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Coaching and Leadership

Table, chairs, blue sky

The Business Coaching series is now available to download as a free ebook Creative Management for Creative Teams.

If you’ve been following this series, particularly the post about The Manager as Coach, you won’t be surprised to hear me advocate coaching as an effective approach to leadership. But there’s there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when dealing with people, so it’s important to see coaching in context, to understand where, when and how it can be effective for leaders – and what the alternatives are.

In their well-known book Leadership and the One Minute Manager Ken Blanchard, Patricia Zigarmi and Drea Zigarmi present coaching as one of four basic leadership styles – Directing, Coaching Supporting and Delegating. They argue that managers need to be flexible in adopting the most effective style for any given situation.

In a similar spirit, Daniel Goleman wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review called Leadership that Gets Results, in which he argued that managers should utilise “a collection of distinct leadership styles – each in the right measure, at just the right time”. The analogy he used (no doubt familiar to corporate executives) was of a bag of golf clubs:

Over the course of a game, the pro picks and chooses clubs based on the demands of tbe shot. Sometimes he has to ponder his selection, but usually it is automatic. The pro senses the challenge ahead, swiftly pulls out the right tool, and elegantly puts it to work. That’s how high-impact leaders operate, too.

What makes Goleman’s article really interesting is his presentation of a research project carried out by the consulting firm Hay/McBer, into the relative effectiveness of different leadership styles. He begins by identifying six basic leadership styles:

  1. Coercive – demanding compliance
  2. Authoritative – mobilizing people towards a vision
  3. Affiliative – building relationships and promoting harmony
  4. Democratic – promoting consensus through participation
  5. Pacesetting – setting high standards by example and demanding the same of others
  6. Coaching – delegating responsibility and developing people for success

Here’s Goleman’s characterization of the coaching style of leadership:

Coaching leaders help employees identify their unique strengths and weaknesses and tie them to their personal and career aspirations. They encourage employees to establish long-term development goals and help them conceptualize a plan for attaining them. They make agreements with their employees about their role and responsibilities in enacting development plans, and they give plentiful instruction and feedback

I’m not sure I agree that a good business coach habitually gives “plentiful instruction” – coaching usually involves asking questions rather than giving instructions – but apart from that this is a good description of the coaching style of leadership. As Goleman points out, “Coaching leaders excel at delegating” – the key to their leadership is their ability to help people identify their personal and professional goals, and act as facilitators, letting individuals take responsibility for their own success.

Once the researchers had defined these six leadership styles, they assessed the impact of each style on ‘climate’, a term devised by psychologists to assess the ‘working atmosphere’ of an organisation. Climate is defined in terms of the following six factors:

1. Flexibility (freedom to innovate without being shackled with red tape)
2. Responsibility
3. Standards (set by people in the organisation)
4. Rewards (how accurate and fair these are)
5. Clarity (about mission and values)
6. Commitment

According to the researchers, of the six leadership styles, two of them – Coercive and Pacesetting – had a negative impact on climate. It’s no great surprise that Coercive was the least effective leadership style, except in emergencies. Few managers who really think about impact of their behaviour on others are likely to habitually coerce people into obedience. Perhaps more surprising was the fact that the Pacesetting style had a negative effect on climate. After all, isn’t setting a good example one of the things we expect of a leader?

In fact, the pacesetting style destroys climate. Many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter’s demands for excellence, and their morale drops. Guidelines for working may he clear in the leader’s head, but she does not state them clearly… Work becomes not a matter of doing one’s best along a clear course so much as second-guessing what the leader wants. At the same time, people often feel that the pacesetter doesn’t trust them to work in their own way or to take initiative… As for rewards, the pacesetter either gives no feedback on how people are doing or jumps in to take over when he thinks they’re lagging.

This reads to me like an inverted coaching style – the emphasis is on the leader rather than the team, outcomes are not clearly described or checked for mutual understanding, responsibility is not delegated and feedback is either non-existent or clumsily delivered.

Moving onto the styles with a positive impact on climate, the most effective leadership style was ‘Authoritative’. Again, this is no great surprise – the core function of a leader is to identify a goal and inspire others to achieve it.

The authoritative leader is a visionary – he motivates people by making clear to them how their work fits into a larger vision for the organization. People who work for such leaders understand that what they do matters and why. Authoritative leadership also maximizes commitment to the organization’s goals and strategy. By framing the individual tasks within a grand vision, the authoritative leader defines standards that revolve around that vision. When he gives performance feedback – whether positive or negative – the singular criterion is whether or not that performance furthers the vision.

The three remaining styles (Affiliative, Democratic and Coaching) scored lower than Authoritative, but all had a positive impact on climate, scoring about the same as each other. So each of these styles is clearly important for a well-rounded approach to leadership, although none of them stick out as more important than the others.

Where coaching did stick out like a sore thumb however, was in the fact that it was the most neglected of the leadership styles:

Of the six styles, our research found that the coaching style is used least often. Many leaders told us they don’t have the time in this high-pressure economy for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow. But after a first session, it takes little or no extra time. Leaders who ignore this style are passing up a powerful tool: its impact on climate and performance are markedly positive.

When I first read this article it confirmed my feeling that coaching is the tortoise compared to the hare of some charisma-based leadership styles, or the more glamorous, guru-centric approaches to personal development. I’m not saying there isn’t value in a charismatic, high-energy approach, but I do wonder about the end product.

For example, I sometimes hear people report amazing experiences on personal development weekends with a famous speaker, from which they return full of plans and enthusiasm – but a few weeks later there’s nothing much to show for it. When asked, they usually say that it was a valuable experience to see such an inspiring speaker, but that they were probably being a bit unrealistic in some of the plans they made. Similarly, the danger with a Pacesetting leadership style is the fact that the focus is on the leader rather than the team.

By comparison, coaching might look a less dynamic style of leadership – the leader listens more than she talks, asking questions and making sure commitments are recorded and followed up – but it does ensure that things get done. And the person being coached is centre-stage, with all the opportunity and responsibility that implies. As Goleman puts it:

Although the coaching style may not scream “bottom-line results,” it delivers them.

Next in this series – Key Coaching Skills