The power of coaching leadership styles

Written by: Frances Robertson | Published:
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Adopting a coaching leadership style in your school can yield a range of benefits for you and your team. Frances Robertson explains

Life in school is busy to say the least. The pace of the day is fast and certainly leaders and staff in schools must be agile in their thinking and decision-making. As a school leader you face these challenges daily. There are seven different styles of leadership that you might adopt to help you meet these challenges:

  • Autocratic: Do as I say – a command-and-control approach
  • Authoritative or visionary: The leader maps the way ahead while keeping followers motivated along the journey. People follow.
  • Pace-setting: Do as I do – the pace is set fast and the bar for expectations is high.
  • Democratic: What do you think? Information is shared and employees’ views sought.
  • Coaching: A culture of high performance, collaboration and empowerment. Little direction is provided – employees tap into their own talent.
  • Affiliative: People come first – the leader supports the emotional needs of employees.
  • Laissez-faire: People swim with the current. There is freedom but with little direction.

There are good points to each of these styles and indeed all can be valid in certain situations. For example, the autocratic “do as I say” is not popular in much of current leadership thinking, however if a critical decision needs to be made on the spot then as a leader you will not consult the team.

Being aware of what style you use and when you use it and why is important. Being self-aware in this way may also be helpful when adopting the appropriate style for the problem or situation that you face at any given time.

Once you have built this knowledge about leadership styles and about yourself you can learn where your gaps are and know what skills you need to develop. In reality, a hybrid of styles is what you are most likely to adopt.

A focus on coaching

In this article, I am going to talk about the coaching style of leadership in schools. I am not suggesting that you as leader begin coaching your staff (there could be potential ethical issues with this). However, I am referring to adopting and using the skills of coaching which are exceedingly useful in leadership roles.

I am currently facilitating a NPQ course and the teachers I am working with mentioned that while the coaching style is increasingly being promoted in schools, many staff do not feel skilled enough at using it.

So, what is a coaching style? It is a style based on collaboration, support and guidance. Leaders who adopt this style are focused on bringing out the best in their staff by guiding them through goals and challenges.

Fundamentally the leader believes that the individual has the power, skills and knowledge within them. And if not totally there yet, they can grow and develop these skills. It allows for developing your staff, it values learning, and looks to the long-term.

Why is it helpful in schools?

A coaching style is certainly becoming more popular within workplaces and there is plenty of scope to develop this within schools.

Schools are based on valuing the learning process and believing that each child has the potential to thrive. A coaching leadership moves this trust and belief onto all its staff too. As a leader using this style of leadership you will believe in the ability of your staff to achieve goals or develop skills and you will value the learning process that runs alongside this growth and development.

A coaching style is not just something to use when there is a problem. In many ways it is part of your continuous development plan.

What coaching skills are needed?

To be successful, a coaching leadership style relies heavily on giving effective feedback. Again, this is a field that schools are good at. For pupils to grow and develop, teachers have been providing feedback for years. Developing a culture that allows in-the-moment feedback is critical if a coaching style is to be fully embedded.

One critical component of providing effective feedback is the asking of questions. Therefore, highly effective questioning skills are critical. The ability to ask questions which allow for deeper thinking and reflection is key.

Think beyond simply open and closed. Coaching does require open questions, however it also needs you to think about what you are really asking. The most powerful questions in coaching mode probably fall into the following categories...

Rapport-building: Light in tone and specific to the individual. They are not pushy or nosy, however neither are they just chit-chat. They are the getting to know your staff questions and the building of trust between you and them.

Clarifying: These are the summary questions and let the individual know you are listening. These might include questions such as: “So when you said X, did you mean Y?” Or “Can you tell me more about Z that you said earlier?”

Scale: This is about giving a value to an answer. For example if your staff member is having difficulty explaining their thoughts or feelings you can use a scale question – where 10 represents the strongest and 0 the weakest.

Solution-focused: This is about moving away from the problem and focusing on a solution: “What can we do? What are your options here?”

Hypothetical: These are the “What If?” questions or situations. For example: “What if I was not here: what would you do?” You can follow up on this by asking your colleague to explain their thinking.

Open-ended: These questions allow for a deeper conversation and will normally begin with What, Where, How, Who or When.

Listen, listen, listen

It goes without saying then that once skilled at using different styles of questions in your leadership role, highly effective listening skills must also be active.

When listening to a reply or response your focus must be totally and utterly on what is being said. In other words, you are not already thinking about your subsequent response, you are paying close attention to the words, the body language and gestures. You are deferring judgement and pushing away any thoughts you may have while your colleague is talking.

One way of putting it is to tell yourself that you are listening “to ignite” not to respond. Listen, pause and then reply. You are allowed space before commenting – consider your response.

Empowering staff

As a school leader you are invariably faced with multiple problems during any given week (or day!) and staff will approach you for solutions. However, if you spend all your time providing these then two things are happening.

First, you are solving all the problems and your staff are not learning to solve any. Second, they will keep coming back to be spoon-fed.

The coaching style of leadership helps your staff to make some decisions and solve problems themselves. It will seem to take longer at the beginning and I know time is precious. However, over the longer term it will save you time and allow your team to develop and feel empowered.

So imagine a member of staff comes to you with a problem. Instead of telling them precisely what to do, consider this alternative approach.

Ask them for three possible outcomes. They will need to pause and think – particularly initially as they are not used to this. After they have shared their three possible outcomes, ask them to consider three possible solutions. Again, they may need to think and pause. Once these have been shared and discussed, ask them which of these solutions they would choose and to provide three reasons why.

When can coaching be used in school?

This stye can be used in daily conversations and for in-the-moment opportunities for growth and development. However, it can also be used in the process of performance management and appraisals, lesson observations, and book-looks.

For example, when carrying out performance management and appraisals, if the focus is on the individual then can they lead on their targets? Remove targets about children’s results and focus on the whole person in front of you.

What do they want to develop? What skills would they like to grow? Using coaching questions and high-quality listening skills will allow for a better conversation.

If carrying out book-looks and lesson observations, link in with the teacher about what focus they want you to have. Let them set the focus. What skills have they been working on, what is it they were looking to grow and develop?

Again, when feeding back continue with the coaching approach. You are not telling them how it was – they are informing you of where they are at.

You are the conduit allowing them to think and reflect. In other words, you are equipping them with the knowledge and opportunities to develop themselves and become more effective. Ultimately it becomes part of the cycle of professional development.


Coaching as a means of developing staff and as a leadership style has many advantages. It will bring about more autonomy for your staff, they will feel more valued and feel more part of the team. These are all factors that Dr David Rock talks about in his SCARF model of motivation, which offers us five key domains that influence our behaviour: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness (see Rock, 2008).

That said it is a skill-set that needs to be developed. It can take time to develop these skills and to feel confident adopting this approach. Spending time developing coaching skills and tools though is very much worth the effort. 

  • Frances Robertson, having recently retired from headship, offers confidential support for school leaders and headteachers to ensure wellbeing and professional development through reflective supervision and coaching as well as offering educational consultancy support. Visit Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

Rock: SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, Neuro Leadership Journal, 2008:

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