As a Leader: To Coach or Not to Coach

May, 9, 2018

“What is your idea about solving this challenge, Tom?”

Tom, executive assistant to Jim, the General Manager of the Business Unit looked lost. He had joined this company 4 months ago and while he generally likes the atmosphere here, for the past two weeks he has grown increasingly uncomfortable with his boss.

It started after Jim attended a 3-day course on learning how to use coaching as a leadership style. Jim belongs to the category of learners who is very engaged in immediately applying what he learnt. This eagerness to learn was one of his strengths and certainly contributed to his career success.

One of the core principles in coaching is the concept of giving ownership to the coachee (the one being coached) rather than giving advice about how to do things. The rationale is that the coachees should – as much as possible – be encouraged to tap into their own resources, develop own solutions that are aligned with their experience and capabilities and that work for them(!) The benefits of that approach include faster professional growth, more creativity and higher commitment in following through if people ‘own’ their ideas and tasks.

So far, so good; Jim has been applying this concept with his direct reports and it seemed to work well with most of them. Tom, his executive assistant, however, did not appear to respond so well to this approach. Jim’s initial thought was that Tom needed time to get used to this approach. He even surmised that Tom being a local Chinese, might have some cultural issues with independent thinking as the traditional leadership style here was more top-down.

To Coach or not to Coach?

When Jim shared this experience with Tom during one of our coaching sessions, I was not surprised. Having trained managers in coaching as a leadership style since 2004, I’ve had initially heard similar stories in follow-up group coaching sessions. It made me realize early on that along with learning about coaching as a leadership style, managers also need to recognize when coaching is the most appropriate approach and when not. They also need to learn how to actually get started with coaching especially with direct reports who are used to a very directive leadership style. Obviously, these points had not been sufficiently covered in Jim’s coaching training programme.

1. Getting started on coaching direct reports

Especially in Asia, a majority of leaders still employ a very directive leadership. Employees who are used to such a style often initially resist the coaching approach – and there are usually good reasons for it:

  • Being told what to do means that one is not responsible for the outcome – if the results are not as expected, the employee can always respond: “you told me to do it this way”
  • Being told what to do is also easier than having to think of solutions – the brain is like a muscle: you lose it if you don’t use it. It is like the running muscles in our legs. If we run very rarely, it is difficult to run at high speeds all of a sudden. Similarly, if one is used to being told what to do, being suddenly asked to come up with solutions becomes a challenge and takes time to develop
  • There is often the belief “You are the boss, you should know better than me, so just tell me what to do.” What such employees don’t realize is that the role of the boss is different from the role of the employee and that the work the employee does every day is different from what the boss does (hopefully). So who knows the employee’s work environment and challenges the best? Certainly not the boss; it is the employee himself. Even if the boss has moved up the ladder and had done this assignment in the past, things change. What was true yesterday might not be true today anymore.

It is therefore very important to prepare direct reports for coaching – to have a conversation with them about why you (the manager) want to start including coaching as a leadership style. Communicate the above points to them and most importantly, let them know what’s in it for them (faster professional growth, more work satisfaction, etc.).

2. Situations where coaching is not the most appropriate leadership style

Some coach training programs instill the belief that coaching is the ultimate leadership style and should be applied at all times. If a professional coach (trainer) recommends that, it’s an indication that such coach either has never been in a leadership position or has forgotten what it means to be a leader.

Having coached a couple of hundred executives and having been in leadership positions myself for almost 30 years, I realize that a key to effective leadership is a high level of versatility and flexibility. Great leaders are able to choose the appropriate leadership style given any situation.


For example, if there is an emergency and action needs to be taken immediately, using the coaching approach would be like a commander asking a soldier during a combat situation: “What do you think is the best way to shoot this enemy?” By the time they have worked that out, they’re both shot dead already. Likewise, if immediate action needs to be taken, a directive approach seems more appropriate than the coaching approach.

Lack of Knowledge / Experience / Skills

One of the core principles as stated above is to give maximum ownership, to let the coachees tap into their inherent resources. That’s great as long as the resources are already available. If the coachee has little or no experience in a certain area, then asking questions will be like whistling in the wind – it won’t get you anywhere, simply because the coachee does not know.

As a first step, the coach or the manager as a coach needs to identify if the coachee actually has sufficient knowledge or experience of the task at hand. If the coachee is a learner at this task, then a more training or consulting approach needs to be deployed.

The training approach aims at transferring the knowledge / skill so that the employees can do it themselves going forward and in the consulting approach recommendations are given about what needs to be done.

Emotional Challenges

Sometimes, an individual might be under tremendous stress due to certain negative experiences – either at work or outside of it. This could mean that they are experiencing strong emotions such as grief, sadness or anger. Coaching, being a forward and solution oriented approach is more often than not, not appropriate in such situations. The individual may not be ready to move ahead. In such situations, counseling is a more appropriate style.

Counseling involves a lot of listening, showing empathy and compassion and is really effective in bringing down emotional turmoil. Once the individual is in a more balanced state of mind, the leader has the option of following up with a coaching approach, if necessary or useful.

Learning about this gave Jim a better perspective on the importance of preparing his direct reports for coaching and also about Tom’s attitude towards his new leadership style. He realized that Tom was still pretty new in his role, had never experienced being coached before and also was not used to thinking independently for solutions by himself.

Jim understood that he would have to initiate a conversation with Tom about the need to include coaching as a leadership style, and to explain to Tom about what was in it for him. He also agreed to use coaching situationally. He further recognized that Tom still significantly lacked experience and as such required more of a training and consulting approach for the time being. While coaching is a great leadership style to add to any manager’s leadership toolbox, a proper ‘introduction’ (to the coachee) of coaching is critical as well as for the manager to realize that coaching does not replace all other leadership styles but is an addition to the existing leadership competencies.


Charlie Lang
Charlie Lang
Founder and Chief Content Architect
Founder and Chief Content Architect – Charlie Lang is a C-Suite coach and a pioneer in the coaching industry in Asia Pacific.


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