How (and Why) to Shift from ‘Leader as Boss’ to ‘Leader as Coach’

March 16, 2023

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
A woman and a man having a coaching conversation

We all approach the job of leader & manager according to a complex web of influences taken from our past experiences, admired role models, technical competencies, prevailing culture, sector norms and the expectations placed on us by our many stakeholders.

Above all, we are influenced by what we see as our ‘purpose’ as a leader & manager of others. It’s worth getting that out from your mind and examining it in the light.

There are many possible answers to the ‘purpose of a leader & manager’ question. Common responses I get when I ask it include:

1. To deliver results
2. To implement our strategy
3. To lead the function/department
4. To lead my team

Less commonly, I might get the response:

5. To support my people
6. To help my team develop
7. To coach my team to improve performance
8. To ensure my people feel able to perform at their peak

I firmly believe (and the science indicates) that numbers 5 to 8 are by far the most important aspects of the ‘purpose’ of any leader & manager today. And yet, they are also the aspects that a number of those in such a role would view as either secondary or even as unimportant.

So why are they so significant now? And what new skills do they require?

The importance of ‘leader as coach’

Taking number 5 first: After years of anxiety, uncertainty and pressure on people’s general well-being, acting like a boss is not an effective long-term strategy. To perform to their optimum, we know that people need to feel valued and valuable. They want their leader to support them, encourage them, recognize their achievements and most of all to give them hope for a better tomorrow. What they really don’t need is uncaring demands, numerical and unrealistic targets, disengaged relationships and to feel isolated from their leader and colleagues. They need to feel cared for and supported. They don’t want to feel like a job-title.

High challenge with high support is the approach most likely to generate high performance.

Moving on to number 6: Almost all organizations are trying to make significant improvements to their performance. That’s inevitable at any time, but particularly after a pandemic and in challenging economic conditions. However, quite a large proportion think they can achieve this by setting more stretching targets, acquiring new technologies and making changes to processes.

While all of these may well result in performance improvements, some of the biggest improvements are most likely to result from increasing the engagement and motivation of people. Years of research across the developed world has repeatedly shown that only around 20% of employees are engaged with their work, leader, team and organization. Research in the UK as long as 12 years ago investigated the impacts of employee engagement and identified that huge performance uplifts would be achieved simply by ‘switching people on’ at work. It also showed that the relationship with a line manager was one of the biggest influences on that level of employee ‘engagement’.

Which brings us to numbers 7 & 8, which are closely intertwined. Shifting from the ‘Leader as Boss’ to the ‘Leader as Coach’ is hugely significant in a number of ways.

It shifts the leader & manager:

• From ‘telling’ to ‘asking’
• From ‘speaking’ to ‘listening’
• From ‘demanding’ to ‘supporting’
• From ‘extrinsic’ to ‘intrinsic’ motivation
• From ‘judging’ to ‘helping’

These each have significant impacts on the relationship between leader and follower and typically improve the wellbeing and mental health of the team member. Observation from working with hundreds of leaders indicates that the shift also has a positive impact on the wellbeing and mental health of the leader & manager themselves.

Developing the skills of a ‘leader as coach’

Making this shift is, not surprisingly, easier for some than others. There are all kinds of reasons for this, including those mentioned in an early paragraph within this piece.

Perhaps the main influence on making the shift though is simple: Practice and coaching support.

As with any significant capability, developing the ability to lead like a coach rather than like a boss requires many hours of determined focus and a good level of understanding of the principles. At IDG, we run programmes to help leaders learn to coach and it makes some big impacts on our clients. We also use coaching skills ourselves every day in delivering our programmes and in supporting our leader clients with their leadership practice. Even for those of us who’ve been coaching and mentoring3 for decades, we still seek to develop and grow those skills through our own continuing professional development. We also get to practice them on each other during our regular internal sessions and meetings. For each of us, having the support of our own coach in developing the skills has been hugely significant and beneficial.

As a leader, its easy to feel isolated. Many of your biggest anxieties, concerns and perceived weaknesses are things you don’t feel able to share with your own line manager or peers – and, while showing some vulnerability to your team is a positive leadership act in these difficult times, you don’t want to ‘cross the line’ and either shake their confidence or cause anxiety. You may not want to take it home to a loved one for similar reasons.

Having your own coaching support is a very intelligent response to that challenge. Someone who will listen, be a supportive but critical friend, a source of empathy, a sounding board and, if you wish it, an advisor. If that coach also has significant experience as a leader then that advice is perhaps more readily available and immediately applicable. The relationship with a coach can be a long-term one to develop leadership capability, or it can be a shorter one to surface and explore a specific challenge. Whichever it is, the experience will leave you better equipped to lead in the modern world.

Major skills and capabilities that are becoming increasingly important include:

• Active listening
• Asking powerful questions
• Emotional intelligence & empathy
• Mental resilience (and coaching it in others)
• Self-awareness (and again coaching it in others)

All of these capabilities can be developed and honed and should form a major part of any leader’s professional development plans.

All the research that we see – and that’s a lot, including the recent Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte – shows that the leader as coach is a key shift in leadership emphasis.


IDG now offers Leadership Coaching

Find out more about how we can help you, your team and your organization.

You can also visit our Insight Hub for more ideas from our leading thinkers.

Here you can also explore IDG programmes and services which are likely to be helpful to any leader.

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IDG India
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+91 955 271 5800

IDG Middle East
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+44 (0) 1276 686644