Basketball players in action, representing the coaching leadership style
5-second summary
  • Leaders who adopt a coaching style take an individual approach to recognizing and cultivating the talents of each team member, while simultaneously directing everyone toward a common goal.
  • Dale Carnegie is a classic example of someone who used the coaching leadership style. 
  • Phil Jackson, former coach of the Chicago Bulls, demonstrates this style in the docuseries “The Last Dance.”
  • When done right, this approach can help build a high degree of trust between the manager and team members.

Whether you’re super into sports or you can barely tell a kickball from a volleyball, there’s a lot to learn from the Netflix/ESPN series “The Last Dance.” The series focuses on the Chicago Bulls’ legendary winning streak during the 1990s. 

But the lessons to be found aren’t about basketball. They’re about leadership.

Most of those nuggets of wisdom are owed to Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Bulls from 1989 to 1998, who led the team to six NBA championships during his tenure. 

What was Jackson’s secret? He understood each of his players as individuals. He knew that if you’re Michael Jordan, you’re motivated by working harder and longer than anyone else. He also recognized that if you’re Dennis Rodman, yes, sometimes you have to disappear to Vegas for a few days. 

Even though he may have used different approaches for different players, he was still able to rally them around a shared vision: winning championships. 

Let’s talk about how you can put this into practice with your team. 

What is the coaching leadership style?

Most of what you need to know about a coaching leadership style is right there in the name: the leader acts as a coach. The leader shows people how their individual contributions contribute to a larger goal. But, most of all, they invest their own time to help team members develop their talents. 

“Coaching is no longer just a benevolent form of sharing what you know with somebody less experienced or less senior, although that remains a valuable aspect,” according to Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s also a way of asking questions so as to spark insights in the other person.”

When to use the coaching leadership style

Different teams and scenarios require different approaches, meaning coaching leadership isn’t always the default best option.

The coaching leadership style is most effective when you are:

  • Leading a team where employees are driven, but engagement and motivation are low
  • Taking over a team that has a toxic culture or an existing distrust of leaders
  • Noticing a disconnect between organizational and personal objectives
  • Identifying a lot of departmental or informational silos 

These are opportunities when a leader who is visionary, driven, and empathetic can help right the ship with a “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back out there” kind of attitude. 

Discover your natural leadership style with this quiz

Examples of coaching leadership in action

Let’s go back to Phil Jackson for a minute. As Mitch Mitchell writes for Forbes, “He famously understood the human side of his individual players. From letting Jordan and others golf to relieve pre-game stress, to greenlighting a ‘quick trip’ to Vegas for Dennis Rodman, he recognized his athletes as more than just accumulators of points, rebounds, and assists.”

You don’t need to be screaming from the sidelines to employ a coaching leadership style. There are plenty of examples from both the business world:

  • Sheryl Sandberg: The COO of Facebook is known for having notoriously high expectations for her team, but also providing plenty of praise, recognition, and support.
  • Dale Carnegie: This business icon was so revered for his leadership skills that an entire industry exists around teaching his philosophies and techniques. Two of his main tenets were taking a flexible approach and treating employees as valuable people, rather than people with valuable skills.
  • Satya Nadella: Nadella stepped into the shoes as CEO of Microsoft during a time when the company was performing well, but stagnating. He modeled and encouraged a growth mindset for employees and fellow leaders, leading to a cultural shift at the organization.

How is coaching leadership different from other leadership styles?

There are seemingly dozens of different leadership styles, but leadership is hardly ever one-dimensional. Many effective leaders use a combination of styles to best motivate and lead their teams (that’s a leadership style all its own, known as situational leadership).

Even so, understanding how coaching leadership differs from other approaches is helpful for getting a better grasp on what it takes to be a coaching leader. 

In terms of some of the academic leadership styles you frequently hear referenced, coaching leadership is most similar to: 

  • Democratic leadership style: Much like in a democracy, this type of leader leans heavily on the input and suggestions of team members. This style prioritizes collaboration, and so does coaching leadership.
  • Servant leadership style: Servant leaders want to serve and elevate their direct reports, rather than get the glory for themselves. Like coaching leadership, this style emphasizes growth and development.
  • Transformational leadership style: These leaders want to improve (read: transform) the organizations they work for. To do so, they encourage team members to not just meet—but exceed—goals. The spotlight is on achieving results, just like with coaching leadership. 

On the flipside, coaching leadership is most different from: 

  • Autocratic leadership style: This fairly traditional approach puts all of the power in the hands of the leader. They’re the ones who make the decisions and their direct reports should follow along—no questions asked.
  • Bureaucratic leadership style: Bureaucratic leaders like to do things “by the book.” They lean heavily on rules and procedures, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for individuality and personalized management. 
  • Laissez-faire leadership style: These leaders are almost completely “hands-off” and transfer all of the power to employees. While it captures the trust of a coaching leadership style, it lacks the committed partnership and cooperation of a true coach.
  • Transactional leadership style: Think of this leadership style as “if this, then that.” If you miss a deadline, then you need to issue an apology to the team. This approach is rigid and focused primarily on rewards and punishments as a way to motivate employees.

There’s some definite overlap — and some distinct differences — between coaching leadership and other approaches. The gist is that a coaching leadership style doesn’t fit the mold of what many people view as a “traditional” leader. It’s more about support and cooperation and less about exerting power and control. 

7 proven leadership principles and the psychology behind them

What are the pros and cons of coaching leadership?

Here’s the good news: You can let go of your expectations of a “perfect” leadership style. Every style has advantages and drawbacks. 

The good news about a coaching leadership style: 

  • Teams and organizations often reach their goals and achieve results.
  • There’s a high degree of trust between leaders and direct reports.
  • Team members grow with the feedback and encouragement of an experienced leader.
  • Teams feel a sense of cohesiveness and cooperation .

The bad news about a coaching leadership style:

  • There aren’t always quick wins and results (Jackson took over as Bulls head coach in 1989, but their first championship win didn’t come until 1991).
  • It’s time-intensive for the leader with a lot of hours and energy invested in working closely with each team member.
  • It requires cooperation and commitment from employees, as they have to want to grow and develop.

How to apply a coaching leadership style with your team

There are two key steps you can take to begin to embody this leadership style with your own team. 

1. Understand individual development goals

Coaching leadership is focused on achieving a vision. Not just the organization’s vision, but also the vision of each individual employee. That’s impossible to do if you don’t understand the goals and desires of your direct reports. 

That requires one-on-one conversations with your people. To make those conversations more productive, ask questions that are:

  • Open-ended: One study shows that open questions empower people to answer more honestly. For example, you would ask, “What’s one career goal you have your sights set on for the next year?” and not, “Are you hoping to get a promotion?” 
  • Singularly-focused: Avoid overwhelming team members by asking one question at a time. Don’t ask what goals they have, what skills they think they need to build, and how they see the future panning out. Zone in on one subject, such as, “What’s one challenge you’re currently facing?” 

2. Prioritize feedback

Somebody who never tells you what you’re doing right or wrong isn’t much of a coach at all. For that reason, coaching leaders need to prioritize feedback. Feedback should be:

  • Frequent: given on a regular cadence, rather than only during performance reviews
  • Clear: backed by real-life examples 
  • Actionable: supported by something tangible the person needs to work on

Just like leadership, feedback isn’t one-size-fits-all. Connect with team members to understand how they prefer to receive feedback. One person might like public shoutouts while another feels more comfortable with private conversations. 

Finally, remember to balance constructive criticism with some praise and recognition. While coaching leadership does aim to shape skills and improve performance, it should also build confidence along the way.

Heads up! Use the coaching leadership style that helped Michael Jordan soar