You Need a Leadership Coach

Andy Stanley

From: Next Generation Leader. Copyright © 2003. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.

Scott Ward was and still is the most fearless individual I know. After an exhilarating day at an amusement park on a 1972 outing, Scott, my other youth group buddies and I headed for the pool. While the rest of us were content to get in the water, Scott decided he would master the one-and-a-half with a twist dive.

His first attempts were dismal. A cry arose from the seven of us when Scott did a face plant. As he made his way back to the diving board, I suggested that he tuck a little tighter and release a little sooner. He did. And as a result, he almost escaped without pain. This went on for an hour: Scott sacrificing his body and me making suggestions. Before long, Scott has just about mastered a one-and-a-half with a twist.

As he approached the board for the last time, our youth director said, “Andy, I didn’t know you were a diver.” I assured her that I wasn’t. Scott stopped halfway up the ladder and gave me a perplexed look. “You mean you can’t do this yourself?” I just shook my head and laughed. “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t even try.” At that point, Scott decided to forgo his last attempt, pick me up, and throw me into the pool.

I took away two lessons from my first experience as a coach:

1. I can go farther and faster with someone coaching me than I can on my own.

2. An effective coach does not need to possess more skills than the person he is coaching.

It is impossible to maximize your potential in any area without coaching. You may be good. You may be even better than everyone else, but without outside input you will never be as good as you could be. To be the best next generation leader you can be, you must enlist the help of others. Self-evaluation is helpful, but evaluation from someone else is essential.

You need a leadership coach.


The “Teachability / Coachability” Connection

In the world of athletics, nobody performs his way out of needing a coach. In the world of leadership, however, we operate under the misguided assumption that because we are leaders, we don’t need to be led. Once we are recognized for our ability to “perform,” we think we don’t need outside input in order to enhance our performance. Consequently, we measure our leadership against what others are doing rather than against our God-given potential. And in the end, we never become all we could have been.

Great leaders are great learners. But learning assumes an attitude of submission. And submission isn’t something all leaders are comfortable with. Submission is what others, those people who need to be led, do. Our strengths can easily become our weaknesses. And so it is with a leader’s attitude toward submission. This is especially true in the early years of a next generation leader’s life””those years when we are sure we already know everything and all we need is an opportunity to prove it.

If you are not teachable, you are not coachable. I have always been fascinated by the fact that Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote so much about seeking wise counsel. He had more to say about the importance of wise counsel than all the other biblical writers combined. Think about it: Why would the man who needed it least recommend it most?

Simple. He was the wisest man in the world. And wisdom seeks counsel. The wise man knows his limitations. It is the fool who believes he has none. Here are a few of Solomon’s thoughts on seeking counsel:

  • Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance (Prov. 1:5).
  • The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice (Prov. 12:15).
  • Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed (Prov. 15:22).
  • Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise (Prov. 19:20).


The King Who Wouldn’t Listen

The value of surrounding oneself with wise counselors was something Solomon was able to pass along to his son, Reheboam. The value of listening to their counsel, however, was not. Rehoboam’s unwillingness to heed the advice of those who were older and wiser cost him dearly.

Following the death of King Solomon, the people of Israel gathered to crown his son, Rehoboam, king. Before the coronation, however, the people made a simple request of the young heir: “Your father made our yoke hard; now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke which he put on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4).

Reheboam answered wisely:

Then he said to them, “Depart for three days, then return to me.” So the people departed. King Rehoboam consulted with the elders who had served his father Solomon while he was still alive, saying, “How do you counsel me to answer this people?” (1 Kings 12:5-6)

So far so good. Rehoboam gave himself some time and he invited others into the decision-making process. His daddy taught him well.

And notice who his coaches were: “the elders who had served his father.” Again, good decision. These older, experienced men advised Rehoboam to lighten the people’s load, to speak good words to them, and secure their loyalty. They knew that great leaders are great servants.

But Rehoboam was unwilling to listen. He was not interested in serving anyone. Such advice must have sounded like the babbling of old men whose day had come and gone. Besides, what had they ever led? Whom had they ever ruled?

“Next generation leaders” must realize that it is not the accomplishments of a coach that make him a valuable ally. Most of the time it is not even what a coach knows that makes him valuable. It is what he sees that counts.

Rehoboam then did the following:

But he forsook the counsel of the elders which they had given him, and consulted with the young men who grew up with him and served him. So he said to them, “What counsel do you give that we may answer this people who have spoken to me, saying, “˜Lighten the yoke which your father put on us’?”

The young men who grew up with him spoke to him, saying, “Thus you shall say to this people “¦ “˜My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins! Whereas my father loaded you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.'” (1 Kings 12:8-11)

Rehoboam’s friends had no more wisdom or perspective than he did. They told him what he wanted to hear. They were blinded by the prospects of being close to the man in power.

Three days later when the people reconvened, Rehoboam said he would lead in such a way as to make them long for the days of his father. Upon hearing the king’s leadership strategy, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel decided not to follow:

When all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, saying, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse; to your tents, O Israel! Now look after your own house, David!” So Israel departed to their tents. (1 Kings 12:16)

The young king wasn’t mature enough to understand that every follower is a volunteer. Abuse your position as a leader and you will lose those you lead. You might be able to force them into submission, but you can’t force them to become loyal followers. Rehoboam assumed something that many a leader has wrongly assumed–he thought his position alone would ensure the loyalty of the people.


How to Find a Coach

I have more in common with Rehoboam than I would like to admit. Chances are, you do too. When I make up my mind about something, I don’t really want anyone telling me it is not a good idea. Every leader I know leans in that direction. So God, in his wisdom, has placed men and women around us with the experience and discernment we often lack. If we are wise enough to listen, they will help us go farther, faster.

But engaging a good leadership coach is difficult, for two reasons. To begin with, most people won’t even know what you are talking about if you ask them to serve as your leadership coach. Second, qualified candidates will tell you they aren’t qualified.

So here’s what you’ve got to do: Don’t ask anyone to coach you. That will scare them off. The word coach implies preparation and training. More than likely the men or women you target as potential coaches don’t have time to prepare a training program.

So stay away from that term and instead ask them to evaluate a specific facet of your leadership. Most people love to evaluate. Basically your are asking them for their opinion. Who doesn’t love to give his opinion? If you have chosen wisely, the opinion and input of that individual will turn out to be quite valuable.

The important thing at this point is to be specific. For example, you could ask someone on your leadership team or board to evaluate the way you conduct meetings. Say something like the following:

“We’ve both had to sit through our share of poorly run meetings, all the time thinking, “˜Why doesn’t he just get to the point?’ or “˜Why won’t she let somebody else talk?’ We both know that leaders often have no idea how they are coming across in meetings or decision-making environments. This is one area in which I really want to improve. I would love to get together sometime and get your take on how I am doing as the moderator of our meetings. I’m open to any suggestions you make. If you are aware of unhealthy dynamics in the group, I would love to get your input on that as well.”

You have not asked for any long-term coaching relationship. You have simply asked for input. If your evaluation time with this person proves beneficial and enjoyable, chances are, you have found a coach.

Select someone who has no axe to grind and no reason to be anything but brutally honest. He need not be an expert in your field. What your coach must be able to do, however, is put himself in the shoes of those who are influenced by your leadership. Try to find a person who can articulate his thoughts with clarity and precision. You don’t need glaring generalities; you need to know exactly what needs to be repeated and deleted in your leadership.

Remember, you are being evaluated all the time. This is just one way of discovering what everybody is thinking (and whispering) anyway. Experience alone doesn’t make you better at anything. By itself, experience has the potential to leave you in a rut. Evaluated experience is what enables you to improve.


Be a Coach Too

Here’s a list of leadership environments in which you might consider inviting a leadership coach to observe and evaluate your performance:

  • meetings
  • public presentations
  • decision-making
  • vision casting
  • writing
  • conflict resolution
  • personnel selection
  • strategic planning
  • budget development

Look for an environment where you will be coached, not just paid. And while you are looking for a coach, go ahead and become a coach for another leader around you. I know, I know: You are too young; you wouldn’t know what to say; nobody is going to take you seriously; blah, blah, blah.

Forget all of that. Even if you have to begin with your assistant or even a peer, you can coach. Begin by passing along pertinent articles, books, tapes. Comment in detail about the things they are doing right. Brag about ’em. Talk about their potential. And once you have won their trust, evaluate and inform. Use the phrase, “One thing I learned a long time ago is….” In other words, position yourself as a fellow learner, not a teacher.

Don’t wait until you feel adequate. Leaders are learners. Consequently, leaders rarely feel adequate to teach others to lead. As learners, they are constantly reminded of all they have yet to learn and master.

Don’t miss this: As a leader you are not responsible for knowing everything there is to know about leadership. But you are responsible for sharing what you do know with the leaders around you. And as you pour into their cup what God and others have poured into yours, they will go farther, faster too. They will be better leaders for having known you.

Get a coach and you will never stop improving. Become a coach and ensure the improvement of those around you.

Excerpted from Next Generation Leader © 2003 by Andy Stanley. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.

Andy Stanley carries on a tradition of excellence with a youthful congregation of over 20,000 as pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta. He is the author of Visioneering and Like A Rock.