The coach approach to leadership

We often hear people talk about leadership styles, or perhaps read articles about which is the most effective approach for leaders.

Maybe you’ve seen the results of Daniel Goleman’s study about leadership behaviours for the 2000 Harvard Business Review.

In Leadership That Gets Results, Goleman and his team identified six leadership styles after they studied more than 3,000 mid-level management leaders for three years. These included:

  1. Pacesetting – a self-directed leader who models excellence (“Do as I do”)
  2. Authoritative – a leader who gets a team to work toward a common vision and end goal (“Come with me”)
  3. Affiliative – a leader who nurtures emotional bonds and a sense of belonging (“People come first”)
  4. Coercive – a leader who insists others follow commands (“Do what I tell you”)
  5. Democratic – a leader who builds consensus and gets buy-in (“What do you think?”)
  6. Coaching – a leader who develops leadership skills in others (“What have you tried?”)

Some of us may see this list and immediately think of previous managers who fit into one style or another.

Or perhaps we can see where we ourselves might be.

But are there times when you might opt to use one style and then other times a completely different style?

Arguably, the best leaders don’t have a single style, but rather use different approaches for different situations and with different team members.

For example, in a time of crisis, an authoritative or even a coercive leadership approach may be necessary to keep everyone safe and on track, relying on the expertise of the leader.

In crisis, a democratic leadership is often not effective – whereas, in a different situation, a democratic approach would allow input from everyone and might help to gain clarity and get buy-in for a particular plan of action.

Coaching is another tool for leaders to use.

Some folks I talk to think coaching sounds daunting and that it requires a regimented technique and so they’re afraid to try. This is where I would quickly differentiate executive coaching and using a coach approach with your staff.

Executive coaching definitely requires deep knowledge, intensive education, and practise.  But, some of the techniques used by executive coaches can, quite easily, be learned and used by any leader wanting to bring out the best in their staff.

What is the coach approach?

To start using a coach approach, you don’t need to do a lot of preparation or undertake extensive education. In fact, just learning a few techniques and sticking to them will bring measurable benefits.

To start using a coach approach, keep a couple basic ideas in mind: Shift from solving problems to asking questions, be curious about everything you can possibly be curious about.  

We’ve outlined some techniques for you below.

How can it help you be a better leader

Using a coach approach will help your team in various ways and having a highly functioning team will reflect well on your leadership.

When a leader uses a coach approach, what we often see among the team members is:

Innovation thinking outside the box and coming up with new ideas by asking questions and exploring new approaches.

Self-reliance finding ways to solve their own challenges rather than trying one fixed way or continually asking for guidance (coaching helps someone struggling figure out the roadblock).

Confidence achieving success through their own effort and ability.

Goal setting coaching helps them establish and take action to achieve goals.

Engagement contributing more effectively to the team and the organization.

Taking responsibility by owning the solutions, people have more accountability for their actions and commitments.

That’s not all! A coach approach to leadership also helps improve work relationships and fosters more effective communication; team members often work more easily and productively with others – from the boss to direct reports to peers. And, of course, all of these results translate into greater job satisfaction.

Putting the coach approach in your toolbelt

Now that you know a bit more about what the coach approach is (and isn’t!), and what benefits using it can bring, you might be excited to try it out.

Perhaps you have a motivated team member with a challenge that is ideal for a coach approach.

Before you jump in, it’s good to establish with your team member that you’re going to try a different approach to working through an issue. It’s important that they understand that you’re going to explore a coach approach, which means you won’t tell them what to do or how to do something (at least not right away!), but rather you’ll help them explore things to help them figure out what will be best for them in this situation.

If you dive into the coach approach with no warning or context, your team member might feel interrogated (because you’re going to be asking a lot of questions and answering very few) or might simply wonder, “what’s going on?”

Plus, you’re going to be learning how to use the coach approach. If you’re still practising, some questions might not come out right the first time. For example, “Why did you do that?” may sound harsh and accusatory. When your approach is understood to be part of a coach approach, it can be interpreted as interested and engaged.

Here are some ways to bring a coach approach to your team members:

Keep quiet

Fight the urge to answer all the questions or give instructions to people. This is not the time to tell your team how to do things! It may mean that you have to appear that you’re not sure what the solution is (even if you do have all the answers!). It means not jumping in to fill the silence, too. You have to allow others to fill the gaps, brainstorm, and ponder.

Facilitate discussion

Open with some clarifying questions, such as, “What would success look like after our conversation on this topic?” Let your team members figure out if they want it solved, if they need fresh ideas, if this is a wise course of action, or even if they just need you to listen while they talk it through, etc.

A coach approach means you’re not in the driver’s seat, but rather helping to guide and navigate while you let them take the wheel.

Don’t ask leading questions

Use open-ended questions that have an unpredictable answer (instead of a yes or no question that leads to specific answers). For example, an open-ended question would be: “What can you tell me about this situation?” instead of the closed, “Did you do X or Y?” An open-ended question will not guide the discussion, but rather invite discussion and ideas.

Be curious

You may prompt some of the best conversations by being genuinely curious. If you struggle with being curious, try silently starting your questions with, “I’m curious…” Just asking, “I heard you mention ‘X’ – could you tell me more about that?” could help uncover things you wouldn’t otherwise find out or consider.


As you go, check with your team member to determine whether this approach is helping them explore and whether they feel they’re making progress. For example, ask, “What would success look like after our conversation?”

Confirm Commitment

Before you finish the conversation, confirm their commitment. For example, you could ask, “So given everything we’ve talked about, what next steps are you committed to taking?”  Or, clarify what you’ve discussed and then ask about commitment, “So, I think where I’ve heard us get to is X, Y, Z. Is that correct?”  and if so, then, “So how committed are you to this? What’s your timeline for getting this underway? Or accomplishing it?”  If they’re struggling, you might ask, “what would help?” or “what would make it easier to commit to your plan?”

Ask if they need some help with accountability.  That might be, “Would you like me to check in on your progress?” or, “What do you need to help you stay on track with that plan?”

Note that you might then switch out of a coach-approach and be a bit more directive about the timeline the company requires: “We still need to be sure X is done by Tuesday. Can you commit to that?” Once you hear the yes or no, you can then check in on accountability by asking, “Do you need me to help you stay on track?” or “What will you do to keep yourself accountable to that timeline?”

Look for opportunities to use it

Knowing when to use the coach approach takes experience. It can be really effective with high performing team members who could stretch a little more on a project – especially if the work required will benefit from innovative ideas or a fresh approach.

Coaching is one tool in your leadership toolkit  – and it’s best used alongside other tools, like mentoring (sharing your previous experience for folks to draw parallels and lessons) and directing (telling others what to do and/or how to do it).

Other times you’ll find using tools like confrontation (turning difficult conversations into Essential Conversations) and good conflict (building conflict around ideas) are most effective.

A coach approach is a way to help others build on their strengths to achieve success. It works best when leaders are proficient and their team members are motivated to learn and grow professionally.

The Coach’s Questions

What scares you about trying a coach approach? Who could you talk to, to help you feel more confident in trying it?

Which leadership style are you?

Some people we click with, understanding each other with very little effort and working together with ease.

Then there are others who take, well, a bit more work, but sometimes we discover we can get there with some extra care and effort.

If you’ve ever had the feeling that you just can’t get through to someone no matter what you do, then you know how disruptive or even damaging dysfunctional communication can be in the workplace.

How well you are able to direct, delegate work to, motivate, and develop your team members reflects on your ability as a leader.

Team building activities and learning techniques to communicate more effectively can be helpful, but a better understanding of individuals will really improve productivity, teamwork, and communication.

Understanding your personal leadership style is another piece of the puzzle.

We like to bring Everything DiSC® to our clients, a personal assessment tool that’s been used for many, many years, by more than 40 million people (if you’re curious, we’ve given the quirky explanation for the lowercase “i” in “DiSC” below).  

The full version of the tool is based on a series of questions, answered online, and it provides a very detailed report that overviews your behaviour style and helps you adapt to other styles around you.

Don’t panic! There is no “right” or “wrong” type. DiSC doesn’t pass judgement, but rather helps us all understand the differences in how we and others behave.

What’s really valuable is how this DiSC model gives us ways to describe our preferences and motivators and, perhaps even more importantly, gives us strategies that work well for each style (and we touch on common limitations – so you know where you may need to stretch).

We break these strategies for each of the four behaviour styles into:

  • Directing & delegating others;
  • Developing others;
  • Creating a motivating environment, and
  • Managing “up” working with a manager and their behaviour style

The effect of understanding DiSC and using the full online tool can be amazing whether you want to strengthen your leadership, improve how a work team is functioning, or help with sales or other kinds of relationships.

Why it’s helpful

What I really like with the DiSC model is that, unlike other assessments like the Myers-Briggs Indicator, it looks at behaviours with a slightly different lens. Rather than considering our own behaviour type it focuses then on figuring out others’ styles, and helping you adapt to them to build stronger, successful relationships (whether that be relationships with clients and prospective clients through the DiSC Sales tool, or with your staff and your boss through DiSC Management, or even to help everyone on your team interact better with everyone else on the team through DiSC Workplace).

This is an important distinction because how we behave is observed by those around us. And what do we observe? How those around us behave. Not only does DiSC gives us a way to classify and name behaviours (our own and what we see in others), it helps us to learn the motivations behind them so we can make relationships stronger.

It helps in two ways:

The DiSC lens helps with self-awareness so you can understand yourself better. You’ll learn:

  • How you respond to conflict
  • What motivates you
  • What causes you stress
  • How you solve problems
  • How to be a more effective leader

It is also a tool you can use to understand your team. You’ll learn:

  • Ways to facilitate better teamwork
  • What will motivate or stress team members
  • How to minimize team conflict
  • What team members consider priorities
  • How to manage more effectively

Overview of types

When we offer the Everything DiSC profiles as a tool with our one-to-one coaching clients or at group and team workshops, we explore them quite in-depth.

Here’s an overview of the four DiSC styles so you can get some idea of what you’ll learn:

(D)ominance: This person tends to be more fast-paced and outspoken, questioning and skeptical. Priorities include displaying drive, taking action, challenging themselves and others. While motivated by power and authority, competition, winning, and success, this person fears loss of control, being taken advantage of, and vulnerability. You’ll notice someone in the “D” style has self-confidence, directness, forcefulness, and is a risk-taker and you may notice their limitations which means they might appear to lack concern for others, be impatient or insensitive.

(i)nfluence: This person tends to also be fast-paced and outspoken, but also accepting and warm. Priorities include providing encouragement, taking action, and fostering collaboration. While motivated by social recognition, group activities, and friendly relationships, this person fears social rejection, disapproval, loss of influence, and being ignored. You’ll notice someone in the “i” style is charming, enthusiastic, sociable, optimistic, and talkative and you may also notice their limitations will include impulsiveness, disorganization, and lack of follow-through.

(S)teadiness: This person tends to be more cautious and reflective while also accepting and warm. Priorities include giving support, achieving reliability, and enjoying collaboration. While motivated by stable environments, sincere appreciation, cooperation, and opportunities to help, this person tends to fear loss of stability and harmony, change, and offending others. You’ll notice someone in the “S” style is patient, humble, approaches things calmly and is a good listener and team player. Limitations may include being overly accommodating and indecisive and having a tendency to avoid change.

(C)onscientiousness: This person tends to be more cautious and reflective, questioning and skeptical. Priorities include ensuring objectivity and reliability and challenging assumptions.  While motivated by opportunities to use expertise or gain knowledge and paying attention to quality and detail, this person fears criticism, slipshod methods, and being wrong. You’ll notice someone in the “C” style is precise, analytic, skeptical, reserved, and quiet. Their limitations may include being overly critical, with a tendency to overanalyze and self-isolate.

Learning strategies for working with all styles can improve productivity, teamwork, and communication and boost your overall leadership success.

It’s important not to use DiSC and other tools to “pigeon-hole” people, and assume the description of their type captures their complex selves.  And, it’s important not to try to hide behind your DiSC type, explaining away your limitations without any effort to improve.

We offer these Everything DiSC Profiles as stand-alone tools or workshops tailored to strategic leadership, managing people, teamwork, sales, and fundraising AND we’ve included for you today a complimentary “cheat sheet” to help you figure out some of the folks around you. It won’t give you the incredibly accurate understanding we get with the online assessments, but it will give you a starting point to improve relationships.


[ DiSC was developed out of the work of William Moulton Marston (Google him also a very interesting guy). There have been many versions of DiSC but the original and best is the version now owned by Wiley Publishing (the version we use). It was copyrighted with a typo in the name DISC was DiSC. Once others started trying to copy it, the lowercase i in the copyrighted name became a differentiator something that helped folks identify the original and best DiSC tool, from all others. And so, still to this day, the original DISC tool is Everything DiSC by Wiley!]