One of the arguments that Michael Bungay Stanier makes in his book The Coaching Habit is that we view coaching as something directive, controlling, and done by a mastermind who directs the people they coach as if they were chess pieces. Bungay Stanier highlights the ways that this vision of coaching falls short and fails to actually achieve the goals of coaching. Our visions of great coaches often center around strong men (men because they are often in the professional sports world) who bark orders, make smart decisions, display power, and are shrouded in mystery. Real successful coaching Bungay Stanier argues, is actually less about the coach, is less directive and more exploratory, and more focused on growth than on problem solving.
One of his chapters starts with large bold text reading, “Call them forward to learn, improve, and grow, rather than to just get something sorted out.” A bad view of a successful coach places them at the center of the coaching relationship. The coach finds the weaknesses, identifies the problems and shortcomings, and then directs the people they work with to make specific changes and to do specific things to overcome their obstacles. The coach’s brilliance leads the way and their orders sort out the problems for everyone so that the team can be great.
Unfortunately, this view of coaching is not actually helpful for individual growth nor is it representative of the leadership of great teams. When a coach takes this approach, what they find is that they are increasingly called upon and relied on to solve every problem and curve ball thrown at the team. The coach becomes the go to voice for every decision and it is up to them to determine the right path forward in every situation. Success and failure rest on the coach, and while this may give the coach great power and prestige (if things go well) it limits the potential and possibilities of the team. Any human can only make so many decisions and take on so many projects. Being involved in every single decision may give you great power, but it is also constraining, stressful, and limiting.
Truly successful teams are able to distribute leadership, authority, and decision-making. A good coach allows decisions to be made independently of themselves so that they can take on new opportunities and think long-term. To do this, coaches can’t just solve every problem that comes up, they need to help those they work with to learn, improve, and develop real skills that will help them tackle the myriad of challenges that can and cannot be predicted. When coaches empower rather than direct, the team can flourish as more people are able to apply skill sets that make a difference. Rather than being limited by the time, attention span, and strengths of the coach, these teams can be dynamic, flexible, creative, and fast. The role of the coach becomes one of empowerment by identifying areas to develop skills for others rather than to provide answers from above.