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The Leader as Coach: How the Best Leaders Develop Others


Ron Ivey

Date Published

Jun 08, 2016
8 minute read

At The Clearing, we are constantly asked the question, “What makes an effective leader?” Our clients and partners are tackling some of the most complex problems in the world and effective leadership is a fundamental ingredient in the solution to these problems. In our Leadership Development blog series, we have looked at how to effectively design and evaluate leadership development programs, how to use action and experiment to develop leaders and this week we take a look at “The Leader as a Coach.”

Many people have experienced playing a team sport and understand the importance of a coach as leader in that context. What about the reverse in a professional context? What about the leader as a coach? In today’s post, we will look at those leadership qualities that actually match the same characteristics of the best athletic coaches.

A perfect example is the life of Bill Campbell, a successful former football coach for Columbia University who later became an executive and adviser to many of the prominent leaders in Silicon Valley. In his recent obituary, The New Yorker wrote that Bill “was known throughout the Valley as “the Coach,” the experienced executive who added a touch of humanity as he quietly instructed Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, the founders of Twitter, Sheryl Sandberg, and countless other entrepreneurs on the human dimensions of management, on the importance of listening to employees and customers, and of the power of partnering with others.”

Bill was an exemplar of the term “servant leader.” His obituary describes a man who built trust across the hyper-competitive boardrooms of the titanic tech industry by doing some surprisingly simple things. He brought expertise and skill, but he also instilled trust through listening and built relationships of candor with some of the most private leaders in America. He sacrificed his time and energy so that others could be successful. In many cases, he would volunteer his time to solve a problem or mentor a CEO through a difficult season. Most impressively, he got high-performing experts to set aside their egos to work together for a common business objective. After reading about his legacy, wouldn’t we all want that type of obituary? I know I would.

So what does it take to be a leader-coach like Bill Campbell?

Exemplary Skill and Expertise

With any high performing team, a leader-coach needs to set the example of skill and expertise in the craft of the organization. Without this experience doing the core elements of the work, the leader cannot have the authority to guide the group to higher levels of excellence. He or she has to have a history as a top performer in the field of competition. The team will look to the leader to set the standard for skill in their field and push the group towards success and higher levels of performance. This example gives the leader the credibility to provide feedback in the personal development process of the individual team members. The leader coach uses experience and expertise to advise and assist the team.

Genuine Interest in Team Member Growth

While all high performing leaders care about their teams, what sets the leader-coach apart is their genuine interest in the growth and development of the individual members of their team. The leader-coach works to help team members identify their strengths, weaknesses, and professional goals. He or she challenges team members by providing them with assignments and tasks in their areas of interest, that stretch them professionally and personally, causing them to grow and develop in the work. All along the way, the leader-coach walks alongside the individual, encouraging them and celebrating in their success.

Passion and Energy

A great leader knows that teams feed off positive energy and momentum. A ‘leader-coach’ provides a sense of optimism and confidence, while bringing a passion for the game. If the leader is a business executive, he or she needs to be passionate about the business and demonstrate that thirst to know more about the business. This enthusiasm sparks a broader depth of interest and passion for the organization’s mission.

When I was working as part of a social enterprise called Renew, our CEO, Matt Davis, used to conduct these early morning meetings with the team in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. We were all struggling with working our day jobs, while managing the launch of this new business. Matt was so passionate and fired up in these meetings that we actually had bystanders ask to join the meeting because they saw how excited we were as a team. This type of energy and optimism attracts followers!

Loyalty and Care 

An excellent leader-coach knows how to build loyalty within the team. The leader-coach gets the group to see the better qualities of their teammates and to play to each other’s strengths. They build a sense of camaraderie and commitment to each other that transcends transactions or activities of the moment. The leader-coach sees individual persons for who they truly are and gets the team to see these strengths as well. The leader-coach creates an environment of fair play and respect for each team member’s dignity. Self-sacrifice and demonstration of effort leads to greater loyalty and team commitment to the mission. In high school, I vividly remember my track coach running the grueling endurance routs with the team. This communicated something special to the team. We knew he felt the pain like we did and that spurred us on.

“A leader who has loyalty is the leader whose team I wish to be a part of. This is true almost everywhere. Most people, the overwhelming majority of us, wish to be in an organization or part of a team whose leadership cares about them, provides fairness and respect, dignity and consideration.”

John Wooden, 10 Time NCAA Championship Coach
UCLA Men’s Basketball

The Frameworks and the Game Plan 

The leader-coach knows that the team needs both theory and practical skills to win against competitors. He or she is always pushing the team to think critically about the game from the “10,000” foot level. At The Clearing, we call this phenomenon, IN-ON. Most organizations fall into the trap of getting so focused in the business (IN) that they never take the time to step away from the game and ask the tough questions about how the business is working (ON). What worked? What didn’t work? What should we do next time? The team needs to spend time ON the business. The leader-coach knows the appropriate balance between IN-ON and the importance of spending equal time learning and teaching mental models and frameworks that improve the intellectual performance of the team. The coach also provides the game plan for the team to be coordinated in their roles and efforts towards common objectives. Without this coordination, the team quickly experiences fragmentation and misalignment.

Humility and Self-Awareness 

If you seek to be a leader-coach, you are engaging in a constant personal development process. You recognize your own need for constant improvement. You want to be at the top of your game and bring others with you. Above all, you care about the development of others more than your self. A great coach wants his or her team and its accomplishments to be the center of attention. At strategic points, the leader will need to focus more on developing others than putting their own ideas and agenda forward. This requires a deep confidence and a strong interior life to know when to step out of the limelight and push others onto the court. The classic basketball film, Hoosiers, demonstrates this perfectly when the Indiana head coach, played by Gene Hackman, takes himself out of the game at the last minute to give the struggling assistant coach, played by Dennis Hopper, the opportunity to lead the team through a difficult moment to victory. This humility is the secret ingredient of developing excellence in others.

If you are interested in developing as a leader-coach and developing other leaders within your organization, you can learn more by emailing,

Good luck leaders and keep pursuing excellence with your teams!