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Adopting a coaching-based approach in leadership

by Oct 2, 2018Coaching, Leadership

Today we hear the words “coach” and “coaching” in a multitude of settings – in sports, fitness, wellness, career development, finances, life in general and business.

Sports is indeed one source from where the term coaching stems. However, assuming a coaching-approach the way it is defined in organizational settings today can be very different from a traditional view of a sports coach instructing or yelling on the sidelines. So what is coaching, when it is used in an organizational setting – or more specifically, as an approach in leadership?

This brief article aims to summarize the basics of coaching and how leaders can make use of it; what coaching is and what its key components are.

(PLEASE NOTE: “Leaders” are defined here in the broadest possible sense: A leader is whoever is aiming on taking a role as an influencer and catalyzer for people’s growth; being a leader in this context does not necessarily mean having an appointed, official managerial role.)


Why coaching?

What benefits does a coaching-approach offer when used within an organization? Research confirms a positive correlation between coaching and employee satisfaction, individual performance and reaching organizational goals, among others (Ellinger and Ellinger 2009, Wheeler 2009 in: McCarthy & Ahrens 2012).

Most of us have been brought up with the view that leaders should be clear in their communication, they should come up with innovative solutions and inspirational goals by which they motivate, or “sell” their ideas to their workforce. Telling, offering ready solutions, sharing experiences, giving tips.

These are very important means in communicating as a leader, but there is often an important resource lacking: We are not necessarily taking advantage of certain skills which help people think for themselves.

Taking a coaching-approach is one way to help creating such a space which enables people to engage in high-quality thinking. When we get insights of our own, our brain literally rearranges itself – new connections between brain cells are formed and the hormone adrenaline is released into our bloodstream, which gives us additional energy and inspires us to act upon our insights. (Kounios et al. 2006; Schwartz et al. 2005)

Nancy Kline puts it elegantly in her book More Time to Think (2009):

  • How far can you go in your own thinking before you need mine?
  • How much further can you go than that?
  • How much further than that?
  • And how much further even than that?

As an employee, this means the possibility to come up with my own ideas and solutions to problems, to set goals which inspire me, to really take a look at my own thinking and clean it of any limiting assumptions and beliefs, to reframe my thinking to open up for new possibilities, to connect with my strengths and motivational drivers, to make promises which I gladly want to follow-up on. In short, it offers me the opportunity to grow and really utilize my vast thinking resources.

When can coaching be used by leaders?     

This article takes a broad view on coaching as a communication tool for leaders and claims that we can coach anytime, anywhere. It can happen in formal, predefined settings, such as in a periodic development, feedback or performance discussion between a manager and an employee. Or it can be in a meeting with the team. Or in the hallway between meetings, in the elevator, or over the phone.

Coaching can be used in a structured, goal-oriented session, or only as one powerful question which opens up and generates new kind of thinking – a question which maybe will entertain our brain for a long while after our encounter with the coach (who can be a manager, colleague, mentor…).

Coaching has potential to enhance and accelerate learning, self-development, motivation, confidence, problem-solving, “thinking outside the box”, overcoming obstacles, wellbeing and performance. Any situation which warrants itself for the development of these, is an opportunity for coaching.

What are the key components and skills in coaching?

 In short, here are some of the key components which you will need to master in order to generate quality-level thinking opportunities for other people.

  1. Attention: As coaches, we need to hold our attention on the present moment and on the other person. In order to do this, we need to be immensely interested in what the other person has to say, how (s)he thinks and feels about the issue at hand. Even if we do not do anything else than this, we can get the other person’s thinking going.


  1. Respect and belief in capability: Even if I as a coach do not always share the same opinions, ideas or beliefs of the person being coached, I still need to respect them as a part of their worldview. Also, it is important that I respect and show appreciation for the person and her/his thinking – that I am curious about it. Furthermore, I need to assume one core assumption about every human being: That we are all inherentlyintelligent, imaginative, good, capable of choice and of solving problems. Even when our behavior at times does not reflect this, we need to “file it under consequence” (N. Kline 2009).


  1. Equality: When we are engaged in a coaching-discussion, there are no superiors and subordinates – we are both on the same level. The same applies if it is a group or team we are coaching. We are all exploring the same issue, in slightly different roles. The person – or team – being coached is the thinker, and the coach’s role is to provide the best possible space where they can think.


  1. Active listening: We need to make silence our best friend. When listening actively, we are focused on the other person’s thinking – what (s)he is saying, and not saying, and how she/he is communicating feelings. We should focus on becoming aware of the tone of voice, pauses, emphasized words, facial expressions and the body language of the person being coached. This is often a skill which needs practicing, but when mastered, it can prove to be invaluable in a various set of encounters and relationships.


  1. Coaching-questions: Powerful coaching-questions are often surprisingly simple. “How do you think or feel about this issue?”Or “What else…?”are golden questions which can be often repeated many times during a coaching-conversation. Open-ended questions starting with “What…?”or“How…?”usually stimulate thinking. The questions should not contain the coaches own opinion or be suggestions or solutions disguised in a question-format.


  1. Self-restraint: This is often the most challenging component. As coaches, we should practice self-restraint regarding giving ready solutions or voicing our opinions – not even when designed as questions, as the previous point demonstrated. Of course, it is impossible for us to stop our thinking. Our brains are, after all, marvelous problem-solving machines which get easily drawn into figuring out solutions also for other people, but we need to be aware which of these thoughts and feelings are our own and focus on those which belong to the other person. In coaching, we need to put our own brilliant ideas consciously aside for a while. There is a time and place for ready solutions and instructions, but not during a coaching-discussion.


Of course, no one can be coached if they are not willing. Sometimes it helps, if you make it clear in advance to the other person or team that you will make use of a coaching-approach instead of providing ready solutions. All people are not used to being coached, so being patient and seeing also this as part of the development process is important.

As leaders we do not need – and should not – let go of communicating directly and coming up with solutions and ready answers. However, we should consider balancing our communication with a coaching-approach in order to help people around us grow and realize their full potential, to utilize their amazing thinking capability. After all, what is the core purpose of leaders?


(This article was first published on Jan 22, 2018 at