How Is the Coach’s Stance Valuable in Adaptive Leadership?

Elissa Perry shares her perspective on how a coaching approach can be helpful for leaders when tackling adaptive challenges.

A coaching approach to leadership involves collaboration and asking questions.
A coaching approach to leadership involves collaboration and asking questions.

When is an adaptive leadership approach necessary?

As Richard Evans, President of EmcArts, pointed out in his article Are All Organizational Challenges the Same?, different kinds of leadership are needed to address the many different types of existing organizational challenges.

The kind of leadership needed in many of our organizations and initiatives today is one that can bring resolution to adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are those where there is no pre-existing solution; the people with an adaptive challenge have to make some sort of significant transformation in their working process. Those same people are the ones best equipped to come up with a transformative solution, not necessarily an outside expert. The process of orchestrating to this emergent solution is what is called adaptive leadership.

My definition of leadership in education and my approach to coaching

In the last several years, I’ve been intentional about developing responsible and informed educational practices.

While preparing to teach high school in 1996, I came up with a personal philosophy of education. I defined education as something that:

should have at its root the goal of inspiring questions, developing skills with which to ask these questions, sharpening the necessary skills to seek answers, and fostering the desire to do so.

Several years later, I was working with principals, administrators and others and came up with a definition of leadership in education, which still holds true for me today. I define leadership as:

the practice of a group or an individual that creates something, solves a challenge or addresses an issue that is of value across communities and the practice of continuously developing that ability to create and solve  in self and in others.

Within this view, there are still many different styles of leadership that exist on a spectrum, ranging from authoritative to collaborative. I’ve learned that a lot of my perspective on both leadership development and teaching could be described as a coaching approach, which is primarily collaborative. I take what I call “the coach’s stance”: the overlap between the principles, formalities, theories, and successful practices of the education, leadership, and coaching fields.

A spectrum of leadership styles, from authoritative to collaborative.
A spectrum of leadership styles, from authoritative to collaborative.

Donald Schon in Educating the Reflective Practitioner offered that, in the complexity of life, people cannot simply be told what they need to know. They have to learn by seeing for themselves. Coaching helps people move forward by doing exactly that—guiding and supporting people to take a complete look at their situation, explore various alternatives, set realistic goals and take action towards reaching those goals. Coaching helps people explore multiple perspectives, which opens up more choices for action.

How is adaptive leadership related to the coach’s stance?

Coaching is also a way to describe the quality of interaction in educational and adaptive leadership contexts.  In coaching, the presenter or the coachee is the expert in the situation; in an adaptive challenge, the group with the challenge is collectively the expert. The coach’s role is not to come to the conversation with pre-defined solutions and advice, but to ask good questions such that the coachee begins to see new options, try on new behaviors, and otherwise make changes to address their challenge. Likewise, the adaptive leader relies on the whole group to bring into full view all of the intricacies of how that situation is interconnected within several systems to comprise the full picture of the organization and its context.

In an organization facing an adaptive challenge, a transformation can come from the group and the work of the leaders (formal and informal) by approaching the situation with a coach’s stance. By taking this stance, the group works from the core belief that everyone together is the expert on the problem and will be a part of solving the challenge and transforming the organization.  The coach’s stance entails:

  • Listening on multiple levels
  • Asking good questions
  • Clarifying the issue
  • Drawing out a shared vision of success
  • Lifting up possibilities as they emerge
  • Making connections
  • Recognizing progress
  • Paying attention to accountability
  • Using authority in service of the adaptive transformation

What’s your stance? Does it match the kinds of challenges you or your clients are facing?

About
Elissa Perry helps people and groups of people with a social mission get better at what they do. For over 15 years she has worked as a staff member, consultant and coach in the areas of leadership, education and the arts. Elissa also teaches in the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College in California and recently helped establish a social justice concentration. Elissa was a Salzburg Fellow in 2006 and the recipient of an Individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2010. She earned a BA in Humanities and holds an MFA in Creative Writing.

  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    As someone with professional goals to be a leader in our field, I find the definitions and points made in this article valuable. I could easily write the “coach’s stance” bullet points on a post-it note, place it my desk and refer to it again and again until it doesn’t stick any longer. These values are evident in the great leaders and teachers I know – people who want to provide others with tools and skills to grow and develop, who want their employees to work together in a cohesive and collaborative manner and give them room to work problems out for themselves. But from my personal experience, it seems that this type of adaptive leadership style does not come natural to many people currently in leadership roles. I would argue that it takes a great deal of openness, confidence and self-awareness to be willing to admit there is a problem without a solution and lead a group of employees into a conversation without any predetermined answers. Creating a horizontal (rather then hierarchical) leadership system could require many to relearn how to be leaders. They may need their own coach to train them to be ok with this new way of thinking. How do we help these leaders know that they don’t always have to be in charge and make all of the decisions? What (or who) can help them understand that the input from their teams can help them find the solution they are looking for?

    • “They may need their own coach to train them to be ok with this new way of thinking. How do we help these leaders know that they don’t always have to be in charge and make all of the decisions? What (or who) can help them understand that the input from their teams can help them find the solution they are looking for?”

      Astute observation, Erinn. A coach of their own is one possible way of helping people in leadership positions to embrace another way of thinking about and exercising leadership. No matter the path to the kind of self-awareness necessary for successfully practicing adaptive leadership, the first requirement is an openness to personal development with the understanding that it’s not separate from and is in fact necessary for professional development. For some coming to this realization is as simple as reading the right book or hearing the right story at the right time. For others it might take a combination of coaching and training and disastrous missteps before one recognizing self in the situation and the need for learning and development into a different way of being and doing.

  • Rachel H

    The term “coach” brings to mind someone who can show the coachee how to train or prepare, drawing upon the the group’s skills and expertise. The coach encourages the group to find the means of adaptation. In this setting, it isn’t enough for a group to go into the process being told they are the experts — the leader’s approach needs to treat them as such. An effective coach constantly refers to the group for their knowledge of the situation, which in turn strengthens the group’s role as the expert. The subsequent authority they have over the issue in turn “coaches” the leader as to how to proceed next.

    • For me, “coach” connotes “mentor.” The leaders under whom I’ve enjoyed working have a mentorship quality. Your definition of teacher is great, especially the part about inspiring questions and fostering the desire to do so. Many times I’ve felt like I couldn’t ask my leaders questions. I’ve also felt like I couldn’t question my leaders. The best leaders in my career allowed me to do both without defense or judgment.

      On The Library Journal, Steven Bell compares two styles of leadership – the “coach” and the “captain.” He paints a picture of what each style looks like, and suggests the captain might be the leadership mantle to wear. His perspective is that coaches can tend to micro-manage, while captains are the heart of the organization and give encouragement when necessary. They’re metaphors, but the energy they have is palpable.

      http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/02/opinion/leading-from-the-library/coach-or-captain-which-are-you-leading-from-the-library/

      • Thanks for your comment and the link, James. It’s funny that in sports (I played basketball and swam the I.M.) the role of the team captain is much more aligned with what in organizational life is more like a coach. And what we call the coach in the gym is often not at all like what we call a leadership coach. In leadership development coaching, the coach’s role is guided by asking questions that help the person begin to see the challenges and solutions for themselves. The coach does not need to understand all of the minute details and nuances of the context because the coach’s role is not to tell the person what to do. Very different from my basketball coach!

  • Elissa, I recently had the chance to be a part of the Emerging Leadership Institute at APAP, and there we spent quite a bit of time discussing how we think about ‘good’ leadership. Your piece reminds me of some of the conversations that we had. We discussed the difference between leadership (dealing with change) and management (dealing with complexity). One of the cohort members summarized the distinction in a way that really resonated with me. The difference is between asking “How can I better help you to deal with change in our organization?” versus “How can I better help you work through the complexities of your role and responsibilities in our organization?” It seems to me that the first question is more in line with your metaphor of a “coach’s stance” for adaptive leadership. What do you think?

    • Hi, Anna,

      The summary distinction your colleague made is a potential fit and it’s still a little muddy for me. As helping a person “deal with change” doesn’t quite hold the fullness of adaptive leadership. To clarify a little further, I’d say that leadership is what’s required to successfully bring about and navigate organizational transformation and continuous learning as well as supporting the individual transformation required to be different and work differently in the system. Leadership asks the questions of the system: what needs transforming and how do we best go about it. I definitely agree that the distinction that deals with change and transformation is more in line with the coaches stance. Thanks for asking!

  • Philippe Bourgeon

    “… it takes a great deal of openness, confidence and self-awareness to be willing to admit there is a problem without a solution and lead a group of employees into a conversation without any predetermined answers. Creating a horizontal (rather then hierarchical) leadership system could require many to relearn how to be leaders. They may need their own coach to train them to be ok with this new way of thinking.”

    Thanks Elissa and Erinn, I share completely your points and I would like to give my personal experience on that. Few months ago (too long) I was technical architect and expert in one specific domain since 15 years!
    It was a long and nice journey with some pleasant confort zone and also very busy, creative, lot of commitments, accountabilities, always drove by passion… But I had to change.
    This lead me to consider new domain, new technologies, for sure new practices (not already started yet) with the only support of my Agile background and adaptive leadership I built since years in parallel with my hands-on activity (like managing both persornal and professional life).
    Thus I am lucky. Life gave me a kick-restarting. I will see, soon, how I will handle that with people. But I am confident as I have no longer choice to trust on my own experience.