Coaching for a World Where Everyone Leads
It’s the toughest challenges that bring people to coaching.
- A company’s culture is dysfunctional, so your new client is contemplating a job change.
- A nonprofit is floundering, and the exhausted CEO turns to you for help.
- A small business barely stays profitable as the owner confesses his feelings of incompetence.
- A school district struggles to help its most vulnerable students thrive academically. Your client – an elected board member – knows there’s got to be a better way.
- A working mother whose mantra was “I got this!” admits that with teenagers in the house she no longer has a clue.
Challenges like these perplex, polarize and drain creative energy. Our clients feel stuck and, sometimes, so are we. We quietly fear that their problems are unsolvable. Useful next steps elude our powerful questions and sail beyond the reach of our most energetic brainstorming sessions.
Clients get disheartened. Some switch jobs only to find equally entrenched issues. Some slowly disengage. Maybe they still show up for their job and family but with little of their former motivation to make the world a better place. They imagined being a leader but have resigned themselves to getting by.
Eliminate the Word ‘Leader’
Our overuse of the word “leader” may be part of the problem.
What if we dropped the word “leader” from our coaching lexicon? Instead, what if we encouraged clients to engage in the activity of leadership?
See, if leadership is an activity, anyone can do it. Our clients in positions of authority can do it. Our clients without authority can do it. Everyone can get better at leading. With today’s tough challenges, no one person can cut through the complexity. Progress requires people from different backgrounds and with divergent values to find ways to move in the same direction, differently.
Leadership is engaging more voices to solve tough problems.
Ground Your Coaching in Leadership Principles
1. Leadership is an activity, not a position.
Leadership and authority are two different things. Leadership is mobilizing others to solve their most important challenges. Authority is more like management. Having good people in authority positions is absolutely necessary, but insufficient to make progress on the things that matter most.
2. Anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere.
When it comes to our toughest challenges, everyone has a part to play. Lots of people need to contribute time and energy. Companies and communities need lots of people risking a bit of their own comfort for the sake of progress on something that matters.
3. Leadership starts with you, and must engage others.
Some things an expert can fix, or the boss can order done. But culturally, we’ve fallen into the bad habit of waiting for others to lead. When your client embraces these principles, the waiting is over. Action is theirs to take. If your client is a high-authority one, encourage them to experiment with engaging new voices and perspectives, rather than try to fix a complex problem themselves.
4. Leadership is risky.
As you coach your clients to engage differently to solve their toughest challenges, build your skill at helping them mitigate risk. Encourage them to listen, learn and test the waters with smart, small experiments.
5. Leadership is about our toughest challenges.
If your client is going to exercise leadership, they must be willing to look bravely at the places that scare them, that dishearten and perplex them. They must boldly articulate their aspirations for change. It is in the gap between concerns and aspirations where leadership happens.
Use Coaching Skills to Encourage the Activity of Leadership
As coaches, we can challenge those who are ready to step up to the activity of leadership, whether at home, on the job or in their community. We have the privilege to partner with them in becoming their full courageous selves.
- Listen as your client talks about what concerns them the most. Encourage them to articulate bold aspirations.
- Ask wide open questions so they consider the challenge from multiple points of view.
- Invite them to talk about who they’ll need to engage to make progress – because our toughest challenges require us to work with people who don’t think the way we do.
- Acknowledge their strengths and the difficulties they’ll face if they choose to practice leadership more actively.
- Move them to action. Leadership doesn’t have to be bombastic. It’s about trying things, learning from conversations with other people, and adjusting along the way.
- Encourage accountability. As they design their experiments, keep asking “What will you do? When will you do it? What do you hope to learn?”
Remember, with the toughest, most entrenched, most important challenges, we can’t do what we’ve always done, the way we’ve always done it, and expect anything to change. Coaches can contribute to cultures and communities where everyone leads.