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To lead as a coach

What are the skills and attributes that leaders can learn to cultivate to help their teams adapt and grow? The idea of the “leader as a coach” has gained popularity and is something I mull over daily as I navigate my own career as both a team leader and a coach.

What does it mean to lead as a coach? Leadership inherently involves a balance of power, and so a helpful place to start is to look at the relationship of authority and autonomy. Leading as a coach involves a deliberate shift in approach with how you use of your own positional power.

For many leaders, this involves a shift away from a directive approach that relies on positional authority towards a more relational approach that invites greater input and agency from those they lead.

In a classic article from the Harvard Business Review, two researchers presented their findings from studying the different ways leaders can behave in relation to their teams. The Tannenbaum & Schmidt Leadership Continuum presents a model of leadership that describes the relationship between the the level of authority or control they exert over their team, with the level of autonomy or freedom the leader provides.

Adapted from: Tannenbaum, R. & Schmidt, W. (1973). How to Choose a Leadership Pattern. Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1973, 162-180. View more, with excerpts at https://adrianliem.ca/tannenbaum-schmidts-continuum-of-leadership/

Leading as a coach would trend towards the right of this continuum, towards providing greater autonomy and agency to the team.

In practice, what takes place with the shift towards greater autonomy?

In another HBR article (can you tell where I’ve been spending some of my free time 😊) Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular share a 2×2 matrix of “Styles of Coaching”:

Two by two matrix titled, Styles of Coaching
Styles of Coaching 2×2 Matrix | Source: https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach

What I found intriguing about this model is the attention given to the concept of “motivational energy” — it’s a subtle adjustment in thinking about what is involved in the social interaction of leadership.

How much is the leader putting in to the relationship compared to how much motivational energy the coach “pulls out by unlocking that person’s own insights and solutions”?

In some respects, the motivational energy is about the locus of control, i.e. autonomy. Where is the motivation coming from? Where is the locus of control?

To lead as a coach, is to distribute your positional power.

As I explore and apply this practice to my own work as a leader, what I’ve come to see is that leading as a coach isn’t only about shifting the way we lead teams, but is also a shift in how we lead our selves.

Shifting from authority to autonomy, from directing your energy out to drawing motivational energy out from others, can be unsettling — in some ways it runs counter to our evolutionary need to be in control of our environment. And herein lies the crux: too often, leading from authority comes out of a need for self-preservation and fear.

What if, instead, we lead from a place of potential, possibility, and growth?

What is the work you need to do as a leader, to be ok with letting go of some control?

How can you as a leader place the locus of control, the autonomy, in the hands of those you lead?

To lead as a coach isn’t to let go of your power, but rather to re-distribute it to empower others.


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