Why You Can't Recover Unless Your Leaders Can Coach

An Intriguing Question

My previous blog shared the question that forward thinking CEO's and HR Executives are asking: 

How do we equip, support and de-risk our leaders and leadership teams when budgets are so tight and conventional training, development and facilitation aren't possible in the new working environment?

Let's name the elephant in the room. The biggest risks to recovery and rebound sit squarely with leaders who lack the capabilities to deliver performance and to sustain personal and team wellbeing in an environment of:

  • Rapid and unpredictable disruption to markets and communities
  • Emotional roller coaster in all aspects of people's lives
  • Losses of employees, customers and day-to-day routines
  • Ongoing uncertainty

What We Need Is Not What We've Got

In 30 years working across the world as a Psychologist in business and high performance sport, I've seen many challenging situations.

Some of these experiences have similarities to the challenges of COVID-19 recovery such as supporting the Leadership Team of the Singapore Prime Minister's Office around the time of the SARS epidemic, and the Carl Zeiss Vision Global Operations Team as they rationalised and transformed manufacturing sites and supply chains across five continents in just 9 months.

In these types of situations I've learned it's best to address the harsh realities upfront.

One reality that continues to arise is that conventional leaders bring a mindset that puts value on five things which have been successful in the past, but consistently derail performance and wellbeing in volatile environments.

Those five elements are shown below along with common statements from leaders (which might sound familiar!).

These mindsets and practices definitely have value in more stable environments but they become derailers when leaders are asked to make decisions with only 30-40% of information available, or when every decision has tradeoffs that create the potential for disunity, stress and resistance from colleagues and staff alike.

What We Value More

In high performance - high demand environments, there is unquestionably some value in role clarity, authority and the like, however I've been very fortunate to observe and support some of the world's best coaches in elite sport and in other domains (emergency medicine, special forces, performance arts).

From that I've come to value other things more.

Relationship over Role

In an adaptive environment trust will make or break partnerships, teams and whole enterprises. Conventional leaders start with role clarity whereas skilled coaches start with the relationship because trust is the key to everything: to sharing; learning; growing and performing. It's not hard to imagine the increased impact of a leader with a mindset which values relationships over roles.

Humility over Ego

Ego closes people down. Imagine you enter a room with an intention to be open. The first leader you meet tells you about their position and you can see they are important. The second leader asks about you and makes you feel important. Which will you be more open with about the roller coaster you're experiencing as a leader and a person in this volatile COVID-19 recovery?

Empowerment over Control

In a complex environment you have to let the little things go wrong in order to get the big things right. That does not sit well with the conventional leader, or with the performance systems in most enterprises which see errors as failure, not as markers of boldness, learning and growth. Not surprisingly, the reflex of leaders is towards control. Not so the coach who knows their success can only come by empowering others. 

Adaptability over Certainty

Annual plans, annual budgets, project plans and performance agreements are the tools of the conventional leader but the mindset doesn't match the reality. Coaches think like the skippers of yachts. They set destinations and navigate journeys. Leadership in 2020 is no longer about leading on dry land with signposts. We are on water, it's moving, the weather keeps changing, that's why coaches value adaptability over sticking to a plan.

Reality over Protection

Here's the big one. Coaches make people uncomfortable, leaders try to make people (and themselves) comfortable. Coaches can and do make people uncomfortable because people trust them to empower them and care for them enough to make them stronger. That starts with the coach being open to feedback because feedback is the currency of coaching. How else can you learn and adapt to fast changing conditions?

Turning Leaders Into Coaches of a One Team Culture

Since the COVID-19 crisis began we've been iterating and innovating with clients to find the best way to equip their leaders and leadership teams to coach their way through the challenges.

As mentioned on my previous blog, we realised that recovery and rebound was at risk unless leaders became the coaches of a one team culture, in which they shape strategy, performance and development.

Fortunately we knew the elements of a one team culture from over a decade of coaching others to do exactly that. Here they are in the simple Five Shares Model as featured in the Think One Team book.


Tight Budgets, Disruption, Restrictions.

We needed to find a way to deliver the upskilling of leaders as one team coaches at a cost and in a form that suited budget cuts, workplace distancing restrictions and the emerging role of senior leaders as custodians of their enterprises at a time when everything is at risk.

We started by putting the initial thinking on one page as shown below and quickly realised how our extensive suite (Playbook) of one team tools were perfectly suited to equipping leaders to do their own coaching.


We were blown away by the response from leaders and teams.

What Next?

The final piece in the 'jigsaw puzzle' to Turn Leaders into One Team Coaches was to find a fast track to the upskilling and equipping of leaders.

We set ourselves four tests for the process:

  1. Didn't rely on traditional workshops or even a programmed approach 
  2. Empowered the leader to be a self-reliant coach
  3. Flexible to meet the different and the ever-changing needs of leaders
  4. Fitted inside limited budgets

In my next blog I'll explain how we've done exactly that by innovating our very extensive range of Think One Team tools and combining them with a framework commonly used by high performance sport coaches.

It gives Business Leaders a foundation framework, a Game Plan and a One Team Playbook of tools and techniques to use in conversations, meetings, planning activities and decision making.

That's reinventing leadership and leadership development by Turning Leaders into Coaches of a One Team Culture (find out more).


 Graham Winter