Great leaders should think, act and have the mindset of a coach. But what does being a leader coach mean?
Last Friday, I met Txema, my first mentor, and we talked about many different topics, including leadership and coaching and how they come nicely together.
Txema Bilbao was my manager when I was a trainee at ITP Aero, a jet engine manufacturing company near Bilbao, 20 years ago. I was an impressionable pink-cheeked young boy who had recently finished a Master’s in HRM and was eager to learn and start his career. Txema was the Head of L&D in ITP and was (and still is) keen on sharing his knowledge and wisdom with me.
He was my first mentor and also the best one I have ever had. Sometimes I am lucky.
I learned a lot from him. That experience only lasted a few months, but left a lifelong mark on me. We remained in touch over the years, but in the distance, and this was the first time we saw each other since 2003.
Txema is still his old self, ready to partake in his wisdom and help others grow and develop, while also being cheerful and funny.
Our conversation was wide-ranging, but there was a topic that touched a nerve with me: how we can develop leaders that act and think like coaches. How can we have more leader coaches?
Over the years, Txema has developed different programs to build the coaching mindset, attitude, and techniques among the leaders and managers in ITP. I won’t go into the details of those programs here, but our conversation made me think about the topic, and I wanted to reflect deeper on it.
The best way for me to reflect better is to write about it, so here we are. Below you will find my musings on the leader as a coach and what leaders can learn from coaches.
Why we need more leaders as coaches
Let’s first continue with my friend and mentor, Txema, and his definition of leadership.
For him, a leader is a person who helps other people grow.
Simple, but great in its simplicity. I could not agree more.
This definition also happens to be very close to that of the coach. A coach also accompanies others to grow and become the best version of themselves.
A leader needs to achieve some objectives, of course, but she will best achieve them by helping grow her team. For that, she can learn a thing or two from coaches.
A coach helps their clients by asking them questions and using many other techniques, but the central premise of coaching is that a coach doesn’t know the answers but helps their clients find the answers that work best for them. Coaches empower their clients by showing them they have everything they need within them.
Old school leaders were supposed to have all the answers and make the right decisions all the time. They couldn’t be perceived as vulnerable and had to be seen as taking all the heavy weight of responsibility on their shoulders.
Future leaders will not be like this. This leadership style doesn’t work anymore. Future leaders will have to be leader coaches.
Great leaders lead with humility. They know they don’t and cannot have all the answers and that their team members need to be empowered and make their own decisions so they can grow and be successful.
They know sometimes they will have to make the decisions and tell others what to do, but many other times, they will have to ask questions and help others find the best way forward.
Some things leaders can learn from coaches
There are many things that a leader can learn from a coach and incorporate into their leadership and management toolkits.
Here below, I will explain the most important ones.
Active listening and asking questions are the most important skills a coach can have.
The importance of listening is underappreciated, especially among leaders. The traditional image we all had of the great leader was the extrovert, charismatic, outgoing, and visionary communicator. That can work sometimes, but as Susan Cain showed us in her now famous book Quiet, introverted and calm leaders can also be successful.
You cannot lead others if you don’t listen to them adequately.
Actively listening allows the leader to absorb all the information they need from their team members, but more importantly, it makes them realise that they are heard and that their opinion counts.
There are some things to consider to listen effectively, but the main ones are:
– Be present and switch off your internal radio (stop thinking about what you will say next and just listen to the other person until they finish).
– Not only listen to the words but also look at the other person’s body language.
– Connect with them with your own body language (eye contact, nodding, etc.).
– Paraphrase what they said
– Ask clarifying questions.
This last point brings us nicely to the next skill leaders can learn from coaches: asking powerful questions.
Asking powerful questions
Coaches have a certain way of asking powerful questions that leaders could also use.
Coaches ask open-ended questions. They don’t suppose to know the answer beforehand, so the aim of the questions is not to guide the coachee in a specific direction. They are genuinely open questions that want to elicit the correct response from the coachee (correct for the coachee, not the coach).
Leaders could do the same with their team members.
If a colleague or team member has a problem or challenge, don’t tell them what to do, but ask them the right questions so they can look at the problem from different angles, broaden their perspective and find the answer that works best for them.
Don’t tell, ask.
Our egos often interfere with what we are doing, so just be egoless.
Being egoless means being in the moment and giving yourself to others, without trying to always do what is best for you. A coach’s responsibility is toward the achievement of their client’s objectives, not the satisfaction of their ego.
They park their wants and desires on the side to achieve what is best for their clients. They are their servants.
Simon Sinek expressed it fantastically when choosing the title of one of his best-selling books, Leaders Eat Last.
Leaders who eat last, serve others, and leave their egos at the door will succeed; the ones being driven by their egos will not.
The power of vulnerability
Showing vulnerability is not a weakness; it is a superpower.
Coaches know this and use it to their advantage when talking to their clients. They share and display their vulnerability and thus connect better with them.
Leaders should also admit that they don’t have all the answers and that they aren’t perfect, which nobody expects them to be.
They should say “I don’t know” more often and be open about what they are good at and what they aren’t so good at.
Showing vulnerability demonstrates self-awareness, courage and frankness. It also demonstrates strength.
Displaying vulnerability makes us get closer to and connect better with others, so we should do it more.
Talking about emotions
Coaches are not afraid to talk about emotions; they often talk about them and how they drive behaviours.
Emotions are an essential part of our lives. They are part of our nervous system and guide us in many situations, often much faster and more powerfully than our rational brain.
The problem is that in our modern society, we don’t talk much about emotions, we don’t acknowledge them, and we try to ignore them or “manage” them as if they were something bad.
Emotions are not good or bad; they just serve a purpose. Some are more pleasant than others, but they all have a function and are, therefore, helpful.
Coaches know this, and many great leaders also know it, even if unconsciously.
To be a better leader, start labelling your emotions, identifying what’s happening inside you, and talking more often about them.
As Marshall Rosenberg explained in his book Non-Violent Communication, emotions usually tell us we have an unsatisfied need. They are the alarm bells that tell us we are missing something.
Listen to your emotions and try to understand what they tell you about your needs. Try to understand other people’s emotions and what they lack or need.
Normalise talking about emotions, yours and others, and your relationships with others will improve.
A nugget of wisdom
Txema has his own phrases, his “txemisms” if you like.
They are his, nobody else’s.
They are original nuggets of wisdom on leadership and personal growth. He told me I should create my own, but I’m not sure I have the wit he has to do it well.
I’ll give it a try when I’m ready.
One of my favourite txemisms is “trabajar para sobrar”, which is difficult to translate into English, but would be something like “working to become unnecessary”. The idea behind this phrase is that a leader should work to create a team, structure and culture that make him or her eventually redundant. You have to sow the seeds of your own irrelevance.
That’s scary, but if that isn’t egoless and selfless, what is?
That’s a leader at the service of the organisation and their team.
That’s how a leader as a coach should think about their purpose in an organisation. Their mission will come to an end one day, but they will need to make sure that when that happens, the organisation they leave behind is ready.
They do that by growing their teams to become the best version of themselves. They do that by acting as coaches.