Coaching leadership style

The coach approach to leadership

We often hear people talk about leadership styles, or perhaps read articles about which is the most effective approach for leaders.

Maybe you’ve seen the results of Daniel Goleman’s study about leadership behaviours for the 2000 Harvard Business Review.

In Leadership That Gets Results, Goleman and his team identified six leadership styles after they studied more than 3,000 mid-level management leaders for three years. These included:

  1. Pacesetting – a self-directed leader who models excellence (“Do as I do”)
  2. Authoritative – a leader who gets a team to work toward a common vision and end goal (“Come with me”)
  3. Affiliative – a leader who nurtures emotional bonds and a sense of belonging (“People come first”)
  4. Coercive – a leader who insists others follow commands (“Do what I tell you”)
  5. Democratic – a leader who builds consensus and gets buy-in (“What do you think?”)
  6. Coaching – a leader who develops leadership skills in others (“What have you tried?”)

Some of us may see this list and immediately think of previous managers who fit into one style or another.

Or perhaps we can see where we ourselves might be.

But are there times when you might opt to use one style and then other times a completely different style?

Arguably, the best leaders don’t have a single style, but rather use different approaches for different situations and with different team members.

For example, in a time of crisis, an authoritative or even a coercive leadership approach may be necessary to keep everyone safe and on track, relying on the expertise of the leader.

In crisis, a democratic leadership is often not effective – whereas, in a different situation, a democratic approach would allow input from everyone and might help to gain clarity and get buy-in for a particular plan of action.

Coaching is another tool for leaders to use.

Some folks I talk to think coaching sounds daunting and that it requires a regimented technique and so they’re afraid to try. This is where I would quickly differentiate executive coaching and using a coach approach with your staff.

Executive coaching definitely requires deep knowledge, intensive education, and practise.  But, some of the techniques used by executive coaches can, quite easily, be learned and used by any leader wanting to bring out the best in their staff.

What is the coach approach?

To start using a coach approach, you don’t need to do a lot of preparation or undertake extensive education. In fact, just learning a few techniques and sticking to them will bring measurable benefits.

To start using a coach approach, keep a couple basic ideas in mind: Shift from solving problems to asking questions, be curious about everything you can possibly be curious about.  

We’ve outlined some techniques for you below.

How can it help you be a better leader

Using a coach approach will help your team in various ways and having a highly functioning team will reflect well on your leadership.

When a leader uses a coach approach, what we often see among the team members is:

Innovation thinking outside the box and coming up with new ideas by asking questions and exploring new approaches.

Self-reliance finding ways to solve their own challenges rather than trying one fixed way or continually asking for guidance (coaching helps someone struggling figure out the roadblock).

Confidence achieving success through their own effort and ability.

Goal setting coaching helps them establish and take action to achieve goals.

Engagement contributing more effectively to the team and the organization.

Taking responsibility by owning the solutions, people have more accountability for their actions and commitments.

That’s not all! A coach approach to leadership also helps improve work relationships and fosters more effective communication; team members often work more easily and productively with others – from the boss to direct reports to peers. And, of course, all of these results translate into greater job satisfaction.

Putting the coach approach in your toolbelt

Now that you know a bit more about what the coach approach is (and isn’t!), and what benefits using it can bring, you might be excited to try it out.

Perhaps you have a motivated team member with a challenge that is ideal for a coach approach.

Before you jump in, it’s good to establish with your team member that you’re going to try a different approach to working through an issue. It’s important that they understand that you’re going to explore a coach approach, which means you won’t tell them what to do or how to do something (at least not right away!), but rather you’ll help them explore things to help them figure out what will be best for them in this situation.

If you dive into the coach approach with no warning or context, your team member might feel interrogated (because you’re going to be asking a lot of questions and answering very few) or might simply wonder, “what’s going on?”

Plus, you’re going to be learning how to use the coach approach. If you’re still practising, some questions might not come out right the first time. For example, “Why did you do that?” may sound harsh and accusatory. When your approach is understood to be part of a coach approach, it can be interpreted as interested and engaged.

Here are some ways to bring a coach approach to your team members:

Keep quiet

Fight the urge to answer all the questions or give instructions to people. This is not the time to tell your team how to do things! It may mean that you have to appear that you’re not sure what the solution is (even if you do have all the answers!). It means not jumping in to fill the silence, too. You have to allow others to fill the gaps, brainstorm, and ponder.

Facilitate discussion

Open with some clarifying questions, such as, “What would success look like after our conversation on this topic?” Let your team members figure out if they want it solved, if they need fresh ideas, if this is a wise course of action, or even if they just need you to listen while they talk it through, etc.

A coach approach means you’re not in the driver’s seat, but rather helping to guide and navigate while you let them take the wheel.

Don’t ask leading questions

Use open-ended questions that have an unpredictable answer (instead of a yes or no question that leads to specific answers). For example, an open-ended question would be: “What can you tell me about this situation?” instead of the closed, “Did you do X or Y?” An open-ended question will not guide the discussion, but rather invite discussion and ideas.

Be curious

You may prompt some of the best conversations by being genuinely curious. If you struggle with being curious, try silently starting your questions with, “I’m curious…” Just asking, “I heard you mention ‘X’ – could you tell me more about that?” could help uncover things you wouldn’t otherwise find out or consider.


As you go, check with your team member to determine whether this approach is helping them explore and whether they feel they’re making progress. For example, ask, “What would success look like after our conversation?”

Confirm Commitment

Before you finish the conversation, confirm their commitment. For example, you could ask, “So given everything we’ve talked about, what next steps are you committed to taking?”  Or, clarify what you’ve discussed and then ask about commitment, “So, I think where I’ve heard us get to is X, Y, Z. Is that correct?”  and if so, then, “So how committed are you to this? What’s your timeline for getting this underway? Or accomplishing it?”  If they’re struggling, you might ask, “what would help?” or “what would make it easier to commit to your plan?”

Ask if they need some help with accountability.  That might be, “Would you like me to check in on your progress?” or, “What do you need to help you stay on track with that plan?”

Note that you might then switch out of a coach-approach and be a bit more directive about the timeline the company requires: “We still need to be sure X is done by Tuesday. Can you commit to that?” Once you hear the yes or no, you can then check in on accountability by asking, “Do you need me to help you stay on track?” or “What will you do to keep yourself accountable to that timeline?”

Look for opportunities to use it

Knowing when to use the coach approach takes experience. It can be really effective with high performing team members who could stretch a little more on a project – especially if the work required will benefit from innovative ideas or a fresh approach.

Coaching is one tool in your leadership toolkit  – and it’s best used alongside other tools, like mentoring (sharing your previous experience for folks to draw parallels and lessons) and directing (telling others what to do and/or how to do it).

Other times you’ll find using tools like confrontation (turning difficult conversations into Essential Conversations) and good conflict (building conflict around ideas) are most effective.

A coach approach is a way to help others build on their strengths to achieve success. It works best when leaders are proficient and their team members are motivated to learn and grow professionally.

The Coach’s Questions

What scares you about trying a coach approach? Who could you talk to, to help you feel more confident in trying it?