Abschlussarbeit von Nora Weisel, read more / als PDF lesen
What Leaders Can Learn From Coaches
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
they will say: we did it ourselves.
– Lao Tzu
This brief paper examines what leaders in today’s world can learn from coaches. Following this introduction, chapter 2
introduces the idea of “Leaders as Coaches” as an alternative to traditional leadership styles. Afterwards, chapter 3
outlines key characteristics of a coach’s role and stance. Building on these ideas, chapter 4 then examines in what
ways a coaching mindset poses a powerful and valuable asset for modern leaders. The paper concludes with final
thoughts on the realization of a leadership shift.
Two notes on the following chapters:
The systemic approach of coaching recommends a coach being someone from outside the coachee’s direct
environment (“system”) in order to take an unbiased and unconcerned role. Following this idea, this paper does not
discuss or recommend formal, regular coaching sessions between a leader and his employees. Instead, the focus of
this paper is on the general mindset of a coach (his attitude, beliefs, and fundamental assumptions) and the
applicability of this mindset in daily “coachable moments” (Boyatzis et al, 2019).
Although this paper focuses on business leaders, the ideas discussed are neither limited to the business context nor
to the C-level. The underlying assumption is that leadership, like coaching, takes place across all areas of society and
on all hierarchical levels. Or in Edgar Schein’s (2016) words: “Leadership exists in all corners and levels of all
2 Leadership in today’s world
The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.
– Kenneth Blanchard
In a world of increasing complexity and information, leadership is more important than ever. Today, leaders in all
areas of society find themselves in a constantly and rapidly changing environment. They steer complex, often
globalized (sub-)organizations in times of high volatility and radical political, economic, social and technological
shifts. They make farreaching strategic decisions in times of great uncertainty and ambiguity. They cope with
handling high levels of pressure to perform while at the same time creating the organizational culture that enables
In this environment, leadership, as “the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common
goal”(Source) constitutes an extremely challenging task – and a tremendously important foundation for meaningful
impact for our societies. Collective achievement, change and progress require collective movement. It requires
aligning the unique capabilities of individuals towards a higher, common objective. That is, it requires leaders that
provide purpose, guidance and motivation to activate the full collective potential that lies within the individuals of an
organization: “If you’re a manager, your most important job is to help those around you reach their greatest
potential” (Boyatzis et al, 2019)
In recent years, multiple authors have stressed that in a world of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity and
ambiguity (VUCA) the traditional, directive leadership style is not accurate and effective anymore (Lawrence, 2013).
Two examples of alternative leadership concepts are Edgar Schein’s “Humble Leadership” and Robert Greenleaf’s
“Servant Leadership”. In his same-named book, Schein (2016), one of the key pioneers in the field of organizational
culture and leadership and his son Peter Schein, call for a shift from static hierarchies and professional distance
(leaders as “heroic superstars”) towards relationships, openness and trust (leaders as empathic, collaborative
Greenleaf’s (1982) “Servant Leadership” goes even further and defines a leader as fully dedicated to identifying and
serving his employees’ needs. Like in Schein’s framework, Greenleaf stresses the importance of suitable new
competence profiles – emphasizing listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight,
stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community as key capabilities of modern
leaders (Spears, 1998).
Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance
to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.
– Peter Drucker
What these and other modern leadership concepts have in common is the idea of an empowerment mindset that
supersedes a governing mindset. The traditional, authoritative and transactional leadership style (teaching others
what to do) might apply for situations in which the leader has the right answer – and hence all information,
knowledge and experience needed to make a thorough decision. But the greater the situational complexity, the more
the leader depends on the expertise, talent and judgment of its employees or colleagues. They need to “supplement
their industry and functional expertise with a general capacity for learning – and they must develop that capacity in
the people they supervise” (Ibarra & Scoular, 2019).
With each individual being the knowledge carrier, solution contributor and decision-maker, the ultimate task of the
leader becomes to engage and enable others to unleash their full potential and to facilitate positive change. The role
of the leader shifts from providing answers to providing support and encouragement. The leader adopts the mindset
of a coach.
In their article “The Leader as Coach”, Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular (2019), two highly recognized researchers
in the field of Executive Coaching, outline this phenomenon of leaders as coaches as effective framework in an
increasingly disruptive business world: “To cope with this new reality, companies are moving away from traditional
command-and-control practices and toward something very different: a model in which managers give support and
guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn how to adapt to constantly changing environments in ways
that unleash fresh energy, innovation, and commitment. The role of the manager, in short, is becoming that of a coach.”
3 Key characteristics of a coach’s role and stance
In order to understand what leaders might be able to learn and adapt from coaches, we first need to shed light on the
unique characteristics and qualities of a coach. What actually is the role of a coach? According to Frederic Hudson (1999),
a pioneer in the field of Executive Coaching, “the ultimate function of coaches […] is to help persons and
organizations find their purpose, vision, and plans for the immediate future”.
Boyatzis et al. (2019) define the role of a coach as helping others in their intentional change process, to achieve their
aspirations or change the way they think, feel and act. They describe four major process steps or “discoveries” the
coachee performs with the support of the coach: The discovery of the (1) Ideal Self (Who do I want to be?), the (2)
Real Self (Who am I?) including strengths and gaps (Ideal vs. Real Self), the (3) Learning Agenda (How can I build
on my strengths while reducing the gaps?) as well as (4) Experimenting and Practicing new behavior, thoughts and
feelings. They conclude: “So a big part of a coach’s job is to keep people progressing in the right direction experimenting
with new behaviors, testing different tactics, and then practicing and perfecting those that prove most effective.”
What these definitions and many others have in common is the focus on the process, not the outcome: the key
responsibility of the coach is to constantly shape, control and adjust the coachee’s process towards a solution or
answer, whereas the coachee is ultimately responsible for the outcome. The coach enables the discovery of new
options, paths, and directions, but it is the coachee who ultimately defines where to go. Marshall Goldsmith, one of
the most recognized executive coaches, emphasizes this idea by characterizing coaching as a “how to get there”
process, rather than a “where to go” process. With this in mind, we can take a closer look at the core beliefs that
determine a coaching mindset.
You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.
– Galileo Galilei
A fundamental coaching assumption is that the coachee already possesses all resources and competencies (e.g.,
knowledge, experience, talent, capabilities) required to solve his specific problem (that is: the subjectively perceived
gap between the current and the defined target state). The assumption goes even further: since the coachee knows
himself and his context best, he is the only one who actually can and should find the solution. By using coaching
questions and interventions, setting impulses and offering perspectives, the coach helps the caochee to make
unavailable resources available, to gain access to conscious and unconscious capabilities. Jointly, coach and coachee
uncover hidden emotional or intellectual treasures and make them usable for the coachee.
This resource orientated view on the coachee as fully equipped individual once more clarifies the role of the coach as
enabler or catalyst rather than a creator. It also underlines the need for a humble mindset of the coach, knowing that
he does not have the answer that fits the coachee’s specific reality, as Milton Erickson points out: “Every person’s
map of the world is as unique as their thumbprint. […] So in dealing with people, you try not to fit them to your
concept of what they should be.”
There are ways to see our biggest problems as our greatest opportunities –
if only we can step out of our trained patterns of perception.
– Anthony Robbins
Another fundamental assumption is that perception creates reality, or as Gunther Schmidt, founder of the
hypnosystemic approach, puts it: “Our focus of attention defines our inner experience”. The way we perceive and
interpret our environment is determined by our cognitive patterns. Like a filter, our patterns define our focus, our
experience and hence create our reality. The power and beauty of the constructivist perspective is that we don’t need
to change our surrounding (which we often have no influence on) to change the way we feel, act or think. Changing
these inner patterns can create a completely new reality – even if the external context stays the same. Positive change
means changing how we interpret and deal with our environment by adjusting our patterns and creating new ones.
What sounds easy can be a very tough task, especially since patterns are often unconscious and therefore beyond our
direct spheres of action. The role of the coach as external observer and steward of alternative views is crucial here. By
applying tools like reframing, duplicating & reflecting, positive connotation or balancing inner ambivalence (dealing
with contrary parts), the coach helps the coachee to change perspective, to build new neuronal networks and to
ultimately construct a new reality. The use of positive language is key in this process, as Steve de Shazer, founder of
the Solution Focused Brief Therapy, highlights: “Problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solutions.”
The relationship is the background for all coaching efforts.
The relationship must be one in which there is mutual respect, trust, and mutual freedom of expression.
– James Flaherty
The importance of the relationship between the coach and the coachee cannot be overestimated. Mutual contact,
trust and respect are crucial preconditions for a flourishing coaching process. A strong connection allows the coachee
to relax, to open, to explore and to engage in interventions offered by the coach. A stellar coach is constantly in
contact with the coachee, in a highly focused state of mind, present and in the moment. He thereby gives the coachee
the feeling of being heard, seen and understood at any time during the coaching process.
I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them,
heard by them, to be understood and touched by them.
– Virginia Satir
Freedom of judgement or multipartiality, as the absence of positive or negative assessment of the coachings inner
perception, also play a major role in building this safe space. Referring to the OK-OK-model, the equivalent mindset
of the coach is: I am OK, you are OK. It requires acceptance of both conceptions without morally or rationally
categorizing the one or the other as superior or inferior. Closely related is a curiosity for new perspectives, value
systems, and reality constructions.
Empathy, as part of emotional intelligence, is another crucial capability in the context of coaching. It refers to
explicitly showing understanding for the coachee’s feelings (desired and also undesired ones) or even anticipating
them. Equally important, openness and transparency are directly related to respect: coaches who share their own
feelings, ambivalences, and vulnerability and who explain their proceeding (applied questions, techniques,
interventions) meet their coachees at eye level. Last but not least, humbleness (knowing the limits of the own
wisdom, not having the answer to the coachee’s problem) and appreciation (for all elements of the coachee’s system
and perception) pose fundamental elements of the coaching mindset.