Coaching: A key for unlocking leadership

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Dianne Bown-Wilson, executive coach and Managing Director of The M3 Consultancy, examines how coaching can help develop those seemingly unfathomable leadership skills.

True leadership ability, as opposed to management skills, is a rare and much sought-after commodity. One-to-one coaching, with its emphasis on individual development, unlocking unique potential, and overcoming real and perceived obstacles, can be a highly effective tool for developing leadership qualities – both in those who are already established in positions of ‘leadership’ and those facing the leadership challenge for the very first time.

Coaching can be particularly effective and appropriate for senior managers and entrepreneurs who may suffer feelings of isolation and vulnerability not daring to admit to those looking up to them (or even, on occasion, to themselves) that they don’t ‘know it all’.

Leadership - more than just management skills

Although often regarded as synonymous, leadership and management are undoubtedly distinctive and complementary systems of action. The function of the manager is generally to plan, budget, solve problems, organise staff, systems and work levels and control operations. The role of the leader, on the other hand, is far more strategic – to determine direction, to communicate that direction to the organization, and to motivate and inspire other people to follow it.

A good leader will be required to demonstrate some or all of a very wide range of qualities and abilities but it is those which can essentially be classed as people management skills which distinguishes a true leader from a manager. The ideal leader must have what it takes to act as mentor, motivator, facilitator, co-ordinator, guide and occasional therapist to those they lead – responsibility indeed!

A good leader will also need to possess their own coaching skills in order to develop those under their command. Techniques can be taught, but there is no more persuasive way of understanding the coaching process than being coached oneself.

A good leader must also have a clear understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and motivation, and must at times be prepared to deal with failure – in themselves and others. Again, the coaching process can be the most revealing and enlightening means of developing this self-awareness and resilience and as a continuing process, can be a means of providing support and encouragement to those who, at times, feel they have ‘the loneliest job in the world’.

The raw materials of leadership

A variety of factors influence each individual’s ability and style of leadership and the extent to which those skills require further development:

  1. Those charged with leading others are also individuals and, being human, are unlikely to naturally possess the perfect mix and proportion of leadership qualities required for the job.

  2. In most organisations the reality is that – whether through force of habit or a genuinely-held belief that seniority equals competence – those who are given leadership roles tend to come from the more senior ranks, meaning that the pool of potential leadership skills is smaller than might otherwise be the case.

  3. The range of abilities, personalities, strengths and weaknesses of the members of the team to be led will directly affect and may even deliberately determine the behaviour required from the appointed leader.

Most individuals will therefore have a range of needs requiring further development. One to one coaching, as an ongoing process, can help leaders develop and strengthen many of these essential qualities, including:

Vision

All good leaders must have their own unique vision of what they and their team need to achieve and how they are going to get there. Coaching can help test the validity of that vision, identify barriers to success and examine the possible pitfalls.

Decisiveness

As the very greatest military leaders have shown, there’s a time for team-work and a time when someone has to make a decision. What will be the options? What will influence the decision-making process? When will be the optimum time? All these factors and more can be identified and tested through coaching.

Empathy

An effective leader must have empathy with those they lead, but how best should they develop this? When and how should they demonstrate authority? How best to communicate bad news, unpopular decisions, criticism? What are the most effective ways of motivating, supporting, guiding? A good coach can help guide the leader through the possible implications of action, or inaction, helping them to see themselves and their actions through others’ eyes.

Confidence

Lack of confidence is probably the greatest barrier to effective leadership. Having sufficient self-belief to be a ‘tall poppy’ and stand out from the rest is a daunting prospect and can cause leaders to consistently choose the soft option. Alternately, some leaders hide their poor self-esteem behind bluster and bullying, unable to accept either comment or criticism. Coaching can deal with a broad range of issues relating to confidence and self-esteem enabling leaders to visualise and experience a different reality to that which they have customarily perceived.

Charisma

In his book Even Eagles need a Push, David McNally wrote: “Life is meant to be a never-ending education and when this is fully appreciated we are no longer survivors, but adventurers. Life becomes a journey of discovery, an exploration into our potential.”

It is this spirit of adventure, and a willingness to explore, risk, challenge and discover, that characterizes many truly charismatic leaders. In effect, by daring to do what many of their followers dare not, they are demonstrating that they have a strength, energy and vision which truly sets them apart, and rightly allows them their rank and position. Coaching is one of the most effective processes for enabling any individual, regardless of their age, experience, sex, or status to perform to the very best of their ability and beyond this, to set themselves free from the bounds of what they feel they ‘ought’ to do.

Leadership can be learned

Perhaps it is true that some people are born with an innate affinity with others – able to encourage, inspire, nurture talent, diffuse problems, guide, protect and, well, … lead. For the rest, coaching will almost always be beneficial in helping to bring about a deeper self-awareness and a greater understanding of the various people-management techniques which help produce those vital leadership qualities.

Dianne Bown-Wilson specialises in advising companies on issues of marketing, management and motivation.

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