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How to coach responsive leadership


Are great leaders born or created? Or do they simply respond well to the circumstances they face? Alan Ward explains how coaches can help leaders to become more resourceful and imaginative.

According to many business schools and leadership development providers, there are certain qualities that great leaders possess. The theory is that if you could just reproduce these qualities, or develop them in yourself, then you too could lead like your hero.
At first, it was military commanders, like Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon and Nelson, that we were meant to emulate. Then in the 1980s, ‘charismatic’ leaders, such as Richard Branson and Jack Welch helped to perpetuate a notion that your charisma could entice people to follow you. 
I believe there is indeed much to learn from celebrated leaders. But it’s not about modelling yourself on others. The real learning is to be found by examining the way these people reacted to the situations in which they found themselves.

The Churchill factor

Winston Churchill is often held up as an example of a great leader. He didn’t rely on charisma to engage the British public; in fact he was renowned for being often abrupt and rude. You could argue that Hitler was a more charismatic leader! Besides, for organisations led by charismatic leaders, there is a major problem regarding succession: what happens when a leader who relies on charisma leaves?
Churchill relied on his vision, his energy and dedication, his tenacity and his ability to deliver extremely engaging speeches and what we now call soundbites. He was highly attuned to what people wanted to hear. He used analogies and metaphors to create images in his speeches in order to put across complex messages in precise and simple terms. In this respect, there is much that can be learned from Churchill. But, like other great leaders, he was a product of his time. He was the right man at the right moment. Whilst he was undoubtedly a great leader during the war, he was not seen as the right leader for peacetime Britain.
My point here is to highlight that different leadership qualities are required in different circumstances. Modelling Winston Churchill would not have helped Mahatma Gandhi achieve his aims.

Allowing others to step up

Recently I went to buy some furniture, including a mirror-fronted wardrobe. I took my godson Christopher along to provide ‘some muscle’. The two of us, plus a guy from the warehouse, formed an impromptu team of three. It was clearly my wardrobe, my car and my task to get it home safely. It was time to exercise some leadership skills. Having loaded everything else, the wardrobe wouldn’t fit in my car. The warehouse man assured me that I needed a truck. Christopher said he thought we could attach the wardrobe to the roof of my car. The warehouse man was unconvinced. I hadn’t got a clue.
Christopher demonstrated complete confidence and promised it would get home safely. So we did what he suggested. He took the lead and told us what to do. We protected the wardrobe with sheeting and roped it to the roof. Throughout the process, Christopher provided feedback and encouraged our efforts. And we got the wardrobe home in one piece.
Christopher is just 18. If he had been 38, it is unlikely that the warehouse man and I would have questioned his thinking. However despite his age, he became the leader for the task. He wasn’t necessarily charismatic but he had confidence and strong communication skills. He articulated his vision, checked our progress and praised us throughout. He ensured that the ‘project’ succeeded. He couldn’t have done it without us; I couldn’t have done it without him.
In the same way, leaders may find that ‘help’ is at hand from the people around them. What happens in the workplace when someone from the shop floor, the back office or the telesales team comes up with an idea to do something in a different way? Are your leaders be willing to listen to them? Do they allow this person to lead the project to see their idea through?
I’m currently coaching a senior manager who has stepped up to a significant leadership position. The challenge for him is to find the ‘Christophers’ in his team, to know when to use them and to have the courage to hand over the leadership position.

The coach’s role

Coaches can help leaders understand that they don’t have to be Churchill, Alexander or Jack Welch. Great leadership is being able to respond effectively to what is required by the situation in which you find yourself. It’s not about mirroring the qualities of others; it’s about being in the moment.
The questions that leaders should ask themselves are: What can I learn from great leaders of the past in terms of how they responded to their situations? What does the situation I’m facing now demand of me? In the ‘here and now’, what do I need to do to move forward? How can I encourage the right people to do the right things?
It’s impossible for any leader to have a universal skill set that is applicable to all situations. As a coach, you can help leaders to understand that their focus should be on leadership, not on being the ‘leader’. They have to let go of the idea that they need to be the leader in everything. They can’t - and shouldn’t be trying to - lead every task and every action. It’s okay for them to be open to suggestions. It’s okay for them to take a step back and allow others in the team to perform at their best. Sometimes it’s even okay to be led.
This is a key task for a coach: helping a leader to raise their awareness of the real role, where their strengths lie and who they have around them to take leadership responsibilities. It’s the first step in helping them to become a great leader, just like Christopher will be one day.

Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist which runs coach education programmes accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.

He also chairs TrainingZone’s Coaching Discussion Group, a network of coaches and managers who coach and train managers who employ specialists. The group is a forum for questions and debate on all aspects of coaching, including qualifications, supervision, marketing, coaching methods and building a coaching business.

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