Leadership and coaching – the challenges, the strengths and why it is important for a leader to be a good coach

The concept of leadership has through the ages been researched, lived, defined and redefined in a way that challenges leaders to integrate knowledge and experience resulting in what could best be called the Practice of Leadership. The twenty-first century no longer merely relies on theory, emotional intelligence or qualifications. These days, emotional intelligence, work experience and a commitment to personal and professional development are significant in transforming managers into leaders and workers into thinkers.

With this integrated perspective on leadership, coaching has fast become a methodology that supports organisational growth through a sustainable focus on both personal development and bottom-line results.

Creating sustainable learning organisations

Leaders who coach balance their concern with people and performance with the goals of the organisation, thus fostering a culture where long-term performance is valued. Often leaders ignore the potential and multiple intelligences of their people and reduce them to following orders rather than capitalising on them as thinking, feeling and relating beings. Leaders could get so much more from their people, yet often seem to ask just for their hands, and not their hearts and minds too.

Leaders who coach thus focus on both the “What” and the “How” – they focus on both production and productivity as well as engagement and empowerment. By doing so, they avoid cultures of followers and embrace cultures of leaders, whereby their teams are inspired and equipped toward leading self, leading portfolios and leading others.

Leaders need to balance their leadership efforts through being both high directive and high supportive. Leadership that is predominantly high directive in nature models an instructional approach that creates cycles of telling – and then leaders wonder why team members do not think for themselves. Coaching challenges this by engaging in a way that demonstrates:

– Active listening – that fully engages the whole person.
– Asking questions – that raise awareness and engage thinking rather than  elicit closed responses.
– Challenging – in a way that is hard on task yet soft on people.
– Partnering – by viewing others as partners on a journey to achieve organisational success.

Team members who experience feeling engaged, being treated as whole beings, being led with inspiration, who are trusted to think and innovate, who are listened to and are seen as partners – are those team members who take ownership, demonstrate responsibility, and increase productivity to impact the bottom line. This is sustainable performance development, and this is coaching.

The challenges of leading through coaching

The question is, if coaching seems to reap so many benefits for both individuals and organisations, why is it not being wholeheartedly embraced by all leaders? Part of the answer is that it is challenging. From leaders, it requires patience, relinquishing elements of control, trusting teams, asking rather than telling, time and making a shift in how things are done.

It is also challenging for the teams – there may be thinking reluctance (i.e. it is easier to be told), there may be resistance to change (even change for the good can be met with resistance), and there may be levels of mistrust that require an openness and vulnerability with which to embrace the change. What all of this highlights, is that leaders cannot be leaders without the ability to relate in a way that gets results through investing in people – not using people to get results.

It is to be recognised that certain organisational cultures also limit the coaching approach as there may be tight systems, controls and processes in place that discourage questioning or change. Fear and blame based cultures require openness, ownership and accountability and the shift is often too great. Organisations who are constantly in fire-fighting mode would struggle to implement coaching as there is no time for the “soft stuff” in the face of crisis. This focus on short-term performance and results at the expense of sustainable people, process and profitability enhancement can be counter-productive to any organisation’s strategic execution.

The Practice of Leadership encourages leaders, team members and organisations to a way of balance – balance between short and long-term focus, and task and people-focus.

Doing coaching versus being a coach

In order for leaders to embody a coaching approach, there needs to be the realisation that leaders do not do coaching – they are coaches. While coaching is a methodology and technique, it is also a set of skills and a consistent and authentic way of engagement that fosters co-active partnerships.

With this in mind, the Leader as Coach assumes that leaders will be as committed to their own development as to the development of those they are leading. And this development integrates a focus on both personal and performance enhancement. The premise that “we cannot lead where we ourselves are not willing to go” is fundamental to the method and practice of coaching.

High levels of self-awareness and practiced self-management enable leaders to more effectively manage others as they realise the challenges associated with the pace of growth and development. Leaders who realise that the “success of an intervention depends on the internal condition of the intervener1” will realise the key foundational principle of all successful leadership – it starts with me.

1 Bill O’Brien, former CEO, Hanover Insurance