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Leadership, what approach should I take?

Throughout my career I have taken a predominantly coaching approach to leadership. This approach is grounded in my formal education and experience as a teacher and sports coach, investing in people and watching them grow is my passion, I believe in it. Given my experience and beliefs, in March 2018 I conducted a research case study exploring coaching as a form of leadership and its impact, if any, upon organisational performance. This short article explains what I found, my reflections and provides a view of leadership development in an attempt to inform and support futures leaders.

A review of the literature surrounding leadership in the late twentieth century and early twenty first century points to the discovery of a higher order of leadership from the predominantly autocratic forms of the past. Terms to describe a new breed of leader have been born and include, transformational (Bass, 1990), transcendental (Sanders, et al., 2003), authentic (Lee, 2003), connected (Gobillot, 2007) and transpersonal leaders (Knights, et al., 2019). Whilst the 'labels' given to leadership are vast, it appears that their is some agreement on the traits that effective leaders posses to engage their followers. A majority of these higher order leadership theories identify similar traits in the leader; humility, drive/will, the ability to be inspirational, visionary, empathetic, supportive, a developer of people and an awareness of self, to name a few.

A coaching approach to leadership is no different, there also appears to be a synergy in the traits between other effective forms of leadership. The literature concerning a coaching form of leadership, whilst limited, is similar to those of other positive forms of leadership, pointing to an investment in their followers, in-turn building self-reliance and skill in the follower, leading to higher levels of commitment and drive towards an established vision (Henson, 2013; Ellinger et al., 2003).

So it is simple. If you want to be an effective leader, all you have to be is a leader that can form relationships, have humility, drive/will, the ability to be inspirational, is visionary, empathetic, supportive, a developer of people and have an awareness of self. So being a 'coaching' leader should do it. Easy right? Not so fast!

I remember a sports mentor of mine once quoting Helmuth van Molke, a Prussian military commander who said, "no plan survives first contact with the enemy." I have seen this play out numerous times across my career on and off the field. I have experienced for myself the struggle as my original plans are destroyed by alternative views or opposition tactics.

Whilst I am not suggesting that as leaders our followers are the enemy, what I am suggesting is that it may be naive to think that bringing your positive leadership traits to the table will result in your followers responding in the way you wish. I therefore, set out to test this and here is what I found.

"No plan survives first contact with the enemy."

The research was undertaken in an organisation which was failing when the new leader arrived and had many challenges facing it. I found apathy towards the wider leadership within the organisation. This apathy was attributed to an autocratic leadership culture which created a fear in employees and behavior to match. Lack of creativity, low morale, extreme caution, skepticism, lack of team values, immaturity, defensiveness, were all behaviors, along with others, that played out on a daily basis. Company performance was suffering as a consequence, with quotes recorded such as;

"No leadership whatsoever...autocratic in the extreme."

The arrival of a new leader brought a different approach to leadership, predominantly a coaching approach. An approach that sought to invest in employees, nurture and enhance their knowledge and skill, allow them to own their work and foster responsibility. It appeared employees were enjoying a new approach to leadership, employees were now stating;

"Experiences with the leader seemed productive and uplifting, focusing less on performance and more on personal skills."

Evidence during this period (12 months) showed an increase in company performance which was attributed to a new approach to leadership. Subsequently, with a continuation of a new leadership approach, company performance was also sustained and further improved into the future (a further 24 months). However following the first 12 months it should be noted that the predominant style was now a democratic approach with coaching a close second. Employee perceptions appeared to substantiate this finding;

"After the first year of getting people 'on side', now exists a new leadership of training and guidance, encouraging staff to think and try and lead for themselves. This in turn should not only improve performance of the company but produce a staff set able to progress within their own careers moving forwards."

It would seem, a coaching approach and subsequently a democratic approach to leadership had a positive impact, given the organisational context described. However, what also appeared to be evident through the research, is that in order to be a successful leader you must apply a mixed approach to leadership.

"A mixed approach to leadership..."

What employees were actually experiencing was a mix of approaches including, in addition to a coaching ("try this") and democratic ("what do you think") approach, authoritative ("come with me"), affiliative ("people come first"), transactional ("do it and you can have") and laissez-faire ("get on with it") approaches to leadership. This finding aligns with research conducted by Goleman (2000) who identified a mixed style of leadership is most effective, further identifying that a mix of four styles (authoritative, affiliative, democratic and coaching) were present in the most effective leaders. As in Goleman's research, I also found a mix of styles present, however only three were predominant and aligned with improved performance, coaching, democratic and affiliative. Further, a coaching style was found to be dominant in the early stages (1 year) of leading the organisation and critical to higher levels of employee trust and engagement.

Given the context of the organisation, a predominant coaching approach appeared to be much needed and improved organisational performance. Interestingly, it appears that once a level of trust, engagement and performance had been reached a predominantly democratic approach was deployed with coaching as a secondary approach. this insight suggests a change and mix of approaches was being deployed by the leader, an adaption to the context with in which they were operating.

The research points to a mix of leadership styles, with a dominance in a coaching or democratic approach appear to be effective in driving employee engagement and performance in an organisation of this nature. This is useful insight for leaders and leadership development professionals to understand, however, what the research also suggests, is the importance of recognising the context that we walk into as leaders. Furthermore, not only the context we are operating, but how we skillfully adapt our leadership approach to that context. It would appear that the organisation and its employees, described above, may have required a different form of leadership if they were well supported, allowed responsibility and allowed to make mistakes prior to arrival of the new leader. Just as they may have required a different approach to leadership if they did not respond to a coaching approach by wanting to learn or take responsibility?

The real learning is here not knowing the differing leadership approaches inside out and deploying them in a linear way. Whilst being knowledgeable regarding different approaches to leadership is helpful, it appears that the real skill of a high performing leader is their ability to be skillful in their deployment of approaches. Can leaders interpret the context with which they are operating and spot when it changes? Can leaders then understand the leadership approaches at their disposal and use these ingredients to skillfully mix and administer a leadership approach that supports the growth of the individuals, teams and the organisations they are part of? Expert leaders are much like elite sports athletes, they have an acute ability to scan the environment, sees the pictures in front of them, choose the technique(s) necessary and skillfully deploy them to achieve success.

It is my suggestion that leaders and leadership developers should consider developing contextual awareness, a deep understanding of leadership approaches, how to skillfully match approach to context and how to deploy them effectively.

For further information about the research or leadership development please contact Summitpeople at or

BASS, B. M., 1990. From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organisational Dynamics, 18(3), pp. 13-19

ELLINGER, A. D., ELLINGER, A. E. & KELLER, S. B., 2003. Supervisory coaching behaviour, employee satisfaction and warehouse employee performance: A dyadic perspective in the distribution industry. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 14(4), pp. 435-458

GOBILLOT, E., 2007. The Connected Leader: Creating agile organisations for people, performance and profit. 1ed. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

GOLEMAN, D., 2000. Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review, 78(2), pp. 78-79

HENSON, R., 2013. How coaching as a leadership style boosts morale. [online] Available at:

KNIGHTS, J., GRANT, D & YOUNG, G., 2019. Developing 21st century leaders, a complete new process. Journal of Work-Applied Management, pp.2205-2062

LEE, G., 2003. Leadership Coaching. 1ed. London: CIPD

SANDERS, J. E., HOPKINS, W. E. & GEROY, G. D., 2003. From Transactional to Transcendental: Towards an integrative Theory of Leadership. [Online] Available at:

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