There’s a difference between coaching and transformative leadership. While using similar approaches to get the most from others, leaders tap into specific competencies from followers to obtain prime outcomes.
Coaching often is thought of as an activity, but it really is a foundational approach to working with others that adds to one’s leadership persona. When you have a coaching mindset, and employ coaching methods and techniques in your daily interactions as a physician leader, you demonstrate competencies that are the basis for leadership — specifically, transformational leadership.
Coaching is “the process of facilitating self-determined and self-directed problem-solving or change within the context of a helping conversation.”1 It is a way of interacting that stimulates others intellectually and motivationally to reach their goals and often achieve more than they initially believed possible.
This, too, is the purpose and process of transformational leadership. Transformational leaders work with four competencies that result in better performance, satisfaction and commitment from their followers.2 They are:
Individualized consideration. Promoting individual growth and development, and personalizing interactions to build relationships and open communication.
Intellectual stimulation. Challenging people to think about problems in new ways, examine critical assumptions and engage in solution-focused thinking.
Inspirational motivation. Inspiring others by helping them see attractive future states, showing confidence in them and maintaining optimism about what’s yet to come.
Idealized influence. Behaving as a role model, garnering respect and admiration from others.
Execution of these competencies calls for many of the behaviors used in the coaching process, but three stand out as fundamental to both coaching and transformational leadership: maintaining a coaching mindset, using inquiry as a problem-solving tool, and employing solution-focused thinking and practices.
Hold a Coaching Mindset
Coaches inspire and motivate others to achieve success, but they do so from a collaborative rather than authoritative posture. To state it in more technical terms, they operate from a symmetrical power relationship.
Transformational leaders do the same. A study3 shows leaders who successfully used a coach-like approach in their discussions with employees, and subsequently were rated as high in transformational leadership, saw their role as a helper, facilitator and ally. In short, they saw themselves as a collaborator rather than a superior. Conversely, those who were rated low in transformational leadership saw themselves as “the boss” and behaved accordingly.
Therefore, the first step in becoming a transformational leader is to relinquish the role of authority figure. Instead, adopt the coaching mindset of being a facilitator and partnering with others to solve problems and create change. This is not a managerial style (e.g., delegation) but rather an attitude that permeates everything you do as a leader. The payoff is that, in the process, you will demonstrate these transformational leadership competencies: individualized consideration, inspirational motivation and idealized influence.
Using Inquiry to Solve Problems
Questions are the language of coaching. They are the means through which coaches facilitate self-determined and self-directed problem-solving. Rather than provide answers, coaches use questions to help others discover their own.
This coaching skill also is critical for transformational leaders. By asking questions, transformational leaders cultivate intellectual stimulation. Rather than solving the problems of others, they use inquiry to induce others to search for answers.
Every problem-solving activity can be described as a process of questions and answers. In fact, transformational leaders would say that solving most problems is a matter of asking the right questions. Furthermore, using effective inquiry empowers others — it teaches them to think through their problems and issues themselves rather than rely on the leader for answers. In the process, growth and development occur.
By using inquiry to facilitate the thinking of others, two transformational leadership competencies are inherently demonstrated: intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration.
Coaches refocus their clients’ attention away from problems and toward solutions. This approach obeys two principles: One, you don’t have to have a detailed understanding of problems to find solutions, and, two, focusing on the future creates more useful outcomes than focusing on the past.
While this might seem counterintuitive to physicians who are taught the importance of diagnosis, the types of issues with which physician leaders must wrestle are not typically scientific or technical in nature (where diagnosis is critical). Instead, transformational leaders confront problems related to organizational change, interpersonal conflict, performance issues, behavioral problems and the like.
These types of problems are best solved by focusing people’s energy and attention on workable solutions, experimenting with the effectiveness of those solutions, and learning from what is tried. Most important, spending time and energy revisiting the past is a limited strategy compared to focusing on the future.
When you change from being problem-focused to using solution-focused practices, you provide intellectual stimulation. You help others examine critical assumptions, use different perspectives and apply creativity to find a path forward. Your personal optimism about, and confidence in, the solution-generation process will provide inspirational motivation.
Leaders who find solutions have a “never say die” attitude and are optimistic in the face of challenges are inspiring. Furthermore, they serve as role models for what they expect others to do and how they expect them to be in their organization, which promotes idealized influence. And finally, by being solution-focused, they are able to work with others to create strategies for continuous improvement and self-development in a way that creates success, a clear demonstration of individualized consideration.
Health care is an elite profession, and elite professionals such as physicians generally don’t want to be managed; they want to be led. Those who lead elite professionals must be role models, have a compelling vision for the future, find solutions to problems and obstacles, and be available to provide guidance and help when needed.
Transformational leaders satisfy these requirements and, in return, are rewarded with extra effort and commitment from those who follow them.
Learning to be a transformational leader can be a vague and undefined process; however, adopting a coaching mindset, using inquiry as a communication strategy, and applying solution-focused principles and practices to everyday problems begins the process. Each time a leader uses these coaching principles and practices, and others, they take another step on the path toward becoming truly transformational.
Robert Hicks is a licensed psychologist and a clinical professor of organizational behavior and founding director of the Executive and Professional Coaching Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. He also is a faculty associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center.