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What is a Relational Leader-Coach?

Blog | Life and Leadership   |   September 30, 2016

by Janina Aritao

“The leader’s role has changed from that of omniscient boss to that of coach…Managers find that they are more successful in accomplishing their goals when they practice the arts of deep listening, persuasion, and trust rather than rely on the exercise of power.”

Servant Leadership: Principles and Practice, by Ann Mc Gee Cooper and Associates.

The above quote is taken from Robert Greenleaf’s lifelong study on Servant Leadership, which provides a stark contrast between the traditional boss and the leader-coach. 

You can probably recognize this stereotype of the typical boss:

  • Screams and uses fear to get things done
  • Barks orders and demands performance but hardly gives support and encouragement
  • Concerned only about self
  • Authoritarian decision-maker
  • Doesn’t care about others’ personal lives

This kind of leader nowadays would be considered a villain (and makes for the funniest characters in comedies). We laugh at the stereotype, but not so long ago, this leadership style was widely accepted and tolerated because instilling fear, as much as we hate to admit it, can get things done. Much of the profile of this type of leader is still around but employees (especially Gen Y / millennials) are now more workplace culture-aware and are not likely to stay long with their so-called evil boss. 

Times have changed, thankfully, and relational skills have become increasingly effective in leadership at work and at home. Here are 7 tips, based on principles of servant leadership, on how to lead with both mind and heart.

7 ways to be a good leader-coach:

1. Value relationships

What differentiates a leader-coach more than anything is being relational. Building relationships is not just something that happens along the way, but the leader-coach is intentional about getting to know their staff, being aware of their needs and what is going on in their lives, in order to support those he works with.

2. Value their unique perspective, opinions

One of our staff remembers a scenario in her first job when her boss would complain, “you young people, you don’t know that you don’t know anything.” Ten years later, she is no longer young but old, but her view of young people is different—they have their finger on the pulse of today, they have so much creativity to share, and she considers it a privilege to collaborate with today’s youth and get their perspectives and opinions.

3. Ask questions rather than give orders

“We follow orders or people die!” says Col. Nathan Jessep, in the classic movie A Few Good Men. In the army there is a chain of command, a system that we trust because we know there are people in charge who would give up their lives for their nation, and that their subordinates are mandated to obey their every command. While it is an effective system for an army, it is not effective in a workplace of independent minds and creative thinkers. Today’s workforce flourishes with collaboration and people find fulfillment in contributing thoughts, ideas, and participating in problem-solving. A leader-coach also asks questions, encouraging staff to use their brainpower and grow in their problem-solving skills.

4. Create a safe environment / allow failure

“Excellence is not perfectionism,” explains our Deputy CE Praise Mok. Perfectionism results in fear of failure, and robs the staff of the freedom to make mistakes and get better. Excellence, on the other hand, realizes that failure is an opportunity to get better—to serve people better, to constantly refine and create better products and services.

5. Embrace humor and vulnerability

At ROHEI, our bosses are all leaders and pranksters. Put them together in a competitive game and they are like children again. We love seeing that side of them; it’s hilarious. Because our office gives room for insanely loud laughter, we know we are working with humans, for humans. It gives us freedom to also be vulnerable ourselves and have fun. During typically tense situations, humor is also a leadership strategy to help get everyone at ease.

6. Teach people to own the goals


Collaborative environment and teamwork works when people know their purpose. A leader-coach will find ways to inspire staff to have ownership of the team’s goals, to take the organization’s goals to heart. They give their team a big-picture view and help them understand what’s most important.

7. Intuition, foresight and collaborative decision-making

The relational leader-coach is deeply sensitive and flexible. They plan ahead but are open to change, and listen for change factors and opportunities. They also prefer to have consensus in decision making rather than relentlessly moving forward based on their own perspectives.

Being a leader-coach can bring hope, joy, courage, and purpose to the workplace. Hope—when despite challenges and struggles, people know they have a future, and that their leaders are there to help them achieve greater things. Joy—because there are meaningful relationships. Courage—because there is trust, and someone who’s got your back. Purpose—leader-coaches realize that there needs to be alignment between personal goals and team goals, and as each staff member serves the team, they are also fulfilling their purpose in life. When they own the team goals and they plan and use each day intentionally to meet those goals, they work with a sense of purpose.

What happens to teams that are under the leadership of a relational leader-coach? They are more free to be themselves. They are wiser, healthier, happier. Author Dan Pink, in his book Drive, lists three qualities that are necessary for people to be their best at work: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This aligns very well with the concepts behind servant leadership. And the benefits do not just flow into the staff, but to the leader as well. The leader who is a servant, and a giver, as you will discover in your journey as a relational leader-coach, is the happiest and most fulfilled of all.

Janina is a Senior Consultant at ROHEI who loves drawing alphabets.

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