February 16, 2016

How To Be a Coaching Leader

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Mr. Cherry was my best lawn-mowing client as a kid growing up on the Mississippi gulf coast. He wasn’t just a paying customer, though; he snuck into the role of a coaching leader for me.   He taught me all kinds of lessons about life and work while I was exercising my muscles for free enterprise and building up my budding self-image.

Although coaching has become a stand-alone multi billion-dollar industry, some of the best coaching is done when it is melded together with leadership in a specific organizational setting. The best leaders in any company develop coaching capabilities.

People are starving for wise counsel, useful strategy and an advisor willing to intentionally try to help us progress in life and work. From the boardroom to the ball field, the minivan to the management meeting, coaches are at work.

In my experience building an executive coaching practice over the past few decades, I’ve found that remarkable coaches always provide four things—outside perspective, energizing hope, useful strategy, and measured accountability. And that applies whether it is paid or free, formal or informal, a stand-alone engagement or a role layered onto your normal role of leading in your company.

Outside Perspective

Baseball general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) knew he needed a different angle to have any chance. So he went way outside the box and challenged conventional thinking with his solution to building the roster for the struggling Oakland A’s in Moneyball. 

We need help getting beyond our own life context and bias.  We all have a limited view, even blind spots in some areas, so we need someone who has experienced the path ahead of us.  We need people around us who are not pressing a personal agenda toward us but do bring a thoughtful point of view to our situations.

Coaching someone, whether it’s a profession or not, requires a willingness to look for and share that outside perspective. You don’t force-feed it, but you offer it up as something sweet to taste.  You use phrases like, “What if…” or “Have you ever thought about…” or “Let me tell you what I learned…”

Energizing Hope

This clip is from one of my favorite old comedies, What About Bob?

Richard Dreyfus’s character, Dr. Leo Marvin (you’ll recognize him by the hat and the white socks pulled tight over his calves) is a psychiatrist working with Bob Wiley (Bill Murray).  Notice what Bob says.  “You’ve given me a great gift—the gift of life.”

Life is tough. Challenging. Demanding. Complicated. Stressful.  And very often, unfair and unforgiving.

I’ve yet to meet anyone, no matter how successful, who is immune to the pressures of life.  We all get tired and run out of optimism and hope, and we all need someone who believes in us and pours courage into our souls with “I think you can achieve this” or “I think this is going to work out.”

Sure, sometimes we need a kick in the pants at times but we also need a pat on the back and an encouraging whisper in the ear along the way.

Who refuels your tank?  Whose tank are you refueling? Do those in your life leave a day with you with more energy for the day ahead or merely more weight to carry into that day?

Useful Strategy

We need help that really works, not just in theory but also in the very real world in which we live.  A great coaching leader sorts and sifts through the noise, clutter, and moving parts of life, providing a course of direction to those in our influence circle.  If someone approaches you looking for help, they should walk away from the conversation with at least an action step or two to try, not just clever phrases and theoretical ideas.

Not all strategy is useful and not all wisdom really fits my particular world and me. We can call this contextualization or customization. It is the difference in mountains of information that don’t connect to the center of my situation and need.

A good coaching leader doesn’t just spout out stock phrases and quips from their experience or a book. They craft the insight and guidance to your particular question or need.

Like Calvin, knowing his situation and recognizing his limitations as a six-year-old working with a stuffed tiger.

Measured Accountability

We all need a compelling vision pulling us forward in life and work, but we also need signposts along the way to ensure we’re even on the right path.

At times a good coaching leader has to lean in with unsettling questions. They have to ask the hard question that presses for response.  But it must be measured. Picking the right thing to say, in the right way, at the right time is the key.

As this January article from Harvard Business Review points out, accountability depends on clarity before, during and after the action in question. The relationships in your life that are most frustrating probably have the least clarity.  How can you increase the clarity in relationships where you function as “the coach?”

Accountability is not unabashedly pressing into someone’s life. Nor is it just gunning someone down with question after question. It is bringing the edge of measuring outcomes, attitudes, results and promises.


Coaching leaders are everywhere.

If you have a formal platform (manager, boss, pastor, educator, parent of older children, etc ) dial up the intentionality.  Look for ways to dispense outside perspective, energizing hope, useful strategy, and measured accountability and become a better coaching leader.

If it’s an informal platform—a friendship with a younger couple, a new co-worker—it’s still an incredible honor to speak into the life of someone else.

A leader coach is a powerful double barrel of influence and impact. Steward that honor well.

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