Leadership is increasingly challenging, leading to a variety of evolving leadership styles and approaches.
Traditionally, transactional leaders have adopted the principle of social exchange: rewards swapped for services or behavior.
Transformational leaders go further, engaging staff and satisfying their needs at a deeper level (Hicks, 2014).
Adopting a coaching leadership style (CLS) means aiming for the latter, helping employees grow and develop personally with their long-term goals in mind (Berg & Karlsen, 2016).
In this article, we introduce CLS and how and when to use the approach. We discuss its advantages and disadvantages compared with other management styles and offer real-life examples.
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What Is the Coaching Leadership Style?
Leadership is undoubtedly tricky. And more importantly, it is changing.
Leadership strategist Benjamin Laker (2020) writes that while the abilities to set a vision and execute a strategy remain, in the future, leaders will need “a new arsenal of skills and mindsets to lead effectively.”
Businesses are likely to look and operate differently, and the new type of leader will need to be confident in the following scenarios (Laker, 2020):
- Handling worldwide customers and employees
- Practicing humility to serve their leaders, customers, and team
- Embracing technology while caring for employees
- Engaging with the unknown and practicing curiosity
Leaders able to coach are sought after, as they motivate, inspire, engage, and appreciate their teams on the path to success.
What sort of leadership is needed?
Transformational leadership stimulates others intellectually and motivationally and builds a strong following, commitment, and loyalty. Such leaders are often charismatic yet able to focus on the followers’ needs (Chartered Management Institute, 2020).
The transformational leader acts as a role model, inspiring their team, promoting solution-focused thinking, and paying attention to employees’ need for achievement and growth (Hicks, 2014).
What is the coaching leadership style?
CLS is a valuable leadership theory that “supports and challenges colleagues, intending to help them achieve individual development goals” (Berg & Karlsen, 2016). It works best when managers want to help employees build lasting strengths and when employees are open to feedback and willing to learn.
This coaching style is recognizable through its commitment to partnership and collaboration. Leaders behave as coaches, communicating well, enabling creativity, and motivating and allowing staff the autonomy to make decisions and do a good job. Short-term firefighting is replaced by longer term strategic thinking (Berg & Karlsen, 2016).
Such leadership is highly valued in today’s workplace, which is often flatter and less hierarchical. It replaces the “I say; you do” approach that is largely unsuited to the modern environment encompassing hot desks, remote work, and flexibility (Eden Project, 2018).
CLS is recognizable through characteristics and attributes found in the workplace, including the following (Eden Project, 2018; Lee, 2020):
- 360-degree feedback is provided by both management and team. All staff are encouraged to take constructive feedback and act upon it.
- Leaders become effective communicators, sharing, engaging, and listening to the team.
- Delegation is effective yet deliberate. Employees are given the opportunity to use their strengths and grow their skills, and are credited with their successes.
- Leaders help their teams visualize the goals behind what they are doing, serving as both guide and observer. They are comfortable letting go and allowing individuals to run with the work.
- Micro-management is discouraged. Instead, the CLS leader is motivated to enable others to succeed and reach personal and group goals.
- Empathy and awareness are clear in the leader’s actions and communication.
- Collaboration, support, and guidance are evident in the coaching style.
- The autocratic leadership (including top-down decision making) is replaced by a focus on bringing out the best in people, guiding them toward goals and overcoming obstacles.
- Personal and professional development of employees is encouraged.
- There are more opportunities for individual growth and creative thinking.
There is a clear distinction between CLS and transactional management. The former encourages listening, supporting, and helping, while the latter suggests telling, deciding, and controlling (Berg & Karlsen, 2016).
When to Use the Coaching Style
CLS is highly effective in environments where people lack the skills or knowledge to reach a shared vision or have become jaded and tired over time (Eden Project, 2018).
Such leadership helps provide direction and motivation while developing a can do approach that encourages skill development and grows a more robust and effective team.
Coaching leaders are more successful at introducing ways of aligning personal and organizational goals while developing shared accountability and success (Eden Project, 2018).
According to Berg and Karlsen (2016), achieving results in a team environment is incredibly difficult. As one leader told them, “the biggest challenge we face always has something to do with people.”
CLS can help. It is particularly effective at overcoming people-related issues, whether cultural or because of time pressure.
CLS supports employees, projects, and organizational culture when the following conditions need to be addressed (Berg & Karlsen, 2016):
People’s perception of control
Individuals with an external locus of control believe that the environment controls their behavior. Others, with an internal locus, see behavior as under their control.
Coaching can help the individual recognize they can change the situation rather than remain passive.
A learning (or growth) mindset is associated with a desire to develop, learn, and grow. Alternatively, people with a fixed mindset often focus on achievement rather than development.
Coaching can point out the value behind adopting a growth mindset to long-term career prospects and workplace enjoyment.
While commonplace, taking extreme all-or-nothing positions when meeting obstacles or facing new challenges is usually unhelpful.
An experienced coach leader can encourage balanced thinking and point out bias that is unhelpful or damaging.
Differences in departmental cultures
A single project can be viewed in several ways, depending on the bias or needs of the individuals, teams, and department.
Coaching is crucial for breaking down barriers and developing a culture where team members are encouraged to spend time coaching, mentoring, and teaching each other.
Projects under pressure
As deadlines approach, time pressure can be a powerful force in leadership.
A well-trained leader with appropriate coaching skills does not fall into the traps of over-optimistic estimation, poor planning, lack of resources, or constantly changing goals.
Adopting a coaching leadership style can align activities to business and personal goals and put in place a culture where mistakes are permissible and collaboration is constructive (Berg & Karlsen, 2016).
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are many advantages to using CLS (and even some disadvantages) for the leader, employee, and organization (Berg & Karlsen, 2016; Eden Project, 2018; Lee, 2020).
- Managers are more goal and relationship oriented with a greater degree of self-awareness.
- Employees spend more time sharing knowledge and engaging in growth and development.
- Staff members display a reduced intention to leave.
- There is a greater awareness of the challenges an organization faces and more creativity in how they can be resolved.
- There are long-term, sustainable performance improvements.
- Although staff development may take time away from routine or project tasks, they benefit from being valued and increasingly related to the environment.
- Staff have an increased sense of competence and receive timely, constructive feedback to continue their development.
- There is more constructive and less judgmental two-way communication and collaboration.
- A supportive environment enables creativity.
- Leaders are recognized for their increased trust and empathy.
- Trust is built through an incremental learning approach rather than a “sink or swim” strategy.
- Leaders trained in coaching help employees find solutions to their own problems.
- Longer delivery times for tasks and goal completion may initially result from investing in staff training and development.
- It takes more time and energy, especially in the early stages, before results are seen.
- Transformational leadership can be tough to implement in a high-pressure, get it done now culture. Results-driven companies want timely, predictable results.
- It is difficult to implement if staff are unwilling to receive or fearful of negative feedback.
- There is additional time required to learn how to give effective, clear, and actionable feedback.
- Managers must be prepared to spend more time with their staff.
- Leaders and staff require training in the new coaching style.
Overall, CLS is a change in focus. Rather than simply targeting results, its goal is to empower individuals and teams to be the best versions of themselves.
Coaching leaders must learn to communicate well and move away from a hierarchical approach to one of engagement (Lee, 2020).
3 Real-Life Examples
There are many wonderful examples of famous coaching leaders throughout history.
Mahatma Gandhi empowered an entire nation through raising their motivation and self-belief. Apple’s Steve Jobs used a shared vision to lead a technological revolution that impacted the world (Eden Project, 2018).
We look, in brief, at three real-life examples of coaching leadership (Scoular & Scoular, 2019):
Partners at this international management consultancy have all received training in coaching. It makes them better equipped to serve their clients and respond to unclear, ill-defined problems.
They offer more value by recognizing that they don’t always have to provide the answer, yet can support clients as they find the right solution.
When Satya Nadella took over as CEO at Microsoft, the company had lost its momentum. The culture was stagnating, and the managerial mindset was fixed. Nadella shifted their mindsets from know-it-all to learn-it-all.
He began by talking and listening to everybody and showed his ability to support rather than judge. Staff were encouraged to learn from mistakes rather than avoid or hide from them.
Allen & Overy
When David Morley introduced coaching as a vital element of the firm’s leadership culture, he involved his colleagues in the idea of high-value conversations. The aim was to make the most of those 100 or so conversations they had each year that were of particularly high value.
Berg and Karlsen (2016) gathered real-world coaching quotes that provide valuable insights into the benefits staff observe from a move to CLS and transformational coaching:
- Coaching can improve project managers’ degree of self-understanding, self-awareness, and knowledge of how their teams think.
- “Coaching helped me to realize that a manager does not need to be the best at everything.”
- “Employees may have several unique competencies that can be used in the organization.”
- “Through coaching I have become more aware of several things, such as the importance of listening to others and not just make my own decisions.”
- “Not everything has to go through the project manager. Employees can find the answers themselves by helping each other. They can use a form of colleague coaching.”
- Coaching can help leaders become more capable of self-management.
- “Coaching helped me to control my own temperament as a leader.”
- “Coaching helped me to become more aware of my own situation, to take control of my own life, but also to teach my employees to lead themselves.”
- Coaching can help employees and leaders manage their time better.
- “Coaching helped me to become tougher. Now I am more conscious of which invitations to accept. It is easier to be tough, if I know that I am so kind that others can exploit me. Then you can also lose respect.”
- Good leadership must be embedded in daily work practices.
- “Building relationships is important, and I use dialogue and meetings on this so the client doesn’t perceive me as a strict project manager.”
A Look at Other Management Styles + Examples
To be effective within a team and an organization, managers and leaders must find the right leadership style.
While CLS is powerful and effective, there are other styles and approaches, including the following (Chartered Management Institute, 2020; Goleman, 2000).
Dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, this approach relies on an exchange taking place between follower and leader. In return for employee efforts to meet their manager and the organization’s needs, they receive financial and non-financial rewards.
Transactional leadership contrasts with transformational leadership (including CLS), where leaders engage followers, giving them autonomy and focusing on their growth and development needs.
While less collaborative than CLS, transactional leadership can still be useful during emergencies or conflict when there is little time for discussion.
Leadership based on emotional intelligence
Highly effective leaders often know the type and amount of leadership to provide at the right time. While difficult to master, it can be learned and result in high-performing teams.
The following six styles (often overlapping) all arise from differing degrees of emotional intelligence:
- Coercive leader – requires immediate compliance from their staff
- Authoritative leader – marshals their team toward their vision
- Affiliative leader – aims for harmony through emotional consensus
- Democratic leader – targets consensus through participation
- Pace-setting leader – encourages autonomy and self-direction and expects excellence
- Coaching leader – seeks to develop, coach, and equip others for the future (includes CLS)
In their book Managing, Mintzberg and Oomis-Rovers (2010) suggest that management styles are a practice that can be judged through an art–craft–science triangle. Management styles are considered a balance of the following:
- Art – grounded in intuition and focused on ideas and vision
- Craft – engaging and based on experience
- Science – thoughtful, deliberate, and analytical
A Take-Home Message
Before the 1980s, a command-and-control approach was typical in the workplace, with managers giving out work in an autocratic style. Since then, more inclusive, authentic, and collaborative styles have been favored, including transformative approaches such as CLS (Chartered Management Institute, 2020).
Using this approach can directly benefit the leader and their employees, helping them grow their skills and work together more effectively.
Many leaders believe they succeed because they have the skills and experience necessary to coach their employees (Berg & Karlsen, 2016). They believe that establishing trust and giving employees the right skills to be their best is in everyone’s interest, including the organization.
In CLS, learning is critical. And it is most effective when integrated into the work environment, with employees growing through constructive feedback and learning autonomously (Berg & Karlsen, 2016).
Yet, it is not only vital that employees have the opportunity, they must also be both capable and willing to learn. If they are, CLS rewards them with long-term growth and self-development.
The CLS-trained (and aware) leader builds and uses the team’s personal strengths to create an environment of creativity that communicates and collaborates effectively, ultimately increasing long-term success for the organization.
Why not review this article and consider how you could embrace this approach through your immediate environment and your clients? Research has confirmed its value for organizations and improving the relationship between coach and coachee (Berg & Karlsen, 2016).
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.
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- Berg, M. E., & Karlsen, J. T. (2016). A study of coaching leadership style practice in projects. Management Research Review, 39(9), 1122–1142.
- Chartered Management Institute. (2020). Understanding management and leadership styles. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.managers.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/CHK-256-Understanding_Management_and_ Leadership_Styles.pdf
- Eden Project. (2018). What is coaching leadership? Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.edenproject.com/learn/for-organisations/creative-leadership/what-is-coaching-leadership
- Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2000/03/leadership-that-gets-results
- Hicks, R. F. (2014). Coaching as a leadership style: The art and science of coaching conversations for healthcare professionals. Routledge.
- Laker, B. (2020, August 5). This is what leadership will be in 2030. Forbes. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/benjaminlaker/2020/08/05/this-is-what-leadership-will-be-in-2030/?sh=583274f87722
- Lee, S. (2020, July 28). What is coaching leadership? Torch. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://torch.io/blog/what-is-coaching-leadership/
- Mintzberg, H., & Oomis-Rovers, C. (2010). Managing. FT Publishing.
- Scoular, I., & Scoular, A. (2019). The leader as coach. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach