What is a coaching leadership style?

The limitations of an old-style, top-down leadership approach have long been apparent.

Over the years, different styles have emerged that are better able to motivate employees and maximise their talents.

Disruptive change across industries and business sectors is now the norm, and what might have worked in the past is no longer effective. Contemporary managers can’t have the answers in all situations, so new methods have been tried and tested.

A coaching leadership style is one of these approaches. It’s designed to create a high-performance culture and is characterised by collaboration and partnership. It aims to empower employees to make a real difference, leading to a more fulfilled workforce, a better team ethic, and ultimately better results.

Many aspects of a coaching leadership style can seem counterintuitive to professionals schooled in older styles of management. It’s a model in which managers provide support and guidance rather than instructions, with employees learning how to adapt to changing environments, unleashing energy, innovation and new commitment.

But what exactly is a coaching leadership style? What are the characteristics that mark it out from some of the alternatives, and why is it so effective? And how does it compare to other leadership styles?

coaching leadership style

What is the role of coaching in leadership?

Coaching is an integral part of effective leadership strategies. It seeks to foster a range of positive traits within leaders that they can, in turn, use to help their team achieve better overall results.


Coaching’s objective is to empower leaders, nurturing a relationship that uncovers hidden strengths and weaknesses. Through identifying goals, they enable leaders to be honest about their shortcomings, develop strategies to overcome them and track their progress. Reflective work then helps leaders to recognise improvements they have made and to appreciate the work they’ve undertaken to help them meet those goals.

New Insight

Coaching helps leaders gain a new perspective on their everyday responsibilities. This can help them to step back and reflect if they’re facing temporary challenges, perhaps uncovering a deeper problem. They can help the leader better analyse a problem, creating a plan for similar situations that may arise in the future.

Free Thinking

Coaching aims to draw open patterns of thought, helping leaders to consider other points of view by asking questions. This helps a leader become more flexible, using adaptive leadership skills to achieve their goals. Flexible leadership allows for quick and creative decision making under pressure.

Improved Performance

Coaching targets any particular problems that the leader may be facing. This allows the leader to learn and implement new leadership techniques that address any identified weaknesses.

Improved Communication

Coaching looks at the communication patterns that leaders use. It identifies any specific problem areas and can help a leader develop strategies for communicating with individuals in unique ways.

One of the key improvements it can make is facilitating better listening. This can be as simple as removing words such as “but” and “however” when a leader is asking for opinions from one of their team. Improved communications can help create a greater sense of trust and credibility. 

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What are the characteristics of a coaching leadership style?

A coaching leadership style is characterised by a fundamental shift in mindset, from a top-down approach towards partnership and empowerment. The aim throughout is to unleash potential and to help people discover perhaps previously unappreciated talents and insights that transform how they work, their contribution and their overall happiness in the role.

A coaching leadership approach is underpinned by a clear set of approaches and ethics. These include:

A belief in potential

Managers are not looking to catch employees out or for signs of failure. Instead, they are trusting in the potential of every individual to grow and develop beyond their current capabilities.

Partnership and collaboration

A coaching leadership style is collaborative, with both parties learning from each other and growing together.

Trust and safety

Leaders and their teams aim to build a mutually supportive and trusting relationship where ideas and opinions can be expressed frankly.


Everyone understands the aims and objectives of the team and decisions are made with that intention kept in mind.

Powerful questions

Leaders and their teams are encouraged and supported to ask powerful questions to help drive better results.

Active listening

Coaching leadership styles incorporate active listening approaches that encourage the free exchange of ideas and opinions to help improve individual and team performance.


As with the above, constructive and supportive feedback helps to create an environment where people can be honest.

Learning and development

Coaching leadership styles are underpinned by a continuing commitment to learning and development across the team.

How do you use a coaching leadership style?

Coaching is a holistic leadership style that informs everything a leader does and how they interact with their team. Coaching leadership begins with a solid understanding of a team’s current working patterns, habits and overall productivity. You can then create a plan to coach them in a way that addresses any weaknesses. A coaching leadership style is based on honest communications with everybody involved.

First, you need to determine any particular areas of concern. This should include taking time to talk to your team, asking open-ended questions that encourage a frank discussion of any issues. This helps the leader to understand their perspectives and how they think. Different people approach their work with different attitudes and goals. Developing an understanding of how different personalities interact within a team helps you to develop your strategy.

Coaching leadership fosters and relies upon a high level of trust. If team members don’t feel that their leadership respects them, they will be guarded with their communications. A coaching leadership style helps them to establish a solid connection encouraging positive interactions. Any commentary of team performance is always kept professional and supportive.

Feedback is essential, and coaching leaders encourage it through how they interact. They should be genuine and compassionate while reflecting the individual preferences of team members. For instance, some people thrive on public recognition when they’re being praised, while others prefer to be kept out of the limelight. Praise and criticism should be balanced, with conversations starting on a positive note creating a more trusting relationship for constructive criticism.

Often employees will feel more comfortable speaking and learning when they have one-on-one time, and a coaching leadership style will prioritise face-to-face discussions wherever possible.

Becoming an effective coaching leader takes time and research. It’s an ongoing process rather than a one-off event. A coaching leadership style is continually looking for ways to improve and grow. It will involve opportunities for training, and will take a proactive approach to keep informed, engaging with thought leadership and developments.

A coaching leadership style is also reflective. It makes time to analyse how the leader and their team are performing. A coaching leader will ask themselves questions about the overall process and assess the responses that are received from interactions with their team. A coaching leader will reflect on any challenges that they face and develop methods in order to improve them.

Accountability is crucial to a coaching leadership style. Once trust has been established and improvements made to how your team tackles tasks, then the progress being made needs to be measured.

Crucially, a coaching approach to leadership is always open to teaching moments that arise when you least expect. Coaching leaders take time to take someone through a complex process, or to help them understand a difficult concept. The aim is to empower team members with valuable knowledge that will enhance their working experience. A coaching leader is always open to these teaching moments.

Warehouse worker and manager looking at laptop in a large warehouse

Implementing a coaching leadership style in the workplace

Coaching leadership is now commonplace across a wide range of different workplaces. It’s used by leading business figures such as Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, who combines high expectations for her employees, combined with praise and recognition.

Widely regarded as a transformational leader, she sets famously high standards and uses the success of individuals to inspire others. Despite her reputation for exacting standards she’s also seen as an open and reflective leader who encourages her team to come to her with ideas and insights that she might have missed.

Another example of successful coaching leadership was set by Satya Nadella when he stepped in as CEO of Microsoft. At the time, Microsoft was performing well but was believed to be stagnating with a range of challenges on the horizon. He helped to transform the organisation through the development of a growth mindset for employees and fellow leaders. This embedded a coaching leadership style at Microsoft leading to a cultural shift in the organisation.

Leadership coaching to transform how you work

At Leadership Success, we’re committed to spreading the benefits of a coaching leadership style through our programme of tailored leadership development for businesses.

Our focused learning, guided by an expert coach, goes way beyond a standard leadership course.

Our coaches are experts across a number of leadership-related areas, including emerging leadership, women in leadership, executive coaching and conflict resolution. We also offer personalised leadership assessments for individuals and bespoke support for frontline and middle managers.

To find out more about our programmes and how we can help get in touch with one of our leadership coaches today.

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