As room for error continues to shrink in an increasingly competitive business world, the value of strong leadership in the executive suite has grown. In baseball parlance, top-level executives are the cleanup hitters of their companies.

Their hits usually have a greater impact on their team's success than those of their teammates, but so do their strikeouts. This trend has compelled more and more businesses, both large and small, to turn to executive coaches to help identify and develop leaders within their organizations.

"It's not often that someone is born with leadership skills," says Laurie Fitzgerald Althaus, who owns Now & Next, a consulting and coaching firm in Hyde Park. "Leadership is developed."

This year's eighth annual executive coaching survey produced by Cincinnati-based Sherpa Coaching in conjunction with Miami University, the University of Georgia and Texas Christian University drew more than 1,000 responses from coaches, business leaders, human resources and training professionals from 53 countries. In each of the eight years, the perceived value of executive coaching has risen. The percentage of survey respondents from the human resources and training fields who placed a "very high" value on coaching jumped from 63 percent last year to 75 percent.

"We had a watershed year in terms of the credibility of executive coaching," says Karl Corbett, a Sherpa Coaching managing partner. "The perceived value of executive coaching has increased in each of the survey's past eight years."

The need for training executive leaders has become more acute partly for generational reasons. Baby Boomer executives are retiring in greater numbers, and the pool of potential replacements is smaller, says Todd Uterstaedt, president and CEO of Baker & Daboll, a downtown coaching and consulting firm.

"We don't have as much room for error in identifying leaders as in the past," he says. "There are a lot of Baby Boomers and a smaller number of Gen-Xers. The Millennials aren't necessarily ready yet."

Face-to-face coaching is considered the best kind. But the greater demand for executive coaching, the spiraling cost of travel and the development of high technology have boosted the amount of coaching performed through high-definition video-conferencing. Sherpa Coaching, for example, has 1,500 video-conferencing studios throughout the world.

Executive coaches say their profession is more of an art than a science. Each coach has varying philosophies and methods for identifying and developing leaders. But they all agree that successful leaders must have large capacities for learning. They must analyze their own and others' strengths and weaknesses; communicate effectively; constantly challenge themselves and those who work for them; hold themselves and others accountable; and create a working environment of trust and transparency.

A key part of the coaching regimen of Paul Heagen, founder and president of Defining Moments Consulting in Hyde Park, is to teach top executive leaders to be more self-aware.

"You can learn all the leadership skills in the world, but if you can't integrate them into your personality, it won't be natural and you won't be effective," he says. "People will see through it. The ability to be really authentic is the currency of leadership today. People don't follow people because of strategies. They follow people who have a passion and a purpose. When people feel they're really connected with your purpose, it drives them to a whole new level of performance."

Effective leaders must know their own personal traits and motivations, Heagen says. "Some CEOs have lost the critical importance of listening, reflecting and mentoring. I teach them to slow down. It's not about how fast you can go all the time."

It's easy for top-level executives to lose a grasp of what's working and what's not if they don't encourage open, honest dialogue. "We all have blind spots," Uterstaedt says. "Feedback is gold."

That's why leaders need to cultivate strong relationships with employees. Sherpa Coaching operates on a basic equation: A positive skill set plus positive behavior equals a positive impact on business. Although the equation appears simple, developing positive behavior "” from building teamwork and communicating to motivating employees and managing unproductive workers "” can be very complex.

Too many businesses focus on skills instead of behavior when identifying and grooming leaders, says Judith Coleman, president of Sherpa Coaching. 

"Both are important. But we typically hire people because of their skill set, and we don't interview them for the aligning behaviors that must fit that leadership role."

Sherpa coaches used to focus more on one-on-one coaching and the behavior of the leader. But now they place more stress on the leader's relationship with the team. "Leaders have to be aware of how to get things done through other people," Coleman says. "It's not only about them, but about the relationship they're building with their team. That's what drives your success as a leader. The sign of a great leader is when things operate perfectly when they're not there."

Most coaches agree that top-level executives who are developed from within their organization have a much better chance of succeeding than those who are brought in from outside. It takes a lot of time for outsiders to understand the culture and the personnel of the organization, and to earn the respect and trust of others.

"A leader already within the company has formed and cultivated good relationships with the employees," Uterstaedt says. "They will be interested in helping that leader succeed."

Companies that promote from within tend to retain their best employees. "It tells the employees that there is a path for growth within the organization," Althaus says.

Employees will work harder for and accept difficult challenges more readily from an executive who accepts a certain amount of mistakes as potential learning experiences. Heagen says he tells his clients that some failures can be very beneficial, especially in the grooming of leaders.

Some businesses make the mistake of preparing leaders by giving them special projects and providing them with so much support and time to complete the project that it's impossible for them to fail. That scenario doesn't provide a realistic test for the executive candidate and doesn't teach them very much, Heagen says.

"The most enduring wisdom is that which comes through difficulties and failure," he says. "Don't be afraid to challenge your people and let them rise to the call, then stand with them if they fail. Leadership is all about taking people where they wouldn't go on their own."