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.
  • When done right, this approach can help build a high degree of trust between the manager and team members.

For many people, leadership is primarily a position of power – one that empowers them to provide firm direction and shape behavior with rewards and reprimands.

But when you reflect on the best leaders you’ve encountered in your career, chances are you don’t think about someone who dished out directives and asserted their own expertise or status any chance they got. Rather, you probably think of someone who stood by your side, provided encouragement, guidance, and support, and showed real commitment to your growth and development.

What you’re imagining is the coaching leadership style. 

What is the coaching leadership style?

A lot of what you need to know about a coaching leadership style is right there in the name: the leader acts as a coach. She shows people how their individual contributions support a larger goal. But, most of all, she invests her 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.”

A leader who embraces a coaching leadership style will prioritize things like:

Put simply, someone who uses the coaching leadership style is less concerned with being the best leader and is more focused on helping their direct reports reach their own full potential. 

When to use the coaching leadership style

Different teams and scenarios call for 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 where 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.

Examples of coaching leadership in action

Some coaching leadership style examples can help you get an even better understanding of what this approach really looks like. Here are a few well-known examples of coaching leaders.

Phil Jackson

It makes sense that you’d find plenty of examples of the coaching leadership style in sports, where leaders are quite literally coaches. Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls during their legendary winning streak in the late eighties and early nineties, is a classic example. 

He recognized and understood his players as individuals and then coached them accordingly. 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.”

Leslie Knope 

She may be fictional, but this beloved Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department is a fitting example of coaching leadership. 

She enthusiastically listened to her direct reports’ desires and goals; supported them with hard-won wisdom and sage advice (and the occasional color-coded binder); provided endless growth, development, and exploration opportunities; and was always in the front row cheering them on in both their professional and personal ambitions. 

Dale Carnegie 

This author, speaker, and 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 embody the coaching leadership style to a T: taking a flexible approach and treating employees as valuable people, rather than people with valuable skills.

Sara Blakely

The founder of Spanx credits her own success to both a growth mindset and a beginner’s mindset — and it’s something she encourages for her employees as well.

“If nobody showed you how to do your job, how would you be doing it?” she explains to BetterUp of what it means to think like a beginner. “Chances are, what comes up is a better way, faster process, smarter way — a whole new way of approaching something.”

And while she’s all about helping employees pave their own way, she also balances out those expectations with plenty of humor, which helps people feel even more safe and supported. 

How is coaching leadership different from other leadership styles?

Discover the 7 core leadership styles (and take our quiz to find yours)

There are 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 might be familiar with, coaching leadership is most similar to: 

  • Compassionate leadership style: Compassionate leaders empathize with their direct reports and then use that information to make choices that benefit not only the person, but the entire team.
  • Democratic leadership style: Much like in a political democracy, this type of leader leans heavily on the input and suggestions of team members. This style prioritizes collaboration, and so does coaching leadership.
  • Mindful leadership style: With mindful leadership, leaders need to be fully present in the moment and notice what’s happening, rather than defaulting to reactive patterns. This level of attentiveness allows them to adjust and personalize their approach — much like with coaching leadership.
  • Servant leadership style: Servant leaders want to serve and elevate their direct reports, rather than take the glory for themselves. Like the coaching leadership, this style emphasizes growth and development.

On the flipside, there are quite a few styles that are worlds apart from coaching leadership. Coaching leadership is most different from autocratic, bureaucratic, and transactional leadership styles, all of which tend to be quite rigid and abide by traditional power dynamics.

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.

What are the pros and cons of coaching leadership?

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. In one study, leaders who combined both compassion and wisdom (two distinct traits of a coaching leader) saw 20% higher performance on their teams.
  • There’s a high degree of trust between leaders and direct reports. Trust in leadership increases employee commitment, satisfaction, and retention. Yet only 21% of employees say they strongly trust their company’s leadership. 
  • Team members get frequent feedback to fuel their growth (something employees admit they’re hungry for), as well as support and encouragement from someone they trust and admire.
  • Teams feel a sense of cohesiveness and cooperation.

The downsides of a coaching leadership style:

  • There aren’t always quick wins and results (consider the fact that 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; they have to want to grow and develop.

How to apply a coaching leadership style on your team

There are a few 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 might ask, “What’s one career goal you have your sights set on for the next year?” rather than, “Are you hoping to get a promotion?”
  • Singularly focused: Try asking one question at a time to avoid overwhelming team members. 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 itself, 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.

3. Build your emotional intelligence

A coaching leadership style is highly personalized, so leaders can coach their direct reports in a way that’s most resonant and meaningful to them. 

Emotional intelligence – your ability to recognize and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of other people – is a crucial piece of that puzzle. You can build your own emotional intelligence by:

  • Soliciting feedback from other people (especially your direct reports)
  • Naming your emotions when you feel them (as simple as, “I feel stressed”)
  • Practicing mindfulness to truly connect with your emotions

And take comfort in the fact that understanding people doesn’t all hinge on your ability to develop some mysterious sixth sense. Coach leaders also actively listen to their direct reports about their goals, challenges, and preferences and make adjustments with those in mind. 

Use the coaching leadership style to help your team achieve its full potential