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How Coaching Fits Into Leadership

Last week at Valor, we had the pleasure of sharing an hour with Dr. Carole Robin, Valor Advisor, Co-Founder of Leaders in Tech, and former Director of the Arbuckle Leadership Fellows program at Stanford Business School. During our discussion, she touched on a number of topics that have been surfacing with our Valor Coaches and Clients, but one that really stood out was around the relationship between coaching and leadership. 

To describe the relationship, Robin referenced Daniel Goleman’s classic HBR article “Leadership that Gets Results.” If you aren’t familiar with the premise, it’s that while we can all agree that good leadership is paramount to success, it isn’t always so clear on what exactly good leadership is and what behaviors drive that success.

Research shows that leadership isn’t an all or nothing, binary concept, but the ability to call on certain skills and qualities at the right time. In Goleman’s excellent explanation, he posits that we think about leadership as a bag of golf clubs: filled with the separate and distinct tools we need for success, ready to be pulled out at the right time for each situation. Leaders with the best results do not rely on one single leadership style. Rather, the most successful leaders transition seamlessly from one style to the next depending on the particular situation. 

“Imagine the [leadership] styles, then, as the array of clubs in a golf pro’s bag,” Goleman suggests. “Over the course of a game, the pro picks and chooses clubs based on the demands of the 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.”

Goleman categorizes the six golf clubs you need in your leadership bag as the leadership styles of Coercive, Authoritative, Affiliative, Democratic, Pacesetting, and Coaching. Robin made the case for using the term “Directive” instead of “Coercive” and “Visionary” instead of “Authoritative” as we tend to view “coercive” and “authoritative” as negative terms. But both agree: You can’t play a good round of golf if you only use one or two clubs. You’ll find yourself stuck in a metaphorical sand trap if you never bring out your wedge or rely solely on your putter. 

The same goes for leadership styles. According to Robin, coaching leaders is about helping them get better at using all six clubs and at knowing when to use them. Identifying why a leadership style choice is made is also an important part of coaching leaders. Did they choose a Pacesetting style because it was the style that was needed for the moment or because it’s the most comfortable leadership mode for them? Approaching every situation from an authoritative outlook will only be effective for a short period of time, as there are scenarios when coaching or having a democratic outlook will result in moving the needle further toward your team’s goals.

Additionally, we are often naturally more skilled at using certain clubs and tend to rely on the ones we are better with more often, but this can lead to a lopsided game and not our best showing and is the downfall of many leaders with great potential.

The Six Leadership Styles at a Glance

Coaching styleDirective (Coercive)Visionary (Authoritative)Affiliative
The leader’s modus operandiDemands immediate complianceMobilizes people toward
a vision
Creates harmony and builds emotional bonds
The style in a phrase“Do what I tell you.”“Come with me.”“People come first.”
Underlying emotional intelligence
competencies
Drive to achieve, initiative, self-controlSelf-confidence,
empathy, change catalyst
Empathy, building relationships, communication
When the
style works best
In a crisis, to kick-start a turnaround, or with problem employeesWhen changes require a new vision, or when a
clear direction is needed
To heal rifts in a team or to motivate people during stressful circumstances
Overall
impact on climate
NegativeMost strongly positivePositive
Coaching styleDemocraticPacesettingCoaching
The leader’s modus operandiForges consensus
through participation
Sets high standards for performanceDevelops people for the future
The style in a phrase“What do you think?”“Do as I do, now.”“Try this.”
Underlying emotional intelligence
competencies
Collaboration, team leadership,
communication
Conscientiousness, drive to achieve, initiativeDeveloping others, empathy, self-awareness
When the
style works best
To build buy-in or consensus, or to get
input from valuable employees
To get quick results from
a highly motivated, competent team
To help an employee improve performance or develop long-term strengths
Overall
impact on climate
PositiveNegativePositive
Source: https://hbr.org/2000/03/leadership-that-gets-results

The need for coaching

Goleman’s research revealed that the coaching club is the least utilized by leaders in most organizations. Hesitancy to choose this coaching style was attributed to the perceived time commitment required to help an employee learn and grow into the high-performing team member their manager hopes for them to be. Despite evidence that sales performance, team engagement, and customer satisfaction all increase when there is a culture of coaching at an organization, the average manager spends less than 20% of their time devoted to coaching

Additionally, there is a perceived paradox about coaching in that many leaders think that because coaching often focuses on personal development and not business-related tasks, it won’t have an impact on performance or the bottom line. But despite this perception, coaching undeniably improves results. “The reason: [coaching] requires constant dialogue, and that dialogue has a way of pushing up every driver of climate,” Goleman says. The result is employees who rise to the challenge “with their heart, mind, and soul.”

This ability to switch between leadership styles to optimally approach the current situation is a skill we can all work on. Having the outside perspective of a coach can be the nudge we need to flex the muscles required to best address the scenario at hand—even when it means choosing the dustiest club—and realize better results. Every leader needs to have both the access and the capacity to use each one of their clubs well.

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