Coaching Leadership – What is it? Pros/Cons? Examples?


As a senior executive with 15 years of leadership experience I truly value the coaching leadership style, both as a coach and as the one receiving coaching. In this article, you can read all you need to know about the Coaching Leadership Style as well as how to do self-coaching among other things.

“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear [and] who has you see what you don’t want to see so you can be who you always knew you could be.” ~Tom Landry[1]

Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive. His success wasn’t a fluke but was the result of hours of practice led by his coach, Glen Mills. Bolt wasn’t lacking talent. However, Coach Mills was able to harness that talent and transform it into a skill that propelled Bolt to the top.

In a nutshell:
What is Coaching Leadership?
Coaching Leadership is when the leader coaches team members to develop themselves in the long term in order to become better individuals and professionals. Coaching leadership is time consuming and requires a lot of skill on the part of the leader. It will only work if the individual being coached is motivated and open for feedback.

That’s what a coach does. Yet, we often limit coaching to sports despite its numerous applications in several areas where leadership is necessary. Coaching leadership is applicable to all areas and has the power to influence ordinary people to do extraordinary things in sports, business, institution, sales or anything else.

What is Coaching Leadership?

To describe the coaching leadership style in a bit more detail, we need to briefly mention another leadership style, namely the situational leadership style. Behavioral scientist Paul Hersey and management expert Ken Blanchard conceptualized coaching leadership as a part of their Situational Leadership Model that they developed in 1969.

Hersey and Blanchard believed that managers shouldn’t stick to one leadership style. Instead, they should change their leadership style to leverage their team’s strengths. In other words, the leadership style should be adapted to the situation so that the team can be successful hence the name Situational Leadership Model.

The situational leadership duo also believed that managers displayed two types of behavior: task and relationship. Coaching leadership is a combination of both. Coaches use task behavior to direct a team member to engage in specific tasks. However, they also use relationship behavior to build a supportive relationship with a team member which allows the team member to develop a sense of autonomy.

Let’s use Tom Landry’s quote as a guide. A coach tells you what you don’t want to hear (task behavior) and has you see what you don’t want to see (task behavior) so that you can be who you always knew you could be (relationship behavior). The aim of a coach is to give some tough love that pushes a team member to realize his or her full potential.

As I see it, Coaching Leadership Style is loosely defined compared to many of the other leadership styles. As concluded in the literature section in a paper by Berg and Karlsen at BI Norwegian Business School, there are few concrete descriptions and research of the Coaching Leadership Style. One definition of coaching leadership style they list in their paper[2]:

“Coaching Leadership Style helps employees develop personally and with a long-term perspective. The leader supports and challenges colleagues, with the intent of helping them achieve individual development goals.” The source they gave is Meyers 2012.

Set the goals high to get substantial growth and results. Coaching is not about solving your current little task, but rather to develop you to achieve greater things.

What Are the Elements of Coaching Leadership?

Coaching is a bit of an art. It is complex and it is easy to fail at it. Some key elements are required in order to create a platform enabling success. Coaching leadership depends heavily on the leader’s ability to direct and support. Furthermore, the cause and effect can be unclear and confusing, making it difficult to calibrate the coaching style quickly.

Collaboration

A coach won’t create a successful team if the team doesn’t collaborate. It’s less about maintaining hierarchy and status and more about supporting what’s best for the team. Sure, the coach will give directions to help team members develop their skills, but this is still within a collaborative environment.
A key item in collaboration is to spend a lot of time with the people you coach and being clear on the purpose as well as the long term goal of the coaching approach and how you will accomplish this goal together.
Good collaboration also reduce the need of being directive or autocratic – both negatively effecting any coaching leadership attempts.

Coaching Mind-set

Helping people become their best selves isn’t a simple task. A coach should think creatively about how to approach the coaching process so that each team member is developed and the team collectively achieves the best result. It’s a process of great commitment and sacrifice but the final outcome of this creative effort can be life changing. Having a coaching mind set also requires that the leader believes in his or her capability in having true impact on another individual. A coaching mind set also means that you as a leader truly and deeply care about the individual being coached. Coaching cannot be done on the surface and “for show”, it simply will not work, and it will not have any impact.

Scaffolding

Scaffolding[3] is a term used in education to describe “a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.” Coaches inevitably become teachers as they guide team members towards honing their skills. The best coaches know that their guidance should gradually be reduced so that each team member develops a greater sense of autonomy. 

Feedback

Team members won’t know how well or how poorly they’re doing unless they receive feedback. Constructive criticism is necessary for their growth. Coaches know how to use the task behavior component of coaching leadership to appropriately express their feedback. Team members, in turn, are receptive because they know that this feedback will help them improve their skills. If the individual being coached is not open to feedback, the coaching leadership style is very unlikely to work. It cannot be stressed enough that feedback is a core part of coaching leadership.

Feedback is an integral part of the Coaching Leadership Style

Self-Motivation

Coaching leadership is a two-way street. Coaches should be willing to sacrifice their time to motivate team members to hone their skills and become the best versions of themselves. However, team members should also have a high level of self-motivation especially as the coach begins to give them a greater sense of autonomy. It is very difficult to coach an individual who isn’t motivated to improve and grow.

Empathy and trust

As in so many other leadership styles, we come back to empathy being a pillar in leadership. In order to coach well, a leader needs to understand the person being coached on an emotional level. Through empathy, the leader can calibrate how to challenge and develop the individual and know when to reduce and increase pressure for instance. Empathy also enables gathering feedback through body language and the personal circumstances of the individual being coached.
Coaching will be difficult, not to say impossible, if there is no trust. If the coaching leader does not trust the person being coached, there will be less empowerment, less belief and less sincerity in formulating how the individual can grow personally as well as professionally. Lack of trust also breeds directive leadership, micromanagement and other attitudes that are counter productive to coaching.

What are the Pros and Cons of Coaching Leadership?

No article on a leadership style is complete with listing the advantages and disadvantages involved.

Pros of Coaching Leadership

1.    People enjoy being at work.

Coaches help people improve their skills so that they can perform at their best. Therefore, coaching leaders are able to create a work environment where people are highly motivated, eager to learn and willing to collaborate. People actually enjoy being at work which should result in a low employee turnover rate.

2.    Expectations are clear.

Team members don’t have to guess what’s required from them. With the coaching leadership style, their coach makes expectations clear and guides the team members towards developing the skills needed to accomplish their tasks as well as their long-term goals. Having that support makes meeting those expectations easier for the team members.

3.    The organization develops a competitive advantage.

Coaching leadership requires a lot of personal mentorship so that each team member’s skills are developed appropriately. They, therefore, become more productive and are more likely to provide mentorship opportunities to others as they climb the corporate ladder. In essence, people who have a coaching leader often become coaching leaders themselves. This benefits the organization in the long-term. A highly skilled workforce gives an organization a competitive advantage.

4.    Weaknesses are identified and can be transformed into strengths

It may seem reasonable to argue that it’s best to focus on the strengths of a team and use them to the organization’s advantage. However, the weaknesses of a team can threaten everything an organization has built. This makes it very important for these weaknesses to be addressed.

Coaching leaders are able to quickly identify a team member’s weakness and implement a plan to help that team member transform that weakness into a strength or at least create awareness of the weakness so consequences can be limited. All team members have weaknesses. It’s all about identifying those weaknesses quickly and helping each team member improve in the best way possible.

Cons of Coaching Leadership

1.    It requires a lot of time and patience.

Imagine providing personal mentorship to a team of 100 people. Not only is it time consuming, but it also requires a lot of patience. Managers often have too little time to complete their assigned tasks much less to help each team member become skilled at what he or she should do. With this in mind, it is important that you set a scope before deploying the coaching leadership style. One approach can be to coach the coaches of the future to create a spreading effect not built on you being the sole coach of the organization. Prioritize who to coach. If you try to do everything at once, you might get zero impact in the end.
Lack of time can ruin the best of intentions – coaching leadership style simply requires a lot of one on one time.

2.    A special skill set is required.

Few people are gifted at being effective coaches. It requires confidence, experience and the ability to give meaningful advice. Those who do it ineffectively threaten the growth of an organization. There is hope though since you can learn how to become a better coach by using specific techniques and avoiding some known pit falls.

3.    Coaching is a two-way street.

The coaching leadership style will only work if team members are committed to the process. Too much responsibility rests on the leader’s shoulders if they aren’t. There should be a strong commitment to collaboration and self-development early on in the coaching relationship. The person receiving the coaching must be motivated to develop and must be willing to receive feedback – both of these require that prestige can be put to the side. Not agreeing on the purpose and goal of the coaching process means you are set up to fail.

4.    Personal fit and chemistry can impact the progress

The team and leader should work well together in order for the coaching leadership style to be effective. The organization has to consider personality, experience and its most pressing needs before deciding who would be best fit for the role. Did you ever receive negative feedback from a person you do not respect? You probably either got defensive or disregarded that feedback. That is an example of where there is not a good fit for coaching leadership. Most people are also less likely to listen to a person they perceive as rude or disrespectful. Some personal similarities normally enable communication and other aspects that are essential for success with the coaching leadership style.

In which situations does Coaching Leadership style work best?

The coaching leadership style works best when the leader is highly skilled and the team member is receptive to change. Coaching leaders can work with confident employees who are willing to improve their skills so that they can perform their roles more effectively. Remember the situational leadership approach – coaching leadership style is for specific situations. It needs to be applied when the time is right and when the circumstances for the coach and the individual being coached are right.

A stressful crisis situation where decisions need to be immediate and consequences of error in judgement are severe would be a typical situation for when coaching leadership style is not appropriate. After all, there is no room to fail, and time is not enough to develop the right skills for handling the situation.

This leadership style also tends to work best either with small teams or with a subset of a larger team where strong personal relationships can be developed. It becomes difficult to implement coaching leadership strategies with large groups since it is virtually impossible for the leader to connect on a deep and personal level with a large number of people due to time constraints.

Look back at the crucial elements of coaching leadership that we described above. If most of those elements are in place or could be put in place for a certain individual, then I would say you have an appropriate situation to attempt the coaching leadership style in depth.

The Coaching Leadership Style is suitable for smaller teams. If you have a larger team, consider rotating the individuals under active coaching, otherwise the leader will be stretched too thin.

My experience as a coach and of being coached

At some level, I believe you should always have a coaching leadership element in your repertoire. If you avoid telling people what to do and rather attempt to stimulate their minds so they find the solution themselves, they will start believing more in themselves and what they can achieve.

I have had surprisingly few coaching leaders during my career

Few of my managers and leaders have been true coaches. I have very often been left alone to figure things out for myself to be honest. I am not necessarily unhappy with this, since it has worked out well for me when it comes to learning, gaining experience and developing my career. However, I have no idea what another approach would have resulted in of course. I do think that a more coaching leadership type of approach among my managers would have resulted in further and stronger development for me as a professional and as an individual.

Some of these managers and leaders have been very far from coaching and combined a laissez-faire approach with sudden bursts of directive or even autocratic leadership just to fall back on laissez-faire again. That’s my view though, perhaps they were different towards other people and perhaps my own behavior didn’t make things gravitate towards coaching – that can also be a cause in this.

I have had one leader that is strong in the coaching leadership style which impressed me the first time we sat down for a coaching session. He immediately made me feel the following:

  • He wanted me to succeed, even if that meant I would leave his organization in the end
  • He was genuinely interested in me and our relationship grow stronger
  • He helped me prod myself to articulate things I had earlier dismissed as minor in order to understand that perhaps they weren’t minor at all
  • He grew my confidence by genuinely believing in my possibility to succeed

Those are very important, and high impact areas in a relationship with your leader. He managed to achieve this together with me during just a few hours. That’s a pretty strong impact per time spent I would say. Do not underestimate this and how it can impact the people around you.

Self-coaching as a leader

One concept of the coaching leadership style is self-coaching. This is relatively common among coaching leaders and essentially means that they challenge themselves to improve, constantly learn and find alternate routes in order to circumvent or beat barriers and roadblocks in their way. I would say, a very subjective opinion obviously, that I am pretty good when it comes to self coaching. I have strived and struggled to find the answers as well as intentionally exposed myself to learning opportunities. I read a lot, I reflect a lot and I think a lot. I often ask myself what I could have done better in a certain situation with the objective of getting just a tad bit better for the next time a similar situation arises. You can do this to! Especially if you do not have access to a coaching leader. Some brief ideas on how to get started with self-coaching:

  • Learn more about coaching leadership and apply it to yourself.
  • Actively  gather feedback from others, multiple sources if needed, and consider how to improve yourself
  • Identify your strengths and weaknesses, then build additionally on your strong sides and improve or limit the exposure of your weak sides
  • Always ask yourself: how well did this go? What could have been done better? What was really good and should be repeated? You’d be surprised how good of a judge you can be on your own once you put your mind to critically review yourself and your actions and performance
  • Learn, learn and learn more. I once read that every person you meet have something to teach you, you just need to figure out what it is.

I always, and I do mean always, end performance evaluations with employees with asking how I can develop to become a better leader for them. I also ask what I should do more of, and what I should do less of. If you have managed to establish trust, you are likely to receive some interesting feedback through this process. You can continue to ask questions about your own behavior and what works good and bad in thought through and disarming ways. To some degree, you can turn your reports into coaching you without them knowing it. Or at least gather feedback you can use to continue develop yourself.

How and when have I coached others?

I try to be as coaching as possible when circumstances permit. The senior leaders that report to me gets different kinds of coaching depending on who they are as well as the situation – all to maximize the impact for them personally.

Easy-going, day to day coaching

When one of my direct reports have a problem, I rarely tell them what to do. Instead, I ask them questions along the following lines:

  • Could there be more to this problem that you haven’t found out yet? Additional aspects and places to look for more information?
  • Do you have any plans on how to deal with the problem? If so, please describe them.
  • Are there any side effects of these solutions?
  • Is there anything else you can do to solidify your ideas further?
  • What do you need in order to execute?

There are many similar questions that can be used in order to stimulate thinking and facilitate a situation where the individual himself or herself contribute further to their own solution. It teaches ways of thinking, areas and aspects to consider etc. rather than telling people what to do. In this day to day coaching that can be deployed in many of your normal interactions I find that focusing on asking questions is a good rule of thumb.
Read this for inspiration on a day to day approach for checking in with remote employees. Since I have direct reports all over the world, this approach has been very useful to me.

Coaching can be an informal chat really, it doesn’t have to be more special than that.

Deeper and more long-term coaching

This would be the more profound changes and development of an individual. Since I come from the world of business this often circulates around career development and who the individual that is being coached want to become or what they want to achieve.

By asking for their long-term desires and wishes, you can agree on a common goal of realizing those desires and wishes together.

Once that is on the table, the discussion can move towards question such as:

  • How can you achieve this?
  • What do you see as development steps to get to that point?
  • Can you break your goal down into smaller chunks?
  • What do you need to change to enable this?
  • What strengths or yours can be deployed to realize this?
  • What weaknesses stand in your way?

Most of these questions can be drilled down further into by asking the next layer of why’s and how’s, such as in the case of “what weaknesses stand in your way?” which can lead into:

  • Why do you consider that a weakness?
  • Has it negatively affected you sometime?
  • How can you limit the consequences of this?
  • Can you remove this as a weakness?
  • How would you go about that?

You get the drill. I have been in both ends of this and believe me, the answers often lie within the individual, they just need to be poked and prodded in order to get the answers out there and start working with them.

Who Are Some Examples of Coaching Leaders?

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) – Philanthropist and Owner of the Carnegie Steel Company

Andrew Carnegie was best known for his wealth and philanthropy. However, he also played an instrumental role in Charles Schwab’s rise in the steel industry. Schwab’s career began when he worked as an engineer at the Carnegie Steel Company. Carnegie began mentoring and coaching Schwab when Schwab became a manager and this mentorship eventually propelled Schwab to being appointed President of the company.

Schwab[6] appreciated Carnegie’s enthusiasm and kindness as a leader.  One of the many lessons he learned from Carnegie was not to blame workers for trivial faults. Instead, be kind to them; kindness pays for itself.

Red Holzman (1920 – 1998) – Former Head Coach of the New York Knicks

Red Holzman was a highly regarded NBA coach in his era. He was best known for his work with the New York Knicks after successfully leading them to win two NBA titles. However, he also had a tremendous influence on another NBA coach – Phil Jackson. Jackson once said this about Holzman in an interview[4], “”He is the reason why I am a coach. He had a great feel for people and how to get them motivated.”

Mike Breman[5] described five important lessons to learn from Holzman’s leadership style:

  • Make your vision and performance standards clear from day one and regularly reinforce them.
  • Do not overcomplicate the business; focus keenly on the fundamentals and practice until perfection is achieved.
  • Let go and empower your team when you know your system has been fully accepted by them.
  • Be humble and practice what you preach.
  • Take a deep interest in each team member so that they’re still committed to the cause even when they’re not feeling up to it.

References
https://online.campbellsville.edu/business/delegating-leadership-style/
https://online.stu.edu/articles/education/what-is-situational-leadership.aspx
https://www.money-zine.com/career-development/leadership-skill/coaching-leadership/
https://www.rightattitudes.com/2017/04/21/never-criticize-little-trivial-faults/


[1] https://wellbeing.gmu.edu/articles/11237
[2] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jan_Karlsen2/publication/308271302_A_study_of_coaching_leadership_style_practice_in_projects/links/58b3f0de92851cf7ae91e3fc/A-study-of-coaching-leadership-style-practice-in-projects.pdf
[3] https://www.edglossary.org/scaffolding/
[4] https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/basketball/knicks/memory-red-holzman-serves-motivator-lakers-phil-jackson-article-1.374292
[5] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/red-holzman-leadership_b_3116468
[6] https://www.rightattitudes.com/2017/04/21/never-criticize-little-trivial-faults/

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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