is monetized in a revenue stream, which in itself constitutes its own potential conflict of interest. It is true that professional coaching bodies link membership to certification. Yet, ‘self-anointed’ coaches monetize coaching by earning money for the service they deliver to clients too. So, what is the true issue: why would ‘self-anointed’ coaches expect any client to invest in their coaching services when these coaches are unwilling to invest in their own qualification towards professionalism in his coaching practice? 

The call for professional & ethical maturity – Answering the three questions

  1. How do ‘self-anointed’ coaches take decisions in complex conversations in which they are presented with issues that press against the boundaries of their ‘big heart’, ‘huge desire to help’ and their ‘blessing’ for clients? 

In coaching, professional and ethical principles determine the virtue of helping clients to develop and progress in coaching full of complexity when focusing on their needs and interests. How to honor trust, credibility, and accountability towards clients? How to promote clients’ individual autonomy (e.g., de Jong, 2010) without any high-quality coach credentialing based on professional and ethical principles?

The ‘I’ versus ‘WE’ attitude in professional coaching practice 

First, the ‘I’ versus ‘WE’ mental frame (Caroll & Shaw, 2013) drives coaches’ action in that they are not even aware how coaching is not about the ‘coach’ but the ‘client’ and the partnering process, which requires high-quality qualifications, or else we fail to even acknowledge the clients’ need to receive professional coaching. In other words, the ‘I’ attitude of “I do not need training to be a good coach” means that I do not care about what my clients need. What would clients say if we asked them what they expected of a coach? 

Second, professional coaching practice implies owning and working with a set of specific coaching competences that need appropriate training and experience to inspire trust with clients. While it is certainly true that competences will not replace a coach’s talent and that it does not take competences to be a talented coach, talent alone will not satisfy the requirements of owning and working with professional competences. 

Third, insisting that coaches need no professional coaching training for clients’ goal attainment is a fundamentalist view. One of the major issues in coaching is that coaches have fundamentalist views about their practice: not being aware of any extremity of any of their ideals is a danger to clients’ development. 

Fourth, when coaches adopt an ‘I’ attitude, it is quite plausible that they are not willing to enter a community of practice with mutual obligations towards a profession – which may be viewed as a selfish act that does not serve coaching clients. Nor does it serve the ‘WE’ spirit of the coaching profession. So, the free-rider coaching attitude itself is not quite coach-like as free-rider coaches are unwilling to show accountability for ethical conduct. Nor do they show willingness to consent to be subjected to a professional organization’s review procedures through an Independent Ethical Review Board to monitor qualification levels in the event of breach of conduct of ethics. So, it might imply that these free-rider coaches wish to evade the possibility of complaint by another coach or someone from the public domain – a client or an organization.

Finally, the ‘I’ attitude is not fair towards those coaches that are ready to undergo rigorous high-quality training and pursue further development in coaching. Opting out of being professionally trained as a coach is not an accountable act. 

  • How do ‘self-anointed’ coaches self-manage in complex conversations without having in-depth knowledge and understanding of the psychological aspects of the coach-client relationship as a significant driver of outcomes for clients? 

As mentioned in the chapter on ‘How acting responsibly as a coach and monetization of coaching are related’, practicing coaching within our scope of competences means that we are professionally mature to ‘know our limits’ when working with clients. The purpose is to avoid doing harm to anyone that has a stake in the coaching engagement as one of the core ethical principles all professional coaching bodies have commonly agreed upon to be valid in coaching as a profession to date. 

Individual maturity as a compass of professional maturity

First, how can ‘self-anointed’ coaches ‘know their limits’ without being trained in what constitutes coaching standards and professional ethics? One of the most common ethical issues in coaching arises when coaches misrepresent their practice, that is when they practice coaching without being aware of the levels of their coaching competences and limits.

Second, what is the level of professional maturity and self-management of ‘self-anointed coaches’ in how they deal with the complexities of their clients’ and their own world without a clear commitment to a high-quality coaching qualification?

Professionalism in coaching depends on one’s individual maturity, which determines a coach’s ability to understand others. Professional maturity can be developed through practical experience based on training (Laske, 2006), which again can be achieved through awareness and appreciation of one’s principles and values, continuous professional development, and most importantly, consistent reflection on one’s own practice through a “virtuous cycle of ethical maturity” (van Nieuwerburgh, 2014: 178). This again involves being aware of one’s principles and values and ethical dilemmas. It is about making courageous ethical choices and reflecting on them to enhance one’s ethical maturity. 

Third, one way to know our limits as coaches is through supervision. Free-rider coaches’ resistance to coaching training implies that they are unwilling to have their work supervised. Supervision is about consciously becoming aware and reflecting our own principles and values to inspire confidence and competence in our ability to address any ethical issues that may arise in coaching as a complex process. If coaches are unwilling to become aware of their own principles through training and supervision, how will they support their clients’ awareness building efforts in turn? A blind man leading another blind man leads to which knowledge about light? 

Fourth, both coaching training and coaching supervision provide platforms for cultivating a stance of self-enquiry to enable critical reflexivity (i.e., questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions, mental frames and models (Yanow & Tsoukas, 2009). Yes, these services are monetized. So is coaching as a helping intervention. So is a sponsored post on LinkedIn. How come a coach is willing to channel money in a social media advertisement to boost their industry while frowning upon professional coaching qualifications and certifications as a monetized institution? Would a medical doctor not charge a fee for his services just because a patient is entitled to receive medical treatment? 

Finally, how can ‘self-anointed’ coaches critically reflect their practice? What mental models are they guided by? Which impact will they have on their own clients? Critical reflexivity is what we need to explore doubts, contradictions, and dilemmas in complex coaching engagements. It takes critical reflexivity in training and supervision to regularly “evaluate our own values and their effect on others” (Cunliffe, 2004: 38). 

  • How can clients and client organizations trust ‘self-anointed’ coaches that lack awareness for the ethical dilemmas of their motivation to do coaching: the ‘big heart’, ‘huge desire to help’ and ‘the impact they want to make in the world with their blessing’?

What if free-rider coaches used empathy and wondered how their resistance to professional coaching training might be perceived from their clients’ point of view? It might bring about a radical change in what they do. More often than not, coaches tend to look at their intention (which is almost always good) to evaluate their behavior and decision-taking in coaching (which is often not as good). What are free-rider coaches actually doing to clients? 

The significance of empathizing with coaching clients 

First, if a coach told me that their motivation to coach me was their ‘big heart’ as well as a ‘huge desire to help’ and ‘make an impact in the world with their blessing’ I would be afraid of that coach. I would think that this coach was more concerned with satisfying his own helping needs than satisfying my needs. I would not believe that this coach was able to empathize with me as he would strike me as too busy empathizing with his own desire to help. 

Second, would free-rider coaches be ready to disclose to a prospective client that they did not obtain any coaching certification or that they were not trained as a coach? In coaching, it is deemed as ethically imperative to be transparent about our coaching practice to avoid misrepresentation when working with clients. Empathizing with clients means that we are ready to leave it to our clients to decide whether or not they want to work with an untrained coach, which invariably requires disclosure about our qualification levels and our mental frame when it comes to coaching, irrespectively of our talent in coaching. 

What would happen if I started practicing as a medical doctor without disclosing to my patients that I had not opted to pursue a thorough medical education or training backing up my practice? What if I told them that my motivation to treat them was that I had a big desire to help them? What would they say? 

Third, in what way will clients be willfully influenced by the power position the coach takes in opting to be a free-rider? To what extent is a free-rider coach aware of the ethical dilemma of power positioning? To what extent is Christian Mickelsen able to critically self-enquire how he is potentially harming himself and discrediting coaching as a becoming profession?

Fourth, can a free-rider coach empathize with any and all stakeholders in coaching? Who does the free-rider mentality serve: the coach’s reputation, the client, the coaching community, our evolving profession?

The fact that Christian Mickelsen is not concerned about his level of coaching competence and openly advocates the absence of training and education in coaching to serve clients in coaching leaves us with another set of questions: to what extent does that person care to deliver good and ethical service to paying clients? How consciously is that person exploring his own moral map when working with paying or non-paying clients? 

The significance of respecting clients

Coaches that respect their clients are ready to consider and critically enquire into issues of power and domination in coaching. They are willing to reflect how they can easily move into abuse and harm of clients who are less knowledgeable about the practice and impact of coaching than coaches are, or ought to be aware of, for that matter. Many times, clients have limited or no understanding of the power of coaching. They may also be concerned that an untrained coach will use power and domination in coaching to exert influence on them. This is apparent in how clients sometimes show resistance to coaching: high-quality coaching training and certification as well as a true commitment to continued further development in coaching are sources that can support clients in feeling at ease with their coach from the outset as they will be aware that their coach is not in a mental mode of denial. 

Therefore, a code of ethics can serve as a solid framework for respecting clients as it can serve as a moral map (Duffy & Passmore, 2010) for professionalism in serving them. The aim is to respect clients’ position in coaching as they might not all be familiar with coaching as a helping intervention. It is clear though that a code of ethics is not a panacea or a cure-it-all solution (Bailey & Schwartzberg, 1995) when it comes to dealing with issues of respect in the coach-client relationship.  


Christian Mickelsen’s free-rider stance is nothing unusual. The way we adopt a certain stance or behave is influenced by social, political and institutional imperatives. In addition, our personal values and ethics affect our choices too. Personal and professional “ethical moments of choice” (van Nieuwerburgh, 2014: 172) will arise in all aspects of our life beyond coaching. They have the potential to alert us to what is morally right or wrong as a way to support the development of our individual or professional maturity. Therefore, it is important to view Christian Mickelsen’s post as an ethical moment of choice to reflect the decisions that coaches take in regards to our practice. 

It is evident that our decisions are strongly driven by individual principles and that doing the right thing may not always feel right: undergoing coaching training (doing the right thing) may not feel right (anyone can coach). Therefore, Christian Mickelsen’s stance that coaching training and coaching certification are some ‘official anointment’ that ‘holds people back from the impact they want to make in coaching’ strikes me as understandable. It is a cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) or a “feeling of wrongness” (Passmore and Mortimer, 2011: 212) that is pervasive in any human interaction. Fortunately, this particular free-rider stance has the capacity to boost further reflection, learning and development in our profession. Hence, the goal of this article is to alert us to the practice of continuous reflection on our values and their impact on our coaching practice. It is our primary ethical responsibility to be mindful towards ourselves, our clients, and the coaching profession as a whole, if we were to establish a valid discipline based on high-quality scientific evidence and thorough levels of qualifications as is common practice in other widely accepted disciplines like psychotherapy and counselling. The fact that there are coaches out there deriding the significance of coaching training and certifications can only be countered by caring enough to work on reaching a consensus on the significance of professionalization in coaching and a unified and widely accepted set of professional and ethical standards. 

We as the coaching community have an obligation to help our coaching clients and client organizations in taking well-informed decisions when hiring coaches. In the process of clarifying and informing clients and client organizations, we can take steps to ensure we contribute actively to professionalization in coaching. 

Corresponding author:

PhD(c), Mag.phil. Tünde Erdös, Ashridge MSc. in Executive Coaching

Ashridge Accredited Executive Coach & Team Coaching

MCC ICF & EIA Senior Practitioner EMCC

Contact at:



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