Many people confuse coaching with leadership, often thinking of them as synonyms. I am a firm believer that this is not the case. Coaching is actually a subset of Leadership. Leadership is a very advanced skill to master, effective coaching can and should be a part of everyone’s life.
Most of us have had good and bad coaches in our lives. The very first coaches we encounter are our parents. They teach us, hopefully, the basic skills of life, encouraging us through the growth process. As I look back I can see that coaching is more synonymous with parenting than leadership. Rather than focus on poor coaching attributes I intend in this post to discuss what it takes to be a great coach. These are covered in the order I think they are important.
Good coaches have a real personal relationship with those they coach. In order to do this you have to think of your team members as real people, understand their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, fears, goals, and most of all their motivations.
Coaching without this personal connection is simply training. Real coaching is like individualized instruction in education. The goal is growth and movement forward, not a sequence of canned responses. My goal is to be an effective coach because I have seen its power, the ability to change lives permanently, alter a career arc, and give people hope and faith in themselves and others.
Maintaining this personal connection is very hard work and certainly has limits. Dunbar’s number, an accepted limit on the number of stable social relationships we can handle, puts that limit at 150 at any given time. After family and close friends, the number of social connections available could easily be reduced to less than 50. We all need coaches ourselves in various aspects of our lives, so that might reduce it a bit further. My point is real coaching does not scale well. What does is my next point.
Beyond the skill or subject you are coaching, always view your pupil as a future coach. Having coaches make coaches is the only way to scale. We have seen this throughout human history for both good and evil. Christ took twelve men of varied backgrounds, discipled them, and when his work was done, sent them out to make disciples and change human history. Sadly, Hitler used youth programs to coach his values into an entire generation who carried it forward into adult positions of leadership throughout a nation. This kind of scaling simply works.
Take the extra time required to help those you coach understand how to teach the skill to others. Encourage them to start very soon after starting work with them. When I coached basketball for many years I would always start by directly teaching. After a few weeks some of the kids would grasp what we were doing and others would not. Many coaches then stratify their team, they group like skilled players together to drill. My approach is to group players that get it with those that are still learning. Encouraging them to teach brings the whole team forward. It can frustrate some that simply are focused on themselves but that, too, is a teachable moment.
Never assume you have arrived and no longer need input. Every human being alive can benefit from mentoring. We have roughly up to a century on earth before we pass away, there is no way to understand it all. It is vital that those you coach know you are being coached, learning new skills. It does not show weakness, on the contrary, it shows wisdom and a spark of leadership.
I am a believer that we all need mentoring relationships, peer relationships, and mentor relationships to live a balanced life. If you remove any one of those from the mix I know that I would struggle. Over the years I have learned so much from those around me and I intend to continue that journey of learning for the rest of my life.