Leader as coach

By Paolo Barbesino, PhD

Leader as coach

“Leadership is about being lonely”. This is what a CEO once told me.

Unlike less individualistic cultures like Asia, this Wagnerian ideology of the leader alone at the helm of an organization is so entrenched in the Western command-and-control corporate culture. A leader should reflect this in their mindset showing endurance and self determination in tough circumstances.

Leaders often practice individual sports, and this is usually standing out in their resumes. Head hunters and HR recruiters take duly note of that, and consider it a plus when hiring for a leadership position. Surprisingly, they don’t care whether candidates masters chess playing or Go, the Asian strategy game.

Most of the leaders I know run marathons, do triathlon, or practice extreme sports like kite-surfing. I remember having meetings with a CEO while she was training for a half marathon and I was following her for 25 kilometres on my bike on the Danube Island in Vienna.

But do we really need this kind of leaders?

Daniel Coyle, author of books like “The Talent Code” and “The Culture Code,” posits that effective leaders should adopt a coaching mindset, focusing on developing their team members’ skills, fostering a positive team culture, and driving high performance. When leaders act as coaches, they:

1) encourage vulnerability, where team members can admit mistakes and weaknesses, leading to genuine learning and growth. And they instill a sense of purpose, aligning the team around shared goals and values
2) guide their teams in a targeted, intense form of practice that involves specific goals, feedback, and repeated attempt, helping their team develop their abilities more effectively.
3) foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement. This also involves creating an environment where team members feel comfortable experimenting, taking risks, and learning from failures.
4) communicate consistently and give clear, supportive but candid feedback.
5) empower team members to take initiative and make decisions instead of micro-managing.
6) build strong, trust-based relationships within the team, investing time in getting to know team members personally, understanding their motivations, and helping them align their personal goals with team objectives.
7) lead by example, demonstrating the behaviors, attitudes, and work ethics they expect from their team.

This mindset is so common in special forces like the Navy Seals or in team sports where great leaders were usually mediocre athletes.

José Mourihno, a great football coach says about his team: “They are guided, they discover the way. It’s not that I tell them: now you turn left, then you turn right. I am not Waze”.

Perhaps recruiters should take this into account and instead of asking the typical, silly question: “what is your leadership style”, go for something like: “Tell me of the people you coached that became great leaders?”