Dealing with Jerk Leaders in Coaching

Dear Coach,

I have decided that I will no longer take coaching engagements from employers who want me to fix a jerk in a senior leadership position. The pain and frustration just aren’t worth it.

Do you agree?



Dear Jim,

I respectfully disagree — but with a caveat. 

In my experience, I’ve often been brought in as a sort of last-resort coach to work with abrasive, bullying, and problematic leaders within organizations. I must admit that not every engagement has yielded success. However, I can confidently say that when a breakthrough does happen, it’s truly remarkable. The positive impact extends to everyone involved: the employees who have suffered under the tyrant, the company that has experienced high turnover and low engagement due to their behavior, and even the jerky leader themselves, who undergoes a transformative shift in their approach to life. Equally important, the turnaround also benefits the former jerk’s family, friends, and acquaintances in significant ways.

Now, I don’t want to come across as overly optimistic or naive. It’s true that there are individuals out there who seem to be irredeemable jerks.

Here’s my tip:

Instead of saying “no”, say that although a coaching engagement would typically be a year (or whatever your normal timeframe is), create a month-to-month contract with monthly coaching fees paid in advance at the beginning of each month. Either employer or coach can end the contract at any time thereafter.

Be sure to let your jerk/coachee know about the month-to-month arrangement and that you won’t hesitate to pull the plug if you feel he or she is not seriously engaged in the coaching process.

I found this approach gives me some leverage with the problematic coachee that can potentially lead to a breakthrough. This approach also allows me to end the engagement early and avoid prolonged frustration while still having earned some money. 

Nevertheless, Jim, if you want to maintain a jerk-free coaching career, I won’t second-guess your decision. But I will say that when there’s a turnaround with a jerk leader, it’s about the most professionally fulfilling experience a coach can have.

So, Jim, the choice is yours. If you want to stick to a jerk-free coaching career, I respect that. But if you’re open to the possibility of creating those incredible turnarounds, I encourage you to give it a shot. Trust me, the rewards are beyond measure.
Jathan Janove is a Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching Master Coach and Practice Leader. You can learn more about him here. If you have a question you’d like him to address, please email us at



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