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  • Toby Sinclair

Coaching Leadership Style: How To Lead Better

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

The coaching leadership style helps ordinary people get extraordinary results.

Google's manager research revealed their best managers are effective coaches.

Coaching increases engagement, wellbeing and performance.

The problem.

Coaching is confusing. There are many definitions and conflicting information.

There is little help for leaders in organisations.

Most coach training sucks.

Only about 33 percent of LOB respondents in our latest study said that they have become much more effective as managers after taking part in development programs.


Leaders want practical coaching tools they can start using today.

In this article, I will help you.

Providing just the right amount of theory combined with practical tools you can start using.

This article is split into two parts.

Let's begin 🚀


Part 1 - How To Develop a Coaching Leadership Style

What is coaching?

Many leaders associate coaching with telling people what to do and fixing underperformance. This is how the dictionary defines it.

You might hear the phrase "That team needs coaching"

This creates the perception that coaching is something to be done "at" people.

I call this a deficit approach to coaching. Focusing on what is broken.

Based upon this definition many leaders assume they are already great coaches. They tell their team what to do. They focus their energy on the under-performers and junior staff.

This approach to coaching does not unlock performance.

In fact, when you coach "at" people it leads to disengagement. It creates a perception that coaching is for the weakest people in the organisation.

There is a different kind of coaching that get results.

It's primarily not about telling people what to do. It's not about being a therapist.

I describe it like this:

Coaching performed by a Manager is primarily about listening well, asking good questions and sensing how best to respond. Always with the intent of helping people maximise their peformance.

The coaching leadership style is about listening well and asking questions with the intent to help people grow. Asking instead of telling. Listening instead of speaking. Being a beginner rather than an expert.

This coaching should not be reserved for under-performance.

Even top performers can benefit from a coaching style of leadership.

No matter how good you are, everyone can get better with a coach.

How To Develop Coaching Skills?

You have probably taken a coaching course. Nearly every organisation is educating their leaders on coaching. Sadly, the results are poor.

Research in 2006 from leadership development firm BlessingWhite suggested that 73% of managers had coach training. The results were not good. Only 23% of employees thought that coaching from their manager improved their performance.

The common feedback is "too much focus on theory and not enough on practice."

With these challenges, it's easy to think coaching is too much hassle. It's much easier to ignore the "people stuff" and focus on "getting things done".

Developing a coaching leadership style becomes easier when you focus on behaviours.

The key to changing behaviours is changing habits.

When someone asks for your advice, what do you automatically do? You boldly share your best advice. This automatic response is what coaching leaders change. Learning to ask and listen a little more.

In high-pressure moments, leaders with a coaching style have battle-tested habits that enable them to lead with coaching.

The 5 behaviours of coaching leadership style are:

  1. Listening

  2. Asking

  3. Pausing

  4. Summarising

  5. Reflecting

I encourage you to identify one coaching behaviour you can start today.

Breaking a coaching leadership style into small, easy to do habits will help you build momentum.

👂 Listening

To really listen is to be moved physically, chemically, emotionally, and intellectually by another person’s narrative.

To develop a coach leadership style you must practice the lost art of listening. When you listen well, everything else becomes easier.

Coaching leaders understand the difference between hearing and listening. The former focuses on what is said, the latter focuses on what isn't.

The challenge is that deep listening is hard. Your focus has been stolen in a rush to get things done.

The opportunity is that when you truly listen, you create a deeper connection with your team. You build empathy and understanding.

You can start today by priming your environment for listening.

✅ Practice This Habit

When someone speaks, I will genuinely listen

💬 Asking Coaching Questions

Tell less and ask more. Your advice is not as good As you think it is.

You are known for your expertise. Your career has developed based on your technical prowess.

The challenge is that you can easily become a bottleneck. A coaching leadership style amplifies your impact.

To make the shift you need to break your advice addiction. Learning to tell less and ask more.

Coaching leaders hold back their advice, preferring to help the team find their own answers. You must become an expert in asking great questions.

Great coaching questions are open-ended, concise and asked with genuine curiosity.

Here are three examples:

  • What's the real challenge for you?

  • If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

  • What do you fear?

✅ Practice this Habit

In one-on-ones do the following:

👉 Start with this: What do you want to explore?

👉 End with this: What was most useful for you?

👉 Everything in between: Ask open, curious questions

Coaching Leadership style questions

🪞 Reflecting

We’re taught single loop learning from the time we are in grade school, but there’s a better way. Double loop learning is the quickest and most efficient way to learn anything that you want to “stick.”

Leaders with a coaching style continuously reflect on what's working and what can be improved.

They examine biases and assumptions, exploring how to become a better leader every day.

The challenge is you are busy. The to-do list is always growing. Finish a one-on-one and it's straight to the next meeting.

Reflecting doesn't need to be a soul searching activity. Asking the simple question: So What? after key moments will help you reflect.

✅ Practice this Habit

After every one-on-one, ask yourself this question:

What's one thing that went really well?

🤔 Pausing

Most of the time being, with no rush, is what produces results.

Most people hate silence. Coaching leaders love it. They know that the magic happens in the quiet spaces in-between. That moment when you ask a question that provokes deeper thinking. They sit in that moment of silence and create space for great thinking. When they are unsure, coaching style leaders don't rush to respond. They take time to think.

The power of the pause is a wonder. When you take a few seconds to pause it invites contributions. The quieter members of your team will talk and everyone will do better thinking.

✅ Practice this Habit

After someone has spoken, I will pause for 5 seconds.

📝 Summarising

Summarising is repeating back in part or whole what someone has said to you. When you use reflection, all you are really doing is inviting the other person to expand and add more by ‘sending’ out the keywords, feelings or values that you’ve just heard them say.

Leaders who coach are great mirrors. They reflect back on what they have heard in their words, not yours. They help people hear what they are thinking. The simple act of summarising and reflecting creates awareness.

Summarising can appear one of the easiest habits of a coaching leadership style. How hard can it be repeating back what the person has said?

The challenge is that good summarising requires good listening. It's easy to share what you have heard rather than what they said.

There is a real skill in reflecting back on what you've heard in an accurate and human way. If you fake this, your results will be mixed.

✅ Practice this Habit

After someone has spoken, I will summarise back what I have heard

Building Better Coaching Leadership Style Habits

You can start developing a coaching leadership style today.

Take a moment to write down the habit you'll develop:

To prepare I will:

After I:

I will:

And then:

Crucially when defining your habit make it super small and super easy. This will increase your chances of success and enable you to do it consistently.

When you do the habit, don't forget to celebrate.

To help you develop a coaching leadership style, I developed the advice detox.

A 5-day micro-learning program to help you become a better coach.

You’ll learn the typical problems with giving advice and how staying curious a little longer can unlock performance.

The Coaching Challenge Ahead

We have learned so far that coaching is primarily about listening, asking and sensing. With the intent to help people grow.

Leadership is highly situational. That means there is no single right way to lead.

This is why the skill of "sensing" is so important. Understanding what is going on in the moment so that you can identify the most appropriate response.

Daniel Goleman identified 6 leadership styles that effective leaders use.

The big idea is that the best leaders are flexible. They don't overuse any one style of leadership. They are flexible based on the situation.

Most interesting from the study, coaching was the least used, yet most impactful.

Your experience might agree.

The dominant leadership style in most organisations is command and control.

We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling. It has always bothered me how even ordinary conversations tend to be defined by what we tell rather than by what we ask.

Edgar H. Schein - Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

This is the biggest challenge for leaders developing a coaching style.

Your environment is likely not suited for coaching.

You are under pressure, have little time and have many distractions.

The natural thing to do is not listen and tell people to "get on with it".

Furthermore, you have very few role models.

Your manager "coaches" at you all the time. Telling you what to do and how you need to up your game.

To make coaching a little more natural, make adjustments to your environment.

  • Extend your one-on-ones to 1hr to create space for thinking.

  • Remove distractions prior to any conversations

  • Write a few coaching questions on a post-it note

When you prime your environment for coaching, you'll be more likely to succeed.


Part 2 - Why Develop a Coaching Leadership Style

Why the big focus on coaching?

The old dictator of a coach shouting out a team doesn’t work anymore.

Let's say you're in the following situation...

The senior management at your company noticed your technical expertise and potential, so they promoted you to a managerial position where you have to lead a small team.

Your new team begin working on the first feature. They encounter a serious technical challenge. There is strong disagreement within the team on what to do.

The team approach you for advice on what to do.

Given your experience, you think it's something quite easy to overcome.

How do you handle this situation?

These moments can feel great. You feel valued and respected for your expertise.

The problem: your advice isn't as good as you think it is.

Your advice can work well in simple situations (where is the product roadmap documented).

But most problems your team face are highly complex.

There is no rarely a single right answer.

In fact, you can tell the team the "right thing" to do and get bad results. The blame game will start.

On the occasions when your best advice actually works, guess what happens next.

The team will come back over and over again for your "expert advice". You'll become a bottleneck, overworked and stressed.

Your team might even assume that if they don't ask for your advice you'll get angry.

A coaching style of leadership helps you overcome these challenges.

You help the team self-discover their own solutions. By listening well and asking good questions.

“Attention, the act of listening with palatable respect and fascination, is the key to a Thinking Environment. Listening of this calibre is enzymatic. When you are listening to someone, much of the quality of what you are hearing is your effect on them.

When you ask more than you tell these three benefits occur:

  1. The team feel empowered and engaged.

  2. The team often identify better solutions than you would have

  3. You have more time to focus on strategic challenges.

How Becoming a Better Coach Helps You

This all sounds great, but what's in it for me?

Here are three benefits for you:

You get more time.

Time is your most precious commodity. Instead of getting into the middle of every conversation, you encourage the team to find their own answers. The team become more competent at problem-solving. This creates more time for you to tackle the really big strategic challenges.

You climb the career ladder

When you become a great manager people take notice. Every organisation wants people that can lead at scale. In a highly competitive market, your ability to develop great talent will be highly prized. You'll be given bigger teams and more responsibility. Your coaching skills enable you to scale.

You build a legacy

When people look back at the best leaders in their career, your name will be top of the list. Leaders who know how to coach have some of the biggest impacts on a person's career. When you help people achieve great things, you'll build an incredible legacy.

But remember, these are really side-effects by focusing on helping others achieve high performance.

Be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.

What Problems Does Coaching Solve?

Coaching helps you tackle three leadership challenges:

  • Talent Development

  • Change Management

  • Difficult Conversations

Talent Development

Coaching is what turns ordinary people into extraordinary product teams.

Coaching has been shown to be an effective way to help people perform.

Talent Development is about helping people perform at their best. People want to perform in environments that get the best out of them.

When leaders create an environment for people to do their best work, people will want to stay.

Change Management

There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.

Simon Sinek

Leadership often means encouraging people to leave their comfort zone. Coaching helps people through change. By listening and asking you are more likely to understand the concerns people have. You can build connection, understanding and empathy. You build safety so that people can leave their comfort zone.

Difficult Conversations

The hardest part of leaders is the difficult conversations.

  • Poor employee performance or behaviour

  • Complaints and grievances

  • Giving bad news, such as ending employment or advising unsuccessful job applicants

  • Addressing conflict

  • Communicating tough business decisions.

Professional coaches are experts at having difficult conversations. They master a few skills to better navigate the tough moments. It doesn’t make the conversations easy, but the outcomes are typically better for everyone involved.

Because of this, it’s common for the most difficult conversations to be outsourced to a professional coach.

This is not optimal.

Instead, leaders need to learn how to become better at having difficult conversations.

There is no hiding the fact that these conversations will happen often and are required to reach high performance.

The good news. Once you develop the core coaching skills (listening, asking, sensing) and learn a few coaching tools, these hard conversations become easier.


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