Coaching Leadership: A powerful approach to leadership development and organisational change (Part 1)

COACHING LEADERSHIP is a hugely powerful approach to the growth and development of leaders and to transforming your school/organisation. Leadership development in schools can be a murky business, at best. In education, we understand the need to work with others in ways that will grow and develop their leadership capacity, but we tend to throw a range of learning opportunities at them and hope that something someone else does (someone who knows better than me) will stick. Let’s be honest, not many of us really know how to develop leadership across a whole organisation, which is a problem, because nowhere is great leadership more needed than in education today. If we are going to get some real traction in creating an education system that truly meets the needs of EVERY student, then effective, powerful leadership is certainly needed, not just at the top of an organisation, but throughout the organisation. We need every staff member to be a leader.

A two year, school-led, professional learning project at Amesbury School, Wellington, funded by the Ministry’s Teacher-Led Innovation Funding pool, which focused on developing the capacity of leaders to work with teachers in transformative ways to improve outcomes for students, showed us that it is possible to be more targeted and deliberate in our approach to the growth and development of leaders. It opened up a pathway to powerful leadership learning and has had far reaching effects on the way things are done around here at Amesbury School. Of course, we are not there yet, but as a thinking, growing, coaching organisation, we never will be. We will always be on a journey.

This project showed significantly improved outcomes for students, teachers, the learning culture of the school and considerable growth and development in the leaders themselves. A further significant outcome of this multifaceted, multi-layered Coaching Leadership approach was the emergence (through the analysis of key narratives collected via six-monthly, semi-structured interviews-as-conversations with the project’s participants over a two year period) of a framework of characteristics across four phases which was then used to identify, measure and facilitate each participant’s ongoing leadership growth and development – enabling a more targeted and deliberate approach to leadership development; but also enabling the leaders themselves to become insiders in, and agents of, their own leadership development.

This project was not focused specifically on developing our “positional”, domain specific or even education-specific leadership skills, although all those involved in the project were recognised leaders in the school and had specific leadership responsibilities. But, rather, the project was focused at the point where the personal and the professional meet. All participants spoke of how they were now working differently with the teachers they worked with as a result of their experiences with the Coaching Leadership professional development, but some also spoke of how it changed how they communicated at home, with their partners or children, asking questions rather than advising or telling. The Coaching Leadership project was focused on the participants’ specific leadership roles within the school as a context for change, but the change that took place, though it definitely enabled them to be more effective in their leadership roles within the school, was more general and pervasive, both personal and professional.

Now to get to the nitty, gritty of Coaching Leadership. What is Coaching Leadership? From our perspective, it is an approach to leadership growth and development based on the belief that coaching professional development – in particular, learning and practising the skills of being a coach – will lead to the growth and development in the multiple dimensions of the emotional, the social, the conceptual/intellectual and the spiritual/moral. That is, it leads to holistic growth and development, across the multiple dimensions of what it means to be human, which is why it has the potential to impact both the professional and personal lives of individuals.

Coaching has been around for a long time as a people development strategy and its effectiveness is well documented. However, this has largely focused on leaders in an organisation being coached by a coach or mentor. As senior leaders in a smallish school, we have been incredibly fortunate to have always had a Board of Trustees that has valued our growth and development and invested significantly to provide us with top quality coaching. However, while this coaching has been central to our ongoing growth and development as senior leaders, we have discovered that it is coaching professional development in which leaders explore, practice in facilitated contexts and increasingly implement in their real life contexts, the skills and the capacities of a coach, that is most effective in enabling the growth and development of leaders. One-on-one and group coaching is part of the strategy to assist leaders to use coaching increasingly effectively in their real life practice, but it is the coaching leadership professional development that has proven the most effective.

Through the Coaching Leadership professional development, we noticed significant similarities in the stories of growth and development told by the leader-participants which led to the emergence of our Coaching Leadership Development Framework and Self-Review Tool. There were certain threshold concepts that these leaders came to an understanding of (at different times and at varying speeds) as a result of the Coaching Leadership professional development. For example, fairly early in the coaching professional development, leader-participants told stories of “letting go and allowing others”. This key narrative is at Phase 2 of our Coaching Leadership Development Framework and Self Review Tool. However, a further repeated story or key narrative was then of realising that in letting go and allowing others they had been too permissive and had let go too much of their authority as leaders. In their efforts not to be controlling or defensive, they often told stories of allowing others “to dump” on them while they remained silent and ended up hurt. As a result, and through ongoing coaching development, the leaders then developed greater practical wisdom in knowing when to “let go and allow others”, when to use their authority as leaders, when to speak up and when to remain silent. Biesta (2017) describes this as maintaining the middle ground between self-destruction and world destruction. As leaders, we cannot allow ourselves to be destroyed in the process of “allowing others”, but neither can we destroy others. See this enlightening article, by Urs Cunningham, Associate Principal at Amesbury School. This development of increasing practical wisdom and “knowing when”, begins to happen over Phase 3 of our Coaching Leadership Development Framework.

As a result of the Coaching Leadership professional development, leaders developed increased self-awareness, otherness-awareness and increased empathy - equity-mindedness. This awareness led to greater emotional self-control which increased self-efficacy. Project participants became increasingly aware of their need of others, and of the connected and interdependent nature of the world. They increasingly sought out coaching support from a range of others with diverse voices, not just from those who naturally think like them. Their thinking became more complex as they moved away from binary thinking and were better able to see, and increasingly make sense of, the paradoxical nature of the world - for example, holding both ideas of “letting go and letting others” AND “not being permissive but having an authoritative voice” when it was right to do so. All of this was supported by growing moral purpose and care of others, a commitment to increasing authenticity and meeting the needs of EVERY student. Generally, it led to a commitment to make the world a better place. The focus shifted from self and became more outward-looking to wanting to achieve things beyond self.

In summary, Coaching Leadership is not so much about developing leaders with a big “L”. It is not just for people who are positionally leaders, but is for every staff member and is about developing people with leadership dispositions or the disposition to lead. What is required is holistic growth and development across the multiple human dimensions of the emotional, social, intellectual/conceptual and the moral/spiritual. A particular kind of leadership or approach to the world is developed: a commitment to equity, strong moral purpose, increasing cultural responsiveness and leading in a diverse world. Leadership, in this circumstance is simply a way of seeing and approaching the world which is concerned with the best for the world and all its inhabitants.

We are incredibly thankful that we embarked on this project because a Coaching Leadership approach has opened up pathways to the continual growth and development of our people in ways that are future-focused and relevant for these times; and simply good for people. Its outcomes have impacted our organisation hugely and our learnings from it have deeply impacted how things are done around here in an ongoing way. The ability we now have to be deliberate and purposeful in developing leadership, to be able to measure it, and make evidenced based decisions about what is needed next is hugely empowering.

But mostly, I am simply overwhelmed by the growth and development I see in the people around me. How did they get to be so wise?

Watch out for Coaching Leadership Part 2