Transitional Learning, Part Two

What is your leadership style? Are you a directive leader? Do you coach? Is mentoring more your style? Are you a hands-off supportive kind of leader? What does directive, coach, mentor or supportive even mean?

Directive leadership provides unambiguous clarity on the expected outcomes and often how to get those outcomes. In highly directive leadership, the description of how to do the work can be very detailed. Directive leaders have an approach that is more telling than asking. Directive leadership transfers explicit instruction and makes it explicit for the recipient. The recipient of directive leadership may be new to their job or facing a new situation in their work.

Coaching leadership assumes a certain amount of explicit knowledge of the context. A coach helps the recipient apply existing explicit knowledge. They help the recipient apply the knowledge in the current context. Coaching involves helping work through the problem and coming up with a solution that works for the recipient. Coaches help take explicit knowledge and make it tacit for the recipient. Coaching takes explicit knowledge and makes it tacit. Coaches have a proficiency in the things they are coaching and often provide guidance over a period of time until the recipient has demonstrated a given level of proficiency.

A mentoring style of leadership deals with uncommonly encountered situations. Whereas the coach usually has seen most of the problems faced by the person they are coaching, often the mentor may or may not have seen the problem. Mentors work side by side to resolve the problem and both learn along the way. Mentoring style is more about posing the right questions and applying critical thinking versus coaching which is guiding people to the solution the coach already knows will work. Mentors often use metaphors and analogies to promote thinking and increased depth of understanding. Mentors help people take tacit knowledge and make it explicit for the specific problem being addressed. Whereas coaches can help people do, mentors help people think.

Supportive leadership creates space for people to perform, make mistakes, learn and adjust. This sounds very passive but leaders need to be involved in setting expectations and allocating resources in a way that any significant departure triggers some kind of review and adjust. Engaged supportive leaders may have to drop back into mentoring or coaching styles until proficiency is sufficient for the work. Supportive leaders are providing the means for individuals discover and the tacit knowledge that can only be uncovered though immersion in the work.

Leaders benefit from developing proficiency in each style of leadership and gaining experience in when to apply that style. Situations that are new to the employee or the organization may start out as opportunities for direction and coaching. With experience gained, the style of leadership may transition to more of a mentoring and coaching style before evolving to mentoring and support.

During a single one on one discussion an astute leader may move between directing, coaching, mentoring and support as different subjects are discussed. The style depends on the level of mastery the employee has demonstrated for the subject.  

The leadership styles correspond to the different stages of team development. During forming a more directive style may prevail. While in the emotionally charged storming phase coaching may be predominant. As norms are established, mentoring reinforces proficiency gained and moves the maturing team to performance levels where leadership may step back into a supportive style. There is no fixed formula. To an extent knowing what style to use is tacit knowledge. With mastery, changing styles becomes an unconscious competency.

So do you have a leadership style? Do you have more than one? If your range is limited are you limiting the range of your teams? Maybe as leaders we need to consider the things we would benefit from coaching and mentoring.


Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC