When you think about the word “Leader” what comes to your mind?
The classical style of leadership has taught us that leaders show us the way: They represent a common goal, vision or ideal, which people identify with and therefore they follow the leaders call for action.
One type of leadership that hasn’t been the most popular in the business world is the coach-leader where the leader is not necessarily leading from the front. In fact, the leader is not really leading: Her job consists in sitting on the back, observing, listening and letting the others find their own way of doing things by asking questions and staying curious, fully focused on the person in front of them.
Although Goleman (2013) presents us with diverse types of leadership which can be applied according to specific circumstances, there have been numerous studies which show that the power of coaching can bring invaluable benefits to organizations, since the essence of being a coach-leader relies on helping others while unlocking their potential at the same time. It is a Win-Win for both the organization and the employees (Bungay 2016).
I have spent more than 10 years in the corporate business environment. During this time, I came across a number of bosses and leaders from all types: From the very directive and autocratic ones, all the way to the charismatic, democratic and laissez-faire ones (Goleman, Boyatzi, MkFee 2013).
I´m trying to recall when did a boss really caused an impact for me and my career. I realized that I could count them with one hand and I would even have many fingers left.
The reality is, the concept of leadership has been quite a misleading one for me. When I reflect on what is it what made a boss or a leader to have a real impact on me, the answer that comes to my mind is quite clear: I admire those leaders that trusted in my capabilities and guided me on a way that I felt I was developing and growing.
I appreciated those conversations that were not just about getting things done and describing timelines and having to prove to them how I am capable to solve certain problems. I admire a leader with a vision, but normally a vision is something that comes from one-self and your own belief systems. When a leader is interested in my vision of the company and of the way of doing things, gains automatically my respect and admiration. Therefore, coaching for development rather than coaching for performance (Bungay 2016) is something that really made a difference in my professional life.
As Goleman (2013) describes in the coach-leader style: “In a time when more and more companies are finding it difficult to retain the most talented and promising employees, those companies that provide people the nourishing development experiences provided by good coaching practice are more successful in creating loyal employees”. The coaching style might not scream “bottom-line” results, but ironically it is one of the styles that more delivers results”.
Based on a publication on the Harvard Business Review by Boyatzis, Smith, Oosten (2019) showed studies whose results proved that people tend to achieve more in a more prolonged and sustainable way when they feel physically and psychologically motivated and in a positive state. To bring people into a positive kind of mindset requires the ability to coach with compassion. When the leader shows genuine care and concern for the other person, so that at the end a reciprocal “resonant relationship” is built. Some of the key strengths of the coach-leader is their capability to display curiosity, asking exploratory, open-ended short questions that help the person recognize their personal vision, which becomes the basis on working together towards the shared goal.
The Underrated Characteristics of the Coach-Leader
When we talk about leadership characteristics, certainly there are the typical keywords that verybody knows: Charismatic, Influential, Powerful, Confident, Communicative, Problem Solver. However, for a leader to become a good coach-leader, they require other virtues that are not often related to Leadership.
In a world where information flows fast and the need for quick results is the norm, the art of patience seems to unfit with the desirable characteristics of a leader. However, by observing the main traits of the greatest leaders of our history, we can find in many occasions that one of the fundamental characteristics they had is mastering the art of patience. As Michelangelo would say “Genius is eternal patience”.
To develop patience, it requires a great level of self-awareness. Patience is defined by the common language as the capacity to accept and tolerate any kind of problems, and situations that do not develop as expected. It is done so without anxious feelings and therefore you remain emotionally stable. Leaders that show greater patience are as well the ones that end up succeeding on long term objectives and ideals.
Examples of extraordinary leaders which mastered the art of Patience were Ghandi, with his practice of non-violence ended up setting India free; Benjamin Franklin, who regarded patience and tranquility as one of the 13 virtues of a Man, virtues that he developed over time and which helped to define his character. Nelson Mandela´s patience and determination made him resist any obstacle and pay a condemn of 27 years of prison in order to see his dream come true: The eradication of the Apharteid era in South Africa.
Listening is the master of the skills. Unfortunately, it is as well one of the most underrated ones in leadership in the highly competitive business environments. Listening is often associated with being quiet and receptive and assertive characteristics that do not resonate with strong and assertive characters expected on leaders. However, active listening it´s a very powerful tool, that if used with enough awareness, could bring people to higher levels of understanding and unity. In your role as a leader, it is of most importance to develop exceptional listening skills, which is the ability to be able to fully focus your attention on what the other person is saying without getting into distractions. Great listeners enter into a trance, where nothing else exists outside the mutual conversation happening on the Now.
Research has shown that when active listening is present in the organizational culture, the levels of trust and cooperation are much higher than in organizations where employees feel that their opinions and ideas are neglected.
One might ask, how can silence benefit a leader in any way? In western cultures, silence has had a bad popularity on the business arena. Silence is associated with weakness, with fragility… perhaps with lack of knowledge or inability to express. However, in ancient cultures, silence is regarded as one of the highest faculties of wise men. James Allen, one of the pioneers of the field of Self-Development back in the 1800s, says it beautifully in his book As a Man Thinketh (1903): “Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. It is the result of a patient effort in self-control. It´s presence, it´s an indication of ripened experience, and of a more than ordinary knowledge of the laws and operations of thought”.
In a coaching conversation, silence is the space where actually the magic happens. Silence allows the coachee to tap into his mind and reach for the solutions and answers he has been struggling to find in the “outside”. Although externally silence appears to have no content per se, actually, it is the space where everything is created. As a leader, giving people the space needed to think, reflect and answer calmly will allow for more meaningful and valuable inputs, as opposed to erratic non-sense responses triggered by a reaction to talk.
Franz Kafka, the Austrian philosopher, perfectly acknowledged it: “You need not to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not to even listen, simply wait. You need not just to even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you unmasked. It has not choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet”.
The problem solver vs the curious explorer
It is a famous fact that leaders see themselves as the problem-solvers by excellence. This is the one single quality that everybody would agree it belongs to a leader. It is the one single quality most people get paid for. The bigger the problems the leader can solve, the bigger the economic rewards she receives, and the bigger the recognition. However, when it comes to really understanding the reality of organizations and the real underlying feelings of the people, providing the answers to all of their questions and giving advice would rarely surface the root causes of the real problem.
The reality is, there is never a one simple side of the story, a solution that fits-to-all, like most businesses like to think about. The issue with the problem-solving minded people is that in the urge to jump into action, they neglect to see the full picture, and to step back and try to understand what is really going on. Assertive personalities do not hesitate to act and although action is important, if applied in the wrong direction can lead to less desirable results.
What would happen if instead of jumping directly into the solution mode, as leaders, we would simply stay open and curious, and try to discover the real causes by maintaining an explorative mind?
In a research performed by students in the University of Oregon, it was found that people who showed strong curiosity traits on personality tests performed better on creative tasks than those that did not showed a strong curiosity trait on the test. Also, people who scored higher in having interests for exploring unfamiliar topics and learning something new, were more likely to come up with creative solutions to solve problems (Hardy 2016).
After all, curiosity and problem-solving are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, a curious and open mind, will often lead to a better capacity to solve all kinds of problems. The key is not to get trapped on the egoistic self- rewarding solution mode, where the emotional need of control is bigger than the willingness to really understand the truth of things.
How to become a coach-leader?
We have been discussing so far about the benefits of becoming a coach-leader and the valuable but often underestimated traits that such leadership style requires in order to be able to truly serve the purpose of the people and the organization in the role.
Now the question is, how to become one of them?
Although one could go on and investigate and read books extensively about leadership and coaching and how the one complements the other, my conclusion is that the real starting point is when there is an inherent need of a leader to truly be able to master his own self first.
A coach-leader must demonstrate that he is able to control his own emotions when it comes to dealing with all sorts of complexities in the organizations they serve. As in the process of becoming a coach, one must observe oneself first, and work on developing the fundamental skills and self-awareness required to become an effective leader. It is an ongoing, self-development and self-mastering journey, which never ends.
“A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”– Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom