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  • Writer's pictureDonna Richardson, CEC, ACC

The curious leader | 3 steps towards leading better

Was there a time in your career when you thought you were expected to have the answers? Maybe you feel that way now.

This was true for me, and I’m not sure when it changed. I don’t know that it happened at a point in time so much as it happened over a period of time.

There came a point where I was quite comfortable saying, “I don’t know the answer.”

How about you? How often do you feel like you’re expected to have the answer? And how would you lead differently if you gave yourself permission to not have all the answers?

Evolving styles of leadership

The notion that a leader needs to have the answers reflects a traditional style of leadership. Maybe you’ve seen it. It is one where the leader not only has all the answers but also knows what needs to be done and teaches (or tells) others how to do it. It’s been referred to as “command and control” and the leader who takes this approach tends to look for compliance.

Given the rapid, constant and disruptive changes we have seen in recent years, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to have all the answers. As leadership expert Marshall Goldsmith tells us in his book title, what got you here won’t get you there.

Now, we’re seeing a fresh style of leadership—the leader as coach. It is more collaborative, where the leader gives support and offers guidance rather than instruction.

The coach approach involves moving from telling people the answers to helping them find their own answers.

Here’s the great news.

As a leader, you can give yourself permission to not have all the answers. When you invite others to the “answer party,” you unleash fresh energy, innovation and commitment. And you relieve yourself of the burden to bring all the answers.

3 steps towards taking a coach approach

1. Be curious

According to Harvard Business Review, “new research reveals a wide range of benefits for organizations, leaders, and employees.” (Sounds like a win-win-win to me.) When leaders are curious, there is evidence of more innovation and positive changes, communication is improved and team performance is enhanced.

Be curious. It seems straightforward.

Natural Training, a London-based training company, identified 10 great habits of curious people. They include:

  • listening without judgment.

  • asking questions relentlessly.

  • being willing to be wrong.

  • being unafraid to say “I don’t know.”

How would things change for you and those around you if you asked questions in a way that sparks insights instead of providing answers?

2. Listen actively

Listen actively. This also sounds straightforward.

According to Caren Osten, positive psychology life coach, only about 10 per cent of us listen effectively. Yikes.

Listening actively is a skill that can be learned, and we can get better at it.

Rather than coming up with our response while the other person is still speaking, one simple technique to help with better listening is to offer silence. Just pause and create space for the other person to think.

You might think of it this way. "As leaders, we aren’t just listening to hear," explains, Lisa Martin, founder of The Coach-Like Leader. "We are listening to ensure our team members feel validated and heard."

This approach acknowledges another person's experience. It also shows you want to find a solution with them instead of for them.

3. Ask questions Asking questions doesn’t require any magical skill. If we come to the conversation curious and we’re listening actively, questions will follow naturally. Here are some simple guidelines to help you think about what to ask and how to ask questions:

  • Open-ended – This invites the other person to respond with something other than “yes” or “no."

  • Who, what, when where, and how – As you think with curiosity about what the other person is saying, these question “starters” can be helpful.

  • Non-threatening – If genuine curiosity calls for suspending judgment, our questions will be free of threatening or judgmental tone.

  • Curiosity-driven – At its essence, curiosity is about a desire to know and learn.

Michael Bungay Stanier offers seven key questions in his book, The Coaching Habit, Change Your Questions Change your Life. It’s an easy and useful book to read.

Tips to get started

If you want to be intentional about being a leader who takes a coach approach, here are three tips to help you get started on moving the needle:

  • Have a learner mindset – Believe that you can learn new skills and be a different type of leader.

  • Step out of your comfort zone – Outside the comfort zone is where learning and growth happen.

  • Rely on your intuition – Trust your gut and your heart.


Read: You may be interested in my article about stepping out of your comfort zone: 4 steps for going where the magic happens.


How everyone wins

The coach approach offers benefits to leaders, their teams and their organization.

Improvements can be seen in all kinds of ways:

· Innovation, self-reliance and self-confidence improve.

· Team members are more engaged, feel a greater sense of responsibility.

· Relationships between members and the leader are stronger.

It’s a win-win-win. And who doesn’t love that?

What kind of leader will you be?

Will these tips and tricks work for you? It depends on who you want to be as a leader. And, so, I invite you to consider how a coach approach might help you be that leader.


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