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May 20, 2014

The reality of leadership in our time

We don't need 100 per cent coach-style leaders, but a definite move in that direction is required

By Dave Crisp

With the growing emphasis on emotional intelligence (EI) as a critical requirement for leaders, we’re poised to see significant improvements in leadership style and skills across the board. It won’t happen overnight, but as momentum gets going it’s beneficial to ask what we can expect in the long run.

There certainly won’t be a total change to the coaching-style leadership model 100 per cent. People with drive are still going to be in the forefront of who takes lead roles in all organizations and, to whatever extent, controlled or not, drive means a certain amount of wanting others to "do it my way."

We can’t live without that. This is true of coaching-style leaders, too. They just have the added advantage of not only being hard drivers, but sensitive to others, empathetic, self-aware and willing to delegate, empower, trust and tolerate learning through mistakes that has to go with those other elements. Finding the balance is beginning to be recognized as the key.

Currently, those with these added skills represent only about 20 per cent of leaders. The remaining 80 per cent are the drivers who don’t have those skills and operate largely by command-and-control, giving orders and expecting compliance. As the balance shifts, we probably don’t need to get anywhere near 100 per cent coaching style anyway. We know from research that the best leadership of teams and organizations is actually more than one leader — usually a pair, who bring different skills to the task, but trust and listen to each other when one of them has good reasons for exerting the coaching-listening-empowering style or the other has better reasons for pressing the rules-oriented command-and-control approach. Each style fits different needs — needs of the situation, the timing or the people being led.

The good news is that by making the coaching style the ideal or, better yet, the ability to wield both styles, using each when it is appropriate, as most coach-leaders can, we sensitize people who only have one style — usually that’s command-and-control — to think before jumping, to learn some of the basics of coaching style and to realize when it is helpful for them to step back and let someone more skilled in the other approach apply it.

While we are transitioning to a time when more people can actually lead by coaching effectively, the main benefit of the new knowledge that’s spreading about the value of coaching is exactly its impact on the command-and-control types. Until now, they’ve had a pretty sizable monopoly on how leadership is carried out and few people to question or contradict them successfully. But as knowledge of the tremendous added value of coaching style spreads, these types will begin to realize they have to at least pay lip service to that value and begin to learn what it is that distinguishes this new type of leader.

As more command types aspire to add coaching skills, they will muddle a bit — especially at first — but most of the skills are learnable. Even if you don’t feel them naturally or have a gut feel for their importance, knowing that you need to be able to talk about them, show them off in however limited ways, show feedback from staff that you know and use them — all in order to get the next promotion — all means the culture of organizations will turn toward recognizing these as primary. Opinions vary on how easy it will be for command leaders to re-orient. More people will be inclined to "fake it till they make it" with these skills, which means they will avoid the bald issuing of orders and enforcing compliance of previous cultures centered around command style. It’s interesting to see even organizations like the U.S. Army promoting performance evaluations that are starting to emphasize values not just results.

In short, we don’t need 100 per cent coaching-style leaders to make organizations far more effective. Probably raising the current 20 per cent to 30 per cent or 40 per cent would be plenty, as long as the command types recognize the importance and necessity of including these types in teams and decision-making. The drive in this direction sensitizes everyone, whether they wish to be counted in this type or not. That can only be great for staff, for engagement, for innovation and for general improvement in work environment, which hasn’t seen a major innovation since the advent of the eight-hour day (an improvement which is fast disappearing and clearly needs a substitute... like true empathy and respect for others, their lives and their time).

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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