That’s when we often find ourselves falling into the push and pull tug-of-war between our ideas and their ideas and, as we often learn the hard way, the more we insist, the more they resist. Instead of inspiring positive change, by throwing our weight around, we end up generating negative dynamics that result in declining rather than improving performance. There is just something as human beings, of any age, that do not like being told what to do.
That truth is an important one for school leaders, supervisors and mentors to grasp. When school leaders set goals, define jobs, and oversee people to achieve organizational objectives, when supervisors analyze situations and manage people to optimize effectiveness and efficiency, and when mentors model best practices, they are all performing important organizational functions. But they will be ineffective over the long run unless they facilitate the cooperation and win the trust and respect of their people. One way for them to do that is by using the “coach approach.” Coaching represents a distinct orientation, process, and skillset that can enhance the effectiveness of school leadership, supervision and mentoring. Indeed, the coach approach is the key to leadership effectiveness in any setting and especially in schools. That’s because schools are in the business of education, which is fundamentally a relationship-driven enterprise with the most human of all goals: learning.
So what is the “coach approach” and how does it differ from other approaches? Coaching starts from the assumption that people are both motivated and able to design and develop their own learning programs. On that basis, coaching proceeds from a trusting, inquiry-based stance that facilitates the thinking and growth of coachees. Coaching, in other words, is driven more by the coachee than the coach. Instead of assuming that people need direction or coercion, coaching assumes that with the help of a thinking partner, people can often find their own resources and figure out solutions for themselves. The role of coaches, then, is to facilitate such self-directed learning rather than to tell people what to do or even to teach them how to do it. When school leaders, supervisors, and mentors adopt a coaching stance, and use coaching skills, people typically start to move forward quickly in the direction of their goals.
Unfortunately, the coaching stance is often not understood or used consistently. This stance requires that rather than PROD people into compliance, school leaders, supervisors, and mentors instead LEAD people into ongoing, self-directed professional inquiry and growth. These two acronyms, PROD and LEAD, represent four conceptual and practical methods. Instead of PROD the members of their team – Pressure, Reprimand, Overlook and Direct, they LEAD as they Listen to their stories, Empathize with their needs, Appreciate their ideas, and collaborate with them to Design new ways for moving forward. Consider each of these shifts in turn.
From Pressuring to Listening
Among the many functions of leadership, none may rank higher than assisting people to set and accomplish organizational objectives. Regardless of how commonly held those objectives might be, however, leaders often think it is their job to push, prod, and pressure people in order to get them to perform their respective tasks with diligence and care. Coaching leaders, on the other hand, understand that listening to people’s ideas and encouraging them to speak their minds, without undue pressure, is the best way to evoke full engagement so as to reach an organization’s objectives. That’s especially true in schools where the objective is the development of learning minds.
From Reprimanding to Empathizing
Schools have a long history of reprimanding and punishing misbehavior, and the stance taken toward students is too often extended to teachers as well. Doing so tends to generate negative feelings and to discount the needs of students in deference to the needs of teachers, parents, and the institutions themselves. Although it’s easy to fall into this trap, it’s also unfortunate, especially in contexts such as schools where learning is the primary objective. Learning is necessarily constrained, if not eliminated altogether, in schools where empathy is not a primary value and practice. To express empathy, we have found the process of Nonviolent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, to be particularly effective. By assisting people to sort out and to distinguish between their observations and evaluations, their feelings and thoughts, as well as their needs and strategies and to help them make requests rather than demands, schools become more productive and life-giving communities so as to better facilitate the learning and development of young minds.
From Overlooking to Appreciating Strengths
All that goes on in the name of coaching is not coaching. It’s also not effective. That’s because “coaching” is often understood from a deficit-based rather than an assets-based frame of improvement. It is thought that the primary task of coaching is to notice problems and to help people overcome them. This approach is instinctive since problems do, in fact, need solving. But there is a better way to solve problems than to tackle them head on in search of gaps, breakdown and breaches. Problems are best overcome when people focus on and learn from their strengths. Appreciating strengths includes at least two dimensions. It means that we step back and admire them, because of the contribution they make and what it has taken for them to develop. It also means that we identify and develop our assets as a way to inspire and guide positive change. What a different approach! And it requires coaching to believe that doing so will result in positive change.
From Directing to Designing
People often resist being directed to do things from on high or that don’t make sense to them. People want to collaborate, think creatively, and be empowered while they figure out what works best in their particular context. This is the process of design thinking and it follows naturally after people have received empathy and appreciation. That’s when people become most creative, open and energetic. That’s when they become most ready and able to develop innovative, visionary approaches for accomplishing their mission. And that’s as true, if not truer, in education as in any other field. With so many local, regional, and national mandates, it would appear there is not much room left for out-of-the-box design thinking at the local level. That, however, is precisely the context best suited for design thinking: the tighter the limits of possibility the greater the opportunity to brainstorm, experiment with, and implement out-of-the box approaches to generate spectacular results. As challenging as that may sound in education, it can and has been done. Positive change takes place when educators view requirements as opportunities for creativity; the greater the restraints the greater the opportunity. That’s when design thinkers, and design-thinking organizations, do their best work.
To conclude, we assert that it is far more effective and enjoyable to LEAD educators than to PROD them into doing their work. This requires school leaders to commit to and to develop the requisite skillsets. Fortunately, the training and orientation of educators make them uniquely equipped to rise to and to enjoy that challenge.